I believe I was recently mentioned quite politely on a podcast between two very famous people. I am flattered. However, I was mentioned because they believe I was mistaken in the ideology that resistance training does not significantly raise basal testosterone levels.
Here was the exact line presented:
“I have a friend who has a PhD in exercise science, and he was arguing in a polite way on the internet (you know how that goes) that it is not really possible to increase your baseline levels of anabolic hormones in the body like testosterone through acute exercise.”
Honestly, maybe this is my ego and this wasn’t me because I would absolutely would NEVER argue this position.
The acute hormonal response to exercise is not really debatable. What is debatable is the importance of this response to training adaptations. And I have talked about this before, somewhat exhaustively, in a deep dive post on Coach Robertson’s site.
If you want more information on this topic, please read the tomb, The Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy , by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, or his 2012 review paper, which can be found here. Both are phenomenal.
Or this amazing study out of Dr. Stu Phillip’s lab.
These gentlemen are not scientific historians; they are fucking beasts in the field, who live in the trenches and produce ungodly amounts of peer-reviewed literature.
There was also a very recently published study, which you can find here, that did find a significant impact of these acute elevations. Thus, this issue is far from put to bed.
Now, to get rid of any assumptions of what I said – below is my polite comment to Mike…
“I have heard multiple guests on your show highlight or hint that exercise raises basal testosterone levels. They tend to state this off the cuff as fact, and I think you are in a unique position to stop the propagation of this myth.
Exercise can likely only effect basal testosterone one way – down – through overtraining. But, I do think why a lot of practitioners state this elevation as fact is that anecdotally, they have seen positive changes in testosterone levels when sedentary subjects start exercising because they likely start so many other healthful habits at the same time. Losing fat mass and sleep likely being the largest drivers there.
Yet, if we propagate this myth that exercise raises testosterone chronically, I have found we tend to push men to the ideology that more training is better, and this, for the majority of our followerships, is playing with fire, especially if the fundamentals aren’t dialed in.
Thank you for the message you put out and how you do it!”
Thus, I will infer that they meant chronic changes to basal testosterone levels.
No need to get our panties in a bunch. It fueled the fire to write this piece. Thank you.
Now, let’s just see what the science says.
To preface this, I will say that I don’t really care about research in untrained individuals. This is not out of spite, it is just a question I don’t find very interesting. Sedentary behavior clusters with about every other negative habit that is anti-androgenic. So if you get somebody off the couch and exercising, what else have you changed in their life? Sleep? Nutrition? Stress Management? NEAT? Weight? Body Comp? Competitive Behaviors? Aggression? Too many variables. Good. Use them ALL. But, don’t assume causality with a subsequent rise in testosterone to starting a training program. You just poked that human’s entire life in an open system.
Also, don’t beat up on newbs. If you are still doing this, you are probably not reading this post.
On to trained subjects because this is where the danger in this myth really lies.
If I train more, will my testosterone go up?
This answer is pretty much a resounding NO. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. Sometimes you have to drive the system down to adapt.
Let’s roll study by study.
Busso T, Hakkinen K, Pakarinen A, Kauhanen H, Komi PV, Lacour JR. Hormonal adaptations and modelled responses in elite weightlifters during 6 weeks of training. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology. 1992;64(4):381-386.
6 elite lifters.
They upped the volume, and this happened over six weeks with a corresponding rise in LH. The authors theorize that this finding is either because of increased androgen usage or excretion.
This finding is not surprising, as if you raise training volume or intensity, we see that you usually get this response. Also, this is one of the reasons to deload your athletes before grabbing bloodwork.
More is not MORE, but it may still be MORE if used properly. Be surgical.
These subjects were also followed for one year of training, and no significant differences were seen in testosterone throughout that year.
Ahtiainen JP, Pakarinen A, Alen M, Kraemer WJ, Hakkinen K. Muscle hypertrophy, hormonal adaptations and strength development during strength training in strength-trained and untrained men. European journal of applied physiology. 2003;89(6):555-563.
21 weeks of strength training in 8 strength athletes with prior experience (whatever that means, of note – these guys were 17% body fat) and 8 physically active men who were 19.1% body fat. Hmmmmm…and yet in this “trained” population with no weight loss, in the 21 weeks, they found…
“There were no significant changes in testosterone, free testosterone or cortisol concentrations or the testosterone to cortisol ratio or the free testosterone to cortisol ratio during the 21-week strength training period in both groups.”
Jeffrey A. Potteiger LWJ, Jerome A. Cerny, and Valerie M. Potteiger. Effects of Altering Training Volume and Intensity on Body Mass, Performance, and Hormonal Concentrations in Weight-Event Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1995.
Four male and four female D1 weight event athletes.
For the super nerds out there, this is how the training variables were manipulated. Weeks 0-4, medium intensity/low volume; Weeks 4-8, low intensity/medium volume; Weeks 8-12, medium intensity /medium volume; Weeks 12-16, high intensity /low volume; Weeks 16-20, medium intensity /medium volume; Weeks 20-24, high intensity /low volume.
“When the performance related parameters were correlated with absolute hormonal concentrations and percentage change in the hormonal concentrations, no systematic relationship was observed.”
Hakkinen K, Pakarinen A, Alen M, Kauhanen H, Komi PV. Neuromuscular and hormonal adaptations in athletes to strength training in two years. Journal of applied physiology. 1988;65(6):2406-2412.
This is a Finnish study in 9 elite weightlifters followed for two years. This one is interesting. Very lean and highly trained individuals with an age of 22.3± 2.1 years. So jacked and young! Raw data was not published.
“Testosterone concentrations increased during the present two year follow-up; however, the values remained well within the normal range.”
Unfortunately, one thing these authors did not control for in their analysis was age.
And given what we know about the peak in testosterone from Kelsey et al 2014, this omission was likely unwise.
Yeah… probably want to account for that and publish your raw data, but that really wasn’t a thing back in the 1980s.
Now, I am going to have to reach a bit with study populations…
McCall GE, Byrnes WC, Fleck SJ, Dickinson A, Kraemer WJ. Acute and chronic hormonal responses to resistance training designed to promote muscle hypertrophy. Can J Appl Physiol. 1999;24(1):96-107.
Eleven college men with recreation training experience performed 12 weeks of resistance training, three times per week. Training was actually pretty legit at three sets of 10 on 8 exercises M,W, and F.
“The resting concentrations of testosterone and SHBG, GH, and IGF-1 were unchanged as a result of training.”
Now, you may be borderline depressed in reading this data, but let me end this with some bro-hope.
“Resistance training has been shown to up-regulate androgen receptor content following resistance exercise in humans.”
-Kraemer et al.
So we may not get a bump in chronic testosterone from our time in the gym, and the acute increase in testosterone may not be that important, but these questions are not resolved, and I look forward to diving deeper and researching this subject for the rest of my life.
Stay tuned. Also, deload and get some data on yourself because the only thing that really matters in all this is YOU.