Building muscle is hard work. If you are trying to build muscle, you know that first-hand. As a result, you want to make sure you are going the right direction. The common belief is that hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1) play an important role in the muscle-building process. As a result, there have been a number of studies published that investigate the best training methods to naturally increase these key muscle-building hormones. However, is this really where you should focus your muscle-building efforts? Thankfully, recent research has some answers for you…
|Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash|
First: taking synthetic hormones works
Performance enhancing drugs started back in the 1930’s. Since the 1950’s and 60’s, there has been a steady increase in the use of drugs among athletes, lifters, and bodybuilders. Steroids were the most popular drug to increase testosterone levels and yes, they do work – really well! Just ask Arnold and his buddies from Pumping Iron. In the 90’s bodybuilders took their muscularity to a completely new level by adding growth hormone and insulin to the mix. So yes, there is no question that injecting high-levels of these hormones works – really well! The question is will trying to naturally increase muscle building hormones with certain training protocols actually help you build more muscle?
Hormones and the drug-free lifter
As a naturally scrawny hardgainer, I have spent the last 25 years trying to learn everything I can about building muscle. As a lifetime drug-free lifter, I have always been fascinated articles on ways to naturally increase testosterone or growth hormone. I still remember this famous line from Ironman Magazine:
“You can stimulate as much GH as you want – for free – but it requires an effort.”
I loved reading about training strategies designed to maximize secretion of testosterone or growth hormone. The problem was that these sensationalized methods never seemed to work as promised in the real world.
In November 2017, The Physician and Sports Medicine Journal published an article entitled The Role of Hormones in Muscle Hypertrophy. In this article Julius Fink, Brad Jon Schoenfeld & Koichi Nakazato reviewed weight training protocols and their effect on muscle building – both with and without steroids. Their conclusion:
"Acute RT-induced hormonal elevations seem not to be directly correlated with muscle growth."
What This Means For You and Your Muscle Building Efforts
Focus on what works, not why it works
Scientific studies are hard work. As a result, researchers often take the easier way out. They find untrained subjects, draw some blood, put them on the leg extension machine and then re-take blood. Then they write a research article about how training protocol "X" was able to increase hormone levels by 153%.
While this is interesting and does help it our understanding of why certain training protocols might work, it fails to answer the real question that you care about – what does actually work to build muscle. Does that increase temporary hormonal spike actually result in building 153% more muscle? I wish so, but think not.
If you are investing your valuable time and investment in the gym, you want to know that what you are doing actually does work. You need to care about real-world results.
When it comes to research, lifters and coaches need to focus on actual training studies done in real-world-relevant ways with subjects who actually lift. The problem with these studies is that they are hard to do, expensive to fund and time-consuming to implement. However, when done right, they are pure gold.
Prioritize results over hormones
The great thing about this research is it helps you focus on training protocols that actually work – even if they are contradictory to previous hormone research. For example, one of the common training protocols recommended for increasing testosterone is to take short rest intervals. While this makes for a very difficult workout, cutting your rest intervals too short does not work as well for muscle hypertrophy. When we look at training research on rest intervals, we find that longer rest intervals are superior for building muscle. Longer rest times all you to lift more weight and get more reps each set. This increases your total training volume load – which helps you build more muscle.
Another common recommendation for increasing testosterone is short workouts. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. 2+ hour “marathon” workouts are counter-productive for most drug-free lifters. However, if you take things too far in the other direction (as is often the case in the testosterone-boosting articles and books), you may not have enough time to get the training volume needed for optimal muscle growth. You also will not have time to do the necessary accessory work (e.g. direct work for calves, arms, neck, forearms, etc.) to grow the muscles that may not receive sufficient stimulus from your big lifts (note: this is individual differences here).
This does not mean that all recommendations for testosterone secretion are not as effective for building muscle. For example, the literature also recommends using big, compound movements done with heavy weight for multiple sets. While this does increase acute testosterone production, it has also been proven to in research and the real world to build real muscle.
Growth hormone is another example of a confusing hormone. Everything from eating frequently to fasting seems to increase it. I remember years ago learning about growth hormone and how training in a fasted state could increase growth hormone production. At this point in my training journey, I had already gained 50 pounds of muscle. However, I quickly lost 20lbs of my hard-earned muscle trying to increase my growth hormone levels by training fasted. I failed to realize that the increase in cortisol from no carbs and the decrease in total daily calories far out-weighed any benefit I got from a temporary spike in growth hormone.
Optimize your chronic hormone levels
While acute spikes in hormone levels do not really matter, your chronic hormone levels do matter. Your health, body composition and performance (in training, life and even in the bedroom) will all suffer if you have low testosterone.
Before I give you a list of some of the best ways to optimize your chronic hormone levels naturally, I need to give you a spoiler alert. The most important things are things you already know and are important for anyone trying to be healthy. However, as you go through this list, do not just skim it and say, “Oh, I know that.” Instead, ask yourself the real question, “Am I consistently doing this?”
- Prioritize sleep and get as much as you reasonably can
- Use these tools to increase your sleep quality
- Minimize processed foods
- Get sufficient protein. To find your optimal protein level, click HERE
- Get around 25-30% of your calories from healthy fats
- Don’t be a slave to old, out-dated carb "rules"
- Use carbs and protein before and after training
- Manage stress by removing unnecessary extras from your life, increasing productivity and having a better perspective on how you perceive unavoidable stresses
- Take 10 minutes each day to relax and practice proper breathing
- Make sure you are not deficient in vitamins (e.g. Vitamin D) or minerals. The best way to do this is with getting blood work done. If you can't do this, at least try logging your food on a site such as Cronometer to see if you have any deficiencies.
When you take care of your body, it can reward you with healthy hormone levels that allow you to train hard, build muscle and improve your overall health and well-being.
The Next Steps in Your Muscle-Building Journey
- Check out my other Muscle Building Posts
- Go to the “Follow Andrew by Email” box at the top of my website and subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss any future posts.
- Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for regular training tips
- Stay tuned as I’ve got a new book on muscle building coming out this summer
- Check out my Online Coaching services to learn more about how I can guide you on your muscle-building journey
As always, I welcome your comments and questions below.