Genetics and Bodybuilding
Genetics and Bodybuilding
by Ron Harris (2008)
What Are Genetics, And How Important Are They?
Genetics are nothing less than the blueprints of physical traits passed on to you by hundreds and thousands of generations of ancestors. Are you tall and do you have blonde hair? If so, either your mother or father probably comes from a long line of tall, blonde folks. Are you short with dark, curly hair? Same deal. Just a few of the things genetically predetermined before you were born were your height, hair and eye color, facial features, skin color, and bone structure. Have you ever noticed that fat parents tend to have fat kids? Part of this is simply passing on bad eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle, but heredity is often responsible as well. Some people are genetically programmed to be thin and lean, and will look this way no matter what they eat of whether or not they exercise. Others are programmed to be obese, and can only overcome being fat by a total dedication to proper eating and regular exercise. And of course, many medical conditions and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease seem to run in families too, being passed on in the genes just like freckles and big noses.
When we talk about genetics in bodybuilding, we are being much more specific. It takes a certain rare combination of inherited traits, which we will go into in detail in just a minute, to allow a man or woman to look like the bodybuilding champions who win the major contests and grace the pages of the trade magazines. And when I say rare, I mean just that. Probably no more than one in 10,000 men possess all the required qualities. This is what I consider one of the two biggest lies and coverups in bodybuilding. For years, magazine publishers and particularly supplement companies have made millions of dollars by duping mostly young, naive men into believing that anyone could look like Arnold, Haney, Dorian or Coleman if they just trained the right way and took the same supplements as their idols. What a load of stinking bullshit! Of course, even without an extensive sales and marketing background, I understand why this lie needs to be perpetuated. This is the only sport I know of where the vast majority of fans aren't just adoring the stars, they are actually aspiring to be the stars themselves. There are millions of fans of other sports like football and basketball who are content to watch the games and admire the athletic ability (and here too genetics play a role) of the players. They enjoy the sport for the thrill of the action and to see which team can get the edge over the other from season to season as lineups and coaching staffs change. Very few of these football and basketball have any desire to play in the NFL or NBA. They understand that these are rare, exceptionally talented athletes who have worked hard for many years to rise to the level of ability they have. If anyone could do what Michael Jordan or Donovan McNabb do on the court or the field, there would be no reason for these men to be paid over a hundred million dollars each. Bodybuilding is a very different type of sport, and its fans have an entirely different outlook.
The magazines are sold based on the outrageous training photos showcasing top bodybuilders while at their most ripped and freaky condition, and are typically part of training articles. As a writer who has had a part in hundreds and hundreds of these articles, I am not completely innocent. Still, I could never come out at the end of an article about some guy with 23-inch arms and say, "use this routine and you will have arms just like he does!" More recently, I have tried to be more realistic without getting the readers depressed by saying thinks more along the lines of, "try this routine and see if your arms don't improve - don't expect 23-inch guns like Joe Pro because he is one of a kind." But I started reading the muscle magazines and got into bodybuilding because I wanted to look like the guys in the pictures. That was what drove me to put on nearly a hundred pounds of muscle over the years, even though I still couldn't give any of the real stars of the sport a run for their money on stage. You can only hope to do that if you share the same physical gifts as they do which will allow your body to take on that incredible appearance eventually. Right, but just what types of genetic gifts are we talking about here?
What Are The Ideal Genetics For Bodybuilding?
Most people have an oversimplified version of what constitutes 'ideal' genetics for the sport of bodybuilding based on three classic somatotypes, or body types. These are mainly descriptions of bone structure, and the three broad categories are endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph. Endomorphs tend to have heavy bones, and hips that are wider than their shoulders -- the typical pear shape. They gain fat easily. Some of them also gain muscle mass and strength easily. The vast majority of powerlifting champions and strongman competitors have endomorphic tendencies. 'Endos' don't tend to make great bodybuilders because the heavy bone structure does not lend itself to an aesthetically pleasing physique. Think about it. You could take most of the 320-pound linemen in the NFL and diet them down to 3% bodyfat. Though they would technically carry more mass than most bodybuilders, it would look big and clunky, like a shapeless blob.
Next up are the ectomorphs, lighter-boned folks who often have both narrow shoulders and narrow hips. Though not always tall, many taller men and women fall into this category. Longer than average limbs are another giveaway. Most NBA players could be generally classified as ectomorphs. Gaining weight of any kind is difficult for them, yet they are blessed with a naturally fast metabolism that often lets them stay very lean yet eat all kinds of junk food regularly. There have been very few 'ectos' who became bodybuilding champions. A rare example might be Flex Wheeler, though he still couldn't be called a pure ectomorph. The challenge for true ectomorphs is filling out those long limbs. When a man is six-fo0t-four and his arms are as long as a shorter bodybuilders legs, he basically has to get those arms as big around as the other guy's legs for them to look impressive. There have only been a handful of men over six-two who ever built enough muscle mass even with chemical assistance to compete as top-level pro bodybuilders. Rolf Mueller and Lou Ferrigno are two. Again, neither of them would be considered ectomorphs, because they possess the structural attributes of the mesomorph.
And now let's talk about these lucky mesomorphs. The bone structure is commonly called 'athletic' by mainstream people, characterized by wide shoulders and narrow hips. The arms and legs are proportioned just right, neither too short or too long. When the ancient Greeks and Romans were sculpting their visions of the ideal body, they were chipping away at marble blocks to reveal true mesomorphs. 'Mesos' tend to gain muscle easily without getting fat, and the mass looks ten times as impressive as it would on an endomorph's frame because the joints are smaller. Open up a bodybuilding magazine and every single man or woman you see is a mesomorph. Arnold, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman -- all mesos to the core.
This gives you the bar minimum idea of the genetic traits or raw materials needed to be a champion bodybuilder, but it's only a start. I mentioned joint size, and it bears further discussion. In bodybuilding, the smaller your joints are, such as the knees, wrists and elbows, the better. Tiny joints create the illusion of bigger muscles. Think about someone like Flex Wheeler hitting a front double biceps pose. Flex has such small wrists and elbows that the arm muscles seem to come out of nowhere. They look perfectly round. His thighs sweep out from tiny knees and lead up to tiny hips. A man with much thicker joints can have just as much muscle or more than Flex, but your wouldn't look twice at him if he hit the same pose in a comparison. That's why I never pay much heed to numbers like '280 pounds with 22-inch arms' -- numbers don't mean jack shit in a visual sport like bodybuilding. Most of these clowns look like wrestlers or football linemen. No, I take that back, because pro wrestling now has a lot of very good physiques. I remember hanging around at the 1991 Mr. Olympia contest at the Disney World Dolphin Hotel, watching one of the Friday the 13th sequels in a lobby with Nimrod King, who was a pro for about 10 minutes. He was telling me that when he dieted down to a contest condition his wrists got smaller. I remember thinking, what a nimrod! Even then I knew that bones don't change once you're an adult. Nimrod had some of the tiniest wrists and joints in general I ever saw on a man carrying so much muscle.
After joint size, muscle insertions and genetic shape have to be looked at. Muscle insertions determine to what degree a specific muscle can be developed. The easiest examples to illustrate this are the biceps and the calves. Your own biceps are either short, average, or long in length. You can figure this out in two seconds by flexing your bicep with the forearm and upper arm at a right angle. How much space is their in between the end of your biceps and your elbow? If there's a lot of room there, your bi's are short, like Albert Beckles' or Chris Dickerson's. If there's about an inch of space, consider your muscle length at this part of the body average. If there's no room at all and your biceps muscle is jammed right up against the elbow joint like the great Sergio Oliva's, congratulations! You have long biceps. See more on this here:
The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban: Advanced Arm Training - Larry Scott
Having long muscles means that you have more muscle cells to work with and increase the size of. The calves, as are your other muscles, the same. Flex your calf and see where the muscle ends on its way to your ankle. If it stops not too far down from your knee, sorry dude, you are stuck with high calves. You can beat the crap out of them but they will always be a weak point on your body. If they go way down like the cows of Tom Platz, Mike Matarazzo, or Dorian Yates, you're in luck. In fact, you probably have some pretty nice calves without even training them. Ironically, some of the lowest calf insertions I have ever seen have been on grossly overweight men and women, and the mere act of supporting all that bodyweight has given some of them, under the fat, calves a bodybuilder would die for. Or kill himself trying to get.
Every muscle on your body inserts wherever it has been programmed to end up by your particular DNA. All this nonsense about preacher curls being able to 'fill in' short biceps is nothing but wishful thinking. To look like one of today's top bodybuilders, you must have small joints and long muscles. But wait, there's more!
The final physical ingredient required to build an elite physique is optimal muscle shape. To be exact, round muscle shape is what you want to have. The muscles should sweep off the bone and flare out and away. This is the only genetic prerequisite that can't be assessed until you have built some muscle (and the ability to build muscle rapidly is another requirement), because it would be latent until the muscle grew a substantial amount from its untrained state. The easiest way to think about muscle shape is again with the biceps. You either have a peaked shape to them or you don't, depending on what your genetic code was set for. No amount of preacher curls or spider curls or concentration curls will bring out a peak on your biceps unless you were going to have one anyway. A good example is Sergio Oliva. Sergio had some of the biggest arms ever seen in bodybuilding, but they looked like footballs. His biceps had very little peak to them at all. did Arnold do some secret exercises to bring that peak on his biceps out that Sergio somehow happened to miss? No, all you need to do is take a look at pictures of Arnold when he was just starting to train at around age fourteen. Small as his arms were compared to what they would become, the peak on his biceps was already starting to show. Muscle shape, just like muscle length, is a factor that cannot be changed.
Great Genetics Can't Be Hidden For Long
Exceptional genetics for bodybuilding become obvious once most bodybuilders start training. I bet if you think back, you all know at least one or two guys from when you were a teenager who would have made great bodybuilders. As soon as these types start to weight train, their bodies practically explode with muscle. There was a kid at my school named Paul who was a grade ahead of me. I remember one time when a friend and I were messing around in the weight room of the Waltham Boys Club when we were in eighth grade. Paul was this tall, very skinny kid with a sunken chest. His clavicles were wide, thinking back, but at that time all we noticed was how thin he was. Me and my Buddy Bart chuckled at Paul's nickname Stringbean. About a year later I went back to the Boys Club and again started trying to put some size on, and there was Stringbean. In the year I'd been gone, Paul had been spending a couple of hours after school every day, doing nothing but flat bench presses and curls. I almost didn't believe this was the same guy, because now he had thick, round arms with veins wrapping all around them, a beefy chest, and solid shoulders. Some of you are thinking, steroids! No way. Paul came from a family of very modest means, I'm almost sure they were on welfare, and he wouldn't have been able to afford even the smallest cycle. I talked to him a few times and he ate just like all of us, junk food here and there with maybe one good meal every day at dinner. And let's not forget, he was training the same muscle groups every day for five or six days in a row. (he took Sundays off, I know at one point he was very religious.) The other kid I knew like this was Jorge Orta, the first Cuban I ever met, many years before I married one. I went to school with Jorge from seventh grade all the way to high school graduation, and even at age thirteen his nickname was Conan. He had the type of muscle thickness at that age that many guys never get in their lives. By grade nine or ten he could bench 405 at a weight of only about 180. (he was pretty short, maybe five-six.)
I have had the opportunity to interview literally thousands of top amateur and professional bodybuilders over the years, and a common thread ties them all together. Though not all were muscular before they started lifting weights (some were - Vince Taylor and Don Youngblood both had 18 inch arms before they ever touched a weight), as soon as they started working out the muscles just sprouted like weeds. I talk to a lot of them who have won their first contest within six months or a year of beginning training. Some guys tell me that they gained fifty or sixty pounds of muscle in their first year. Others had nice shape from the beginning and had to work harder and longer for the size to come, but within a year or two everyone around them was telling them they were going to be great bodybuilders. In many cases they didn't have a clue what they were doing in the gym and were not eating anywhere near properly to support muscle growth. but when you are genetically destined to look like a bodybuilder, that doesn't really matter all that much. So, although this is not pleasant to admit, chances are that if you have been training hard for ten years or more and you don't look like the guys in the magazines, you never will. Don't jump up and scream about how steroids are the answer, as we will get to that in just a minute.
Can Genetics Be Changed?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the simple truth is that genetics can't be changed. This means if you were meant to look like a pro bodybuilder, you will, and if you weren't, nothing is going to change that. Immediately many of you may be thinking that massive doses of steroids and growth hormone have the power to render meaningless any poor genetics you may have been dealt. This is also untrue. Steroids certainly can make you much, much bigger and stronger than you were ever meant to be naturally, but even then you are limited. I have known plenty of guys who have juiced their brains out for a long time and could never get past a certain point. Honestly, if steroids had this incredibly magic power, any of us could be as big as Ronnie Coleman or Markus Ruhl. Still, through tons of drugs, years of hard and heavy training, and enough food to feed a small nation, many guys do at least get to the approximate size of pro bodybuilders. That is to say, they may weigh 270 and have 22-inch arms like Jay Cutler. But they do not remotely look like Jay Cutler, because they don't have the same type of bone structure, muscle origins and insertions, small joints, and round muscle shape that he does. they are more often mistaken for NFL lineman than they are recognized as bodybuilders, especially if they don't stay extremely lean.
To an extent, you can be smart about your training and add muscle to certain places to create an illusion, which is essentially what our sport is based on. For example, if you put a lot of mass on your shoulders and back without your waist getting any bigger, you will present the illusion of a smaller waist. Now imagine what doing this will make someone who started with a naturally small waist look like. Realize also that it will never be as impressive as when another person does the same thing that already has naturally wide clavicles and narrow hips. You can also stress certain portions of your muscles, such as upper chest and outer thighs to create a more aesthetically pleasing physique. But there will always be guys with absolutely perfect shape who look like a sculpted god no matter what exercises they choose.
This may sound disheartening. Why bother bodybuilding if you can't look like you belong on a top level competitive stage? What a terrible way to look at it. That's like someone who loves golf deciding to quit playing because he will never be as good as Tiger Woods. Bodybuilding isn't really about the sport of bodybuilding. It's about you making improvements and looking and feeling better than you ever had before. Even if you do compete, you are never in control of who will stand next to you and what they will look like in comparison to you. All you can ever do is work on any weak points and try to make sure you present a better overall package every single time. And for those of you who will never compete, the main key is still self-improvement, improvements of many different kinds that reach far beyond just the gym and weight training.
If you started lifting weights weighing only 110 pounds and now you're 150, that's outstanding! Who gives a shit if Gunter Schlierkamp weighs twice as much. You can't compare yourself to others or else you are setting yourself up for failure -- particularly if you choose to compare yourself to the genetic elite of bodybuilding. Once you fully understand how very rare the genetic elite in bodybuilding are, you should never have to use their physiques as yardsticks to measure your own accomplishments.
Good article and reality check for younger lifters.
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