Muscle Plasticity: What Makes a Hard Gainer?

By on April 16, 2021

You’ve heard of brain plasticity. This is the incredible ability of the brain to adapt to its environment, resulting in new and strengthened neural pathways. Far less talked about is “muscle plasticity.” This is surprising, given that muscle plasticity is probably the biggest factor contributing to your physique and athletic performance.

Muscle Plasticity

Muscle plasticity is defined as:

“The ability of a given muscle to alter its structural and functional properties in accordance with the environmental conditions imposed on it.

In short, a more plastic muscle is more prone to hypertrophy and other structural changes. It is simply more responsive to training. And because some people have more plasticity than others, those people are likely to get better results from their workouts. This is the difference between “hard gainers” and the genetically fortunate.

Muscle plasticity is also responsible for differences in muscle fiber density. Some people have a tendency toward slower, endurance-type Type 1 muscle fibers. Others have a higher ratio of Type 2, fast-twitch fiber.

Fast twitch fiber

But that fiber can also be changed. So, put it this way: you might be an “endurance type,” but if you have higher muscle plasticity, you could successfully make the transition to a “power type.”

In my book, Functional Training and Beyond, I describe plasticity as a “SuperTrait.” That’s because it is a trait that can amplify every other trait. If you are more plastic, then you will get more out of every workout, you will be less prone to injury, and you will improve rapidly in every aspect of your physical and mental performance.

(Note that, just to make life more complicated, plasticity can be muscle-specific. Some muscles are naturally more plastic than others.)

Genetics and How to Increase Muscle Plasticity

Muscle plasticity is genetically determined to an extent but there are definitely ways to beat the odds. I recently had my DNA analysed by Self-Decode and learned that I had the desirable SNP (rs1815739) in the ACTN3 gene that encodes actinin alpha-3 and is related to fast twitch muscle fiber, as well as recovery, and “training adaptation” (study, study). This variation is disproportionately represented in athletes, and I can attest that I do respond very rapidly to training. I’d wager the same is probably true of many fitness influencers showing up on your Instagram feed.

Those with the opposite XX genotype, however, may fair better in endurance-type activities. The good news for me is that I also have the ACE insertion genotype, which is also beneficial for endurance tasks – especially when combined with ACTN3 (study). What can I say? Sometimes God gives with two hands… Though I do also have a tendency toward tendon injuries.

ACTN3

Self-knowledge, though, allows for smart, personalized training and a tailored approach to diet and supplementation. It is a new frontier for coaches and self-optimization. For example, it may be possible to combat the effects of deficient/average actinin alpha-3 production via carotenoid-rich foods such as pequi oil (study).

See also: Genetic Limits and Differences in Training (And how to surpass them)

Learning About Your Own Genetics

If you’re interested in finding out more about your own genetic profile and how it may impact your athleticism, personality, and cognitive performance (not to mention allergies, hair loss, susceptibility to illness and more), then you can follow this link to find out more. I actually get a bit of commission if you use that link, so you’d also be supporting the channel in a big way. If you’ve ever used Ancestry or another service that uses your DNA, you can just download the file to get immediate results.

You can also find two of MY reports here:

It’s a cool service that I’m definitely going to be discussing more on the site in future. That said, there are also others like it if you want to shop around.

And whether or not you won the genetic lottery, or choose to peek inside that black box, there are many other ways to enhance general muscle plasticity that should work for everyone. Here are some of the most interesting and practical.

Deload Weeks

One study suggests that overtraining (at least in rats, again) will reduce the production of anabolic muscle transcription factors (such as myogen and MyoD) and thus reduce muscle growth. Taking a break from training is the best way to get these back, so that the muscles will become more plastic again.

This may be why I’ve personally found such success when taking week-long breaks from training every one to two months (study). If you’ve hit a plateau, taking a week out might be all you need to regain your muscle plasticity. It feels counterintuitive but it’s actually highly effective at giving you that “bounce back” response.

See also: Over Training and How to Enhance Recovery

Cardio and Pump training

Working on cardio could also offer significant benefit here. Once again, running regularly works wonders no matter your goals.

While it’s a little removed from human gym rats, one encouraging study showed that aerobic exercise could increase muscle plasticity in mice recovering from spinal cord injuries. This was due to increased vascularization (study). More blood flow allows the muscles to respond more effectively to training.

Cardio Muscle Plasticity

Presumably, then, we might also expect to see training that focusses on capilarization – such as bodybuilding-style “pump training” – to effectively increase plasticity. This is speculation but it does gel with what I’ve experienced myself and makes logical sense. This is why the SuperFunctional Program begins with a “pump program” that revolves around high repetitions of isolation movements and the “ONE routine” that involves high reps of calisthenics.

My question is how they got these mice with spine injuries to come forward for the study. Did they stick up little post-its at a rat hospital?

Oh.

We might similarly expect to see blood flow restriction training aid with this, as this protocol also increases capillary-to-muscle ratio (study).

Muscle Satellite Cells and

Another key differentiator that determines plasticity, is the baseline satellite cell count of an individual. Subjects with more satellite cells experienced greater myonuclear addition and far greater muscle growth (study). Some interesting things you can do to increase this effect include supplementing with creatine (study), and increasing testosterone (study). You can also benefit from longer training sessions, and it seems that training for increase capilarization ALSO enhances muscle satellite cell proliferation (study).

Myosatellite cells

Recovery

Plasticity is also responsible for recovery, to a large extent. Injury occurs when the environment changes faster than the organism can adapt. So if you can adapt faster, you can prevent injury and train harder.

Training is biphasic. Although you do the work in the gym, it is during rest and sleep that your muscles grow thicker and you reinforce those neural pathways. Moreover, recovery is what allows you to train again sooner without injury.

Healthy Lifestyle Meditation

Improving recovery is largely a matter of improving your ability to rest and eating right. Getting lots of deep sleep makes a huge difference, as does avoiding stress outside the gym. Eat ample protein, nutrients, and calories. Hydration is also extremely important, while light exercise such as walking can be an effective way to improve delivery of blood and nutrients to recovering muscles.

Increasing Recovery Capacity

Raising testosterone and other anabolic hormones through diet, exercise, and sunlight exposure, can also have a big impact on recovery. Coincidentally, raising testosterone also increases energy and aggression.

What’s also important, though, is to improve cardiovascular fitness. This will again aid with delivery of nutrients to the muscles. At the same time, improving your stroke volume – your heart’s ability to pump more blood around the body with each stroke. That, in turn, results in a lower resting heart rate, which can actually keep you in a more anabolic state.

Running for plasticity

The act of running itself can also be useful to encourage acute recovery – as it encourages blood flow to different muscle tendon units.

Meditation is also hugely beneficial, as it helps to combat stress, which prevents us from entering the most anabolic states. Certain forms of meditation can even be used to “make up” for lost sleep to a certain extent.

Hacking Recovery

H2 for recovery

Again, there are plenty of “hacks” and novel strategies out there that claim to enhance recovery. Proceed with caution.

Weirdly, hydrogen water once again comes up here. Topical and oral administration of hydrogen-rich water appears to enhance soft-tissue recovery following injury (review). One review of the literature stated that “In a first trial, a combination of oral and topical H 2 resulted in a faster return to normal joint flexibility in 36 young men who had suffered sports-related soft tissue injuries, when administered for 14 days as a complementary treatment to a traditional medical protocol for soft tissue injuries.” However, it also recommended taking the findings with a “grain of salt” as they remain very limited in scope, at this stage.

Photobiomodulation

Similarly, there is a surprisingly high amount of positive evidence for the effectiveness of photobiomodulation (PBM) – light therapy – as a means to both prevent muscle injury and enhance recovery (study). In fact, the results are so good that there is some discussion around whether athletes should be allowed to use the method when competing. This method stimulates mitochondrial production and encourages more bloodflow AND collagen production.

Heck, there’s even a fair bit of evidence for whole-body cryostimulation for enhanced recovery. Though I don’t believe that falls into the category of “practical.”

Expect more in-depth explorations of these topics for future posts. To be clear, I’m not recommending you go out and buy an expensive red light panel or start sitting in your freezer. There is not yet enough evidence for these methods and “hacking” is never as effective as smart, effective training.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Wesley Chisler says:

    Love the article, I’m about to start my pump/tendon training this May. I’m not a hard gainer so I can’t relate as much, but I have friends that are hard gainers. Referee your excellent video to them.
    I’m wondering if you could touch more about muscle imbalances. I’ve searched the internet but there’s not much research about it. It’s more people saying “it’s just your genetics” or “train your weak side first”. I’m wondering if muscle imbalances could be improved, or even fixed, with isometrics or ambidexterity training. Because imbalances could be a matter of muscle fiber recruitment or lack of connectivity in the neural pathways. Just a thought for a future video.

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