In many training studies, you get 30% of “nonresponders!” Between 1/5 and 1/3 of people who take up an exercise protocol don’t get any stronger, don’t improve their endurance, and/or don’t gain any muscle.
This runs counter to essentially everything “we” fitness people believe. If you train, you improve in the characteristics you train. You lift and you get bigger and stronger. You run and your endurance and VO2max improve. That’s the SAID principle – specific adaptation to imposed demands – in action. That’s how people, or for that matter any biological system, respond to a stressor, right?
However, the “nonresponders” leave a lot of people scratching their heads. How can that many people not respond in any meaningful way to an exercise protocol? Typically, this change is attributed to genetics (as, admittedly, I have done in the past).
I’d like to nuance that, though. It IS a commentary on their ability to respond and adapt – but not to exercise in general. Rather, to the exercise protocol IN THE STUDY.
When conducting a study, you have to control for as many variables as possible. You can’t give people wildly different exercise programs, or else the results would be essentially meaningless. Of course, there are pros and cons to this approach.
One con – which I think is largely responsible for the “nonresponders” – is the appropriateness of the exercise protocol. We all know people who have tried a program and had great results, while someone else crashed and burned, or vice versa.
If you put a brand new lifter on the programming I use for my personal trainer, I doubt you’d see any positive effects. It simply wouldn’t be appropriate.
Conversely, if I tried any of the beginner or intermediate routines on the internet, I doubt I’d see very robust gains in strength or size either, in spite of the fact that it’s obvious I’m a high responder to weight training!
So, there’s almost certainly a genetic component, but it’s interacting with the specific exercise protocol used in the study, not exercise in general.
Dr. Jacob Wilson is one of the fast rising stars in scientific research on hypertrophy, and he consistently gets very substantial hypertrophy from his research group. He’s been open about the fact that one of the major reasons he’s been able to get the results he has is that he puts his subjects through VERY grueling training programs, and that he selects subjects who are capable of handling that level of training – and those aren’t going to be the first 20 people who walk through the door.
This is where biofeedback and autoregulation come in. You can use them to train when you’re recovered and ready to train, and to select the proper training loads and volume. Essentially, they can be used to make sure the exercise stimulus is appropriate for the person based on their current abilities. If you’re a high responder, you know you can push yourself harder, use more weight, do more volume, and train more frequently. If you’re not, you can still see progress because you can use autoregulation and biofeedback to match your workload to your ability to recover from it. Without some sort of individualization, you’re almost guaranteed that no pre-existing program out there is entirely appropriate to your needs. Biofeedback (like the 4 things I mentioned in the T-Nation article I linked) and autoregulation (RPE-based training – if you can be honest with yourself. Mike Tuchscherer is the go-to guy for that).
So, all I wanted to do here was nuance my previous post about genetics and training. They certainly play a role, but there are tools to make sure you train appropriately and see the best gains you possible can. I’m convinced that, with appropriate individualization, the TRUE percentage of non-responders is much closer to 0% than 30%.