If you have ever spent money on a training program or dedicated time and energy to creating one yourself or finding one online, only for it not to have the results you were looking for; then you will likely have been very disappointed and possibly disillusioned. At this point, you may have blamed yourself for not trying hard enough or for perhaps having the wrong genetics, or you may have blamed the program – perhaps accusing the person who sold it to you of being a charlatan or scam artist.
But before you get too down on yourself, or angry at those sellers, consider a third option: you and that training program just weren’t right for each other. Perhaps the truth is that the training program just didn’t fit into your lifestyle and routine and so was never going to work/you would never have been able to stick to it for the long term. Or maybe, the issue was with your genetics. Maybe the type of training program you were following just didn’t work for you personally. Like a relationship, it’s rarely down to one individual – usually the problem lies with the way that two people relate to one another.
Why Some Training Programs Don’t Work for Some People
How well you respond to a workout depends on a great number of factors – from your proportion of twitch muscle fiber types, to your metabolism, to your natural production of certain key nutrients. Even your height plays a role.
Thus, if two people were to use the precise same training routine and the precise same diet, they would not necessarily end up with the precise same physique. In a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a large sample of participants were given the same training program. The very best responders to this program gained a whopping 59 percent more muscle while their strength increased by a huge 250%. But what’s shocking is that some participants – using the very same plan – gained zero muscle. Worse still, a very small percentage actually lost muscle (2%). The moral of this story? People are very different. In another study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, 26% of participants gained no extra muscle after a month-long training program.
Now you might be thinking that this spells doom for you. Perhaps you’re one of those non-responders? And perhaps you’ll never be able to build the kind of muscle you want?
Fortunately, the chances are that this is not the case. Rather, you probably just weren’t using the right type of training program.
Twitch Muscle Fiber
Tim Ferriss is the author of the The 4 Hour Body (among other books), which looks at using smart diet and exercise changes in order to bring about big results from small changes. In this book, Tim explains how he always struggled to gain muscle. To find out why, he got tested and found out that he had a mutation of his ACTN3 gene. The result was a deficiency in ACTN3, resulting in a very low amount of fast-twitch muscle fiber. Fast twitch muscle fiber is the fiber type responsible for our most explosive and powerful movements, making it key for bodybuilders trying to gain strength. It’s also key to a muscular appearance, seeing as fast twitch muscle fibers are larger and thicker.
This mutation is actually very common, affecting billions of people around the world. You and I know them as ‘hard gainers’ – the ‘skinny’ types of guys who can’t build muscle no matter what they do but fortunately don’t build fat either.
Luckily, Tim Ferriss found an alternative way of training with weights that involved lifting very slowly using a 5-1-5 cadence. Thus a curl would take 11 seconds total, five seconds coming up, one second at the top and five seconds going back down. This type of training saw him gain the muscle he needed, because it targeted the slow twitch muscle fibers which he genetically had more of.
Somebody else though might have a much greater proportion of fast twitch fibers. In their case, the opposite approach might work better – to target the fast twitch muscle fibers of which they have many more (and which appear large).
Can you convert muscle fiber types? According to some research the answer is ‘probably yes’ (1), though the topic is still very much in debate. Generally it’s agreed that roughly a 10% shift in muscle fiber type is possible, meaning that you can increase your performance in certain tasks certainly, but are unlikely to become a competitive sprinter if you weren’t born with a high ratio of fast twitch fibers.
Note: There are actually three categories of fiber, not two, as fast twitch muscle fibers can be broken down further into type 2a and type 2x (the latter being ‘super fast twitch’ fibers). In fact though, muscle fiber types really exist on a ‘continuum’ between these types, meaning that a fiber could fall somewhere in between type 1 and 2a or type 2a and 2x.
Hormones and Weight Gain
Muscle fiber type can also increase or decrease our weight gain. Everyone knows by now, that having more muscle will result in you burning more calories due to the energy it requires for your body to use and maintain muscle.
It’s worth noting though, that slow twitch muscle fibers contain more mitochondria, meaning they burn more fat. Mitochondria are the ‘energy centers’ of our cells and are thus what our bodies use to provide us with energy and prevent us from getting fat. Stimulating the mitochondria results in increased fat burning and energy, which again explains the ‘slim but weedy’ body type that just doesn’t gain muscle or fat.
Meanwhile, other hormones in our metabolism also play a big role in the regulation of fat. If you have more cortisol (the stress hormone), you will gain more fat, whereas if you have more testosterone you will build more muscle. Again, the best diet will be one that takes your differences into account and works with them. For instance, increasing vitamin D might be very helpful for someone with low testosterone, and there are many ways to increase the metabolism.
Horses for Course
In short then, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to weightlifting or dieting. This is something that will depend very much on your body type and your individual genetic makeup.
So how do you possibly go about finding a program that works for you?
The best strategy is to try lots and to measure your results. Try workout routines with lots of rest/not much rest. Try routines that involve fast repetitions on a heavy weight. Try routines that involve lots of cardio – try everything and use each one for a couple of months to find what works best for you. Don’t spend lots of money doing this: use free routines that you can get online instead in order to test carefully which ones work without putting down any money.
Another thing to do is to use your own personal history to decide what has worked for you in the past. Think back to when you were last at a bodyweight that you were truly happy with (or at least the closest you’ve come to being happy with your bodyweight) and then ask yourself what was working for you back then. What was your diet like at that point? Your lifestyle? And your training?
Finally, when looking at routines, try to deduce whether you think they’ll work for you or not. Look at what they involve and ask yourself if that sounds conducive to your body type and to your goals. Look at the person promoting the routine likewise and decide whether they are of a similar body type to you. Is it likely that what worked for them will also work for your physique?
Most importantly of all though, don’t get disheartened and give up if the training regime you try first doesn’t work right away. It doesn’t mean that the program was bad, it doesn’t mean that you’re never going to get the body you want… it just means you might need to keep looking before you find that perfect program that is optimally effective for you personally.