Testosterone is a hormone produced mainly by the testes and adrenal glands. It plays an important role in many physiological processes such as growth, development, bone strength, immune system function, sexual drive and memory.
The main purpose of testosterone production is to produce male characteristics such as height and body hair (androgenic effect). Testosterone also helps maintain normal reproductive functions during puberty. However, too much or too little testosterone can have negative effects on health.
In general, men tend to have higher testosterone levels than women. There are several reasons for this:
Men generally live longer and experience greater physical activity. They also engage in more risky activities such as smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs. These factors all contribute to a higher testosterone level in men compared with women.
Women typically have lower testosterone levels due to their smaller bodies and menstrual cycles during which they may not ovulate or menstruate regularly. Menstruation itself also contributes to a lower testosterone level in women.
When it comes to training, there is some evidence that suggests that high levels of testosterone may actually improve athletic performance. For example, studies show that elite athletes have higher levels of testosterone than non-athletes. High levels of testosterone may also enhance recovery from exercise and increase endurance capacity. However, excessive amounts of testosterone can cause side effects such as increased risk for cancer and heart disease.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how testosterone affects training:
Testosterone and Strength Training
In males, testosterone affects skeletal muscle mass by increasing protein synthesis and influencing the male skeletal system to retain more nitrogen. When men lift weights, their testosterone levels increase as the body tries to build muscle mass. In other words, strength training and testosterone work hand-in-hand to build muscle mass.
High-intensity resistance training causes a rapid increase in testosterone levels. Some studies have revealed that an acute increase in testosterone can occur after just one set of high-intensity strength training. For this reason, it is recommended that strength training should be very demanding to maximize testosterone release.
Research shows that performing multiple sets of an exercise at a moderate intensity does not cause a large increase in testosterone. In fact, weight training programs that use heavy weights and low repetitions (1-5 reps) cause greater increases in testosterone compared to programs that use lighter weights and high repetitions.
Higher testosterone levels have also been linked to greater gains in muscle mass and strength during resistance training.
Testosterone and Muscle Mass
Research has found a strong correlation between testosterone levels and lean body mass (muscle, bone, organ and everything else).
High levels of testosterone allow you to build more muscle and lose more fat. There is a catch, however: You also need to engage in strength training for your body to build muscle. If you don’t lift weights, having higher levels of testosterone won’t help you.
A Closer Look at Muscle Growth
Testosterone does not “turn into” muscle. Instead, it allows your muscles to grow if you work them properly (strength training).
Some studies have shown that strength training can increase testosterone levels by around 25 percent in both men and women. Others have shown increases of up to 150 percent. This increase may remain for a short period of time before dropping back to normal, or it may remain elevated for a longer period (the duration seems to vary from person to person).
Strength training increases testosterone in two different ways. First, it causes the testicles to produce more testosterone (as we just discussed). Second, it helps the body to increase the amount of testosterone-producing enzymes in muscles. This allows your body to produce more testosterone naturally, even while not lifting weights.
Over time, your body becomes more efficient at producing testosterone and eventually its production levels off at a certain point. At this point, your body can only produce as much testosterone as it has the enzymes to produce, and any additional strength training will not increase the amount of testosterone your body produces.
So, when is testosterone most likely to increase?
In general, testosterone levels are highest when you start working out, and after a few weeks of training, it starts to decrease. It may take up to two months for your body to reach its maximum testosterone production levels.
This is one of the reasons why people who are new to weight training build strength and muscle mass faster than those who have been lifting for a long time. Your body produces more testosterone when it senses the need to build something. This means that your body is not producing as much testosterone when it isn’t needed, and that the amount of testosterone being produced is greater when you first start working out compared to when you’ve been lifting for years.
In addition to exercise, studies have also shown that testosterone levels increase when you are faced with a competitive situation (such as an athletic competition) or any situation where you feel a great need to prove yourself. The “fight or flight” response involves the release of hormones into the blood stream, and one of these hormones, called cortisol, actually prevents the production of testosterone. So if you feel stressed or anxious about something, your body may prevent you from building muscle mass at that time.
Sources & references used in this article:
Strength training for women: Debunking myths that block opportunity by WP Ebben, RL Jensen – The Physician and sportsmedicine, 1998 – Taylor & Francis
Strength training for female athletes by JB Holloway, TR Baechle – Sports Medicine, 1990 – Springer
Testosterone, cortisol, and creatine kinase levels in male distance runners during reduced training by JA Houmard, DL Costill, JB Mitchell… – … journal of sports …, 1990 – thieme-connect.com
Testosterone levels in healthy men and the relation to behavioural and physical characteristics: facts and constructs by M Zitzmann, E Nieschlag – European Journal of Endocrinology, 2001 – Citeseer