Training and Testosterone (Part 2 of 4)

darth vader

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
– Albert Einstein

Before we dive in, a little primer about what we’ll be exploring today…

This article is an introduction into the effect training has on your testosterone. Once we understand a good bit about how things work in the machine, then we’ll begin putting some of the pieces together to catch a glimpse of the best ways to train your body – and how NOT to train it – if you’re looking to increase your growth hormone and testosterone.

The next article will pull back the curtain a bit more with exact details and a sample training plan.

(Side effect: you’re going to get a LOT stronger in the process)

We’re also introducing more of a foundational understanding of testosterone production (very important to educate yourself on) and background on growth hormone today, since I didn’t bring it up in the first article in this 4 post series. (If you haven’t read it, go read it. We’ll wait…)

First, in the opening of the article, I’d like to establish a bit of context for the framework within which we’ll be learning this process, and then implementing & taking action.

The takeaways for naturally increasing your testosterone are deceptively simple. But you MUST understand why you’re doing certain things and how it all works, or else you’ll quickly deteriorate the process, rendering it ineffective & useless.

The first article was an intro to whet your appetite, now we’re going to break out the Sirloin.

testosterone

Let’s get down to business.

A little more background on testosterone. You’ll recall that testosterone is produced in the testis by cells called Leydig cells. The average plasma concentration of testosterone in human males typically falls between the range of 200 – 1000 ng/dl. In terms of timeline vs plasma concentrations over a lifetime, T levels rise sharply during adolescence, peak in a man’s 20′s, then begin a slow decline with age.

While its most potent and widely recognized effect on the human male body is its influence over the growth/development of sexual tissues, your testosterone level is also a good indicator of lean body mass (ie. muscle) potential, with the right stimuli. Elevated testosterone levels will increase red blood cell production, bone density, sugar uptake into muscle tissue, muscle glycogen storage, and protein synthesis associated with muscular growth.

The Feedback Loop

The cascade of events leading to testosterone production begins in the hypothalamus with the release of GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) which acts on the pituitary to produce two hormones: LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone). These are the gonadotropins.

Once in the bloodstream, LH makes its way to the testicles where it exerts its influence on the Leydig cells, triggering a series of events that turns cholesterol into testosterone.

As testosterone levels increase, LH production & transport slows.

A negative feedback loop.

The body and brain are communicating constantly in order to regulate important processes. This is one of countless feedback loops (there are many positive feedback loops as well) in the human body.

With this negative feedback loop, the brain can constantly keep hormone levels in check – in this case, testosterone, LH, FSH, and GnRH – under normal, healthy circumstances. When a problem arises anywhere on this pipeline, be it from a tumor, traumatic stressor, or summative build-up of small, unnoticeable toxic stress (super common) – not only is everything downstream affected, everything period is affected.

Because it’s a loop.

Here’s a pretty chart representation (I always remember this garble better with a visual demo, so I’m figuring you will too):
testosterone2

As you can see in the chart above, the little (-) signs signify testosterone’s inhibitive influence back on the hypothalamus (ie. the negative feedback loop above). The little (+) signs indicate a stimulation of the forward cascading process.

You’ll notice that testosterone doesn’t only linearly exert its influence back on the hypothalamus alone, it can also work directly back on the pituitary (essentially “skipping” a step) if your body is looking to quickly regulate gonadotropin release.

When this little system is working properly, everything’s good in the ‘hood. When something goes wrong down the line is when we run into noticeable issues (more on that later).

FSH, the other gonadotropin, is chiefly responsible for stimulating (or regulating) production of sperm in the Leydig cells in the testis. I’ll touch more on the FSH + testosterone interplay in one of the upcoming articles in this series, where we’ll focus more on sex n’ stuff.

For now let’s shift a bit of focus onto an interesting little (widely misunderstood) substance called cholesterol.

Take a look at the chart below. It probably looks a lot like a really intelligent honeycomb at first glance, but it’s a chart that visually demonstrates the enzymatic processes that take the cholesterol parent molecule and convert it into glucocorticoids (from the adrenal glands – important to note: CORTISOL) and the steroid hormones (like testosterone, DHT, and estradiol).

The line from cholesterol to testosterone is highlighted in red for you.

cholesterol

Interesting how cholesterol has such an enormous influence on the body — ENORMOUS.

Getting deeper into cholesterol is beyond the scope of this current article, we’re going to focus on training today, but I’ll do an entire treatise on it coming up soon, either as an article on the blog, or more likely, as a full chapter in Testosterone I/O. Or both :) Be sure and subscribe to stay up-to-date.

I like Star Wars.

So whenever I see this chart ^ I think to myself, what could possibly happen to make the young padawan cholesterol molecule choose to go to the dark side (the glucocorticoids) as opposed to becoming something noble like testosterone.

Surely it would want to use the Force for good, not evil! But as we all know…

“The Dark Side of the Force is the pathway to many abilities some consider to be… Unnatural.”
– Senator Palpatine

…and so it may be alluring to the impressionable, Force-sensitive adolescent cholesterol.

Joking aside, cortisol actually IS NOT inherently evil, the way most people paint it out to be. More to come on that subject further down in this article.

So at this point we understand that testosterone production is regulated by the brain, namely the hypothalamus and pituitary, via a handful of powerful hormones. And it’s synthesized after a number of intermediate steps, from cholesterol in the Leydig cells. And this process is all tied together in a negative feedback loop.

Now it’s produced. What happens next?

When testosterone is released into the wild – your bloodstream – it is actually entering a molecular game of ‘tag,’ to put it metaphorically.

A carrier protein named SHBG, or Sex Hormone Binding Globulin, is released from the liver, and SHBG is ‘it.’

SHBG’s role is to regulate the level of freely circulating testosterone in your bloodstream. So when it binds a testosterone molecule, that testosterone cannot effectively enter and exert its influence on a cell (that’s what she said).

So the more SHBG is in the bloodstream, the fewer testosterone molecules actually reach a cellular target.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s just the way things work. Another negative feedback loop meant to regulate your endocrine function.

However, now I hope you’re beginning to realize the sheer amount of self-limiting processes that occur along the line in this cycle… and none of our testosterone has actually had an effect on anything yet!

With SHBG in this role, we now understand that testosterone levels and SHBG levels are inversely correlated: the more SHBG in your system, the lower amounts of free, active T.

Again, if something small is affecting ANYTHING along this pathway, you’re likely going to experience an issue, manifesting itself as lower-than-optimal testosterone (and related hormone) levels.

For example, you may have very high levels of free, circulating testosterone, but with an imbalance in SHBG production, much of that free T won’t reach a target. That sucks.

Increasing Growth Hormone

Now let’s talk about growth hormone.

First, what is it?

GH (or HGH, when referring to the collection of proteins in humans) is a peptide hormone secreted from the anterior pituitary and regulated by GHRH (Growth Hormone Releasing Hormone) and GHIH (Growth Hormone Inhibiting Hormone) – both secreted from the hypothalamus.

These two ‘neurosecretory’ hormones actually get released into the blood surrounding the pituitary and, in combination with physiological balance (heavily influenced by things like sleep, nutrition, exercise) they act upon the pituitary gland to initiate secretion of GH in a pulsatile manner.

Hopefully by now you’re noticing a trend in how this works in terms of the HPG (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Gonadal) axis. They also use pretty self-explanatory names for these hormones, which is nice.

Growth hormone is responsible for facilitating cellular growth, regeneration, and reproduction in humans and its effects are anabolic in nature. The bulk of your GH release occurs while you’re asleep, with around half of it occurring between stages 3 and 4 NREM sleep. During the day it’s been found to secrete in surges every 3 to 5 hours.

Here’s a nice little sketch of the general path of action GH can take.

growth regulation

 

There are multiple ways to manipulate your GH secretion. Even just from what we’ve just learned we can easily see that by influencing the balance of GHRH to GHIH we’d be able to stimulate more GH secretion. Those neurosecretory hormones are also heavily influenced by the physiological downstream effects your body experiences from sleep, nutrition, and exercise – so those are some other things we’ll explore.

Mostly because they’re the easiest to control and measure.

Ghrelin is another lead. It was found to be a ligand for the growth hormone secretagogue receptor back in 2000, I believe… which in layman’s terms means its presence can stimulate GH release. I’ll get more into ghrelin in the nutrition article in this series.

A couple other natural GH release-stimulators are deep sleep, L-DOPA, fasting, and nicotinic acid (vitamin B3), all of which I will discuss in more detail either in another post or in the book itself.

On the flip side, common GH inhibitors are 1. high circulating levels of GH itself or IGF-1 (due to the negative feedback loop) 2. glucocorticoids (ie. cortisol) 3. DHT.

Elevated (or even just normalized) levels of GH will make it much easier for you to build muscle (via increased ability to synthesize proteins), drop fat (via promotion of lypolysis), and spare glycogen (via reduced uptake of glucose in the liver).

So it’s a good thing to have.

Anyways, now that we’ve introduced all that jazz, let’s get into the training. The big question: how should guys train if they want to naturally optimize their testosterone and GH production, and why?

Well… actually, before we get to that, the more pressing question is how should women train. But that can be answered with just a simple photo of my imaginary girlfriend

girls and squats

Clearly, we know how women should train ^

(They should stand on their tip-toes next to the ocean. Slippery rocks, risk of death, and calf muscle contraction initiates Gluteal Growth Hormone secretion better than anything else, research says).

So how should guys train?

To make the next section simple to navigate, I’m going to break it down into three different parts:

1. How to train if you’re an endurance athlete (hopefully you’re not asexual yet, but if you are – there’s still hope)

2. THE optimal way to train for increased testosterone and growth hormone production (my training progression over the years that’s helped me increase my T so dramatically will be in I/O)

3. The way you should absolutely NOT train

How To Train If You’re An Endurance Athlete And Don’t Want To Be Asexual

Clearly I have strong feelings about the damaging effects endurance sports have on the human body. And if that wasn’t clear – I do.

But to each his own, I completely understand the allure to those sports, having been an obsessed triathlete in my own past. And with that empathy in mind I would like to offer some helpful suggestions for my triathlete/swimmer/runner/cycling/crew/etc brethren who think they may be experiencing hormonal balance issues.

There are some general principles upon which you should structure your training, and they’re backed by healthy research findings.

To begin, if you’d like an additional resource, I did a podcast with Ben Greenfield from Ben Greenfield Fitness (if you’re into endurance sports you likely listen to his show already) and his site is where I initially proposed what I’m going to suggest below.

You can listen to the interview here.

Always remember that no matter how much stress-induced damage you may have done on your body to this point, your body is inherently intelligent, and when given the opportunity to facilitate its own healing, will undergo some absolutely unreal improvements in a very short amount of time. It just needs the go ahead, the green light so to speak.

So give your body the green light.

As a former serious triathlete & duathlete, I know exactly what most multisport athletes deal with every day. From the chronic fatigue, muscle soreness, low libido, low muscle mass, and bone density issues, to adrenal fatigue*, overtraining, blood sugar swings, sleep issues, and ravenous hunger, the everyday life of a devoted endurance athlete can be quite the grind.

The reality is this: those problems are all either caused or influenced, in some way, shape, or form, by your endocrine system. Several key hormones play roles in these processes but the biggest culprit, in terms of endurance training, is cortisol.

Training is a stressor to your body.

The nature of multisport training has athletes out on the road or in the pool between 1-6 hours a day. Now, don’t be mistaken, cortisol is not an inherently “bad” hormone; balanced levels are responsible for baseline vital functions in the body.

However, an excess or dearth of cortisol both indicate an unbalanced system: too high or too low. They are both bad in their own ways. As an athlete, you must take care to mitigate prolonged, or chronic, exposure to stressors, lest your endocrine system, particularly your adrenal glands, become overworked.

The following are my recommendations for 10 steps you can take in your training, right now – and they are simple to implement – that will, over time, lead a more balanced endocrine system: which will keep you strong, lean, and happy.

1. TRAIN YOUR MIND:

Before we get into the physical steps, let’s talk about thought processes. This is where it all begins. If you approach your training with patience and your nutrition with balance you will:

a. Be able to sustain the positive improvements easily.
b. Drastically lower your mental stress levels, which can have a significant effect on your cortisol levels & wellbeing in general.

2. CREATE A MARKED DICHOTOMY BETWEEN GOING HARD AND RECOVERING

In your training you will want to really focus on recovery when you are recovering and on going hard when you do your interval work. People say it all the time but it’s still very common to overlook and most of us tend to continue slogging away as a one-speed athlete somewhere in the middle.

There is no shame in going easy on your rest days. Race during the race. Train intelligently so you will have a good race.

3. TRAIN EXPLOSIVENESS

My 17 year old brother, a high school runner, is looking to get his times into the mid-15’s for 5km and 4:12-18 for the mile this year. He has great inherent talent and speed, however, as he looks toward bringing himself to the next level (i.e. sub-15 and low-4 min), he should be placing a large emphasis on training his explosive power in his entire body (including upper body).

Beyond the fact that the training is undertaking should focus deliberately on increasing both his stride rate and length (which equals increased speed), and deeply strengthening the muscles in his core (back & front) and quads, he should also be looking to create a noticeable increase in circulating testosterone & growth hormone release over the coming months, while simultaneously decreasing cortisol levels via whole body resistance training. Training fast-twitch muscle fibers has long been scientifically-correlated with increased levels of testosterone and growth hormone, both of which have been found to have antagonistic effects on excess cortisol – especially with regards to breakdown of adipose/fat tissue.

4. TRAIN IN THE AFTERNOON/EVENING

This may be a big change, but I recommend sleeping in (#8) and undertaking your training in the afternoon or evening. Research has shown that, because some hormonal secretions tend to be influenced by circadian cycles, subjecting your body to training stress in the morning, a time when your circulating cortisol levels are naturally high, may be counterproductive for those trying to reach a balance.

5. MITIGATE FREE-RADICAL EXPOSURE

Large amounts of exercise are known to create an imbalance between levels of antioxidants and free radicals, a process known as oxidative stress. If you are training heavily, you’ll want to supplement your diet with some common antioxidants: vitamins A, C, E, glutathione, and flavonoids being the easiest to get your hands on.

6. TRAIN USING VOLUME…AND QUALITY

Loads of people – coaches, gurus, & weekend warriors alike – love to draw lines in the sand. We all love to think that our way is the best way. Multisport culture has been fixated on this forever-old training debate regarding quality versus quantity.

I’m here to tell you that you should do both. In the effort of balancing your endocrine system, you must take a balanced approach to many other things, including training.

Repping out hard interval workouts 4 or 5 times a week is just as unhealthy as slogging 110 mile weeks at 160bpm. Refer back to #2 and take that idea and apply it to your training. When you go out for a recovery run, makes sure it’s rejuvenating. Shoot for a constant low heart rate, even if it means walking up hills. Walking is so underrated. Recover.

And when you do hit the track or the hills, really punch the gas. It’s good for you. And do it in shorter, harder intervals.

7. BECOME FAT-ADAPTED

Increased HPA activation, cortisol secretion in particular, has been implicated in visceral obesity and the accumulation of stomach fat. Becoming fat-adapted as an athlete – teaching your body to call upon its fat stores for energy, as opposed to its glycogen and sugar sources – will allow you to not only decrease your levels of circulating cortisol over time, but also limit hunger, decrease body fat levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and maintain lean muscle mass.

This can be done primarily through fasted training – very straightforward.

8. SLEEP AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

Sleep is one of the body’s finest homeostatic regulatory mechanisms: give it the opportunity to do its work. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to catch some Z’s if you’re looking to reach a balance. Sleep is also wonderful for memory consolidation. Lack of sleep has been found to dramatically elevate cortisol levels over the following day.

9. PRACTICE FASTING

Intermittent fasting is a wonderful thing. And nowadays there is a ton of good information on it all over the internet. For most sugar-burning endurance athletes it will be near impossible to make the switch to daily fasting while still maintaining your current training load. That is why it’s so important to train your body to become fat-adapted.

I’ve found that personally I can now go well into the afternoon with a fast, then do an entire workout (even had a period where I would do a routine 8 mile run fasted), before eating my first meal (and it was a BIG one ;D ). This is fat-adaptation. My workouts are great, and I have tons of energy all day, because my body burns a high percentage of fat for fuel, not sugars.

Intermittent fasting, even without a decrease in overall caloric intake, has been shown to significantly decrease cortisol concentrations.

10. BE INCREDIBLY PATIENT

You didn’t get out of whack in day so don’t expect to fix it in a week. The process of balancing your endocrine system is long and slow, requiring constant implementation of these simple changes. This is especially true for endurance athletes, due to the nature of constant exposure to negative stress. The best method to induce sustainable change is to integrate them into your lifestyle so they’re second nature.

This all leads me to the next segment. The optimal way, period, for men to train to bring their endocrine system into balance, increasing T and GH.

If you’re an endurance athlete and tired of the grind, sick at the thought of slogging out another 20 hour training week yet still being skinny fat, overtired, hungry, irritable, and bonerless, then here’s my recommendation:

Quit that shit.

And do this instead…

The Optimal Way To Train To Naturally Increase Testosterone and Growth Hormone

7 words.

Deep neuromuscular adaptation through maximal effort training.

^ This is the key to exceptionally high exercise-induced testosterone levels. Diet, sleep, and several other things play significant roles as well, and we’ll discuss those in depth, but in terms of training…

This is it.

Implementing it is a little more complicated, but definitely not rocket science.

I’m going to leave you with this as a teaser  The details are forthcoming… muhahahaha.

This video contains several clues as to what I mean. And head over to YouTube to read the description, where I have some more details.

How NOT To Train

This is an interesting section to think about philosophically.

The first thing you need to do is define your “why” – the reason you’re training in the first place. If your training is centered around getting better at a specific sport, then the above “optimal” way to train for T and GH production actually may not be the best choice.

Training in your sport will be. Developing skills.

But at the same time, I can say this: since training for deep neuromuscular adaptations I’ve become noticeably more athletic all-around. More powerful, faster on the top-end, and can jump higher. I can also throw a baseball right around 90mph as an adult (when I’d top out around 84-85mph as a high schooler – I definitely need to find someone with a radar gun bc that’d be a really fun video. I broke my dad’s catcher’s mitt last time we tossed ;] ).

So first step: define your “why”.

Next, in terms of the worst actual ways to train if you’re trying to increase your testosterone (especially if you currently have an issue with low T):

1. The way you’re training right now

2. Anything chronic

Here’s what I mean…

First, if you currently have low testosterone issues, reexamine everything you’re doing. Remember the old adage about the definition of insanity.

Put everything on the chopping block (training, nutrition, schedule, etc) and salvage what makes sense to keep only after careful deliberation – and change the rest.

Second, any type of chronic training stimulus, no matter WHAT it is, will negatively affect your endocrine balance via excess cortisol production.

This is just as true for the long distance runner slogging 60-100 miles a week as it is for the Crossfitter doing 5-7 WODS per week. Don’t be a damn fool. Rest is a crucial part of training – and health & vitality in general. There’s a reason you’re still skinny fat and haven’t had a morning wood in ages.

Stop to examine your priorities. There’s not a right or wrong answer – just what you want in your life and what you don’t want.

Cortisol production is inversely related to testosterone and GH production. Beyond normal healthy levels, as cortisol rises (which it does, quickly, when you introduce a chronic external stressor such as too much training of any kind), testosterone and GH production will slow. Then you begin having trouble sleeping, and cravings for shit food start to overrun your mind, and things spiral. All of that adds up, and is like holding your T down with a boot against the pavement.

And on the flip side, as you get rid of external stressors, dialing in a training regimen (and lifestyle) designed to nourish your system and not beat it senseless, you’ll begin to notice that positive changes will naturally take place.

Next up in the article series… a sample training week, with detailed explanation as to why you should train this way.

Drop a comment with your suggestion below…

Hope this article ^ was helpful to you! If you have any questions just leave them below in the comments. And if you know anyone who might benefit from this, give it a share :)

References:

Powers M (2005). “Performance-Enhancing Drugs”. In Leaver-Dunn D, Houglum J, Harrelson GL. Principles of Pharmacology for Athletic Trainers. Slack Incorporated. pp. 331–332. ISBN 1-55642-594-5.Wren AM, Small CJ, Ward HL, Murphy KG, Dakin CL, Taheri S, Kennedy AR, Roberts GH, Morgan DG, Ghatei MA, Bloom SR (November 2000). “The novel hypothalamic peptide ghrelin stimulates food intake and growth hormone secretion”. Endocrinology 141 (11): 4325–8. doi:10.1210/en.141.11.4325.PMID 11089570.

Quabbe HJ, Luyckx AS, L’age M, Schwarz C (August 1983). “Growth hormone, cortisol, and glucagon concentrations during plasma free fatty acid depression: different effects of nicotinic acid and an adenosine derivative (BM 11.189)”. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 57(2): 410–4. PMID 6345570.

Nørrelund H (April 2005). “The metabolic role of growth hormone in humans with particular reference to fasting”. Growth Horm. IGF Res. 15 (2): 95–122.doi:10.1016/j.ghir.2005.02.005PMID 15809014.

Low LC (1991). “Growth hormone-releasing hormone: clinical studies and therapeutic aspects”.Neuroendocrinology. 53 Suppl 1: 37–40.PMID 1901390.

Allen DB (September 1996). “Growth suppression by glucocorticoid therapy”. Endocrinol. Metab. Clin. North Am. 25 (3): 699–717. doi:10.1016/S0889-8529(05)70348-0PMID 8879994.

Keijo HÄkkinen, Arto Pakarinen, Markku Alén, Paavo V. Komi. “Serum hormones during prolonged training of neuromuscular performance”.  European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational PhysiologyFebruary 1985, Volume 53, Issue 4, pp 287-293

“Neuroscience, 4th Edition” by Purves et al.

“Biological Psychology 5th Edition” by Breedlove et al.

*still a discussion in terms of validity