A non-responder is someone who doesn't respond to exercise - usually, people think, due to poor genetics. While a lot of people suspect that they may be a non-responder, true non-responders are much rarer than people tend to think.
Research has shown us a much more likely culprit - poorly designed or insufficiently challenging exercise programs.
If you're struggling to see results, you may need to either up the intensity of your program or get smarter about your exercise plan.
“No matter how hard I try, I can’t build any muscle!”
This is a pretty common complaint. Some people will just complain that they really do have the short end of the genetic stick when it comes to adaptation to exercise. You can say the same thing about anything - muscle, strength, endurance, flexibility, and more.
To begin with, I want to make it clear that genetics really are the biggest factor in terms of adaptation to exercise. There’s a massive range of individual responses to activity, and that means that some people really do have the short end of the stick.
But I also want to point out that while there’s a huge range of responses, most people cluster towards the average. You are far more likely to be somewhere in the middle than to be near either extreme - and that means that you’re not likely to be either a complete non-responder or a super-responder. People who truly "don't respond" to exercise are really rare, by definition.
What about those people who are training hard and not seeing results?
The first and most likely explanation is just that your training program sucks. Sorry, but it’s true. If you have a training program that’s not optimized for your goals, you’re not going to see results no matter how hard you work. Many people use programs that, at the very least, violate the principle of specificity, or fail to be appropriately periodized over time.
Unfortunately, with the poor quality of a lot of the information we see in the fitness industry, it’s sometimes hard to know how to actually do that - and many people spin their wheels for years because of their poor training and diet programs.
More recent research has further supported the idea that it seems unlikely that true non-responders exist, at least with endurance work. This research involved training on a cycle to increase cardiovascular fitness.
In this study, exercisers were split into groups that trained 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 times per week for 6 weeks.
Some of the people training 1, 2, or 3 times per week were “non-responders”, but notably there were NO non-responders in the 4x and 5x/week groups, and the number of non responders decreased in the 2x and 3x/week groups compared to the 1x/week.
“Non-responders” were then trained for another six weeks, 2x/week more than previous - so 3, 4, or 5x/week, up from 1, 2, or 3x/week.
After the second round, there were no more non-responders.
The clear and obvious takeaway here is that non-responders simply weren’t training enough to see results.
Another study was conducted, for strength, on older adults: There Are No Nonresponders to Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Older Men and Women.
What they found was that of the 110 participants, everybody saw some kind of improvement, even if some of them non-responded (or decreased slightly) in certain variables. In fact, while some people stagnated on muscle growth or lost a little bit, everybody except one of the participants gained strength.
This study found that exercisers who used standardized training programs (cough, cough, the stuff you can find for free on the internet, cough cough) were somewhat likely to be non-responders - about one third of them saw no results. Meanwhile, EVERYONE on a tailored program saw results:
In short, while some non-responders do exist, they’re VERY rare. Virtually everyone can improve, so long as they follow an intelligent program, work sufficiently hard, and give themselves enough time to see results.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done - access to the knowledge or resources required to figure out a good program (or have a good one made for you) is something that isn’t available to everyone. Some may have injuries or conditions that make it hard to maintain a program, even when it’s tailored to their needs. Some people don't have the time or the energy to train more than a couple times a week. Not everyone has the same level of ability - either to begin with, or in response to exercise.
In many cases, people engage with the fitness industry only to be misled by information, burn out, and swear off of it forever. As a fitness professional, part of my job is to be an ambassador for the industry and focus on making it better for future clients and exercisers.
Some people may be true non-responders. What can you do if you're not currently seeing results? You can focus on improving your recovery (better diet or more sleep), you can get a better program, you can get a harder program, or you may even benefit from trying an easier program (if your current level of activity is too high - research confirms that it is very possible to overdo it). In most cases, with a bit of tweaking, almost everyone can make some kind of progress, even if it's slower than they'd like.
But at the end of the day - it's probably not your genetics that are the problem.
Are you struggling to set up a program yourself? I can do that for you. Drop me a message if you’re interested.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
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