By Jonathan Mike, PhD (c) CSCS, NSCA-CPT, USAW
When it comes to getting strong and muscular, one of the main training philosophies is to lift big. Many might perceive this as a command to do egregious amounts of volume, but what it really means is rely on variations of heavy movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses. We’ve known for quite some time that certain training protocols have an impact on the hormonal response to training. However, many programs have been created in order to maximize acute hormone release, which has given birth to “chasing” the hormonal output. The body has different hormonal responses to different types of activity, and one should not design programs based on hormones.
The real question is, “Can specific exercises cause the body to release more testosterone than others?” The answer is a definitive “yes.” But first, some basic biology: Hormones are secreted by endocrine glands in the body and are substances that regulate the function of body cells, tissues, organs or systems. Hormones are released from a number of glands, such as the pituitary, testes, ovaries, pancreas, thyroid and the adrenal cortex. But there is also hormone secretion from the heart, kidney, liver and fat tissue in both men and women.
Testosterone and Strength
The major difference in male and female hormones boils down to the differing reproductive structures. Males produce high levels of testosterone, whereas females have higher levels of estrogen and progesterone; they also have lower levels of testosterone when compared to males but tend to have higher growth hormone levels. The average total testosterone range for males is 348 to 1,197 ng/dl (nanograms per deciliter). This is in accordance with research published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, which found the mean testosterone levels were about 724 ng/dl.
Researchers from Finland did a 21-week study with eight male strength-trained subjects and eight non-trained subjects and showed a correlation between testosterone levels and the changes in isometric strength and muscle size (measured by MRI). Subjects performed acute heavy-resistance exercises (bilateral leg extension, five sets of 10RM, with two minutes between sets) that included blood samples for the determination of serum testosterone, free testosterone, cortisol and growth hormone concentrations and were assessed before and after the 21-week training. There was a 20.9 percent increase in maximal force and a 5.6 percent increase in muscle hypertrophy in the non-trained group compared to the trained group. Basal testosterone and free testosterone concentrations did increase during the first 14 weeks of the experimental training period in the trained group with the increase in the training volume.
An 80 percent correlation was observed between testosterone concentrations, and the changes in isometric strength suggest that serum basal testosterone concentrations may be an important factor for strength development in strength athletes. Although shorter rest periods did not improve acute hormone release, both the short rest group (two minutes) and longer rest group (five minutes) gained size and strength over the 21-week period.
Bigger Muscles, Greater Effect
Another study done by researchers in Norway found that performing leg exercises prior to arm exercises increased the levels of serum testosterone and growth hormone, and induced superior strength-training adaptations compared to arm training without acute elevation of hormones. Meaning, this study showed a greater hypertrophy response in the biceps by having subjects do the testosterone-boosting, high-volume leg exercises first. However, a similar study done at McMaster University showed no difference.
A study published just this year examined the effects of maximum and sub-maximum movement velocities after a muscular hypertrophy-type resistance-training protocol on testosterone, growth hormone and cortisol and found that a hypertrophy-type resistance-exercise protocol (four sets of squats and leg presses, eight reps per set, 10RM load) performed at maximum movement velocity increases testosterone and growth hormone, and generates a greater biological stress.
Based on these results, compound exercises such as squats, leg presses and deadlifts do result in higher blood levels of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormones. Large multi-joint movements will increase muscle size and strength, due in part to local hormonal factors, meaning anabolic hormones are secreted at the site of the contraction and affect nearby cells. However, more science is needed to disseminate the long-term effects and the magnitude of these hormones on a variety of resistance-training regimens.