Yes, some people are non responders to exercise while some are “super” responders. A recent study looked at 1000 people put on the same exercise program. The results, which I discuss in this vid, may shock you! 🙂

This is a very interesting area of research. We all know people who do the same exercise as we do, yet either don’t seem to benefit much, or benefit far more than we might expect. Having trained hundreds at this point and or communicated with many thousands more, I have seen that first hand.
Studies for decades have found most people being studied respond in a similar manner to various forms of exercise, yet there’s always been outliers who didn’t respond well (or at all) or respond well beyond average or expected.

But why  that was the case was never clear. Well, that’s been looked at more closely, and what’s been found, is there’s a small % of people who are indeed “non responders” to exercise and a small % of people who are “super responders” to exercise, with most (approx 80-90%) being “normal” type responders depending on which studies you look at.

Of particular importance to the issue is modern genetic testing has actually narrowed down small group of genes “non responders” carry.

Seems pretty common sense really, but up until recently, why some respond very little to the exact same protocol others will respond well to (as measured by improvements in VO2max, strength, and other metrics) has not been well understood and put down to flaws in the study, to voodoo. 😎

But, the effect was simply too consistent to be explained by any reasons given and something of a mystery. We now have those answers.

One study worth looking at is the The HERITAGE Family Study, specifically, as it relates to this topic, the Genetics, Response to Exercise, Risk Factors segment of this huge data set.

An interesting write up for non science types was in the NY Times Health Science section called The Workout Enigma.

There’s more Qs than answers to all this to be sure*, but, a clear picture is emerging as to the essential role of genetics in how people respond to exercise that will yield very useful info in the future such as specific tests** to tell you where people fall on the spectrum as well as which sports/activities they may be best suited for (genetically speaking) and given time and tech improvements, even actual changes to those genes.

* = Yes, some supp company will come out with ultra-gene-fixing-non responder-juice at some point, but don’t fall for that 🙂

** = several companies have emerged offering tests now but their accuracy is questionable and seems to range considerably in price and quality, so do your homework before proceeding.

  1. Mark 11 years ago

    Thank you for that piece, Will
    Now I think of it, I had heard about the VO2 Max study a while ago on an interesting UK television programme which was looking at the (small) amount of exercise people need to do to improve certain health parameters significantly.
    What I hadn’t done was extrapolate that to the idea of people’s natural response to weight training. It seems as though genetics is turning out to be a much more complex and subtle science that we had thought previously and I understand that evidence has been found that we are able not only to change which genes are expressed but also to change those genes to some degree. Whether that is possible with genes responsible for various areas of fitness, I have no idea.
    But what your video did do for me was to make me give more consideration to the fact that my genes may well be limiting what I can expect to achieve at this point in time and be a bit more gentle and understanding towards myself about this.

    • Author
      Will Brink 11 years ago

      Mark, it was found that approx 5%-10% or so were either non responders or super responders, leaving 80-90% in the “normal” responder categories which means with consistent exercise we make progress and even if we fell on either side of that spectrum, there’s plenty of benefits to be had from regular exercise regardless, so “just do it” 🙂
      Pro bbers are obviously “super responders” to resistance training.
      End of the day, genetics is a major factor and the research is going to be VERY interesting in the coming years.

  2. Edgar Roman 11 years ago

    Is this study published and would you share a link to it?

    • Author
      Will Brink 11 years ago

      Edger, look up The HERITAGE Family Study. Specifically, HERITAGE –Genetics, Response to Exercise, Risk Factors. That’s a good write up on the overall studies that came fro this very large data set.

      • Edgar Roman 11 years ago

        Thanks, I found it easily thru Google. For those who are interested:

      • Edgar Roman 11 years ago

        Holy Cow. Look here for scads of articles and studies. Is scads a word?

        • Author
          Will Brink 11 years ago

          See added text and links above also.

          • Hilbert Braspenning 10 years ago

            Great link! What I am interested in is the difference in responses to volume and rep range. Does this also seem to matter according to the research?
            If so, then what is the point of recommending the same rep range and volume to a wide variation of trainees? Wouldn’t it be more useful to use all rep ranges (and volumes) and discover yourself what works best for your phenotype?

  3. Jeffrey 11 years ago

    Will, this is off topic, but do you have any familiarity or thoughts on the book “The China Study”?

  4. Carlos 11 years ago

    Always excellent information here. Thanks again Will.

  5. PDO 10 years ago

    One thing which bothers me here is that all subject followed the same program, wouldn’t that make those non responders only non responders to that particular program? At least from my own experience and from what I heard, one may not respond to a certain program but can still respond to another, I don’t know about endurance-specific training…

    • Dave 10 years ago

      So, if you don’t respond to what the main part of the bell curve responds, what might you try next?
      Those genes predisposed you against a traditional approach – but what did those genes predispose you toward?
      What the heck do those genes control? Can they be switched on and off?
      Lots of questions.

      • Author
        Will Brink 10 years ago

        The only way to find out is trial and error of trying various programs.

    • Author
      Will Brink 10 years ago

      There’s always going to be non responders to any program, though some may respond better to one program vs another, and that my be mediated by genetic factors.

      • PDO 10 years ago

        I totally agree there, but this study seems to prove only there are non responders to that particular standardized program.
        It does prove the point of genetics having a huge impact on how people respond to exercise, and it would be probably very difficult to make a study that would vary different parameters of training like volume/frequency/exercises over years on the same subjects, and that would still have a lot of flaws as subjects would change the way they respond over time while changing programs…
        Anyway, a good post, I just felt there was some imprecisely drown conclusion from the aforementioned study, which could suggest people that they are non responders if a standardized program doesn’t work for them.

        • Author
          Will Brink 10 years ago

          The study discussed above is for endurance/V02 max only. There’s no studies I’m aware of that has found a gene or set of genes that can tell you who will and will not respond to RT. There’s no doubt such genes exist, but have not been identified as far as I know. It’s likely a much more complex set of genes/genetic factors that control that compared to V02 max. But, all manner of studies that test various RT protocols will have non responders, normal responders, and super responders, and that mirrors what we have seen in gyms forever. The reason for that can be varied, but the study linked above shows, in the case of endurance/V02 Max, there’s a specific gene why some simply don’t respond to it. For all we know, those might be the people who respond very well to RT!

  6. David Tempest 10 years ago

    I think this begs the question, why have anabolic steroids become illegal, and why are they still illegal. For those who are poor responders or are at the low end of the spectrum, anabolic steroids can even the playing field. Under the supervision of a qualified doctor, AAS can be a great supplement to bodybuilding and can help people get the results they are looking for no matter what their genes are. It was an act of congress that made AAS illegal, even though the DEA and other drug and medical agencies represented that AAS did not present a dangerous risk to the health of the public. Once again, it was congress moralizing, without considering the wider implications. I have no qualms about using Anablic Steroids for brief periods of time to gain a few pounds of muscle, that might normally be impossible to gain, due to genetics, my age, my lifestyle (little time to rest) etc.

    • Author
      Will Brink 10 years ago

      AAS can offset some of the genetic differences people have, but consider there’s many people eating, training, and doing the same PEDs as a pro BBer, yet don’t look like Jay Cutler. Why? Genetics!

  7. Paul 10 years ago

    If there are “non-responders” to building muscles, wouldn’t those people not have any muscle at all?
    At the end of the day, doesn’t a body have the amount of muscle that it thinks it needs? I would image that a non-responder would have enough muscle to walk, lift a glass to his/her mouth…if so, wouldn’t that make them responders, albeit marginally? I’m a bit confused as to how that would work,.

    • PDO 9 years ago

      A body can’t think. It responds differently in different phases of development – childhood, puberty and so on. If you are a typical exercise non responder, you would get your muscle early in an amount you’re genetically coded to have, and that has little to do with exercise. Your body still wouldn’t respond, it’s a different mechanism.

  8. princefreakasso 9 years ago

    That’s very true. Genetics play a huge roll in anything about the human body.

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