Gym gains may be largely down to genes

Fitness PSA: if you’re not making gains in the gym, your genes are probably to blame

Posted by for Workouts

New research suggests that when it comes to building muscle, our genes do most of the heavy lifting. We look at what kinds of training rely on genetic variations the most.  

If you’re regularly weight lifting, running or swimming and not seeing quite the level of progress that your workout buddy is experiencing, it’s probably not because you’re not working as hard as they are.

Gains rely on a host of different factors, from sleep to nutrition and progressive overloading. But one key factor that we often forget about (especially with the advent of social media fitness) is genetics.

A new study from Anglia Ruskin University has found that our genes may account for up to 72% of the difference in gains between people after a specific workout. 

The report, published in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at data from 3,012 adults aged 18-55 to see how our genes impact muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness and anaerobic power. 

Those are all key factors in determining our fitness, wellbeing and quality of life, and every participant showed improvements in each following their training, but to varying degrees.

72% of the difference between people’s gains after training to improve muscle strength was found to be genetic, while genes accounted for 44% of the differences following cardio. Anaerobic power, which is key for movement and agility, was much less influenced by genetic variations, with scientists accounting for other factors like recovery, diet and injury throughout.

“Because everyone’s genetic make-up is different, our bodies respond slightly differently to the same exercises,” explains the study’s lead author, Henry Chung. “Therefore, it should be possible to improve the effectiveness of an exercise regime by identifying someone’s genotype and then tailoring a specific training programme just for them.”

While that might be great for elite athletes for whom tiny improvements can make a huge difference and who have the resources to have intricate programmes designed for them, most of us probably aren’t able to have a genetically tailored training programme done for us. But that doesn’t mean that this study isn’t useful to us all.

Understanding body types and genetic variations

Having proof that our genes play a huge role in building strength allows anyone who’s stuck in the comparison game to focus on their own training. You might not be able to deadlift the same as your housemate and that’s fine – they may have a different genetic predisposition to you.

We already know that we can’t out-train our body type and that way we metabolise fat and build muscle is largely down to genetics. Most of us straddle two of three body types: mesomorph (predisposed to building muscle – someone like Serena Williams), ectomorph (burns fat easily and finds it hard to build muscle – Kate Moss) and endomorph (predisposed to storing fat – Kim K).

You don’t have to undergo genetic testing to start working with your genes rather than against them. Endomorphs, for example, are classic pear-shapes; no matter how much you workout, you’re never going to get rid of your bum and hips. Speed might not be your natural skill but strength sports such as weightlifting and boxing really are. While you might find that running a marathon doesn’t come as easily to you as it does to other tall, lean types, that doesn’t mean that you can’t train up for one – and smash it.

Ectomorphs, on the other hand, may struggle to build muscle and find strength training and heavy lifting difficult… but they’re born to run long.

All of this just goes to prove more than ever that fitness is a totally individual pursuit. No one is ‘better’ at fitness than anyone else – some of us are just better at committing to a regime than others. 

Ready to get strong at your own speed? Head over to the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

Share this article

Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.