How to Use Natural Bodybuilding Hormones

Nutrition and Workout Strategies to Manipulate Your Hormones

Athletic Male Picking Up Dumbbells in Gym
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Several hormones play a critical role in an exercise in general and strength training in particular. Testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) provide strength and muscle growth stimulus; cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine and glucagon control access to fat and glucose fuels by manipulating the release of stored fuel when needed in addition to other important functions; and insulin provides the storage impetus for the fuels derived from the food we eat.

6 Natural Bodybuilding Hormones

Getting these hormones to work so that you can maximize muscle and strength is one of the secrets of natural weight training. 


Testosterone is, for the most part, a male hormone produced by the testicles, although a smaller amount is produced by the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys). This hormone is responsible for the development of male physical characteristics, muscle mass, strength, fat distribution, and sexual drive. Smaller amounts of testosterone are also produced by women in the ovaries and the adrenal glands. 

To be more definitive, testosterone is an androgenic, anabolic, steroid hormone. Androgenic means pertaining to male characteristics and anabolic means building up or synthesizing body tissue. Testosterone is the number one hormone for bodybuilding and weight training, especially for the development of strength and muscle (although this is not always the primary goal of weight training).

The use of supplementary anabolic steroids to build muscle bulk and strength has been popular in bodybuilding and other sports requiring bulk and strength for many decades. They do work spectacularly well. That’s why in most sports, taking ‘steroids’ is illegal

2. Growth Hormone and IGF-1

Human growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland and stimulates the liver to produce IGF-1, which is ultimately responsible for the growth promoting and anabolic effects of growth hormone. Like testosterone, this production declines as we age and is probably responsible for at least some of the decline in muscle mass seen in older people. These hormones seem to have an inverse relation to body fat, meaning the less you produce, the more body fat you accumulate.

Enhancing growth hormone and IGF-1 delivery may be possible with nutritional and exercise manipulations. GH and IGF-1, testosterone, and cortisol (your stress hormone) are all increased with the intensity of weight training and high-intensity sprint cycling or running.

3. Insulin

Insulin is the storage hormone. The pancreas produces insulin in response to food. When you consume food, enzymes break it down into constituent glucose, fatty acids and amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Insulin responds to carbohydrate and protein by storing glucose in muscle and liver, fat in fat cells, and by the utilizing amino acids from food protein in bodybuilding and repair. It’s incorrect to think of insulin as only responding to carbohydrate foods because some protein foods such as fish and beef elicit a very strong insulin response in their own right. In diabetes, insulin is either insufficiently produced or is available yet fails to store glucose efficiently (called insulin resistance).

Combining pre- and post-exercise foods or sports drinks containing protein and carbohydrate elicits a very strong insulin response in the refueling period after an exercise session. The value of this is that along with the glucose storage and amino acids synthesis in new protein, you get a powerful anabolic, muscle building response. Insulin is an important anabolic hormone. Manipulating insulin is one of the main tools described in bodybuilding. 

4. Cortisol

Cortisol is a very important hormone that’s for sure. It is produced by the adrenal glands and is often called the ‘stress hormone’ because it responds to stress, either physical or emotional. Cortisol helps control inflammation, makes glucose available by breaking down muscle to amino acids, suppresses the immune system, and is likely to enhance fat storage at the expense of protein and muscle. Cortisol rises when blood glucose gets low — in the early morning and during exercise, especially prolonged endurance exercise. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning it breaks down tissue. In manufactured forms, it’s called hydrocortisone or cortisone.

5. Epinephrine (Trade Name Adrenaline)

We all know this hormone as adrenaline but epinephrine is considered the "fight and flight" hormone because it acts quickly on cue to constrict arteries and raise blood pressure. Epinephrine also dilates the airways to enable your heart to beat faster and you to breathe more efficiently — all of which are important if you suddenly need to run away from an attacking lion! As well, epinephrine elicits the muscles and liver to give up stored glucose (glycogen) so that you have the instant energy to fuel that survival run. In this sense, epinephrine is a catabolic hormone, like cortisol.

6. Glucagon

Glucagon could be considered a mirror hormone of insulin. When you fast or eat a low-carb diet glucagon will be more active than insulin because of low blood glucose. Glucagon tells the liver to give up its glucose stores to the bloodstream and also to break down those amino acids from muscle that cortisol sent to the liver to make more glucose. If insulin is an anabolic hormone, then glucagon is a catabolic hormone.

Natural Anabolic Enhancement

The goal of bodybuilding is to keep anabolic hormones high and catabolic hormones as low as possible while still providing basic functionality — it's not useful to regard cortisol or any other hormones as "bad guys" because we couldn't live without them.

In the natural bodybuilding movement and for sports where compliance with drug-testing protocols is essential for legal competition, finding a way of training or eating that will maximize or enhance testosterone and androgen-related muscle and strength is keenly sought. Alas, this is not a process that is easily manipulated and there is much still to learn. However, that has not stopped supplement manufacturers claiming to have products that can do just that with herbal extracts or combinations of vitamins or "legal" steroids. Examples of such products are the herb Tribulus Terrestris, zinc-magnesium tablets, ginseng, bovine colostrum, beta-alanine, HMB, and DHEA, a prohormone banned in most sports but not in baseball.

Tribulus has become popular in the bodybuilding community even though there is no evidence that it provides any advantage. In fact, a 2007 study of elite rugby players in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research did not find any advantage in muscle enhancement or performance from supplementation with Tribulus. This seems to confirm the result of previous studies. There are no specific non-food supplements other than creatine that has been shown to enhance bulk and training similar to the anabolic steroids — and creatine is a component of meat foods. Yet even creatine has an uneven performance as a supplement.

What You Can Do to Enhance Muscle-Building Hormones Naturally

Here are several approaches to diet and training that can go some way toward maximizing your anabolic hormone response and building and protecting muscle mass and strength. Although the following is based on recent research results, there is still much to learn about the complex web of hormone interactions involved in strength and muscle enhancement, so don’t be too surprised if something changes soon.

Pre- and post-exercise nutrition: Consume about 20 grams of protein in an easily digested source up to 45 minutes before a workout. Skim milk with a little sugar will do fine. About 20 fluid ounces (600 mls) or a little less is about right. Sip a sports drink during the workout at regular intervals, especially if you go beyond 60 minutes. Within 30 minutes of finishing the workout consume another 20 grams of protein with about 40 grams of carbohydrate. Again, skim milk seems to work well. Choose your favorite protein-carb powder or even a commercial flavored milk if you prefer. Increase the carbs up to about 3 or 4:1 carbs to protein ratio if you’ve had a heavy or long session with cardio or intervals or circuit.

Taking carbohydrate during exercise has been shown to minimize the rise in cortisol. Testosterone, growth hormone, epinephrine, and cortisol all increase during exercise with intensity. With blood glucose topped up, cortisol doesn’t get the signal to supply glucose, so muscle doesn’t get burned up in the process. Even after your session, testosterone and cortisol levels move around quite a bit and testosterone levels may drop. The testosterone to cortisol ratio is the key here. Keeping testosterone as high as possible and cortisol as low as possible when you don't need it is to your advantage.

It's worth stating that you don't need any cortisol-reducing supplement tablets. There is no proof that they work, and carbohydrate manipulation seems to do the job for little-added cost.

Macronutrient composition: Eating a diet that’s not too low in fat and not too high in protein may enhance testosterone production according to a 2004 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. A diet that is in the range of 20 to 25 percent fat and 20 to 25 percent protein should be in the range for this. Fat should be mostly unsaturated fat — nuts, avocados, olive oil, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils rather than saturated fat in meat and cheese. Lean protein is still best. The ultra low-fat Pritikin or Ornish diets or the high-protein low-carb type diets may not be the best choice.

Protein: Now I don’t agree with people who decide to eat 40 percent protein in their diets. It’s way beyond what is scientifically proven to be required, expensive, not necessary, and may even be unsafe in the long term. However, heavyweight trainers can probably justify extra protein up to about 1 gram/pound bodyweight. Don’t make it all beef dripping with fat, though. Get plenty of white meat, dairy protein and soy as well for healthy eating. Be sure to speak with a physician if you even think you have dysfunctional kidneys. Just for the record, 4 ounces or 100 grams of lean grilled chicken breast or beef has about 30 grams of protein.

In addition, creatine and zinc are potentially important components of an anabolic diet. Creatine builds bulk and re-supplies the phosphocreatine energy system, which is important for those fast heavy lifts. Zinc is necessary for testosterone production. Meat protein is a good source of both of these elements. Vegetarian bodybuilders may need to ensure sufficient intake.

Workout Strategy: Heavy lifting and high-intensity workouts raise testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1, but cortisol goes along with them during intense exercise. This applies to sprints and other high-intensity programs as well as weights. Planning your nutrition is likely to be helpful but for training programs, I can’t do better than to quote the authors in Kramer and Ratamess in a 2005 article in Sports Medicine 2005 when it comes to suggesting a strategy in the gym

"Protocols high in volume, moderate to high in intensity, using short rest intervals and stressing a large muscle mass, tend to produce the greatest acute hormonal elevations (e.g. testosterone, GH and the catabolic hormone cortisol) compared with low-volume, high-intensity protocols using long rest intervals. Other anabolic hormones such as insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) are critical to skeletal muscle growth." 

So what does that mean for individual exercises? Okay, at the top end that means heavy squats, deadlifts, and even the more advanced power cleans, hang cleans and pushes or at least some serious hard work at perhaps 5x5 sets and repetitions if you do a standard full-body session with a mix of free weights and machines. Squats and deadlifts are known to be the quickest way to build bulk and strength all around, so try to build these into your program in some form if that's your objective. Don’t beat yourself up, though, the difference is probably not that necessary for someone just doing a fitness program.

Other Tips on Hormones and Muscle Building

  • If you do aerobic training, like running or even anaerobic interval training, you’re probably better off doing it on separate days or at least to separate it from your weights session by at least a half day to allow normalization of hormone response. At least one study has shown that a high-intensity cycle session before weight training blunts the testosterone response during the weights session.
  • Cortisol peaks in the early hours of the morning, so many bodybuilders train in the evening to ensure a more suitable hormone profile. This is probably not necessary if you take some carbohydrates before you train in the morning. Even so, trying different training timetables is worth a try.
  • Alcohol consumption increases cortisol during drinking and even in the withdrawal period, particularly in heavy drinkers. So, no soup for you! However, a glass of wine or a beer in moderation is probably not going to make much difference.
  • poor sleep pattern does not provide an optimal environment for anabolic processes to occur. Human growth hormone is at its peak during deep sleep. Interrupted or poor sleep could be a contributing factor to a less than optimal muscle and strength response to exercise.

    Bottom Line

    If you are looking to make the most all the hard work you put into weight training — and why wouldn't you — the techniques described above are definitely worth following up. In some ways, we are slaves to our hormones, but you can make a difference.

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