I recently read an article that talked about how people respond differently to different types/amounts of cardio based on genetic factors. To me this seemed pretty obvious, but I don’t know if the majority of people out there see it that way. Let me preface all this by saying, the majority of what I’m going to bring up is based mostly on personal experience, discussion with others and observation. My college degree is in Nutritional Science (which was in fact a “pre-med” major because I used to think I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon), but in pursuing that degree, I took one class in genetics which covered nothing about training/exercise/diet. So that is the extent of my formal scientific training in genetics.
Regardless, I’m going to speak my mind on own my understanding of the topic as it may or may not relate to training/nutrition based on MY experience.
Genetics is something a lot of people bring up when it comes to having a certain “look.” Typically in physique sports the top competitors have “good” genetics, or even what we may consider “exceptional” genetics based on their natural shape/structure. For women, this may mean naturally wide/capped shoulders, tiny waist, round glutes, etc. The fact is everyone has a different genetic structure to work with. Unfortunately, in the physique sports, genetic structure plays a major role. It’s not to say we have no influence on how we look. Proper training and nutrition can certainly help to alter one’s physique in dramatic ways. However, we are ultimately limited by our natural structure. I think it’s very important to accept this when it comes to developing physique based goals. Be honest with yourself and be realistic with your own physical capabilities. We would all love to have “perfect” structure, but it’s really not worth using unhealthy/unsafe practices in an attempt to alter your own genetic structure (i.e. wearing a squeem for hours a day in an attempt to reduce your waist size) for a placing at bodybuilding show.
Another concept involving genetics that I think is often overlooked is how it may impact our nutrition and training. This is why there is no such thing as a one size fits all training or diet protocol. I’m going to use my own personal experience here to explain the points I’m trying to make. I feel like I can use myself as a valid example because I’ve been an athlete for a very long time, I’ve been training for many years, I’ve worked with many different coaches and I have employed many different training and nutrition styles over the years. In doing so, I’ve really learned exactly how my body will respond to certain things—in essence, I’ve learned my own “genetics” when it comes to training/nutrition.
I’ve learned that genetically speaking, I build muscle very well. Additionally, I hold onto muscle very well. I used to joke that I could eat nothing but iceberg lettuce and my body would still find a way to utilize it. But what does that mean in terms of training and nutrition. Well, in terms of getting ready for a fitness competition, it meant I could afford to do a decent amount of cardio without a huge fear of burning muscle. It also meant that I could be a little stricter with my carb intake and still maintain size. (And as a quick note, it doesn’t mean that it was ok or ideal for me to be doing zero carbs and 2 hours of cardio for weeks on end- it just meant that I probably could do more than some others and still maintain muscle mass). There are others out there that lose muscle with just the thought of extra cardio, and thus their training/nutrition should be tailored accordingly.
On the topic of cardio (and I’d like to do a full blog one day on this topic as it seems to be one of great debate), I did a contest prep one time which included little to no cardio (at least, it was a significant amount less than my body was used to doing), and I really didn’t have great results with that approach. In addition to my personal genetic response to cardio I also attribute this to the fact that growing up and through college, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours in the gym everyday training for gymnastics. My theory is- maybe my body just needs a little more because of this (training adaptation). There are plenty of others out there who can do an entire contest prep and get stage-ready lean with hardly any cardio at all– and honestly, if you can do it that way you should! But that wasn’t me (and it still isn’t- to this day my body responds very well to certain types/amounts of cardio).
Another example would be my response to strength training. Like I said, I build muscle very easily. I know there are some competitors that typically include crossfit workouts (and/or a lot of heavy barbell stuff) while getting ready for a show. In fact, I know of a fellow fitness competitor that trained for her last show using exclusively crossfit training (in addition to routine work)-and her physique is AMAZING. However, personally, that approach would never have worked for me. I did a lot of heavy training and metabolic stuff back in my day, which would have been similar to crossfit as this was before crossfit became mainstream (you can still see the youtube videos of my crazy training here https://www.youtube.com/user/Ergis1999/videos) , but the fact is, that type of training was actually detrimental to MY “stage” physique. It was awesome, I loved it, I got super strong and I had a blast, so I certainly don’t regret any of it, but it definitely did not help me out in terms of my physique round placings. So why can some people train like that and look amazing, and others maybe not so much- well, for me, I build muscle quickly, I have a very wide and thick back, my traps insert high on my neck (they used to call me Marcus Ruhl when I trained with the guys) and I naturally have a wider waistline with very thick core muscles. That type of training enhances all of those features– which is the opposite of what I wanted for the physique rounds. But on a side note, my fitness routine kicked ass when I was training like that because it was the strongest I have ever been (you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPRtGeDue2Y if you don’t believe me).
The last show I did back in 2013 was my ultimate physique to date. The reason why is because I understood my body and I trained very specifically with that understanding in mind. I used lighter/moderate weights with a VERY (let me repeat VEEEEERRY) strong emphasis on the mind muscle connection and focused VERY hard on feeling exactly what muscle I wanted to be targeting. I also did a good mix of high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio- not a ton of steady state stuff- and metabolic workouts. My cardio was geared towards preparing me for my fitness routine– I felt like none of it was “wasted” or “mindless” – each cardio workout had a specific purpose. My nutrition consisted of a moderate amount of healthy carbs, fats and proteins- a very balanced approach- but I ate mostly fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes, lean meats, greek yogurt) because these were the foods I responded best to, from both a performance and physique perspective. I also limited gluten because I generally feel much better when I keep it relatively low in my diet (side bar here, I do not have Celiacs disease and I do not advocate a gluten free diet. There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, and I CANand do eat a modest amount of food containing gluten, I just personally feel a million times better when I keep it low—again, learn your body).
I can honestly say I did NOTHING excessive or extreme for that contest prep. It was really a matter of using all of the knowledge I had gained along the way, knowing how my body would respond to specific training and nutrition techniques and being smart about what I was doing. And I was able to present my best physique. It doesn’t mean that the way I trained is the ONLY way, and it doesn’t mean that the way I prepped will work for everyone.
The point I’m trying to make here is learn your own “genetics.” Avoid falling into the trap of following certain protocols just because other people are using them. Learn what YOU need to do to improve YOURSELF, whether it be performance or physique based, and tailor your approach with that specific goal in mind. If you work with a coach, make sure you are both on the same page when it comes to your goals and your genetic response (and make sure your program is tailored to YOU).
Furthermore, be honest with yourself about your own structural and genetic limitations. We can’t all look like Ms. Figure/Physique/Bikini (or Mr.) Olympia, just like we can’t all perform like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (crossfit superstars if you’re not familiar with the names). I’m not saying don’t try. It’s not the point I’m trying to make at all. We truly have the power to accomplish great things when we work hard, believe in ourselves and go after our goals. However, I AM saying be realistic. Focus on self improvement in a way that’s healthy and productive, not self destructive. Not everyone’s “end-all/be-all” is to be a Pro in the physique sports or a crossfit games competitor, and that’s OK. Try to be the best YOU that you can be. Learn to listen to your body. Learn to work WITH your body, not against it. And always keep your health as top priority. Learning your “genetics” is a process, but the outcomes will be well worth it.