Black Genetics: Myth Or Reality?
Do Blacks Really Have An Advantage?
You hear it in just about every gym. It's almost treated as common knowledge - black people supposedly have better genes for bodybuilding. The question is - is it true? As someone whose progress is credited to his genetics rather than sheer work ethic, I tackle this from a personal point of view.
Photo: Serge Nubret
When it all started..
I've been actively lifting weights for a little over five years. I started taking it seriously around the middle of 2010. Before that, it had really been a hobby - something to make me seem cool and also something that I would loudly throw into a conversation if any girls were within listening distance.
To paint a clearer picture, I had always been an athlete. unfortunately, I never took it seriously but I was easily the best track and field athlete in my little school in England. With my relatively short stature, I was the best high jumper. I was also one of the best long jumpers. I could leave anyone for dead over 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m. I wasn't so good over longer distances. I also had impressive muscle definition - a set of rippling abs and well defined muscles even though I was not carrying a lot of mass. It seemed as though athleticism came naturally to me.
I never paid much attention to this until I actually started lifting weights to build muscle. When I began taking it seriously, I made quick progress. I gained 20lbs seemingly overnight and most of my friends weren't surprised. Their pleasant compliments were always backed by a comment I didn't quite understand at the time -"Well, you're lucky cuz you're black", "It's easier for black people", "It's crazy, black people just lift for a few days and blow up". I just shrugged and went my own way. Fast forward a few years and 55lbs of muscle gain later, could they have been wrong? Did I really have a much easier task of putting on muscle simply because of my genetic ancestry?
Nature vs Nurture
I spent my early years in Zimbabwe, Africa. Back home, there was nothing more desirable than being a strong athlete. Power, speed and strength were all very much desirable traits to have even as a kid. I did well in athletics there though admittedly the competition was much stiffer in Africa than it was in England. Was this because of genetics? I'm not so sure...
You see, in England, teachers are a bit more "hands off". There are many laws that protect children and restrict teachers from pushing children too far. Back in Zimbabwe, you couldn't be slow or lazy. We'd have a teacher running right behind us while threateningly clasping a whip so we could run faster! Athletics was pretty much compulsory and we'd also spend much of our free time chasing each other or kicking footballs around.
Here in England, things were a lot more relaxed. If you didn't want to participate in a P.E lesson, sulking was enough to get you sent to the detention room. You could clown around while refusing to participate and be ignored or told to leave the lesson. If this had happened in Africa, some discipline in the form of a few slashes to the bum would have resolved matters spiffingly. By the way, I am not glorifying one system over another. I'm merely identifying what made me an above average athlete and looking back, I really don't think genetics had much to do with it.
When I got to England at age 14, I had over a decade of athleticism under my belt. I was in better shape and in better condition than most and I discovered that only kids who'd been actively involved in sports for most of their lives could keep up with me. This consisted of football academy apprentices. While I found that I could JUST about eke them out on bleep tests, I was much quicker on the sprints and springier on the jump. Genetics may have played a part in my prodigious jumping ability as I had a height disadvantage, but they had little to do with speed. I'd simply spent more time running around at full pelt!
Furthermore, I was already extremely physically fit, it made me the perfect candidate for lifting weights. My body responded quickly and I put on muscle mass at a steady rate. There was also another factor in this - diet. The Africa diet is chock full of meat, complex carbs and uber vegetables like Kale and spinach. It's perfect for muscle growth.
When we take a look at all these factors, it becomes apparent that anybody in my unique position regardless of race or genetics would have made quick progress in the gym too. When the outside environment is favorable, you can make good progress!
What Scientists Are Saying
Scientists have actually looked at the muscle composition of West Africans and compared it to that of other races to determine once and for all whether there IS a genetic determining factor in all of this. Can genetics explain why Black Athletes dominate track and field events such as sprinting or sports such as Basketball and the NFL?
It turns out there's a partial explanation to it all. In this article, scientific study is said to reveal that West Africans have a higher percentage of fast twitch fibers which are capable of generating more power but lack endurance. These are ideal for explosive movements such as sprinting and jumping. They are also ideal for packing on muscle mass.
An excerpt from the article states; "For years it was axiomatic that muscles have two types of fibers - white, or fast-twitch, which were thought to be adapted for power movements, such as leaping or sprinting; and red, or slow-twitch, which were adapted for endurance. Now we know the model is more complicated. There are in fact two different types of fast-twitch fibers, one more metabolically efficient. Whites on average have a higher percentage of slow-twitch fibers than West African blacks who generally have more of both types of fast-twitch fibers."
By the way, being from Southern Africa, I do share a lot of genetic ancestry with West Africans. We are collectively known as the 'Bantu Peoples'.
So while there IS perhaps a genetic factor in all of this, we must not forget that while genes can potentially affect performance, they do not ensure or guarantee it. And there comes the most important part of my argument.
While my friends hailed me for my genetics, I saw things differently. You see, I'd go to the gym consistently. Rain, sleet or snow, I was there and they weren't. After one year, I'd have cumulatively attended 3 to 5 times more sessions than they had. I simply worked harder. Also, I noticed that I ate a lot more. By the time I hit the gym, usually late afternoon, I'd have consumed 3 meals and a shake while they'd confess to only having one or two. This I feel, made a bigger difference. That's not all...
When I was in the gym, I worked at a different pace. My rest periods were closely monitored with a stopwatch and every worked was recorded in detail. A few sets of bicep curls would cause me to sweat while most of my buddies would finish the gym session looking as fresh as a daisy. I was working closer to my limits and they stayed in their comfort zone. Again, genetics couldn't determine that.
I also worked intelligently and still do. I was wise enough to switch up and experiment to find out what worked for me while they went in to do the same thing over and over again. Once more, this had very little to do with genetics.
We find this to be the story with those black athletes who excel. Anyone who watches Ronnie Coleman training on youtube knows the man doesn't mess around. He always says. ""Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights,". In other words, few people are willing to work REALLY HARD to get to the top. Michael Jordan is known for his maniacal work ethic and drive. Could these be the real determining factors? Could your environment and your life's circumstances have more to do with your progress than your genes?
Even now I'm still torn. The science is there but there's so much more to it. I'll conclude by saying that in my case, genes had a negligible part to play. I worked hard for my physique and while I wont be winning any fitness or bodybuilding contests anytime soon, I'm proud of what I've achieved and I'll continue pushing forward.
I'd love to get your opinions!
Photo: Dorian Yates
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