How to Elevate Natural Testosterone Levels
by Glen Danbury

Pick up any mainstream glossy bodybuilding magazine and you'll find the latest training programme of whichever IFBB pro bodybuilder is flavour of the month. Whilst it's great that we can see what these genetic freaks are actually doing, does it actually aid the typical reader of such magazines?

Consider that the average reader isnít experienced in weight training, is in all probability towards the middle or lower end of the genetic spectrum, and hasnít built a foundation level of fitness, then the answer is probably 'no'. But the biggest issue lays with the person's choice of whether they're using anabolic assistance in the form of steroids.

To understand what difference is required in the training protocols of assisted trainees versus their natural counterparts, we need to understand what exactly steroids do.

Steroids come in many different forms, but are all based around mimicking actions of the male hormone testosterone. Typically, you can see the resulting effect of increased testosterone in males who go through puberty. During this period the male will experience an increase in muscle mass and aggressiveness, and display a marked increase in physical performance, as seen in adolescent sports when an early developer tends to dominate his age peers.

The direct effect of steroids are many, and are still being discovered, especially as moral issues restrict the studies, which can be implemented with the level of dosages typically used by bodybuilders. Below is a summary of the more important issues that regular use of steroids will incur within the trainee:

  • Increased Protein Synthesis
    The most important effect is due to how testosterone or one of its synthetic relatives stimulates our DNA to direct the muscle cell's ribosomes to manufacture greater amounts of protein by retaining more nitrogen.

  • Increased Aggressiveness
    Whilst this is often termed a side effect of testosterone therapy, it can work for the hard-training athlete's advantage. It aids the individual to push harder and be more competitive, which in turn will aid in creating greater mechanical stimulus for growth. This leads to increased protein synthesis from training.

  • Increased Water Retention
    Typically, people bring up the water-retaining properties of steroids to point out how itís not really building real muscle. However, the hydration level of a muscle is a key determinate in the process of protein synthesis, which is becoming clear in the study of hydrophilic substances such as creatine and glutamine.

    All of these points will aid the trainee in the pursuit of building muscle and strength. It's clear that testosterone plays a key role in building muscle, but the assisted athlete has one key advantage over a natural trainee. They no longer have to worry over what the training is doing to their hormonal milieu, but only have to focus on the mechanical aspect of stimulating protein degradation in order to promote protein synthesis as an adaptive response.

    When we consider this and ponder which training is best for those who are unassisted, we have to look at what type of training best increases natural testosterone levels, as well as what activities will cause a negative effect on the natural production of this anabolic hormone.

    The majority of studies looking at testosterone response via training (Kramer et al 1992, volek et al 1997) have shown a general trend for the following loading parameters to be the most productive in terms of testosterone production:

    Large compound, multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts and military press elicit a higher testosterone response due to greater muscle mass involvement, which implies greater stress and waste production from exercise. In addition, by using heavy weights of 85-95% 1RM, this would limit reps to around four to eight for the typical trainee. This is coupled with moderate-to-high volume work, meaning multiple sets of the exercise. The rest periods would tend to be short.

    The vast majority of training should be pushed to the limit, since Schwab et al (1993) showed that by performing the exercises and required volume of work but with sub maximal intensity didnít elicit the same testosterone response as the same volume performed with a weight which caused failure at the designated repetitions.

    One study which looked at the volume of training and how it affected testosterone was undertaken by Alemany et al (2004). This study looked at testosterone levels within three groups; number one Ė no exercise, number two Ė 25 sets, number three Ė 50 sets. The loading parameters for group two and three where repetitions of five to ten, with around ninety seconds to two minutes rest between sets of large multi-joint exercises such as squats, bench presses etc.

    Group two showed no suppression of testosterone. However, group three showed marked suppression of testosterone over a 24-hour period.

    These findings suggest that the typical high-volume pumping routines espoused by the glossy muscle mags arenít the most effective for those who do not use some form of anabolic supplementation. Therefore, it would be prudent for the natural trainee to moderate their workout volume, whilst focusing on big, basic exercises performed more in the lower rep ranges with heavier weights.

    Whilst I am not advocating the "one set to failure, train each body-part every seven to ten days" mentality of training, I am not advocating high volume "pump until you drop" either. As with everything in life, the truth lies in the middle. Paying close attention to what enhances and what suppresses your natural hormones, whilst providing the mechanical overload for muscle growth, will pay the natural trainee dividends in the long run.


    Kramer 1992. Endocrine responses and adaptations to strength and power in sports, edited by P.V. Komi, 291-304. Blackwell scientific

    Volek, Kreamer, Bush, Incledon and Boetes 1997. Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal of applied physiology 82:49-54

    Schwab, Johnson, Housh, kinder and weir 1993. Acute effects of different intensities of weight lifting on serum testosterone. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 25:1381-1385

    Alemany et al 2004. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 36:S238