Genetic Potential: Myth Or Reality?

Straight talk on the topic of genetic potential/limit trips off many people. Some are illusioned to believe that anyone can achieve the Olympic level performance or a Pro-Bodybuilderesque physique if provided good training, nutrition, supplements, and rest. Others are too narrow-minded in their thinking that they accuse anyone with some good build or strength of steroid use.

As Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction“, let’s try to find out the scientific truth behind genetic potential enigma. There is always a happy medium somewhere in between the two extremities, and we’ll get to know about it today.

Gene Pool Diversity

Studies tell us that everyone doesn’t respond equally to the training stimulus. Some people are incredibly fast responders. They make exceptional gains with only a slight stimulus. On the other hand, there are few people who despite doing everything ‘right’ training wise won’t respond much. Bro science classifies the former as ‘easy gainer‘ and latter as ‘hard gainer‘; and yes, studies support these claims. Most people lie in the middle of this spectrum.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about drug-free individuals, not those using substances like steroids or performance enhancing drugs. The use of steroids does significantly boost your responsiveness to the exercise stimulus. And those on the hard gainer side tend to abuse it more because of low responsiveness to the anabolic hormones due to factors like high testosterone-metabolizing and such. The discussion of PEDs is out of the realms of this article, we’ll talk about this topic sometime later.

A study by Bouchard et al (7) show us the contrasts that how the super-responders achieved about 42% improvement in baseline performance while low responders only made improvements between 0 to 8%. Another study (3) demonstrated that after 12-week strength training, super responders made about 250% improvement in 1 Rep Max strength and 59% gains in muscle size. While results of nonresponders ranged from 32% loss of strength to 2% loss of size.

Genetic Factors & Training Response

There are certain genetic factors which make a super responder respond so well to the training while making a low responder suck hard. Knowledge of these factors may allow you to readjust certain training methodologies and apply certain techniques which may better suit to your individual physiology. This will lead to a better response and more progress. Below is the list of genetic factors which really make a difference in training response:

  • Leverages Advantage

The limb structure of some individuals really provides them a better advantage at performing some tasks. It may allow a lanky individual who has long arms to pull really heavy weights on deadlifts. The power-lifting world has witnessed world records from athletes who had certain leverage benefits in certain lifts due to favorable limb length and structure.

Lamar gant
Lamar Gant with long chimp-like arms deadlifted a record 290 Kg at a bodyweight of 56 Kg.
  • Length of Muscle Bellies

An individual with longer muscle bellies and shorter tendons has greater potential for size gains due to a larger cross-sectional area. This also increases the strength potential due to the bigger size as well as the biomechanical advantage of moment arm and axis of rotation.

sergio oliva arms
3 times Mr Olympia Sergio Oliva “The Myth” displays his unbelievably long muscle bellies.
  • Anabolism

The normal range of testosterone for a man is 280 to 1100 ng/dL. This is a pretty wide range, considering the fact that testosterone hormone is so vital for strength and performance. Some people are born with higher levels of testosterone and other anabolic hormones which give them a significant edge over others.


The studies suggest that there is indeed very wide chasm in the performances of super responders and low responders. Though most of the people (about 70%) lie in between, but still the variation in genetic pool can’t be discounted. The data not only suggests the explanation for performance variation at elite levels but also gives an idea about why someone with less experience is able to achieve remarkable gains while much-experienced persons are progressing only moderately. The key points to be noted are:

  1. The genetic component decides your individual response to training.
  2. Most people are medium gainers even if they like to castrate themselves by believing that they’re hard gainers. Hard gainers though actually exist constitute only about 15% of total population.
  3. Since everyone doesn’t respond similarly to training, you should not rely on cookie cutter programs. It could be the actual reason for your lack of progress.

Next time we’ll discuss how you can determine and reach your genetic potential without resorting to steroids.

  1. Mann T.N., Lamberts R.P., Lambert M.I. High and low responders: factors associated with individual variation in response to standardized training. Sports Medicine. 2014. 44: 1113-24.
  2. Taylor, E., Covington, J., Galgani, J., Ravussin, E., Bajpeyi, S., Henagan, T. High vs. Low Responders to Exercise: Role of Epigenetic Modifications in Altering PGC1α Gene Expression and Intramyocellular Lipid Content in Skeletal Muscle. FASEB Journal. 2015. 29, 1: 675.20.
  3. Hubal M, Gordish-Dressman H, Thompson P, et al Variability in Muscle Size and Strength Gain after Unilateral Resistance Training Med Sci Sports Exerc 2005. 37(6): 964-972
  4. Bouchard, C., Blair, S.N., Church, T.S., Earnest, C.P., Hagberg, J.M., Hakkinen, K., Jenkins, N.T., Karavirta, L., Kraus, W.E., Leon, A.S., Rao, D.C., Sarzynski, M.A., Skinner, J.S., Slentz, C.A., Rankinen, T. Adverse Metabolic Response to Regular Exercise: Is It a Rare or Common Occurrence? 2012. PLoS One, 7 (5), e37887.
  5. Timmons, J.A. Variability in training-induced skeletal muscle adaptation. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2011. 110, 3: 846-853.
  6. Hopker, J.G. & Passfield, L. Is it time to re-evaluate the training study? Journal of Science and Cycling, 2014, 3 (3) :1-2.
  7. Bouchard C, An P, Rice T, Skinner J, et al Familial aggregation of VO2max response to exercise training: results from the HERITAGE family study J. Appl. Physiol. 1999. 87(3): 1003-1008.
  8. Kim, J & Lee, J. The relationship of creatine kinase variability with body composition and muscle damage markers following eccentric muscle contractions. J. Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2015 June; 19(2) : 123-129.
  9. Lortie G, Simoneau J, Hamel P, Boulay M, Landry F, Bouchard C. Responses of maximal aerobic power and capacity to aerobic training Int. J Sports Med. 1984. 5: 232-236.
  10. Nielsen, J.L., Aagaard, P., Bech, Rune D., Nygaard, T., Wernbom, M., Suetta, C., Frandsen, U. Rapid Increases in Myogenic Satellite Cells Expressing Pax-7 with Blood Flow Restricted Low-intensity Resistance Training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011. 43: 752.

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