Human Genetics and Weight Training
By Keith Wassung
The subject of genetics and genetic potential has become a mainstream topic in recent years, largely due to the research and publicity of the Human Genome Project as well as publicity about DNA in high profile criminal cases. With all of the available information, there is still a great deal of mis-information among the public regarding the role of genetics for human beings.
Each of the 100 trillion cells in the human body (except red blood cells) contains the entire human genome-all of the genetic information necessary to build a human being. Inside the cell nucleus, 6 feet of DNA are packaged into 23 pairs of Chromosomes. As a carrier of information, DNA is 45 trillion times more efficient that the silicon computer mega-chip, which is manufactured by highly skilled engineers.
Each gene is a double-stranded DNA that holds the blueprint for making a specific molecule-usually a protein. These blueprints are spelled out in varying sequences of four chemical bases in DNA, Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, and Cytosine, also known as A, T, G, C. If you could take the tiniest font on your computer, say a Times Roman #7, then decrease the size of that by about two-thirds, then using those letters to fill up an entire sheet (with no spaces) of 8.5 x 11” paper, it would take about one million pages to correctly spell out the sequence of the human genome. A printed manuscript of the human genome would require a stack of paper higher than the Washington Monument.
It is a misconception to think that our genes are the predominant determining factor in who we are, or what form of accomplishment we are capable of. If our genes were the primary determining factor, then everyone who carried genetic disease traits would eventually develop that disease, but this is clearly not the case. Genes certainly provide a set or parameters, but research clearly shows that the way genes are expressed are far more important in determining our capabilities. This genetic expression is activated by way of hormonal chemicals that are directly controlled by the Central Nervous System. Hormones do not damage or alter genes; rather they cause the gene to act in a certain way, telling it when to reproduce or activate. If the nervous system is working properly, then the correct chemical message is sent to and received by the genes. The notion that genes work in response to the stimuli of the environment, via the CNS has been extensively written about in recent years.
“The environment in which you grow up is as important as your DNA in determining the person you ultimately become. You cannot dissociate genes from the environment that turns genes on and off: and you cannot dissociate the effect of genes from the environment in which proteins exert their effects. Certain genes lead to vulnerability, but not inevitability”.1
NEWSWEEK, April 20, 2000
"For example, when geneticists say that have found a gene for a particular trait, what they mean is that people carrying a certain "allele" --a variation in a stretch of DNA that normally codes for a certain protein--will develop the given trait in a standard environment. The last words "standard environment”, are very important because what scientists are not saying is that a given allele will necessary lead to that trait in every environment. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that a particular allele will not produce the same result is the environment changes significantly; that is to say the environment has a strong influence on whether--and how--a gene gets "expressed" 2
U.S. News and World Report 4-21-1997
"Genes are unquestionably the fundamental units by which our bodies are constructed. However, pure genetic determinism does not adequately explain the varied capabilities of our biology. A more accurate view of the role of the genome is to see the genes as providing the overall plan for the developmental pathways. The actual pathways will be modified by the environment to which the individual is exposed" 3
Dr. Peter Nathaniels, "Life in the Womb"
The above citations lend credence to the notion that out genetics, though providing distinct parameters for our potential, pretty much respond to the stimulus and demand that we place on them. I frequently hear weight trainers make excuses for their progress by claiming that they do not possess good genetics. I often see this used as some sort of disclaimer in written articles. My question for them is “how do you know you do not have good genetics in advance”? There is not yet a single diagnostic test in existence that can accurately predict genetic capability. Many will cite “bone structure” as being genetically determined. Genetics may dictate length, ratios and skeletal insertions, but bone is living tissue that constantly remolds or reshapes itself in direct relation to the stress placed on it.
According to Wolfs Law “Every change in the function of a bone is followed by certain definite changes in internal architecture and external conformation in accordance with mathematical laws. Wolf’s Law simply means that bones will change their shape and structure in response to how much or how little mechanical stress is applied.
I know of literally thousands of people who built phenomenal and powerful physiques, and yet when they started they were the proverbial “98lb weakling” (including myself weighing 93lbs as a high school freshman). I believe that the majority of people who get involved in weight training do so because they are smaller or weaker than their peers. Having superior genetics can also be a disadvantage, though it is often self-inflicted. I grew up in Nebraska, whose college football team has a tremendous walk-on program. Each year hundreds of freshman athletes show up for the first day of practice. Every year there are numerous players who were 2 and 3 time All-State types, the type who was probably always bigger, faster and stronger than their peers, and probably had not worked nearly as hard in training. For the first time in their lives, they are not the top dog and many of them quit within the first week or so. I have seen countless number of athletes in the gym that seemed to possess all the physical traits needed to develop world-class strength and or physiques, but they rarely do it. The same is true for athletes in all sports and in the business world as well. (Do you really think Allan Iverson has a whole lot going for him in the way of genetics?) I will take the athlete with the “Rudy” type attitude, who has heart, soul and guts, than an athlete with all of the genetic advantages in the world whose personal drive and motivation was not as strong. Nature has a unique way of balancing things out. A taller person may not gain weight and strength nearly as rapidly as a shorter, stockier man, but when they do make the gains they look a lot better and more graceful. A taller person with long limbs rarely set bench press records, but they are usually excellent dead lifters. It would be foolish to state that genetics play no part in our developmental potential, they do, but they are so many other factors that come into play that it is not difficult to overcome most genetic situations. Work ethic, technique, intelligence, strategy, attitude, heart, persistence, discipline can all be maximized to achieve strength and development goals.
I truly believe that we become whatever we set our minds to become. The majority of people who achieve great things do so because they had the drive, persistence, vision and dedication to do so. This is not only true in weight training but in all areas of our lives. Normal people just do not achieve great things, if they did, they would probably not be normal. There are not many long-term rewards in weight training and this may inhibit many from pursuing it at a level that would produce excellent strength or physique gains. I do believe that the vast majority of athletes who ever end up training in a gym have the capability of creating a body that would be absolutely mind-blowing to the average person. Their only limit is their own person drive, vision and dedication. As Henry Ford liked to say. “If you think you can, or think you can’t, either way you will be right”..
1. Sapolsky, Robert ( 2000, April 20) “All in the Genes” Newsweek
2. Wray, Herbert (1997, April 21) “The Politics of Biology” US News & World
3. Nathaniels, Peter, MD (1999) “Life in the Womb”. Ithaca, NY:Promethean