Most people who have ever lifted a dumbbell know the power of testosterone. While it plays an important role in both male and female health, testosterone is of particular importance for males.
For a male lifter, optimizing natural testosterone levels is crucial; if testosterone is too low an individual may have a hard time losing fat and building muscle (Wang et al., 2006). Beyond one’s physique, low testosterone has also been linked to an array of health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, muscle weakness, mood swings, chronic fatigue ... the list goes on (Grossmann et al., 2013).
Throughout life testosterone levels can vary, with natural testosterone peaking when a man is aged between 18-25 years old. At the age of 30, natural testosterone will start to decline at a rate of about 1% per year (Feldman et al., 2002). Although this may not sound a lot, by the age of 40 – 50 a male’s testosterone can be noticeably lower and may start having an effect on one’s health and physique.
Apart from the steady decline, many males will have varying levels of natural testosterones at baseline (before age related declines) (Ross et al., 1986). If you have a friend who is naturally muscular, eats poorly and still looks great, well it’s likely they have a high level of natural testosterone (amongst other genetic advantages).
Despite this natural decline and fluctuation, certain lifestyle factors can also play a noticeable role, both in a positive and negative manner. For example, certain foods, supplements and lifestyle changes can help raise low testosterone. In contrast, poor food choices, alcohol, toxic substances, stress and lack of sleep can negatively affect your testosterone (Travison et al., 2007).
For any health conscious individual sleep is vitally important, this becomes even more apparent if you’re pushing your body’s boundaries, like during an intense training block or dietary regime. Poor, interrupted sleep, lack of sleep and misalignment of your circadian rhythm (irregular sleep wake cycle, caused by factors like night shifts or extreme and constant travel through time zones) can all lower testosterone. Research by Penev et al. (2007) found a relationship between hours of sleep per night and morning testosterone levels.
Firstly, an obvious attempt should be made to eliminate any of these factors if they are occurring on a regular basis (don’t worry about one or two nights of poor sleep – they alone will not be an issue). To improve sleep quality there are several strategies you can use, most of which are fairly obvious, but often overlooked.
- Around 30-60 minutes before bed start to wind down; switch off any external lights from TV’s, tablets and phones. Do something relaxing such as read a book, write in a journal or diary or speak with your spouse / family.
- Try to mimic natural light and eliminate external and artificial light, this helps keep your circadian rhythm healthy. Although we aren’t advocating a bedtime of 5pm when it gets dark, trying to wake up in the morning to natural light and not going to bed too late is, however, a smart move. As above, eliminate external lights before bed as blue light will confuse your brain, impeding the release of melatonin, a hormone in the brain which signals it’s time to sleep.
- Tailor the amount of sleep to your own needs, some individuals can function really well on 6 hours, some on 8 hours, some on as much as 10 hours, but, as a rule of thumb, 7 – 9 hours per night works best for MOST.
- Use certain supplements to aid sleep; these include ZMA (which may also aid testosterone levels independently), 5-HTP, Melatonin and even carbohydrates.
- Don’t train too late in the day and, whenever possible, try to finish your workout at least 1 – 2 hours before going to bed. When we train, our body is in an energized and active state with hormones such as adrenaline being raised, this obviously makes it harder to switch off and sleep. Again, if you have no choice but to train late at night or not train at all then by all means hit the gym, but be aware that, if this is happening every day, it may be worth trying to change your schedule.
Although fats once had a bad rep, even the mainstream media have caught up with the fact that natural, healthy, dietary fats are an important nutrient and NOT linked with all the chronic diseases we once thought. One of these health benefits is dietary fat’s role in hormones, particularly testosterone.
Many researchers have investigated the role of dietary fat in testosterone; one early study by leading researchers Volek et al. (1997) found saturated and mono unsaturated fats in particular helped increase testosterone. Other research (Hämäläinen et al., 1994) has found that natural testosterone can decline when dietary fat intake is reduced to less than 40% of total energy intake.
Again, it’s important to note that a 2 week low fat diet would not cause a decline; it’s your dietary patterns over weeks and months that will determine any nutritional outcome. Here are some healthy fat sources you should be including for a variety of reasons, including testosterone levels!
Vitamin D has to be one of my favourite supplements around, providing a whole host of health benefits and, you guessed it, one of which is good testosterone levels! A large percentage of individuals living in countries such as the USA are deficient in Vitamin D, with an even higher percentage having below optimal levels.
Vitamin D is a steroid type hormone and also plays an important role in sperm count and quality, hormones, body fat, muscle function and even in prevention of certain diseases. An array of research has been conducted in recent years, one study by Pilz et al. (2011) investigated men with low testosterone and supplemented with Vitamin D for 1 year. The researchers found testosterone increased by more than double in the Vitamin D group with no change in the placebo group!
In order to increase Vitamin D the most natural way is daily exposure to sunlight. However, this is often logistically seldom possible and not suitable for most individuals in their modern workaday life. For this reason, daily supplementation with 5000iu of Vitamin D3 will ensure you optimize vitamin D levels and be a much more achievable strategy.
Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of health issues, including a decrease in testosterone levels. Chronically elevated cortisol levels can interrupt testosterone production and function (Mehta et al., 2010) - (note: normal daily changes in cortisol are healthy and normal).
It’s also important to remember that chronic stress may not just come from daily occurrences like rush hour traffic - an imbalance between training demand and recovery can place the body in a stressed state.
A variety of studies have researched elite athletes and bodybuilders pushing the boundaries of performance, which often involves several hours of training per day. After a period of time, if the recovery strategies aren’t in place, this can lead to the onset of “over training” or at least non-functional “over reaching” which leads to decreased performance, loss of strength, illness and, you guessed it, detrimentally affect hormones such as a decrease in testosterone levels! One case study on a natural bodybuilder during a contest prep found a 45% decrease in testosterone over a 10 week period! (Rossow et al., 2013).
There are two considerations here for those wanting to optimize testosterone levels. Firstly, an athlete should always focus on recovery and manage training volume in sync with their ability to recover. During a contest period, taking longer to diet, maintaining a good amount of dietary fat and using a novel strategy such as calorie cycling may reduce the decline during contest prep or chronic diet (Friedl et al. 2000)
A well programmed exercise routine has a variety of benefits, including positive adaptions to certain hormones. A progressive resistance session has been found to increase testosterone levels and other important hormones such as Growth Hormone (Kraemer et al. 1999). Acute research that utilise compound, demanding multiple joint movements can also increase your acute testosterone levels post workout. One study by Shaner et al. (2014) compared squats against leg press and found greater increases in testosterone for the squat group; however it’s important to note the debate is still ongoing whether acute changes in hormones cause a significant difference in the long term.
Along with weight training, High Intense Interval Training (HIIT) provides a ton of benefits, including an increase in many important hormones. Some studies have found increases in testosterone post workout; one long term study added HIIT to wrestlers’ training regimes and found significant increases in baseline testosterone after a 4 week period (Farzad et al. 2011). Here are 3 example HIIT workouts you can try in the next gym session!
(Remember – HIIT must be performed at 100% intensity and should not last more than 20-30 seconds max):
A. 5x 20-30 second Spin Bike Sprints with 90-120 seconds rest
B. 5x 50 yard Prowler Sprints with 90-120 seconds rest
C. 5x 20 second Hill Sprints with 120 second rest
Hopefully you now understand the importance of testosterone on one’s health and physique. For an individual with low testosterone, bringing it within the healthy range is recommended. While you may not witness dramatic short term changes like with exogenous testosterone, it will pay dividends in the long term for both your physique and your health. All the tips listed above provide a variety of other additional benefits too, so get to work and remember - a healthy foundation (such as a healthy testosterone level!) is key for a long and successful bodybuilding / fitness career!
Wang, C., Jackson, G., Jones, T. H., Matsumoto, A. M., Nehra, A., Perelman, M. A., ... & Cunningham, G. (2011). Low testosterone associated with obesity and the metabolic syndrome contributes to sexual dysfunction and cardiovascular disease risk in men with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes care, 34(7), 1669-1675.
Grossmann, M., Thomas, M. C., Panagiotopoulos, S., Sharpe, K., MacIsaac, R. J., Clarke, S., ... & Jerums, G. (2013). Low testosterone levels are common and associated with insulin resistance in men with diabetes. The journal of clinical endocrinology & metabolism.
Feldman, H. A., Longcope, C., Derby, C. A., Johannes, C. B., Araujo, A. B., Coviello, A. D., ... & McKinlay, J. B. (2002). Age trends in the level of serum testosterone and other hormones in middle-aged men: longitudinal results from the Massachusetts male aging study. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 87(2), 589-598.
Ross, R., Bernstein, L., Judd, H., Hanisch, R., Pike, M., & Henderson, B. (1986). Serum testosterone levels in healthy young black and white men. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 76(1), 45-48.
Travison, T. G., Araujo, A. B., Kupelian, V., O’Donnell, A. B., & McKinlay, J. B. (2007). The relative contributions of aging, health, and lifestyle factors to serum testosterone decline in men. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 92(2), 549-555.
Penev, P. D. (2007). Association between sleep and morning testosterone levels in older men. Sleep-New York Then Westchester-, 30(4), 427.
Volek, J. S., Kraemer, W. J., Bush, J. A., Incledon, T., & Boetes, M. (1997). Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 82(1), 49-54.
Hämäläinen, E., Adlercreutz, H., Puska, P., & Pietinen, P. (1984). Diet and serum sex hormones in healthy men. Journal of steroid biochemistry, 20(1), 459-
Pilz, S., Frisch, S., Koertke, H., Kuhn, J., Dreier, J., Obermayer-Pietsch, B., ... & Zittermann, A. (2011). Effect of vitamin D supplementation on testosterone levels in men. Hormone and Metabolic Research, 43(3), 223.
Mehta, P. H., & Josephs, R. A. (2010). Testosterone and cortisol jointly regulate dominance: Evidence for a dual-hormone hypothesis. Hormones and behavior, 58(5), 898-906.
Rossow, L. M., Fukuda, D. H., Fahs, C. A., Loenneke, J. P., & Stout, J. R. (2013). Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 8(5), 582-92.
Friedl, K. E., Moore, R. J., Hoyt, R. W., Marchitelli, L. J., Martinez-Lopez, L. E., & Askew, E. W. (2000). Endocrine markers of semi starvation in healthy lean men in a multistressor environment. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88(5), 1820-1830.
Kraemer, W. J., Häkkinen, K., Newton, R. U., Nindl, B. C., Volek, J. S., McCormick, M., ... & Putukian, M. (1999). Effects of heavy-resistance training on hormonal response patterns in younger vs. older men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 87(3), 982-992.
Shaner, A. A., Vingren, J. L., Hatfield, D. L., Budnar Jr, R. G., Duplanty, A. A., & Hill, D. W. (2014). The acute hormonal response to free weight and machine weight resistance exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1032-1040.
Farzad, B., Gharakhanlou, R., Agha-Alinejad, H., Curby, D. G., Bayati, M., Bahraminejad, M., & Mäestu, J. (2011). Physiological and performance changes from the addition of a sprint interval program to wrestling training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(9), 2392-2399.