Athletic Performance Genes

With enough training, a perfect diet, mental fortitude, and the right equipment… and any of us could be an elite athlete, right? While I would like to say, “of course, you can do anything!”, it turns out that genetics plays a role in athleticism as well.

Do genes affect athletic performance?

After reading through a bunch of studies on the genetics of elite athletic performance, I’ve come away with an overall sense that for some people, athleticism will just come easier.  For others, it will take a little more work. To be honest, your genes are probably not the limiting factor for your athletic performance unless you are at the very top of your sport.  Even at the top levels, there are always exceptions. Moreover, reading through some of the research leaves me a bit disconcerted.  Some of the research reads as almost a ‘how-to’ guide for selecting people for a sport based on their genetic profile. First, a couple of terms to define: Power sports are generally ones that require short bursts of power. Examples include sprinting, weight lifting, short track biking, and gymnastics. Generally, these sports require more anaerobic muscle power.[ref] Endurance sports include long-distance running, distance cycling, long-distance swimming, and cross-country skiing. While the genetic variants listed below may make a difference between winning or not at the Olympic level, don’t let the lack of a ‘good’ genetic variant dissuade you from a sport you love.

Why do some people build muscle faster?

Muscle composition is partly genetic. We all know people who put on muscle easily, and other people who are long and lean, well suited for running.  This doesn’t mean that people who are long and lean can’t put on some muscle mass with weight lifting, but it does mean that they may not put on as much muscle mass as quickly as others.

How much does genetics play a role in muscle building?

The composition of muscle fiber (slow-twitch vs fast-twitch) has been shown to be about 45% due to genetics and about 40% due to the environment (exercise, nutrition, etc.).[ref] Studies show that the amount of slow-twitch (Type I) muscle ranges from 5 – 90% in thigh muscles. Slow-twitch muscle is best suited for long endurance and aerobic exercise – for example, long-distance runners.  Type IIX muscle fibers (fast-twitch, glycolytic) are more suited to power sports and strength training.[ref]

Genetic variants that impact muscle composition:

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