One in three men over 45 suffer from low testosterone (Mulligan et al., 2006). That was the finding of a study involving over two thousand men published in The International Journal of Clinical Practice. The most common symptoms are lack of energy, loss of motivation and reduced libido (fig. 1). But before scouring the internet for novelty testosterone supplements, some lifestyle adjustments could be all that’s needed to rejuvenate your youthful virility.
Train the right way and you can reverse the age-related decline in testosterone. A Japanese study found that men in their sixties were able to restore their anabolic hormones. Testosterone increased by 30% after the three-month training intervention.
This is achievable through:
- Increasing training density
- Selecting the optimal exercises and tools
Part 1: Training density
To increase testosterone, you need to improve your work capacity. You must become more efficient at lifting the same (or even more) weight but with less rest. You need to achieve a volume threshold before testosterone levels can rise. Training density refers to the total amount of reps and sets completed within a set time.
Total work = weight x distance moved per repetition x number of repetitions
The Journal of Applied Physiology published a Finnish study on different training protocols. The Nordic researchers compared the testosterone response to intensity versus volume. Ten elite strength athletes squatted their 1-rep-maximum for 20 sets. The athletes were then invited back to the gym a week later for a second session to complete the study. This time, they lifted their 10-rep-max for 10 sets.
Session two used 30% less weight on the bar. Despite this, the athletes lifted 3.5 times more total weight throughout the session. And in half the time too (27 vs 57-minutes total rest). The max-weight protocol didn’t influence testosterone levels. Yet high-rep training produced a dramatic 24% increase in testosterone.
US soldiers participated in a study published in The Journal of Applied Physiology. Researchers examined the testosterone response to different rest periods. Regardless of the number of reps, one-minute rest produced a far greater anabolic response than three-minutes. Rest periods are inversely proportionate to reps. The heavier you lift (lower reps) the longer you’ll need to recover before attempting the next set. Personal trainers should manage the time in your session. If they need to give you any coaching pointers on your technique (or tell you about their weekend), they should be succinct. Deliver the message in under 60-seconds.
Predictably, six sets of squats produced superior results over a solitary set. That was the finding of a study in The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology. Testosterone levels rose by up to 23% in the aftermath of a single training session. Again, this study used the 10-rep protocol to produce superior results. The outcome was even more impressive considering the modest volume involved. The sample workout at the end of this article has 24 sets divided over six compound exercises (table 1).
Training for testosterone part 2: Exercise selection
Prioritise lower-body training
The internet seems to agree that compound, multi-joint exercises are the way forward. But it’s not that simple. There is a hierarchy in the level of testosterone response from different exercises. This is due to muscle mass used, level of stability and demands on the nervous system. The Journal of Applied Physiology compared the anabolic response between two compound exercises. Twelve men performed five sets of 10-reps for the bench press and jump squat. Lower-body training produced a twofold increase in testosterone compared to the upper-body exercise.
The US military recruited college athletes as part of a research project. They compared the testosterone response of compound two-leg versus single-leg exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research published the results. Split squats had a 42% lower workload. Yet placed more stabilisation demands on the neuromuscular system. In turn, this required a comparable level of muscle activation to the squat. The outcome was that split squats produced equal testosterone. Single-leg training also has the bonus of greater relevance to sport performance.
Remember, increasing workload is key. Total work = weight x distance moved per repetition x number of repetitions. Increase the weight part of this equation through using barbells. The Journal of Sport Science published a Norwegian study. The Scandinavians compared the max weight lifted using a barbell versus dumbbells. The researchers found that the men could lift 17% more when training with a barbell. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research compared barbell versus smith machine squats. Lending further support of preferential programming, barbell squats involved 43% more muscle activity.
Don’t overdo the cardio
Studies on the effect of endurance training on testosterone have produced conflicting results. There appears to be a cardio sweet spot. Running at a moderate intensity for 45-minutes increases testosterone in athletes. As reported in The International Journal of Sports Medicine. Yet, cumulative distances over 50km per week are detrimental to your testosterone levels.
Resistance training should focus on a variety of multi-joint exercises. Prioritise leg training using barbells as the primary training tool. Increase training density through short rest periods and high reps. Time one-minute rest periods using a smartphone.
Table 1: Example session plan
|Exercise||Reps||% 1RM||Sets||Tempo||Rest (seconds)|
|A1. Deadlift||10 – 12||70 – 75||4||Controlled||60|
|A2. Back squat||10 – 12||70 – 75||4||Controlled||60|
|B1. Hip thrust||10 – 12||70 – 75||4||Controlled||60|
|B2. Barbell walking lunge||10 – 12||70 – 75||4||Controlled||60|
|C1. Good morning||10 – 12||70 – 75||4||Controlled||60|
|C2. Weighted chin-up||10 – 12||70 – 75||4||Controlled||60|
I spent two years studying the effects of training and nutrition on testosterone as part of my Masters in Sport and Exercise Nutrition. My research took place between the Saracens’ performance laboratory, Allianz Park and Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.
Hakkinen, K. and Pakarinen, A., 1993. Acute hormonal responses to two different fatiguing heavy-resistance protocols in male athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 74(2), pp.882-887.
Jones, M.T., Ambegaonkar, J.P., Nindl, B.C., Smith, J.A. and Headley, S.A., 2012. Effects of unilateral and bilateral lower-body heavy resistance exercise on muscle activity and testosterone responses. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(4), pp.1094-1100.
Kelleher, S., Conway, A.J. and Handelsman, D.J., 2004. Blood testosterone threshold for androgen deficiency symptoms. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 89(8), pp.3813-3817.
Kraemer, W.J., Marchitelli, L., Gordon, S.E., Harman, E., Dziados, J.E., Mello, R., Frykman, P., McCurry, D. and Fleck, S.J., 1990. Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise protocols. Journal of Applied Physiology, 69(4), pp.1442-1450.
Migiano, M.J., Vingren, J.L., Volek, J.S., Maresh, C.M., Fragala, M.S., Ho, J.Y., Thomas, G.A., Hatfield, D.L., Häkkinen, K., Ahtiainen, J. and Earp, J.E., 2010. Endocrine response patterns to acute unilateral and bilateral resistance exercise in men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(1), pp.128-134.
Mulligan, T., Frick, M.F., Zuraw, Q.C., Stemhagen, A. and McWhirter, C., 2006. Prevalence of hypogonadism in males aged at least 45 years: the HIM study. International journal of clinical practice, 60(7), pp.762-769.
Ratamess, N.A., Kraemer, W.J., Volek, J.S., Maresh, C.M., VanHeest, J.L., Sharman, M.J., Rubin, M.R., French, D.N., Vescovi, J.D., Silvestre, R. and Hatfield, D.L., 2005. Androgen receptor content following heavy resistance exercise in men. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, 93(1), pp.35-42.
Saeterbakken, A.H., van den Tillaar, R. and Fimland, M.S., 2011. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of sports sciences, 29(5), pp.533-538.
Sato, K., Iemitsu, M., Matsutani, K., Kurihara, T., Hamaoka, T. and Fujita, S., 2014. Resistance training restores muscle sex steroid hormone steroidogenesis in older men. The FASEB Journal, 28(4), pp.1891-1897.
Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P.D. and Binsted, G., 2009. A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(9), pp.2588-2591.
Volek, J.S., Kraemer, W.J., Bush, J.A., Incledon, T. and Boetes, M., 1997. Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 82(1), pp.49-54.