Potential in Powerlifting

January 1, 2018 / Powerlifting, Training Theory
Potential in Powerlifting

Athletic potential has been particularly studied in recent years in the field of training theory.  What makes a great athlete? Is it possible for anyone to reach high levels in sport?  To what extent do genetics play a role?  While the answers to these questions make for a far broader text than the article you are presently reading, we want here to take a look at athletic potential from the perspective of one sport in particular: powerlifting.

Powerlifting seems inaccessible for some: the huge weights being lifted by powerlifters might even look like superhuman feats of strength for the regular gym goers.   Incomprehension often leads to the easy conclusion that these people where genetically predisposed to lift as much as they do.  While genetics certainly play a part in any sport, the extent to which they influence sport success will vary greatly from one athletic field to another.

So, just how much is powerlifting success determined by genetics?  To answer that question, we’ll look at the main components that have an influence on powerlifting talent: limbs length; hypertrophy; fiber makeup; maximal strength and, finally; giftedness.

Limbs length is highly genetically determined[1] and has an influence on range of motion and lifting technique in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.  Generally speaking, the less the weight has to move, the easier the lift will be.  However, what is advantageous for one lift might be detrimental to the other.  For example, short arms might be a big help for bench pressing, but they will definitely hurt deadlift leverages.  It is also important to take note that, while limbs length do vary from one person to another, such variability rarely exceeds 10%[2] in relative segment lengths.  All in all, limbs length has a small impact on powerlifting success, and you will notice excellent powerlifters with very different body builds.

Hypertrophy is only moderately predetermined[3], and it has a huge influence on powerlifting performance.  The reason is simple: the more muscle you can put on, the more you will have to work with when lifting maximal loads.  As you start out, most of the improvements in strength will come from neural adaptations.  However, after the first couple months of lifting, once decent technique has been stabilized in the three lifts, the ability to further improve strength will come in great part from added muscle mass.  While it is definitely possible to keep on getting stronger with the same muscle mass for an extended period of time (as you see mostly in advanced powerlifters), such a progression will be much slower and is not recommended for beginner lifters.

Muscle fiber makeup, or the ratio of Type I / Type II fibers and its impact on sports performance has been studied for years and is generally accepted as a good predictor of success in various sports.  As a quick reminder, Type I fibers are resistant to fatigue and take longer to reach maximal force; Type II fibers, on the opposite, reach maximal force very quickly but can’t work for very long.  An athlete with a greater amount of Type I fibers would do well in endurance sports while one with predominantly Type II fibers would be better suited for strength and power sports.  Muscle fiber makeup is greatly determined by genetic inheritance[4].   However, recent findings show that Type I / Type II ratio really doesn’t matter as much as we previously thought, especially for strength sports.  First of all, in a normal human, the ratio is about 50/50, with all muscles presenting a mix of both[5].  The variation from one individual to the other usually lies in the ratio within certain muscles.  Even then, it has been shown that maximal force production doesn’t vary all that much for Type I and Type II fibers.  Actually, the difference in the force producing capacity of these two types of fiber is less than 10%[6].  While a high percentage of Type II fibers in the proper muscles will definitely help in power sports because of the ability of these fibers to produce force quickly, it doesn’t seem to lend a meaningful advantage for maximal strength development.

Maximal strength itself is marginally influenced by genetics[7] and is the most important factor in powerlifting success.  Not much explanation is needed here: maximal strength is the main biomotor ability used in powerlifting.  The stronger you get, the better you will be.  Since its genetic predetermination is poor, it means that this quality is highly trainable and can be developed to great heights.

Giftedness comprises two aspects: the initial level of the athlete and his rate of improvement.  This concept, of course, applies to all sports.  An athlete that is considered “gifted”, for example, would be someone with a good initial level and a fast rate of improvement.  Both components are determined in part by various genetic factors, but especially the latter, since initial level is mostly explained by previous sports experience.  Improvement rate is influenced by trainability, which we can define as “an ability to improve the working potential of an athlete by means of specially organized, purposeful training[8].”  Not two people will respond exactly the same to a training program: this is where trainability comes in.  Genetics, of course, play a meaningful part in the way one responds to training; however, a host of other factors come into play as well, such as internal motivation, attention to recovery, time management and general work ethic.  It is important to note that this apparent “restriction” to sport success in powerlifting will be mostly exhibited in extraordinary performances because of the low contribution of genetic factors to powerlifting achievements.  Sports with maximal speed or high space orientation demands, on the other hand, will be greatly influenced by giftedness and genetic factors.

As we can see, the most important components of powerlifting, namely hypertrophy and maximal strength, are not greatly genetically determined and are both highly trainable qualities.  Giftedness, but especially muscle fibers makeup and limbs length only have a marginal impact on achieving success in powerlifting.  While advantages in these aspects in addition to the main ones can be attributed to record breaking performances in powerlifting, this is a sport where a broad range of the population has the potential to do well, given that the patience and work ethics necessary to succeed at a high level in any sport are present.

[1] Issurin, Vladimir. Building the Modern Athlete: Scientific Advancements & Training Innovations.  2016, UAC. P. 311

[2] Nuckols, Greg. The Journey: How to Reach your Full Potential. 2015, Self-Published.  P.31

[3] Issurin, Vladimir. Athletic Talent: Identification and its Development.  2017, UAC. P. 63

[4] Issurin, Vladimir. Athletic Talent: Identification and its Development.  2017, UAC. P. 62

[5] Schoenfeld, Brad. Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy.  2016, Human Kinetics, P.4

[6] Nuckols, Greg. The Journey: How to Reach your Full Potential. 2015, Self-Published.  P.27

[7] Issurin, Vladimir. Athletic Talent: Identification and its Development.  2017, UAC. P. 63

[8] Issurin, Vladimir. Building the Modern Athlete: Scientific Advancements & Training Innovations.  2016, UAC. P. 67

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Louis-Alexis Gratton

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