Are you an exercise 'non-responder'?

Sweating it out at the gym but not seeing results? Elle may have the answer.

Ever feel like no matter how much you train you don’t see results? Do you train the same as someone else and he or she still seems to train better than you? Well, science may be able to shed some light on this for you.  

There have been numerous exercise science studies which show about 5% of the study group to be unresponsive to training regimes whilst some are ‘super’ responders and get much more benefits from the training regime than others. About 80-90% of people are just normal responders. There is some evidence to suggest that your genes play a role in whether you are a non-responder or not.

What is an exercise non-responder?

Thus the term ‘exercises non-responder’ was coined. An example is in recent strength training studies researchers saw between 0-60% increases in muscle size using the same program for all participants. There are also more studies which test the same program and compare changes in VO2 max (or your maximum lung capacity), mitochondrial density change in health markers and so on. In case you have never heard of that term before, mitachondrial density refers to how many mitochondria you have, if you have more you are able to produce more oxygen, faster basically creating a fitter you. They all have similar outcomes - a small percentage of the participants see little to absolutely no change on the same program.

How do I know if I am one?

Well many people would just claim to be an exercise non-responder as exercise can be hard, we don’t always want to put the time or effort into it that we should and it seems like a pretty good get out of jail free card.

There is actually a genetic test, which can test your genetic endurance responsiveness. However, this would only be applicable to endurance training and not for example all other elements of fitness: strength, power, speed, flexibility, accuracy, balance, coordination and cardio.

However, there are doubts the studies have significant scientific footing and of course exercise is quite hard to measure your exercise response as there are so many variables, which can affect the studies as you will find out.

What are the flaws in the studies?

There are so many variables in these studies – just because everyone completes the same program it does not mean it is standardised. For example, we might all do the same workout and even if it’s all measured you are still going to be getting different results from one person to another. One person might do the workout with more intensity, which will lead to better results regardless of their genetic capability.

Furthermore, key factors such as diet, sleep and recovery are not covered in these studies. So, just because some people are super responsive or unresponsive when you are controlling one variable in their life, it doesn’t mean there is a genetic group of ‘un-responsive’ people. For every hour of training, there are still 23 hours left in the day.

It is unfortunately the nature of the study and being unable to control so many variables that makes it hard to have a precise conclusion.

There is some evidence to suggest that your genes play a role in whether you are a non-responder or not, but for the most part there is still a large amount of research that needs to be done to determine the different factors that could affect the effectiveness of your training. Different training can impact people in different ways, so just because you may be unresponsive to endurance training doesn’t mean that you can’t be super responsive to strength training!

A quick example of this is whether you have long or short twitch muscle fibres. Everyone has a different type of muscle either long or short twitch muscle fibres, which function in slightly different ways. Generally long twitch fibres are function in a way better for endurance. We see many endurance athletes with long twitch fibres as they better suited to long distance running. But these athletes may be rubbish at Olympic lifting because they don’t have the necessary short twitch fibres to create the power needed for the lift!

Finally, not everyone should respond to the same exercise regime the same way. Mentally, there will be different responses to different programs, coaches, training methods, coaching methods, stimulus, reward etc. If you’re not into the program or you don’t enjoy it, do you think you are going to get the same result as someone who loves it? Or if you hate the coach or are just not motivated to put in 100% to the training regime will you be getting a good response? Of course not!

These are areas that are very difficult to measure. This is why non responders is such a grey area!

How can I get the best out of my training?

Well, whether you are a non-responder or not, it is important to realise that any exercise will have a positive impact on your life. So even if you ‘think’ you might be a non-responder there as still many ways around it.

1)    Get a coach you respond well to

Find an exercise coach or type of training that has strategies to help you reach your goals. Find a coach that you’d do anything for – they say jump you say how high! This type of mentality will see you training at your best!

2)    Find a type of training you enjoy

There’s not a lot of point in running marathons if you hate running. Yes it’ll get you fit but if you hate it, you’re less likely to do it, stick to it and put in your best effort. There are so many different ways to keep fit these days! Find the best way for you!

3)    Make sure you stay stimulated in training

Train with friends, keep your training varied and always and always challenge yourself to try new things! Do this to maintain interest and remember, consistency is key to getting and staying fit!

4)    Never give up

The road may be long and it may be hard, but it will be worth it!
Life can be a crazy balancing act at times. Try the Wheel of Balance if you feel you need some help priorising things.

Elle Welsman

Elle owns Sydney's first women's CrossFit gym, CrossFit Tone in Brookvale. She has a passion for helping women realise how fit and healthy they can be through strength and high intensity training. Having a keen interest in positive body image, Elle pushes women to be self confident through her training systems. Click here to learn more about Elle Welsman and her outlook and approach!