Genetics, Epigenetics, and the Intersection of Athleticism and Musculature

“Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know.” – Bertrand Russell

Weight gain, musculature and athleticism — who (or, more appropriately, what) is driving the bus here, anyway?  As long as there have been athletes in training, and coaches training them — and tangible rewards for winning involved —  this has been the speculative “center of the universe” within the S&C community.  As a way of prefacing my thoughts on the matter, check-out these links.  They represent two sides of the nature/nurture “teeter-toter”, if you will.

First up, Chris (of Conditioning Research) recently highlighted an interesting study on the genetic differences between elite endurance athletes and elite sprinters, especially variations of the NRF2 gene.  This seemingly gives a nod to the notion of an athlete’s being “born” rather than made.

Then, in The Biology of Belief, by Bruce Lipton (an absolutely fabulous book — most highly recommended reading), the author postulates that:

“…genes and DNA do not control our biology; that instead DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts…”

Now, keep these seemingly contrasting ideas in your mind for a moment as we look over the following two questions — representative of the many I get on this subject:

TTP reader Joe Madden asks:

“…I just had some questions abou gaining muscle. Right now, I weigh 119lbs and am trying out for college football as a cornerback in august. Seeing that you were in track and field and football in college and are living the paleo life, i was wondering what you would suggest in the case of someone who wants put on a good deal of muscle mass while staying lean and healthy. A lot of people have told me to eat more carbs,  and that health should take a back seat, but to be a cornerback I have to be fast and lean.

Next up is Julian.  Though rather long, I’ve included the whole of Julian’s question here, as it covers a lot of ground and aspects of the health/sporting-specificity/weight gain continuum that field frequently:

Let me first say that I am new to your website and that I am quite impressed. I think your knowledge of each of the subjects I’m interested in is amazing. I should start by letting you know that I am kind of new to all of this; paleo/crossfit/healthy lifestyle stuff, but I am very interested and I think your site is going to help me get to where I want to be in regards to all the above mentioned. Let me also apologize for the length of this question, I want to be as specific as possible since my issue is somewhat complex and unique. It is my hope that you would take the time out of your busy schedule to help me to determine if my plan and approach is going to be fruitful. Briefly here is my situation; I have a 14 year old son, who as freshman in high school is currently participating in wrestling and football. He currently weighs 112 lbs. and is 5’3” tall. It is our goal to get him into a strength training program during the offseason that would have his weight up to 140 lbs. by August 2010 (for football season), but also have him reduce down to 125 lbs. or so, starting in mid December( for wrestling season).

Just to provide a little background about my son he is naturally lean (9-12% bodyfat) and has some experience with weight training(Oly lifts), as he was at strength and conditioning facility for several months last year. He has always been active and has participated in Pop Warner since the age of 9.

I plan to accomplish the weight increase by allowing for lots of food and milk, mostly healthy food intake but not too strict. I don’t wish to put him on a full time Paleo eating plan as he has been raised on a standard American diet and I don’t want to have him too frustrated with the whole idea of offseason training on account of a new “strict diet”. I will supervise and coach him during a 5×5 linear strength program(Started Feb 2010) with the intent on obtaining a good base strength. The only lifts involved will be the squat, deadlift, OHP, bench press, and powercleans. I should also mention that his weight increase is intended to be lean muscle, and should not interfere with speed or agility and will put him in the 15% bodyfat range (I assume). He will be playing cornerback, running back, and wide receiver, so size is not intended to be excessive.

I plan to accomplish the weight loss in approximately two months time (starting in mid December 2010 and ending in early February 2011). My plan is to take him from an unweighed, un measured, eat everything you want diet, to a progressively strict, slightly reduced calorie, low carb paleo type diet. I suspect that the reduction in food intake won’t be too much of a problem as he already experienced a little of that this past season. However it may be difficult to reduce the complex carbohydrates and sugars in the beginning. He is however pretty disciplined and determined when he needs to be. And as a side note his current sugar intake is pretty minimal, we don’t have sodas in the house and cookies and such are pretty seldom as well. Lastly it should be noted that as soon as I try to football season starts I plan to cease the original strength training program and switch to more of a crossfit like program for only three days per week.

Now I guess I have two questions for you.
1)Is this plan of having two different weight classes for the two different sports going to be a healthy? (As you can see I project him to go from 140lbs in Dec 2010 to 125lbs in Feb 2011)
2)If the above plan is achieved. How do I go about managing his energy levels during tournaments? Specifically if I have him on a low carb diet, what is the best way to ensure that he gets refueled during the hour or so between matches?

I am currently at the beginning stages of a paleo/primal way of eating and living myself, so I am not confident yet in how to manage the energy, nutrition, and growth of a teenage boy. I am hoping to maximize his performance in both sports in a way that does not provide too much a change in lifestyle and does not leave him with limited energy levels. Thank you for taking the time to read my lengthy question.

Nature vs nurture/stimulus.  What can we affect to any significance and what do we have to accept as an unalterable “given”?  If there’s anything akin to a universal truth in the world of strength and conditioning, it’s this: the sport chooses the athlete, the athlete does not choose the sport.  Gifted (in an athletic sense) kids quite naturally gravitate towards “sporting play” whereas their not-so-inclined peers will drift into endeavors that favor their own particular gifts.  In a continuance of this theme, young athletes will quite naturally drift into endeavors that are best-matches for the athlete’s abilities.  So far, so good.  But we run into problems when we, as athletes and/or coaches, attempt to shoehorn near-fit athletes into into endeavors that may lay just outside their wheelhouse.  Many times this is due to cultural and/or financial biasing: I wonder how many potential world-class soccer players muddled through so-so careers as American football defensive backs.  How many potential NHL mega-stars are preparing to suit-up for spring football drills in the west Texas oil patch — the same kids who may never play a competitive down in their life past high school?  Square pegs, round holes.

My mantra for training kids is this: train athleticism, give as wide an exposure to various athletic outlets as possible, and let the pieces fall where they may.  It has been my observation that bone structure and ligament/tendon insertion reside on the unalterable side of the fence.  You just can’t do much about an athlete’s predisposed scaffolding.  To a lesser extent is the ability to gain, maintain and innervate muscle tissue (myostatin levels may be essentially fixed).  All else, though, I feel is truly alterable.  To what extent, though, I don’t know.  My gut feeling is that these remaining attributes are plastic, and can be significantly influenced.  In that we may not yet realize how to best go about affecting these changes is what makes this field so interesting to me.  Here’s an older post, covering similar ground.

So what to do with an athlete who “needs” to gain weight?  It has been my observation, in the 30+ years that I’ve been in and around athletics, that any attempt at forced weight gain will ultimately fail, and fail quite miserably.  Weight gain (and yes, even muscle gain) without an underlying increased athletic demand necessitating that gain, only makes for a less powerful, less “athletic”, athlete.  My advice in the two instances above is to train what is essentially required (explosive power, and explosive power endurance), and let weight gain “chase” the improvements made pushing the training envelope.  Athleticism will never chase weight gain; it may seem as thus to the casual observer, but I can assure you that this is an illusion.

To be sure, though, the weight-gain engine can be properly primed, here — it just cannot be forced.  It goes without saying that tough (yet sensible) training should be coupled with a slightly hyper-caloric, Paleo diet.  Don’t force-feed, but let the trainee eat to satiation.  I can’t over-emphasis the need, in this instance, to take in an abundance of good fats.  Also, at this stage in one’s training, I’d advice taking in a good amount of raw dairy from grass-fed animals — if it can be tolerated.  If you can’t get your hands on raw (unpasteurized) dairy from grass-fed animals (cows and/or goats), then don’t bother.  Pasteurization kills the enzymes within dairy that potentate weight gain (and render it a “dead” food, and grain-fed animals will have a badly skewed omega-6 to omega-3 profile.

On the flip-side of this, we have the question of weight loss.  Two things to consider, here: if the athlete gained good, productive weight to begin with, why in the world would we want to force a shedding of that weight?  I fully understand the need to make weight class, but I believe this amount of weight here (15 lbs) is excessive.  Either the athlete will have gained 15 lbs of useless weight to begin with (making for an inefficient athlete at that weight), or the athlete has been forced to shed useful muscle, making for a weaker athlete even at the new, lower weight. A couple of pounds here and there I ‘m good with, and to shed some water weight to make class is certainly advisable and well within reason.  My advice is to train the athlete to be his best, most powerful self — striving, as always, to hit the power-to-bodyweight sweet-spot — and then play and/or wrestle at whatever weight that happens to be.  The fact of the matter is, to pursue a course otherwise will ultimately end in futility.  Again, let weight chase athleticism. Make mico weight adjustments as need be — fine.  I truly believe that an athlete will perform better at the low end of a higher weight class, than he will be shedding too much weight to make the upper end of a lower class.  The strength loss that accompanies muscle loss is exponential in nature.  Just my observation/opinion.   If the diet is essentially Paleo in nature — and by that I mean, at a minimum, the elimination of sugar and refined carbohydrates — then there quite simply won’t be the need to diet-down much.  I’m well aware of the old wrestling ritual, but remember that this came about as the result of athletes fueling on the SAD.

As far as between match (or halftime) nutrition, nothing beats organic pemmican, made from grass-fed beef and tallow.  Paleo kits would work in a pinch, but in this case I’d opt for the higher fat content of the pemmican.   Note that these are options for a fully Paleo-converted athlete.  Attempting to refuel a sugar-burner with a high-fat, between-match snack will end in disaster.

The truth of the matter is that there really aren’t any half measures, here — one can’t be “a little bit Paleo” — the body simply doesn’t fuel that way on an enzymatic level.  Everything that I’ve stated above is predicated on the notion of the athlete being a fully-converted fat-burner; different (old school) strategies will be required for the handling of a sugar-burner.  The first step, then, is a commitment from the athlete to a full-on conversion.  It’s never too early, in my opinion, for potential athletes to learn that half-measures will only produce lackluster results — it simply cannot be otherwise.

Any other ideas?  This is a huge subject, covering lots of ground, and I’ve simply scratched the surface.  Let’s kick this one around a bit and see what the TTP community thinks.

In health,

14 responses to “Genetics, Epigenetics, and the Intersection of Athleticism and Musculature

  1. Keith,
    Great response for both questions.
    My worry about these types of questions is that the expectation is to get an answer that states “do this and you will get that”…
    So I thought you presented both with a lot of food for thought.
    Sugar burner vs. fat burner…is it possible at that age to make the conversion? Perhaps only for the most disciplined of kids…but most will eat pizza and oreos with their friends no?

    I have a 10 year old in my neighborhood that is a competitive motor cross rider. His dad is very against “weight training” for kids. BUT…has his son do a lot of “dragging” work. It seems to work, the kids has some powerful legs. He is lean and strong.


    • “My worry about these types of questions is that the expectation is to get an answer that states ‘do this and you will get that’ “…
      Agreed. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your pov), these things can never be sorted-out in simple flowchart, input/output terms.
      “Sugar burner vs. fat burner…is it possible at that age to make the conversion? Perhaps only for the most disciplined of kids…but most will eat pizza and oreos with their friends no?”
      Depends on the kid, I think. I was highly driven at 14, as were a number of my peers. Now, this may have had more to do with being in a highly competitive atmosphere, and the inflated cultural importance placed on sport — in this case, football — than on any “normal” tangent of childhood development. Lots of variables here.

      “…has his son do a lot of “dragging” work…”
      Two thumbs up for dad. Whether by design or blind luck, he settled upon a fantastic developmental movement. Lets just hope he prescribes the variants of this movement wisely.

  2. “Sugar Burner vs. Fat Burner…”

    Train low, compete high (glycogen) just like some triathletes are moving toward with great success. Glucose as event day rocket fuel for someone enzymatically adapted to fat? Yes, please.

    • I’d rather see it come in the form of an increased intake of sweet potatoes, etc. But yeah, I agree with the train low, compete (relatively speaking) high concept.

      • Yes indeed. One step up with sweet potato fries for the 1-2 punch of fat and carbs. It isn’t that different from how their peers eat before a match anyway, thus keeping that whole “he’s a weirdo” bit down.

  3. Thanks Keith – like the other posters here the take away for me is the sugar burner to fat burner shift, something I have not considered before now.

    @Julian – To me it looks like you may be trying to “over-engineer” your sons development. On a relatively small frame, gaining and losing so much weigh in a short timeframe will be a big challenge for him, and may cause his to adopt some habits that may not be beneficial over the longer term as he grows into adulthood. Im a competitive Dad too and have learned the hard way that I cant push the kids as hard as I push myself.

  4. “train what is essentially required (…) and let weight gain “chase” the improvements made pushing the training envelope.” <–There it is folks.

    I had been trying to gain muscle for at least a year while using a bodybuilder-esque workout, pretty clean (80%) paleo diet, and some cardio thrown in once a week or so. And…nothing happened.

    Then I started Wendler's 5/3/1 program and boom! I went from 165 to 184 in about 6 months (10% bf all along). The thing I've noticed is when you're getting under some heavy weight and hitting a PR every time you go to the gym you get HUNGRY. So, I ate–a lot. I wasn't force feeding, merely responding to my body's need for fuel. Adding in some carbs via sweet potatoes helped, I think, as did increasing paleo compliance to closer to 95%. Oh, and this weight gain happened while doing BJJ four times a week–too much "cardio," but damn I love it.

    Great blog Keith, let me know next time you're in Athens, GA.

  5. Keith fantastic post. Content was awesome and consuming, enjoyed the length.

    I was an athlete in HS, played 3 sports. I was 2nd string on competitive Varsity lax, soccer, bball. In hindsight I wouldve preferred having the option to specialize in one.

    The father- I have two personal suggestions to offer

    1 Expose your son to a variety of sports which his mesotype/phenotype permits, and what he really enjoys most. Lacrosse, rowing, squash, to name a few.

    2 Don’t lose sight of your sons athletic longevity. It’s easy to recklessly push the envelope at that age, with a mentor especially (his father at that).
    You only get 1 spine.

    I wish you well in your endevours, you sound like someone with a fair amount of training knowledge…with someone like that in your life you no doubt can be a successful young ahleye.

  6. Thanks for the response, I really didn’t expect my question would become a post topic. I will first say that you definitely answered my questions and also made me realize a few more things that I did not consider. But I would also like to clear a few things up that maybe I did not explain properly the first time. As for the intended weight gain,it is my expectation that it would be a natural response to a growing teenage boy, with a growing appetite who is begining a structured strength program. I beleive that if he did nothing at all he could expect to grow in height and weight and naturally be in the range of 130 lbs. or so. As for the weight loss, I should explain that again I think for the most part it is also going to be natural thing. If you consider that an individual who goes from a standard american diet to a more of a low carb, paleo type diet while removing dairy can easliy expect to drop close to 10 lbs. in a months time depending on the bodyfat%. Having said that what you made me realize is that there is not neccesarily an optimal body weight for each type of athletic event. Each individual is going to have a optimal body weight “sweet spot” for any and all athletic endevors. And as far as the refueling during matches, I guess you are saying that if the individuals is using fat as fuel then they should reload on fat after a bout of exercise and likewise if they are using carbs for fuel then they need to reload on carbs.

    • “…And as far as the refueling during matches, I guess you are saying that if the individuals is using fat as fuel then they should reload on fat after a bout of exercise and likewise if they are using carbs for fuel then they need to reload on carbs…”

      For the most part, yes, this is true. However, as Skyler alluded to earlier, there is the “train low, compete (relatively) high” methodology to consider, re: carb consumption. I think it’s an individual thing that has to be toyed with to get dialed-in. Personally, I do fine on continual low carb level, even during prolonged (3+ hour) intermittent-burst, outings.

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