Are There Non-Responders and High Responders to Exercise?

Yes, it’s thing.  Some people respond very quickly to both strength training and cardio, and others literally remain the same.  There is actually a whole range of responses.  You could think of it as a bell curve, where the ones at one end will struggle to make headway, and the ones on the other end will sail through, seeing results quickly.  In between, things are all over the map. 

Just to be clear, this is about getting stronger and more aerobically fit, not necessarily losing body fat. 

At this point, you may be trying to figure out where you think you land on the curve. 

Or, you may be wondering how much genetics has to do with it.

Or, you may be wondering if there is anything you can do to get yourself higher on the response curve. 

Or, if you feel like you are one of the unfortunate few who don’t get results, do you get to throw up your hands and give up?  After all, it’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t see and feel results. 

What They Have Discovered So Far?

First of all, researchers have realized that they have a long way to go to explain why this happens.  As usual, it’s a work in progress. 

They DO know, however, that there are genetic components to this.  They have gotten so far as to locate certain genes and the expression of those genes that enable some individuals to grow muscles faster, and have other things going on that help with response to cardio. 

They also know that this is not the end of the story.  (It never is.)  Genetics does not doom us to be in certain categories in exercise or in life. 

What Else Could be Going On? 

First, let’s take a look at how they study this.  They take a specific homogeneous population (so as to eliminate things like age, weight, and so on), and then have them follow an exercise program that is the same for each person.  Then they measure things like how much muscle has been gained or what improvements in cardiovascular fitness have occurred.  Sometimes, if they can find enough stalwart people (this process hurts), they gather biopsies from muscles for analysis of what is going on at the molecular level. 

This is all well and good, but as we know, people are all different.  Not only do they show up with different genetics, they show up with different lifestyles, different nutritional habits, different stages of hydration, previous injuries, sleep habits, stress, and tendencies to be active or not.  To be able to control all of this would be impossible. 

Are There Some Answers Here? 

I’d like to share how it is possible to get better results in spite of possible tendencies and genetics. 

As indicated, there are myriads of other reasons besides genetics that may lead to  a wide range of response to exercise.  This applies to both long term effects and daily efforts. 

How you approach your workouts or leisure activities also matters.   

Paying attention to details and form can make the difference between moving forward or feeling like you are on a hamster wheel.  Here’s some ways to do that:

1. Start with your core.  That doesn’t mean doing crunches first in your workout, although you certainly could.   It means activating your core muscles before you start any lifting or even doing cardio exercise.  If your core is not engaged, the rest of you will not be able to kick in to its max.  Why?  Because your body is smart.  Above all, it wants to protect your spine.  If your core isn’t doing its job to do that, the rest of you will not be able to do as much.  Then, results can be spotty, to say the least.  So, adjust your core muscles to support you in your activities, and make sure keeping them strong as part of your routine.

2. Vary your routines.  If you do the same things all the time, your muscles will get efficient at doing those things, and plateaus ensue.  Cast a wide net, if at all possible.  Have more than one routine at your disposal, and rotate through them.  If you are wondering how to do that with cardio, there are  different ways to get this done (swim, bike, play a sport, use the elliptical machine, etc.).  If you just like to walk, you can find different environments for that, and vary your speed and distance. You can also throw in some stairs or ramps, or do a circuit that intersperses some strength training in between bouts of cardio. 

3. This one is more specific.  How often do you think to warm up your ankles before a workout or even a leisure activity?  Ankles are key for balance, getting the best range of motion, supporting all the work your feet and legs have to do, and are an important link to using the ground to push away from (this is called ground reaction force).  You may be missing an opportunity to up your game just by keeping your ankles strong and flexible.  Go for ankles circles, heel raises, toe raises, and up and down and side-to-side motions with your ankles.  It’s a simple thing that can be more important than you might think. 

These are just a few suggestions.  You can find many more ways to tighten up your workouts by working with a trainer, reading some of the blogs on this website, or paying attention to the cues being given for exercise wherever you find them.  They are important to pay attention to, and can support whatever genetics you are bringing to the table.   

Paying attention to how you move may make the difference between lack-luster response (making you wonder if you are “just a low responder”) to really noticing the benefits you are getting from your activities.  Adding in taking care of yourself the rest of the time with nutrition, hydration, and rest between activities or even during a workout routine, will give you the edge when it comes to getting the most from what you do.


© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Nastco / iStock

The End of Try Try Again by Kristen Carter MS

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