A Genetic Ceiling? Maybe…Maybe Not

“There is a kinship, a kind of freemasonry, between all persons of intelligence, however antagonistic their moral outlook.”

Norman Douglas

The Manipulation of training routines so as to more properly engage one’s genetic profile has much in common with the science and technique behind fat loss, in that one can quickly lose any sense of practical bearing, sliding headlong into the rabbit hole of minutia.  As an example, just look at the comments that this post generated.  After all that bantering over “is a calorie a calorie”, we’re still right back to making real-life decisions about what and what not to eat.  Paleo works, and the mechanisms behind why it works are known (even if some of the minutia are still hotly debated); but really, though — does the minutia matter one whit when you’re out at the restaurant with friends, and faced with a decision between steak and pasta?  Real life is where we operate, and the succession of real life decisions are where we ultimately either succeed or fail at out goals.

Now, as I’ve said before, I can geek-out on the minutia and specifics of a subject with the best of them — however, practically speaking, if real, tangible health and fitness is what we’re seeking, we’ve got to get out of bed in the morning and hit the ground running with a foundationally solid, and doable, plan of attack.   At 5 AM on a workout morning, I have to have converted whatever applicable science I so choose into actual weight on the bar; sets, reps, total time under load — this is where real progress is made; this is where theory is converted to practice.

So I’ve been thinking a bit lately about individual genetic profiles, determinism, and sporting prowess; the specific genetic hand we’re dealt, and how best to play that hand within the limitations of the real world.  First off, how about a little visual representation of what a mutation to a single gene (actually, the non-presence of the GDF-8 gene) can cause in an otherwise similar breed of dog.  GDF-8, by the way, is responsible for signaling the production of myostatin, which, in turn, is responsible for limiting the amount of muscle production in an animal.  Myostatin works the same way in humans as it does in these whippets.  GDF-8, while being yet another stroke of evolutionary genius (muscle mass past a certain point is an unnecessary metabolic drag, i.e., survival limiting), is an area of obvious interest within the physical culture community.

Normal whippet muscling

Normal whippet muscling, 2 copies of the GDF-8 gene

A single copy of the GDF-8 gene

A single copy of the GDF-8 gene

No GDF-8 gene, and hence, no myostatin to curtail muscling

No GDF-8 gene, and hence, no myostatin to curtail muscling

No PhotoShop here, folks; just a dramatic demonstration of the effects genes can have upon muscling and athletic prowess.  And this is a representation of what affects a single gene mutation can signal.  What I find interesting is that if Wendy were a human, we’d just assume that she was much more dedicated in following her (fill in the blank) workout regimen; being that she’s a dog, though, we’re ok with the fact that she’s come by her appearance the old fashioned way — i.e., via inheritance.  By the way, here’s an interesting Animal Planet video clip of Wendy, the defacto spokes-pooch of bully whippets.  A normal whippet in every way, except in skeletal musculature.  I find it very sad that appearantly these animals are normally euthanized at birth (I’m assuming because they are not charactoristic of the AKC whippet?).

So that’s a pretty dramatic visual.  My intent here, though, is not is not to kick up a dust cloud of fatalism, but rather to bring a sense of realism to the endeavor of physical culture.  We are, all of us, in theory, limited by our genetic make-up; the question remains, however, how many of us actually realize that genetic ceiling? Given the optimum training protocol for our individual genetic make-up, how far could even a mediocre genetic hand advance?

Here’s an article that appeared in the September 2000 issue of  Scientific  American which discusses the muscle fiber differences in sprinters vs that of endurance athletes.  This article was also cited in Body by Science (page 141), and for good reason.  Even though this article is going on 9 years old, it is still a relevant piece of work.  There’s plenty of food for thought here, especially as related to the plasicity of the genetic make-up.  For an analogy, think of your genetic make-up as a set of gaurd rails along a winding highway; lots of manuevering room in between.  What the genetic make-up is not is a set of railroad tracks.

And by the way, see if the last portion of this article, “Brave New World”, doesn’t make you immediately call to mind Usain Bolt’s utter dominance in every sprint event below 400 meters as of late.  I would love to know what Usain’s muscle fiber make-up looks like, and what his genetic profile looked like before he started serious training.  One has to wonder if he might have a mutation which allows for the prevalence of type IIb fast-twitch fibers.  That would be very, very interesting indeed.  Which leads to the question of the inevitability of future gene “doping”, which is covered in the article as well.  This is the new frontier of sports enhancement, and the results of successfully manipulating an already accomplished athlete’s gene pool will obliterate any “doping” response results seen thus far in the sporting world.

And had the wall not come down with the death of communism — had the eastern block sporting machines remained viable — this, in my opinion, would already be old, passe science.

In health,

Keith

A Genetically Determined, Individualized Training Regimen?

It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone.”

John Maynard Keynes

As a long time aficionado and admirer of the old Eastern Block training philosophy/regimens, and the single-minded purpose these nations threw behind their sporting programs, I find the prospect of DNA testing for the purpose of pin-pointing individualized training programs to be exquisitely interesting.  A few caveats, though, before we proceed: (1) I am not opining as a blind romantic here, as I am fully aware of the societal ills propagated against these “iron curtain” populations in general, and, specifically against the athletes representing the Eastern Block countries, and (2) with the prior having been said, I take the liberty of being able to sift-out the “good and the noble” of these programs, and concentrate on those aspects only.  That said, when a particularly well-suited genotype happens to be paired with the correct, dose/response limited stimulus, the result is an amazing phenotype expression.  The problem is, of course, that the trial-and-error approach is mostly fraught with error.  Some get lucky and stumble into their niche early; most, however, give up on the ride long before that personal sweet-spot is ever found.  Wouldn’t it have been a blessing to know in your youth whether you were particularly well-suited for either endurance or explosive activities?  Would it not have been a double-blessing, then, to have access to a coach who knew what to do with that knowledge?

Working with, and not in opposition to...

Working with, and not in opposition to...

If you happen to have a copy of Body by Science handy, check out chapter 8; as I’ve said before, this chapter alone is worth the book’s cover price.  Let me just say that, aside from the great information laid out in this chapter, what you find here is something rather unique in the world of physical culture, and something that both Dr. McGuff and John Little should be commended for — they’re telling you, straight up, the hard, naked truth that, no matter how hard one trains a particular modality, if you’re not blessed with the genetic make-up that leans toward that modality, you will hit an early — and particularly low — ceiling.   This does not mean that you will show no outward improvement, or that your health and well-being won’t be positively affected — it most certainly will — but as a physical specimen, you’ll always be that square peg banging around the proverbial round hole.  And that’s a bummer, I know; but it is the truth, though — contrary to what the supplement companies and “workout gurus” will tell you (just before they ask for your credit card number).  Does this mean that if you’re a genetically inclined endurance guy that you can’t show marked improvement in the weightroom?  Hell no, you can produce good gains and significantly alter your physique (and health) for the better.  Is competitive powerlifting, sprinting, or football in your future?  Afraid not.  On the flip side, check this out: I absolutely love mountain and fixed-speed biking.  Now, would I ever be competitive in races at these endeavors?  Are you kidding me? If properly trained (and with proper technical skills, i.e. 10k hours of practice) I might do well at track (velodrome) sprint events, but that’s about it.  The key, of course, is to find your niche and be happy with it.

...my inherant genetic inclinations

...my inherent genetic inclinations. And rockin' the Vibrams while doing so.

So back to chapter 8 of Body by Science.  What Dr. McGuff has laid out here is what are the currently known genetic factors holding sway over potential athletic prowess in certain modalities.  I say “current” because I am quite sure that many, many others will eventually be discovered. If you don’t have a copy of Body by Science, the genes (or, to cast the net a little wider, “determining factors”) we’re talking about here are: (1) Ciliary Neurotrophic Factor (CNTF), (2) Interleukin-15, (3) Alpha-Actinin-3, (4) Myosin Light Chain Kinase, and (5) Angiotensin Converting Enzyme. These genes, coupled with the more broad-stroke determining factors (determined by, guess what — more genes) such as one’s somatotype, muscle length, insertion and overall formation, size and shape, skeletal formation, fat distribution, muscle fiber density, and the prevalence (or not) of myostatin, make up the deck from which you’ll be dealt your athletic prowess hand.

So, armed with chapter 8 of Body by Science and a slew of genetic testing results, you ought to be able to provide your newborn with just the right environment and, a little later, the perfect training protocol; kick back for 18 years until the big contract is signed and the Benjamins come rolling in as if off of a 24-7 printing press, right?

Well, not exactly.  But there are a couple of companies out there who will be more than willing to help you part with your money if you’re so inclined.

Warrior Roots is one such outfit.  Atlas Sports Genetics is another.  To be fair, though, these companies are on the cutting edge of an industry that will, in time, most assuredly come into maturity and provide real, substantial benefit for athletes and coaches alike.  As it stands now, though, these companies can tell you no more, in my opinion (and probably no faster), about you or your offspring’s potential athleticism and power/endurance leanings, than a 1960’s era East German Olympic coach.  But the thing, really, is this: Just knowing that these factors are responsible for your “athletic hand” is enough.  Careful record keeping and a keen eye are more than enough to help direct you toward the proper training protocol(s) for your genetics.   I’ll explain what I mean in a follow-up post.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting article from Scientific American on the subject of genes and potential sporting talent.

In health,

Keith

A Fantastic Pair of T-Nation Articles

“There are only two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as if everything is a miracle. I believe in the latter.”

~ Albert Einstein

Chad Waterbury has put up two fantastic training articles this week over at the site I love to hate, the infamous,  T-Nation.   For the life of me, I don’t know why the T-Nation boys don’t dial-down the knuckle-draggin’, goober antics a bit (check that — I do know why — but damn, does everything have to be about makin’ a buck?).  As I’ve said before, as is the case with many main stream physical culture outlets, you really have to endure a lot of knee-deep slop-wading to finally reach the real gems.  T-Nation, though, does provide a lucrative (I would imagine) platform for a stable of very astute strength and conditioning minds, so maybe I ought to cut them some slack.  First and foremost on that long list of astute strength and conditioning minds is Chad Waterbury.

I’ve talked about one of Chad’s previous T-Nation articles (a real jewel) in this post, and he’s come through with clarity and insight once again, here and here.  And although I haven’t mentioned these particular methodologies by name, if you go back over my weight training workout posts, you’ll see that I employ these two principles routinely.  Chad does an excellent job of detailing the “whys” behind these two methodologies/principles.  And although I’ve never really “named” them anything as such, I keep them straight in my mind thusly:

  1. Heavy and fast, for a 10-second blast.  Manage fatigue, and
  2. 25 for a bigger engine

Read over Chad’s articles, and these two pithy comments will come to make much more sense.

The first article (Heavier Weight, Less Time), elegantly describes the reasoning behind why I utilize heavy weights, and move them at a fast (or, as I like to say, deliberate, or “snappy”) speed, for a relatively low number of repetitions (or, if you prefer — and Chad does, here — a short period of time, i.e., 10 seconds or less).  As I’ve stated before, this method is about overall fatigue management as well, and using the proper protocols to reach and tap into those all-important, fast-twitch muscle fibers.  Most of my weight lifting sets last from 1 to 3 repetitions, which corresponds to less than 10 seconds per set.  And if you’ll notice, the vast majority of my sprinting is done for a time period (or “set”) of approximately 10 seconds, as well.  This method is also a close correlate of the drop-off method of managing fatigue that I talked about here.  In fact, these two principles are, by necessity, married at the hip.

The principles underscored in Chad’s second article (Counting Your Reps for More Muscle) are those I utilize when I want to phase into a hypertrophy cycle, i.e., build a bigger engine.  Now, I’m lucky (I suppose) in the fact that I gain/maintain muscle mass with a fair amount of ease, so I prefer to spend the majority of my workout time chasing what I perceive to be my broad weakness, short-duration power.   As an aside, the Paleo lifestyle has only intensified my muscle gain/maintenance ability, quite a lovely side-affect.  Now  personally, I spend approximately 85% of my time in the speed-strength and strength-speed realms (both flavors of the “power” modality), and in the pure strength realm in support of chasing those power gains.  My “power-oriented” to “strength-oriented” workout ratio clocks in at about a 3-to-1 ratio.  Every now and again, though, you’ll notice a distinct phase in my workouts to some combination of a 25-rep (20-25 repetitions per exercise is what I prefer) scheme.  The next time this comes about, I’ll make sure to flag it as such.  And let me say as well, that while the division between strength and power work is subtle — all hues and shades — and sometimes hard to see in a workout, the difference between a strength/power workout and a hypertrophy oriented workout is stark.  We’re talkin’ proverbial apples and oranges, here.

Now, everyone has to find their own way, and their own ratio.  85/15 is what I’ve found — over much trial and error, tweaking and refining — works for me and for my goals; but will it suffice for you?  Only time in the gym, intense effort and keen observation will answer that question.  But hey, that’s all part of the joy of discovery, and the thrill of the ride.  Now go out and define your ratio.

In Health,

Keith

Athleticism vs Skill, and the Correlation Between Athleticism and Health/Fitness

TTP reader Patrik brought up a very good point in a comment to my vertical jump post of a few days back.  For those who may not have seen the comment, I’ll include it below, along with my reply to Patrik’s comments (in red).  But first, you might be wondering why the differentiation between skill and athleticism is is at all important for your everyday TTP’er.  Isn’t this a concern for only the competitive athlete, coach and/or recruiter?  Well, the short answer is no; however, a little more explanation is required (which was pointed out to me by Patrik) to justify this answer.  Here was Patrik’s comment, separated by my replies:

Larry Bird and John Stockton would have ranked very low on your shoot-from-the-hip vertical jump test of athletic ability. As would have Joe Montana. Stories abound how un-athletic Montana looked, and how rookies often disrespected and questioned his athletic prowess, until they stepped on the field with him and watched him do his thing.

Which is where “horse sense” and recruiting for position comes into play. I think everyone would agree that a more athletic “John Sockton” would have been a better overall basketball player. Let’s not confuse athleticism with the skills particular to the game. Two different entities.

I suspect many white athletes, such as QBs in the NFL, would not do very well, (although I think Steve Young probably would), yet it is clear that QB is one of the most athletic positions in the game.

Gotta respectfully disagree with you here. I do think that QB is the most skilled position on the field, however, it’s been my experience that cornerbacks are by the large the best all around athletes on the field — and usually (there are always exceptions) have the best verts.

A vertical jump tests simply measures how well you can jump. That’s it. It may be correlated with athletic ability, but does not cause it. That is to say, I train my Mother every day for 3 months on jumping and she increases her vertical leap by 6 inches, yet she is still as unathletic/athletic as before.

…and a 40 yd. dash simply measures start & acceleration ability, and a caber toss simply measures the explosive ability of the posterior chain, and the pro agility simply measures the ability to re-direction at speed…and we can certainly train, specifically for each of these events and improve upon technical ability (thus the proliferation of combine “prep” camps), but one thing is certain — the best raw athletes are superior performers in all of these events — including the vert. Particular athletic (or position-specific) skill, desire, game intelligence et. al. is something else entirely.

It is very difficult to measure athletic ability. We fool ourselves by thinking we can do so facilely.

Again I respectfully disagree. Raw athletic ability is quite easily measured — as is athletic progress within an individual. Particular skills, heart, desire, intelligence, character, social intelligence, leadership — these are the “unknowns” and the “not easily identified”.

Interestingly (and again, that serendipity thing has come into play), I ran across this short video clip, courtesy of Elite Track of Dan Pfaff discussing the differences between strength, power, and skill, and the fact that strength and power are not necessarily correlated with particular event skills.  I always advise young athletes (my own son, a high school baseball player, in particular), never to think that the weight room (in general) and/or strength and conditioning (in particular) can take the place of, or compensate fora lack of, skills training.  Done properly, though, an intelligent strength and conditioning program can certainly enhance acquired skills and, given two athletes with a similar skill level, can make the difference between time on the field and watching the action from the bench — the difference between the medal podium and the loneliest place of all — dreaded 4th.

Now, let’s make sense of all of this for the deckplate level, fitness/health enthusiast that most of us are (or aspire to be).  How does this in any way apply to us?

My premise — the TTP premise — has always been this: A high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fiber (in relation to slow-twitch fiber) within an individual is desirous due to the fact that it is precisely this fiber type that represents the metabolic “big engine” that will induce, under the correct dietary influence, a rapid and (more importantly), sustained fat loss.  It is also my premise that an individual is at his or her healthiest and fittest when they have achieved the highest peak, anaerobic power output they are capable of.  Taking this idea of the correlation between Peak Anaerobic Power (PAPw) and overall health a step further — and noting that it is precisely fast-twitch muscle fiber concentration, in conjunction with an efficient central nervous system (CNS) that is responsible for this power output — it should (and in my experience, does) follow that as an individual’s PAPw trends upward, that individual has both increased their bodily fast-to-slow muscle fiber concentration ratio and reduced their body fat concentration.  To what degree each of these variables has tracked is hard to say — but really, in the short term, does it matter as long as the long term goal is achieved?  What we really need, though, is a simple tool to allow us to more adequately quantify our progress.  Of course, the “mirror test” or “pinch test”  is probably most applicable in the early stages of one’s health/fitness quest, but what to do after that has played out?  This is where the vertical jump test comes into play, with the reasoning behind that being as follows:  a better vert. = an increased PAPw = either an increase in fast-twitch fiber concentration or a decrease in BF %, or both = a healthier, more fit person as compared to that same person at the time of previous testing.

I suppose if there is a leap of faith (pardon the pun) to be made here, it is that a more anaerobically powerful individual is necessarily a fitter/healthier individual.  And though I cannot “prove” this assertion scientifically, I can say that the results of all of my study, and all of my to-date empirical knowledge supports this hypothesis.  This powerful state, in my opinion, is the most natural, (and healthiest expression, i.e., phenotype) of the human genome.

Patrik, though, does make a salient point in his comment.  He rightly points out that the skills aspect of my preferred power testing method (the vertical jump) might be preferentially influenced while the athleticism component (correlated to fast-twitch fiber concentration and CNS efficiency and, therefore, the “health/fitness factor”) might very well remain stagnant — or even decrease — and, therefore skew the outcome (or, more importantly, our interpretation of the results).  He is absolutely correct, of course.  However, this is another reason (actually, the over-riding reason) that the vertical jump (or, CMJ) is the preferred, non-invasive (i.e., as compared to the muscle biopsy) method of testing for relative fast-twitch fiber concentration within an individual.  In a nutshell, the test is technically, rather easily mastered.  Hell, there’s just not that much to it, and any betterment in the vertical jump that can be attributed solely to skill improvement is scant compared to improvements attributed to actual improvements in raw athletic ability.

As an interesting aside to the issue of muscle biopsy testing, I’d like to mention the recently-made-available ACTN3 Sports Performance Test ™. Basically, this test is a measurement of the natural propensity of an individual to preferentially maintain and/or acquire fast-twitch muscle fiber.  Why is this important?  Well, this takes us back to the correlation between fast-twitch muscle fiber prominence in an individual and that individual’s ability to generate a high PAPw, and the correspondence between a high PAPw output and success in power dominated sporting events.  The old East German sporting machine would have certainly appreciated such a test.  It would be interesting to see a study comparing the vertical jumps of people who tested high on the ACTN3 scale vs those who tested low on the scale.  I’m not normally a betting man, but I’d be glad to place money on the outcome of such a study.

In Health,

Keith