Resistance Training and Testosterone: How to Get the Most “Juice” Out of Your Workout

Resistance Training and Hormones

The endocrine system is a system of glands that secrete hormones directly into the blood.  These hormones act as our body’s chemical messengers; they are our signaling system and influence virtually every cell in our body. It is a key component involved in the regulation of physical development, mood, metabolism, tissue function, and our sexual function.

What does the endocrine system have to do with resistance training?  Resistance training elicits a wide variety of hormonal responses critical to force production, tissue growth, and remodeling.  Our hormones play a key role in enabling our body to produce force and repair the damage we do to our body while we engage in RT.

Well if that is the case, then why does running not elicit the same response? It turns out that the acute response of our endocrine system is dependent upon the type of stimulus we submit our body to. Everything from the type of muscle tissue involved, the training intensity, volume, and rest intervals all serve to dictate exactly how the endocrine system responds1. Resistance training direct influences the behavior of several hormones including: testosterone, luteinizing hormone, sex-hormone binding globulin, the growth hormone family and its binding proteins, and cortisol.  While all of these hormones play a role in our bodies response to exercise, I want to focus on what is often considered the key anabolic hormone, testosterone.

Testosterone

Testosterone is a steroid hormone secreted by testicles in males and ovaries in females. Testosterone is an androgen hormone and crucial in the development of male characteristics.  Women are also dependent upon testosterone for normal function, i.e. maintain libido, bone density and muscle mass throughout their lives; however, they are not as highly dependent upon it as men. Women instead rely heavily on estrogen and the growth hormones for their hormone signaling

In men, testosterone is vital in the signaling process for protein synthesis and attenuates the effect of catabolic hormones.  Elevations in testosterone augment other anabolic hormonal mechanisms such as growth hormones (GH), insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and can increase the amount of neurotransmitters released, regenerate nerves, and increase neuron size.  Simply stated, testosterone is crucial in promoting an anabolic state and enhancing neural function.

How you exercise has a significant impact on the levels of testosterone released during training.   Research has shown that there is a threshold of training in both volume and intensity to elicit a testosterone response and magnitude of the response is then dictated by the muscle mass involved, volume and intensity, training experience, and nutritional intake.  Large muscle mass exercises, squats, deadlifts, cleans, and snatches, have been shown to be more effective in eliciting a response than small muscle mass3. One of the most intriguing and positive aspects is that the testosterone response is relative, it is not dependent on your absolute strength2. In practice, this means that, all else equal, two individuals squatting 85% of the their max under a certain volume elicits the same testosterone response, regardless if that weight is 100 pounds or 500 pounds.

When resistance (amount of weight) is held constant, the larger acute testosterone response is observed in the protocol consisting of a higher number of sets4. In a similar regard, if repetitions are held constant, greater acute testosterone response is elicited under higher resistance. There also appears to be a threshold in which a certain level of intensity and volume must be reached in order to significant elevations in testosterone to occur. While the exact threshold has not yet been determined, programs that are based upon a higher gylcolytic protocol (moderate intensity, high volume, short rest intervals) and produce sufficient levels of lactate seem the illicit a greater increase in acute testosterone5.

What does this mean for programming your workout?

If your main goal is muscle growth (hypertrophy) and not strength, your workout should be structured to elicit the greatest hormonal response possible, which follows a program with moderate intensity, high volume, short rest intervals. A hypertrophic program might look something like the following, for each exercise your load (weight) should be between 67 and 85% of your 1 repetition maximum (RM), with 3-6 sets per exercise, 6-12 repetitions per group, and between 30 and 90 seconds of rest. In a program like this it is often recommended to complete between 3 and 8 exercises for the major muscle groups they are working that day.

If you want to see significant gains in strength along with hypertrophy, your workout should be structured slightly differently. In this case, it is often recommended that after a proper warm up you begin your workout with a strength focused exercise and then progress to more hypertrophy based work.  For example, on a lower body focused day you might begin with the back squat and complete 5 sets of 5 repetitions with between 2 and 5 minutes of rest between sets.  After the squat exercise, you might complete 4 sets of 10 front squats, 4 sets of 10 lunges, and 4 sets 10 straight leg dead lifts.

Smart programming is key in a successful training program. Specifically tailoring your program to elicit the proper hormonal response is crucial in getting the proper anabolic response and promoting gains in both size and strength.

 

1. Antonio J., Kalman D., Stout JR, Greenwood M., Willoughby DS, & Haff, GG (2008). Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Humana Press.

2. Kramaer WJ, Staron, RS, Hagerman, FC, et al. (1998). the effects of short-term resistance training on endocrine function in men and women. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 78, 69-76.

3. Kramaer WJ, Fry AC, Warren BJ, et al., Acute hormonal responses in elite junior weightlifters. Int J Sports Med, 1992, 13,103-109.

 

4. Fahey TD, Rolph R, Moungmee P, et al., Serum testosterone, body composition, and strength of young adults, Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1976, 8, 31-34.

5. Lu SS, Lau CP, Tung YF, et al. Lactate and the effect of exercise on testosterone secretion: evidence for the involvement of a camp-mediated mechanism. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1997, 29, 1048-1054.

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