Strength training does more than just create muscle damage – it also stimulates the release of a variety of hormones that have a big impact on the rate of recovery and muscle growth. And according to modern bodybuilder wisdom, designing your program in a way that maximizes anabolic hormone production will help you get bigger, stronger and leaner in less time.
In fact, hormone management has become a vital part of muscle building and there are a ton of guys who spend all their time on finding ways to boost their T levels instead of focusing on let’s say, lifting heavy stuff more often. Online bodybuilding gurus constantly advocate specific methods for structuring your training to get the most out of your hormonal environment and diet programs seem to emphasize the influence of certain foods and meal timing on hormone activity more than ever.
But does obsessing about your hormones really lead to substantially better gains?
In our search for solid proof, we consulted science and found that the data from most studies actually raises more doubts than it provides evidence in support of this hype. Truth be told, the only thing that has been repeatedly shown to build muscle size and strength is muscle overload, while everything else seems to be – more or less – based on speculations and partial evidence. Which leads us to the following question: do anabolic hormones derived from exercise affect muscle building in a significant way, or have we all been buying into myths?
Knowing the answer to this question can help you get rid of ineffective practices that only waste your time and energy and inspire you to focus more on what’s really crucial for achieving your physique goals, so read on!
Here’s how it works. Hormones are the chemical messengers that make up our body’s communication system, where every different hormone represents a specific “message” or instruction that needs to travel throughout the body to reach its destination and influence the function of an organ. By enabling communication between distant parts of the body, they coordinate complex and vital bodily processes like growth, metabolism, fertility, immune responses and even behavior.
In response to a signal from the brain, hormones are secreted directly into the blood by the glands in the endocrine system that are responsible for producing and storing them. Once they’ve entered the bloodstream, hormones travel throughout the body looking for specific receptors to which they can bind. In other words, although all cells are exposed to hormones, not all of them react – only the “target” cells, which have receptors (you can think of them as antennas) for that hormone will respond to its signal.
The hormone then binds to its receptor and creates an adequate biological response within the cell, and effectively the body as a whole. So you can think of hormones as managers who are telling an employee what to do.
Hormonal Changes During Exercise
Right after you begin your first set, a complex variety of hormones get to work to create an adequate response to the physical activity and coordinate the repair process across multiple tissues. We’ll skip the effects of epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin, aldosterone and cortisol, all of which have important roles in guiding bodily changes during exercise, so that we can focus on the holy grails of muscle building: testosterone and growth hormone.
Growth hormone is a chain-structured group of 191 amino acids, released by the pituitary gland, which basically have the task to stimulate the growth of all tissues of the body. More specifically, growth hormone increases protein synthesis and cell transport, regulate metabolism, and remodel bone and collagen tissues. The production of growth hormone increases during exercise, where it plays a quintessential role in repairing muscle tissue and producing hypertrophy and strength gains.
In addition, during heavy strength and weight training, the adrenal glands release testosterone. The job of testosterone is to promote protein synthesis and support production of new red blood cells, which increase the body’s ability to utilize oxygen more effectively, which then leads to more efficient usage of glucose. Besides that, testosterone is one of the main hormonal communicators of the muscle tissue repair process. In other words, the elevated testosterone levels help you perform better during strenuous exercise, and thus cause bigger gains, which is why athletes love it so much.
An influential 21-week study by Ahtiainen J.P. et al. showed a correlation between T levels and the changes in isometric strength and muscle size, which means that both serum basal testosterone concentrations and training-induced acute testosterone responses are strongly associated with muscle and strength gains.
Exercise-Derived Testosterone and Muscle Growth
Furthermore, different types of training have specific effects on hormonal changes and studies have shown that some exercises cause the body to release more testosterone than others. Of course, we’re talking about heavy compound exercises, which have been found to elicit a higher testosterone release. Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the acute bumps in T that lead to more muscle growth – could it be some other factor?
One big study by West et al. provides an answer to this question. The researchers wanted to know if the increased testosterone production derived from leg exercises would cause an increase in muscle gains, so they made 12 healthy young men train their biceps for 15 weeks on separate days and under different hormonal conditions. To stimulate low testosterone conditions, the subjects performed only arm curls.
To achieve high testosterone conditions, they performed arm curls followed immediately by a high volume of leg exercises (5×10 of leg presses and 3×12 of leg extension/leg curl supersets). But the most interesting part of the study was that each subject also served as his own control by exercising one arm under high testosterone conditions (arm curls followed by leg exercises) and the other arm on a different day under low testosterone conditions (only arm curls). Their line of reasoning was that if exercise-induced increases in testosterone production really leads to bigger muscle gains, there should be a discrepancy in the muscle size gained in each arm in favor of the arm that was trained under high testosterone conditions.
However, the results showed that although strength and muscle size increased in both arms, the increase wasn’t bigger in the arm that was trained under high testosterone conditions.
But another study, conducted by Ronnestad, B.R. et al., had the opposite outcome. In this study, the subjects performed the high-volume leg exercises first, and the arm exercises second, and the result was a greater hypertrophy response in the biceps!
Could the order of the exercises be the key part of promoting bigger lean gains with the help of exercise-derived testosterone? We can’t say for sure. You’ve probably realized so far that science is complicated and messy and can rarely provide straight-forward answers and solutions, so let’s avoid getting our hopes too high.
That’s what Phillips et al. thought when they decided to investigate a bit deeper into the same data collected by Ronnestad and found that there were no significant changes in arm size. But to make matters even more bizzare, West et al. then looked at Phillip’s data from another perspective and claimed that the increases in lean body mass originally reported by Ronnestad were real but weren’t actually caused by testosterone levels but were directly associated with changes in cortisol, the much-hated stress hormone.
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN?
To summarize scientific efforts in this field, it’s true that heavy compound movements like squats, leg presses and deadlifts cause greater release of anabolic hormones including testosterone than isolation exercises, but it’s highly unlikely that these acute and transient increases in T levels lead to greater lean mass gains.
In fact, there is no sound scientific proof of such a relation and its popularity seems to stem only from anecdotal evidence and the willingness of people to worship any method that’s been claimed to accelerate muscle building. On the other hand, compound exercises increase muscle size and strength due to local hormonal factors released at the site of most tension that have little to do with overall levels of T.
Therefore, we’re sorry to inform you that designing your program in a way that optimizes acute hormone release is pretty much a waste of your precious time. But you shouldn’t worry about that, because there is this one sure-fire thing that you can do to promote massive muscle gains: increase local muscle overload. If you want real results, you need to quit complicating things that are really simple by nature and return to the basics of muscle growth.
HERE’S WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD
Bodybuilding fads come and go, but what remains fixed is the ability of muscle overload to cause lean mass gains. That being said, muscle overload can be increased in three main ways: adding weight, adding volume and improving density.
By increasing the weight you work with, you can increase the intensity of the exercise and provide more overload to your muscles. More overload causes more muscle damage, which in turn means more growth, given that your diet meets the nutritional demands of your training.
Weight, however, is only one dimension of your training volume, i.e. the work you’re doing defined as weight x sets x reps. Besides simply adding more weight, another way to increase volume is by adding a few extra sets with your current weight or increasing the number of reps for your standard number sets. Again, the bigger amount of work you’re muscles are forced to do, the greater the hypertrophy.
Finally, density represents volume over time, meaning that if it now takes you 15 minutes to do 4 sets of 10 reps with 250 pounds, but you can pull of the same volume in 10 minutes after two weeks of training, your density has improved and you’ll be able to reap more gains from the same workout.
In the end, muscle overload is all that matters in terms of increasing strength and muscle size, and there is literally endless evidence for that. So if you want to start making huge gains, it’s time to let go of the hormone experiments and get right back to the basics.
Focus on gradually increasing muscle overload in each successive workout and you’ll get the results you dream of. Focus on maximizing hormonal production and you’ll be stuck with average-looking muscles, reading articles on improving T levels forever. Good luck and stay tight!