Satellite Cells and Elite Bodybuilders - The Muscle PhD

Satellite Cells and Elite Bodybuilders

Satellite Cells and Elite Bodybuilders


When you take a look at the mass monsters on the Mr. Olympia stage, what thoughts cross your mind? Now, many people are quick to blame drugs for the monstrous physiques we see waddling around under the lights, but frankly, that’s a pretty short-sighted view to take. While the effectiveness of drugs is an entire topic on its own, simply administering PEDs will not make you a mass monster. Mass monsters are genetic freaks from birth, much like any other professional athlete.

What genetic factors influence freaky levels of growth? We cover some of these more in-depth in our article here, but one of the main ones is satellite cell activation. We like to think of satellite cells as cells that sorta hang out around our muscles. When our muscles are damaged from training and are undergoing the growth process, satellite cells can help with repair and recovery. As our muscles grow larger and larger, they eventually run into a growth ceiling. This is termed the, “Nuclear Domain Theory,” and we cover it more in-depth in our article here. Essentially, this theory states that the nuclei in a muscle fiber can only control so much cell space. If a fiber outgrows this “nuclear domain,” the fiber can no longer grow. Enter, satellite cells.

Satellite cells can donate their nuclei to muscle fiber to continue the growth process. Once a muscle fiber has a greater myonuclei number, it can continue growing without outpacing its nuclear domain. Now, studies like this one show that just about everyone expresses or activates satellite cells at a different rate. However, these researchers found a strong relationship between satellite cell activation and growth – essentially, the better able you are to activate satellite cells, the better you can grow!

Several researchers have hypothesized that high level bodybuilders (and athletes in general) are probably extreme satellite cell activators. This is why many of these individuals can grow slabs of muscle relatively easy and maintain it with little effort in the offseason. We all have that friend that barely has to work out to get or stay jacked – you know, the one you’re super jealous of. Well, your friend is probably one of the genetic elite when it comes to satellite cell activation.

Now, whenever we cover this topic, we get a ton of questions from people wanting to know how to figure out what kind of satellite cell activator they are. Unless you’re able to volunteer for a similar study to this one, you’re going to have a hard time figuring that out. Certain genetic testing kits (like 23andme) will report on the ACTN3 gene which should give you at least somewhat of an idea regarding your genetic predisposition to muscle growth. Regardless, don’t rely on your genetics as a crutch or excuse for training. No matter how blessed you are, you’re going to have to train hard, eat well, and recover properly to maximize your training results!

Based on: Petrella, J. K., Kim, J. S., Mayhew, D. L., Cross, J. M., & Bamman, M. M. (2008). Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: a cluster analysis. Journal of Applied Physiology, 104(6), 1736-1742.

Further Reading:

Ottinger, C. R., & Wilson, J. M. (2019). Genetics and Elite Athletes.

Ottinger, C. R. & Wilson, J. M. (2018). Muscle Memory.

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