What Makes a Successful ATHLETE?
Updated: Sep 11, 2021
We all have been influenced by the commendable feats athletes perform. Be it sprinting, long-distance running, basketball, powerlifting, bodybuilding etc. But, what makes a successful athlete? What makes an athlete capable of performing feats that most people can only dream of? Is it the way they train, exercise or is it their diet? Is it genetics? Why does body composition seem to be sport specific? Is a particular body composition suitable for a specific sport? Let’s try answering all these questions with the help of science.
Let’s first try understanding a little bit more about muscles.
What are Muscles, and How do Muscles Work?
Google dictionary defines muscles as a band or bundle of fibrous tissue in a human body that can contract, producing movement in or maintaining the position of parts of the body. Muscles are grouped into the following three categories:
Skeletal muscles: These are connected to bones and are striated in appearance. They are voluntary in action.
Smooth muscles: These are involuntary (automatic) in action. Examples: vasodilation (dilation of blood vessels resulting in a decrease in blood pressure), vasoconstriction (constriction of blood vessels increasing blood pressure), etc.
Cardiac muscles: These look like skeletal muscles but behave like smooth muscles. They are striated in appearance and have an electrical conduction system.
When a muscle works, the fixed end is called the origin, and the moving end is called insertion. The insertion will go towards the origin.
Contrary to popular belief, muscles can only pull and not push.
Muscles only pull. However, the body movement may look like a push, but the muscle action is always contract (or pull). When muscle fibres run parallel to each other, that muscle may be called a parallel muscle. For a more detailed skeletal muscle classification, refer How to Classify Skeletal Muscles.
The muscle belly consists of fasciculus; fasciculus consists of sarcolemma; sarcolemma consists of myofibril; myofibril consists of sarcomere; sarcomere consists of actin and myosin.
Components of a MUSCLE BELLY:
The following components make up a Muscle Belly:
Fasciculus: Fasciculus are a bundle of skeletal muscle fibres surrounded by perimysium, a connecting tissue. Credit - Wikipedia.
Sarcolemma: Sarcolemma is a cell membrane of a striated muscle fibre cell. Credit - Wikipedia.
Myofibril: Myofibril are long filaments that run parallel to each other to firm muscle (myo) fibres. Credit - Biology Dictionary.
Sarcomere: Sarcomere is a structural unit of a myofibril in a striated muscle. Credit - Oxford Dictionaries.
Actin: Actin is a family of globular multi-functional proteins that forms contractile filaments of muscle cells. Credit - Wikipedia.
Myosin: Myosin is a family of globular multi-functional proteins that forms contractile filaments of muscle cells. Credit - Wikipedia.
Together, Actin and Myosin form the contractile filaments of a muscle cell.
Muscle fibres can be classified into many types depending on how fast (or slow) they twitch. For simplicity of understanding, let’s categorise them as follows:
Slow Twitch Fibres or Type 1 Fibres: These have limited potential to Hypertrophy.
Fast Twitch Fibres or Type 2 Fibres: These have a higher potential for Hypertrophy.
Further, Fast Twitch Fibres or Type 2 Fibres can be classified into:
Intermediate Fast Twitch Fibres or Type 2A Fibres
Very Fast Twitch Fibres or Type 2B Fibres
Very Fast Twitch or Type 2B Fibres have the highest potential for Hypertrophy or growth.
Why does a Powerlifter look Radically Different from a Bodybuilder or a Long-Distance Runner?
With our understanding of muscle fibres, let’s compare them:
A powerlifter will be interested in increasing strength since it will aid them to lift heavier and perform superhuman strength feats. Body fat percentage is not a concern for powerlifters. It’s not a mandate to have lower body fat levels to qualify for or win a powerlifting competition.
A bodybuilder will be interested in hypertrophying the Very Fast Twitch or Type 2B Fibres which have a very high potential to grow and will aid them to have bigger muscles and win a bodybuilding competition. The only difference here is that a bodybuilder will only be interested in hypertrophy and very low body fat levels and not necessarily strength. For a bodybuilder, strength is purely optional.
A long-distance runner will be interested in Slow Twitch or Type 1 Fibres. The abundance of slow-twitch fibres will help in running longer distances.
The Athlete Ecosystem:
Almost all athletes have a team of experts that manage them. This team includes a sports psychologist, a doctor, a pathologist, a steroid expert etc. They are on a strict diet and an intensive training regime to increase their performance in their sport. They are genetic freaks and are ready to do whatever it takes to win. They are mentally unbreakable.
It will be incorrect and unethical to say that only intensive training or a particular diet will make a winning athlete. There are specific factors that decide whether you become a successful athlete or not. Some elements are controllable, and some are beyond control.
Factors like genetics, height etc., are not controllable. Factors like diet, training, muscle mass are controllable to a certain extent. How individuals respond to diet and exercise depends on their genetic makeup. For example, for long-distance running, a genetically blessed person with abundant Slow Twitch or Type 1 Fibres will always have the edge over a person with less Slow Twitch or Type 1 Fibres; they are lucky to be born with it.
On the other hand, for bodybuilding, a genetically blessed person with abundant Very Fast Twitch or Type 2B Fibres will always have the edge over a person with less Very Fast Twitch or Type 2B Fibres. If we draw a parallel, Usain Bolt can never win a cycling race with Lance Armstrong. Similarly, Michael Jordan will never win a 100-metre sprint race with Usain Bolt.
All successful athletes are genetic freaks. They are fortunate to have been born with the right genes.
An athlete’s body and mental makeup are very sport-specific.
To a great extent, genetics plays a significant role in deciding if one will become a successful athlete or not.
Other factors like training, diet & nutrition, mental health & fitness, type and quality of steroids, supplementation, opportunities, funding, etc. also play a significant role in deciding if a person will ever be a successful competitive athlete.
Now we know, what makes a successful athlete.