Testosterone is the most potent muscle-building hormone and recent research shows that adequate levels are directly related to health and well being in men. Testosterone (T) is directly involved in muscle building and promotes the secretion of Growth Hormone (GH) from the pituitary gland—another essential anabolic hormone for tissue repair and fat burning.
Optimal T levels correlate with a lean body composition and low levels can lead to fat gain and muscle loss. Additionally, low T levels are associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, elevated cancer risk, particularly prostate, not to mention a low sex drive, fatigue, decreased bone density, depression, and reduced muscle mass and strength. Aging, particularly beyond 40 years is associated with a one to three percent decline per year in T concentration, eventually resulting in a condition known as andropause.
Wondering what you can do to increase T levels?
First, understand the relationship between cortisol and testosterone. Second, follow my research-based tips for the greatest anabolic training response.
Testosterone is typically measured in relation to the catabolic, muscle degrading hormone, cortisol. The best T response from training allows you to increase strength and lean body mass by elevating protein synthesis and inhibiting the catabolic effects from high-intensity training. A higher testosterone-to-cortisol (T:C) ratio reflects your ability to maintain a higher intensity and volume of training as well as have a speedier and more effective recovery from workouts. Naturally, if you can train harder and longer, you’ll get better results and improved performance.
1) Go Heavy and Use Large Muscle Lifts: Olympic Lifts, Squats, Deadlifts
It’s been well established that for the maximal T response, your best bet is to do a lot of squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts such as power cleans and snatches. A significant metabolic stress in the form of a high volume load, particularly in order to yield a favorable T:C ratio with heavy lifts (85-95 percent of the 1RM) and a moderate to high volume of training is also necessary.
For example, a study of rugby players, found that training four exercises of 3 sets of 5 at 85 percent of the 1 RM resulted in a greater increase in T (by 13 percent) after the workout than three lighter loads equated for volume.
2) The Importance of Volume
Researchers suggest that differences in load intensity, rest periods, and technique are secondary to volume in eliciting T and C responses to training. It has been established through research that strict maximal strength and power protocols produce only modest changes in anabolic hormone levels, while hypertrophy protocols commonly yield a significant hormone response.
For example, even with heavy lifts such as a 90 percent 1 RM load, you won’t get a significant T response without a large volume of work. Research shows that with a relatively low volume of work, a hypertrophy-type (4 sets of 10 reps of squat at 75 percent of 1 RM) protocol is more effective at creating an anabolic environment than a strength-type (11 sets of 3 reps at 90 percent of 1 RM), or a power-type (8 sets of 6 reps of jump squats with no weight).
The hypertrophy protocol resulted in a significant increase in T, C, and sex hormone-binding globulin, indicating both a state of protein degradation and an adaptive process leading to increased protein synthesis. Workouts with a larger volume that incorporate specific strength and power lifts for variety would create the best anabolic response.
3) What About Rest Periods?
While short rest periods with high-intensity training have been shown to create a potent anabolic environment by eliciting a strong GH and T response, recent research shows that longer rest periods may be more effective in triggering T release if you program properly. A new study compared the affect of rest period length on GH and T response. Participants performed four sets to failure of bench press and squat at 85 percent of 1RM with either 60, 90, or 120 seconds of rest between sets. Because participants were lifting to failure, training volume for the 90- and 120-second rest groups was about 15 percent greater than for the 60-second group because they were more rested.
T levels increased the most with the longest rest period of 120 seconds, most likely due to the higher training volume because participants were able to recover more completely. The 60-second group had the highest increase in GH, indicating the importance of using a variable training program that incorporates both short rest periods to stimulate GH for and longer rest periods to get the critical T response. The slightly longer rest allows for the use of heavier loads and greater recovery between lifts, resulting in a higher total volume for the best T release. Don’t ignore the value of T to counteract the muscle degradation of high-intensity training that elevates cortisol.
4) The Individual Nature of Testosterone Response
The good news is that there is more than one training protocol for getting a strong T response and building muscle. Things begin to get complicated when we look at individual role of T in different trainees.
Two studies from New Zealand of rugby players support a variable training protocol for strength and muscle mass gains and the fact that T response is individualized. Both studies compared the same exercise protocols: four exercises using 4 sets of 10 at 70 percent of 1RM; 3 X 5 at 85 percent; 5 X 15 at 55 percent; or 3 X 5 at 40 percent.
Take note that not all of the study’s participants had optimal T responses to the same protocol: two had the largest T response to performing 3 X 5 at 40 percent—a surprisingly light load and low volume. The majority of the players had the greatest T response to 4 sets of 10 at 70 percent.
The takeaway point from this study is that individuals with a low T-response threshold may have a greater anabolic response to a low-load, explosive training protocol, such as 85-95 percent 1 RM Olympic lifts of power squats for 5 sets of 3. Alternately, for those that require a large volume of exercise to elicit a T response, a 5 X 15 at 55 percent protocol may be more appropriate.
5) How Can I Get the Best T:C Ratio?
The second study from the New Zealand researchers used the same group of rugby players and tested the same four exercise protocols on T:C ratio. In fact, all four exercise schemes yielded decreases in C concentration. The program that produced the most favorable ratio was 3 sets of 5 at 85 percent of the 1RM (13 percent increase in T and 38 percent decrease in C), which supports the idea that heavy resistance with large muscle groups is key.
Very similar results are evident from other studies comparing strength, hypertrophy, and power. I’ll say it again, a high volume is important with a hypertrophy-type protocol that allows for variety in the training scheme, occasionally including strength and power exercises if desired.
6) Use Complex Training to Manipulate the T:C Ratio in Your Favor
Add complex training with a strength-then-power protocol to trigger more T release and a better T:C ratio. A recent study found that using a strength-power squat protocol is more effective than a power-power, power-strength, or strength-strength combination training order. The strength-power order resulted in the greatest T response of 13 percent and a “trivial cortisol response.” The power-power bout yielded the least favorable ratio with a significant C response and the smallest T response of all. Researchers note that despite a relatively limited T increase, the strength-power protocol has the potential to enhance the anabolic environment for adaptation.
7) Warm-up With Sprints for the Greatest Anabolic Response
Prime the muscles and the endocrine system with all-out sprints prior to resistance training to lift more weight and get a better T:C ratio. A recent study found that performing one lower- and one upper-body body cycle sprint (40 seconds long) prior to a box squat and bench throw workout resulted in a higher T response. Participants also had greater maximal lifts in the squat. Researchers point to the importance of using large muscle lower body sprints and lifts for the most anabolic milieu.
8) Testosterone and Fish Oil: Omega-3s are Anabolic!
Take fish oil to build muscle and get an anabolic response. Recent research shows that fish oil supplementation enhances protein synthesis and decreases C levels. In one study participants increased lean mass and decreased body fat after taking fish oil for eight weeks and they did no exercise or resistance training. The lower C levels are likely the reason for the positive body composition improvements.
While fish oil hasn’t been found to actually raise T levels, zinc supplementation has. Research shows there is a significant relationship between low zinc levels and low T levels in men. Additionally, taking a zinc supplement has been shown to increase T response to high-intensity to cycling more than a placebo. Don’t leave muscle gain on the table—take zinc for the best T response.
9) Take Branched-Chain Amino Acids for a Better T:C Ratio
If you haven’t added branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to your nutrition program, two recent studies should convince you to do so. A 2010 study found that taking BCAAs while resistance training results in significantly higher T levels with a lower creatine kinase and C response. This is significant because both strength gains and a decrease in protein degradation are more correlated with a better T:C ratio than total testosterone levels.
A second study compared taking 10 grams of protein that was 18 percent leucine with a similar drink that was 35 percent leucine. The higher leucine concentration resulted in greater anabolic protein signaling, which means less muscle breakdown from the degrading effects of C.
10) Anabolic Signaling, T, and Wave-Like Training
Anabolic signaling relates to the process of how T interacts with hormone receptors, specifically androgen receptors (AR). Increasing the activity of ARs—or upregulating them—results in a greater anabolic response. Research shows that using wave-like training with varying programming schemes can upregulate ARs and elevate T levels.
A recent study used a 21-week total body resistance training program with men who performed seven exercises with varying loads and repetition/set schemes. Participants performed each of the following protocols for seven weeks: strength endurance, hypertrophy, and maximal strength. All participants significantly increased muscle size and 1RM strength, and had higher T levels following training sessions.
Researchers found that in individuals with the greatest T response, ARs were equally more upregulated. Plus, the magnitude of muscle growth correlated to greater T and AR upregulation, indicating the critical nature of T in creating an anabolic environment.
The Growth Hormone Response: Get Anabolic Pt2
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