By Mo Saleem
If I could give you a magic pill that would boost your energy, boost your mood, increase your testosterone levels, improve your relationships, and spark up all the positive things you could want epigenetically, would you take it? (Oh, and this pill also has zero negative side effects).
Of course you would.
This pill is exercise.
In this article I will go over everything there is to know about the relationship between exercise and testosterone. More specifically, I will discuss how to exercise in a way that has the maximum positive impact on testosterone levels. Plus, I'll also give you a sample workout plan that lays out the most effective testosterone boosting exercises.
In general, all types of exercise stimulates the release and production of testosterone, but there is data to suggest that lifting weights and high-intensity work might stimulate the greatest release of testosterone.
Jordan Metzl, MD
Author of The Exercise Cure
The extent to which lifting weights affects testosterone levels was demonstrated by scientists at the University of Extremadura in Spain (1).
20 male subjects (average age 22), who had no prior experience lifting weights, were put on a workout routine for 4-weeks whereby they trained 3 times a week (M, W, F).
The training consisted of 7 exercises (bench press, cable row, leg extension, behind-the-neck press, leg press, bicep curl, and tricep push-down), and each exercise was performed for 3 sets of 10 reps with 3 minutes of rest between sets. The intensity was kept between 70-75% of the subjects' 1 rep maximum.
After just 12 workouts (3 workouts a week for 4 weeks), the subjects experienced an average increase of 37% in baseline testosterone levels.
Lifting weights is the #1 natural testosterone booster out there.
The subjects in the above study had an average age of 22.
Depending on your age, lifting weights may not impact your T levels to the same extent.
That being said:
Researchers have shown (2) that strength training induces the release of testosterone regardless of age.
Think about this over the long-term; the effects that lifting weights will have on your mind, body, energy, and relationships if you make it a regular part of your life over the next few decades. And, coming up, I'll show you how to achieve amazing results while spending no more than 3 hours in the gym per week.
On a side note, two recent studies (3, 4) by the British Medical Journal show that “muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential cofounders", and that “measures of physical capability are predictors of all cause morality in older community dwelling populations".
Key takeaway: Lift weights and increased testosterone levels will follow. As a plus, you'll also probably live longer.
T's impact on muscle growth is, in fact, so dramatic that in one study (6), subjects given testosterone injections experienced significant muscle gains and fat-loss... without even exercising.
This might lead you to believe that the higher your testosterone levels are, the easier it will be for you to build muscle.
But as we dive deeper into the research, the answer may surprise you.
In earlier research during the 80s and 90s a large body of evidence was collected that seemed to support the following idea:
For maximum muscle growth, workouts should generate the maximum post-workout anabolic hormone response (7).
This research is what spurred a lot of the common muscle-building advice we hear till today:
"Use mostly compound movements, specifically squats and deadlifts, in the higher rep range, with short rest periods."
These assumptions were left largely unchallenged until very recently.
Higher volume workouts mean a higher demand for fuel to perform the work. One of the many functions of anabolic hormones (namely growth hormone) is to mobilize this fuel. Therefore, it has been speculated (13) that the hormone responses found to be associated with muscle growth were in fact caused by the training, which was causing the growth.
To drive the point home, this study (14) found that the anabolic response in a group resting 1 minute between sets was higher than a group resting 2.5 minutes. Interestingly enough, the group resting 2.5 minutes experienced more muscle growth. This was because the final set of each exercise was taken to failure. The group taking longer rest was better able to recover between sets, performed more reps, and accumulated more volume as a result.
Key takeaway: The anabolic response from lifting weights does not cause muscle growth. The cause of muscle growth is the workout itself.
Above, I mentioned a study (6) in which subjects given testosterone injections experienced tremendous muscle and strength gains without even working out.
Then, I went on to show that there was no relationship between the anabolic response from training and muscle growth.
On the surface these seem like contradictory claims, but diving deeper we can get an understanding as to what's really going on.
The details from the prior study will provide further insight:
A total of 40 healthy men, between the ages of 19-40 with prior weight lifting experience, were assigned to 4 random groups:
Here's how the results turned out 10 weeks later:
As per the muscle and strength gains in each group:
At the end of 10 weeks, the subjects in group 2 (no exercise, received testosterone) had 324% higher total testosterone levels than the subjects in group 3 (exercise, no testosterone), but only gained about 2.64 lbs more muscle because of it.
As per the subjects in group 4 (exercise, received testosterone), they had 386% higher total testosterone levels than the subjects in group 3 (exercise, no testosterone), and gained 9 lbs more muscle.
It is important to note that the subjects receiving testosterone received extreme doses of it.
At the end of 10 weeks, their levels surpassed the upper limit of the normal range by over 3 times (normal range = 300-1000 ng/dL, group 3 was at 2828 ng/dL, group 4 was at 3244 ng/dL).
So yes, higher testosterone levels are associated with increased muscle growth, but only when they are pushed beyond the physiological normal range. Another study (15) illustrates this point:
61 men, aged 18-35, were given varying doses of testosterone injections over 20 weeks. At the end of 20 weeks, each of the subjects experienced muscle and strength gains. However, only the subjects that received the highest doses of testosterone (whereby their levels surpassed the normal range by 25-30%) experienced a statistically significant amount of muscle and strength gains.
Moving beyond 1000 ng/dL can affect muscle growth, but doing so is only possible via the use of exogenous forms of T.
As far as natural methods are concerned, it is impossible to reach testosterone levels far beyond the physiological normal range.
But this does not mean that you shouldn't take the steps to naturally increase your testosterone levels.
Higher T levels are associated with a host of health benefits, it's just that muscle growth isn't really on that list.
Key takeaway: A fluctuation of testosterone levels within the physiological normal range does not have a significant impact on muscle growth.
But what about the flip side of the coin?
How does one's muscle composition affect testosterone levels?
Well, in this study (16), subjects were put on a 21-week strength training program. As expected, the post-workout anabolic response did not impact muscle growth. However, muscle and strength gains were correlated with higher T levels.
So, although testosterone does not have a significant impact on muscle growth, muscular composition and strength do seem to positively impact testosterone.
In other words:
The more muscular you are, the higher your testosterone levels will be.
This fact provides a basic frame to structure our workouts around:
Train for maximum muscle and strength.
This has been and continues to remain my goal.
As such, testosterone training can be boiled down to one sentence.
Get stronger in the 4-8 rep range on the Super Six exercises (coming up).
The more muscle tissue you stimulate within a particular workout the greater the anabolic response will be (17).
This is why so many people recommend making squats and deadlifts the core of your workouts when looking to increase testosterone levels.
But, as we've gone over extensively, the post-workout spike in anabolic hormones does not impact muscle growth, nor does it affect baseline levels of testosterone.
Yet, squats and deadlifts are also the exercises for which you can lift the most amount of weight. Wouldn't this make them effective at adding the most amount muscle and strength to our bodies as well?
This is true, but there is another very important factor for us to consider...
When free testosterone enters the blood stream, it passes through different cells seeking out androgen receptors to attatch to.
Think of an androgen receptor like a lock and testosterone as the key. Only with an androgen receptor present, can testosterone begin to exert its influence.
Once testosterone is attached, the androgen receptor makes its way to the cell’s nucleus and seeks out a special length of DNA, an SRE (steroid response element), to attach to. The SRE then activates a particular gene and completely changes the activity of that particular cell and target tissue.
Lifting weights activates androgen receptors, and the targeted muscle tissue grows in response.
The higher the androgen receptor density in a particular body part, the more it is genetically inclined to grow.
Everyone differs in terms of their androgen receptor density. Some men have an easier time growing their arms while others may find that their chest is their strong point.
Generally speaking though, as a man, you have the majority of androgen receptors spread throughout your upper body (18). More specifically, in your chest, shoulders and traps.
This is why men that use anabolic steroids have exaggerated muscular development in their shoulders and traps.
As a man, the muscles of your upper body are designed to grow more than your lower body.
Researchers have compared the androgen receptor density in men who lift weights and those who don't (19). They found that the trained individuals had higher androgen receptor density, but only in the upper body.
This explains why the bulk of your focus, when looking to increase testosterone, should NOT only be on squats and deadlifts.
Yes they recruit a lot of muscle fibers and you can lift a lot of weight on them, but the majority of those muscle fibers are in the lower body.
By doing an endless amount of squats and deadlifts, you compromise the recovery of your nervous system whereby you'll be unable to target the more androgen dense areas of your upper body with full intensity.
I'm not saying that you should completely disregard squats and deadlifts in your training.
Rather, they should be implemented in a way to increase lower body strength and power rather than lower body mass. This will result in the development of strong and proportioned legs rather than huge and bulky ones. Plus, they will allow you to run faster and jump higher, while minimizing central nervous system fatigue.
Key takeaway: The more strong and muscular you are, the higher your testosterone levels will be.
Let's run a quick recap of the concepts we've gone over so far:
Taking all of this into account, we can narrow down to the core fundamentals of how to train in a way that has the maximum positive impact on baseline levels of testosterone:
The effectiveness of a workout is measured, in part, by the exercises you perform.
Exercise selection forms the foundation of your workout.
Earlier on, I mentioned the Super Six Exercises.
Your results in terms of gaining muscle and increasing testosterone will be directly tied back to the progress you make on the Super Six.
By directing the bulk of your efforts towards the exercises that are most effective, you will move away from everything else that is merely a distraction.
The Super Six Exercises are:
1. Incline Bench Press
Notice how I put incline bench press and not flat.
I prefer the incline variation because it better targets the shoulders and the upper portion of the chest, i.e. the most androgen dense areas of your body.
The flat bench press is not bad, but too much of it can lead to an overdeveloped lower chest, causing your pecs to have a somewhat droopy appearance.
The stronger you get on the incline bench press, the more muscle you will add to the area below your collarbones, and the more it will contribute to the appearance of square and manly pectorals.
2. Overhead Press
The overhead press (aka military press, standing shoulder press) is a pure expression of strength. There is nothing quite like lifting a heavy amount of weight right over your head with arms at full extension.
The overhead press works everything from the shoulders, arms, rotator cuffs, traps, abs, and even legs to some extent.
Getting stronger on this exercise will ensure that you build big, round, boulder shoulders.
3. Weighted Pull-Up
Pull-ups are a great upper body movement that work a large portion of the upper back, lats, rhomboids, posterior delts, traps, and biceps.
Getting stronger on these will enhance the appearance of your physique with a wide V-taper as well as bigger arms.
Don’t let the term “weighted” frighten you. Maybe you are currently at the point where doing them without weight is difficult enough. That’s fine.
Work your way up to doing 10 reps with strict form. Once you can do that, add 5 lbs of weight and rep out till failure. Continue adding more weight as you progress. Over time, cranking out 4-6 reps with 45 lbs attached will seem easy.
4. Conventional Deadlift
The deadlift recruits most every muscle fiber in the body. Although the majority of muscle fibers recruited are in the lower body, learning proper exercise execution also requires you to use your lats, traps, and arms to some extent.
A lot of new guys tend to avoid the deadlift for fear of damaging there lower back. This is why learning proper technique is so important.
5. Barbell Back Squat
Like the deadlift, the barbell back squat recruits a lot of muscle fibers in your body.
It is hands down the best movement you can do for lower body strength.
Learning proper exercise execution is critical. Bad form not only makes the exercise less effective, but it also increases chances of injury.
6. Barbell Rows
Barbell rows work everything from the upper-back, traps, lower back, abs, hips, and even arms. They are the ultimate compound exercise for the back.
Getting stronger on the barbell row will add thickness to your back and further enhance the appearance of your V-taper.
It is possible to build a great physique by solely focusing on the Super Six.
That being said, the addition of assistance exercises can help round out your physique and put emphasis on body parts that are lagging in development compared to others.
Some of my favorite assistance exercises are:
Volume, intensity, and frequency direct how your training is laid out.
Volume = intensity x sets x reps
Intensity is the amount of weight lifted.
The relationship between volume, intensity, and frequency is best illustrated with an example:
5 sets of 5 reps with 135 pounds vs. 5 sets of 5 reps with 225 pounds:
From this example we can conclude:
This relationship, however, only holds true to a point.
When volume is increased beyond your body's recuperative abilities, it causes a spike in cortisol, negatively affects testosterone, and can even go on to negatively affect muscle and strength.
The key lies in finding the sweet spot of volume whereby it pushes your body to grow, but not so much that it disrupts your body's ability to recover.
The intensity of a particular set is the amount of weight you lift for it.
A common way to measure intensity is as a percentage of your 1 rep maximum.
Like with volume, it is all about finding the sweet spot for intensity. For the most part, you should focus on training in the 4-8 rep range (between 75-85% of your 1RM). This means that the weight should be light enough for you to perform 4 reps and heavy enough to stop you from going beyond 8 reps.
Frequency is how many times per week you go to the gym.
When determining frequency there are essentially two factors for you to consider: recovery and schedule.
You want to properly recover between workouts so that you can apply maximum effort in every workout, and therefore make maximum progress.
Also, you want to make sure that you spread your training out in a way that fits seamlessly into your life rather than forcing it.
In order to keep increasing your baseline levels of testosterone, you need to keep getting bigger and stronger. To keep getting bigger and stronger you need to gradually increase the training stimulus. This is the essence of progressive overload.
As you get adjusted to particular workouts, you have to gradually increase training volume to continue seeing training adaptations.
The following sample workout has been structured in line with the above core fundamentals of testosterone training.
Perform each workout on alternate days, e.g. workout 1 on Monday, workout 2 on Wednesday, workout 3 on Friday, and the weekends off.
This is a very simple breakdown of the core fundamentals of testosterone training in action. Remember that it is important to gradually increase the training volume in the form of heavier weight, more reps, or decreased rest periods between sets. This is the only way to continue making improvements.
Just keep in mind that the bulk of your focus should go towards the Super Six, but feel free to include any other assistance exercises to ensure the development of body parts that may be lagging in development.
Research has shown (22) that men who consistently run long distances have lower long-term testosterone levels than even the non-athletic control group.
This means that a marathon runner may have lower testosterone levels than someone who sits at home and watches TV all day.
Now, this doesn't mean that cardio shouldn't be included as part of your testosterone boosting workout. It's just that traditional long-steady state cardio should be avoided.
The type of cardio that benefits testosterone levels is Sprint Interval Training (SIT).
In one study (23), scientists showed that 30 second all out sprints with 4 minute resting periods just 3 days a week for 6 weeks decreased body fat by 12.4%, while a 30-60 minute of sub-maximum endurance training only decreased body fat by 5.8%.
That's over 2x the fat loss from doing sprint interval training.
Lower body fat = Higher testosterone.
In another study (24), subjects who did just 2 weeks of SIT decreased waist measurement by 2 cm.
We already know that the post workout spike of anabolic hormones doesn't do much for baseline levels, but it is still interesting to note.
SIT training can be performed on a treadmill, rowing machine, elliptical, stationary bike, or even outdoors.
The fundamental tenet of SIT comes down to:
Periods of high intensity exercise followed by longer periods of low intensity exercise.
An example of this is 30 second sprints followed by 30 seconds of walking, cycled over 15 minutes.
As long as you follow the one rule of SIT, feel free to perform it on whatever equipment you want.
That was a lot of information.
But all of it narrows down to a few key points:
If you aren't already, you should be lifting weights for a minimum of 3 hours per week. Not only will this habit positively impact your testosterone levels, but it will also lead you to a life of more energy, health, and vitality.
Hope you found this helpful.
Until next time,
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