Years ago my roommate as I were both bitten by the bodybuilding bug. I think the current trend of “everyday bodybuilders” was getting started around that time. We jumped headfirst into an intense 5-6 day a week routine and we did all the same things.
My roommate soon boasted shoulders looking like they were concealing a basketball, a well rounded chest, a powerful back, bigger arms, and 6-pack abs. I, on the other hand, was looking fluffy in comparison which was beyond frustrating!
Don’t get me wrong I had made progress but I did not look like I put anywhere near the amount of effort he put in at the gym, despite the fact that we were doing the same routine AND I was often lifting heavier weight than he was. I began wondering if my biology – specifically, my testosterone levels – were to blame.
Resistance exercise, especially lifting weights, is irreversibly associated with testosterone and if you’ve been in the weight room for any appreciable length of time you’ve probably wondered about your own testosterone levels, what’s affecting them, and ways you can boost them. That’s exactly what we’re going to cover in this article.
What is Testosterone?
As you probably already know Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone, is responsible for secondary sexual characteristics – more muscle, greater bone mass, body hair – and much of a man’s reproductive capabilities. The normal range for men is 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) and 15 to 70 ng/dL for women.
What is less known is that Testosterone also plays a large role in female physiology, despite the fact that adult males produce 6-8 times the amount of testosterone as an adult female. In women testosterone seems to primarily play in regulating sex drive – but has not been isolated as the sole driver – and demonstrates similar characteristics in driving muscle growth. Additionally, it has been suggested that women may be much more sensitive to smaller amounts of testosterone.
In short, testosterone is a sex hormone responsible for driving many of the things we come to think of as masculine. Muscle growth, low body fat, aggressive behavior, high sex drive, alpha-male confidence – Testosterone is responsible for a lot of that. However, if you have low testosterone (Low T) don’t stress out about it. Many of these characteristics are byproducts of testosterone, not the primary effect, which means there are ways you can bypass the testosterone route to better exemplify these traits as well.
How does Testosterone Affect Body Composition?
When we think of someone with high testosterone we think of someone with big muscles and very little body fat. For good reason too! This is actually a pretty accurate representation of someone with very high testosterone levels. But it’s not as simple as “Super high Testosterone = Greek God Physique.” To better understand how testosterone affects body composition let’s break down it’s effects into the two main factors of body composition: Muscle Mass and Fat Mass.
Testosterone’s Effect of Muscle Mass
Unless you’ve been living under a rock ignoring anything in professional sports for the past few generations then you probably have a general understanding that more testosterone = more muscle mass. Which is true but to a degree.
In a nutshell – testosterone levels that fall within the normal range are not going to significantly stimulate further muscle growth. It’s just not a powerful enough driver. However, pushing testosterone well beyond the normal range changes things quite a lot (Think “Steroids”).
When looking at the dose-dependent relationship between testosterone and muscle growth researchers found that 25-50mg administrations did not produce significant differences in thigh and quadricep volume. However, all doses above 125mg did produce significant differences.
These data suggest that there is a threshold for testosterone in which fluctuations below that threshold do not stimulate greater muscular growth. That is, changes in testosterone levels within the normal ranges are not going to stimulate muscle growth. Testosterone has to be pushed above the upper limit of the normal range, like with steroids, in order to push muscular growth above your genetic potential.
Testosterone’s effects on Fat Mass
In addition to driving higher levels of muscular growth, testosterone has also been shown to suppress proliferation of adipose tissue (fat) when compared to placebo. However, this does not require testosterone levels be far outside the normal range. Changes in testosterone levels within the normal range have significant effects on fat mass.
Low testosterone levels are frequently linked with obesity, however this is one of those “chicken and egg” situations. Those dealing with obesity are likely to have better long term results by losing weight and raising testosterone levels through diet and exercise, not through trying to raise testosterone directly.
How can you find out what your Testosterone levels are?
Common behavioral symptoms of low testosterone are irritability, low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, low energy, depression, and obesity. Noticing these symptoms may be your first sign that you have low testosterone levels.
If you suspect that you have low testosterone levels then check with a doctor. Commonly, they will perform a blood panel looking at T-levels as well as some other markers that could provide some insight.
How can you naturally boost your testosterone levels?
I want you to notice something important. The list of behavioral symptoms of low testosterone are the exact same behavioral symptoms of really bad life habits like:
- Poor Diet
- Low Sleep Hygiene
- Lack of Physical activity
People dealing with these issues often argue that it may be a “chicken and egg” situation and that they should try to boost their testosterone through medication to alleviate their problems. This is some mental gymnastics to justify taking a medication to solve your problems rather than putting in the hard effort up front.
First, prioritize your diet. Whether you’re obese and need to lose weight or you’re underweight and malnourished you need to take steps to eat an appropriate amount of calories for your goal, make sure at least 80% of those calories come from wholesome food sources, and quit abusing junk food.
Second, you can’t have an unpredictable sleeping schedule and expect your body to perform optimally. Humans have an inherent circadian rhythm that governs many of our intrinsic biological processes. Testosterone production can easily be disrupted by a lack of sleep or a sporadic sleeping schedule. Mastering your sleep is one of the simplest things you can do to make BIG changes in your health.
Lastly, don’t expect your body to crank out tons of testosterone if all you do is go from office chair, to big leather chair, to bed, and repeat. Activity, especially resistance training, can greatly increase your baseline testosterone levels. And you don’t need to spend hours everyday in the gym, simply spend some time being active and building a sweat every day to make a lasting change.
What about those “Natural Test Boosters?”
They’re BS for the most part. None of these herbal supplements are going to make as large of a change that sleep, nutrition, and training can. The problem is that sometimes these supplements are marketed in such a way that basically makes them sound like safe steroids. They’re not.
Some research looking at the effects of Tribulus Terrestris on infertile men has yielded inconsistent results (Positive – Negative). I could simply argue that this supplement is a complete sham but that’s not quite the whole picture. Tribulus specifically has been around a long time and has had a long reputation of being an herb that could renew a man’s vigor so I’m inclined to believe there is a nugget of truth to the claims.
The nugget is this: Testosterone boosting herbal supplements may produce small, but noticeable, increases in men with testosterone levels very close to the bottom limit of the normal range. Combine this the power of the placebo effect and you get a lot of men that start swearing by it.
Case Study – overcoming Low T and Building Muscle
Writing this article was suggested to me by James Braun (Instagram: @BraunStrong). James has dealt with low testosterone – having a level of approximately 52 ng/dL of total testosterone at one point. Through consistent training and a solid diet James has been able to build his current physique. If you’re curious about the specifics about how he did it then click on the picture and ASK HIM!
Testosterone fluctuates inside of a normal range, is responsible for much of the muscle growth we see, and can make it much easier to maintain a lower body fat. Muscle growth beyond our genetic potential doesn’t happen with testosterone levels that are within the normal range. To break the genetic cap on our muscle growth we have to use some sort of anabolic agent to push our testosterone levels well above the normal range. However, fluctuations in testosterone within the normal range do show a considerable impact on the ability keep body fat levels low.
“Natural” testosterone boosters likely won’t do anything for you. You’re much better off taking better care of your sleep habits, nutrition, and training regimen. These lifestyle changes can have a big impact on your testosterone levels and your overall health. In short, there is literally no reason not to take better care of these things.
At the beginning of this article I talked about my roommate who had made dramatically better progress than I did, despite us having the same exact training. I wanted to blame my genetics so bad and think “well he just has more testosterone than I do.” Honestly, he might have had better testosterone levels but looking back now I don’t think it was a genetic factor that made such a difference between our results.
I remember we would have the same training but he was much more consistent with his diet – always sure to add a helping of leafy vegetables to his plate – and he was very strict about his sleep. He’d often “clock out” and head for bed around 10:30pm while I’d stay up until 1:00am diddling around the apartment. Overall, we had the same training but he took better care of himself outside of the gym which is what made the difference. I’ve since adopted some of these better habits.