By Guillermo Escalante, MBA, ATC, CSCS
As a bodybuilder, at some point you’ll be asked whether you want to use exogenous anabolic substances to boost your muscle gains. Research tells us that the vast majority of gym goers choose to remain drug-free. But just because you’re not juicing up doesn’t mean you can’t maximize your muscle gains. In fact, there are 11 strategies that can help you naturally enhance your endogenous testosterone levels without resorting to potentially illegal or dangerous activities.
Recent research in the field of endocrinology (the study of hormones) has revealed that declining testosterone levels in aging men, much like death and taxes, are simply unavoidable. Although low testosterone levels become more apparent in men between the ages of 40–50, some research has found that men as young as 30 years old can feel some of the effects of low testosterone starting to affect their bodies. Some studies, like one published in the Aging Male, states, “Age related testosterone decline is one of the major factors that affect quality of life.”
The “normal” testosterone range for men is extremely wide: from 250–850 nanograms per decaliter (ng/dl) of blood. Ideally, however, you want your testosterone levels to stay on the higher end of “normal” (closer to 850 ng/dl) for optimal energy levels and performance in the weight room and bedroom. Some of the symptoms of low testosterone levels include lethargy, moodiness, decreased sex drive, loss of memory and increased bodyfat.
Testosterone levels can be elevated back to the normal range with a prescription-based testosterone-replacement therapy supervised by a licensed physician, but many doctors aren’t yet familiar (or comfortable) with prescribing testosterone replacement to their patients. Other options are natural approaches that can be followed to help maximize the body’s own testosterone production. (See “Maximizing Your T Levels Naturally.”) The strategies include suggestions on how to best structure your training, foods to eat and to avoid, as well as lifestyle factors.
Maximizing Your T Levels Naturally
Light to moderate weightlifting provides an increase in serum testosterone concentration. Also, focusing on compound/multijoint movements such as squats, deadlifts, bent-over rows and chest pressing movements with heavier weights in the 6–8 repetition maximum range and relatively short rest periods between sets (1–2 minutes) provide a larger hormonal response.
Train in the evening
Since testosterone levels are higher in the morning and early afternoon, you might be stronger in your morning workouts. However, testosterone levels have been shown to decline as the day progresses, so lifting weights in the late afternoon/evening can help to boost your testosterone levels.
Cardio is an important aspect of training to keep your bodyfat levels down and your heart healthy, but if you push cardio too hard or too long it could impact your testosterone levels. Ideally, perform 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio as soon as you wake up in the morning about four days per week and lift weights in the evening. If you can’t swing this schedule, perform moderate-intensity cardio after your weight training (be sure to stop at the 30-minute mark).
Spend less time in the gym
Overtraining can significantly drop your testosterone levels. Weight training 4–5 days per week is ideal to provide your body with a boost of testosterone, but the 2–3 days of rest is just as beneficial. Second, finish up your weight workouts in about 60 minutes (75 minutes max) as more time than that in the gym will only reverse the benefits of your workout. Spending more than 60–75 minutes lifting is a sure ticket to keeping your body catabolic (breaking down) rather than anabolic (building up) as testosterone/cortisol levels shift in the wrong direction.
Get your sleep
Sleep deprivation has been shown to decrease levels of serum testosterone. Try to get a minimum of seven hours of sleep every night. If you can squeeze in a short 20–30 nap during the day, even better.
Bodybuilders have feared dietary fat for many years, but recently they’ve found a place for it in their diets. Research has proven that unsaturated fats (found in salmon, almonds and flax seeds) can be beneficial for your health. Additionally, saturated fats (found in whole eggs and beef) are critical for your body to produce hormones such as testosterone. The goal is to have 10–15% of your calories come from unsaturated fats and 10% of your calories from saturated fats. A bodybuilder consuming 3,600 calories a day should aim to get 40–60 grams of unsaturated fats plus 40 grams of saturated fats in his diet every day.
Consuming protein not only provides the body with amino acids that helps muscles recover, but it has also been shown to help promote higher levels of testosterone. Eggs, lean beef, poultry, fish, dairy and whey hydrolysates are excellent sources of protein. The recommended amount of protein is about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight daily.
Phytonutrients in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, kale and collards may help to boost your testosterone levels. Strive to include 1–2 servings of cruciferous veggies in your diet every day.
Take your supplements
If you’re interested in natural T boosters that are legal, consider Tribulus terrestris, Eurycoma longifolia Jack, fenugreek, carnitine and ZMA. Read label directions and precautions carefully.
Binge drinking is a sure way to shut down your testosterone levels. Try to keep your drinking under control by having no more than 1–2 drinks on the days you decide to drink.
Engage in sex
It used to be thought that sex would impede athletic performance, but the opposite is in fact true. Frequent ejaculation is a great way to boost your testosterone levels.
1) Moncada, I. “Testosterone and men’s quality of life.” Aging Male. December 2006; 9 (4): 189–193.
2) Crawford, et al. “The association of time of day and serum testosterone concentration in a large screening population.” British Journal of Urology. September 2007.
3) Schwab, et al. “Acute effects of different intensities of weight training to serum concentration.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1993.