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For someone with sh*t genetics, does it make sense to do isolation exercises

Context, I can do 12 pull-ups, 30+ pushups, 100kg squat (1 rep max), 65 kg benchpress but quite skinny for 63 kg 5'3". (Not that I'm trying to blame genetics, but I come from one of the poorest parts of south Asia, born to parents with a combined average height of 4'11", and ate only rice and beans for 18 years for religious reasons.)

My understanding is that if I focus on hypertrophying glamor muscles (biceps, triceps, abs, quads) (eg: weighted pushups, dips, pull-ups) my body won't really respond to the stimulus. Because I have said sh*it genetics, I need compounds movements to stir up a response.

Is this true? Essentially: Can hypertrophy really build size and (some) strength for people with below-average genetics?

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  • You don't have bad genetics. I'm not sure why you keep insisting that is the case. You've been training less than a year and you can already do 12 pullups and squat 100KG? I've met people who've been training for 5 years and can't do that.
    – DeeV
    Oct 13 at 15:54
  • @DeeV I don't weight much, that's why pullups is half decent. The squat is just a (wobbly) 1-rep max. Clean reps at 70-80 ish
    – nz_21
    Oct 13 at 15:59
  • What is your exact goal? Are you trying to get bigger, stronger, healthier? Deev mentions that you have been training under a year? How many months? Oct 13 at 17:48
  • How is this different from your previous question fitness.stackexchange.com/q/44413/2217? What do you mean by your body won't respond to the stimulus if you focus on "glamor muscles"? Compound exercises stimulate the same muscles, just in different ways. Oct 13 at 18:12
  • 2
    If your bodyfat percentage is in the normal rage, you're actually pretty stacked with muscle already at 5'3" and 63 kg. In BMI terms that puts you right at the top of the "normal weight" bracket. If you have access to mental health services, could you talk to a professional about a possible diagnosis of muscle dismorphia? Mental health is scary to talk about, but please do with a trusted professional
    – Thegs
    Oct 13 at 18:13
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There's no such thing as a non-responder to resistance training,1,* you're just not eating enough to gain muscle.

* With the possible exception of people who have some certain types of muscular dystrophy.

There is also no reason to think that an individual would experience vastly differently responses to compound vs isolation exercises. Hypertrophy training will increase muscle mass in pretty much everyone provided that the right conditions for muscle growth are present, which includes adequate training stimulus, sufficient energy availability for muscle growth (either eating in a caloric excess or having a lot of body fat to start with), and sufficient sleep.

Here's a simplified table I just put together that will tell you the expected outcome for every combination of whether or not you have a sufficient training stimulus (volume and intensity of training) for muscle growth, whether you're eating enough, and whether you've already gained as much muscle as your genetics permit.

+--------------------+------------------+------------------------------------+--------------------------+
| Training stimulus? | Caloric surplus? | Already reached genetic potential? |         Outcome          |
+--------------------+------------------+------------------------------------+--------------------------+
| Inadequate         | No               | No                                 | Lose muscle              |
| Adequate           | No               | No                                 | No change                |
| Inadequate         | Yes              | No                                 | Gain fat                 |
| Adequate           | Yes              | No                                 | Gain muscle              |
| Inadequate         | No               | Yes                                | Lose muscle              |
| Adequate           | No               | Yes                                | No change                |
| Inadequate         | Yes              | Yes                                | Lose muscle and gain fat |
| Adequate           | Yes              | Yes                                | Gain fat                 |
+--------------------+------------------+------------------------------------+--------------------------+

Now, notice that there are only two "no change" outcomes. If that's what you're experiencing, then we can narrow down the cause to one of the following cases:

  • You're reached your genetic potential, and aren't eating in a surplus, but are training hard enough to avoid losing muscle.
  • You're training hard enough to gain muscle, but aren't eating enough.

Given that you mentioned your body fat level being only 11-13%, it's pretty much certainly the second case. You need to keep increasing how much you're eating until you start gaining weight. If that weight comes on as body fat (assessable by measuring your waist circumference) then you would need to reassess whether your training program is actually adequate. But unless you've actually gotten fat while on a decent resistance training program, you really can't say that you're reached your genetic potential. This really needs to be emphasised - if you've stopped gaining muscle but haven't started getting fat then you aren't at your genetic potential, you just aren't eating enough.

Consider getting a strength training or bodybuilding coach to help you through the process. That will likely be the biggest single change you could make towards further progress.

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  • This is a great answer, but how come there isn't an outcome for "gain muscle and fat"?
    – nz_21
    Oct 14 at 12:32
  • @nz_21 I simplified the table so caloric intake was just a binary value of "surplus" or "no surplus". But in reality it's continuous, not binary, because you could have a big surplus or a little surplus. To be precise, an excessively large surplus would result in both fat and muscle gain. Oct 14 at 20:14

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