A Question of Genetics

“Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.”

~ Horace

Ring Push-Ups at the Playground

Ring Push-Ups at the Playground

I took along an eclectic mix of reading to keep me occupied during my in-flight hours last weekend; a copy of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis (it was actually Brittani’s copy), and my well-worn copy of Dr. Doug McGuff’s Body By Science, among other titles, magazines, newspapers, etc.  I’ve been contemplating as of late, the limitations our inherited genetics place on our realistically obtainable goals, and (maybe a less “depressing” notion), how to target training so as to best work with our genetics in order to realize our optimized phenotype.

I think we can all agree that, although we can no doubt alter our ultimate genetic expression (phenotype) for the positive, we do — all of us — face certain genetic limitations.  The frustrating proposition for most mature-minded trainees is not the fact that these limitations exist — hey, at a certain age, we’ve all had the “life ain’t fair rug pulled from beneath out feet” — but rather, the reality of not knowing the extent of, or manifestation of, these limitations.  By a certain “training age”, most intelligent trainees are well aware that not all athletes (or wannabe athletes) are created equal.  The unfortunate side-effect of this truth is that any training regimen you can name will have some positive responders, however, that same regimen will be packaged and marketed as a universal fit for every trainee.  Natural genetic variances, my friends, simply will not allow for this.  The key to fitness is not stumbling upon the “golden program”, as there is no such thing.  The key to long-term fitness success is (1) finding a handful of modalities that you respond well to, and (2) knowing how and when to cycle through those few modalities in order to maximize their impact.  Training is as simple — and as difficult — as that.

Dr. McGuff covers this territory in a well-written chapter 8 (The Genetic Factor) of Body by Science.  I encorage everyone to get a copy of Dr. McGuff’s work, even if you’re opposed to (or a non-responder) the SS/HIT methodology or premise, because the science outlined throughout the work is of universal value.  Absent in this book are the smoke and mirrors that accompany most training books; Doug (and I’d be remiss if I left out John Little) lay out the science and draw their conclusions.  You can use that science to agree, disagree or draw conclusions of your own.  In my opinion, chapter 8 of Body by Science is alone worth the price of admission.

I’ve got plenty more to say about the genetic factor, and how it relates to individualized training — much more than I care to shove in one post.  That said, I plan on revisiting this subject throughout the upcoming week.  So, if you’ve got a copy of BBS, read (or re-read) chapter 8, and let’s compare notes and ideas.

In health,


15 responses to “A Question of Genetics

  1. Keith,

    Glad to see you back at the playground. I hope it is helping to sooth your loss.

    Thanks for the kind comments on Body by Science. John and I owe a debt of gratitude to trainer Ryan Hall from New Orleans who unearthed most of the data in Chapter 8. It does much to explain the diversity of protocols and responses to them.

    Hopefully in the future simple genetic testing may help direct us to what suits us best. At the same time, hopefully not, as it may take away some of the enjoyment of the journey. In the end we may find that we figure it out on our own just fine.

    Great photo. Amazing physical condition.

    Doug McGuff

  2. You do look great, Keith, as always.

    My Kindle copy of BBS got swiped along with my iPod Touch (yes, I’m telling everyone because I’m so mad about it!), but I will get another copy and finally make my way through the entire book. This is a topic I am most interested in. (BTW – I’m enjoying the book, Dr. McGuff!)

    I’m going to jump off of this post on my page today (hopefully) so stay tuned!

    • Doug, AT22 —
      Thanks for the complements. I can take credit for the hard work, but not for the favorable genetics 😉

      • My own fault. I left it in my car and the doors unlocked. (Just one device – the iPod Touch has a Kindle application!) Of course, it was in my driveway in a relatively safe neighborhood (I think?). Oh well. At least they didn’t take my golf clubs and new golf shoes!

        On genetics: I am at this point where I have to figure out what works for me. I’ve not been good about systematically keeping track – although I do have my blog posts! – but I know there are times when whatever I’m doing is working and then I know I change something and it reverses. For instance, I was feeling very good last week, strong, like the muscles were building, the fat waning — and this week I feel as though it’s back downhill. I know I wasn’t as active last week. Is that all? Is there something about my genetics that means I must just MOVE a little, regardless of what it is? Or did I sit more in the past couple weeks, causing a decline? Are my recently added AM walks the key? Or are they hurting my progress? Is the once a week heavy lift bad for me? Am I doing the wrong moves? Not enough weight? Too much?

        !! How do you pinpoint it <— that is the key question, right? But the answer is SO not easy.

        • AT22,
          In addition to what Doug has suggested you track, I’d also recommend tracking how you feel each day. Nothing too complicated, just a quick “sluggish”, “jacked & ready to go”, “not feeling it”, “injured”…you get the idea. Also note any deviations to your diet, sleep patterns, and any other extraordinary stresses you may be dealing with. You want to use this as a way to zone in on what may be at the root of any underperformance. This will prevent you (ideally) from wasting time dabbling with your workout when, really, it’s your sleep patterns (diet, general stress, etc.) that need to be looked at and optimized first. I can’t tell you how many people I see (and I’m sure Doug has seen the same), who will spend an exorbitant amount of time tweeking a workout down to the last rep and quarter pound, even as they’re getting no more than 4 hours of sleep (and crappy sleep at that) a night. Just remember that there are many more variables to performance than the workout itself. Once you get the ancillary stuff dialed-in as much as practicable, then you can get serious about making positive tweeks to your workout, and then (and only then) can you really begin to zero-in on what works best for your given genetic profile.

  3. AT22,

    Keep a written log of your workouts. Do not use it as a short-term means of making adjustments, but instead visit the entries that are 6 months to 1 year old and look at the trends. This retrospective “aerial view” will give you a lot of good feedback. Also, a variable that works now, may not work ad-infinitum…as you become better conditioned your requirements on the volume/intensity/frequency continuum will fluctuate. Most of all enjoy the process in the experiment with an “N” of one.

    Doug McGuff

    • Hmmm, “Keith’s wacked-out theological beliefs” might best be left to another blog. And really, I don’t want to use this space as a venue for religious debate. I’ll just say that, in so far as I like to take my Christianity with a heavy twist of Eastern thought/philosophy, I find Rob Bell to be a breath of fresh air for the Christian community. Rob speaks my spiritual language, and I found Velvet Elvis to be a fantastic read. It’s not meant to be much more than a primer into his theological viewpoint, but it’s still an engaging little book. If you find yourself drawn to Rob’s ideas, I’d also recommend the DVD “it’s all spiritual”.

      • As far as your religious beliefs (another blog, I know) I keep recommending Ken Wilber’s work, if only because he tries to integrate all the traditions into one map (and the map isn’t the territory, as he would say).

        Also, when you’re here in August, a blistering workout + BBQ. Have you been to the Salt Lick? I only assume so since you’re a regular.


        • Oh yeah, the Salt Lick is always on my list of gotta hit restaurants. Missed it this last time out, though. I really liked Art’s, too — but I hear they closed???? If true, that’s quite a bummer 😦

          Thanks for the Ken Wilber recommendation. I’ll check out some of his work.

          • There were a few “Save Artz” type of events, as you would expect from Austin. Seems he had some back taxes, bad business decisions, and medical bills for his wife. Still chugging along, as far as I know.

            There’s also “Uncle Billy’s Brew n Que” which is on Barton Springs near Chuy’s/Baby A’s. My friends say it is decent for Q, yelp is mixed with reviews, but everyone loves the beer.

            • You should definitely check out Ken Wilber. I have a bunch of audios of his, as I used to be a member of his site. I would say he is the most prolific philosopher of this generation. Just my opinion though. Prepare to be blown away by his depth of knowledge of all religions and spirituality.

              He also can slow his brain waves, check youtube, via dropping into deep meditiation. He claims to have conqured many levels of consciousness as well as being enlightened. I can’t say I can argue with him.

              At any rate, hope your hanging in there. Love to get together sometime if you in the Raleigh area.


              • Sounds interesting indeed. My curiosity is piqued. I’ll give you a shout next time I’m out & about in the Raleigh area.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions. I don’t think I’ve ever tracked my “health” from a holistic (or “whole-istic”) point of view. Mostly from a rep/sets point of view.

    Thanks for the recommended readings and BBQ places as well 🙂

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