Hormone Optimization For Muscle Growth
January 24, 2017
Have you ever wondered about hormone optimization for muscle growth and fat loss?
You’re in the right place. Optimizing your hormone levels naturally can lead to…
Less body fat.
More energy, strength, and power.
More sexy time.
A positive attitude and more motivation to kick life in the face.
All of this could be yours by making a few small changes.
Sounds too good to be true, like those empty promises at a supplement store. But they’re actually the benefits of optimizing your hormones.
Hormone Optimization for Muscle Growth… What’s the Deal?
When you hear hormones we probably share the same flashback:
Seventh-grade health class. There’s an embarrassed teacher talking about sex, a few pimply-faced boys giggling in the back, and a few ” girls saying “Yew…gross!.”
Out of embarrassment or pure boredom, most of us ignored these lessons and opted to draw our best SuperBad (click the link if you’re confused) veiny triumphant penises on each other’s notebooks.
Growth, development, sex, muscles, and much more is controlled by these mysterious chemical messengers.
Problem is, your hormones are a constant assault. Processed foods, your high-stress lifestyle, household cleaners, and even training can zap your precious hormones right from your gonads.
Luckily, hormones have come to the forefront of the fitness industry from guys like John Romaniello and Chad Howse. But many guys are left asking:
“Do I have low T? How can I improve it?”
“How can I manage my insulin sensitivity to build more muscle and lose fat?”
“Growth hormone can get you lean? You mean that stuff that helped Barry Bonds double in size and crush homers?”
As you can see, there’s a shit ton of confusion around hormone optimization for muscle growth.
I’m here to clear it up. You’ll get a brief overview of your major hormones, followed by clear action steps to get your hormones back on track (naturally) to build a high-performance body and mind.
A caveat before we go further: low levels of hormones can be due to a medical condition. I am not a medical doctor nor am I here to provide medical advice. That said, the advice below has been shown to be a powerful first step in improving health and hormone levels. Ultimately, I recommend getting your hormone levels tested annually and once you’ve exhausted the methods I’ll cover below, you’re best to check with your doctor for further advice.
What Are Hormones: The Role of Hormones in Muscle Growth and Your Body
Hormones are chemical messengers secreted via glands in your body to your bloodstream, a system known as the endocrine system.
From there, they’re transported to tissues throughout your body to carry out bodily functions.
Once a hormone finds a specific site, it must find a receptor.
Basically, each hormone is a key and must find the correct “lock” to gain access to that particular cell, we call it the lock-and-key method.
If the hormone and receptor don’t match, then there is no interaction. That means it’s best that we have both enough free-circulating hormones and open receptor sites to carry out hormonal functions.
The Major Hormones
There are 43 hormones in the human body. But, since you and I both have the attention span of a dog in a butcher shop, I’m going to cover the big seven for body composition: Testosterone, insulin, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), cortisol, thyroid, and estrogen.
Our response to each hormone is unique, meaning what works for your friend Shawn might not work for you.
With that in mind, I’ll give a basic overview of each hormone and how to improve it so you’ll get stronger, leaner, and more athletic.
The popular guy on the block, testosterone is a steroid hormone with anabolic effects for both men and women.
It’s considered the king of all hormones, kind of like squats being the king of lifts. Special cells convert cholesterol (eat your steak) into testosterone after receiving a signal from your hypothalamus and pituitary glands.
Within an individualized circadian rhythm, testosterone jumps in the morning (hence…morning wood) after a good night’s sleep, and tapers off during the day.
Testosterone regulates muscular development, libido, energy, immune function, and even bone health.
Obviously, if you’re looking to build muscle, stay lean, and look like an athlete having a healthy testosterone is important.
Within an individualized circadian rhythm, testosterone jumps in the morning (hence, the difficulties of peeing with a boner) after a good night’s sleep, and tapers off during the day.
Testosterone regulates muscular development, libido, energy, immune function, and even bone health.
Low testosterone can zap your libido, pile on body fat, and make it impossible to add lean muscle.
Knowing and maximizing your natural testosterone levels is crucial in regards to hormone optimization for muscle growth.
Growth hormone (GH) helps bones, tissues, and muscles grow, while also being a potent fat burner.
Also known as somatotropin, is an anabolic hormone made and secreted by the pituitary gland. Contrary to testosterone, which is high in the morning, growth hormone spikes within the first few hours of sleep, with smaller spikes every 4-5 hours.
GH works to affect many metabolic functions from glycogen production and protein synthesis to fatty acid metabolism. Further, growth hormone stimulates the next hormone on the list, 1GF-1.
Low growth hormone can stunt growth, lead to faster aging while optimized growth hormone levels will help you burn body fat and build muscle.
Primarily produced in your liver, IGF-1 is stimulated by (GH) and is an anabolic hormone that plays a role in stimulating hypertrophy. Interestingly enough, lifting weights alone has been shown to improve IGF-1.
IGF-1 release is dictated by GH, so low GH levels will make it difficult to add lean muscle mass.
IGF-1 hormone optimization for muscle growth is popular because it also helps shorten post-workout recovery. Athletes often look for ways to raise IGF-1 levels due to its ability to increase the time they can train.
IGF-1 may help…
- Increase stamina and work capacity.
- Bolster immune system function.
- Promote healthy joints.
- Increase fatty acid mobilization (and fat burning).
- May stimulate hair growth.
- May reduce visible effects of aging.
Insulin is released by the pancreas in response to increases in blood sugar levels. If you crush a Big-Gulp Coke you’ll have a huge surge of insulin whereas a protein shake will be a bit less.
As the government recommended high carbohydrate diets to the country for a few decades, we found pounding high sugar foods burns out the insulin response, leading to insulin resistance, diabetes and making building muscle and burning body fat exponentially harder.
As the government recommended high carbohydrate diets to the country for a few decades, we found it made is fatter, uglier, and dying earlier from preventable diseases.
It turns out pounding high sugar foods burns out your insulin response. This leads to insulin resistance, diabetes and making building muscle and burning body fat exponentially harder.
Insulin helps shuttle nutrients like fatty acids, glucose, and amino acids into cells. When this ability is stunted and low insulin sensitivity takes over, we get serious health issues like diabetes and ultimately, death. With optimized insulin sensitivity, you’ll build muscle and burn body fat much easier.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone but unlike testosterone, it’s catabolic rather than anabolic. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands in response to low blood sugar and stress and stimulates the release of blood sugar while suppressing the immune system. In our over-stimulated world low cortisol is rarely an issue: high stress and cortisol is.
Chronically elevated cortisol leads to a negative feedback loop of less muscle, more fat, and you guessed it: more stress. Our efforts will focus on cortisol reduction.
You’ve heard a friend complain about low thyroid and how it prevents them from losing weight.
Well, they might not be bullshitting you: A healthy thyroid optimizes fat loss, protein synthesis, and sensitivity to other hormones.
This paints a clear picture that thyroid function is pretty damn important for health and body composition goals. If your thyroid is too low, you’ll struggle with energy and add body fat. On the contrary, overactive thyroid makes difficult to gain weight.
Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone, which leads most guys to picture increased body fat, man boobs, and probably crying. Or even this clip from The Longest Yard.
While estrogen appears like something most men would rather eradicate, we still need a bit of the stuff to function and naturally reproduce.
Just as like women need testosterone, a little estrogen is important for men. Still, the problem for most guys is too much estrogen and it’s best to decrease it.
Steps For Hormone Optimization for Muscle Growth
Hormones are the driving force to building a strong, lean, and athletic body. Surprisingly, a few small behaviors make a huge difference when it comes to Hormone optimization for muscle growth. I asked some fellow coaches to chime in and give me their best training tips to optimize your hormones for maximum gains.
1. Train Heavy
In the shocker of the century, resistance training improves testosterone levels.
Optimizing testosterone with training isn’t as simple as throwing on some plates, your favorite heavy metal or rap playlist, and hammering away.
The best results for improving testosterone levels come from heavy resistance training (70-90% 1RM) but not training to failure.
Increases in cortisol levels and decreases in testosterone have been shown in multiple studies when training goes longer than an hour.
You don’t need to limit your workouts to 60 minutes. But there is a point of diminishing returns with longer, high volume, and to-the-point of failure workouts.
During training, testosterone levels rise followed by an increase in cortisol post-workout.
Beyond leveraging post-workout insulin sensitivity to refill glycogen stores and increase muscle growth, consuming carbs post-workout can mitigate the cortisol response and jump-start recovery.
Over time, research by Hakkinen et al indicates consistent intensive strength training in elite athletes can influence the pituitary and possibly hypothalamic levels, leading to increased serum levels of testosterone. The caveat here is elite athletes do a much better job of emphasizing recovery and eating enough to support nutrition.
What does this mean for the average Jim Gymgoer who benches 3x per week with plenty of interval training and chronic dieting? If you want to train hard and optimize your testosterone levels your sleep and nutrition have to follow suit.
Where does endurance training fit in?
Long duration endurance training (60+ minutes) has been shown to increase cortisol levels and decrease testosterone levels.
To optimize testosterone levels, perform weight training first before cardiovascular activity.
If possible, train on a split schedule with lifting and endurance/cardio on separate days to avoid conflicting anabolic signaling to muscles and to avoid negative effects hormone optimization for muscle growth.
2. Eat Around Your Training
Training is a stressor and the best remedy during training stress is a blend of high-quality protein and carbohydrates post-workout. Carbohydrates around the time of your workout help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue and can mitigate the increase in cortisol after a difficult workout.
Further, the nutrients you take in post-workout rebuild the damage done during training. It takes advantage of heightened insulin sensitivity. This jump-starts the recovery process and helps you build more muscle and less fat.
Raspberry Chocolate Goodness:
-1 Cup Raspberries (frozen)
-2 Scoops Chocolate Whey Protein
-1.5 Cups Raw Spinach
-1 Cup Coconut Milk
– ½ cup water, ½ cup ice.
3. Eat Enough Fat, Cholesterol, and Unprocessed Foods
When in doubt, eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Yes, you can cook your food, but eat a blend of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats in various forms. Shop the perimeter of the store, eat grass-fed and organic when you can, and avoid processed junk. I recommend this mouthwatering steak recipe.
Cholesterol is a crucial building block for hormonal health. Without adequate intake of cholesterol, dietary fat, and calories your test levels suffer.
Research by Ouladsahebmadarek et al 2014 and Lida et al 2017 showed eating around 0.8-1g of fat per kilogram of body weight is adequate for optimal hormone production.
The types and quality of the fats you consume play a large role in health and hormone function. Omega-3 fatty acids aid in the stabilization of hormones, the rebuilding of cells, and sex hormone function. Omega-6 hormones and trans-fats have negative impacts on testosterone and hormone function.
Losing body fat should improve hormone levels over the long haul. But periods of intense dieting and calorie restriction can reduce testosterone levels. The solution is to get and stay lean while adopting a lifestyle to support hormone optimization for muscle growth.
What does all this mean?
First, food quality matters. Avoid most refined fatty foods and as many trans-fats as possible.
Second, eat fish and/or supplement with high-quality fish oil like flameout to improve Omega3:6 ratios.
Third, aim to get at least 20% of your calories each day from fat to provide ample fuel for your hormones.
The majority of testosterone release occurs at night. If your sleep is trash, your testosterone levels are next.
Proper sleep reduces inflammation and cortisol and increases growth hormone release. Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHGB), which binds up testosterone in your blood, also decreases with adequate sleep.
So, how much sleep do you need?
Take a peek at the 2011 Chicago sleep study. 28 students slept 8 hours per night at home for one week. The following week participants spent 11 days in the laboratory for 3 nights of 10-hour bedtime from 10 PM to 8 AM in a fully rested condition.
In the third and final week participants had 8 nights of 5-hour bedtimes (from 12:30 AM to 5:30 AM).
In one-week testosterone levels plummeted by 10-15% of sleeping five hours per night. Put in perspective, testosterone levels have been shown to decrease by 1-2% every year after 30 years old.
By sleeping 5 hours per night, you’re giving yourself testosterone levels of someone 10-15 years your elder.
Sleep is essential to optimize every physiological process in your body. There’s no badge of honor (believe me, I’ve searched) for skipping sleep to be more productive. Sleep optimizes testosterone and growth hormone levels.
5. Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
Booze and drugs can ruin your health, who knew?
Shocker, I know.
Alcohol is a depressant, triggering a stress response, decreasing insulin sensitivity, testosterone, and growth hormone. P
Alcohol leads to poor dietary decisions and crappy sleep; further exacerbating its ill effects.
I love bourbon, too, but keep your booze intake low.
This hurts me to say, but caffeine consumption triggers a fight or flight response (stress) that elevates cortisol and decreases testosterone. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy bourbon or coffee, just do so in moderation.
Opiates and marijuana have also been shown to negatively impact testosterone levels.
6. Stress Management
Being connected 24/7 causes a lot of stress that leads many guys to feel out of control. Like anything else, stress management comes down to balance. Take time to reduce stress and decompress each day.
➢ Plan screen-free days. Go for a hike, hang out and talk to other humans without your phone or TV.
➢ Meditate daily. I use Headspace, and it comes with a free trial here.
➢ Make a shortlist and stick to a few essential tasks each day.
7. Eliminate Toxins from Household Items
Most of your household products from your shampoo and deodorant to Teflon pans and food containers have phthalates, PCB’s, and parabens that leach into your body. Confused on why this matters?
Here’s the jist: Most toxins are estrogen mimickers and endocrine disruptors—meaning they negatively affect anabolic hormone levels.
More research is coming out suggesting these toxins may do everything from feminizing males (and vice versa) to causing cancer and brain development issues. Pretty bad stuff!
Make small changes in your purchasing decisions to protect your hormones.
1. Stop eating, drinking, and microwaving out of plastic.
2. Ditch your air fresheners, vinyl shower curtains, and non-stick pans. Opt for fresh air and lunchbot food containers.
3. Switch to natural skin and hair products. I get most of mine at Thrive Market.
It’s Time to Take Action:
The first step in improving your testosterone levels is getting your levels tested with a qualified endocrinologist.
If you’re in your 20’s, get a full blood panel and consider testing your levels annually.
It’s impossible to gauge improvement or whether it’s actually needed without blood work as a baseline.
Address the lifestyle factors like drinking alcohol, drug/opioid use, stress, and sleep that may have tanked your testosterone in the first place.
Then, work to optimize your training, nutrition, get adequate sunlight, sex life, and lifestyle to optimize t-levels.
Art of Manliness: What are Normal Testosterone Levels
John Romaniello: How to Lose Stubborn Fat
Nate Green: Why I Hate Air Fresheners and Rubber Duckies
Jason Ferruggia: Natural Testosterone Boosters
“Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy MenFREE.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 June 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445839.
Hakkinen, K., et al. “Neuromuscular and Hormonal Adaptations in Athletes to Strength Training in Two Years.” Hakkinen, 1988, journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jappl.19184.108.40.2066.
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