What determines the variation in human performance?

From: Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology

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  • The paper is a review of the existing literature.


  • The paper is a systematic review / meta analysis of all relevant trials.
  • This means that the data from all similar trials has been grouped to form an overall outcome.


  • There is overwhelming support of the general idea that genes are responsible for some of the variation in human athletic performance.
  • However, there is little evidence in support of a specific genetic variant with a major gene effect on performance.
  • Physiological traits show significant heritability, and studies provide strong support that genetic factors determine measures of human performance (e.g., VO2 max) and ultimately athletic ability in various sporting disciplines.
  • The following traits have been shown to be inherited and have a positive impact on athletic performance; aerobic performance and response to training, anaerobic performance , muscle strength and power, neuromuscular coordination, bone density, body size and composition, muscle fibre type distributions, cardiovascular variables including blood pressure, blood lipid biochemistry, blood glucose, insulin, and peripheral insulin sensitivity, substrate utilisation and metabolic rate, pulmonary function, and hormones and hormonal response to training.
  • Elite athletes are those who respond in extraordinary ways to training in order to unlock an already present potential, and genes- by-training interaction may itself be affected by genes × environment taking place over the lifetime of an individual.
  • A few studies show associations of foetal growth with traits that have direct relevance to exercise physiology including (mostly) body composition traits and the performance characteristics of skeletal muscle
  • Studies show that activity patterns and increased calcium intake during childhood and adolescence relate positively to bone mineral density in adulthood. However, other studies show that gains in bone mineral density disappear at 18–36 months.
  • Children migrant to high altitude, and early exposure to hypoxia, are associated with higher VO2 max and larger total lung volume. These relationships are evident from early life (1–2 years of age) through adolescence, and the traits are retained in adults


  • The authors conclude that genes x environment, particularly over the lifetime of an individual, highlight the variance in human athletic performance.