I think it is fair to say that nearly everybody has that friend who does absolutely jack all training, but is still superior in strength, power and all things gym related. It can be so easy to throw your hands up in the air and proclaim “well he/she is just a freak of nature, aren’t they?!”…but maybe there’s more to it than that.
Genetics are undoubtedly a factor in this, but do we put too much emphasis on this because it’s nice to look for a hero who can just soak up training and have incredible results? Yes, most likely. Before throwing in the towel completely and consigning yourself to being average, lets breakdown some of the other factors that could be limiting your gains.
1) Specificity: This is not the specificity that your coach, if you have one, talks about when they write your programme. This is specificity in your terminology. Strength comes in many forms, from the specific definition ‘Ability to generate force’ to more colloquial definitions. Think about a really fast, skinny, sprinter friend of yours, you definitely have one or can remember one from school. Chances are that they can’t squat over 100kg but then how are they moving so fast? Although they may not be able to express their strength in a gym setting that individual is not moving quickly without some form of strength. Although low in cross sectional muscle size they may have well developed tendon strength allowing for large amounts of force to be transferred. Another example comes from Jim Wendler:
"If your squat goes from 225x6 to 225x9, you’ve gotten stronger."
His definition of strength is not solely focused around completing a single rep of a heavy weight but multiple reps. He has developed an undulating training programme that targets this by cycling through various strength stimuli. Using this example, your first task is to clearly define what your strength goal is. Is it a 200kg back squat or 10 hand stand push ups? Comment below if you fancy letting us know.
2) Training Background: We will cover genetics later, but in my experience feats that are attributed ‘genetics’ from athletes above the age of 16-18 are more commonly associated with training background. I urge you to ask your strong friend what sports they did when they were younger. The answer is most likely gymnastics, followed by a martial art and maybe rugby. The training history of an athlete is very often confined to the history in the gym room forgetting that lifting weights is simply a quantifiable and effective way of applying resistance. Resistance can come in many shapes and sizes such as holding a handstand, suplex-ing somebody or being involved in a scrum. You will find the odd ageing rugby player whose strength levels are depleting but by large this kind of stimulus on the central nervous system is going to result in greater motor unit recruitment and less inhibited expression of force. A scrummaging pack can exude over 11,000 newton's of force.
Conversely If you have spent a life playing video games and painting water colours then how could you possibly expect to suddenly become a goliath in the weight room? Developing pure strength takes years and years consistent training, do not forget this. On the plus side though, Dr Andy Galpin’s research group in California have shown that all is not lost for previously sedentary beings. You may think that you are predisposed to being a fast powerful athlete or a long slow athlete. Genetics does play a part in this (the next paragraph) but it has been shown that your muscle fibre types are a lot more pliable than you may think. It can take only 12 weeks for a Type II fibre to morph into a Type I fibre. The reason why you still feel the same as always might involve a slightly tougher conversation with yourself.
3) Genetics: From my experience there are athletes who go against the grain and adapt to training stimuli at a frightening rate and seem to lose little of their ‘gains’ in periods of rest. There is good evidence that certain people are predisposed to adaptation, but it does become rather complicated at this point and providing a one size fits all answer here is almost impossible. A paper published in the Scandinavian journal of medicine and science in sports estimated that the strength of a muscle is around 52% heritable yet this doesn’t immediately equate to a) being a fucking monster or b) being an elite athlete. John Kiely and Craig Pickering (former GB 100m sprinter) published a paper at the end of 2017 discussing ACTN3 R577X (bear with me here), AKA the gene for speed. This particular polymorphism is expressed only in the energy sapping and explosive muscle fibre type II fibres of a lucky proportion of the world. Conversely ACTN3 577XX genotype (a slightly different one) has been linked with elite endurance athletes and shown to have little association with elite power athletes and there were no findings of it in Olympic level Australian sprinters.
You may think that with this genetic factor there would be a clear physical hierarchy in the world. This can become confusing though as we all mature at a different rate and some people will not be able to express this gene until later in life. Some will express it an early age and this has an impact as it nudges their base level of strength upwards. There are very few people who are complete non-adaptors, as was shown in a study by Bouchard, but not everyone will be an adaptor for strength. More likely is that you sit on a continuum and there will be a modality of exercise that suits your genetic makeup. Phew got through the science bit – still with me?
4) Old habits die hard: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got”. This quote has been attributed to multiple people through history (including Albert Einstein and Henry T Ford), so fuck it (F.MacHugh, 2017). You will not find many people who consistently put themselves in difficult situations daily where they show no aptitude. Historically performing badly at activities is going to make you less attractive to a mate and ultimately unable to reproduce so it is no wonder we are attracted to activities that make us look good.
I see this translate into the training environment daily and, at points, will deliberately programme an exercise that I know my athletes will struggle with and dislike. This does mix with some science however as these exercises more often than not link with muscle groups or movements that the athlete is weak at and less coordinated at. Building strong agonist and antagonist muscles will improve overall strength levels more than solely focusing on the prime movers. Your body requires this equilibrium as it is one giant tangle of systems that relies on each other to function. Left alone through for a period, standards can slip and bad habits creep in. You may still be working ‘hard’ but not necessarily intelligently.
You have to be a very mentally tough individual to be regularly checking your behaviour and making sure that you are being critical of your programme and making sure that you are directing behaviour back to your values. This is where a good coach comes in as an objective perspective adds clarity and rationale. Be sure that they fully understand the athlete that they have in front of them though and are clear on the direction you want to go. If you are without a coach perhaps write down in front of you your weekly programme and what system each session is targeting. i.e.
Monday: Push Press 3 x 8, Back squat 4 x 12, Bench Press 3 x 15 & wide grip pull 3 x 15
Predominant system trained: Hypertrophy.
Discussion: Am I trying to train maximal strength? Yes! Then why are you lifting like a body builder? Do you not have the cross sectional tissue or do you?
Digging into this a little should put the results right in front of you and then all you have to do is make the change.
In comes as no surprise that when I train, I get results. They may be small and slow but if I am consistent, smart, do not over or under train, I gradually improve. Genetics play a part for everybody and where somebody may have favourable genes in one department they may also not in other areas. You have strengths and weaknesses everywhere, but if you compile these by neglecting weaknesses they will always remain exactly that, weak.
Mayne I. (2006) Examination of the ACE and ACTN3 Genes in UTC Varsity Athletes and Sedentary Students. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Biological and Environmental Sciences
Pickering C & Kiely J (2017), ACTN3: more than just a Gene for Speed. Font. Physiol. 8: 1080
Bouchard C, Sarzynski MA, Rice TK, Kraus WE, et al., (2011). Genomic predictors of the maximal o2 uptake response to standardized exercise programmes. J Appl Physiol, 110(5): 1160-70