Could YOU compete at the Commonwealth Games? Scientist reveals the physical features that give athletes the advantage – and says swimmers benefit from a long body and short legs while lawn bowlers need big HANDS

  • Training is essential, but studies suggest probability of becoming an athlete is influenced by genetics by 70%
  • Dr Adam Hawkey told MailOnline how body type may play a part in who gets a podium finish
  • He suggests that swimmers want long arms for big strokes, while it’s the opposite for weightlifters
  • Meanwhile, lawn bowlers benefit from big hands, as this gives them better control of the ball
  • ‘While there is no perfect body type for all sports, there are some specific characteristics that will hugely benefit certain disciplines,’ the scientist said

Were you born to be an elite athlete that could take home the gold at the Commonwealth Games?

While training the muscles and increasing stamina are both essential, as well as limitless determination, other physical traits put some sportspeople at an advantage.

Studies have suggested that the probability of becoming an elite athlete is influenced by genetics by over 70 per cent, depending on the sport. 

With the Commonwealth Games heating up in Birmingham, Dr Adam Hawkey from Solent University has revealed exactly how body type may play a part in who gets a podium finish.

Speaking exclusively to the MailOnline, he said: ‘According to some research, innate factors crucial to sporting performance – such as power, strength, aerobic capacity, flexibility and coordination – are predominantly determined by our genetic make-up.’

Dr Hawkey, an Associate Professor of Sports Science and Human Performance, suggested that swimmers benefit from a long body and short legs, so their centre of mass is further up their body and helps to reduce drag.

Many weightlifters may have an armspan shorter than their height, as it means they have less distance to cover when moving the bar.

While lawn bowlers could possess an above average hand size, as this gives them better control of the ball.

With the Games heating up in Birmingham, Dr Adam Hawkey from Solent University has revealed exactly how body type may play a part in who gets a podium finish in different sports

Eilish McColgan (pictured), who won gold in the women’s 10,000 m at the Commonwealth Games this week is tall and lean so can take long strides as a distance runner

Dr Hawkey added: ‘While muscles can be trained to be more powerful and more efficient, there is evidence that, to some extent, our muscle types are pre-determined.

‘So if someone is born with predominantly type 1a muscle fibres they will be pre-dispositioned for power, speed and strength events.’

Type 1a muscles have rich capillary supply, numerous aerobic respiratory enzymes and a high concentration of myoglobin that improves the delivery of oxygen.

‘While there is no perfect body type for all sports, there are some specific characteristics that will hugely benefit certain disciplines,’ the scientist said.

Swimming

To be an elite swimmer that spends an above average time with their head underwater, it would make sense that larger lungs provide a natural advantage.

While it has yet to be concluded if the above-average lung size is influenced by genetics, Dr Hawkey said that there are other traits that could give a swimmer the edge.

‘Height has of huge influence on success,’ he said, as speed in swimming is about stroke rate multiplied by stroke length.

The average height of swimmers in the finals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was 6’2″ (1.88 m) for men and 5’9″ (1.75 m) for women.

This is over six inches (15 cm) more than the global average for both genders.   

Dr Hawkey added: ‘However, being tall is not necessary a predictor of performance. More specifically, having a long torso with long arms, shorter legs, and slim hips all help.

‘Long arms help with reach, both for strokes and at the finish, and a long body with short legs means that the centre of mass moves closer to the lungs, helping with buoyancy and reducing drag.

‘Having large lungs also contributes to increased buoyancy and additionally helps with endurance.’

Dr Hawkey said that ‘height has of huge influence on success’ in swimming, as speed is about stroke rate multiplied by stroke length. Long arms help with reach in strokes and at the finish


Micheal Phelps, former competitive swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time, is 6’4″ (1.93 m) and has a two-metre arm span. He also has large feet, wearing a size 14 shoe, and is double jointed at the elbows, knees and ankles, all of which give him an advantage

The fastest athletes in the 100 metres 

Usain Bolt (August 2009) – 9.58 seconds

Tyson Gay (September 2009) – 9.69 seconds

Yohan Blake (August 2012) – 9.69 seconds

Asafa Powell (September 2008) – 9.72 seconds

Justin Gatlin (May 2015) – 9.74 seconds

Christian Coleman (September 2019) – 9.76 seconds

Trayvon Bromell (September 2021) – 9.76 seconds

Fred Kerley (June 2022) – 9.76 seconds

Ferdinand Omanyala (September 2021) – 9.77 seconds

Nesta Carter August 2010) – 9.78 seconds

Micheal Phelps, former competitive swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time, is 6’4″ (1.93 m) and has a two-metre arm span.

He also has large feet, wearing a size 14 shoe, and is double jointed at the elbows, knees and ankles.

Dr Hawkey said: ‘Large hands and feet can be used as paddles and flippers respectively – both helping to propel the swimmer forward faster. 

‘Having high levels of flexibility – especially hyperextension of the elbows, knees, and ankles – enable swimmers a greater range of movement.’

Athletics 

Athletics covers a broad range of disciplines, which is mirrored by the body types that benefit the athletes most.

Explosive events like sprinting and shot put require greater levels of fast twitch fibres in the muscles that contract quickly and offer short bursts of power.

Studies have found that elite power athletes are often born with a genetic variant in the ACTN3 gene, that is related to muscle composition.

This variant causes muscle cells to produce alpha-actinin-3, a protein that causes fast-twitch muscle fibres to rapidly contract. 

Dr Hawkey added: ‘Competitors in distance events benefit from taller, leaner body types, which enable them to take longer more efficient strides, covering more ground with less effort.’

Scotland’s Eilish McColgan, who won gold in the women’s 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games this week, embodies this at 5’11” (1.8 m) and 117 lb (53 kg).

‘Therefore, spare a thought for the multi-event athletes, like gold medal-winning heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who must compete in events across the power-endurance spectrum,’ said Dr Hawkey.

‘These competitors must make some compromises, but generally lean towards the power events.’

Dr Hawkey said: ‘Competitors in distance events benefit from taller, leaner body types, which enable them to take longer more efficient strides, covering more ground with less effort’

Cycling 

Since the pandemic, there has been a huge boom in cycling in the UK, with Brits of all demographics donning the Lycra.

Studies have shown that a cyclist’s height, mass and muscle composition play a part in their performance on two wheels.

Athletes trained in explosive sports, like track cycling, may benefit from shorter femurs, as they resist the jumping movement less than longer ones.

Dr Hawkey said: ‘Sprint cyclists are significantly shorter, heavier and stronger, with larger chest, arm, thigh and calf girths than other cyclists.

‘Competitors in road cycling, which involves greater distances, tend to be lighter, leaner and have increased capacity to utilise oxygen. 

‘Their longer leg-to-height ratios compared to other groups also results in reduced aerodynamic drag, which slows down the bike.

‘Mountain bikers, like Evie Richards who won gold yesterday, need to have a combination of characteristics from their track and road counterparts.’

For cyclists, a short torso and longer legs gives a longer leg-to-height ratio, resulting in reduced aerodynamic drag which slows down the bike

Mountain biker Evie Richards (pictured) won gold for England at the Commonwealth Games. At 5’7″ (1.64 m) she is of average height, giving her a balance of strength and endurance 

Weightlifting

Being naturally muscular would, of course, be helpful to a professional weight lifter, but it is not the only trait that Commonwealth athletes would benefit from.

Dr Hawkey, who has experience advising Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth athletes in a range of sporting disciplines, says that this may be one sport where shorter is better than longer.

Most people’s arm-spans are roughly the same as their height, but studies have shown that those with smaller forearm-to-torso ratio can lift relatively larger weights. 

He said: ‘Shorter levers – in this case the arms – means that powerlifters, like Scotland’s para-athlete Micky Yule, have less distance to move the bar. 

‘This is similar for other lifting events, where research has shown that being shorter, having shorter thighs and torsos, and a smaller thigh length-to-height ratio are all linked to improved performance.’

Research has shown that being shorter, having shorter thighs and torsos, and a smaller thigh length-to-height ratio are all linked to improved performance in weightlifting

Dr Hawkey said: ‘Shorter levers – in this case the arms – means that powerlifters, like Scotland’s para-athlete Micky Yule (pictured), have less distance to move the bar’

Lawn bowls 

Appendage size does not just play a part in the traditionally more ‘active’ events, as lawn bowlers could even capitalise on their physical dimensions.

Having a good hold on the ball is very important in bowls, as gripping too tightly causes the arm muscles to tighten and contract, adding tension to the whole body and affecting the bowler’s swing.

The heavier the ball is, the more momentum it gathers and the easier it is to move the opponent’s ball, however the ball must still fit inside the player’s hand properly, so a larger hand should give an advantage.

Dr Hawkey said: ‘In the more sedate – although no less competitive – sport of lawn bowls, larger hands can assist with the bowler being able to have greater manipulation and therefore control over the bowling ball, allowing for improved shot accuracy.’

Appendage size does not just play a part in the traditionally more ‘active’ events, as lawn bowlers could even capitalise on their physical dimensions

‘Larger hands can assist with the bowler being able to have greater manipulation and therefore control over the bowling ball’ said Dr Hawkey. Pictured: Craig Bowler of Team England

Bigger bums help athletes run faster: Large gluteus maximus can boost performance by up to 44 per cent, study shows 

Experts from Loughborough University found that sprinters (pictured) with a large gluteus maximus — the muscle that forms the bottom — can run up to 44 per cent faster

Unsure who to place a bet on in the men’s 100 meters at the Commonwealth Games? Well, scientists may have a useful mantra for you: ‘I like big butts and I can not lie.’

Experts from Loughborough University found that sprinters with a large gluteus maximus — the muscle that forms the bottom — can run up to 44 per cent faster.

The team discovered this ‘booty boost’ factor after comparing the lower body muscles of of men who were either elite sprinters, sub-elite athletes or untrained.

Elite sprinters — those with a personal best of under 9.99 seconds in the 100 metres — were found to be not only more muscular generally, but also in a very specific way.

While their calf muscles were similar in size to those of their sub-elite counterparts, others — including the gluteus maximus and hip extensors — were far bigger.

The findings have the potential to revolutionise the physical training and performance of many athletes, the researchers claimed.

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