My article this month is mainly for men, as the subject is naturally boosting testosterone, specifically in regards to an article in The Times by Matt Roberts. Women also have testosterone, and if you’re a female reader, you may find the issues covered to be of personal interest or you might like to pass this information on to your male partners and friends. I cover the role of testosterone in health and fitness, and some of the fallacies and truths about the effects that exercise and diet have on the levels of this hormone in our bodies.
Matt Roberts is a famous London-based celebrity personal trainer with prestigious boutique gyms in Mayfair, Kensington and Chelsea, and The City. He regularly contributes articles on fitness training in The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers, and has written books on fitness. His recent article is a four-page spread in The Times (Saturday April 13th 2019) promoting his new book: Younger, Fitter, Stronger telling middle-aged men they can look 10 years younger and get a lean and toned physique using hormone-boosting exercise, with an 8-week workout programme along with ‘what to eat to boost your testosterone’. The newspaper article Younger, Fitter, Stronger: My Plan for Middle-aged Men can be found here.
Could The Times and Matt’s article be fraudulent – unjustifiably claiming or being credited with particular accomplishments or qualities, and being dishonest – in this case claiming that boosting testosterone will tone up your body, and eradicate your man boobs (moobs)? Or is it just plain ignorance and an innocent lack of understanding on both their parts? Let’s scratch below the surface and find out if this advice is The Dog’s Bollocks or just bollocks.
Matt’s Assertions about Exercising and Boosting Testosterone
On page 2 Matt states that the development of “man boobs”, a “paunch” and becoming “grumpier and wrinklier” in your “midlife” is due to a “natural decline in male hormones”. As Matt doesn’t specify symptoms of a disease or ailment, we must assume that by ‘man boobs’ he is referring to fatty pectoral regions. His statement is incorrect because developing man boobs (fat on your chest) has everything to do with calorie and overall life-style management, and nothing to do with normal or declining testosterone levels.
This kind of opening statement in Matt’s article can cause confusion as to the real reasons why you’re not toned, potentially leading you to believe there is something wrong with your hormones when actually, your life-style may not be conducive to maintaining a toned body.
Matt states that “for men, plummeting levels of testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH)… can cause physical changes, including a decline in muscle mass and an increase in fat”. This is simply not true. Testosterone levels decline gradually (a few percentage points per year) in both men and women but levels still remain well within normal ranges and in healthy men, testosterone doesn’t ‘plummet’.
Matt is noceboing men into believing that there is something wrong with them, potentially causing high levels of anxiety, self-doubt, insecurities, confusion, and beliefs that are not based on real science. (Nocebo means the opposite of placebo; convincing someone that their condition is worse than they think, or installing negative beliefs or expectations for poor outcomes from a treatment, or conversation, potentially causing negative effects.) If healthy men are told they are fat because their testosterone levels are plummeting, then they are being set up for failure, possibly leading them to develop a belief system that is false and doesn’t address the real underlying problems.
Matt says that “at 45, I am all too familiar with these changes… I noticed that my usual workouts were not working as well for me. I was experiencing the same physical symptoms as my middle-aged clients, despite training everyday”. Everyone loses muscle mass if they live an inactive life but this can be reversed by lifting weights, not by boosting testosterone naturally. Unless he has a medical problem, his struggles may transpire from an ineffective training programme, and not his testosterone. In appearance, he doesn’t appear to be particularly muscular, and he’s quite thin and lean.
Speaking from experience, back in 2009 I had a significantly underactive thyroid and other hormonal problems which made me very ill as my medical problems didn’t get diagnosed for many years. Although my body couldn’t perform optimally, I still trained efficiently and therefore had a six-pack, and body fat at 10%, – which tells you that you can still achieve great fitness due to appropriate knowledge regardless of your hormonal profile. I don’t even eat solid food because of my functional bowel disease, and I’m still well-muscled with a six-pack at 10% body fat.
In Matt’s case, his advice isn’t based on evidence. If Matt, his readers, and his clients are following his exercise and food recommendations to boost testosterone to reduce man boobs, they will all suffer inadequate results. The solution is critical assessment, and changing and applying the hierarchical criteria of exercise and health science principles.
Sometimes the root cause of your problem is the simple one, but not necessarily with the simplest solution. Occam’s Razor states that ‘simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones’. If there are a number of possible explanations for a condition, then the one that requires the least speculation is usually correct, and the more assumptions made, the more unlikely an explanation is to be incorrect.
Matt states “I’m not surprised that testosterone products have become a multibillion-pound industry, but I don’t believe that synthetic hormones are the answer. I would never take these products, nor would I recommend them to my clients, because there is a scientifically proven, natural, anti-ageing hormone booster available to all men from their middle years: exercise”. He says he would never take steroids or advise his clients to take these products (a strange comment to make in this story). There are reports of an epidemic of steroid use in the UK, particularly by 18-35 year olds but that’s a blog article for another day.
In this article I’ll demonstrate to you that testosterone boosting naturally is not possible, or that a spike doesn’t have any effect on your training gains. Perhaps Matt wants to jump on this multibillion-pound bandwagon by conveying nonsense to men in order to sell his new book about boosting testosterone naturally. Men can already be confused on what it’s like to be a real man these days, without Matt adding to the problem.
Matt states “with only eight weeks of carefully tailored exercise you can increase hormone levels, lose your love handles and even boost your libido”. He goes on to say “endurance training is excellent for improving cardiovascular health, but research shows that it is not the most effective means of boosting male hormones”. This is simplistic and misleading. Although resistance training can briefly increase testosterone within normal levels, it can also decrease it, and endurance training can also have these effects.
However, resistance training must follow certain criteria for testosterone to increase briefly, and looking at Matt’s training programme we can see that his recommendations to lift small weights, do body weight exercises, and perform exercises sitting down and isolating only the side shoulder muscles is not the way to boost testosterone. Regardless of his false statement that doing his training programme will increase hormone levels, it is seriously flawed because testosterone cannot be manipulated long term using his, or any training plan.
Matt states that strength training “maximises male hormone production during and after a workout”. He claims that his “eight-week programme maximises the effects by incorporating the specific training shown to boost male hormone production”. What does ‘maximises’ and ‘boost’ mean in this context? He claims that “lifting weights and your own body weight is proven to have a profound effect on HGH and testosterone production”. This is vague and untrue. He also says “there is evidence to support the fact that this spike in hormones happens immediately after a strength session and in the long term”. The fact is, the science shows there is no long term spike in testosterone.
Matt doesn’t distinguish what ‘boosting’ testosterone levels means, but states untrue benefits that boosting it brings. Matt also claims there are benefits of his fitness advice which will lead to benefits of increased/boosted testosterone. Think about it; if exercise raised your testosterone levels then continuing to exercise would keep raising levels until they were above normal levels, which would then cause you to fail a drugs test for sport or work because your testosterone levels would be higher than normal. The only way to raise your testosterone levels above normal (boosting) would be to inject testosterone or other performance enhancing substances, increasing your muscle and strength levels beyond what is ever possible when your testosterone levels are within normal range.
Matt’s Assertions about Food and Boosting Testosterone
Matt lists foods with the heading: ‘what to eat to boost your testosterone’. He claims that these foods include beef, chicken, honey, crab, lobster, Brazil nuts, prunes, eggs, mushrooms, carrots and sweet potatoes. Think about this for a second: if you ate foods that could boost your testosterone (‘boost’ isn’t defined), then your levels would gradually be higher than normal values if you kept eating those foods. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t boost your testosterone levels by eating certain foods. How does this statement apply to women? If women ate sardines, walnuts and salmon (foods that boost testosterone in Matt’s opinion), would they then have the same testosterone levels or higher than men? What utter nonsense.
Littered with preposterous claims, Matt’s article preys on the ignorance of the general public in terms of the nuanced, complex realm of health, fitness and nutrition. If professionals can’t understand, or take the time to understand the science of health, fitness and nutrition, how do we expect the average person to understand?
Experts, corporations, and celebrities have an ethical duty to the public. If people are given misinformation that they act upon, then it will not only inevitably spread distrust, but it may have negative effects on their lives.
You cannot Boost your Testosterone (with a caveat) Naturally
You may or may not increase your testosterone briefly with resistance exercise, but the concentrations will still be within normal value ranges, and this can be done naturally. Do you want to focus on spiking testosterone? No. Does a brief increase in testosterone have any effect on muscle strength or size? No. Can you boost your testosterone higher than the normal value range by natural means? No. Can it be ‘boosted’ by injecting synthetic testosterone or other banned performance enhancing drugs into your backside? Of course it can but it comes with physical and psychological damage as well as acquiring a drug habit; what’s more, these ‘requirements’ or ‘acquirements’ are not, shall we say, ‘manly’. Despite changes in muscle growth or strength increases from consistent long-term training, there’s no change in your resting hormonal profile among testosterone, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and HGH.
What are you Better off Concentrating on?
Overloading your muscles with additional stress will increase your strength. This is done by adding more weight, more volume of work, or increasing density of work, i.e., increasing volume and intensity within shorter time intervals. Concentrating on a healthy life-‘style’ will help to balance your hormonal profile, which may include a balanced diet, maintenance of calories, low body fat, regular exercise, avoiding toxic substances, and getting adequate sleep (9).
My advice is: don’t focus on a fix, focus on a better life-style. In addition, trust in your body that it will finely regulate your hormones within a normal range, which is amazingly clever and you don’t have to worry about it.
The Bottom Line
Matt’s article is fearmongering and irresponsible in terms of making you think there might be something wrong with you when it’s highly likely there is nothing wrong with your testosterone levels. It’s no different to what physios, osteopaths, chiropractors, and acupuncturists do: get the general public and you to emotionally buy into thinking that you need a special treatment (that is not evidence-based, or that is not helping to treat the actual problem to begin with) or there is some fictitious problem wrong with you that needs fixing and the only way to fix it is to part with your hard-earned cash (in this case Matt’s new book on boosting testosterone). These so-called ‘health or exercise professionals’ are jumping on the bandwagon to defraud the general public to re-brand themselves.
Designing your training programme around trying to maximise acute hormone responses is a complete waste of time. You should be focusing on how to apply the principles of exercise science to increase your fitness and strength. Seeking correct knowledge and application on this will propel you further forward than holding on to anxious beliefs that don’t exist (this can be hard when there is so much misinformation around). Don’t be a victim of your, or someone else’s false beliefs (either knowingly or unknowingly).
If you want to learn more about your fascinating hormones in relation to exercising and food, then please keep reading.
What is a Hormone?
Hormones are molecules produced by glands in the body and transported by the circulatory system to organs to regulate physiology and behaviour. Testosterone is a hormone.
What is Testosterone?
Testosterone is a steroid hormone produced mainly in the testes, but also in the ovaries and parts of the brain (i.e. the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis). It stimulates the growth of sexual tissues – it also increases (1, 2, 8):
- Lean body tissue
- Red blood cell production
- Bone density
- Sugar uptake by muscle
- Muscle glycogen storage
- Protein synthesis in men and women associated with gains in muscle strength
- Growth of body hair
- Physiological and psychological recovery
- Social status
- Aggression in animals and man
Testosterone is produced by the Leydig cells which constitute about 20% of the mass of the testicles in adults. The testes start producing testosterone from about the seventh week of embryonic life but it’s barely secreted until the age of 10 (1, 2, 8). Leydig cells are only found in the testes, which largely explains the ~10-fold higher testosterone levels in men compared with women. (Testosterone is produced in smaller amounts in the ovaries and adrenal cortex of the brain) (8). In terms of strength and fitness, this hormone is related to the control of protein synthesis (the body’s ability to make protein), muscle development, bone growth, and retention of calcium (2).
After reaching its peak during the ages of 20-25, testosterone levels decrease with age (after 35-40 years a decline of 1-3% per year is normal), but still remains high within the normal range until the age of ~45-60 (2, 8, 9). In women, testosterone normally declines gradually until menopause, after which a drastic decrease of about 60% occurs, within 2-5 years (8).
In adult males, normal testosterone levels range from 9-32nmol/L (about 270-1,000ng/dL) (1). Testosterone levels below this range are classed as hypogonadism – a reduction or absence of hormone secretion or other physiological activity of the gonads (testes or ovaries), which is a medical disorder or disease of the testes, hypothalamus, or pituitary gland in the brain. Symptoms can include feeling depressed, lethargic, and fatigued (9).
Testosterone levels that are higher than normal are classed as hypergonadism or hyperfunction of the gonads. A common reason for this can be a tumour, which is often benign.
These abnormalities can also be caused by taking performance-enhancing drugs, such as testosterone and other steroids, which can be toxic to the body.
Knowing what testosterone is, its normal levels in our bodies, and what disease profiles may arise – how can your testosterone levels be naturally increased by diet and exercise (without taking performance-enhancing drugs), for any practicable benefit, as Matt Roberts claims?
How to Strength Train to Increase your Testosterone
As stated above, you cannot increase your testosterone levels above normal without taking steroids. Having a value within your normal range (be it lower or higher than others), will not increase your muscle size, strength, or any other adaptations above someone’s whose levels are also within their normal range.
Other than focusing on temporarily spiking testosterone levels, more significant factors driving strength and fitness achievements include: lifestyle, health choices, dedication to effective training programmes, interests, and physical and psychological genetics.
It’s possible to slightly increase testosterone levels within your normal range (which will have no bonus effect on strength and fitness levels), by using the method of achieving maximal voluntary muscular effort. This can be done in three ways (2, 3, 5):
- Lift maximal resistance (i.e., weights that are close to your one repetition maximum)
- Lift submaximal resistance to failure (80%+ intensity), to the point of the muscles almost failing (to exhaustion at the last repetition)
- Lift resistance as fast as possible
Applying these three principles will not increase your testosterone above your normal range, but it will make you fitter and stronger because adaptations are from neural changes of trained muscles when applied over time (4). After a strength training session, any increased level of testosterone lasts 15-30 minutes, after which time it decreases (for both men and women), to values that are equal to or slightly lower than, at rest before training (2, 5, 8).
Other studies have shown that there are no training-related increases in testosterone at rest, indicating that the body returns to an equilibrium after resistance training (4, 6). In fact, some studies have shown a decrease in testosterone levels for the first two days following heavy squats (probably associated with intensity level, volume of training, number of sets, shortened rest periods, and choice of exercise) (8). In other words, intensity seems to have a correlation on spiking testosterone, as studies have shown (8).
Furthermore, sharp elevations in testosterone during resistance exercise are only due to other regulatory mechanisms, such as shifts in blood plasma volume (5).
Which Exercises Increase your Testosterone?
Large muscle mass exercises (allowing for greater total volume) such as Olympic lifts, deadlifts, squats, and squat jumps have been shown to spike testosterone (still within normal ranges though) compared with small muscle mass exercises (5, 6, 7, 8). Small muscle mass movements don’t elevate testosterone above resting concentrations (8).
What Number of Sets Increase your Testosterone?
When total volume is held constant, the number of sets performed doesn’t influence significant testosterone response (8).
What Amount of Training Volume Increases your Testosterone?
The amount of volume of exercise significantly affects hormonal response and there appears to be a threshold of volume that must be reached before increases in testosterone are observed (again, sharp and short lived within normal ranges). For example, six sets but not one set of 10 reps of squats increased testosterone post-exercise (8).
Order of Exercise
When large muscle mass exercises are performed in the beginning of an exercise session, the muscle used during subsequent exercises will be perfused with an elevated testosterone concentration (8). Again, this adds no practical benefits.
Rest Period Duration
Rest period duration can substantially affect the metabolic demand of a bout of resistance exercise (as evident by the lactate response and oxygen consumption), and short rest periods have shown to increase a testosterone response. However, short rest periods for resistance training don’t help long term improvements in strength as much as longer rest periods (8).
Does a Spike in Testosterone Increase Muscle Building?
Temporary increases in anabolic hormones such as testosterone, HGH, and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) don’t enhance anabolic signalling or muscle protein synthesis following exercise (7).
In other words, acute increases in these hormones has no effect, and local mechanisms within the muscles and connective tissues are the predominant factors for the post-exercise increase in muscle protein synthesis (i.e., your body’s ability to create protein and build muscle). Furthermore, increases in muscle protein synthesis are able to occur without increases in hormone concentrations and aren’t enhanced by acute elevations of testosterone following exercise (7).
Age and Testosterone
In older men (over 60 and middle-aged 38-53 years) a bout of resistance exercise can elicit a significant elevation in circulating total and free testosterone, but the magnitude of this elevation is generally smaller than that in younger (men of 20–30 years). No matter your age, a small elevation of testosterone from training has no effect on your potential to improve your health, strength and fitness.
Which Foods Increase your Testosterone?
Acute testosterone response to resistance exercise can be influenced by nutritional supplementation. High carbohydrate/protein with low fat supplementation has been shown to limit the testosterone response to resistance exercise (5). It may be that the insulin-testosterone interaction could have something to do with it. However, carbohydrates and proteins need to be ingested at some point after exercise, and the effect is not enough to cause any detrimental effects on training or changes outside of the normal ranges for testosterone, so it’s not worth worrying about.
However, nutritional intervention plays a critical role in modifying androgen receptors after resistance exercise (5, 8). Androgen receptors are protein molecules that bind androgenic hormones including testosterone and dihydrotestosterone in the cytoplasm and nucleus of cells. Therefore, to modify androgen receptors, any type of carbohydrate and protein ingestion will help.
Insulin appears to be mostly affected by blood glucose concentrations and dietary intake. Ingesting a combination of carbohydrates and amino acids prior, during, or after resistance exercise is recommended for maximising insulin’s effects on tissue anabolism, i.e., maximising protein synthesis, because it takes advantage of the large increase in muscular blood flow and amino acid delivery (5).
- Young, RJ., Ismail, AH., Bradley, A., and Corrigan, DL. (1976) ‘Effect of prolonged exercise of serum testosterone levels in adult men’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 10, pp. 230-235.
- Stankovic, A., Dordevic-Nikic, M., Kukic, F., Petrovic, M., Cvijanovic, N., and Todorovic, N. (2013) ‘The effect of strength training on the testosterone level in men’, Physical Culture, 67(2), pp. 157-166.
- Zaciorsky, VM., and Kraemer, WJ (2009) Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd ed. Champaign, USA: Human Kinetics.
- Kraemer, WJ., Hakkinen, K., Newton, RU., Nindl, BC., Volek, JS., McCormick, M., Gotshalk, LA., Gordon, SE., Fleck, SJ., Campbell, WW., Putukian, M., and Evans, WJ. (1999) ‘Effects of heavy-resistance training on hormonal response patterns in younger vs. older men’, Journal of Applied Physiology, 87(3), pp. 982-992.
- Kraemer, WJ., and Ratamess, NA. (2006) ‘Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training’, Sports Medicine, 35(4), pp. 339-361.
- Lehmann, M., Knizia, K., Gastmann, U., Petersen, KG., Khalaf, AN., Bauer Dipl Oec Troph, S., Kerp, L., and Keul, J. (1993) ‘Influence of 6-week, 6 days per week, training on pituitary function in recreational athletes’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 27(3), pp. 186-192.
- West, DWD., Kujbida, GW., Moore, DR., Atherton, P., Burd, NA., Padzik, JP., De Lisio, M., Tang, JE., Parise, G., Rennie, MJ., Baker, SK., and Phillips, SM. (2009) ‘Resistance exercise-induced increases in putative anabolic hormones do not enhance muscle protein synthesis or intracellular signalling in young men’, Journal of Physiology, 587(21), pp. 5239-5247.
- Vingren, JL., Kraemer, WJ., Ratamess, NA., Anderson, JM., Volek, JS., and Maresh, CM. (2010) ‘Testosterone physiology in resistance exercise and training’, Sports Medicine, 40(12), pp. 1037-1053.
- Leproult, R., and Van Cauter, E. (2011) ‘Effect of 1 week of sleep restriction on testosterone levels in young healthy men’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 305(21), pp. 2173-2174.
- Hassall, H. BBC (2018) News Round: Mental Health: how body image pressure for boys has led to rise in hospital cases. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/46301970 (Accessed: 15 May 2019).