By Steven Stiefel; Photography by Robert Reiff / Jason Breeze / Gregory James; Models: Brian Yersky & Nancy Tremblay
Testosterone is the quintessential male hormone for building muscle mass. Having normal levels of testosterone is also crucial for a myriad of other benefits, including well-being, enhanced energy, increased libido and, potentially, improved athletic performance. Every guy should be seeking to maximize his T levels, even if muscle building isn’t his primary goal. Guys should be especially focused on boosting testosterone if they’re trying to add muscle mass.
This is especially true as you age. “The older you are, the more likely you are to have lower testosterone levels. Natural levels begin to decline for most men in their late 20s to early 30s, and these drops become even more precipitous as you advance in age,” says Gary Kehoe, CEO of Dreamspan Product Innovation, and formulator for numerous pharmaceutical companies.
Of course, once you go well above the normal range — about 300–1000 ng/dl — then you run the risk of blowback. Above this point, excess testosterone can convert to estrogen, leading to conditions such as gynecomastia (male breast growth), baldness and growth of body hair. Extremely high levels of testosterone are uncommon in natural bodybuilders, but occur frequently in those who use performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids.
On the other hand, you may be able to enhance muscle building and other positive benefits of testosterone, even if you’re in the middle of the normal range, by boosting your endogenous levels. If your test levels aren’t already maxed out due to natural production or performance-enhancing aids, then you can increase your natural testosterone production by including the following exercise, nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle strategies into your daily life.
Boost Testosterone with Exercise
You probably aren’t surprised to hear that having more muscle mass helps keep testosterone levels high. However, it’s hard to untangle which is the cause and which is the effect because high T and increased muscle go hand in hand. “Training to build muscle mass elevates testosterone, and elevated testosterone helps build muscle mass,” Kehoe says. Just make sure you don’t get too much of a good thing. When you overdo it with weights, you go past the point where you’re elevating testosterone levels. Instead, you boost stressful cortisol levels, which can reduce your muscle mass and testosterone levels. To maximize testosterone levels, include the following exercise strategies.
1) Train smart with weights.
Weight training stimulates muscle growth by tearing down muscle tissue, requiring your body to repair it. Weight training also elevates testosterone levels in the period right after you leave the gym — you may even notice this, as many men experience increased energy and libido at this time of day. Research has demonstrated that compound (multijoint) moves using heavier weights for fewer reps boosts testosterone more than other weight-and-rep schemes, Kehoe says.
>> Take action: Keep your hardcore weight-training sessions to 4–5 per week, and try to finish your workouts in 60–75 minutes. Emphasize sets where you max out at 5–8 reps, and reduce your rest periods to about two minutes between sets to include more sets in a shorter time span.
2) Keep your cardio moderate.
You want to include cardio in your training regimen for heart health and to control bodyfat. But you don’t want to perform so much that you reverse muscle gains. You may have noticed that marathoners often have very little muscle mass up top. That’s because upper-body muscle is just extra baggage that works against distance running. Overtraining your cardio can also have a detrimental effect on your muscle mass and, potentially, your testosterone levels as well.
>> Take action: Perform moderately paced cardio such as an easy jog or fast-paced walk on a treadmill. Keep sessions to no longer than 30–45 minutes, and perform no more than about four a week, especially during phases when you’re trying to add muscle mass. Bodybuilders can perform more cardio during contest phases where they’re trying to shed more bodyfat ¾just be aware that T levels may be affected.
Boost Testosterone with Nutrition
Certain dietary adjustments help you naturally boost your testosterone levels, especially in concert with the other strategies included in this article. Some foods help boost testosterone while others may suppress it, so knowing the difference is key. Implement the following dietary strategies to make sure that your food choices are boosting your testosterone levels to maximize muscle gains.
3) Consume plenty of protein.
You already know that you need protein to build muscle mass, but you may not know that consuming protein also helps boost testosterone levels. “Supplemental forms of protein such as whey or egg hydrolysates are associated with higher levels of testosterone.” Kehoe adds that diets high in protein compared to carbs have a beneficial effect on the liver and kidneys, and overall levels of testosterone. In addition to consuming supplements, also emphasize whole-food forms of protein, including dairy, eggs and meat forms such as lean beef, poultry and pork.
>> Take action: Consume at least 1 gram of protein for each pound of your bodyweight every day, and strive to get in about 30% of your total calories from protein each day. This means that a bodybuilder who consumes 4,000 calories a day should consume up to 400 grams of protein (1,200 calories) per day, well above 1 gram per pound, and more than 2 per pound for bodybuilders under 200 pounds.
4) Consume cruciferous vegetables.
You already know that vegetables are crucial for optimal health and muscle growth, but you may not know that certain vegetables may also help boost testosterone levels. “Research has shown that consuming a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, collards, watercress, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens and bok choy may help boost testosterone levels.” Kehoe says that this is due to the phytonutrients they contain, including indoles, which help suppress estrogen.
>> Take action: Emphasize these foods in your nutrition program, striving to get at least one serving a day of cruciferous vegetables. A mix is always better than relying on one and excluding all the others, but choose those that you like best, as you’ll be more likely to consume them regularly.
5) Eat plenty of fats.
Fats such as omega-3s are important for a well-rounded healthy diet, but saturated fats, which are considered “unhealthy” by some, still have advantages, especially for bodybuilders seeking to increase testosterone levels and muscle mass. “These [saturated] fats provide the raw materials your body needs to produce hormones such as testosterone,” Kehoe says.
>> Take action: Consume 10% of your daily calories in the form of saturated fats. A bodybuilder who consumes 4,000 calories a day can consume 400 calories from saturated fats or about 45 grams per day. In addition, target 10% of your daily calories from unsaturated fat sources such as oils (olive and canola) and fatty fish (salmon) for 400 calories or 45 grams of unsaturated fats. In total, dietary fat should constitute 20% of your total caloric intake, or 800 calories (90 grams of fat).
6) Avoid alcohol.
While it’s true that small amounts of alcohol (1–2 drinks per day) may improve heart health, large amounts of alcohol consumed in binges or regularly may suppress testosterone levels. This is because too much alcohol can promote inflammation and testosterone degradation. “During the time when elevated levels of alcohol are present in the blood, production of testosterone may be impaired,” Kehoe says.
>> Take action: Keep alcohol consumption to no more than 1–2 drinks per day, enough for the health benefits without the disadvantage of severely impacting T levels.
Boost Testosterone with Supplements
Many companies have put out products that boost testosterone levels. These products often contain multiple ingredients — some literally contain more than a dozen different individual supplements that help boost testosterone through different mechanisms. Here are four of the most potent for you to seek out as stand-alones or to look for in your multiple-ingredient testosterone product.
7) Choose a testosterone product that includes cordyceps.
Cordyceps is a fungus that grows on caterpillars. Not the tastiest sounding delicacy to partake of, but this supplement, found in many testosterone boosters, not only increases testosterone levels, but also enhances energy. “Cordyceps boosts blood flow, lowers your heart rate and improves oxygen uptake,” Kehoe says. “Another benefit of cordyceps is that it attaches to the same receptor sites as caffeine.” Taking cordyceps may lead to less dependence on caffeine for energy.
>> Take action: You have two options: 1) getting in 3–9 grams of the mushrooms themselves, or 2) Take a product with 300–450 milligrams of cordyceps in its standardized extract form.
8) Try tribulus terrestris.
This is another well-studied testosterone booster that you can find as a stand-alone or in many multiple-ingredient T boosters. Supplemental tribulus terrestris comes from an herb that grows in North America and Asia, and it’s been used as a libido booster for centuries. “Tribulus terrestris stimulates your pituitary gland, releasing more luteinizing hormone, which stimulates testosterone production,” Kehoe says. The active ingredient is protodioscin, a saponin.
>> Take action: To maximize testosterone results look for products that deliver 500–2000 milligrams of furostanolic saponins per day. Whether you’re buying a stand-alone or multi-ingredient product, look for those that contain 80% total saponins and 40% protodioscin. For best results, take 2–3 doses per day, including one an hour before workouts. Take a break from all saponin products, cycling on for eight weeks, and then off for 2–4 weeks.
9) Look for Fenugreek.
Another great testosterone-boosting supplement is fenugreek, an herb from Southern Europe and Western Asia. As with the others on this list, it boosts libido and raises testosterone levels. Another advantage is that fenugreek also increases insulin release, which can help increase muscle mass after weight training. “Your body sends fenugreek through your liver so that it can balance and regulate it,” Kehoe says. This is different from many pharmaceutical forms of testosterone, which are absorbed into the body.
>> Take action: Look for products that contain 500–600 milligrams of fenugreek extract and follow label information.
10) Go with ginseng.
Ginseng is a root that’s frequently consumed in Asian foods and beverages, but it’s also a powerful nutrient that drives many healthful physiological functions. Included in the list is an increase in libido and testosterone. Ginseng directly stimulates the central nervous system and gonadal tissues, and can help facilitate erections in males. Ginseng also contains ginsenosides that increase the conversion of arginine to nitric oxide, which helps build muscle mass.
>> Take action: Look for products that provide 40–50 milligrams of ginseng extract, and take two doses per day.
Lifestyle Strategies for Increased Testosterone
One of the least understood elements of bodybuilding is the importance of your lifestyle and its impact upon the recovery and growth processes. If you bombard your body with weights every day, you’ll end up overtrained. And, if you ignore the importance of rest and recovery on the growth process, you’ll have a similar result even if your gym time isn’t excessive. Implement the following lifestyle strategies to help keep your testosterone levels high.
11) Get plenty of sleep.
Sleep not only promotes recovery from training, but it helps keep critical muscle-building hormones such as growth hormones and testosterone high. When you’re well rested, you not only have more energy, but you have higher hormone levels for better muscle-building results.
>> Take action: Get at least 7–8 hours of sleep per night, striving for the high end on days when you train harder such as when doing legs or back.
12) Schedule days off from the gym.
You’ve probably already figured out from the previous tips that you need to take a break from the gym to maximize your testosterone levels. If you’re weight training 4-5 days a week, then you aren’t lifting on the others. This scheme of work and recovery is key to maximizing testosterone.
>> Take action: Frequently, on non-workout days it’s a good idea to give your body a full day of recovery with no weights, cardio or any other stressful forms of activity. Plan at least one of these every week, Kehoe suggests. You can throw in other recovery strategies such as massage or acupuncture on rest days, which may further help boost testosterone levels by encouraging more efficient recovery.
13) Have sex regularly.
This is another chicken-and-egg scenario. “When you have sex more often, you help keep testosterone levels high,” Kehoe says. “When you have higher testosterone levels, you tend to have 3/4 or at least want — sex more often.” So, it turns out that old wives’ tale of avoiding sex before athletic performance isn’t necessarily a good idea.
>> Take action: With a partner or alone, frequent ejaculation boosts testosterone levels, which in turn works your endocrine system, helping to keep it primed. We’ll leave it up to you to determine how much action you can take.