This originally appeared on MuscleForLife.com. You can also read an older version, less focused on testosterone production here.
I stood next to my bags on the sidewalk, looking down at the ground.
Humiliated and confused.
As my parents pulled up in front of my dormitory, I picked up my stuff and carried it over to the truck, shuffling awkwardly from the exertion as 30 lbs of foreign body fat tried to squeeze its way out of my clothes.
I smelled funny, I was a sweaty, anxious mess, and I had no idea what was wrong.
24 hours earlier, my academic dean explained to me how medical leave works.
You simply take a year off from school to address a medical issue, then return when you’re feeling better.
Sounds simple enough.
I sure as hell wasn’t feeling great, and I had no idea why.
Heck, I was damn near non-functional, spending most of my time holed up in my dorm room, depressed and lonely. I was missing homework assignments and skipping class. And it wasn’t because I was some ‘cool kid’ truant – I just could. not. think.
It was as if my body and brain were broken.
So I made the decision to go on a leave to try and figure things out – away from the incessant stress of university, the classes, the social interaction, the drinking and partying.
I was headed home and I didn’t even know why.
Fast Forward 8 Months…
Everything in my life is great. I’m lean and fit, with the body of a Greek god, I qualified for two national championship races – one in duathlon and one in triathlon – I’m sleeping like a baby, and my brain is functioning again.
And no more depression.
But something still isn’t right.
For a 21 year old kid, I had a problem. I had zero libido – no sex drive or interest whatsoever.
So since everything else was feeling great, I figured I may as well go in for a routine checkup with my primary care doctor to see if he could figure things out.
I went and got my blood drawn then returned to his office for the results.
He looked at the numbers for a minute or two, then looked up at me and said, “something’s wrong – I need to send you to a specialist.”
Three days later I saw a hematologist/oncologist in Potomac, VA. He ran comprehensive blood and hormone panels on me. One look at the results and he said, “I think you have a brain tumor.”
Boom. There you have it.
One MRI later and I had the verdict.
The silent source of all my misery.
A tumor, sitting in my pituitary gland – the “master gland” of the endocrine system – blocking the secretion of a handful of major player hormones. The big takeaway (or at least the only thing I cared about as a guy)… I hadn’t produced testosterone in years.
My levels were literally next to nothing (11 ng/dL at the time of diagnosis, where 300-1100 is the normal range for men).
After making the decision not to operate and to shift the monitoring of the tumor’s growth activity to a local endocrinologist in Durham, NC near my university, I was written a handful of prescriptions and sent on my way.
Just like that.
It only took me a few weeks on the medications before I made the decision to throw it all in the trash. I felt like a zombie. The doctors didn’t seem to care a whole lot beyond just giving me a diagnosis and writing a script, so I made the decision to stop playing the victim and to figure this out on my own.
By the time I’d returned to school that fall I declared neuroscience as my degree and began down my intellectual warpath, devouring textbooks and research papers on the brain and the endocrine system. I was (and some could say, still am) obsessed with the pursuit of truth when it comes to natural hormone optimization.
So what happened?
Where do I stand today?
Since that diagnosis I’ve naturally raised my testosterone levels above the medical reference range (1192 ng/dL at last check-up), using nothing but the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years (via experience and lots of reading) with regards to proper training, nutrition, and lifestyle.
Heck, I didn’t even use “T-Boosting herbal supplements.”
Just training, nutrition, and lifestyle tweaks, when combined and executed over a period of time, ended up overriding the tumor’s effects on my endocrine system to the point where I was naturally able to raise my T to gorilla status.
And I still have the tumor.
Technically it should be functioning in the same manner, but since learning about how the endocrine system really works, in a complex series of positive and negative feedback loops, I was able to continually reinforce enough of the right feedback to first loosen, then overcome its effects.
And I’m really pumped because that means I can teach others to do the same.
If I can do it, any guy can do it.
So that’s what this article is about… how I did it.
The fitness industry is a barren landscape of scams and shams, glitter and polish but no substance. Most of the claims and recommendations made by ‘professionals’ are really nothing more than hearsay, or the viral spread of “the one magic pill to rule them all.”
C.S. Lewis puts it best when he says, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down a forest, but to irrigate a desert.”
The “hormonal health” landscape in the health & fitness blogosphere is that desert, especially with respect to testosterone enhancement. And I’ve got the hose.
Don’t waste your money on another pill or herb. It’s all pointless. You can do this naturally, with training, nutrition, and tweaking your lifestyle.
How to Increase Your Testosterone With Training
Over the years, I’ve learned to challenge conventional wisdom, especially when it comes to fitness.
As an overtrained triathlete, I prescribed to the old-fashioned “more is better” formula of chronic cardio training and a sugar-and-grain heavy diet.
While I appeared fit and healthy on the outside, my endocrine system was completely ravaged, and my sexual health and overall well-being suffered greatly because of it.
This outcome may not surprise Muscle For Life readers today, but just a handful of years ago, the common paradigm in fitness involved high volume training, for both endurance athletes and weightlifters.
Thankfully, that paradigm has shifted mightily in the opposite direction for most savvy lifters and trainees, but when it comes to optimal endocrine system training, there is still very little knowledgeable prescription in the fitness landscape.
In terms of optimal training for testosterone production, information is usually regurgitated from one blogger to the next, or links to Pubmed findings are shot around forums. But nothing new has been insightfully drawn from the body of research beyond generic “lift heavy” prescriptions.
Now, the first thing to understand in terms of testosterone training is that MANY different types of training will stimulate transient testosterone production in men. High reps, low reps, sprinting, jumping, even some endurance training.
When these findings are not viewed in the context of an overall goal, they can be misleading, and quite confusing, considering most fitness bloggers will take an isolated finding and run with it as fact, as dogma.
Context is everything.
In my own health journey, as I tried to figure out how to both optimize my T and not lose my entire life to training and “perfect” eating strategies, I noticed that, at first, rejuvenative movements were very effective.
When the body is overtrained and chronically stressed, it really just needs rest – not necessarily some super-advanced, scientific training paradigm. So I gave it rest, for several months, in the form of a daily walk for anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple hours, depending on how I felt, and some calisthenics exercises several times a week.
As I dropped fat (I ended up gaining an additional 50 lbs of body fat while on the meds and transitioning back into my university environment – quite the rollercoaster), I began feeling more athletic so I decided to sprint one day per week.
And as I got even lighter, calisthenics became a major, and very fun, part of my overall fitness regimen.
Coincidentally, as I dug further into the research on training for endocrine response, I began to notice how effective calisthenics really were for triggering testosterone production, based on some standard principles that I unearthed when looking at the body of knowledge on the subject of training and testosterone.
Within a few short months of rejuvenative movements, coupled with a solid nutrition strategy, my T levels noticeably jumped back out of nowhere. I first realized the positive change upon waking one morning (any guy knows what happens below the belt every morning when you wake up and have normal T levels).
So at my next check-up I got my hormones tested and sure enough, my T was around 400 ng/dL. Wow. Just a few short months and some minor, but important changes, and my testosterone jumped into the normal range, albeit still on the low side.
Being a competitive person, I naturally wanted to increase it even more, and to see how high I could get it.
Looking at the research on training, I noticed that the vast majority of training for testosterone-induction was neuromuscular-style training. Neuromuscular training is designed to specifically illicit a response from the motor neuron units and their corresponding innervated muscle fibers.
Being a neuroscience geek, I was all over this idea.
Looking at the body of research, I noticed a gap in what researchers have found to be optimal, and what the fitness industry prescribes. The discrepancy is small, but important.
The first thing to understand is that a training threshold exists.
As the neuromuscular (NM) system adapts to certain training stimuli, hormonal responsiveness becomes less sensitive. Research in elite sprinters shows us that average Joes will elicit a larger testosterone response to the same intervals, despite the fact that the elite sprinters will output more power over the same distance.
When the power output is measured relative to the neuronal adaptation and desensitized hormonal response, the average Joes end up eliciting a far higher testosterone response.This is because their bodies react to the training bout as a foreign stimulus that needs support, so androgen receptors are increased in concentration and sensitivity to compensate.
This tells us that beyond a certain threshold of training adaptation, the body becomes desensitized to androgen receptor activity and/or has increased sensitivity to glucocorticoids (stress hormones, which act antithetically to testosterone), which is incredible news if you are not an Olympic level athlete – with the correct training you will see a noticeable T response rather quickly.
Secondly, in terms of the threshold, considering the interplay between cortisol and testosterone, the training stimulus must not be chronic; it needs to cause just enough stress on the system to stimulate positive NM adaptations and elicit androgenic activity, but not so much that it becomes stressful.
This is where prolonged endurance training completely screws the pooch. Chronic training exposure skews the cortisol:testosterone ratio to the left, allowing cortisol to exert suppressive effects on testosterone production.
The same can happen for any type of training stimulus (not just endurance exercise), both during the session itself (transient influence) and over the course of a periodized program or competitive season.
To make sure cortisol stays low enough to not hamper testosterone production, the optimal way to train is in explosive movements that cannot possibly be carried out long enough to cause long-term stress. Intensity needs to be high, but controlled.
The prescription is to train with fatigable bouts of resistance movements, but in low enough quantity to keep cortisol elevation at bay.
So now we understand: explosive resistance training is optimal, as long as it is performed under the training threshold, which is the point after which negative adaptations occur in terms of glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity.
But that’s not the entire picture, and not entirely different from what pop-fitness promotes (though, they mostly just say “squat more”).
There’s another element.
And that’s the idea of workload and its relationship to muscle volume activation (MVA) relative to intensity.
It has been demonstrated that the magnitude of the hormonal response to training is proportional to the size of the muscle volume activated. This is why we hear the old paradigm of “squat, squat, squat” to increase testosterone. Big leg muscles = more muscle tissue activated.
However, this MVA-dependent hormonal response is relative to the intensity of the movement performed.
Researchers have also found that the hormonal response to training is dependent on the amount of work done in the session, with work defined classically as W = Fd (magnitude of the force x displacement).
So when we combine MVA and its relation to intensity with the work principle, and respect the importance of the training threshold, we’re left with the following algorithm for optimal testosterone-inducing training…
W (MVA * i) < Training Threshold
… where W is work, MVA is muscle volume activated, and i is intensity.
The takeaway: High workload, with a high proportion of muscle volume activated relative to intensity of the stimulus on said muscle volume, which should be performed via explosive resistance training done under a performance threshold (ie. self-limiting) = optimal.
This might seem complicated at first. It really isn’t, luckily.
It’s the principle upon which we can build a sensible training program, either with calisthenics (and weighted calisthenics, my preference) or weight training.
Let’s break it down quickly:
Since we’re looking to activate a large volume of muscle tissue, we need to perform compound movements, not just movements that isolate large muscles. The big lifts like deadlift and squats work quite well, along with muscle-ups, weighted pull ups and chin ups, weighted dips, weighted box jumps, and levers.
But it’s not enough to just do compound movements. You can take it to another level and add the appropriate intensity to those movements to optimize your hormonal response to the training.
This is where I prefer calisthenics, though I am sure experienced lifters can elicit good responses with deadlifting and squatting. You just need to be rather well-trained as a heavy squatter or deadlifter in order to get the intensity super high, but the fact that you are very well-trained may, as pointed out previously, indicate a desensitized effect of the training stimulus.
Calisthenics, however, and especially the muscle-up and weighted muscle-up, give you the opportunity to apply a large force and displace it over a sizable distance, along with keeping the fatigable effort under a self-limiting threshold (for example, if you cannot do another muscle-up then you have to stop, unlike barbell lifting where you can take a plate off the bar and lift a lighter weight to exhaustion).
When I began taking calisthenics seriously, I also noticed a sizable increase in my testosterone levels over the following months.
My T level was at ~600 ng/dL when I first learned to muscle-up. Within 6 months it was just under 1200 ng/dL.
During this period of time I trained with muscle-ups, calisthenics, and wind sprints, and ate according to the rough nutrition principles I’m about to outline.
This was the period of time during which I also saw the major changes in body composition, eventually dropping back into single digit body fat.
How to Boost Your Testosterone With Nutrition
Nutrition is arguably just as important as training in the testosterone equation.
And interestingly enough, what I’m about to tell you is probably going to fly directly in the face of any assumptions you might have about it.
Protein is not that important. Fat and carbohydrate consumption are.
Adequate protein consumption is necessary only to support your muscle tissue and the training load you place upon it. Beyond that, extra dietary protein comes at the cost of neglecting either fat or carbohydrate intake, or both.
High protein diets are notorious for resulting in low testosterone in men. And that’s because the excess protein causes the individual to eat too little fat or carbohydrate.
Low fat diets are synonymous with low testosterone. And low carb diets have also been found to decrease testosterone levels.
Macronutrient profile of the diet matters quite a bit, and men need to be sure and get adequate levels of carbohydrates and fats, along with sufficient protein to support the training load on their muscles.
They also need to be sure and consume enough calories, as low calorie diets have also been shown to decrease testosterone. If you are dieting with the aim to lose body fat, I recommend a small weekly deficit of 10-15%, which is enough to not cause physiological stress from too much restriction.
Micronutrients matter, but in the same way that getting adequate vitamins and minerals always matters for general health and overall well-being.
I consume a diet wherein I get my vitamins and minerals and fiber from fruits and vegetables (just don’t eat too much fiber), and get my protein and much of my fat from animal sources (meats, cheeses, butters, etc). My carbohydrate sources are potatoes, white rice, and sweet potatoes.
The type of fat you consume matters a lot as well. You should aim to get most of it from saturated animal fats and monounsaturated fats (like from avocados and olives) and limit the amount of polyunsaturated fats you consume, as the PUFA:MUFA ratio has been shown to correlate with testosterone levels.
Animal protein is superior to plant protein when it comes to testosterone production. With routine consumption of meats and animal products, you get the added benefit of cholesterol, quite possibly the most important molecule for your reproductive health, along with plenty of B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium.
Also, a key element in my nutrition habits is intermittent fasting. And over time, I truly believe that IF played a major role in bringing my health from mediocre, to very solid.
In nonobese men, the effects of a short-term fast were staggering, with a 67% increase in LH (luteinizing hormone) response and a 180% increase in testosterone.
With this in mind, doing a short-term fast daily may have profound, almost immediate effects on your endocrine balance, especially because LH pulsing needs to spike regularly in order to have a noticeable effect on your overall T levels. This is something that regular daily intermittent fasts can have a positive effect on.
I’ve fasted daily since beginning this journey back to health, and I credit the habit with much of my success and with helping to rejuvenate my endocrine system.
Usually the fast ends up being quite simple: I just skip breakfast and I limit my late night eating. Sometimes I train fasted, sometimes I train fed.
Optimizing Your Testosterone Levels
All-in-all, if you put all of this simple knowledge into action, and take your program seriously for the next 3-6 months, you could very likely double your testosterone levels, depending on where you begin.
Your current body fat level, training experience, exposure to chronic stress and environmental toxins, nutrition habits, and training style all have a profound impact on your endocrine system, so you need to take it all seriously if you want to be hormonally healthy into your old age.
If you’re interested in learning a bit more, starting with a tutorial on body fat and how losing body fat is the most important thing you must do before anything else to increase your testosterone levels.
I’m also launching a step-by-step program in October about how to naturally increase your testosterone, complete with training plans, menus, an audiobook version, videos, and a complete pdf guide. It’s available for pre-order currently, until 9/22/2013.
Endocrine health is horribly under-addressed in the fitness industry, yet it is of utmost importance: without a healthy endocrine system, nothing else functions properly.
And you can optimize yours naturally with smart training and nutrition. There is no need for gels and injections.
So take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you want to rely on a pharmaceutical for your overall well-being and sexual health.
If not, put these training and nutrition principles into practice in your life right now and within a few short months you’ll see some encouraging, and possibly profound, improvements.