Muscle growth and fat loss, two key prerequisites to showcasing your stage-ready, beach-worthy body, are, in many respects, contingent upon the optimization of the big two bodybuilding hormones: growth hormone (GH) and testosterone (T). Critical as they may be to dialing down (fat) and building up (muscle), T and GH also rely upon the manipulation of a supporting cast of additionally important shape-defining hormones to work their anabolic magic, insulin and thyroid hormone, while the less beneficial estrogen and cortisol are kept at bay.
As regulatory biochemicals produced by endocrine glands and transported by the circulatory system to target organs to coordinate our physiology and the behavior of our cells, hormones control much of what makes us human: from attraction to appetite to the nerves we feel when confronted with a high-risk activity (like squatting 500lbs) our hormones guide the choices we make and how our personality unfolds. They are, for bodybuilders and fitness folk, essential to ensuring productive workouts and optimal training results.
The interplay and constant fluctuation of our body’s hormonal balance may work to our muscle building advantage, or create a litany of problems, including a sluggish metabolic rate, failure to properly recover between workouts, low energy levels, and hampered protein synthesis. While pounding down the protein and training with back breaking weights may help you to craft the physique you want, to truly maximize your in gym progress you must also ensure your hormone levels are up to the challenge, or suppressed accordingly.
The king of all bodybuilding hormones, testosterone (the principal male hormone responsible for building muscle size and strength) promotes the growth of many bodily tissues and is essential for health and well-being. Also produced by women (though 7-8 times less than it is for males), testosterone is one hormone that must be kept elevated in as high a quantity as possible to ensure constant results.
Because test is essential for increasing protein synthesis to build more muscle at a faster rate, and, considering its influence on keeping growth hormone levels sufficiently high to burn body fat, its depletion will significantly curtail our chances of gaining lean muscle mass.
Rather than turning to potentially harmful synthetically-derived anabolic steroids, testosterone may be boosted by:
- Resting more between workouts and maintaining a calm demeanor at all times
- Periodically training with heavy weights for lower reps (6-8)
- Emphasizing resistance training and using cardio only sporadically
- Periodically elevating your carbohydrate intake (3 grams per pound of body weight one day per week)
- Maintaining a lean bodyweight (12%, or lower, body fat levels)
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Consuming adequate healthy fats and some saturated fats from red meat
- Consider supplementing with ZMA or an all Natural Test Booster
- Stay well fed (avoid fasting or consistently low calorie diets)
#2: Growth Hormone (GH)
Growth hormone, which stimulates growth, cell reproduction and the release of insulin-like growth factor (to boost protein synthesis), is an integral component in supporting fat burning and safeguarding against muscle losses. As with testosterone, GH production is to be encouraged in healthy trainees. The more, the better. While dieting, many of us lose muscle weight along with body fat; a natural consequence of aerobic training combined with intensive weight training and low fat/low calorie eating. A drop in muscle may then result in a lowered metabolic rate, and less fat burning. It is therefore essential that we maintain muscle while getting lean, one of the toughest training dilemmas the natural bodybuilder will ever face.
By keeping GH as high as we can, muscle tissue is better maintained while dieting and walking the “treadmill to nowhere” for extended periods. Boost your supply of GH by:
- Getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night
- Periodically training with heavy weights for low reps (6-8, or fewer)
- Incorporating HIIT as a cardio modality or, better yet, combining your regular cardio with sprinting 2-3 times per week (6 40-meter dashes with 2 minute breaks in between)
- Supplement with niacin (1-3 grams per day)
- Stay lean and suppress excessive insulin production (curtail sugary carbs and keep overall carb levels moderate when dieting)
Unlike naturally released GH and testosterone, insulin is one hormone that has the potential for doing either great good, or much harm. It must therefore be manipulated accordingly. Released in excessive amounts at the wrong times, insulin, produced by the beta cells of the pancreas and central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism, may promote fat storage. Used strategically, however, it may create an anabolic environment to elevate muscle gains and promote fat loss.
In a calorie controlled pre-contest diet, for example, low insulin levels at rest (between training sessions and, especially, before bed) may assist fat burning while high levels in and around training may promote the rapid uptake into our muscles of amino acids and glycogen, both essential for building more size.
To increase insulin output, a high carbohydrate intake is necessary. The perfect time to consume more than your normal carb intake is just before, and directly after, training. Around 50 grams before and 60-70 grams after your workout of rapidly absorbed carbs such as waxy maize (place relevant ALLMAX product here) (a period when your muscles will, respectively, use them to fuel tough training and where they will more rapidly be transported, along with proteins, to hungry muscles) may work for a 200lb person (scale up or down accordingly). By contrast, keep your carbs comparatively moderate for the remainder of the day to maintain low insulin levels, to minimize fat storage.
#4: Thyroid Hormone
Primarily responsible for the regulation of our metabolism, the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) also support protein synthesis and fat loss. A major problem with all calorie restricted diets is the concomitant diminishing of thyroid hormone levels. When thyroid levels drop, we experience a corresponding reduction in protein synthesis, calorie burning and metabolism, and our gains may begin to stagnate.
To improve thyroid function and to offset a reduction in thyroid hormone due to pre contest dieting, do the following:
- Eat foods rich in iodine (a substance which is necessary for the production of thyroid hormone): such as, eggs, cow’s milk, saltwater fish, seaweed and shellfish
- Incorporate periodic cheat days: to prevent your body from adjusting to constant low calorie eating, and to trick the thyroid into up-regulating so as to boost your metabolic rate, up the calories once every 8-10 days (on this day, three carbohydrate grams per pound of bodyweight may be eaten) and an additional 15-20 grams of fat may be consumed.
While the stress hormone cortisol (a glucocorticoid steroid) may burn body fat, and indeed some bodybuilders deliberately over train so as to boost its production to put the finishing touches on their shredding efforts, its effects are mostly negative.
Among its many deleterious actions, cortisol shrinks the thymus gland, a key immune system regulator, thereby signaling immune cells to shut down and die. We may, as a consequence, become more susceptible to various illnesses. Aside from impairing our immune system, cortisol may also promote muscle wastage, fat gain, heart disease and diabetes, not to mention mood swings, depression, generalized fatigue and insomnia. Needless to say, cortisol is one hormone we bodybuilders and fitness devotees can all do without.
To negate the accumulation of cortisol, do the following:
- Minimize stress, relax often, and avoid pointless, unnecessary arguments
- When dieting, ensure that 2-3 post workout feedings per week are very high in simple sugars (fat free cookies, sugar coated rice cakes, sweets)
- Reduce caffeine intake: 200mg of caffeine from a strong cup of coffee may increase blood cortisol levels by 30% in one hour!
- Sleep deeper, and for longer
- Keep blood sugar stable
- Take stress-busting supplements such as the antioxidants, magnesium, calcium, chromium and zinc
A hormone produced mostly in females but also to a lesser degree in men (for sperm production and bone maintenance), estrogen (steroidal compounds integral to both menstrual and estrous reproductive cycles) runs counter to bodybuilding and fat loss success. Excess estrogen may even contribute to prostate and breast cancer. Men with a higher body fat percentage are also shown to have elevated estrogen levels.
Affecting the way we look and feel is the body’s testosterone to estrogen ratio: a superior ratio for maximal lean muscle gains would see testosterone production high and estrogen output at minimal levels.
To lower your estrogen levels, the following steps can be taken:
- Decrease body fat: fat tissue increases levels of the enzyme aromatase, which turns testosterone into estrogen; the fatter we are, the more aromatase we produce.
- Consider supplementing with an all Natural Aromatase Inhibitor
- Consume a diet high in cruciferous vegetable such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage (indole compounds found in these foods may interfere with estrogen absorption and uptake into our bodily tissues)
- Limit alcohol consumption
It takes a lot more than barbells, protein and high training intensity to build larger, stronger muscles. The often overlooked, yet crucially important role our endocrine system plays in encouraging the anabolic conditions necessary for optimal lean muscle building and fat loss is one factor to be considered when planning your training program.
Are your testosterone, growth hormone and thyroid hormone levels sufficiently high, so as to encourage rapid fat burning and consistent muscle growth? Are your estrogen and cortisol low enough to preclude their combined catabolic effects? Is your insulin under control, increased or decreased according to your training goals? Answer yes to all of the above and you are well on your way to achieving a head-turning physique to be proud of.
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- Walter F., PhD. Ssynthesis of Thyroid Hormones. Chapter 48, in Boron (2003).Medical Physiology: A Cellular And Molecular Approach. Elsevier/Saunders. p. 1300