Why Your Workout Might Not Be Working

by Elizabeth Millard
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Why Your Workout Might Not Be Working

Let’s say that you and a friend are roughly similar in terms of eating habits, age, gender and weight, and you decide to buddy up on some serious spin class action. After a couple of weeks, you notice that she’s seeing major gains in strength, energy and body composition. Meanwhile, all you’ve got to show for it is a laundry hamper full of sweaty gym clothes. She’s crushing it, and you’re just feeling crushed. What gives?

One recent study may have the answer: You may be a nonresponder to the type of exercise you’ve just taken on, while your friend is a big-time responder.

Whether you’re just getting started on your fitness journey or you’re an athlete looking to avoid plateau, knowing whether or not you’re a responder can help quash frustration and lead you to activity that’s more your groove — with plenty of results along the way.


In the study, researchers recruited 121 sedentary, middle-age men and women with significant belly fat and had them complete five exercise sessions over a six-month period.

The types of exercises varied in terms of intensity and duration. What they discovered was that cardiorespiratory fitness increased for everyone to some degree but that results were uneven across each group. Some people simply responded better to the kind of exercise they were given than others.


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A number of those nonresponders did, eventually, begin to see more traction after a few months, but others didn’t see any improvement even after six months.

Lead researcher Robert Ross, PhD, at Queen’s University in London says that the “nonresponse” rate was about 30%. “That’s not a trivial amount,” he says. “That’s significant when you’re talking about whether you respond well to certain exercises or not.”

The study didn’t measure other potential results of fitness like lowered blood pressure, better insulin sensitivity or healthier cholesterol numbers. But even if it had, those advantages tend to fall away if someone decides to quit exercising from lack of results.


If you’re just starting to work out and you’re not seeing progress, it can be especially discouraging, says Aaron Leventhal, a certified personal trainer and owner of Fit Studios in Minneapolis.

“You might think that you’re the problem,” he says. “That puts you in danger of quitting altogether, when it’s more likely that you just need to change what you’re doing instead.”

For athletes that have seen results in the past, the chances of hanging up the gym towel are lower. But the frustration level can still be sky-high. “Every athlete knows what it’s like to hit a plateau,” notes Leventhal. “That’s when you have to really switch things up to get past it. You can’t push past a plateau by doing the same thing over and over and hoping that your body will catch on eventually.”

For both beginning exercisers and experienced athletes, his advice is the same: Set a baseline, track your results and mix up the training after two weeks if you’re not seeing changes.

Results might be less about physical shifts — like muscle gains or weight loss — and more about endurance, energy stability outside the gym, better sleep or an overall feeling of wellness. If you’re not getting any of that, change your activity and start over.

For example, stop going to spin class and start a weight lifting program, or ditch the treadmill and commit to kickboxing instead. Leventhal changes his own activity mix every two to three weeks to keep his training fresh and increase performance.

“When your body gets used to what you’re doing, that’s when it stops working as hard,” he says. “Keep it guessing.”

No matter where you are on your fitness track, just remember that change is a good thing — especially if you’re not responding to what you’re doing.


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  • Jeremiah Haremza

    This is not what the conclusion of the study states. It says that after 24 weeks there were 0 % non responders in the HAHI (high amount high intensity) group. The non responders were in the low in testy groups. So it seems to point to the fact that you should increase intensity, not change to some other low intensity exercise.

    Did I miss something?

    • Zoe

      Nope, that’s pretty much how I read the study too. I think perhaps the author of the article missed something. And I would suggest that intensity is the key to seeing results, not giving up and moving on to something else.

  • Don Reitsma

    I have a great idea. Quit trying to rely on working out to lose weight. Change your eating habits. Reduce total carbohydates to less than 10% intake and replace with fat and no more than 30% protein. Add exercise back in to stay in shape and develop better cardio health.

    • Jeremiah Haremza

      While it’s true that diet has a bigger impact on weight loss, the study is not about weight loss. The study is about CRF (cardiorespiratory fitness). No caloric deficit, no macro ratios, no dietary intake alone will increase CRF significantly.

    • fmrleftchick

      I agree with your assertion that fat loss comes from calorie deficit. I disagree with your macro breakdown. A 40% protein and 30/30 healthy fats (olive/coconut oil, nuts, seeds, avacado, salmon, etc) and low glycemic carbs (high fiber foods like legumes, veggies, berries) would not only aid in muscle retention, it will keep one satiated longer throughout the day.

      • Don Reitsma

        I didn’t say weight loss comes from a calorie deficit. Don’t give a diabetic insulin, feed them 10,000 calories a day and they waste away. It’s why it was called the wasting disease.

        If you are losing weight and not hungry using the macro ratio you mention then that’s great. Find what works for you and stick to it.

        You don’t lose muscle with a 5% carb 20% protein 70% fat diet.

        • fmrleftchick

          You don’t lose muscle with a 5% carb 20% protein 70% fat diet.

          It would depend on the severity of the deficit and intensity of activity. As glucose and glycogen levels are depleted rapidly on such a low carb diet, the body will utilize amino acids/protein as a quick source of fuel before fat stores if engaging in strenuous cardio… and most certainly strenuous weight training. In other words, your body will eat away muscle while maintaining fat.

          Even if one only goes for casual walks and is generally active in their daily routine (walking dog, lawn work, housework, climbing stairs, etc), 20% protein is not sufficient. While your carb allotment is too low, not allowing for essential vegetables, legumes, etc.. carbs are the macro that gets cut first in a deficit.

          Additionally, carbs are essential after any demanding activity to quell the production of cortisol that is produced when the body/central nervous system is stressed. This is the only time when high-glycemic carbs should be consumed (and figured in daily macros of course).

          • Don Reitsma

            Absolutely not true. Just need to increase total calories and keep macros the same. Fat stores are used continuously during ketosis and always some carbs available. Applies to weightlifting and endurance over several years. Carbs have always been overemphasized.

          • fmrleftchick

            Lol… okay!

          • Don Reitsma


  • Shari Lindstrom

    This article should be removed. The study clearly shows if you are not getting results you need to increase the intensity of your workout. In the study this worked for 100% of participants.

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  • Marco Nanto

    What about when you exercise and adequate sleep?

  • Wildman Savage

    I haven’t read the study that this article is based on, but I think it is silly to look at one aspect of weight loss strategies, i.e. exercise, without talking about dietary intake. I’m a 55 year old man, and have been carrying around 10kgs of extra weight above my BMI for some years.
    From my experience you have to manage both, exercise and diet, to succeed. I’ve taken a gradual approach including both a calorie controlled diet and regular exercise, and lost just over 11kgs in the past 9 months. One thing that has helped me was a conscious decision to include a variety of exercise routines including jogging, walking, road cycling, mountain bike riding, commuter biking, and Crossfit training. I am on track to reach my normal BMI range in the next 3 months, and have less than 4 kgs to go. This weight loss has been planned following a major health scare and subsequent discussions with my doctor and surgery to remove my gall bladder. For me a focus on just exercise alone is never going to be a successful strategy.

  • Sue

    How do I keep my body guessing? One week do aerobics and the next jogging, should you not do the same exercises on the same day each week?

  • Staci Savage-Alfes

    What often happens in non responders is that the body sees the exercise as a stressor and causes the cortisol levels to our of whack.

  • Anonymous Is A Woman

    Exercise alone will seldom lead to successful weight loss unless you are already a world class athlete, in which case you don’t need articles like this.

    To lose weight cut calories and just move more throughout the day. It’s called. NEAT, or non exercise activity thermogenesis. The major difference between lean people and overweight people is that lean people are more active even when not exercising. And you have to watch calories and portions and carbs, fats, and proteins to get the right balance of all of them.

    The point of exercise, whether cardio or weight training, is fitness and health in addition to weight loss. You need it all.

    • fmrleftchick

      “The point of exercise, whether cardio or weight training, is fitness and health in addition to weight loss. You need it all. “

      Exactly. Weight training and cardio are essential for overall health, both physical and mental, as well as strength and flexibility.

      If exercise is needed to lose weight however, a person is simply burning off an over-consumption of calories. It is a lot easier to not overeat 400 calories a day than it is to burn it off through activity.

    • Don Reitsma

      Eat less / move more is not effective for weight loss. Less than 3% success rate.

      • Anonymous Is A Woman

        I’m not sure of the percentage success rate, but even just dieting alone produces dismal success rates, especially in keeping weight off. Weight loss is damned hard. And it does involve diet. No way around that.

  • Anonymous Is A Woman

    Also, just read the study carefully. It makes perfect sense. To increase effectiveness, you have to increase intensity. The body adapts. You should be mixing it up with new challenges every few weeks otherwise of course you will plateau.

    • fmrleftchick

      “To increase effectiveness, you have to increase intensity.”

      For cardiovascular health yes, for fat loss no. For those looking to lose fat (notice I don’t say lose weight), you could do so in a coma so long as you ingested a number of calories that is below your maintenance level. This is called your TDEE which is an acronym for total daily energy expenditure.

      Google “TDEE calculator” to figure an estimate of your own, then calculate a 20% deficit of that number to figure your total daily calorie intake. Try to breakdown this number into 40% protein, 30% healthy fats (do not go low fat!), and 30% low-glycemic (high fiber) carbs.

      For every 10lbs lost, refigure your TDEE and deficit/macro numbers and continue on. Don’t weigh yourself everyday. Discipline yourself to weigh once weekly first thing in the morning, before eating/drinking and after going to the bathroom… preferably in your birthday suit.

      • Anonymous Is A Woman

        In theory that is absolutely true. In reality, if you are a 63 year old woman who is 5’1″ you would probably end up having to eat 800 or less calories to lose weight or fat without being active.

        Notice, I didn’t say exercise. Exercise burns very little fat or calories without watching diet too. But if I sat around all day, I would have to literally starve to achieve my goal.

        Rather than do that, I walk around a lot, climb stairs, park my car further. In other words, I use NEAT – non exercise activity thermogenesis. And yes I believe diet and good nutrition are paramount. Without that none of the rest works.

        But I also am interested in cardio-pulmonary health and in being strong. Those are different issues from losing fat or weight. For that you need exercise and you need to keep challenging your body and increasing intensity as you get fitter. And you need variety.

        I’m not a body builder or a marathoner. Never will be athletic. I’m just interested in basic fitness and health as I get older.

        • fmrleftchick

          I think dropping to 800 calories a day would only be necessary if you were currently 100lbs and wanted to get to 80lbs… something you obviously don’t want. Had you included your current weight and goal weight, I could figure a more accurate number for you to organize your diet around.

          That said, you seem to have a solid understanding of what it takes to sensibly lose fat and stay healthy.

          • Anonymous Is A Woman

            thank you frmleftchick. I am currently 167 pounds and am keeping my calories to about 1200 a day, maybe a little less. With being moderately active – as i described, just moving more throughout the day – it seems to work. I don’t do anything extraordinary, certainly not intense interval training. Just taking a walk on a nice day or lifting 10 pound weights once or twice a week. And that is really more about not losing muscle as I age. I value independence and want to be able to lug my own groceries up a flight of stairs when I’m 70. But when I was truly sedentary, I was having a helluva time losing weight even at 1200 calories.

      • Don Reitsma

        It also depends on what the diet is.