The big problem with statements like “hard work beats talent,” as us professional fitness trainers and sports coaches often say, is that it always assumes that “hard work” is the answer. However, when we see genetic freaks such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt there is undeniable truth they are or were in a class of their own. Genetics may play a part but how much does it dictate our outcome? Having a good nutritional diet where you track what you eat and put in the effort in or outside the gym when training there is an undeniable reality that working hard makes a difference for everyone — It’s the law of averages; put more in, get more out – some people benefit from (the same type of, and same amount of) “hard” training (drastically) more than others.In other words, some people are more trainable than others based on their genetic make-up when it comes to seeing results from the same given training program. Some people put work in and get little out of it, while others put the same amount of work in and get (much) more out of it. In this post, I’m going to provide you a variety of the high-quality scientific evidence demonstrating individual variability in (genetic) trainability; how people have drastically different responses (i.e. results) to the same cardio training and strength training stimulus (i.e. workout programs), and discuss how this information should impact the your training.
Exercise Is Medicine! But each Person Needs the Right Type and Dose (based on their Genetics) Fitness professionals along with others in the allied health community use the motto “exercise is medicine.” Just as differences in the human genetics can influence how well different people respond to certain medicines, our genetic differences can (and do) influence the individual response to the medicine of any particular variety of fitness training. This is exactly why discussing the differences in genetic response to training outcomes (i.e. results) should not be controversial because it is no different than discussing the differences in genetic responses to coffee.
Genetic Response Differences to Cardio Training and Strength Training: The Science Put simply, science shows that by nature humans vary considerably in both physical and mental abilities, and a good portion of that variation is due to our genes. And, we have very good evidence that familial factors also contribute significantly to variability in our training response (i.e. individual trainability).
Individual differences in training-induced changes in several physical performance and health-related fitness phenotypes are large, with the range between low and high responders reaching several folds.
Two studies in 2007 and 2008 at the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Core Muscle Research Laboratory and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Birmingham showed that individual differences in gene and satellite cell activity are critical to differentiating how people respond to weight training.
The 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology put 66 people of varying ages on a four-month lower-body strength training plan consisting of three exercises: Squats, Leg Press and Leg Extension. Each person was matched for effort level as a percentage their 1RM. (A typical set was performed for 11 reps at 75% of 1RM). As Epstein summarizes, “At the end of the training the subjects fell rather neatly into three groups: those whose thigh muscle fibers grew 50% in size; those whose fibers grew 25%; and those who had no increase in muscle size at all.”
Epstein goes on to say, “A range from 0% to 50% improvement, despite identical training. Just like the HERITAGE Family Study, differences and train ability were immense, only this was strength as opposed to endurance training. 17 weightlifters were extreme responders, who added muscle furiously; 32 were moderate responders, who had decent gains; and 17 were non-responders, whose muscle fibers did not grow. It seems that some people’s body is set better primed to profit from weightlifting as the subjects who made up the extreme muscle growth group had the most satellite cells in the quadriceps, waiting to be activated and build the muscle.”
In addition, other studies like this one run by an international consortium of hospitals and universities have validated these results finding that men and women exhibit wide ranges of response to resistance training, with some subjects showing little to no gain, and others showing profound changes. Five hundred eighty-five subjects (342 women, 243 men) were tested at one of eight study centers. In 12 weeks of study of 585 men and women, upper arm strength gains ranged from zero to over 250%.
Take Away Lesson
Lets face it, as important as it is to encourage everyone to “train hard,” it’s also dangerous not to also inform everyone that hard work isn’t everything; it’s your (individual) response to it. Variations in genetic trainability suggests that innate qualities of each individual ensure that there is no one-size-fits-all sport or method of training. So trainers, coaches, clients, athletes, and parents of young athletes, shouldn’t look at every situation where results aren’t coming (as they are with others) and automatically think its case of “not training hard enough.” This could easily cause those low responders (and non-repsonders), who are working hard, to end up pushing themselves beyond their capacity, which leads them to become overtrained, potentially injured, and very discouraged.