Physical Potential

by Mark Rippetoe | June 21, 2017

standing vertical jump test

“Genetics” is a term bandied about fairly loosely in sports. A good definition of genetic potential is whether the athlete possesses the active genotype necessary to excel in sport. In simpler terms, does the athlete have a suitable set of genes, and enough of them turned on, to be good in the sport of choice? And how does the development of the organism within the environment affect the expression of the genotype?

Genetic endowment is strongly associated with athletic performance. While humans all swim in the same genetic pool, there is a huge amount of variation in both the genes possessed and the genes actively expressed. These variations lead to differences in performance potential. And so, like it or not, here is the rule: DNA → RNA → protein → function. The reality is that genetic potential ultimately affects the performance of every individual, and as such is an important part of the individual’s physical potential.

Genotype – the genetic endowment of the organism – ultimately controls the limits of the phenotype – the physical expression of the organism in its environment – in that anything not coded will not be present. But it is crucial to understand that this does not mean that every gene present will always be expressed; it does mean that which is not present cannot be expressed. More importantly, the expression of a genetic trait depends on its presence in the genotype, but it is also quite dependent on the environmental conditions that determine whether or not it gets expressed during the development of the organism. It is quite possible to inherit all the genetic traits necessary for the ability to demonstrate a standing vertical jump (SVJ) of 38 inches, but to also contract polio as a child. In this tragic case, the genotype cannot be expressed in the phenotype. An individual may inherit the genetic endowment equivalent to that of a champion racehorse that remained locked in a stall all its life. For the ultimate phenotypic expression of an above-average genotype, the environmental conditions must permit and favor its expression.

Conversely, an individual may inherit the genetic endowment of a donkey. There are some fine donkeys, wonderful animals with lovely personalities and handsome faces, but there are no fast donkeys, no matter how they are fed, trained, threatened, or cajoled. (We will leave discussion of the breeding of racehorses vs. donkeys for another venue.) The average SVJ – the gold standard for the identification of genetics for explosive power – is about 22 inches for men ages 21-30. This means that about half the population jumps lower than this, and that some of the population jumps much lower than this. A 21-30 year-old male with a SVJ of 7 inches may be a fine golfer, but he will never be a power-dependent athlete of any outstanding ability.

But not all athletes are power athletes. Elite marathon performance is just as dependent on a particular physical potential as is elite Olympic weightlifting performance. Muscle fiber type allotment, stature, VO2max, a psychological penchant for pain tolerance and the ability to deal with repetitive motion for long periods of time, and the ability to hold bodyweight down yet eat enough to recover (certainly not an exhaustive list) are examples of characteristics of both genotype and the optimal phenotypic expression for a successful marathon competitor. Many very good powerlifters are not particularly explosive, because strength is so highly developable over time. Different types of physical potential are obviously required for different sports.

Therefore, the ultimate physical potential of an athlete is determined by genetic endowment and the ability of the athlete to optimize its expression. This occurs when all the conditions for the greatest possible efficiency of this expression can be provided. These conditions include proper coaching of strength, conditioning, and sports expertise, optimal recovery circumstances such as the perfect diet and perfect rest and recovery, and the absence of interference with these things by variations in daily routine that disrupt these optimal conditions.

Occasionally an athlete possesses an excellent genetic profile, is highly motivated to succeed, is provided with optimal coaching and recovery conditions, responds well to training, and improves beyond expectations. These are the exceptions – those rare individuals that can make an average coach look exceptional as well. But most coaches and trainers must deal with all types of athletes, genetically gifted or not, with varying degrees of control over their circumstances and therefore varying degrees of control over their own physical potential. Only coaches who work at the highest levels of sports have the luxury of working with many gifted athletes. Most coaches must learn to deal with the average athlete, since they will make up the bulk of any normal team or clientele, and must relish the rare opportunity presented by the occasional genetic freak.

While coaches cannot alter an individual’s “genetic potential,” they can program appropriately to capitalize on each trainee’s genetic endowment and environmental circumstances, to allow the optimum expression of physical potential – if that potential is correctly assessed and recognized. An athlete will progress faster and ultimately reach higher levels of performance if the nature of his potential is correctly identified and trained for. Everyone responds to training in much the same way, through the same mechanisms; only the rate of progression and the magnitude of the result will vary. This is why it is possible to define useful generalizations about training and coaching. But it also means that individualized training is necessary and that you must know your athletes – their strengths, their weaknesses, and the nature of their physical potential.

Frequently, individuals with great physical potential fail to train optimally, since success has always come easily. A lack of work ethic is sometimes the result of exceptional genetics, and cockiness occasionally allows a gifted athlete who trains inappropriately to be beaten by a less-gifted athlete who is receiving proper coaching, and who is motivated to succeed.

As is often the case, sports preparation can shed light on the human condition. Humans are built to move. We evolved under conditions that required daily intense physical activity, and even among individuals with lower physical potential, that hard-earned genotype is still ours today. The modern sedentary lifestyle leads to the inactivation of the genes related to physical performance, attributes that were once critical for survival and which are still critical for the correct, healthy expression of the genotype. The genes are still there, they just aren’t doing anything because the body is not stressed enough to cause a physiological adaptation requiring their activation. The sedentary person’s heart, lungs, muscles, bones, nerves and brain all operate far below the level at which they evolved to function, and at which they still function best.

Excerpted from Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd ed.

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