It is clear that specific traits are passed down to us by our parents (and their parents and so on). Sadly, our ability to build skeletal muscle beyond specific limitations is no exception.
But does this mean you can’t push the envelope of your “natural potential”? Not necessarily. All it suggests is that we all have inherent upper limits beyond which our body’s struggle to develop more muscle.
If you’re familiar with the genetic set-point theory, the concept of having a natural muscle-building potential is quite similar.
Just like some people are naturally able to stay lean pretty much regardless of what they eat, some people are able to hold more muscle mass without much effort. That’s the name of the game, and genetics is very much like the lottery.
The good news is that you can still control what you do with the cards that you’ve been dealt.
Furthermore, just because you inherit certain genetic traits does not suggest that your nutrition efforts and thorough training will not have a favorable result on your body – it simply indicates that some individuals will acquire a slightly larger amount of muscle quicker than others (assuming they are doing everything properly).
As the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” No matter how great your muscle-building genetics are, you won’t build an appreciable physique without consistent effort.
Is Your Muscle Building Limit Regulated by Your Genes?
Your propensity to build muscle via physical exercise (especially resistance training) can be forecast – to a particular degree – by analyzing your somatotype/natural body shape. Generally, there are three core physiques/somatotypes:
- Endomorphs: these people have the tendency to be “plump” with a round upper body, thick neck, and shorter limbs
- Mesomorphs: these people have the tendency to be muscular with broad shoulders, wide chests, longer limbs, and minimal body fat
- Ectomorphs: these people have the tendency to be slim and are typically lankier. They also naturally carry small amounts of body fat (and muscle)
The perfect bodybuilding somatotype tends more to the mesomorph with broad shoulders, narrow hips with limbs of medium length. Two additional genetics characteristics play a role in determining your muscle building capacity: muscle fiber density and neuromuscular performance.
Muscle Fiber Density and Neuromuscular Performance
Muscle fiber density predetermines the size capacity of a muscle; neuromuscular performance describes the relationship between the central nervous system and your muscles.
This matters since, at the maximum effort, genetically-gifted people have the capability to recruit upwards of 50% of the fibers in a provided muscle. (Contrast to a typical individual’s 30%.)
This permits a higher scope for promoting muscle growth in the short-term. However, this does not inherently mean that genetically-gifted people will be able to build more muscle in the long-term. (Since plotting muscle growth vs. training experience results in a logarithmic curve.) Simply put, the longer you train, the harder it becomes to build muscle (and eventually you plateau).
Thus, the fact that there is no simple method to determine muscle fiber density or neuromuscular efficacy is a bit of a blessing in disguise.
Why? Because of the fact that the reward stays the same for everyone when you train intensely and push yourself: You see progress. Not sure why you’re lacking progress in the gym? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Powerbuilding.
Ultimately, just a small minority of individuals have the hereditary tools to end up building champion physiques. That’s life, though; genetics are pretty much like the biological lottery.
Nevertheless, the majority of the population can still achieve exceptional muscle growth through consistent effort and dedication.
About the author
Elliot Reimers, CNC, M.S. Candidate