August 7, 2013 12:06 PM

Overcoming Genetics

I have been thinking and researching this topic for some time now. Can you overcome your general genetic body type? I have been told by many people since high school that I could never get a muscular physique. During those years, I was painfully thin. After college, the opposite was true. I had gained over one hundred pounds and was generally built like a sack of potatoes. I was told again that I could not be muscular because I did not have the right genetics.

I have to say that every time I hear that (usually from very fit and muscular guys), I get a bit annoyed. There must be a solution that allows just about anyone to lose fat and gain muscle despite their current physical condition. In fact, the levels of diet and exercise (and metabolism) directly produced my thin appearance AND my chunky years. If I spent many years thin and many years fat, which (if either) was representative of my true genetic disposition?

In my research, I have learned that there are three basic body types:

  • Ectomorph: A thin, frail looking body that has difficulty adding muscle or fat
  • Endomorph: A hefty body that gains fat and muscle easily, but struggles to lose fat
  • Mesomorph: The "ideal" body building type who gains muscle and finds it difficult to add fat

I spent years 0 through 25 as an ectomorph and 26 to 46 as an endomorph. Which is really me? Is either one right? Maybe my levels of diet and exercise where determining my appearance more than genetics. During both of these long periods, exercise was notably absent from my lifestyle (as compared to the levels of work I have put in for the last 13 months).

If you really are an ectomorph or an endomorph, can you build your physique to have a more mesomorph-like appearance? Many articles I have found suggest the answer is "yes." Here is a summary of the strategies for each:

ECTOMORPH : Thin, frail and struggling to add any weight at all

General: Training will improve "engine" or the stamina required for intense physical activity

Training: Ectomorphs will gain muscle slowly if they stick to training and dieting. It's not like muscles are staying the same, ectomorphs just need more time to build. Every intense workout that causes the muscle breakdown will be followed by adaptation. This recovery builds the muscle back stronger and larger than before.

Rather than blasting away at one muscle group, ectomorphs should be doing a low number of sets but targeting a wider range of muscles during each workout. Also, isolating a single muscle is less desirable than compound movements that work many muscles at once (think squats, presses and dead lifts).

Diet: Eating a good balance of protein, carbs, and fats is, of course, necessary for mainining muscle growth. Since ectomorphs don't gain much fat, the emphasis is on consuming slow absorbing carbs and proteins. Also, eating many meals a day (about every 2 waking hours)  will ensure that muscles have fuel to rebuild. Ectomorphs should be looking to have a calorie surplus of 500 to 1000 calories each day.

ENDOMORPH: Gains fat quickly, struggles to gain muscle mass

General: Endomorphs are characterized by flabby and rounded muscles and have a mushy look to them. Training and diet should emphasize losing fat. Diligent dieting is key - even after a target weight has been achieved. It is too easy to bounce back up the scale because you say "I worked out today, so I can eat more X today."

Training: The traditional approach to losing fat is cardio, cardio, and more cardio. Weight training is usually added after the bulk has been shed. I say this is crap! Cardio does not have to be treadmill drudgery, elliptical boredom, or long slow jogs on the street. My transformation through CrossFit used the full arsenal of weights, gymnastics/body weight exercises, sprints, wall balls, kettlebells, rowing. This philosophy is shown in the t-shirt: "What do you do for exercise? I lift weights.  What do you do for cardio? I lift weights faster."  This training has the fat burning benefits of cardio and the muscle building benefit of weight training.

Diet: Once the endomorph is hitting the gym, diet becomes 95% of the solution. Working out without dieting will not work. Some basics are:
  • Drink lots of water
  • Eat fewer carbs - force your body to look to your own fat stores for energy rather than your daily intake of carbs
  • For faster fat loss, get most carbs from vegetables and a little fruit - no sugar or grains (bread and pasta)
  • Eat lots of protein - critical for building muscle as you tear down and recover from workouts
Obviously, I have to mention that every person is different and working with a coach that knows your ability, goals and limitations is the best way to get started.

Just make sure you shake it off when someone says you can only do so much because you drew the short genetic straw. Screw that! Work hard, eat right, and overcome!