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Secrets of Elite Bodybuilders

Are Physique Champions Born or Made?

Show someone who’s not familiar with bodybuilding any magazine that features elite bodybuilders’men with outstanding size and definition so intense they appear to be just muscle and skin’and ask, ‘How did these guys get like that?’ Typically, the response you’ll get is, ‘Steroids.’ Or more vaguely, ‘Drugs.’

Performance-enhancing drugs have infiltrated all sports, even professional baseball. Often they’re the same drugs favored by strength athletes, such as anabolic steroids and growth hormone, as well as other, more esoteric substances. Yet no activity is more linked to anabolic steroids than bodybuilding, and, consequently, people assume that the bodies of top-level physique athletes of both sexes were built solely by drugs.

The folly of such a statement is obvious to anyone with higher than a single-digit IQ. If simply using anabolic steroids were all it took to get exceptional bodybuilding results, then bodies resembling Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman’s or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s circa 1975 would be common’but they’re not. For every Arnold or Ronnie there are countless others who never come close to the results they achieved, no matter how extensive their drug use.

That’s not to say that drugs haven’t helped produce some of today’s top physiques, but they aren’t everything. In fact, some experts have noted that drugs may enable people to exceed their genetic potential, but they won’t magically turn Pee Wee Herman into Lou Ferrigno. The same goes for elite athletes in other sports. Pro baseball player Barry Bonds is one of the athletes who have recently been accused of using anabolic steroids. But since any baseball player can use the same drugs, why aren’t they all emulating Bonds’ record 72 home runs?

Reaching the elite level of bodybuilding requires a combination of genetics and the right psychological outlook. The mental-outlook part’more specifically, mental ‘toughness’is often overlooked, but it can be a potent weapon for overcoming genetic weaknesses that would otherwise limit competitive success.

Famous examples of the power of mental toughness include Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although he did have superior genetic potential, especially in terms of arm and chest development, Arnold started out with some notable weaknesses. His calves, for example, were initially weak and underdeveloped. The consensus then and now is that if you’re born with weak calves, you’ll die with them. Arnold, however, didn’t accept that as dogma. Not only did he concentrate on building his weak calves to championship proportions, but he trained in pants that revealed his calves so they’d always be on his mind.

Another notable example of success in overcoming genetic flaws is Larry Scott, who won the first two Mr. Olympia titles in 1965 and ’66. Scott was a walking catalog of poor bodybuilding genetics. He had narrow shoulders, a wide waist, no thigh thickness and narrow, weak back musculature. He seemed doomed to fail, but instead of giving up, Scott chose to focus on his strong points. He developed his arm and deltoid muscles to such an unprecedented extent, few people noticed that his shoulders weren’t wide. All you saw when Scott posed were those tremendous arms and shoulders. His posing routine accentuated them, as he avoided direct front and rear poses and instead used twisting shots that focused on his superior arms and delts. Clearly, he was an athlete who overcame poor genetics through smart training and clear thinking.

What Exactly Is Good Bodybuilding Genetics?

The factors that contribute to favorable bodybuilding genetics range from molecular-level dynamics to overall muscle shape. Since no one has ever performed tests to identify many of those factors in elite bodybuilders, what follows is speculation based on current science.

Your genetic potential is known as your genotype. That refers to the genes you were born with, and you can’t change it. What you can change is your phenotype, which is the specific physical characteristics created by the interaction between your genetic potential and the environment. The environment includes training, nutrition and mental outlook’in short, the controllable factors.

Your genotype is expressed in enzyme activities, hormone balance and muscle fibers. For example, while the average human musculature features a 50/50 balance of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, research has shown that elite long-distance runners have an abundance of slow-twitch fibers’up to 90 percent’which enables them to metabolize oxygen more effectively than the average person. Sprinters, who need power more than endurance, show the reverse: higher levels of power-producing fast-twitch muscle fibers. ALL For bodybuilding purposes, a higher level of fast-twitch fibers is more conducive to muscular growth. The length of a muscle belly offers some indication of fiber content. Longer muscle bellies foster greater potential for muscle growth. You can see that in trainees who have high calves, which is an example of a short muscle belly. They have a difficult time getting their calves to grow simply because they don’t have an abundance of fast-twitch fibers there.

Certain genetic attributes are considered highly desirable for bodybuilding success. Starting out with a mesomorphic structure, or being inclined to natural muscularity, is an obvious plus. Most people, however, are a combination of body structures, such as mesomorphic/endomorphic, which means muscular and fat. The majority of bodybuilding champions are mesomorphic/ectomorphic, which means muscular and thin. That’s evident when they quit training or lay off for any reason. They often appear to ‘shrink’ and recede back to their natural skinniness.

While it’s possible for a meso/endo to become an elite bodybuilder, it’s more difficult. People with that combination often have a greater abundance’in both number and size’of fat cells. So they have an uphill battle in achieving the thin-skinned appearance of today’s successful competitors. It can be done, but it isn’t easy. That’s where mental toughness and discipline come into play.

Over the years certain bodybuilders have come close to perfection in shape and structure, including Steve Reeves, Sergio Oliva and Matt Mendenhall. That ideal structure is rare, and it isn’t related to the degree of muscular size the athlete achieves. Those who don’t have such ideal structures will be glad to know that most of the champs have succeeded without one.

The symmetry and balance of muscle groups are important characteristics of elite bodybuilders. They refer to having all muscles in full development, with no glaring weaknesses, such as small arms coupled with a huge chest or large thighs and weak calves. Generally, it’s more difficult for taller men to achieve ideal levels of muscular symmetry, which explains why the preponderance of bodybuilding champions have been in the 5’8′-to-5’11’ range. Notable exceptions include Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stands nearly 6’2′, and Lou Ferrigno, who’s 6’5′.

Biochemically speaking, studies show that having a higher natural testosterone level favors increased and faster muscle gains. That isn’t surprising in light of the effects of anabolic steroids, which are synthetic analogs of testosterone, on muscle. A greater balance of other anabolic hormones, such as growth hormone and IGF-1, is also likely to favor greater response to bodybuilding training.

In recent years scientists have identified a protein called myostatin as a major inhibitor of muscular growth. Myostatin is produced naturally in the body and is usually secreted with another hormone, cortisol, which inhibits muscle growth as well. Animals born without the genes that code for myostatin develop dramatic size and definition. Scientists speculate that some humans may be born with at least a portion of the genes that code for myostatin missing. Such people would be highly responsive to weight training, making gains in size and strength that appear effortless in comparison to what others achieve. They would also appear far more muscular than normal.

A similar scenario exists with women who are born lacking a certain adrenal enzyme. They produce higher-than-normal levels of adrenal androgens, which are the precursors of testosterone. As a result, not only are they more muscular than other women, but they also have a more ‘masculine’ outlook. While they’re true genetic females, they often prefer pursuits favored by men. As children they’re often called tomboys, and many go on to become world-class athletes or CEOs of major companies.

Those are only a few of the factors that come under the heading favorable bodybuilding genetics. Another would be greater neural recruitment of muscle fibers, which translates into greater strength. Recently, science has identified several enzyme isoforms that appear to increase strength such as the D-allele of the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE). How much of a role that plays in bodybuilding success, though, is totally unknown at this point. Mental Factors

As noted above, even relatively poor bodybuilding genetics may be overcome by a powerful mental outlook. The various definitions of ‘mental toughness’ include the following:

‘ The ability to cope with pressure, stress and adversity.

‘ The ability to rebound from failure.

‘ The ability to persist and refuse to give up.

‘ A general air of insensitivity or resilience.

‘ Superior mental skills, such as the ability to remain relaxed, calm and energized during crisis and adversity.

The results of a recent study that examined mental toughness in elite athletes also illustrate how elite bodybuilders differ from those who don’t make it.1 These are the attributes of mental toughness described in the study:

1) Having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve your competitive goals. Larry Scott would never have won the Mr. Olympia had he not had total belief in his ability to overcome his poor bodybuilding genetics. All champions, in every sport, completely believe in themselves and leave no room for any self-doubt.

2) Being able to bounce back from performance setbacks with increased determination to succeed. Arnold Schwarzenegger lost the ’66 NABBA Mr. Universe to Chet Yorton. Two years later, in his first United States appearance, he lost the ’68 IFBB Mr. Universe to American Frank Zane. Rather than give up, Arnold underwent a total self-analysis to determine what he needed to do to win. He then revamped his body, emphasizing a greater level of muscular definition and shape to complement his massiveness. The rest is history.

3) Having an unshakable belief that you possess qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents. Arnold used that strategy to great advantage in the psych-out games he played on his competitors. Arnold instilled in them a belief that he was better than they were and so undermined their will to win. Some may label such an attitude cockiness, but that type of self-belief is shared by every champion in every sport. You simply cannot reach the top without truly thinking you are the best. Just ask Arnold.

4) Having an insatiable desire to succeed. Having known Arnold during his prime bodybuilding years, I can attest that he’s a man who will never take no for answer if it’s going to affect his personal goals. When I met him, in 1968, just a few days after he arrived in California, Arnold told me that he would win the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions at least six times and then go into business and become a millionaire. The next thing he said was, in retrospect, nothing short of eerie: ‘You know how when anyone talks about muscles, they say, ‘Muscles like Steve Reeves?’ Well, one day the expression will be ‘Muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ Mind you, Arnold was a relatively obscure person at that time. Yet even then his self-belief and prescience were astounding. No one was less surprised than I when Arnold became the governor of California. It was just another step in his progression.

5) Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of distractions. Who can forget the scene in the documentary film ‘Pumping Iron’ when Arnold talks about how he opted to skip his father’s funeral because it interfered with his preparation for the Mr. Olympia competition? It may have seemed cold, but it illustrated his complete devotion to his immediate goal. Arnold talked about this aspect in an interview with author Studs Turkel in 1980:

‘I have emotions. But what you must do, you must keep them cold, or you store them away for a time. You must control your emotions; you must have command over yourself. Three, four months before a competition could not be interfered with by other people’s problems. This was sometimes called selfish. It’s the only way you can be if you want to achieve something. Any emotional things inside me, I try to keep cold so it doesn’t interfere with my training.’

6) Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain while still maintaining technique and effort in training and competition. This involves pushing yourself under such adverse conditions as fatigue or hunger from extreme training and dieting. Champions always keep their goals of victory in sight, and that, along with their staunch self-belief, permits them to push through both mental and physical pain.

7) Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it.

8) Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances. That means you avoid letting the failure of others affect your goals.

9) Thriving on the pressure of competition. Champions compete well-prepared so at the actual competition they can enjoy the battle, knowing that they’re fully armed to successfully engage any opponent.

Those are the physical and mental attributes that separate the elite from the also-rans in bodybuilding.

The mental aspects often define the difference between winners and losers. It takes the right outlook and a monumental effort, along with an unquenchable desire to succeed.


1Jones, G. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performance. J App Sports Psychol. 14:205-218. IM

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