Many people spend time in the gym to improve their overall health and fitness, but it’s undeniable that many of us also work out to achieve certain aesthetic goals. We want to look good. In fact, the two groups often overlap.
Whether it’s six-pack abs, rounded glutes or super-defined calves, it’s not uncommon to have a visual end goal in mind when you’re putting in time and work at the gym. But where do these goals come from?
It’s true some people are internally motivated, working toward a body they’ve already achieved in the past, but many gym-goers are externally motivated, comparing themselves to bodies they’ve seen on social media or around their gym or fitness studio. While it’s great to have a specific idea of what you’re working so hard for, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are three major factors in achieving aesthetic fitness goals: workouts, nutrition and genetics.
“… there are three major factors in achieving aesthetic fitness goals: workouts, nutrition and genetics.”
Most people know their body shape is influenced by their genes, but that’s not the only thing that’s predetermined about your body. “We know our baseline is determined in a large part by our genes, but what you may not know is that our progress is also determined by our genes,” notes Rob Sulaver, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founding trainer of Rumble Boxing and Bandana Training. That’s why two people can follow the exact same nutrition and workout plan and one may see results faster than the other. “The bottom line is that some people respond better to training than others,” he says.
Before you curse your genes, know that healthy habits do have an impact. “Your routine will still have a profound effect on your gene expression, and because your routine is within your control, and your genetics have been predetermined, it makes a whole lot more sense to focus on what we can control.”
Here are four common fitness goals that can be influenced by your genes.
Take a quick look through Instagram fitness influencers, and you’ll notice most of them have one major thing in common: super developed backsides. Though some people have naturally larger gluteal muscles, most people have to work for them. “Your glutes have a genetic predisposition, and your ability to gain mass in the glutes is also genetically influenced,” Sulaver notes. While some people see great results from rear-focused workouts, not everyone ends up with the same amount of muscle growth.
“The work you do in the gym can greatly influence your body shape, especially over the long-term, but there are limits to what your shape is, defined hereditarily,” explains Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, PhD, an assistant professor of molecular biology and applied genetics and associate director of the Human Performance Laboratory at University of Connecticut. Still, it’s possible for everyone to make some progress in this area. “I’ve never met a flat booty that doesn’t develop with proper training,” Sulaver says. Just don’t expect your backside to look exactly like what you see on Instagram.
Lots of people are puzzled when they lose body fat and don’t find the washboard abs of their dreams waiting underneath. That’s because “achieving six-pack abs, like achieving other aesthetic ideals, involves targeted training, general fitness and regulation of body composition and genetics that you cannot control,” Lee says. Even though having a lower body fat percentage is required for most people to have visible abdominal muscles, it’s not a guarantee.
Plus, everyone’s abs are structured a little different. “The rectus abdominis [the vertical muscle that attaches your rib cage to the anterior portion of your pelvis] is divided into 6 or 8 ‘packs’ by tendinous inscriptions,” Sulaver explains. “These are the horizontal lines that subdivide a six pack. Genetics will determine the configuration. Some of us have a six pack, some of us have an eight pack, some abs line up evenly, some don’t. There’s not a whole lot you can do about any of that except love it and embrace what your momma gave you.”
READ MORE > ARE ABS WORTH THE HYPE?
MUSCULAR CALVES OR A THIGH GAP
“Athletes with high calf insertions [meaning the tendon is long, but the muscle is short] have a ton of trouble getting their calves to grow, while athletes with low calf insertions and long muscle bellies can develop enormous calves with almost no training,” Sulaver says. And while everyone can make some gains in this area, you can’t change the way your body is structured, which is the same reason not everyone can achieve the infamous “thigh gap.” “The truth is, it’s all influenced by our genes: How much muscle we can gain, how fast we gain muscle, how strong we can get, how fast we can get strong, how explosive we can be, and whether we respond well to various methods of training,” Sulaver says. That’s why engaging in a little trial and error to see what works best for you is so important.
LOW BODY FAT PERCENTAGE
Most of us can achieve a lower body fat percentage than we currently have, but how quickly it decreases and where the remaining fat is distributed are influenced by DNA. That’s why some people can achieve a lean, muscular physique with a little bit of effort, and for others, it takes meticulous planning. “Groups of genes together influence things like muscle fiber type composition within skeletal muscle, how easily a person can build muscle mass, the predisposition to a certain amount of subcutaneous fat, total body fat, distribution of fat tissue and ease with which fat tissue changes in response to changes in diet and physical activity,” Lee says.
Basically, just as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy diet and exercise routine, each person’s “fittest” body looks different — so we might as well embrace it. “The interaction between environmental factors like exercise training and the variations in genes that control body morphology that we inherit makes us each unique individuals physically,” Lee says. “There are certainly limits to how much exercise training and diet can change the combination of what we have inherited.”
THE GOOD NEWS
So what’s the moral of the story here? Well, it’s certainly not to discourage anyone from pursuing their aesthetic goals. “Genes will not, in many cases, stop us from achieving what we aim to achieve, because everything about us is influenced not only by genetics, but also by environment and our behaviors,” Lee says.
Instead, experts want people to acknowledge what they are: truly unique. Plus, it’s important not to lose sight of the most important part of fitness: “The emphasis should always be function and health over aesthetic,” according to Lee. “The goal is not only to look good for a short period of a few years, but to build a body that will serve you well and support a long life of healthy function.”
So don’t get down because your body doesn’t look like someone else’s or you’re not seeing results as fast as you’d like it. “Stressing out about genetics is a fool’s errand,” Sulaver says. “If you want to maximize your natural potential, here’s the big takeaway: We all have an enormous potential for growth. Focus on what you can control and learn to accept the rest with grace.”