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Build Muscle by Manipulating Hormones

Nutrition and Workout Strategies


Updated April 30, 2014

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 recent study (Sallinen 2004). A diet that is in the range of 20-25% fat and 20-25% 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 the guys or gals who want 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, heavy weight 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. Get some advice 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.

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 and 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 review by Kramer and Ratamess in Sports Med. 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 round, 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 carbohydrate before you train in the morning. Even so, trialling 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.
  • A 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.

Summing Up Hormones and Bodybuilding

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.


Rogerson S, Riches CJ, Jennings C, Weatherby RP, Meir RA, Marshall Gradisnik SM. The Effect of Five Weeks of Tribulus terrestris Supplementation on Muscle Strength and Body Composition During Preseason Training in Elite Rugby League Players. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):348-53.
Sallinen J, Pakarinen A, Fogelholm M, Alen M, Volek JS, Kraemer WJ, Hakkinen K. Dietary Intake, Serum Hormones, Muscle Mass and Strength During Strength Training in 49 - 73-Year-Old Men. Int J Sports Med. 2007 May 11.
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Sallinen J, Pakarinen A, Ahtiainen J, Kraemer WJ, Volek JS, Hakkinen K. Relationship between diet and serum anabolic hormone responses to heavy-resistance exercise in men. Int J Sports Med. 2004 Nov;2 (8):627-33.
Bird SP, Tarpenning KM, Marino FE. Effects of liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion on acute hormonal response during a single bout of resistance exercise in untrained men. Nutrition 2006 Apr;22(4):367-75.
Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Sports Med. 2005;35(4):339-61. Review.
Wilkinson SB, Tarnopolsky MA, Macdonald MJ, Macdonald JR, Armstrong D, Phillips SM. Consumption of fluid skim milk promotes greater muscle protein accretion after resistance exercise than does consumption of an isonitrogenous and isoenergetic soy-protein beverage. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Apr;85(4):1031-40.


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