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How to Determine Your Genetic Limitations for strength building

There are those who would have you believe there is nothing you cannot do if you put your mind to it. In most areas of life I would agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, the world of physique development is an exception to the rule. Those of us involved in the quest for size are not all created equal. On one hand, we all have individual genetic limitations that place seemingly unfair restrictions on our muscular growth potential. While on the other had, most of us have genetic attributes we should be capitalizing on, but we don't know what they are! Do you know yours? Probably not. Being ignorant of our individual genetic make-up foster frustration with lack of progress, and eventual failure. Not knowing what to do, or where to turn for help when we inevitably reach that so called plateau, is a terrible but all too common occurrence among the majority of us...the genetically less fortunate. In our denial and desperation we blindly follow product and service peddlers promising renewed results and growth beyond our potential. They prey upon our naive hopes and dreams of becoming a superior resistance athlete through false encouragement. What's wrong with a little encouragement? Nothing, when it's coming from an enthusiastic training partner. But when it comes from someone with something to gain, there may very well be something wrong with it!

I intend to educate you concerning genetic attributes and limitations involved in size and strength training. I will discuss indicators of your specific genetic attributes and limitations. I will teach you a simple self-test you can use in determining, with some degree of objectivity, your own genetic potential for size and strength. Before we get started you need to know where you in terms of metabolic body-type. You're not going to believe this stuff!


All of us have weight maintenance tendencies from birth that were bestowed upon us by our parents. These tendencies usually remain with us throughout our lives but can be altered to varying degrees. Below is a description of metabolic bodytype categories for you to use not only in analyzing your metabolism, but also for making the right training & dietary changes.


An ectomorph is an individual who is small framed and has extreme difficulty in gaining weight. In this case the metabolism is very fast. The ectomorph recovers from training quite fast (given proper nutrition), allowing for slightly more frequent training bouts. Total fat deposits are usually low. More calories must be ingested by the ectomorph than those in either of the other two metabolic categories. Ectomorph can only capitalize on their ability to recover more quickly from exercise by ingesting more total calories. If too few calories are present, the muscles will eat away at themselves for recovery energy and the ectomorph will remain just ectomorph.


A Mesomorph is individual who has little problem with fluctuating body weight, the metabolism is considered normal, and his/her frame size is average. The Mesomorph usually appear larger, stronger, and healthier than the ectomorph with slightly greater bodyfat levels. The Mesomorph requires fewer calories per pound of lean weight to maintain muscle tissue than does the ectomorph and therefore suffers less muscle tissue breakdown. The Mesomorph, having a somewhat slower metabolism, does not recover quite as quickly from exercise as does the ectomorph. For this reason, the Mesomorph requires slightly longer between workout and recovery periods.


The endomorph is usually heavy set, has a relatively slow metabolism, and is considered large framed. The breakdown of lean muscle tissue does not occur as readily as in the other two categories. The endomorph also requires fewer total calories to maintain lean weight than the other two metabolic types. Recovery periods between heavy training bouts should be longer since the endomorph has a slower metabolism. Endomorphs are not to be confused with those who are overweight due to over consumption. The true endomorph usually consumes fewer calories.

Summary of metabolic differences & tips

Generally speaking, in regard to the above metabolic categories, it would appear that the ectomorph and endomorph face greater obstacles in their quest for size than does the Mesomorph. This is true for the most part. However, in knowing which category best describes your metabolism, these obstacles can more effectively be overcome. The ectomorph, for example, can overcome his/her metabolic weaknesses largely by ingesting more total calories, while the endomorph would be well advised to reduce total calories. It is a little known fact that recovery from training is a metabolic factor and should be taken into consideration when evaluating a strength training program. Ectomorphs, while ingesting sufficient total calories, can recover faster from heavy workouts and therefore train slightly more often for size & strength the endomorph (Note: Ectomorphs don't get the idea that more often means daily, or even every other day. A heavily trained body part needs at least three full days of recovery regardless of your metabolism). Conversely, the endomorph having a lower metabolism recovers more slowly from heavy workout, and should train individual body parts even less often for size & strength.

Muscle tissue breakdown

Due to the ectomorph's rapid tissue breakdown, frequent aerobic exercise is discouraged. Also, missed workouts and too few calories mean greater muscle tissue loss for the ectomorph. As the endomorph's tissue breakdown rate is slower, he/she can, in effect, layoff longer with less tissue loss than the ectomorph (Note: would do well to spend this additional layoff time performing high volume, low intensity aerobic activities).



Leverage has to do with tendons of insertion. Generally speaking, tendons of a working muscle are attached to the lower, flexing and/or extending lever at a set distance from the fulcrum (joint) involved in a given movement. This distance varies from individual to individual. The farther the insertion point is down the lower lever away from the joint, the greater the leverage. And the greater the leverage, the greater the strength. Some smaller lifters are stronger than larger lifters because they have better leverage. Conversely, the closer the insertion point is to the joint down the lower lever, the poorer the leverage, and the weaker the working muscle. It should also be noted the degree of leverage is usually consistent throughout an individual's musculature. Persons with greater leverage have a distinct advantage in the iron game. However, this is not to say that those with superior leverage do no have other genetic limitations not yet discussed. Putting this aside for now, it is safe to say that target muscles with greater leverage can be stressed by more growth stimulation poundages. World class powerlifters for instance, are blessed with superior leverage. This genetic attribute allows them to move more iron with less muscle mass, giving them a distinct advantage over their competition with a lesser degree of leverage. Hopefully, in understanding leverage, the next time you see some pip-squeak reppin' out with 315 lbs. on the bench, while you're using 225 lbs., you won't feel like crawling into your gym bag.


How many times have you been told that muscle density comes with time? How many contest commentators have you heard credit the victors with having more "muscle maturity & density" than the younger, "less seasoned" competitors? Wrong! Density is simply a matter of genetics. The greater the number of fibers in a given space, the greater the density. I for one have seen many "less seasoned" competitors displaying incredible density. We easily find the answer to what density really is with the help of Mr. Webster...dense - marked by compactness, or crowding together of parts. There really isn't that much more to say in defense of my position. Every individual possesses differing numbers of muscle fibers throughout all the muscle groups in their bodies. Those persons with a greater number of total fibers have more density, and more potential for growth as well. Therefore, for example, the ectomorph with a large number of total fibers could blossom with weight training and experience growth unimaginable to even the most aesthetic looking Mesomorph blessed with fewer total fibers.


Motor Unit - a group of muscle fibers stimulated to contract simultaneously in response to an action potential of sufficient intensity to surpass its threshold of sensitivity. The sooner a motor unit is recruited while training for size & strength, the more work its fibers will perform, and the more work performed, the greater the growth stimulating damage. Most of us need to resort to extremely intense heavy training to recruit the maximum number of motor units possible, while others are able to involve an optimum number of motor units with much less intensity of effort. I'll let you figure out who has the greater potential for size & strength.


I've saved the best for last. There are different types of fibers dependent upon component size, number, and structure. To be general, the fiber with the greatest potential for growth is called the white fast-twitch fiber. The fiber with the least potential for growth is called the red slow-twitch fiber. Each individual has a differing proportion of these fiber types. The person with a predominance of the white fast-twitch fibers will be a genetically superior strength athlete. There you have it. A basic insight into genetics as applied to size and strength training. As a creative way of recapping what we have discussed, let's build the ultimate, genetically superior, untrained body. Let's start by giving him more total fibers in every muscle group than any human alive. Compliment this genetic gift by only using quality parts in the form of white fast-twitch fibers . Start improving leverage at the arms by inserting tendons as far down the forearms as possible, and then, on to the other various joints and respective tendons of insertion throughout the body. Now then, let's hook up an electrical system such that even the slightest impulse immediately triggers every bundle of fibers in the working muscles. OOooooohhh what a freak! In looking back now at our perfectly gifted specimen, I will attempt to enlighten you. Remember, this creation of ours is an untrained body. Close your eyes and visualize the appearance of this physique...awesome right? Most of you are looking at a Mesomorph right? But to the surprise of many, this untrained body may very well appear as an ectomorph or even an endomorph for that matter! My point is that these superior genetic attributes may be present in anyone large or small, heavy or thin, and initially are not outwardly visible. The same can be said for genetic limitations. Limitations can just as easily be present in those displaying an initial mesomorphic appearance. It all boils down to the fact that we all have the same "roll of the genetic dice" at becoming a superior resistance athlete regardless of our pre-trained appearance. I firmly believe that the most genetically gifted physique in the entire world has yet to be discovered and developed. He's out there somewhere though...and if you haven't started training, or aren't taking your training as seriously as you should, you may very well have that physique.


Leverage - were you unusually strong as a beginner? Were you that little guy in the corner moving the heavy iron while the veterans looked on in disbelief? If so, you quite probably have good leverage, and congratulations are in order. If not, don't worry, leverage isn't everything, right? Number of total fibers - Pretty tough to determine this one short of having a plug of muscle extracted (biopsy) and actually counting them (this can and has been done). However, a subjective determination can be made based upon the tonus and hardness of your musculature. It is conjectured that the condition of tonus (the constant partial contraction of muscles), may indicate the presence of large numbers of individual fibers. Normally, this can only be determined in the trained resistance athlete. As a can only hope, or resort to a biopsy! Motor unit recruitment - Do you end your set because the pain is unbearable or because you can no longer move against the resistance? If the latter is true, congratulations, you are recruiting a maximum number of motor units. If failure is due to pain, there will ultimately be unaffected motor units reducing you potential for growth. As you may have guessed, you can alter this genetic factor. This is accomplished through consistency and improvement in pain tolerance while using maximum intensity. The end result will be an increase in the efficiency of nerve impulse transmission and maximum motor unit involvement. Fiber types - How do you know what proportions of different types of fibers your musculature is comprised of? Here in lies the application of the self-test I mentioned earlier. To insure better understanding, I will expound briefly on fiber types. As earlier mentioned, the white fast-twitch fiber has great potential for growth and is stressed primarily during heavy training taken to failure (let's say 4-6 reps). The red fast-twitch fiber has somewhat less potential for growth but stores more energy and is stressed primarily during moderate resistance training taken to failure (let's say 12-15 reps). The red s low-twitch fiber has little strength with tremendous energy storage and is stressed primarily during light resistance training taken to failure (let's say 20-25 reps).

Holistic training & the self-test

Holistic training, worthy of an article all its own, is a method of training in which the resistance is varied in a single movement to focus attention on individually developing the three fiber types of the target muscles. In applying the holistic principle, the following self-test can help you objectively determine the predominant fiber types in each muscle group. With this knowledge you can determine, with some degree of accuracy, your potential for growth. This test can be performed for each movement and/or each body part. Compound movements are desirable. We will use the bench press as an example. After a brief warm-up, select a weight that allows you to perform between 4-6 reps to absolute positive failure. Do two sets and record the weight and reps. Next, select a weight that allows you to perform between 12-15 reps to absolute positive failure. Do two sets and once again record weight and reps. Finally, select a weight that will allow you to perform between 20-25 reps to absolute positive failure. Do two sets and record your weight and reps. On your next bench press day, repeat this procedure attempting always to increase the number of reps to failure. As reps increase above these ranges, add sufficient weight to bring the reps back down again. At the end of one month you can determine which rep range yielded the best results in terms of increased resistance. The fiber type that corresponds with this rep range, as earlier mentioned, is predominant in the working muscles of that particular movement. You would then benefit from performing more sets in this, most productive rep range. As a side not perform forced reps. There is no way to tell exactly how many pounds of assistance is given, and you will loose all objectivity. Also, establish and adhere to a recovery time period of consistent length between every set, of every movement, of every workout. Total calories must be sufficient to allow for optimum recovery.

Hopefully, you can now determine where you stand in terms of potential. Don't look at genetics as limiting, look at them as attributes. Realism is the key to intelligent training. Couple this with the newfound knowledge of your personal genetic make-up, and make the appropriate changes in your size & strength program.

Source: NFPT Personal Trainer Magazine, Ron J. Clark

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