When someone finishes a fitness program that helps them shed body fat and add lean muscle, there’s one question they ask more than any other:
“What’s the best I could look?”
Coming off the high of seeing newbie gains, this newfound fitness nut wants to know the next steps that will take them from looking good to looking like Schwarzenegger.
The question they’re really asking is, “What’s my genetic potential?”
Genetic potential is a hot topic right now in the fitness world. But for all the back and forth, does genetic potential actually matter when it comes to your fitness?
Let’s find out.
What is Genetic Potential?
Genetic potential is the ceiling for your muscle gain based on what you’re born with—your genetics.
We’ve talked about different body types before, and that’s one of the factors that impacts the upper limit of your muscle gain potential if you weight train and monitor your diet closely.
I’m 5’ 9.5” with an ecto-mesomorph body style. Even if I trained like a professional bodybuilder for a decade, the best I could hope for is 170 pounds at 5% body fat.
I can emulate Schwarzenegger’s look, but I’m never going to have the same body as him.
You, on the other hand, might have a better shot based on your genetic potential.
How Do I Discover My Genetic Potential?
The first thing to understand is there’s no foolproof method of measuring genetic potential.
The best article I’ve read on the subject comes from Lyle McDonald, whose findings I summarize below.
The three methods we’re going to discuss merely give you estimates. The calculations aren’t meant to be taken as gospel, and the upper limit you come up with is not set in stone.
The second caveat is that these calculations reflect a holistic, all-natural approach to fitness: weight training, proper nutrition, and no steroids.
You can soar past your muscle gain ceiling with steroids, but if you’re serious about your health, you won’t even consider using such a dangerous shortcut.
McDonald is a physiologist and fitness author who wrote several bestselling books: The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook, The Stubborn Fat Solution, and The Ketogenic Diet.
His metric emphasizes the point that newbie muscle gains don’t last.
In the first year, you can expect to gain 20-25 pounds of muscle.
Those gains will be cut in half the next year.
The 50% reduction continues until the fourth year when annual gains become so small—only 2-3 pounds—that they’re not really worth tracking.
For women, the gains start at 10-12 pounds in the first year and are cut in half each year from there.
|Year of Proper Training||Potential Rate of Muscle Gain per Year|
|1||20-25 pounds (2 pounds per month)|
|2||10-12 pounds (1 pound per month)|
|3||5-6 pounds (0.5 pounds per month)|
|4+||2-3 pounds (not worth calculating)|
Aragon is a science-based fitness guru who’s worked with the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, and the Anaheim Ducks on strength training and conditioning.
His metric splits muscle gains into beginning, intermediate, and advanced categories.
One thing worth noting is that Aragon’s system is more optimistic in its outlook than McDonald’s.
As an experienced lifter who weighs 160 pounds, I can expect to gain between 4.8 and 9.6 pounds of muscle per year using Aragon’s metric, more than three times the ceiling with McDonald’s metric.
In my opinion, Aragon’s results are too optimistic. But again, it’s just an estimate.
|Category||Rate of Muscle Gain|
|Beginner||1-1.5% total body weight per month|
|Intermediate||0.5-1% total body weight per month|
|Advanced||0.25-0.5% total body weight per month|
The final metric worth mentioning comes from the king of intermittent fasting. Berkhan founded Leangains.com and his simple equation is the back of the envelope one I like to use:
Height in centimeters – 100 = upper limit of weight in kilograms in contest shape (4-5% body fat)
My height is 176.5 cm, so the upper limit of my weight in kilograms is 76.5, or roughly 168.5 pounds.
Now you understand why I said earlier that my genetic potential is 170 pounds at 5% body fat.
Your Ceiling is REALLY Far Away
At the time this photo was taken, I was 153 pounds and had 8% body fat:
If I shredded down further to 4-5% body fat, I would be 146 pounds, or 22.5 pounds away from my genetic potential of 168.5.
Using McDonald’s calculation, it would take me 10 YEARS to hit my genetic potential.
Whether you think that would be worth it or not, the reality is that it takes years of unrelenting commitment and sacrifice to look as good as you possibly can.
Does Genetic Potential Matter?
The short answer: No.
Unless you’re a bodybuilder who’s training to be stage ready, your genetic potential is merely a number just like your weight is a number.
Both are good data points to have, but you shouldn’t assign undue meaning to either.
For the average person, genetic potential helps put a reality check on your fitness.
This number shows how ridiculously far off your ceiling is and reminds you of how much body fat you’re carrying, which is something most people grossly underestimate.
Genetic potential says you shouldn’t be walking around thinking you’re jacked. Instead, it encourages you to remain humble, stay motivated, and keep training.
You also develop a newfound appreciation for professional bodybuilders. Knowing how long and how hard they work to achieve the bodies they have, all one can say is:
Bravo, you beautiful meatheads.