by Ben Bruno T-Nation
How much do you believe genetics influence your success (or lack thereof) as a lifter?
While I can’t answer that question for sure, I can tell you this: how you answer matters most. Sure, your genetic makeup has a huge impact on how you look and how strong you are, though just how much of an impact is debatable.
A study by Speakman et.al suggests that approximately 65% of your bodyweight is predetermined by genetics, and the other 35% is a result of how you live your life (nutrition, exercise, etc.).
Granted that’s just one study, but for argument’s sake let’s see how these findings could be interpreted.
You might be thinking, “Since two-thirds of my results are already determined for me, what’s the point of busting my ass?”
If that’s you, I can almost guarantee you a life of lifting mediocrity and disappointment.
Back to School
I choose to look at it differently. I’m an academic guy, so I think of the numbers on a grading scale. The difference between 65% and 100% is the difference between a D and an A+. In my mind, that underdetermined 35% leaves room for a lot of improvement – if you take advantage of it.
That’s a big “if” though. One of my favorite professors used to say that the difference between an A and a B is an extra 10 hours of work. If that’s the case, then the difference between an A and a D is, well, a long-ass time.
Most students would rather party than put in the extra work, and even make fun of the straight-A students by calling them brown-nosers and brainiacs to justify why they aren’t making the grade.
Sure, there are the geniuses that breeze through on natural intellectual aptitude with relatively little effort, but the vast majority of the students getting top grades bust their asses and do all the little things to differentiate themselves from the pack, like going to the instructor’s office after hours for extra help, editing and reediting papers, and staying in on a Friday night to study for a test.
I know because I was one of those students. I graduated near the top of my class with a 3.96 GPA. I’m proud to say that not so much because of the actual grades but because I know I busted my ass for them. I can assure you my IQ doesn’t rank as high comparatively as my GPA, but I’d rather be an overachiever than an underachiever any day.
When grades came out at the end of the semester, my classmates would often tell me how “lucky” I was. If you want to call literally waking up at 4:15 AM Monday-Friday after going to bed at midnight and “sleeping in” until 6 or 7 on the weekends lucky, then yeah, I was one lucky SOB.
The recipe for success in the gym is no different from school except that things in the gym are graded on a relative scale. There’s no class rank, and your only competition is yourself – which can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you choose to look at it.
You Versus You
The good part about competing against yourself is that you control your own grade. You aren’t being judged relative to others and it’s truly about doing the absolute best you can.
The bad part about competing against yourself is that you control your own grade. You can’t suck up to a teacher or cheat off your friend. You can’t bull**** the weights.
But while the grading scale is different, the formula is the same. There will always be the outliers that can get away with eating whatever they want and still be ripped, or those who can put on muscle just walking past a squat rack, but generally the hardest workers see the best results.
Getting stronger doesn’t take a whole lot of innate talent or athletic ability. What it does take is tons of dedication and commitment. It’s an endless journey with no off-season, so you better learn to trust in the process and hunker down for the long haul because big results won’t happen overnight.
I weighed a whopping 122 pounds when I started seriously lifting weights. I’d just undergone a back surgery about a year before that didn’t go well and forced me to take some time off from school. All told, I’d lost over 40 pounds from a combination of lack of physical activity and depression, and was basically a weak mess.
My mom is petite and has a history of very serious back problems. My dad was a thin marathon runner with you guessed it, back problems.
Looking at me then, you certainly wouldn’t have predicted big things from me in the weight room. I didn’t even predict big things from myself. But really, what’s the alternative? Not lift and stay weak? No thanks.
Furthermore, you never know what your true limits are until you push yourself beyond your comfort zone and test them.
I started learning more about training and nutrition and getting after it in the gym with everything I had. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but they’ve never been from lack of effort.
I remember a stint early on where I lifted 55 consecutive days in a row. These weren’t easy sessions either. I’m talking two-hour ball busters where I left looking like I’d just hopped in the shower with my clothes on.
Was it the smartest thing in the world? Probably not, but at least I was trying. If I had it to do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing. I probably sacrificed .0008 pounds of muscle from overtraining a little bit at the time, but it helped instill a mental toughness and drive in me that has paid far greater dividends.
To the left is a picture of my back taken after about two years of consistent hard lifting and good nutrition. I was about 160ish pounds – just about the same I weighed before my back surgery.
Nobody ever told me I had good genes for lifting then.
At times I’d get frustrated because I felt like all my hard work wasn’t paying off. At one point, I even seriously considered quitting lifting altogether and taking up cycling because I figured my genetics were better suited for it. I even got a bike and a pair of those spandex shorts with padding on the crotch.
But I don’t love cycling. I love lifting. That bike is still sitting in my closet untouched, right beside the unused padded shorts.
Fast forward to the present. Here’s a picture of my back now. I weigh around 185 pounds.
I’m certainly no behemoth, but I look a lot different from how I did. And people who didn’t know me a few years ago now tell me I have good genes for lifting. However, what you can’t see or know from this picture is the work that went into it.
It was taken at the end of January after a workout where I completed 200 chin-ups. In total, I completed 3,500 chin-ups over the month of January alone while rehabbing from knee surgery. Rather than have a pity party for myself, I used it as an opportunity to focus on what I could do as opposed to what I couldn’t do.
Being conservative, I’d estimate that I’ve probably done at least 25,000 chin-ups over the past eight years, and it’s probably much more than that.
I’ve also eaten 5-8 meals a day – every day – making sure that each meal contains a good amount of protein.
Let’s low-ball it and assume six meals a day.
(6 good meals/day) x (365 days/year) x (8 years) = 17,520 good meals
25,000 chin-ups and 17,520 good meals later and my genetics suddenly seem a whole lot better.
Funny how that works.
Bad Genetics Gone Good?
That said, I actually think I have awesome genetics for lifting.
My mom may be small, but she’s the most mentally tough person I know. She’s had things happen to her that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, but she never makes excuses, never takes a victim role, and just keeps trucking day after day.
My dad had an unparalleled work ethic and could push himself further physically than anyone I’ve ever seen. When he was training for marathons, he used to wake up at 4 AM every day before work and run 10 miles in the dark, then drive to work an hour away, work a long day at a stressful job, drive home another hour, and then run another 10 miles – again in the dark. He once ran the Boston Marathon with pneumonia. He collapsed and had to be hospitalized, but not before crossing the finish line.
Fact is, when I think about the traits you want as a lifter, I realize that I hit the genetic jackpot.
I’m proud of what I’ve done because I know where I’ve come from and what’s gone into it. If I were judging myself relative to others, it’d be a different story. I have friends that weigh more than 185 pounds who’ve never touched a weight before. I know plenty of dudes that can bench way more than I can, squat more than I can, deadlift more than I can, run faster than I can, whatever. I’m perfectly okay with that.
If you’d told me eight years ago I’d be where I am today, I’d have said you were crazy. So would anyone else that knew me then. My numbers are child’s play for some people, but it’s not about that. It’s about maximizing what you’ve got.
I’ll say this: I’ve never met anyone that trains harder than I do.
When you look around at the most successful people in the iron game, you’ll see all sorts of different training programs and diets.
Some do better with a lower volume approach while others prefer higher volume. Some like total body training while others use bodypart splits. Some eat breakfast and some don’t. You get my point.
The one common denominator amongst the successful ones is that they’ve found what works for them and they stick with it for a long time.
One of my biggest mentors is a guy named Steve Bunker, known in the gym simply as “Bunk.” Bunk’s in his 50’s, still competes in powerlifting, and regularly shows up dudes half his age.
In the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve seen Bunk miss a single planned workout. The guy’s a machine and you can literally set your watch to his lifting routine.
Here’s his program:
Monday: Bench, rows, and sometimes board presses
Wednesday: Squats, deadlifts, and glute-ham raises
Friday: Military press, chin-ups
On the main lifts he loosely follows Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, but adjusts the numbers based on how he’s feeling. On the assistance work, he pretty much goes by feel.
To keep his body healthy and functioning at its best, he religiously foam rolls and stretches every night and has a standing appointment every Friday afternoon for soft tissue work.
He’s not a naturally big guy, but through years of chipping away at it through slow and steady progression, he’s managed to blow past other guys his age that probably had a lot more potential but chose not to use it. Marinate on that for a little bit.
I’m not trying to give you some rah-rah speech and tell you that you can do anything you put your mind to. I’ll save that for your mom.
Chances are, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never squat a grand, be Mr. Olympia, or play in the NFL. Maybe you will, but it’s probably not in the cards.
But chances are, you’re also capable of a hell of a lot more than you think you are.
There’s only one way to find out.
Base your goals on the process instead of the results, and the results will come. And when they do, you’ll have all the haters that have set self-imposed limits on themselves lining up to try to chop you down and discredit your accomplishments. That’s when you know you’re on to something.
So I ask you again: How much do you believe your genetics influence your success (or lack thereof) as a lifter?
Speakman, John, et al. “Set points, settling points and some alternative models: theoretical options to understand how genes and environments combine to regulate body adiposity.” Disease Models and Mechanisms. November 2011, Volume 4, Number 6, Pgs. 733-74.