I debated over whether to dignify this steaming pile of self-serving quarter-truths with a response. Unfortunately I’ve taken the bait. Penn & Teller used an episode of their supposedly myth-busting show, Bullshit!, to tell you that your body type—how muscular or fat you are—is entirely up to your genetics.
Please, take your time cleaning up any vomit on your keyboard.
Their thesis is this: those fitness trainers with gym bodies? Their genes made them that way. You can’t look like that. Are you fat? You’re going to be fat no matter what you do. Those skinny kids? It’s impossible for them to put on muscle no matter how many weights they lift. It’s science!
Well, no, actually it’s “science” trying to be edgy. It’s sciencey. It sounds like science. Really, Penn and Teller are shoveling bullshit rather than dispelling it.
“It’s a cold fact of genetics that there are three basic body types,” they say, before describing with haughty certitude the immutable Ectomorph, Endormorph, and Mesomorph. I do not have the scientific standing to take a position on that theory, though I have my suspicions. But Penn and Teller go further. These body types, you see, are not just genetic tendencies. They are genetic destiny. The deoxyribonucleic stars have foretold your body.
Am I overstating their case, perhaps? No one could refute reality this bluntly. I mean, you know someone who went from skinny-fat to muscular, right? Or someone who used to be fat who is now trim? Or someone who used to be muscular in their youth who has let themselves go?
No, they go whole hog:
Exercise will help you maintain better health. We’re not arguing that. But even Jack [LaLanne] can’t change this fact: your body shape is all mapped out the day from you were born. In other words, all this [clips of Jack LaLanne leading workouts] will never turn you into this [picture of a young Jack LaLanne striking a bodybuilding pose]. Make no mistake, Jack LaLanne hit the genetic jackpot.
(Circa 3:15 to 3:40)
Maybe Jack LaLanne did hit the genetic jackpot. Maybe he didn’t. If his parents and siblings and cousins were a gang of chiseled Adonises and marathon winners, we could make that case. Otherwise we have to plead ignorance.
But the point is that it’s almost immaterial. The vast majority of fit people just did the most with what they were genetically given. They worked hard and ate with discipline for years to get muscular or skinny. Jack LaLanne would not have looked like Jack LaLanne—or been as capable into old age as Jack LaLanne—had he sad on his ass and ate Doritos for forty years.
Of course genetics determine upper limits on our abilities to change our bodies. That is not in dispute. The claim is that genetics is the entire enchilada. To wit:
I’m Penn and this is my partner Teller. Like most Americans, we have more money than self-discipline. We watch what we eat…a little. We work out a few times a week, and we feel pretty good. But we still look like fucking Penn & Teller. Hell, we could work out fifty hours a week and that wouldn’t change. Even if we busted our asses and lived like monks, we still would only be slightly more toned, ‘cause like it or not, these are the bodies our genes fucking give us. This is what we are. That’s the power of genetics. Anyone who tells you different is selling a load of bullshit.”
To be clear, that’s not accurate. Again, genetics influence how your body responds, and your genes will indeed set a maximum on how athletic you can be or the minimum body fat you can maintain while not feeling like shit. But they overstate the case by an order of magnitude.
For instance, it’s well known in sports science that there are sensitive ages for particular physical attributes. Someone who lifted weights regularly during their teen years will always find it easier to be strong than someone who didn’t, regardless of the DNA they were born with. Someone who played serious soccer or basketball for a decade will be better able to return to that level of fitness than someone who has never played sports in their life. So right there—genetics are not the end-all and be-all of your body’s potential.
I’ll be generous: Penn and Teller hit the mark when they indict multi-year gym contracts and the marketing-fueled supplement craze. I agree, those are bullshit of the steamiest order. They are the result of consumer capitalism and an advertising-saturated, results-with-no-effort culture.
But Penn & Teller conflate Buns of Steel ad copy with squatting and running and fucking pull-ups. These free-market libertarians seem incapable of debunking overpriced pseudofitness equipment without reassuring every skinny-fat karate nerd that he’ll never be able to deadlift twice his body weight.
What Penn and Teller are saying—what they are explicitly stating as scientific fact—is that none of us can change how our body looks. We are all stuck with our bodies just as they are. It’s a strangely twee thing to say for such supposedly scientific types. But when Thoreau wrote these words—
Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can?
—he did not mean to be content with what we were born with. He did not mean, nor does science tell us, that our cells predetermine our fate. No, “it is the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny.” Bobby Kennedy was right, there is pride in that, but also experience and (scientific) truth. Penn and Teller show that this is not the only way we can live. But it is how I’d like to live.