Testosterone has been getting a lot of press lately, and not all of it is good. With hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increasingly prescribed to all types of men—young, old, gay, straight—who just want to maintain their strong muscles and lean midsections, a variety of medical groups have started waving red flags about the many potential pitfalls of testosterone supplementation, from permanent cessation of the body's ability to produce testosterone on its own, to drops in the "good" cholesterol that promotes heart health. Increasingly, leaders in the medical community have begun pushing to establish guidelines to use HRT only when it's medically needed, not as a pharmaceutical fountain of youth.
But that doesn't mean testosterone itself is a bad thing. In fact, higher levels of the hormone have been shown repeatedly to increase muscle mass, reduce fat, increase bone density, reduce depression, and improve libido. Of course, testosterone is produced naturally by all human bodies, and in large quantities by the male body, enabling men to build muscle strength more easily than women. But those quantities vary between individuals, and over time. Most testosterone loss is associated with aging—and that loss makes it harder for men to maintain the same levels of lean muscle mass and strength as they age.
Boosting Your Testosterone Naturally
While artificially pushing your testosterone—or T, as it's commonly known—levels through supplementation has proven problematic on a variety of fronts, there's no reason you can't encourage your body to produce as much testosterone as it's naturally designed to, and thus combat some of the losses of aging. There are two wonderful, natural, healthful ways of accomplishing this: specific types of exercise and smart nutrition. In this piece, we'll tackle how you can modify your exercise regimen to increase your body's testosterone production. Look for a follow-up piece on nutrition in a couple of weeks.
Increasingly Your T: Do Your Leg Work
Exercise can increase testosterone levels immediately, in the moments during and after completion of a workout. But not just any exercise will have this effect. Increased testosterone is associated with short, high intensity exercise (no more than 60 minutes)—not with long endurance work. So, to increase your testosterone levels, you want to work the largest muscles in the body to the highest tolerable levels of intensity. This is, not coincidentally, the means to increase muscle size and strength most efficiently. Several studies by Wayne L. Wescott, PhD. and Tracy D'Arpino, B.S., LPTA have found that high intensity training (HIT) techniques markedly create this effect. More specifically:
1. Work several and large muscle groups: The body's largest muscles are in the legs (quadriceps, hamstrings), butt (they don't call it the gluteus maximus for nuthin'), and back (the complex of trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids). Your best bet is to work as many of these muscles in a single exercise as possible. So, try a barbell squat—properly executed with barbell on shoulders, feet at a shoulder-width spread, and a slow, controlled press up from the heels and return to the squat. This engages multiple muscles in a single exercise: your quads, hamstrings and glutes, as well as core and shoulder muscles for balance. In contrast, there are many seemingly high intensity exercises that won't have the same effect—a concentration bicep curl for instance. This is a hard exercise, certainly, but it works only a small mass of muscle—good for building biceps, but less useful in increasing testosterone. Go big, in multiples.
2. Exercise to intensity: Simply, complete fewer repetitions using heavier weight to achieve maximum fatigue (without injury!). One popular method is "super slow," where you achieve muscle exhaustion by the sixth or eighth rep by counting to ten on the decline (eccentric movement) of a free weight exercise. Do this on a multiple muscle group exercise for maximum gain. For example, go super-slow on standing bent rows, which engage leg and core muscles for stability, even as back, arm and shoulder muscle groups raise and lower the weights.
There are other methods for achieving intensity. One is work a set to failure, optimally at a weight level such that you can't do more than eight or 10 repetitions with proper form. But don't rest—instead, immediately follow that set with another set of the same exercise, but with the weights reduced 10 to 20 percent—again, to failure. Another method for raising intensity is to have a trainer spot you on a set, also where the weight levels are high enough that you will achieve muscle fatigue to the point of failure within five to 10 repetitions. After you reach failure, have your spotter assist you on the lift in the last two or three reps, then allow you to lower the weight slowly on your own—spotting very carefully the entire time.
A few points on high intensity training: Muscle failure is just that, a point where the focus muscle group simply can't complete one more repetition with proper form. This is psychologically and physically hard for some people. It might make you feel slightly and momentarily nauseous, and you have to begin with a baseline of strength so that you don't injure yourself. Also, you want to be careful about doing this kind of work with free weights that can fall on you—again, use a spotter whenever possible.
Here's a bonus. High intensity programs have a time-management benefit in that it's possible to execute a quality workout in less time—as little as 30 minutes, assuming you keep rest periods to a minimum.
3. Add a burst of intense cardiovascular exercise: Author Lou Schuler of "The Testosterone Advantage Plan" (2002, Fireside) advocates strongly against extended, slow-pace cardiovascular exercise (such as marathons) for anyone wishing to increase testosterone levels. But short bursts of high-speed runs—two minutes at 8, 9, or 10 miles per hour on an incline, for example—tax the muscles to momentary exhaustion, increasing testosterone. For evidence, consider the physiques of marathon runners versus sprinters.
Sure, it's not a simple as a patch. But the overall benefits, and the satisfaction that you achieved it through good old-fashioned hard work, might help you hold onto your testosterone levels a lot longer in life.
About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, fitness trainer and author of "A Guy's Gotta Eat, the regular guy's guide to eating smart" with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004).