Did you know your testosterone level can predict how fat you’ll be and how much muscle you’ll have?
Or that it predicts your chance of winning a race, soccer game, tennis match, or a combat sport?
It's true, and it works for both men and women alike.
Research has revealed the following about performance and your chance of being a “winner:”
Performance & Testosterone
• Power and force ability are significantly associated with free testosterone (T) levels before a strength trial. Performance appears to be enhanced by a greater increase in T.
• In professional male rugby players, those with higher free T during training workouts had a greater chance of winning weekend games. Lower pooled free T scores predicted a team’s chance of losing. This suggests that by monitoring T levels, coaches and athletes can assess a team’s state of readiness to perform midweek between games, and modify training accordingly to apply more training stress or promote recovery.
• In elite female netball players, pre-workout T correlated with self-selected training load in the bench press, and squat. Higher T in women athletes is related to greater motivation and readiness to perform.
• In professional male sprint triathletes, T and cortisol (a related stress hormone that is often measured as an antagonist of T) levels before a competition correlated with better performance.
Other studies into the effect of cortisol on performance indicate that at least in less experienced athletes, it is associated with feelings of tension, anxiety, and hostility, which compromises performance. Experienced elite athletes, however, are thought to have better coping skills, allowing them to experience less of an increase in cortisol that translates to a better outcome.
• Within a team of weight-trained athletes, those who were stronger and could squat 2 times body weight had a higher pre-workout T than those who were classified as “average” squatters and had a squat 1RM of less than 1.9 times body weight. Researchers think that stronger athletes have better regulation over hormone response to training and competition.
• A comparison of pre-workout T and cortisol in elite and non-elite female athletes showed a related trend: Elites had a greater increase in pre-workout T, which correlated with better competition performance and a higher work rate. Free T was consistently higher to the tune of 112 percent in elites than non-elites.
• On an interesting side note, T levels also indicate revenue for day traders in the stock market, and there's a relationship between T levels and wealth.
• T can predict longevity in men, and it's highly correlated with body composition: Higher T means you'll have less body fat and more muscle mass.
How can you get the testosterone benefit? Is it genetic, or can it be trained for? Or enhanced by nutrition and supplementation? Though much is unknown, here are a few methods for getting the T advantage.
#1: Train For Strength & Power To Condition the Body to Produce Testosterone
Athletes who are better trained, have more strength, power, and work capacity, tend to have higher baseline T in general. They also experience a greater increase in T before a competition. Scientists think that because these athletes have had the opportunity to lift heavy and perform a large volume of work, challenging fuel stores and the central nervous system, their hormonal systems have adapted to produce large increases in T in preparation for athletics.
It’s significant that the long-held belief that high volume, high-intensity lifting will produce an “anabolic” hormone response that builds muscle. Recent studies show that the T response to training isn't strictly "anabolic,” but that it interacts with both the neuromuscular and overall central nervous system to get you better results in workouts and competition.
Apply It: Train for strength. Use a periodized training program that includes heavy load training so that you build maximal strength (take a hint from the squat study that found that those who could lift 2 times body weight for a 1RM had higher T).
Program in cycles of higher volume training to promote muscle building and metabolic stress—research suggests that T plays a role in mobilizing fuel stores when work capacity is challenged with near-exhaustive training bouts.
#2: Be A Competitor
The link between T and sporting potential could be mediated by behavioral mechanisms that can be enhanced by competition. Though genetics likely play a role, exposure to competition may enhance motivation to win and the ability to produce T at critical moments to ensure victory.
For instance, Division 1 wrestlers who won their matches had higher pre-match T than the losers. Researchers think the greater elevation may have been conditioned through years of experience competing in repeated contests that occur over a short period of time, such as with a wrestling tournament. The T response to one match will likely affect the hormonal profile for a subsequent match, making the effects of winning or losing cumulative.
In addition, winners may have an aggressive demeanor and desire for social dominance during sporting competition. Whether this is a learned behavior, or the expression of dominance-related behaviors in sport help differentiate elite from non-elite athletes is unclear. Nonetheless, it’s likely that continued exposure to a competitive, aggressive environment will improve your ability to cope and perform at your best when you’ve got it all on the line.
Apply It: Compete. Whether you play a sport, train for aesthetics or strength, or are a retired athlete with memories of glory, find a way to challenge yourself publicly. Join a soccer or basketball league, run races or triathlons, or do a power lifting competition. At the least, set measurable training goals and get a training partner (or two) so that you can push each other in the gym.
#3: Use Nutrition & Recovery To Your Advantage
It appears that one of the worst things you can do if you want to improve your competitive T response is to do contradictory training modes such as aerobic exercise and strength training. For example, research has shown that when men do both a weight lifting and an aerobic workout in one session, they experience reduced T during the 48 hours following the workout. This indicates a delayed recovery that may be magnified by the conflicting stimulus of weight training and running or cycling.
The longer term effect of poor programming is more dramatic and can be seen with a 15-week study of elite wrestlers who did a combination of strength training, sprint workouts, and steady-state running. Strength and power initially increased, but then dropped by the end of the study. They also experienced a significant increase in cortisol that led to an unfavorable T to C ratio, which was 32 percent lower than at baseline.
The researchers think the poor T to C ratio limited the development of explosive strength due to any of the following effects:
- A catabolic state can lead to decreased force output because of loss of neural transmitters typically stimulated by testosterone.
- An interference in power development due to decreased neural activation of trained muscles caused by concurrent strength and aerobic training.
- Loss of contractile proteins for maximal power output.
Apply It: Don’t do contradictory training. Set a goal and train in a way that will help you reach that goal. For example, to gain strength in your legs so as to be able to jump higher on the basketball court, do strength training for the lower body that includes some explosive lifts. Don’t add jogging on top of that! Instead, if you need conditioning, do sprints in the gym.
Ensure recovery after training: In the dual training study mentioned above, although T was still low at the 24 and 48 hour markers, neuromuscular strength had recovered at 24 hours, indicating that as long as you train properly, resting 1 to 2 days between workouts is generally adequate. More intense workouts that cause greater muscle damage such as heavy eccentrics will require longer.
Support baseline T levels with nutrition and sleep. Men and women can equally benefit from basic “testosterone hygiene:”
- Ensure adequate vitamin D so that you have a blood level of 50 ng/ml. Vitamin D prevents aromatization in which T is turned into estrogen.
- Get enough sleep and minimize stress. Research show that people who sleep based on their natural chronotype (whether you are a “morning” or “evening” person) have higher resting T than those who have to go against their natural chronotype.
- Avoid sugar and manage your glycemic index because elevations in blood sugar lead to an acute drop in T.
- Get enough zinc and magnesium—low levels are associated with low baseline T. Research shows that raising levels of these minerals to optimal status leads to higher T and a better T response to exercise.