Thursday, April 9, 2009

Becoming Batman

This is an old post from CrossFit Balboa's blog:

Becoming Batman 


Last week we discussed a new book by E. Paul Zehr called Becoming Batman. The premise of the book is to take a look at the genetic traits and physical demands that it would take to make someone a superhero. I consulted with resident superhero expert, Jason Davis, to critique the book.

As a young boy growing up I was always fond of comic books and superheroes. My imagination would run wild as I went on adventures with Superman, Spiderman, Batman and countless others. Yet only one of those heroes has been able to captivate and inspire me to this very day, and that hero is Batman.

Why Batman? Simple, he’s human. He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him arachnid like abilities, he was not gifted with alien powers that allowed him to fly or shot-put a 747. No, Batman is an ordinary (albeit wealthy ) human being that does the extraordinary day in and day out. Batman forged himself through years of hard work, training and will power (esp willpower) effectively representing the pinnacle of human physical achievement. So does that mean that you or I are capable of reaching these heights? Possibly, let’s look a little deeper into what actually makes Batman the Batman.

Part 1: Genetics

As a trainer and a coach I have always heard clients/random people around  the gym make some remark akin to “I can’t get lean, strong or’s just not part of my genetics” Well how big of a role do genetics actually play in your quest to become the Dark Knight? The answer may surprise you...


At some point in your life you have probably (hopefully) attempted some sort of an activity that combined a movement and physical ability (eg. Snatch, sprint, kipping pull-up, martial arts, etc) and you probably had some measure of success with it. In fact depending on your decision to pursue the 10,000 hrs ( of practice needed to master said activity, you either got pretty good at it or gave it up altogether. It takes a considerable amount of discipline to not only become but to maintain your proficiency in any kind of physical skill. So what role do your genes play in it all? To understand we have to take an imaginary look at ourselves under a microscope so we can see the basic building block that we are all made of; the cell.

Cell’s have three main parts: the cell membrane, cytoplasm, and the nucleus. The nucleus houses your DNA which play the determining role in which of your physical traits, or phenotypes, that your body expresses. Yet, that is only half of the story since one has to factor in dominant and recessive expression. Remember that genes communicate a number of different things about you. Things you can see (hair and eye color) and things you can’t (likelihood of developing cancer or crone’s disease) like genes can take on certain forms called alleles and the set of alleles that a person has for a certain gene is called the genotype. Within the genotype alleles may be dominant or recessive. If you have at least one dominant allele for a certain trait , that will be expressed or shown. The recessive trait will be expressed only if you have recessive alleles in both pairs.

It is important to realize that your genes (genotype) and the actual physical manifestation of those genes (phenotype) are not always the same thing. I mean have you ever noticed how two generally unattractive parents can create a really attractive kid? Weird right...This is also the reason that your mom has blue eyes and your dad’s eyes are brown but your eyes are green. It’s all thanks to the way that dominant and recessive genes were paired together at your conception.

So, now that we have a small understanding of what your genes are actually responsible for. Let’s take a look at how they influence body type. Why is body type of consequence? Well for starters part of the reason that Batman is such an effective crime-fighter is because he looks intimidating. Because of his muscular powerful build, criminals (known for being cowardly and superstitious) are immediately scared of him since his body implies the amount of damage he can do if he got his hands on them. Using “somatotopy” (literally body categories) science says that human bodies fall into three categories: ectomorphic, endomorphic, and mesomorphic. Ectomorphs have slim bodies and difficulty gaining weight. Endomorphs have thicker bodies and gain weight (esp fat) easily, and mesomorphs are in between ecto and endomorphs with a strong predisposition for gaining muscle mass. Obviously, most people don’t fit neatly into one category, most of us would be blends. Did you notice how, at the beginning of this paragraph, I used the word “influence” to describe the extent that genetics factored into our bodies? Well you have to consider that Batman wasn’t born yolked but rather his body is just reflecting his response to training.

Consider this, as human beings we share 99% of our genetic coding. 99%! Holy double helix! That means that all of our differences from height to weight and body types come from a measly 1% . Incredible that all of our individualism comes from that tiny little number. This  knowledge will be useful in our upcoming discussion of nature versus nurture. Since our desire for extreme physical performance is indeed a part of how our bodies respond to vigorous exercise, how much of that response is because of heredity and much of it is environmental? How much of our DNA defines us and how much of our experiences decide who we are? Surely, we are a product of this EXTREMELY complex relationship. A key thing to realize would be that genetic influences are often quite specific and can only be maximized in certain specific situations. For example, if you have an inherent capacity to respond to strength-training exercise, it may only be for a specific type of exercise. Meaning that just because your body adapts well to Thrusters it does not mean that you will adapt so easily to long distance running.

The argument of nature versus nurture is a messy one with no clear cut resolution. Would Bruce Wayne have devoted himself so rigorously to training so that he could become Batman if his parents had never been brutally murdered in front of him? Hard to say, maybe he would’ve been more like the shallow billionaire playboy that he pretends to be in front of the public. Who knows? I do think it is safe to say that his genetics gave him a certain inclination towards certain activities but his environment fostered his burning desire to be the hero that he is. In fact, If he had never applied himself to the dedicated training program that he went through for years I can tell you that somersaulting off of rooftops and fighting crime would not be part of his daily to-do list. In a study adapted from McArdle et al in the book Essentials of Exercise Physiology. It was discovered that many factors that are key to physical performance have approximately 20 to 30% genetic contribution. For example muscle strength and aerobic fitness both have about 30% genetic contribution to your current fitness status today. Remember, that the Batman had some physical predisposition to becoming who he is (just like you have some predisposition to becoming who you are) but It was not set in stone!

Lastly remember this, most of our traits are a complex mixtures of nature AND nurture. Diet and exercise plays just as  important roles in our quest to emulate the Batman. In fact in a story from the graphic novel “Child of Dreams” an evil genius was stealing DNA samples from crime scenes where Batman battled members of his rogue gallery in an effort to create clones to defeat him. But after Batman defeated all of them he said, memorably, “ A man isn’t just his DNA… he’s his intellect, his experiences… You’re not Batman…You’re not the things I experienced, the event’s that shaped me.” Bravo.

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