Last updated on March 11th, 2019
Most of the time, informative health, fitness, nutrition and supplementation articles and essays that end up on our computer screens, books and magazines deal with averages and majorities.
You can’t cater to everyone due to the very nature of uniqueness. This is no more apparent than when you offer advice about strength and muscle building to an audience rather than an individual.
The bigger the group, the more generalized your advice has to be. By definition, you have to talk about averages in order to resonate with the majority.
You are, however, an individual, and for some individuals making gains in the gym is not as easy as it is for others.
The topic of genetic predetermination, giving rise to natural talents, or “gifts” as they are so often called, is a subject of unending debate.
It isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon either, and that has a lot to do with the emotional furor that can erupt when dealing with such sensitive issues.
Put two men in a room together, one a self-professed “hardgainer” and the other a professional bodybuilder. The small guy might tell the bodybuilder that he’s just lucky on a genetic level.
The bodybuilder might reply with something along the lines of, “my physique is a result of extremely hard work and determination. You are small because you don’t train like me.”
The argument could go on ad infinitum because they might both be partly correct, and partly wrong, or one might be almost 100% correct and the other almost zero.
No-one really likes the idea that you can be dealt a good genetic hand at birth, for anything, because it negates a lot of that hard work, true grit, steely determination, motivation, drive stuff and replaces it with, “meh, they just have the right genes.”
For the person with the talent, this is a pretty big blow because no matter how close to reality it is, the hard work they have actually put in has lost some meaning.
And for the person who wants the talent but can’t have it, they might have to deal with the fact that no amount of hard work will get it.
Like I said, it’s emotional.
Born With It, Or Not?
The underlying principal of success in any given skill or discipline is hard work, at least that’s what most of the free world is raised to think. “Work hard and the sky is the limit.”
It sort of craps on someone’s parade when they find out just how much of their success can be down to something they have zero control over.
People like the idea that they control their destiny, generally speaking. The notion that much of their life’s fortunes and failings are a product of genetic fate and the chance discovery of it does not sit well.
Truth be told, there’s no easy way to know the actual proportions of success in terms of “practice makes perfect” and “born talent”. At least, not with our current level of genetics science.
Even the research of innate skill/talent variations in athletes is frowned upon. Many nations’ governments are comfortable with, even built upon, the concept of the existence of a god…
…but apparently not one who, at the design stage, programs us individually with advantages or disadvantages relative to one another.
Life would be much more fair if hard-work, grit and determination were the only variables involved in skill level and success.
Alas, genes have a bigger effect than a lot of people want to accept.
On the other hand, genetic determinists – people who think it’s all in the genes – are missing the point of practice. Practice might not make perfect, but it damn well helps.
Despite ourselves, most of us probably think our talents and skills are a combination of the genetic factor and hard-work factor.
There’s more truth in that assertion than any of the extreme points of view. Of course there’s a mix. The elite bodybuilders of the world still have to put in the work, just like the fastest marathon runners, and strongest powerlifters.
But how much impact can our genetics have on our ability to get stronger, bigger and more powerful? That is, after all, what most readers are interested in.
How much of my potential has been pre-determined for me?
What can I do to improve my strength and hypertrophy gains?
Why do some people seem to make such quick progress and I can’t?
There are so many questions. I can’t answer them all. Like I said, we just don’t know enough, and modern, western science tends to avoid the issue for fear of opening a gigantic can of worms.
Still though, some research has gotten through the cracks, and it’s overwhelmingly obvious that innate genetic variations from person to person can lead to large differences in their ability to grow massive muscles.
To the initial question: Born With it Or Not? – It’s too simplistic. For example, there isn’t a singular on/off switch for muscle growth potential in response to resistance training.
There are a bunch of genetic switches with complex variations, and yet more to be discovered, but the odds of having all the switches turned on to give you the perfect genetic propensity for muscle growth are trillions to one.
In all likelihood, there has never existed a single human being who was born with the royal flush of activated genes.
Pre-Training Variations in Body Type
The fact that there can be a large genetic influence should be obvious from the start if we’re honest with ourselves.
Even before doing a single session in the gym, muscle mass varies pretty wildly from individual to individual.
Your natural size and strength is not necessarily a factor in how strong and big you can get from training, but it’s a good indicator as to what sort of template you’ve been born with.
Obviously diet and activity level as you grow up into adulthood are major factors in your “novice” strength and size, but even if those are accounted for, genetic variations make a big difference.
Bone density, size and strength variations are – all else being accounted for – highly subject to genetic combinations.
Even the distribution of slow-twitch (type 1) and fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fibers can be genetically pre-determined to a large extent.
All in all, about half of your variability relative to others in adult pre-training muscle mass, physique dimensions and skeletal structure have been dialled in before you even start training. Before you were even born!
Genetic Trainability for Muscle Size and Strength
You’d think if there was any logic to this, the people who have a genetic head start – i.e. naturally bigger frames, muscle mass and strength – would be the ones who would respond the best to resistance training.
After all, why would they be naturally big and strong if it wasn’t a sign for them to be an even greater physical specimen?
To that, and any other questions of a similar philosophical flavour, I would strongly urge you to give up asking why, because that discussion quickly descends into unresolvable debates.
What we know from studying people under controlled conditions is that people can have hugely different muscle growth responses to a specific resistance training exercise.
A study looking at the differences between the subjects response to bicep training showed that the variation in muscle size ranged from about a 60% increase down to some that got smaller!
Strength-wise there were people who didn’t increase at all, to someone who increased their one rep max (1RM) by 2.5 times their starting strength.
The average response was 19% in size and 54% in strength.
In scientific studies, people who don’t improve in response to the training (or test) stimulus are called non-responders.
Note: Non-responders are only technically non-responders for the test in which they have been studied. Their biceps size and strength might not get bigger in the specific training program of the study, but they might from a differently designed program.
Also, without full body training, no-one can know whether the non-responders are only so for that muscle group.
The same subjects are not called up time and again to test different parts of their bodies, with varying training volumes and styles, so it’s impossible to say for sure what could be, given some tinkering.
Other studies, including a better designed study which controlled the nutritional intake of the subjects, give us a better picture as to what happens.
Muscle hypertrophy – the growth in size of muscle tissue – appears to be the largest variable when it comes to the differences between non-responders or hardgainers and average/extreme responders.
Putting some numbers to that: extreme responders have been observed adding four times the lean mass of a “low-responder” during a 3 month training program, with controlled nutritional intake.
Variations in strength improvements however tend to be far smaller, to the point of statistical insignificance.
How can there be such a difference in variation between strength and size trainability?
There might be a couple of reasons that combine to cause this to happen.
Firstly, when you begin a resistance training program, you will see dramatic increases in strength during the initial 2 to 3 months.
This strength boom is largely attributed to neural adaptations taking place, which is a fancy way of saying you learn how to lift heavier weight with your existing muscle mass. The ongoing discussion between your brain and muscles is fairly efficient at this and so you improve quickly.
Even really low responders/hardgainers will experience this ramp-up of strength in the early stages because their slower rate of muscle mass growth is not necessarily holding them back.
After 6 months, the strength increases might level off. We don’t really know from a research perspective because these studies don’t go for that long.
Limitations of Scientific Studies
I started this article by saying how unique everyone was and that information which fits the majority is not necessarily useful for everyone.
That is unfortunately where scientific research leaves us much of the time. Studies that have investigated the effect of genetic differences on variability of response to resistance training mostly tell us that genetics clearly play a significant role.
What they don’t offer is much in the way of solutions for people who might be considered low-responders or non-responders.
The biggest limitation is highlighted by the uniqueness of the individual subjects.
The high responders and the low responders to a particular exercise at a specific frequency with heavy weight might not be the same low and high responders to another exercise, using another muscle group, at a different training volume with low-load-high-rep training.
What’s more, studies only last for a virtual blip on the possible timescale of a person’s training career.
Given personalized training programs and a lot more time, who’s to say a “non-responder” won’t start to make real progress?
In fact, a study conducted in 2017 demonstrated that perfectly, when individually designed training programs were given to the subjects.
Every person in the study got stronger with the personal program whereas only about two-thirds of the standard cookie-cutter program participants did.
Studies are a snapshot, and only provide a glimpse. As an individual you have many years to mess with your training program and see what produces the best results for you.
Hardgainers and Non-Responders – What Are the Implications?
There’s no avoiding the fact that some people are born with a better set of genes lit up than others when it comes to muscle and strength adaptations to resistance training.
You might be roughly aware of your own circumstances already if you’ve got a good base of comparison and solid observation skills, but even then it’s hard to take much away from observing similar people doing similar training.
You might be wondering if you are a “hardgainer” – the gym bro word for low/non-responder – and hoping for some kind of sign as to what you can do about it.
There are medical DNA tests but they are far from accurate and they only test for the genes that are known about, which aren’t fully understood and aren’t even very good predictors of training response potential.
A much more satisfactory approach would be to acknowledge the limited research that highlights the advantages of personalized training programs.
Something simple as increasing training volume can literally make the difference between success and failure for a hard gainer. However, it may be a reduction of training volume that is necessary if the problem you have is not allowing enough time for the recovery process plus the overcompensation/growth process to occur.
The occasional investigation like this one even broadens the measurement criteria to show that when people train, there will always be some positive response.
The same study actually followed a group of 65+ year olds and resulted in only one non-responder for strength gains.
That demonstrates again that there is a much lower rate of non-response for strength, and given it’s amongst a group of people 65 years of age and over, the chances of younger people experiencing non-response in strength numbers is as good as zero.
Training Volume and Intensity
I mentioned earlier that increasing or decreasing your training volume might be the key to unlocking some growth responsiveness from said training.
When we break muscle in the gym, it must be repaired before it overcompensates and grows bigger. Overtraining can interrupt the process even for moderate to high responders because the process is curtailed after the first recovery step by another training session, which damages them again.
One theory floating about with respect to hardgainers is that they have a larger than average inflammation reaction to the training/damage phase which may last well into the phase in which growth would normally occur.
With that in mind, if a hardgainer with this inflammation response problem trains alongside a moderate responder they might not be seeing gains purely because they are cutting the growth phase off every single time.
Training intensity can make a difference too, especially combined with volume alterations. There is evidence to show that different people respond differently to high-intensity-low-volume compared to low-intensity-high-volume.
Intensity here refers to how much weight is being lifted, and volume, how many reps/sets. Another way of looking at it is high-weight-low-reps versus low-weight-high-reps.
Muscle grows in different ways from both approaches and it’s entirely possible that people who don’t respond well to one will respond well to the other.
What Can You Do as a Hardgainer or Low-Responder?
My advice to hardgainers, if you think you are indeed a low-responder for muscle mass and strength adaptations is to first and foremost optimize each of the variables that you have ultimate control over; diet and sleep being the most obvious.
You will be surprised at how many people aren’t eating the right amount and types of food to generate an efficient anabolic response. For a hardgainer, that aspect is going to be even more important.
Sleep is the time when our bodies can do the most muscle building. You break it in the gym and build it in bed. Consistently getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night is one of the best ways to ensure you are getting enough time to recover and grow.
Stress is another important factor to get under control. Hormones related to stress are notoriously bad for muscle growth and energy levels. Getting that additional sleep will help, as will improving your diet, but there are other things you can do. Explore them because they will help.
Once you’re on top of those aspects of life, you can look at training volume and tinker with it. The best thing is to increase it at first, because the results will be the most obvious if they change.
Within that increase of volume, you can adjust your intensity to suit your fatigue level. If you are having trouble growing muscle in size then it’s worth exploring high-volume-moderate-intensity (high rep sets of moderate weight) and tweaking the weight and rep-count up and down.
When you do this, you have to give it enough time to be allowed to work. The first adaptations to a change in training might not be apparent for a while so it may need a few of months to kick in.
Document all your numbers and muscle measurements, science the shit out of it, and enjoy the process.
Some ergogenic training supplements can help. Some type of Protein supplement is no-brainer for muscle and strength development.
I’ve also written an article on Creatine Monohydrate which you should take a look at if you haven’t already considered it. Eventually there will be many more articles related to supplementation.