We will all be familiar with the common proverb “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. Now this is true to some degree, but I’d extend the adage to “but when talent works hard, it’s game over”. For some this is a hard truth, going “beast mode” in the gym or on the track or in the pool (insert athletic endeavour) often just isn’t enough to succeed at the highest level.
Now for bodybuilders and physique athletes, the harsh reality is that the most powerful dictator of muscle growth (or hypertrophic response to an exercise program) is not your work ethic, it’s your genetic blueprint. Let’s discuss a study completed by Hubal and colleagues in 2005. The researchers recruited 585 participants to complete a 12-week intensive hypertrophy focused training program of the upper arm. The training protocol was as follows:
3 sets x biceps preacher curl
3 sets x biceps concentration curl
3 sets x standing biceps curl
3 sets x overhead triceps extension
3 sets x triceps kickbacks
Weeks 1-4: 12 reps per set with 12RM weight
Weeks 5-9: 8 reps per set with 8RM weight
Weeks 10-12: 6 reps per set with 6RM weight
The results after 12 weeks were quite staggering. Muscle growth (as measured by arm cross-sectional area) ranged from -2% to +59%….yes someone actually lost muscle (should probably take up netball). Gains in strength were even more varied, with improvements in bicep curl 1RM ranging from +0% to +250%.
Now you might try to pick holes in this study by saying, well the person who lost muscle might just have been in a caloric deficit, and the big gainers could’ve been in a big caloric surplus. Thankfully the researchers accounted for this, so any participants who lost a statistically significant amount of body weight during the 12 weeks were excluded from the analyses. Thus, we can pretty confidently say that the variation in strength and hypertrophy gains are attributable to individual responses to the exercise program itself, as analysed participants were relatively weight stable and therefore eating close to weight maintenance energy requirements.
So, coming back to our title. The above study tells us that it probably isn’t a great idea to choose a coach based on the appearance of their physique alone. They could just be a hyper-responder to a sub-par training approach. Think about the genetic variation when it comes to a person’s height, and the huge spectrum between the world’s shortest person and the world’s tallest. This variation has nothing to do with a person’s lifestyle choices or environment, it’s purely a unique combination of nucleotides expressing a special characteristic or phenotype. It’s highly plausible that the variation in one’s ability to gain muscle has a similarly sized range. This is probably why guys like Simeon, Ronnie and Kai wouldn’t make great coaches. These dudes were extremely developed from a very young age (just look at photos of Ronnie and Kai competing as naturals!), and won’t really understand how they reached the level of success that they did….they didn’t need to understand the science, and they didn’t need to be creative or solve problems in their nutrition and training approaches, because everything just worked.
We should remember that the physique isn’t necessarily correlated with the knowledge. We should pay more attention to the person with below average genetics, who improved slowly over many years, but achieved success in the field regardless.