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Muscle Growth, Fat Loss, and Your Genetics

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Muscle Growth, Fat Loss, and Your Genetics

Genetics are often praised and cursed, but how much do they really affect muscle growth and fat loss?

 

This one gets tossed around a lot. Genetics are a favorite scapegoat for people who can’t effectively build muscle or lose fat. But what are they, exactly, and how much do they actually influence your results?

The word genetics comes from a Greek word meaning “origin,” and it refers to the molecular structure and function of our genes.

Genes are molecules in our DNA that provide instructions for the creation of special types of proteins that then tell each of our cells what to do, such as build muscle, make bone, carry nerve signals, and so forth.

While our bodies all contain the same types of genes, our programming is different.

For instance, the cells that form my iris were programmed to be a certain shade of blue, whereas yours were programmed to be a different shade, or a different color altogether. This variability in programming applies to every physiological activity in our bodies.

So yes, your genes determine things like which muscle groups tend to be your “strong points,” your natural hormone levels and rate of muscle growth, and how much fat you tend to hold on your body and where you tend to store it.

BUT…they don’t alter the basic physiological processes by which your body builds muscle or loses fat. So long as you don’t have disease directly impairing these functions, you can get into amazing shape if you know what you’re doing. Period.

I’ve helped quite a few “hardgainers” over the years gain 30, 40, and even 50 pounds in their first year or two of training and eating correctly (and with no drugs). I’ve helped scores of men and women who were convinced that they were genetically programmed to be fat build lean, muscular physiques by just fixing the many little things they were doing wrong.

So if you’re afraid that your body is genetically destined to be small, weak, or fat, you can lay those fears to rest. Your body contains the same genetic programs as mine that result in muscle growth and fat loss.

In fact, your body might be able to do certain functions relating to these things better than mine. If I’ve made better progress than you with my physique, it’s only because I have a better understanding of how to kick those programs into gear—that is, I know more about proper training, eating, and resting. That’s it.

Now, genetics can make it easier or harder to build muscle and lose fat.

Some people have naturally high testosterone and growth hormone levels, which means faster muscle growth and an overall leaner physique. Some people’s bodies mobilize fat stores more effectively than others, making fat loss an easier endeavor.

Genetics also play a role in the shape of your muscles. Not all guys can have that perfect square chest or ridiculous bicep peak, and not all women can have a gravity-defying, perfectly round butt.

But none of these things are real limitations.

Who cares if you build muscle or lose fat slower than someone else? As long as you can see regular improvements and get to where you want to be, the added time is irrelevant. Regardless of the “quality” of your genetic programming in terms of fat loss, you can build the body of your dreams in a matter of a few years, and maintain it for the rest of your life.

And big deal if you can’t have the same aesthetics as your favorite fitness cover model. You can still look awesome and feel great, and that’s what it’s all about.

What do you think about how genetics affects our ability to build muscle and lose fat?  Have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • With the high use of steroids and people with great genetics you have to admit that for somebody without either of those helping it might get really frustrating. Is going to be more about mental determination and knowledge to be able to at least see a slow improvement.

    • While steroids are abused by many, they really aren’t the determining factor in looking great. In fact, guys I know that are on drugs or have taken drugs that don’t also know how to train and eat properly look just as bad as anyone else that doesn’t have a clue.

      If you know what you’re doing, however, drugs just speed the process up, and allow you to reach levels of muscle growth not otherwise possible (but that most people wouldn’t even want).

      But yes, comparing oneself to people on drugs WITH grean genetics and a good understanding of training and dieting can cause frustration.

      Like you, I think it’s important to focus on the positive changes that ARE occurring in your body. Every week that you get a little bigger or stronger, or a little leaner, is a good week.

      • tim mouchel

        just at the beginning of this journey but the no bullshit approach is music to my ears. Curious on your attitude towards meat as a protein. I am told my blood group has a high meat requirement. But for political reasons choosing to go vego. Do you have any advise in that area. I really need to loose weight and am doing so. I have a large frame so don’t really need to add mass muscle but at this stage would like to cut up a little. Sure i can loose fat but don’t want to loose muscle which seems to be happening. Still trying to balance the cardio ratio.Anyway love what you doing Cheers Tim

  • Marc Gibson

    Cheers mike it’s about determination the ability to change things and tweak your program and diet I never give genetics a thought I enjoy what I do and constantly find new ways too challenge myself .

    • Yup, totally agree Marc! As long as you keep making progress toward your goal, you’re light years ahead of most people.

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  • I put a cinnamon stick into my cafetiere in the morning to brew with my morning coffee which just tastes nice generally! As far as genetics goes, I’m six feet tall and on my father’s side I’ve traced my heritage to the Ashanti, and on my mother’s side Norwegian. Even though I’m female I’ve always been built tall and sturdy, so muscle and strength has already been programmed in. I do think strength and muscle mass is genetic to a point – come visit the UK sometime and you’ll be amazed at the difference in builds as compared to people in the US, for example. I’m from the States so lads in the UK don’t find me attractive as I “look wrong” compared to the genetics here. *eyeroll*.

    However with that said, it just takes a bit of fiddling and faff to figure out how to design a regimen for oneself. I’ve found one of my problems is if my carbs are too high (over 100g a day) I lose no weight whatsoever. Due to my arthritis there are exercises I can’t do, so I’ve instead searched some exercises down that I can. None of this is the fast-track we’ve all aspired to, but it is a track that gets one there eventually.

    • Nice on the cinnamon use! I don’t like coffee, but that sounds pretty good. 🙂

      Yup, we all have different body types and genetic predispositions, and it’s definitely smart to learn what does and doesn’t work for your body.

      I think the game is making the most of your genetics–reaching your genetic potential. That and potential often far more than people give themselves credit for.

  • Steve P

    Question about nutrition – I weigh around 160lbs and eat around 2,200 calories per day and I am trying to put on a little more muscle and get leaner. My average daily numbers are 300-320 grams of protein, 36-40 grams of fat and 128 -132 grams of carbs. Are these macro-nutrients ok or should I adjust anything? Any advice is greatly appreciated!!

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question! Let’s tweak your numbers:

      160 grams protein per day
      300 grams carbs
      60 grams fat

      That will be a much better place to start. If you eat that way for 7-10 days and don’t gain weight, simply add 200 calories per day and see if that does it. If it doesn’t add, etc.

      • Steve P

        Thank you Mike! Would I still keep my calories at 2,200 when starting with the numbers you suggested or should I cut my calories down to start? I also follow the 4-6 rep rule of heavy lifting

        • Guest

          I also follow the 4-6 rep rule of heavy lifting

        • Michael Matthews

          You can just start with the above numbers–don’t worry about calories at first. Give it 7-10 days and if your weight hasn’t gone up, bump your cals up by about 200 per day (get there however you want–protein and carbs have 4 cal per gram, fats 9).

          Nice on the heavy lifting. Only way to go. 🙂

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  • Chuchi

    Long response! Sorry! ;o;

    Q~Q Glad If found this. I have something very interesting (to me at least) situation.

    So I’ve always been 180 lbs (overweight and borderline obese based on the BMI calculator). I’m in college and this past year and a half I’ve dropped down to 151. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t eat right. I think it was all stress from school. Though I only ended up eating once a day for months due to a busy schedule. (McDonalds at 11 at night.)

    But now that I’ve gotten down to 151 and my BMI calculator says I’m overweight but borderline healthy. Since I’m so close, I actually want to TRY to be healthy. So, I started doing Insanity at night and a light 30 minute jog every morning. I feel that I am completely EXHAUSTED. Which makes me think that all the weight I’ve lost is muscle. Even when I was bigger I had more stamina than I do now. I can never finish either exercise without feeling EXTREMELY dizzy and nauseous (I expect as much from insanity but NOT light jogging) And since the drop in weight I’ve only dropped one or two pant sizes. And I’ve gone down a shirt size (L to M) All of which makes me think that I may be in trouble here. I may have just as much fat as before but little to no muscle.

    o_o How do I build it back? I’m just all soft and flabby now. (As of right now I eat twice a day and a “part-time vegetarian”. I only eat vegetables from 9 am to 5pm.)

    • Michael Matthews

      I would definitely recommend focusing on resistance training, not cardio. Sure, you can do some cardio, but resistance training is going to be more important so you can build your muscle back.

      You can start with a body weight program like this:

      https://www.muscleforlife.com /the-ultimate-bodyweight-workout-routine/

      Or you can get into weightlifting:

      https://www.muscleforlife.com /the-hardgainers-guide-to-guaranteed-muscle-growth/

      And diet is very important. You have to eat enough to grow, which I talk about in the above article.

      Hope this helps!

  • Rae P

    I have no idea what to do!
    I’m a girl, I currently 5 feet and one inch. I’m 18 years old and I weigh 145! With my short and wide appearance I seem much heavier. How can I look and smaller and weigh less, but be stronger and possibly toned?

  • Kitti Glitter

    Great article 🙂 Thanks for making something so complicated so simple!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!!

  • William Lim Jr

    Hi Mike!

    Just being geeky curious. Do you know what actually when muscle grows (i.e. real myofibrillar hypertrophy, not sarcoplasmic)? Do the muscle cells forming the muscle fibers increase in number? Or do the muscle cells themselves increase in size? Or maybe both? I just wanted to know more about how muscles increase in density and maybe you can shed a light on this.

    Thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question. I’m going to discuss this further in some upcoming articles, but…

      Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the augmentation of existing fibers’ actual size (new satellite cells, etc.).

      Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the augmentation of existing fibers’ ability to hold fluids.

      Hyperplasia is the addition of brand new cells.

      This image shows it simply:

      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/Hyperplasia_vs_Hypertrophy.svg

      It’s generally accepted that hyperplasia stops when we’re young, but I’ve seen some interested research that indicated it COULD be possible with heavy weightlifting.

      • William Lim Jr

        Thanks Mike!

        I knew you’re the right person to ask. Cool image as well!

        • Michael Matthews

          YW! Thanks! 🙂

  • adde

    Yeah, i´ll call BS. I have studied biology and chemistry for the past 5 years and the statement that genes have no effect on a persons ability to burn fat or gain a certain amount of muscle i complete bollocks. Link a study that proves this, plz.

    • Michael Matthews

      Genetics DO play a role, but not nearly as large of one as many people think.

      Every guy can add 30 – 50 pounds of muscle over the course of 3 – 5 years of proper training and eating, and can get to single-digit body fat percentages.

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  • Joe

    Hey Mike, I’ve been lifting weights for 14 years and have been on your program for 2 years but can’t seem to gain muscle. I’m an ectomorph and have always been pretty weak. In the 2 years since I’ve been on BLS, i’ve only been able to add about 20lbs to my bench press and 10lbs to my military press. I don’t even look like I workout. I get so discouraged when someone who’s never trained before goes to the gym and is able to lift more than me who’s been doing it for years. I seem to overtrain very easily and my sleep suffers and sometimes I actually get weaker and have to reduce the weights. My intensity is very high (lift to 1 rep short of failure) so that’s not the problem. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve talked to my doctor about it and he said that not everyone is meant to be big and strong and that my genetics are to blame. I’m really lost with what I should do and could really use your input.

    • What’s your diet like? It sounds like you’re not eating nearly enough…

      • Joe

        Thanks for the quick reply. Yeah, for a long time I didn’t know whether I should cut or bulk because I’m skinny fat so I’d go from one to the other. I’ve read your article on skinny fat and I don’t do any of those things that you mention as the cause of it. I have a real hard time losing the fat. When I started your program, I started on a cut and dropped from 170 lbs @19% bf to 150 @16%bf (so very little fat loss). And I’m 6’2″ to give you perspective on how otherwise thin I was. Now I’m up to 175 but once again at around 19-20% bf. It just seems like I would had to drop to an unhealthy weight to get to 10-13% bf. As far as diet, I eat clean with sufficient protein. I’m just very frustrated Mike.

  • Mislav Mikulčić

    I am an endo-mesomorph and have been on a diet for a month and one week now, loosing about 10kgs, but in reality it is much more since I have been training with weight a couple years ago and since got fat. My muscles have grown enormously, but the belly fat still remains, since it’s stubborn.
    My question is this: my diet looks a little like this – 150g of protein, mainly through milk, chicken white meat, beef red meat and whey protein powders. 50-100g of carbs, depending if it’s a training day or not and 50-80 grams of fat also depending on exercises that day. As a supplementation I use: Creatine 10g per day, Vitamins and minerals, L-Glutamine pre and post-training, some fat burners with garcinia, green tea, guarana etc. Also planing to add CLA and L-Carnitine to supplementation.
    Workout is as follows: 40 min interval cardio training, and weight training 6-12 reps by exercise, whole body workout. I do training 4-5 times a week.

    now, what would you suggest, cardio on non lifting days? Some other supplementation? Change of diet plan? What I am terrefied is that I’ll start loosing muscle, or keep the muscles at cost of belly fat. HELP!!!

  • Richard

    Interesting article and it will definitely be the sort of argument I use when discussing this topic with others. Many people tell me I ‘can’t’ be a bodybuilder or have a massive frame because of my genes.
    I do have one question though: Is it true that the best way to gain muscle is to lift your max or even a little above that but only a few times (i.e. 7-10 reps × 3 sets or the 5×5 method), all the while making sure you keep good posture of course. I find that when I do this I’m ultra sore for days, but I don’t mind it–whatever gives me results. I’m 20, weigh 110lbs, 5’6.

  • Jackson

    Hey Mike,
    I’m a noob and have a REALLY small frame. I’m a male. I been reading some bodybuilding forums and people were saying small bone structure actually makes you look bigger when you add a good amount of muscle. Has this been your experience?
    Also, will the actual weight I can gain in muscle be less because of my small bone structure as compared to someone with bigger bones? like a big dude could get up to 200 and I could get up to maybe 180?
    Thank you for your time! I was unable to really make much progress until I found your book and website. Keep pushin man you are doing some amazing things here and helping a lot of people out.

    • Yeah there’s some truth in that.

      You may not be able to get as big/heavy as other guys but you can do plenty with your physique. Don’t worry.

      Thanks man. 🙂

  • Ryan

    Hey mike,
    Great article. I am very interested to hear your opinion on this though.
    Jeremy Buendia, current MR. Olympia Men’s physique champion has an insane, crazy physique. Apparently training with Hany Rambod’s FST7 system. Any opinion on FST7?
    Follow up question. Any opinion on the current champ? is the crazy physique attainable by mere mortals like me? is it crazy genetics or…..?

    • Thanks man! I haven’t looked into FST7 but I can guarantee you that you don’t want to train like Olympians.

      No, you will never look like JB. Check this out:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/side-effects-of-steroids/

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-much-muscle-can-you-build-naturally/

      • ryan

        LOL, get your point. I’ts kinda hard to hear that it might nit be possible naturally, but I still want to get to be able to compete at a pretty close level while keeping completely natural. It’s sort of like a personal quest for me to prove that you can compete with, or even WIN against roid users while keeping 100% natural.

        • I can guarantee you it’s not possible naturally and, to be honest, I doubt you have the genetics either.

          Remember that top-tier competitors aren’t just products of drugs–they also have absolutely outstanding genetics.

          Natties will never, ever beat top-tier drug users. Ever.

          • But no one knows the limits of human potential so never say never. There were plenty of things that were deemed impossible 100 or 500 years ago that is taken for granted now.

          • True to a point, but uh, I guess we’ll have to see how bodybuilding evolves over the next couple of centuries…

          • Lol. You said ‘Ever’ 😉

          • True. Aliens may come interbreed with us. Bucket list…

          • Not on mine. I prefer humans 😀

          • Are you one of those people who thinks science has explained everything? You seem more intelligent than that.

          • This isn’t a matter of science explaining anything.

            Currently, the best genetics can’t get anywhere close to PED-enhancement, so I don’t see that changing anytime soon unless we can modify our genetics so radically that we can essentially become superhumans. Possible, I guess…

          • Well I believe matter is a function of the mind, not the other way around like science believes. I don’t think matter has the ability to create consciousness.

            So from that viewpoint it is pretty easy to believe that the mind can achieve anything. We may not know how and it may take thousands of years it figure it out but there is no proof that it is impossible.

          • Touche. I don’t disagree there.

          • Good to know. I’m not always sure whether you are the fundamentalist science type or whether you are more open-minded than that. From your writing you appear pretty scientific!

  • TD

    Definitely agree that your genetics shouldn’t be limitations on your way to a better physique but you cannot ignore them either. It’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes when you have realize that you won’t look like the fitness model and/or actress on the magazine cover no matter how hard you might want to.

    I’m one of those women who you spoke about in the article that do not have the “gravity-defying perfectly round butt” (and seriously never will). Took me a long time to accept that fact. Now I figure I just want to be the best me I can be.

    Plus, I’ve stopped comparing myself to other women which was ridiculous as well as incredibly self-defeating.

    • Very true BUT everyone can look great: lean, muscular, well proportioned, healthy, etc.

      • TD

        Sort of an unrelated question but I was wondering if using IF is a good way to maintain your weight? I’ve always associated it with primarily fat loss. And could you train fasted if you train early in the morning before you “break the fast”? Thanks.

  • Kelly Mancuso

    Well I am as lazy as I can be and I have huge muscles.. look as though I work out but In fact.. do not.
    Have very healthy appetite, and eat mostly fatty crappy fast foods. Mostly out of a bag or a box which are the worst kinds to put into ur body.
    I am a 37 year old female
    Had a kidney removed 6years ago
    Have smoked moderately since age 11
    Also
    I have
    lung disease
    Kidney disease
    And
    heart disease
    No one can tell me why I’m freakishly Toned and this concerns me.
    At one point I asked to have my thyroid tested for overactiveness and was told I had good genes..
    Not good enuf I’m afraid.. not when I have a 12 yr old son who is built just like his mom.
    Can u help me get to the bottom of this please. My kidney failure and removal appeared to have happened sorta sudden, but in fact.. had been a long time coming. There’s got to b an underlying cause for my backwards body

    • Sounds like great muscle genetics.

      I had a friend whose dad was like that. I’m not sure he worked out a day in his life but he was far more muscular than the average guy.

  • michael

    for some reason i gain muscles without doing anything .
    i am 24 years old with , diabetes ( thanks to medications the doctor gave me by mistake) , and kindey disease ( from my mother side sadly enough ) .
    weirdly enough i am abnormaly strong for someone that weight 100kg . i never worked out in my life but last week the doctors wanted to know how strong i was and we tested that out .
    in the gym we measured my stomach ( its big , not gonna lie haha) and arm size ( wich were a normal size for my posture ) after that we measured how much i could lift. turned out i can lift 150kg without a problem .
    i have no idea where this comes from since 1, i never worked out a day in my life and 2 , in the whole family tree nobody is/was how strong i am right now.

    to be honest , i am not super proud of the fact that i am so strong thanks to some incidents in the past . but i am super suprised that i am that strong as well . while all that i do a day is sit infront of my pc and work , drink allot of soda and eat unhealthy most of the times .

    what are your thoughts about that ?

    • Genetics, my friend. Some people are just much more muscular and strong than others.

  • Greg Holden

    Hey mike on a somewhat related topic I listened to the podcast you did with Andrew Steele from DNA Fit. Sounded interesting would you reccomend paying out for it?

    • The results can be interesting, but you’re not likely to learn anything too useful that you’d want to implement.

  • dave

    I’ve come to the conclusion that in my case genetics play a large role in my limited gains. I started with below average muscle mass, small bones and joints. Despite using progressive overload, primarily compound lifts,moderate caloric surplus, plenty of sleep and good testosterone levels I made some progress but plateaued relatively quickly.

    My best 1RM’s are only DL 340, squat 260, BP 180 at 5’10”, 155#.

    When bulking I could gain a couple of pounds a month, but about 75% of it was fat. I made my own food and tracked my calories and macros scrupulously. My fat gains on even a slow bulk outpaced my strength and muscle gains so it was non sustainable.

    Over the years I’ve tried Starting Strength, BLS, 5-3-1 and others with minimal long term results. I keep at it because I enjoy lifting.

    I’m 48 now and I had to have surgery this year for a hernia that happened while doing Incline BP. I had steroid injections in each elbow a few weeks ago for persistent epicondylitis from overuse and next week I’m having another MRI to evaluate a flare up of sciatica/ low back pain aggravated from squatting last month.

    I finally concluded that there is no way building muscle can be this hard for the average person. At my best I was 10% BF at 150# and didn’t look like I lifted.

    Some people, such as myself start with below average baseline muscle mass and have a below average biologic response to the stimulus of resistance training. These individuals will have a slower rate of improvement and will plateau much sooner. I dispute the idea that this group will eventually catch up to the average lifter if they just put in more time. More likely they will only make negligible gains until the wear and tear of age catches up.

    • Hey Dave, thanks for sharing your story.

      You’re absolutely right that it will be harder for some people to build muscle than others. While I believe (and research shows) that almost everyone can make progress if they put in the time, some will make more than others.

      At your age, it will also start becoming harder to build strength and muscle mass, so that could also be a key contributing factor.

      Either way, I hope your injuries heal soon. That’s no fun.

  • Matthew Boux

    Mike. I feel really discouraged. I want so badly to build lean muscle and get strong but I literally think I have every bad genetic combo possible. I’ve got extra fat around my lower stomach, very short muscle bellies, a slow metabolism that makes it hard to lose fat, and I’m naturally weak as hell. I started benching the bar. Is there any hope for me at all to succeed in this? I have purchased your book from amazon and am waiting for it now. Is it good to be possible for me to build a decent physique? I understand I’ll never be a Mr Olympia but is it at least possible for me to build a good physique that looks awesome and people will compliment it? My strength is increasing rapidly now that I’m doing heavy compound lifts but it’s still kinda weak.

    • Hey Matthew, no need to be discouraged. The vast majority of people are very weak when they first begin, and everyone has to start somewhere. You can absolutely improve your physique, and as you mentioned, you’re already making improvements. It’s true that some people respond better to resistance training than others, but those who haven’t won the genetic lottery can still build a great body – it just takes a bit longer. Regardless, all you have to do is train, eat right, and the gains will come 🙂

      Check this article out: https://www.muscleforlife.com/how-much-muscle-can-you-build-naturally/

      • Matthew Boux

        Yes I used that calculator and I’m not thrilled with my numbers unfortunately. I also have below average bone structure. I hope even with my bad genetics that I’ll be able to build a body that looks awesome and is super strong.

        • As long as you’re not expecting to look like a drugged-up bodybuilder and get there naturally, I’m sure you’ll be pleased with your results if you put in the work. You’ve just got to do the work and see 🙂

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