… But Not Seeing Results

As a personal trainer, I hear this question frequently:

“Why can my friend eat ________ (fill with junk food or poor diet of choice) and stay skinny, but I eat _______ (fill with healthy food or diet of choice), and I don’t make any progress?”

This is an extremely defeating feeling, watching others apparently eat “normally” and enjoying a high level of fitness, while you make heroic efforts to address your weight or fitness level, but you’re not seeing results.

The good news is that it’s not all in your head!

The Dangers of Comparison

First, before you read any more of this blog post, check out an older blog post of mine about comparing yourself to others, then come back!

Here is a quote from that blog post:

Comparison is a dangerous game, because we do not know why other people look the way they do – even people we know rather well. When you see someone overweight, you can’t over-generalize and assume that they’re lazy, sedentary, and binge eating every night. Similarly, when you see someone that looks trim and fit, you can’t assume that they’re hitting the gym every day, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and practicing positive habits.

Also keep in mind, that just because someone is thin doesn’t mean that they are healthy. A slender woman who eats poorly is not necessarily a healthy person. While waistline is often a correlation with health, we make far too many snap judgments based on people’s appearances, and we have internalized those messages to an unhelpful degree.

Bottom line – we just don’t know every detail of someone else’s life. So before you compare and despair about not seeing results, remember that you are a unique individual with unique goals, and that you can’t make someone else’s body your blueprint of success.

That being said…

Some People Do Have it Harder Than Others

I’m going to be real with you. You’re probably reading this article because you are frustrated with your fitness and feel that you have somehow been dealt the genetic losing hand.

I want to level with you – you are not making this up. This is not in your imagination.

It’s not popular for fitness professionals to admit, but there are some people who do have a harder time seeing progress than others. The same behaviors don’t necessarily create the same changes at the same pace for you as they do for your friend.

In the bodybuilding world (where the goal is to be big and muscular), guys have a term: “hardgainer.” It refers to a man who puts in the same time at the gym (and in the kitchen) as the biggest guy, but just can’t get that same level of bulk. I’m pretty sure we all knew this wiry guy in high school, who spent his days eating entire rotisserie chickens, pounding protein shakes, and pumping iron, without any change in appearance.

There is a similar phenomenon with toning and weight loss. There is a confusing term, “non-responder,” that has floated around (and is widely misunderstood), and I’m going to do my best in this blog post to explain it and show you how you can improve your approach to fitness.

I hope you feel validated! Read on…

Are You a “Non-Responder:?

You may be a “non-responder” if:

  • You put in a decent amount of time at the gym, with little or no results
  • You eat reasonably healthy, but don’t lose weight
  • You only lose weight when you take dramatic measures that are not sustainable

Do you fit the bill? I have good news. You can get leaner and fitter, but your approach may need to be a little different, for a few important reasons.

Many of my newest clients come to me feeling this way. I am going to tell you a story about a client of mine named “Sarah” (name changed).

Sarah was a classic “non-responder” when she first contacted me. She felt frustrated with her lack of progress over time with previous fitness programs, and felt that the only way she could lose weight was to dip her calorie level extremely low. But she knew this wasn’t sustainable (or smart), so she sought me out after reading one of my blog posts. She actually lives in a different country, so all of our training is done remotely, via e-mail, phone, Skype, and Google Drive! (And you can, too! Check out my Remote Training page!)

I could hear the discouragement in Sarah’s voice the very first time we talked on the phone, and I explained to her then what I am going to lay out for you now:

There is no such thing as a true non-responder. 

There is no person who is impervious to the effects of exercise and a smart nutrition strategy. It feels like it, but there’s a simple solution.

If you feel that you are a non-responder, the main key to improving your fitness is to step up the number of times you exercise per week. In other words, you need to increase the overall weekly minutes you log.

It’s deceptively simple, but most non-responders (check out the research) are only non-responders if they exercise just a few times a week. 

Here’s the problem that I explained to Sarah: most recommendations for exercise suggest 2-3 times per week for a workout. If you get a personal trainer, there is probably not a 5-times-per-week option. Many people choose to work with a trainer once per week, in fact. Also, the typical “Sculpt Your Booty Now” workout in the average women’s magazine recommends doing the workout 2-3 times per week. If you are in the “non-responder” category, this is simply not enough exercise for you to get fitter, inside or out.*

*An important note is that fitness is not simply relegated to weight loss – it also implies cardiovascular fitness, and the ability of the heart rate to efficiently lower itself after a spurt of activity. 

In other words, most people who feel that they are non-responders simply are not exercising enough to trigger weight loss and fitness results. Researchers don’t completely understand why this phenomenon occurs, as it does not seems to fall along race or gender lines, but they do know that it seems to be genetic, running in families.

This is why it is so important not to compare yourself to others, and to be confident on your own unique fitness journey. Yes, your friend may be able to eat burgers and exercise a handful of times a week and look like a Victoria’s Secret model, but I guarantee you that she has – or will have – her own battles to fight. You just don’t know about them, necessarily.

Back to Sarah now – Sarah went from feeling this sense of discouragement, to following the plan of fitness and nutrition that I created for, and she now has abs. Not straining-sideways-in-good-lighting abs, but real abs. She looks lean, defined, and toned, and has gone from feeling disorganized and helpless to feeling empowered and strong. She has a reliable gym routine, does exercises that she loves, and doesn’t starve herself.

She’s not a non-responder anymore, right? 

I have found frequency of exercise to be essential in my own personal exercise practice, as well. For most of my clients, it is important to do something every single day, which is why all of my clients have homework between sessions.

If you feel this sense of frustration, that you simply can’t see progress, please know that you are not making it up, and you’re not alone. In fact, I write programs for people like you all the time!

Feel free to be in touch if you have questions on this topic!

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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