You might have heard of the Human Genome Project, which finished mapping the entire human genetic code back in 2003. It revealed a mosaic of human potential, some of which is you, depending on your individual genotype. But how do you know who you are?
Just six years or so ago, testing an individual for gene markers would have cost you many thousands – now you can buy a kit for a couple of hundred, stick a cotton wool bud in your mouth, post it off and get your results back in a matter of days.
Assuming you don’t want to do that right now, can the science tell us how, as individuals, our physical training needs to be tailored to our own, bespoke needs – as decided by our genes? Craig Pickering, World Championship Bronze Medallist sprinter and Olympic bobsleigh athlete, who went onto study genetics and work for DNA Fit, says it can…
RISING So, are people really getting different results from the same workout?
CRAIG PICKERING ‘The research is incredibly clear that when you give people exactly the same training programme – and this has been tested multiple times – some people see really good improvements from exercise, some people see very small improvements, but mostly they’re somewhere in the middle. And that’s pretty much if you do weight training, aerobic training, flexibility training: any sort of stimulus you'll see a very large variation in response to that.’
RISING That begs the question: why – if I’m smashing out the same biceps workout and nutrition plan as my training buddy – are his guns growing faster?
CP ‘How we adapt to exercise is genetically determined, primarily because when you do exercise, that causes your genes to become ‘turned on’ – the correct term is expression.’
RISING Does that mean I’m not just exercising my muscles, I’m exercising my genes?
CP ‘Yeah, exactly right. Although you might have genes, which predispose you to adapting very well to power training, if you didn’t do any training ever those genes are not going create those growth factors, so you need that stimulus first. That causes them to start to express, and those genes govern the pathways that enable us to respond to exercise. How we respond to lifting heavy weights is a very different pathway to how we respond to endurance running. Depending on how efficient those pathways are in you, which is down to the variation of those genes, would determine how well you respond to that type of training.’
‘You might have genes that predispose you to adapting very well to power training’
RISING If you’re tested and your genotype is, say, 70% endurance based, is it correct that you can still build power, it’s just that the training you need to get there may be slightly different?
CP ‘Yes. If you look at textbook and you say: “Okay I want to build strength,” it would probably tell you to do somewhere between 5-12 reps. Well, which is it? That’s quite a large range. We’re saying that if you come in at this higher power percentage, you’d probably want to be towards the lower end of that, so five – it might even be a bit less. If you're a higher endurance score, you want to be towards the further end of that 12 reps, or perhaps a bit more. So, it doesn’t completely change training advice, it just makes it a bit clearer and a little bit more specific to you.’
RISING How does this relate to your own experience as a World Championship sprinter?
CP ‘I was a sprinter and I used to just train sets of three times eight, or three times ten. As I got quicker I thought I’d have to train more specific, so I switched to doing sets of one or two reps. And it just didn’t work for me. Eventually, when I started to do bobsleigh I went back to the higher rep ranges and rediscovered a bit of form. I’m 65% endurance [in the genetic testing]. Had I had that information then, it would have given me more confidence to say: “The normal training for sprinters doesn’t work for me, and part of the reason I’m not responding is because of my genetic makeup. Let me try and train this way instead.” It might have reduced two years of trying things and not seeing the results that I wanted.’
RISING Not everyone wants to go out and pay to test their genotype, so what can we learn from the DNA Fit peer-reviewed research?
CP ‘The good news is that if you do exercise you'll probably see some improvements from that, and then if you just change the exercise you do, you’ll see some improvements by making a change. In our research, those that did mismatched training saw about a 2% improvement and those that did matched training saw a 6% improvement. They’re good improvements, that you expect to see at about eight weeks, and those improvements were enhanced in people who did genetically matched training. It’s clear you want to be doing some sort of training that’s matched to your genes, if seeing the maximum improvement for exercise is important.’
RISING But how do you know when to make a change to your training?
CP ‘When most people start they’re very motivated to lose weight and build those muscles, and that’s great. Then four weeks later, when they haven’t seen the results that they want, start scrabbling around in the dark and thinking: “Oh, whatever I’m doing now doesn’t work for me.” We know that it takes 8-12 weeks to see results, but most people change their training programme before 8-12 weeks are up.’
RISING Can the speed that you adapt to training also come down to your genetic profile?
CP ’Yes, it might be that it just takes you longer to adapt to a certain type of exercise. It might mean that you perhaps need to just change your current needs here and there, but it doesn't mean overall you have to completely change your training programme. It will just come down to fine-tuning it.’
‘There’s so much variation between people that you can’t try all the different things’
RISING Why can’t we all just use trial and error to find our ideal workouts?
CP ‘The biggest thing, for me, is there is just so much variation between people that you can't try all the different things that might help, so if you can have a test which makes things a little bit clearer, gives you a bit more information and puts you on the right path, it prevents you from having to use trial and error, which takes time and can reduce your motivation. It could just give you confidence to stay on the training programme that’s just for you, which eventually will lead to great improvements.’
RISING Is there a mistake you see people making all the time in the gym that, even without genetic testing, they could avoid?
CP ‘Most people just go to the gym. They have exactly the same routine, which will be three times ten, or various exercises. Even without genetics, we know that you want to have variation, because every time you have a new stimulus in there, your body responds to that very differently. You don’t want too many stimuli over time because you have to adapt to a set amount of workload, but you still want to keep things interesting, and that increases your motivation as well.’
WHAT NEXT? Do you always lift weights to a set number of reps, or do the same cardio workout? Then it’s time to change it up – try going to the other end of the recommended rep range, or adjusting your runs to be longer and less intense; or the other way around. Then stick with it for longer than you normally would (8-12 weeks). Your body will benefit from the variety, and you might just discover your perfect workout…
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.