Everyone wants to know the keys to athletic success, however, as I have argued in the past, to understand elite athletic performance, we must understand how the system works in concert with everything—especially in the environments the biological system finds itself in. To reduce factors down to genes, or training, or X or Y does not make sense; to look at what makes an elite athlete, the method of reductionism, while it does allow us to identify certain differences between athletes, it does not allow us to appreciate the full-range of how and why elite athletes differ in their sport of choice. One large meta-analysis has been done on the effects of a few genotypes on elite athletic performance, and it shows us what we already know (blacks are more likely to have the genotype associated with power performance—so why are there no black Strongmen or any competitors in the World’s Strongest Man?). A few studies and one meta-analysis exist, attempting to get to the bottom of the genetics of elite athletic performance and, while it of course plays a factor, as I have argued in the past, we must take a systems view of the matter.
One 2013 study found that a functional polymorphism in the angiotensinogen (ATG) region was 2 to 3 times more common in elite power athletes than in (non-athlete) controls and elite endurance athletes (Zarebska et al, 2013). This sample tested was Polish, n = 223, 156 males, 67 females, and then they further broke down their athletic sample into tiers. They tested 100 power athletes (29 100-400 m runners; 22 powerlifters; 20 weightlifters; 14 throwers and 15 jumpers) and 123 endurance athletes (4 tri-athletes; 6 race walkers; 14 road cyclists; 6 15 to 50 m cross-country skiers; 12 marathon runners; 53 rowers; 17 3 to 10 km runners; and 11 800 to 1500 m swimmers).
Zarebska et al (2013) attempted to replicate previous associations found in other studies (Buxens et al, 2009) most notably the association with the M235T polymorphism in the AGT (angiotensinogen) gene. Zarebska et al’s (2013) main finding was that there was a higher representation of elite power athletes with the CC and C alleles of the M235T polymorphism compared with endurance athletes and controls, which suggests that the C allele of the M235T gene “may be associated with a predisposition to power-oriented
events” (Zarebska et al, 2013: 2901).
Elite power athletes were more likely to possess the CC genotype; 40 percent of power athletes had the genotype whereas 13 percent of endurance had it and 18 percent of non-athletes had it. So power athletes were more than three times as likely to have the CC genotype, compared to endurance athletes and twice as likely to have it compared to non-athletes. On the other hand, one copy of the C allele was found in 55 percent of the power athletes whereas, for the endurance athletes and non-athletes, the C allele was found in about 40 percent of individuals. (Further, in the elite anaerobic athlete, explosive power was consistently found to be a difference maker in predicting elite sporting performance; Lorenz et al, 2013.)
Now we come to the more interesting parts: ethnic differences in the M235T polymorphism. Zarebska et al (2013: 2901-2902) write:
The M235T allele distribution varies widely according to the subject’s ethnic origin: the T235 allele is by far the most frequent in Africans (;0.90) and in African-Americans (;0.80). It is also high in the Japanese population (0.65–0.75). The T235 (C4027) allele distribution of the control participants in our study was lower (0.40) but was similar to that reported among Spanish Caucasians (0.41), as were the sports specialties of both the power athletes (throwers, sprinters, and jumpers) and endurance athletes (marathon runners, 3- to 10-km runners, and road cyclists), thus mirroring the aforementioned studies.
Zarebska et al (2013: 2902) conclude that their study—along with the study they replicated—supports the hypothesis that the C allele of the M235T polymorphism in the AGT gene may confer a competitive advantage in power-oriented sports, which is partly mediated through ANGII production in the skeletal muscles. Mechanisms can explain the mediation of ANGII production in skeletal muscles, such as a direct skeletal muscle hypertrophic effect, along with the redistribution of between muscle blood flow between type I (slow twitch) and II fibers (fast twitch), which would then augment power and speed. However, it is interesting to note that Zarebska et al (2013) did not find any differences between “top-elite” level athletes who had won medals in international competitions compared to elite-level athletes who were not medalists.
The big deal about this gene is that the AGT gene is part of the renin-angiotensin system which is partly responsible for blood pressure and body salt regulation (Hall, 1991; Schweda, 2014). There seems to be an ethnic difference in this polymorphism, and, according to Zarebska et al (2013), African Americans and Africans are more likely to have the polymorphisms that are associated with elite power performance.
There is also a meta-analysis on genotyping and elite power athlete performance (Weyerstrab et al, 2017). Weyerstrab et al (2017) meta-analyzed 36 studies which attempted to find associations between genotype and athletic ability. One of the polymorphisms studied was the famous ACTN3. It has been noted that, when conditions are right (i.e., the right morphology), the combined effects of morphology along with the contractile properties of the individual muscle fibers contribute to the enhanced performance of those with the RR ACTN3 genotype (Broos et al, 2016), while Ma et al (2013) also lend credence to the idea that genetics influences sporting performance. This is, in fact, the most-replicated association in regard to elite sporting performance: we know the mechanism behind how muscle fibers contract; we know how the fibers contract and the morphology needed to maximize the effectiveness of said fast twitch fibers (type II fibers). (Blacks have a higher proportion of type II fibers [see Caeser and Henry, 2015 for a review].)
Weyerstrab et al (2017) meta-analyzed 35 articles, finding significant associations with genotype and elite power performance. They found that ten polymorphisms were significantly associated with power athlete states. Their most interesting findings, though, were on race. Weyerstrab et al (2017: 6) write:
Results of this meta-analysis show that US African American carriers of the ACE AG genotype (rs4363) were more than two times more likely to become a power athlete compared to carriers of the ACE preferential genotype for power athlete status (AA) in this population.
“Power athlete” does not necessarily have to mean “strength athlete” as in powerlifters or weightlifters (more on weightlifters below).
Lastly, the AGT M235T polymorphism, while associated with other power movements, was not associated with elite weightlifting performance (Ben-Zaken et al, 2018). As noted above, this polymorphism was observed in other power athletes, and since these movements are largely similar (short, explosive movements), one would rightly reason that this association should hold for weightlifters, too. However, this is not what we find.
Weightlifting, compared to other explosive, power sports, is different. The beginning of the lifts take explosive power, but during the ascent of the lift, the lifter moves the weight slower, which is due to biomechanics and a heavy load. Ben-Zaken et al (2018) studied 47 weightlifters (38 male, 9 female) and 86 controls. Every athlete that was studied competed in national and international meets on a regular basis. Thirty of the weightlifters were also classified as “elite”, which entails participating in and winning national and international competitions such as the Olympics and the European and World Championships).
Ben-Zaken et al (2018) did find that weightlifters had a higher prevalence of the AGT 235T polymorphism when compared to controls, though there was no difference in the prevalence of this polymorphism when elite and national-level competitors were compared, which “[suggests] that this polymorphism cannot determine or predict elite competitive weightlifting performance” (Ben-Zaken et al, 2018: 38). Of course, a favorable genetic profile is important for sporting success, though, despite the higher prevalence of AGT in weightlifters compared to controls, this could not explain the difference between national and elite-level competitors. Other polymorphisms could, of course, contribute to weightlifting success, variables “such as training experience, superior equipment and facilities, adequate nutrition, greater familial support, and motivational factors, are crucial for top-level sports development as well” (Ben-Zaken et al, 2018: 39).
I should also comment on Anatoly Karlin’s new article The (Physical) Strength of Nations. I don’t disagree with his main overall point; I only disagree that grip strength is a good measure of overall strength—even though it does follow the expected patterns. Racial differences in grip strength exist, as I have covered in the past. Furthermore, there are associations between muscle strength and longevity, with stronger men being more likely to live longer, fuller lives (Ruiz et al, 2008; Volkalis, Haille, and Meisinger, 2015; Garcia-Hermosa, et al, 2018) so, of course, strength training can only be seen as a net positive, especially in regard to living a longer and fuller life. Hand grip strength does have a high correlation with overall strength (Wind et al, 2010; Trosclair et al, 2011). While handgrip strength can tell you a whole lot about your overall health (Lee et al, 2016), of course, there is no better proxy than actually doing the lifts/exercises to ascertain one’s level of strength.
There are replicated genetic associations between explosive, powerful athletic performance, along with even the understanding of the causal mechanisms behind the polymorphisms and their carry-over to power sports. We know that if morphology is right and the individual has the RR ACTN3 genotype, that they will exceed in explosive sports. We know the causal pathways of ACTN3 and how it leads to differences in sprinting competitions. It should be worth noting that, while we do know a lot more about the genomics of sports than we did 20, even 10 years ago, current genetic testing has zero predictive power in regard to talent identification (Pitsladis et al, 2013).
So, of course, for parents and coaches who wonder about the athletic potential of their children and students, the best way to gauge whether or not they will excel in athletics is…to have them compete and compare them to other kids. Even if the genetics aspect of elite power performance is fully unlocked one day (which I doubt it will be), the best way to ascertain whether or not one will excel in a sport is to put them to the test and see what happens. We are in our infancy in understanding the genomics of sporting performance, but when we do understand which genotypes are more prevalent in regard to certain sports (and of course the interactions of the genotype with the environment and genes), then we can better understand how and why others are better in certain sports.
The genomics of elite sporting performance is very interesting; however, the answer that reductionists want to see will not appear: genes are difference makers (Sterelny and Griffith, 1999), not causes, and along with a whole slew of other environmental and mental factors (Lippi, Favaloro, and Guidi 2008), along with a favorable genetic profile with sufficient training (and everything else that comes along with it) are needed for the athlete to reach their maximum athletic potential (see Guth and Roth, 2013). Genetic and environmental differences between individuals and groups most definitely explain differences in elite sporting performance, though elucidating what causes what and the mechanisms that cause the studied trait in question will be tough.
Just because group A has gene or gene networks G and they compete in competition C does not mean that gene or gene networks G contribute in full—or in part—to sporting success. The correlations could be coincidental and non-functional in regard to the sport in question. Athletes should be studied in isolation, meaning just studying a specific athlete in a specific discipline to ascertain how, what, and why works for the specific athlete along with taking anthropomorphic measures, seeing how bad they want “it”, and other environmental factors such as nutrition and training. Looking at the body as a system will take us away from privileging one part over another—while we also do understand that they do play a role but not the role that reductionists believe.
These studies, while they attempt to show us how genetic factors cause differences at the elite level in power sports, they will not tell the whole story, because we must look at the whole system, not reduce it down to the sum of its parts (Shenk, 2011: chapter 5). While blacks are more likely to have these polymorphisms that are associated with elite power athlete performance, this does not obviously carry over to strongman and powerlifting competition.