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Lean muscle gain and genetics: What the newest science has to say about it

We all know that person. They seem to just look at a weight and their biceps automatically get bigger. And they look at you in utter confusion when you describe your problems making gains. They just don’t understand it.

Lucky for you, you’re not crazy. This phenomenon isn’t just in your head. There’s some solid science backing it up.

A group of researchers in the department of Exercise Science at the University of Massachusetts assessed 587 men and women before and after 12 weeks of progressive, dynamic resistance training. They were looking for changes in muscle size and strength. Their results were quite interesting in that they were all over the place. And this was for both men and women. Some experienced huge gains in both strength and size while others didn’t respond to the training at all.


It could be that some people just don’t respond to the particular type of training in the protocol used for the study.

But it could also be genetics. I’m going to explore the possibility of the latter.


With this article I’d like to get into how genes work and cover some new research on how genetics influence muscle growth.

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How genes work

Every person, and every cell within that person, has the same set of genes to work with.

Where things differ – between cells and between people – is in gene expression. Gene expression controls what proteins are created.

Proteins are the workers of the cell. Every function a cell performs – movement, engulfment, support, etc.- is carried out by the proteins present in that cell. Genes carry the information needed to create proteins. They’re like the blueprints. That means that each cell within the body has its own specific pattern of gene expression that ultimately dictates its function.

Which genes are expressed, and which aren’t is partly controlled at two levels: transcription and translation.

Transcription is the copying of the information a gene contains into a format that can be eventually turned into a protein. Different mechanisms within a cell can control what genes are transcribed and which are not.

Translation takes the product of transcription and turns it into protein. There are also different mechanisms within the cell in place to control what gets translated and what doesn’t.

All this boils down to a better understanding of what someone is saying when they talk about a person’s genetics.

When we talk about a person having the “genetics” to do something, or not do something, we’re really talking about differences in people’s ability to express certain genes.

Patterns in gene expression can be regulated in other ways beyond transcription and translation too, and in ways that can be passed down from your parents, but that’s a discussion that’s a little too sciencey for the scope of this article.

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What matters for lean muscle gains

When we talk about lean muscle gains, we’re largely talking about hypertrophy. That is, the increase of muscle size as a whole and the increase in size of its individual components.

Hypertrophy is stimulated in response to strength training and anaerobic training. Muscles respond by changing their cell biology to cope with the new demands being placed on them. How a muscle cell alters transcription and translation to initiate hypertrophy aren’t really well understood.

With new advents in technology, it is getting clearer and clearer… albeit slowly.

A recent study, led by Marcelo G. Pereira at the Venetian Institute of Molecular Medicine in Italy, looked at the genes changes associated with functional muscle growth.

The researchers weren’t able to find a significant number of genes that were regulated in a similar manner in all the modes of muscle growth they looked at. But, they did find increases in mTOR signaling and ribosomal biogenesis.

mTOR is a master regulator of growth. It senses nutritional and environmental cues, integrates them together, and decides whether or not growth should be permitted.

Ribosomes are the little molecular machines responsible for translation (they make proteins from the products of transcription). Biogenesis means more ribosomes are being produced so more translation can happen.

What the results of Pereira’s work tell us is that muscle growth, or lack thereof, may be due to differences in a person’s ability to activate mTOR or the translational machinery required to make new proteins. All of which is necessary to cause muscle growth.

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What this means for you

As of right now, it means some people are lucky in that they seem to have been born with this above average ability to activate mTOR and initiate translation, while other have been giving the shaft.

Nothing we have at the moment can stimulate what we need in a organ or cell-specific way.

What can you do

If you’re one of the people whose genes seem to be working against you, don’t get too disheartened. It’s no reason to give up hope and resign yourself to your seemingly predetermined fate.

There are things you can do to overcome your genetic curses.

Figure out what works for you. Experiment with yourself. Scientists have a way of keeping things constant so they can better interpret their data. That means they don’t typically look into different training stimuli or protocols when assessing its effect on hypertrophy –  or the cellular signaling involved with hypertrophy.

So, try different types of training, different volumes, different intensities, and different frequencies. It’ll take some time, but eventually you’ll figure out what works best for you.


Genetics can put you at an advantage or disadvantage. But that doesn’t mean you should give up if you’re experiencing some adversity in getting the results you’re after.

Train smart and experimentally, make sure your nutrition is where it needs to be, and some different supplements will help to.

Get all these things in line and you will get to where you want to be eventually. It just may take a little more time for you if you have some genetic disadvantages compared to your friend who seems to respond quickly to any type of training.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great week. Contact me directly if you’d like to learn more, follow the blog, and follow Healthy Wheys on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.



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