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PLoS One. 2019 Mar 27;14(3):e0207975. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207975. eCollection 2019.

Extraordinary fast-twitch fiber abundance in elite weightlifters.

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Biochemistry and Molecular Exercise Physiology Laboratory, Center for Sport Performance, California State University, Fullerton, CA, United States of America.
Muscle Physiology Laboratory, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, United States of America.


Human skeletal muscle fibers exist across a continuum of slow → fast-twitch. The amount of each fiber type (FT) influences muscle performance but remains largely unexplored in elite athletes, particularly from strength/power sports. To address this nescience, vastus lateralis (VL) biopsies were performed on World/Olympic (female, n = 6, "WCF") and National-caliber (female, n = 9, "NCF"; and male, n = 6, "NCM") American weightlifters. Participant accolades included 3 Olympic Games, 19 World Championships, 25 National records, and >170 National/International medals. Samples were analyzed for myosin heavy chain (MHC) content via SDS-PAGE using two distinct techniques: single fiber (SF) distribution (%) and homogenate (HG) composition. The main finding was that these athletes displayed the highest pure MHC IIa concentrations ever reported in healthy VL (23±9% I, 5±3% I/IIa, 67±13% IIa, and 6±10% IIa/IIx), with WCF expressing a notable 71±17% (NCF = 67±8%, NCM = 63±16%). No pure MHC IIx were found with SF. Secondary analysis revealed the heavyweights accounted for 91% of the MHC IIa/IIx fibers, which caused a correlation between this FT and body mass. Additionally, when compared to SF, HG overestimated MHC I (23±9 vs. 31±9%) and IIx (0±0 vs. 3±6%) by misclassifying I/IIa fibers as I and IIa/IIx fibers as IIx, highlighting the limitation of HG as a measure of isoform distribution. These results collectively suggest that athlete caliber (World vs. National) and/or years competing in the sport determine FT% more than sex, particularly for MHC IIa. The extreme fast-twitch myofiber abundance likely explains how elite weightlifters generate high forces in rapid time-frames.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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