Natural ways to increase testosterone levels -- because supplementation carries serious risks
A 29% increased risk of dying from T supplementation
While numbers can be deceiving – what does 29% increased risk mean exactly? – there is good reason to consider why tinkering with one's endocrine system might be a bad idea. Estrogen treatment for women was once widespread, but the increased risks to their health later became evident and its prescription is now much more rare.
Exercise and diet can increase natural testosterone -- without use of steroids, HGH or testosterone patches
The time for testosterone has arrived. More to the point, men are starting to see testosterone as their fountain of youth, the hormone that can increase muscle size, reduce body fat, increase bone density, promote libido – and bring all the psychological benefits that accompany these things.
In fact, declining testosterone levels are associated with a diminution of these functions. And that decline begins in some individuals as early as age 40. Are lower testoeterone levels inevitable? Not nearly to the degree that we think.
Of course, the fact that testosterone boosting medications (including HGH or human growth hormones) are now available – for example, AbbVie Pharmaceutical's "IsItLowT-dot-dom" marketing push, Abbott Pharmaceutical's http://www.androgel.com/, and several other companies that have entered the market (http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/03/13/will-testosterone-fuel-biotechs-next-great-race.aspx) – suggests that this fountain of youth is a prescription away, as if it were a matter of popping a pill (or wearing a testosterone patch, or applying testosterone vehicle to the underarms) and getting as immediate a benefit as, uh, one might get from a dose of Viagra or Cialis.
But a study of 8,709 men treated by the U.S. Veterans Affairs health system raises a serious warning flag. The study discovered that testosterone therapy can "increase the odds of having a heart attack, stroke or dying by 29 percent," reports Bloomberg News. As it is has happened so often in the past, meddling with nature results in unintended and adverse consequences. Just ask women about estrogen therapy.
Note that most of studies showing effectiveness of the testosterone patch are on middle-aged and elderly men who have notable loss in muscle mass and bone strength. The testosterone patch or gel indeed reverses decline in those areas, in addition to reducing abdominal fat. All well and good, but scientists are still studying the effect testosterone supplementation may have on prostate health, and early indicators are cautionary.
The Harvard Health Newsletter reported in May 2010 that a team of researchers looked at an aggregation of 31 studies conducted on the use of growth hormones as an anti-aging tactic. On average, treated individuals increased lean body mass (muscle) by 4.6 pounds and lost about the same amount of body fat. Those are healthy outcomes, as well as what most men want to see happen from an appearance standpoint.
But from a health standpoint, there was no benefit to use of human growth hormones. Study subjects experienced no drop in LDL (the bad cholesterol), no increase in HDL (good cholesterol), or changes in triglycerides, aerobic capacity, bone density or blood sugar and insulin levels. Just as important, there was "a high rate of side effects, including fluid retention, joint pain, breast enlargement and carpal tunnel syndrome. The studies were too short to detect any change in the risk of cancer, but other research suggests an increased risk of cancer in general and prostate cancer in particular."
Further, the best-seller "The End of Illness" by David Angus (Free Press, 2012) reports on a 2011 study of Ecuadorians with a rare genetic mutation that prevents them from responding to human growth hormone. They also almost never get diabetes or cancer. This correlates animal studies on species that live longer when they grow slowly. Says Angus: "So, men who enjoy unnaturally larger muscles in their golden years due to growth hormone injections are accepting a much larger risk for cancer, diabetes, and probably other serious conditions."
For anyone younger than, say, 55 years old, does it make sense to risk-averse health effects with artificial testosterone increases?
Thankfully, if you wish to address declining testosterone levels, there are more natural ways available, and they don’t cost much in time or dollars. Better yet, those ways are associated with better health overall.
Testosterone levels in men (and women too, but I’m going with the assumption that the reader of this article is a man) can be raised with specific exercises and foods. Various studies cited at the close of this article back up these assertions with science.
Exercise: It’s about mass and intensity
Lou Schuler’s book, “The Testosterone Advantage Plan” (Simon and Schuster, 2003), makes a strong case for strength training over cardiovascular endurance training, such as marathon running, if a guy wants to promote healthy levels of testosterone. Aside from the obvious physical differences between bodybuilders and Olympic marathoners, individuals in these sports have different health and hormonal profiles. Short story: the weight lifters have higher levels of testosterone, and largely enjoy the benefits that come from it.
As a strength trainer and veteran triathlete, I think it’s not necessary to choose one over the other. I may not be a world class triathlete – carrying around muscle weight in fact slows me down ¬– but my bones and muscles can withstand a lot more of life because I’m also strong (and at the age of 50, thus far have no knee problems despite all that running). I really don’t care all that much about my race times; just the fact that I train appropriately for races and get through them with relative vigor is good enough for me. My philosophy is that health is the goal, not some numbers on a clock.
Research on exercise and testosterone indicates that it’s more than going through the motions of weightlifting. What seems to optimally affect testosterone levels is to use the greatest volume of existing muscles to your maximum level of intensity within each exercise. That means using multiple muscle groups within each exercise to the point where your muscles fail – i.e., you cannot complete another repetition with acceptable form.
In a formula: Muscle mass x exercise intensity = maximum testosterone increase
This is about total muscle mass being involved. Since leg and back muscles are the largest muscles, that then suggests (actually, it’s proven; follow the links below) that exercising these areas will increase testosterone levels. Better, engage the core muscles and even the upper body along with the legs and back within a single exercise and your bloodstream with just be coursing with testosterone immediately following each set (yes, the increase is that immediate).
Here are a couple of key indicators of intense exercise: Did you experience absolute failure on your last rep (i.e., you could not lift the weights with proper form one more time), and are you panting for air? Because the mass of muscles being worked need oxygen, you need to breathe heavily in the moment.
Note that even simple cardiovascular exercise still has some beneficial effects on testosterone levels, and that can benefit brain function as well. A study conducted at Rockefeller University in New York and Tsukuba University in Japan found that male rats in a treadmill workout (kinda cute to think about, no?) experienced increases in testosterone that increased the number of brain cells.
Following are four example exercises. Note that anyone engaging in exercise for the first time should first consult a doctor, and would additionally benefit from working with a personal trainer so as to achieve good form. A trainer or training buddy would provide an additional safety factor, spotting you as you drive toward maximum intensity.
Free weight squats and lunges. Dipping low then pressing up with the legs while carrying a load of weight engages several major leg muscles but also those in the torso. For proper form, see the YouTube link for “Proper Squat Form.”
Note that squat can cause significant injury to the back if performed incorrectly. For the beginner, try squatting with just your body weight, or a barbell with no weights to start. Work up your strength and confidence before attempting very heavy weights.
Cable or elastic band squat-presses.
A variation on the squat is to grasp cables or elastic bands in your hands which you press upward at the top (standing segment) of the squat. This engages the shoulder muscles along with those in the legs and core. Choose a level of resistance that has you fatiguing to failure after ten repetitions.
Row-flyes from a staggered standing position.
Stand with the legs staggered, i.e., one foot about 2-3 feet behind the other, toes on both feet pointed forward, with torso pitched forward (forming a straight line from your back ankle through your hips and to the shoulders). Hold dumbbells at your side, then raise the dumbbells to shoulder level. Pause the weights at the top, then slowly drop them down. To add a lot more to the exercise, hinge both legs down as you lower the weights, then hinge back up as your arms and shoulders raise the dumbbells. Repeat to failure.
Sprinting runs or high-resistance bike spins.
Yes, what we consider “cardio” work can increase testosterone also. These are the high-output sets, when you run or bike at maximum speed, better yet heading uphill or against a high-resistance setting on a trainer bike. Experienced runners and bikers call this interval training; indoor ride (“spin”) classes generally employ this drill. Go hard for ten, 15 or 20 seconds, at 100% effort, then slow to a moderate pace before you pick up that sprinting level of output again. Repeat the cycle between four and ten times.
A note on achieving “failure:” As mentioned, this is the state where you cannot lift another rep. If you are at rep 7 or 8 and aren’t near that, slow your pace dramatically to a ten second lift and ten second drop. This is also a sign you should increase the weight level on the next set.
An added benefit of high intensity training is that it can be accomplished in less time than other types of workouts. In fact, you advised to limit rest in between sets, perhaps packing your high intensity workout into as little as 30 or 45 minutes. For more on this, see the Hub page by this writer titled “Increase exercise intensity: add muscle, reduce body fat and improve overall health with no pills and no steroids.”
For ten additional exercises designed specifically for testosterone-building intensity, see Hub article, "Super-slow, high-intensity exercises to build strength, increase muscle size and raise testosterone levels" by this writer.
Nutrition – your testosterone is affected by what you eat
This might sound familiar. Eating a balanced diet of quality proteins, whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables enables good health in general. But some specific parts of this optimal diet also contribute to muscle growth. Here’s the skinny:
Go for zinc: Zinc is the mineral that aids in the natural production of testosterone. Foods that contain a lot it: oysters, red meat (beef, pork, lamb), chicken, turkey and other fowl (wild game is particularly good, but unless you live on a ranch in Wyoming that might be hard to finesse on a regular basis). Also, beans and dairy products contain zinc
Onions and garlic contain Allicin, which also contributes to increased testosterone. It is generally believed that Allicin does not convert well in supplements, another case where the real food is a better idea.
Hale to cruciferous vegetables. Here’s the kicker: Cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, bok choi, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, radishes, kohlrabi and rutabagas), long heralded for anti-cancer and other healthful properties, are testosterone boosters as well. The link on “Zinc-testosterone foods” below lists generic and commercially prepared foods in their relative levels of zinc content. Cabbage nets in with roughly six times the zinc content per calories consumed compared to a shank of beef.
You read that right. Real men eat cole slaw.
So smart and specific exercises and healthy foods prove again to be the best path to fitness – even, that elusive fountain of youth mankind has long searched for.
Bottom line: Go heavy at the gym, then go home and eat some cabbage.
Endnote: A few people have contacted me about the absolute and immediate benefits of pharmaceutical testosterone supplementation, how exercise and diet cannot possibly mimic the degree of results that come with hormone replacement therapy. I respond that of course it is not the same thing. Some people worry about pharmaceutical interventions and unintended adverse consequences (myself included). Other people do not. It all depends on the individual.
Russ Klettke is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information on Russ Klettke, see www.RussKlettke.com, or on Twitter @RussKlettke.
Read more on healthy eating for men
Other exercise hubs by this writer
- Super-slow, high-intensity exercises to build strength, increase muscle size and raise testosterone
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