Testosterone is the favourite hormone of every bodybuilder. It is what gives us the drive and vigor needed to get things done as well as the critical component in increasing our muscle mass and having a healthy sex drive. Testosterone levels will spike during puberty explaining the rapid increase in height and weight seen in men at that time, not to mention the vertiginous increase in sex drive which occurs at the same time. Testosterone motivates men to achieve ambitions and increases competition across all species.
Given the numerous benefits of testosterone it is no surprise to learn that men with naturally higher levels find gaining muscle mass and staying lean much easier as well as being stronger and more athletic than those with lower levels. This remains true until the time we hit the age of 40 when there is a slow, persistent decline in the testosterone levels as a consequence of the ageing process.
Regardless of our age though, optimising our natural testosterone levels should be a priority to everyone engaged in any sporting activity or just someone looking to enjoy life more (low testosterone levels being linked to depression in men).
How much testosterone you produce naturally is subject to genetic constraints with normal male testosterone levels varying significantly over a wide range. Those who won the genetic lottery will be life’s natural athletes while the individuals whose testosterone levels are lower will always find gaining muscle and strength more difficult.
All is not lost though as there are many things we can do to enhance our testosterone levels naturally both through positive practices we can incorporate into our lives and the elimination of negative activities which will diminish our bodies abilities to produce an optimal level of testosterone given our natural genetic limitations.
Get Plenty of sleep
Research has shown repeatedly that not sleeping enough causes a fall in testosterone levels which is consistent across all individuals. The greater the sleep deficit endured, and the longer it lasts, the worse it is for our testosterone levels. In addition to sleep length is the issue of sleep quality. This is because testosterone precedes the REM stage of sleep.
Do you hit the pillow and then remain asleep until it is time to wake up? Do you wake up easily or do you struggle to rise in the morning? Do you ever wake up repeatedly during the night? Poor sleep quality will lead to diminished recovery as a consequence of lower testosterone and higher cortisol levels.
Lesson 1 – Aim to get 8-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Avoid stimulants late at night and try relaxing activity such as meditation to help quieten the mind and increase testosterone levels. In addition, keep your room dark to encourage a normal sleep pattern.
Everyone knows that vitamin D is a nutrient we do not need to consume in our diets as we obtain it via sunlight right? Wrong!
For the modern man living in a temperate climate, spending most of the day in an office, and with most of his body covered up, how much sun do you think he will get? Last time I checked there weren’t too many heat waves in the middle of a British winter leading to an outbreak of skin cancer because everyone is baked alive in the heat. Hell, given the British summer is about as warm as the heart of your average banker, people need to clock on to the fact that relying on sunlight is a foolish endeavour.
There is an abundance of data supporting vitamin D’s critical importance in testosterone production as well as in many other pathways critical for increasing muscle mass. The research is so overwhelming that anyone not supplementing with vitamin D is severely limiting their athletic potential.
Lesson 2 – Take 1000-2000mg daily of vitamin D year round depending on your exposure to sunlight and sunbed usage to increase natural testosterone levels.
Train but the right way
Did you know that training using a sufficient intensity and involving a large degree of musculature such as heavy squats is associated with a spike in testosterone levels after the training bout is over?
Did you also know that once workouts become too long such as over one hour testosterone levels begin to dip?
Given the above it sounds simple enough. Train hard and heavy but briefly to maximise natural testosterone levels. However, there is a problem which is that after hard sessions such SD these the body will experience a rise in testosterone levels but then there is research to show it dips below normal levels after an intense workout. In light of this, we have to be careful but how we prescribe heavy training and avoid training this way too frequently.
A better idea which is explained in detail in our article on training for muscle mass, is to follow a periodized training program which avoids causing such a strain on the body’s recovery abilities and will thereby avoid a situation where testosterone is depressed most of the week from training heavy all the time.
Over a long term plan where training is conducted over a year though the drop in testosterone in the days after training is reversed signalling that the body adapts to weight training by increasing testosterone levels as an adaptive response to help the recovery process.
Lesson 3 – Train hard and keep workouts below one hour. Sequence in exercise that is not so intense and avoid overtraining which leads to impaired testosterone levels.
One of the funniest things I have observed over two decades is how fats have been first vilified and then idolised nearly in bodybuilding circles. Furthermore over the same time span I have seen many fats become very popular such as flaxseed oil, fish oils, olive oil, MCT’s, saturated fats, coconut oil to name a few with some going in and out of fashion faster than Gary Glitter at a kids party.The subject of fats is quite complicated and was covered well in our article on essential fats. While essential fats are important for many bodily processes there is still conjecture on other fats and their role in the body. Rather than go through each in detail let’s take a look at what research shows us: Bodyfat is something which many people do not really consider but it is very important when it comes to an environment which maximises natural testosterone levels. High bodyfat levels are associated with lowered testosterone with a greater propensity for estrogen formation. This fact alone makes it unwise to allow bodyfat levels to become too high.
By now most people will be aware of the use of zinc before bedtime in the form of ZMA to encourage deeper sleep which, as we saw earlier, helps our bodies to maximise our natural testosterone levels. In addition to this, zinc is critical in the body’s ability to produce testosterone in the testis and impaired zinc status is associated with lower testosterone levels.
Lesson 4 – Supplement with 15-30mg of zinc, 200-400mg of magnesium and 25-50mg vitamin B6 daily depending on whether you use a multi-vitamin to aid sleep and support natural testosterone levels.
Diets high in fats (40% of calories) versus those low in fat (25% of calories) showed 30% higher testosterone levels in subjects. Diets high in monounsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids also showed the highest levels of testosterone. Diets very low in fats are linked to lower testosterone levels. Although many bodybuilders see this as a good reason to supplement with essential fats, the fact remains that saturated animal fats have been shown to be of benefit in supporting higher natural testosterone levels. Although they were once vilified, this fact alone should encourage you to start eating those fatty steaks and eggs to complement the omega 3’s consumed in oily fish.
Lesson 5 – Ensure a balanced fat intake is approximately at 1g/kg lean bodyweight. This is sufficient to maintain healthy testosterone levels and ensure you consume sufficient animal fats to help this process. Aim to eat at least 6g daily of fish oils and regularly eat meats, nuts, eggs, and dairy products.
On the other end of the scale, very low bodyfat levels will cause testosterone levels to fall. In evolutionary terms very low bodyfat is considered bad as the body perceives it as a threat of starvation, which is why signals to get you to eat grow increasingly strong the leaner we get. This includes a big increase in appetite, a reduction in energy and a fall in testosterone levels, as the body deems that reproduction is not a priority when survival is at stake.
The extent to which this happens to individuals is subject to genetic constraints again with some people able to preserve normal hormonal levels much better than others as they get leaner. As a general rule, if you were always lean as a child and teenager you will do much better to maintain testosterone levels than someone who was fatter as a child and teenager.
Lesson 6 – Do not let yourself get too fat when bulking. If you are over 15% bodyfat, diet before trying to gain any muscle. Do not get too lean at least for long. If you see signs of depressed testosterone levels such as lowered libido, poorer sleep and increased recovery time, you may need to gain some fat to feel better.
Get more sex
Either you are clapping your hands in glee or scratching your head since it is commonly thought that avoiding sex will increase testosterone (at least in fighting sports like boxing). There has actually been a substantial body of research conducted on the link between sex and testosterone. In one study testosterone levels went up after sexual activity, while in another even the watching of sex increased testosterone in people who attended a sex club although not nearly as much as the testosterone levels of those who actually engaged in sex. This shows that it is not the case that high testosterone leads to more sexual activity (although it does) but that the very act of being sexually stimulated will increase testosterone. Indeed in the study which tracked entrants to a sex club, their testosterone levels shot up 36% merely by entering the club.
Furthermore, research has shown that viewing pornography can cause a rapid rise in testosterone.
The process that drives this that we are primed by evolution to seek mating opportunities and when presented with them our bodies will increase testosterone and dopamine levels. On the other hand if sexual activity means staying up late, disturbing our natural sleep patterns then then the positive effect will likely be canceled out by increased cortisol levels from less sleep.
Lesson 7 – Having sex regularly will increase testosterone in males as does exposure to attractive females. Harness this power and you will not only enjoy better health and less stress but enjoy higher testosterone levels.
If there is a defining characteristic of males across different species it is the extent to which they engage in greater competitive activities than females. Whether it is a display of courage to impress a potential mate in the animal kingdom, or seeking to become stronger and larger than the average man, there is little doubt that much male behaviour is governed at a primal level by the evolutionary drive to impress females to increase the potential for mating opportunities and thereby perpetuate your genes.
In the neolithic period this might have meant men fighting other tribe in for territory or to generally rape and pillage. In the modern day, our social norms dictate that this type of behaviour is obviously forbidden and so men will seek alternative ways to compete against each other whether it is through sports, business, or some other means. Studies support the fact that participating in and winning at sports has a significant effect on increasing testosterone while losers in a contest slink back with lowered testosterone levels. One study showed that testosterone rises in winners of a chess match. If you ever find yourself at a board game over Christmas you do not care, just remember that by winning you will enjoy a nice hit of testosterone.
Interestingly, it is not solely playing that exerts these benefits but watching your favourite team play. In one study supporters of Brazil and Italy were observed during a world cup match which Brazil proceeded to win. The Italian supporters showed big drops in testosterone (50%) while the winners enjoyed a similar rise with some showing a rise of 100%!
Given the fact we are primed to seek competition then failing to do so will mean we will likely shown the converse which is a decline in testosterone as an adaptive response. Research on men in different occupations has shown how those occupations where their a real contest going on, or hard physical work, such as the military, trial lawyers, and construction workers experience higher testosterone levels than men in more sedate occupations.
Lesson 8 – If you don’t already do so, inject some competition into your life but select activities you are likely to win at, as a losing streak will lower testosterone. This can mean sports, jobs, or any other activity which can be defined as a contest. When picking a sport to follow, it will pay for you to support someone who is likely to win.
Ever noticed how when you are stressed you feel more fatigued and gains in the gym come to a standstill? Stress has numerous physiological downsides which will increase the likelihood of putting on fat and losing muscle and, amongst these changes, lowering testosterone levels is one of the more significant ones which will put a brake on your training efforts. The research behind stress shows that it is responsible for causing a rise in the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol rises will precede a decrease in testosterone and this is exactly what happens under conditions of stress. The more prolonged the stress the higher the rise in cortisol and the lower testosterone levels will drop to.
Given the catabolic nature of elevated cortisol, meaning it is will increase protein breakdown, and the anabolic nature of testosterone, a worsening of this ratio will have a devastating effect on our ability to perform in the gym. Although it is impossible to avoid stress in life we can take steps to ensure that we minimise our exposure to stress. If you have a stressful job, personal life, or some other thing which causes significant stress you should consider changing your life to eliminate these sources of stress.
Lesson 10 – Given it’s damaging consequences for our bodies you should avoid or minimise stress wherever possible. Research shows that if you can establish greater control in your life the stress response is ameliorated.
Lose Weight and Avoid Estrogen
Estrogen is usually thought of as a female hormone but it is also found in men and converts from testosterone via the action of the aromatase enzyme. As estrogen levels rise we find that testosterone levels decline and this can have profound consequences for male libido and bodyfat levels. Ever seen middle aged guys with man boobs? Yep, that is down to excessive estrogen levels. Wondered why it is generally the case that fatter guys have this problem? This is because as bodyfat goes up so do levels of the aromatase enzyme and this means that the rate at which men start producing estrogen goes up. In fact, in studies conducted with obese males their levels of estrogen were much higher than the average male with correspondingly lower levels of testosterone. When these subjects were then dieted down their estrogen levels dropped while their testosterone increased.
Lesson 11 – Aim to eat cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and cauliflower which contain a chemical called diindolylmethane, which helps to lower estrogen. Limit intake of drinks from plastic bottles or canned food which can leach xenoestrogens into the containers. Do not use any cosmetics which list parabens as an ingredient. Research shows these can act as xenoestrogens and interfere with testosterone production.
Don’t let your testicles get hot
Testicles function best when they are a few degrees cooler than the rest of your body. Normally, this is not a problem but if you wear tight underwear, trousers or choose materials which prevent you from keeping your testicles cool then you may be impacting on your ability to produce testosterone naturally.
Lesson 12 – Avoid hot baths and wear loose fitting clothing to prevent overheating.