The 7 Ways Genetics Impact Bodybuilders, From Pro Coach Joe Bennett

“Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of had wide, child-bearing hips,” says bodybuilding coach Joe Bennett. He‘s right; Schwarzenegger, the grandfather of modern bodybuilding and a seven-time Mr. Olympia winner, often posed for photos by twisting his torso and standing almost perpendicular to the camera, cleverly posturing to conceal a genetic “flaw”.

Bennett, who’s been dubbed the “Hypertrophy Coach” and who coaches top-level physique athletes like Arnold Classic two-timer Terrence Ruffin, recently took to YouTube to discuss how genetics impact the physiques (and careers) of the world’s best bodybuilders.

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Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

7 Genetic Factors in Bodybuilding

When it comes to bodybuilding, genetics are a slot machine with a lever you only get to pull once. As Bennett says, genetic factors can make or break a bodybuilder’s career in the big leagues. From his perspective, genetics influence bodybuilding in the following key ways: 

Muscle-Building Capacity

Body Structure

Muscle Bellies

Muscle Insertions

Muscle Separation

Predisposition to Leanness

Other Factors

Muscle-Building Capacity

An athlete’s overall genetic predisposition to muscle hypertrophy affects their career trajectory more than perhaps any other single factor. Bennett cites 8-time Olympia winner and bodybuilding great Ronnie Coleman to illustrate this idea.

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Coleman competed in bodybuilding as early as 1991, when he was 27 years old. Allegedly, Bennett says Coleman appeared on stage back then before using any performance-enhancing drugs, yet his muscular development could have rivaled many high-level advanced athletes even to this day.

Body Structure

According to Bennett, body structure — the length and proportion of your skeleton — is the literal framework upon which a bodybuilder crafts their physique. Some athletes have better bones than others for bodybuilding:

Legendary leg-day enthusiast Tom Platz is renowned for having the best quads in the sport’s history. Bennett credits that prestige in part to Platz having short femurs, which help his quads appear thicker. 

Brian Buchanan, an 80s-era bodybuilder, is regarded as having the smallest waist in Men’s Open history. Buchanan’s uncommonly narrow pelvis allowed him to dramatically accentuate his V-taper

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“Bodybuilding is about ratios,” says Bennett. Broad clavicles and snug hips make it easier to develop a tapered torso. Further, athletes with large, “barrel-chested” rib cages can better display the stomach vacuum, which is integral in divisions like Classic Physique

Muscle Bellies

A muscle belly refers to the three-dimensional shape of the muscle itself; is it bulbous, cylindrical, jagged, flat, or full? Bennett specifies that a muscle belly is distinct from its insertions, but emphasizes that lucky bodybuilders tend to have muscle bellies that grow outward, appearing to sprout off the bone.

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Think of Schwarzenegger’s iconic biceps peaks that burst upward toward his wrists when he flexes, or the package brought to the stage by seven-time Olympia winner Phil Heath. Heath earned the nickname “the Gift” during his career for having extraordinary genetics for the sport, including his almost cartoonishly-rounded muscle bellies. (Look up Heath’s shoulders on Google. They’re nuts.)

Muscle Insertions

Tendons are a type of connective tissue that links muscle to bone. Where and how tendons insert onto bone are what people refer to when discussing muscle insertions. As Bennett puts it, “longer tendons are bad, short tendons are good.” 

Why? Because long tendons occupy valuable skeletal real estate. Bennett makes an example of the calves, which connect your calf muscles to your foot. A lengthy Achilles tendon makes the calves appear stumpy. In contrast, bodybuilders with shorter tendons display calves that appear to stretch almost down to their heels, wrapping the entire bottom half of the leg in lean muscle. 

Muscle Separation

“You tend to see a trend where the most ‘separated’ bodybuilders of all time are also the most lean,” Bennett says. Muscular separation describes how much “texture” you can see on a bodybuilder’s physique

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For example, athletes with “feathered quads” have plenty of small lines and striations along their legs. This is closely related to the idea of muscle maturity, and does require very low levels of body fat. Regardless, Bennett notes that some bodybuilders are blessed with better muscle “architecture” than others. 

Dorian Yates, for example, was known for carrying incredible amounts of muscle mass with skin so thin you could practically see the graininess of the muscle belly. Most bodybuilders at the elite level can achieve similar levels of body fat (typically in the range of four to five percent), but not all of them display graininess, striations, or extreme vacularity.

Predisposition to Leanness

“In my opinion, overall leanness is strongly influenced by long-term health decisions,” Bennett remarks. He likely refers to choices made early in life such as developing a healthy relationship with food and regular physical activity before puberty takes hold. 

While body fat can be reliably added or removed by manipulating calorie intake, Bennett believes that some bodybuilders possess a specific capacity to remain at very low levels of body fat year-round, regardless of whether they’re preparing for a show. 

Other Factors

Genetics influence nearly every facet of a bodybuilder’s physique in one way or another. Beyond the six factors above, Bennett also mentions several other more minor, corollary influences: 

Response to Steroids: Some people experience better results from steroid use than others, Bennett notes. He’s right; a landmark 1996 study found that some folks who took testosterone and did not exercise at all gained more muscle than natural trainees who lifted weights. (1)

Appetite: Appetites vary dramatically between individuals. Bodybuilders who have no issue bulking up by consuming large quantities of food can better fuel their workouts. Bennett notes that bodybuilders with meager appetites often need to force-feed themselves to enter a calorie surplus. 

Muscle Retention: “He retired from bodybuilding, eats almost nothing, but his body won’t let him lose muscle,” Bennett says of Men’s Open bodybuilder Ben Pakulski. Bennett argues that some lifters possess an innate ability to maintain muscle mass, even when they aren’t actively trying to do so. These athletes catch a lucky break when injured or are not able to train for extended periods of time. 

Injury Propensity: Physical resilience is important even for bodybuilders, who aren’t technically considered strength athletes. Those who are genetically gifted in this regard are able to train longer, lift heavier, and endure higher-volume bodybuilding workouts, all of which contribute to better physical development over time.

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Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

Bennett makes a mighty compelling case for the power of genetics as it pertains to an athlete’s success (or failure) in bodybuilding. That said, he doesn’t think it’s all doom-and-gloom for anyone who may have gotten a raw deal with their DNA.

“You can’t change your structure, but you can outwork your genetics,” he concludes. You may not make it to first callouts at the Olympia, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a bodybuilder if you don’t have the same genetic gifts as Schwarzenegger or Coleman. As the saying goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard

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Bhasin S, Storer TW, Berman N, Callegari C, Clevenger B, Phillips J, Bunnell TJ, Tricker R, Shirazi A, Casaburi R. The effects of supraphysiologic doses of testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men. N Engl J Med. 1996 Jul 4;335(1):1-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199607043350101. PMID: 8637535.

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