Tyler Robbins Fitness

B.Sc. Biochemistry, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified CrossFit Trainer (CCFT/CF-L3), USA Weightlifting Level 1

Set Point Theory and Body Composition

There are more and more studies done every day discussing the obesity epidemic that is sweeping across Western Civilization. Yes, this is an epidemic and if you don't believe so, then you must have your head in the sand, but we can save that discussion for future blogs.

The studies that have been done lately have been focusing on how much genetics plays a role in our body compositions. We all know that members of the same family look alike. Eye color, hair color, proportions of limbs, size of your muscles, etc. all seem to be genetically based. Why on earth would we assume that body composition (percentage of non-lean mass most specifically) is not based on this same principle then?

There have been numbers thrown about, and to be honest I am not the one that is going to give you a final answer on this, but from what I have read, some researchers suggest that as much as 40-65% of our body compositions are genetically-based.

A recent theory that has caught my attention is called the "Set Point Theory". This theory believes that everyone essentially has a (for lack of better terms) 'basement' weight and 'ceiling' weight. These are referred to as 'set points'. Between these set points, you create a theoretical area of where your weight, and for the most part, body composition, falls based on your genetics, or as theory goes.

This does seem to make sense and even lines up with an article that I recently read in the New York Times called the Fat Trap. This set point theory and the NYT article discusses the idea that individuals who try and fluctuate beyond their 'set points' have a helluva time as their body's survival mechanisms kick in to try and prevent too much chaos.

The idea here is that, let's theoretically say that your lower set point is around 160 pounds as a grown male. Your dad was always tall and slender, and was skinny his entire life, and since you look just like him, you fall into roughly the same set points that he does.

Now let's say you are currently 170 pounds, you feel like training for a marathon to get back into shape and start training hard and dieting well. You begin to notice in the first few weeks of dieting and training that your weight starts coming off quite rapidly. Your body begins to get lean and mean, you look good and feel good, but your weight won't budge past 160 pounds.

This set point theory (as well as the Fat Trap article from NYT) believes that your body starts a process of slowing down your weight loss due to its fear that you are threatening its survival. Your body may then even start to initiate processes to make sure that your weight returns to where it was.

This may in fact be one of the single most startling revelations in the health and fitness industry as time and time again, individuals report serious struggles maintaining success after a dramatic weight loss. It could possibly come down to the fact that their bodies just simply initiate survival mechanisms.

So why is it that people get to the size that they do? This appears to be one of the questions that is puzzling researchers. It is certainly no secret that on a general scale, people are consuming far greater calories than they ever have throughout human history, while at the same time becoming far more sedentary than ever in human history.

This set point theory therefore has flaws in it...well not necessarily. For someone like myself, I have been quite lucky up to this point in my life. I have had a great childhood with plenty of activity and sports, and have always been a 'skinny kid'. Even now at the age of 27, I struggle to get my weight much higher than about 180 pounds. I am not bragging, just my genetics! That could all very well change and I may suddenly start gaining weight well beyond that 180 mark as I age and my metabolism slows, but I will discuss more of that later.

The point I heading towards, is that even though I was very active as I was younger, my diet wasn't the greatest. My family was always on the run and we lived off of fast food and deep fried foods. If my genetics were any different, I may be much larger than I am now. So how come some people gain so much weight over others?

The reasoning may lie in the difference between an individual's set points. For example, I seem to consistently stay between 170-180 pounds. Sure, if I put a lot of effort into it, I could probably get my weight up a bit higher than 180 and if I went on a hunger strike, my weight would probably dip below 170, but for the most part, those are my set points, a difference of about 10 pounds. For a lot of people, a life of abusing their bodies by consuming large quantities of calories combined with massive amounts of inactivity, can cause their upper set point to slowly ratchet higher and higher. Not only do they ratchet their upper set point up, but their lower one may come with it.

If we still use myself as an example and I neglect my body for the next 10-15 years and get my upper set point up to 280 pounds, my lower set point may also raise up to say 250-260 pounds. Now, when I try and get fit and healthy again, my body will struggle to get past that lower set point because I have locked myself into that position.

That is a very vague and brief example, but think of this; I seem to have my set points about 10 pounds apart. What if someone has a difference of 40 or 50 pounds between their set points? Suddenly their weight can climb much faster than they ever thought!

So you may say to yourself, "Why exercise and diet accordingly if I don't really have a choice in the matter, aren't I genetically doomed regardless?"

Simple answer; because you can! What I am trying to get across here is that some people are absolutely going to have more difficulties losing weight over others. On the flip side of that equation, some people are going to struggle to try and keep their weight up. That is life, and according to the research, anywhere from 40-65% of what makes you look like you is genetic.

Because of trends like these, the medical community has had to come up with new terms like the phrase "skinny fat" which is used to represent the physical state of those that may appear skinny, but are terribly unhealthy because of the way they live their lives. Just because you got a lucky card in the draw and can, "Eat whatever you want because you never gain a pound!" does not mean that your lifestyle should reflect that.

Keep these things in mind though. We unfortunately live in a society where looks matter. You are pretty hard-pressed to see advertisements for gym memberships or diet clinics that don't shove 6-pack abs in your face. Men and women alike seem to crave a flat, toned, six-pack midsection more than anything else. Guys may also want big muscles and women want a toned posterior too.

For those of you that follow me may know of my youtube channel. I actually had an individual come on there recently and comment on my video claiming that, "You workout this much and you still aren't RIPPED!?!?" I decided to write a reply to this person stating the reasons for my interest in health and fitness which go beyond my appearance, but also indicated that my appearance was based on genetics, diet, etc. He replied with something along the lines of, "Don't blame your genes for your failures. A true sign of a man's fitness level is the size of his muscles!"...

I know not everyone can be educated on the benefits of health and fitness as many only see the world in black and white. They believe everything they see in the media and think that the only respectable end-result of dieting and exercising to the extreme is to look like a supermodel. I can tell you this, however, that no matter what your genetics tell you about how you are going to look, you can still fight that trend and have some success. Keep in mind the slew of other benefits to eating properly and exercising that go well beyond how you look. 

Sure, genetics may play a 40-65% role in your body composition, but that is still nowhere near 100%. Not only that, but the rewards to your brain, your heart, your lungs, and your muscles from exercising and eating properly are far greater than what you see in a mirror.