The principle of individuality states that each person has unique abilities and needs. It appears throughout exercise science, often to defend complicated programs such as periodization. This principle is too vague to have much value in itself but can reinforce some common sense.
Trainees with more fast-twitch muscle fibers have more potential for size and strength. Those with more slow-twitch fibers have more potential for endurance. Many would find it interesting to know the proportions within their muscles. You can determine this with a biopsy. This harms the muscle though along with the hassle and costs involved.
Most trainees have close to an even ratio overall. For everyone, some muscles will have more of one type because of the role they perform the most. Stabilizers that hold positions and keep a good posture have more slow-twitch. Muscles likely to produce great power for short bursts such as the quadriceps often have more fast-twitch. Elite athletes will have an ideal ratio that supports their sport.
Some experts believe you can estimate your ratios with a simple and practical method. You use 80% of your one rep max for an exercise. Apply your best effort and get as many reps as you can. If you perform say over 15 reps, then you have more slow-twitch. If you get just a few reps then you have mostly fast-twitch. Many trainees then choose their rep range based on this experiment. This gives a good example of how individuality can mislead you.
This test fails to account for the many variables that influence results. These include effort and experience. Consider that the compound exercises that work safest and best for strength training require many muscles. Accounting for all of them would be impossible. This could lead you to using more isolation to address each muscle best. The test also rewards you for performing less well, as many lifters would like to believe they favor fast-twitch.
Fortunately, this assessment could only at best reveal your potential. Potential does not dictate training. Energy systems show that different intensities lead to different adaptations. The idea that you could improve your strength and size faster with high reps due to having more slow-twitch fails to meet the need for specificity.
Low durations prevent lactate and other forms of fatigue from limiting tension. Tension is the main stimulus for more size and strength. Someone with more slow-twitch muscle fibers will gain size and strength more slowly and develop it less under any plan.
Like many concepts in fitness, the trainee can choose how to interpret the principle however they wish. It can support the high volume programs that fail nearly all that try them. You can claim everything we know about exercise is subjective and go ahead with whatever you already decided you wanted to do.
While we are all different, this reveals itself in mostly our potentials and preferences. We as humans all rely on the same biomechanics, physiology, and anatomy. The requirements to address a goal such as strength, cardio, or flexibility do not vary that much.
In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality.
– Haruki Murakami
- Heredity determines baselines and ceilings.
For building muscle and showing strength, many factors present at birth play a role. Limb length, tendon insertions, fiber composition, muscle belly length, initial hormone levels, and neurological factors are all inherited.
For endurance athletes, the VO2 max, a general measure of aerobic capability, seems mostly innate. Most people also know someone with a very low heart rate. They usually do run or perform some sport that requires endurance, but they usually discovered it during a check-up with their doctor at a young age.
Some possess great flexibility. Consider how women have much more flexible hips versus men, and this makes sense for bearing a child. The structure of the joints will determine the limits of flexibility throughout many areas of the body.
The reality can look bleak. Someone untrained with great genes may perform better than someone that trained all their life. This is not fair, but it is true.
- The potential for improvement is greatest when fitness is lowest.
A beginner does not need to worry about nearing perfection as they have more room to grow. As you advance, you need to pay more attention to your preferences and stick to what works well for you, instead of variety as many recommend. Keeping a progress log can help you determine some of these decisions.
- Training must be specific.
To build strength, you must create more tension in the muscles with heavier weights over time. To improve cardio, you must elevate the heart rate and keep it there by performing more work over time. To increase flexibility, you must stretch the muscle further and further over all its joints. These goals never change based on individual differences.
One trainee may prefer sets of 6 reps versus 12 reps. The difference in this case matters little. Many authorities will scare you into thinking otherwise. They state that 6 reps strike a balance between strength and size gains and 15 reps focuses on muscle endurance. They bypass the many contradictions that exist to their theories.
Some will find they keep better form, feel more motivated, or optimize some other factor that makes them prefer one way or another. These preferences remain reasonable and still address the same aim.
Someone preferring sets of 30-50 though would certainly reduce their strength and size gains. Other factors would begin to override tension as the limitation. Never forget though that someone squatting 400 lb. for 50 reps would look and be almost unbelievably strong. This approach could still work but not as well.
- The less potential you have, the more efficiency matters.
The concept of non-responders appears throughout research studies. For the same stimulus, some people thrive and others achieve nothing or even regress.
Perhaps those less suited require more efficiency. Many common regimens allow overtraining. They have to do more things right to improve.
Age and gender cannot change. Sometimes we may need to train in heat or cold. We can control things such as sleep, diet, and managing stress. In many cases, someone trains correctly enough but ignores these ingredients needed for growth. You cannot build something from nothing.
Avoid Dwelling on the Principle of Individuality
Nature vs. nurture arguments oversimplify things. They both matter, yet the more variables involved in an activity, the more effort makes the difference. You may not be able to play chess blindfolded, but you can work hard each and every day to build your own successful business.
Never underestimate the power of the mind to influence the body. New research into genetics shows our environment can activate latent genes. The mind can heal the body miraculously as seen with the placebo effect. Scientists are still baffled as to how this occurs.
Your potential does set a ceiling. How can you know this though? Potential is too complex to analyze. If you have just enough ability for something, once you cross this baseline, perhaps you just need to work hard and smartly. Knowledge and self-discipline may matter more.
We all adhere to the same laws of nature. We can all gain or lose weight by manipulating calories. We can all train to failure to stimulate muscle growth. We can all withstand feeling out-of-breath to improve our conditioning. As long as you have a healthy body and give it enough food and rest, it will improve. Before blaming your genes, did you truly do everything you could to accomplish your goal?
Be efficient. Make every exercise count. This matters even more if you are not a natural.
Form a habit. Cultivate intrinsic motivation. Enjoy exercise; we all need it.
If something works well for you but you cannot explain why, keep it. Who cares what anyone says.
Analyzing your potential serves no purpose. Nonetheless, some people think that an abbreviated program like what I suggest here provides the solution to all their woes. They then grow disappointed when their results are about the same or not much better than in the past. Efficiency bestows no miracles.
The principle of individuality seems to reveal great insights at first. You come to realize it means nothing really. It dictates no training practices, yet many use it to validate their crazy protocols.
Train specifically for your goal. You can vary within a range that gives results based on your preferences. Ignore the principle of individuality.