The Big ol’ Muscle Training Primer, Part 4

Welcome back to our current series, The Big Ol’ Muscle Training Primer. Today in Part 4 we’re looking at the hormones in the human body that play the largest factor in building and developing your muscular system.

The Hormones of Strength Training

There are five primary hormones involved in training for strength and size:

  • Cortisol
  • Estrogen
  • Growth Hormone (GH)
  • Insulin
  • Testosterone

Effective training programs will also include diet and rest periods that help maximize the actions of each hormone as much as possible. Making small changes can have large effects on your hormonal system, and we’ll go into detail about things you can do for each hormone to either increase or decrease secretion later in each section. The end goal of learning this is to help maintain a proper balance in your day to day life, help identify when something might be out of balance, and make adjustments as necessary.

Cortisol

Understanding cortisol can be a little tricky; it tends to get a bad rap because it’s often known as the “stress hormone”. Most people see stress as bad, but the reality is that your body needs certain stressors to get stronger and being able to effectively manage physiological stress is a good indicator of overall health. Interestingly enough, cortisol is actually a naturally occurring glucocorticoid steroid, but it doesn’t behave like most people expect steroids to behave.

In the short term, higher cortisol levels may improve body fat loss. Some body builders will intentionally try to raise cortisol levels to get a little extra “shred” during competition preparation. But, cortisol shrinks the thymus gland, which regulates the immune system. When it shrinks, immune system cells begin to shut down and die, making you more susceptible to illness.

Studies have also shown that high cortisol levels are associated with depression, general fatigue, heart disease, muscle wastage, mood swings, and long term fat gain.

Reducing Cortisol

  • Sleep! Getting enough quality sleep each night is a large factor in managing your cortisol levels, since the body spends significant time cleaning up your hormones as you rest. Aim for 6-8 hours per night.
  • Eat well! Managing your diet accounts for a large part of how you feel and how your body responds to stress. Try to keep your blood sugar stable by eating complex carbs in moderation, with the majority paired with a good protein source post-workout.
  • Less caffeine! Some studies have shown that 200mg of caffeine (1-1.5 cups of good coffee) may increase blood cortisol levels by up to 30% in as little as an hour.
  • Minimize stress! Find a relaxing hobby to engage in, try to avoid unnecessary arguments, and generally try to reduce the stress you put yourself in day to day
  • Some supplements that may help manage cortisol levels include: antioxidants, magnesium, calcium, chromium, and zinc

Estrogen

Estrogens are steroidal compounds integral to menstrual and estrous reproductive cycles. It’s often called the “female hormone” since it plays a huge role in maintenance of the female body, particularly the reproductive system. That being said, it also acts on the male reproductive system to a lesser, but still important, degree (sperm production, bone maintenance).

The gross level of estrogen in the body isn’t the most important measure when it comes to body building: it’s the ratio of estrogen to testosterone. The best body building ratio has testosterone production high and estrogen production at minimal healthy levels.

It helps maintain reproductive health in men and women. Also, it’s responsible for the development of secondary sexual characteristics in both genders. Estrogen also promotes body fat storage in both genders. In some cases, over-production of estrogen can lead to development of prostate and breast cancers.

Reducing Estrogen

  • Drink less alcohol. This one is easy, just don’t take in as much alcohol in any form, and your estrogen production will decrease to healthy levels.
  • Eat cruciferous veggies, which may interfere with the absorption and uptake of estrogen into body tissues. Examples include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.
  • Decrease body fat tissue. This is a catch-22, since having higher body fat promotes conversion of testosterone to estrogen, and then higher estrogen promotes storage of additional body fat. Once you’re overweight, this cycle can be hard to break without significant work. The enzyme responsible for this is aromatase.
  • Speaking of which, a supplement that might help with too high of estrogen levels is an “All Natural Aromatase Inhibitor”.

Growth Hormone (GH)

Growth Hormone is pretty awesome. It stimulates growth, cell production, and the release of insulin-like growth factor. All of this helps boost protein synthesis supports fat burning, and helps prevent muscle loss. Along with testosterone, higher GH levels promote the body builder/athletic physique substantially.

A common consequence of dieting and long term cardio is the loss of muscle along with body fat. This drop in muscle can lead to lowered metabolic rates, which can then lead to lessened fat burning. By keeping your GH and Testosterone higher, you can help offset this tendency.

Boosting Growth Hormone

  • Sleep! Just like with cortisol, getting enough sleep is integral to managing growth hormone. Unlike cortisol, sleep helps promote GH production, which helps maintain/build muscle mass.
  • Periodize your workouts to include regular training with very heavy weights (80% or more of your maximum lifting weights) for lower sets/repetitions (1-3 sets of less than 8 reps).
  • Keep your carbohydrate intake to moderate levels and favor slow digesting options. Sugary, simple carbs are not the friend of Growth Hormone.
  • With cardio, include High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) a couple times a week. This could be as simple as adding in short distance sprint sessions to your regular cardio sessions, or specifically training in high intensity bursts as the cardio session. A common example of this is Tabata training: 20 seconds of intense work followed by 10 seconds of rest, for 4 total minutes.
  • A supplement which might help with GH levels is 1-3g of niacin each day.

Insulin

Insulin is produced by beta cells in the pancreas, acting as a central factor in metabolizing carbohydrates and fats. It acts as a kind of “double edged sword”, wherein it can either promote fat storage when released at the wrong time (for our purposes at least) or it can be used to create an anabolic environment where muscle gain/fat loss if promoted (our goal). This means that eating and training strategically plays a large role in how insulin will behave, and with proper control you gain greater control over your overall body composition.

A good example of this control would be to use your diet to promote low insulin levels between training sessions and right before you go to sleep. This helps promote the fat burning effects. In contrast, spiking your insulin during and around training may help your body shunt amino acids and glycogen into the muscles when they’re needed the most. Both of these compounds are necessary to rebuilding muscle after strenuous exercise.

Controlling Insulin

Spiking your insulin levels is pretty simple, and should be done just before and directly after your workouts. A good rule of thumb is have 25 grams per 100 lbs of body weight of a rapidly absorbed carbohydrate right before your workout, and then an additional 30-35 grams per 100 lbs of body weight directly after your workout. The pre workout carbs help fuel your muscles during training, while the post workout carbs are transported to your muscles along with dietary protein in order to help with muscle recovery.

In contrast, keep your carbs low to moderate the rest of the day to maintain low insulin levels, and minimize fat storage.

Testosterone

This is the one you’ve been waiting for, and it’s a good one. Testosterone is often called the “male hormone” because it exists in the largest amount in the male physiology, and is incredibly important to the development of “masculine” traits such as body hair, muscle size, and voice deepening. However, many tissues in both male and female bodies use testosterone to some extent; men just tend to have a lot more of it by default (about 7-8 times more).

For body builders and athletes that are focused on strength, aesthetics, or overall muscular performance, having high testosterone levels means that muscle development is going to happen more rapidly. The primary action here is protein synthesis: more testosterone means protein is synthesized more quickly, and muscle tissue is repaired faster, leading to faster overall growth. Not only that, but higher levels also promote fat loss, so it’s a double whammy of awesomeness.

Increasing testosterone (naturally and without steroids)

  • Sleep! Seriously, it’s great.
  • Training with heavy weights at lower sets/reps
  • Focusing more on resistance training like weight lifting and using steady state cardio (running, biking, etc.) sparingly
  • Periodically spiking your carb intake to 3g per pound of body weight once per week
  • Maintaining a lean body weight (lower body fat percent)
  • Limit alcohol
  • Healthy unsaturated fats and saturated fats from red meat/animals products should be included in your diet