If you want a basic understanding of how hormones and exercise are related, which I encourage, start reading here. If you want to get down to the nitty gritty skip to the bottom where I have outlined 12 ways to maximize your results with training and post-workout nutrition. You're welcome.
Hormones play a part in all metabolic activity. Think of them as tiny messengers carrying information from one place to the next that dictates how every cell, organ, organ system and body function operates, even your thoughts and emotions. Optimizing your hormone levels benefits everything from mood and energy levels to fat loss and focus. Less than optimal hormone function compromises everything and means you are running at less than your full potential.
I cannot stress this next sentence enough.
Exercising, eating and living in a way that optimizes hormone function will make every goal you have; fitness, body composition, career, relationship, etc, easier to accomplish.
Hormone 101: The Basics
- Testosterone, growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) are hormones that are anabolic, meaning they build tissue. They also mobilize fat at a very high rate when they are abundant in the blood stream. High levels of these hormones have an anti-aging benefit as well. Exercising, eating and living in a way that maximizes the release of these hormones and limits the release of hormones that counteract them (insulin and estrogen) is your mission in life. Spoiler alert: Not all exercise is created equally when it comes to hormone release.
- Insulin is a hormone that is also very anabolic in nature. Unfortunately in addition to building muscle, it is also the hormone that is directly responsible triggering body fat storage, and, it is REALLY good at its job! Insulin is released in direct correlation with the amount of carbs you eat. More info on all the reasons you want to keep insulin levels low. One other big negative is that GH cannot exist in the blood stream in any great amount at the same time as insulin, meaning post-workout carbs erase the big GH release you get from intense exercise as soon as you eat them.
- Cortisol isfat storing stress hormone that is catabolic in nature, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue. Cortisol is released during all forms of exercise throughout the duration of the training session, which is ok as long as GH is also being released as a result of intense training. High levels of this stress hormone tend to make you hold to stubborn belly fat (no bueno!).
How Exercise Effects Your Hormonal Cascade
In order to stimulate the release of the good anabolic hormones (testosterone, GH, and IGF-1) you have to do intense weight training (intensity is relative). The best exercises are whole-body, high intensity movements like deadlifts, squats, Olympic lifts and kettlebell lifts. Just think, "big movements, big muscles." Doctors Bill Kraemer and Vladimir Zatsiorsky’s research show that the magnitude of hormonal stimulation is in direct correlation with the following:
- Amount of muscle mass activated
- Overall work done (work = load x reps x sets)
- Rest between sets and exercises
Studies by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) have repeatedly shown that performing several sets of each exercise, using short rest intervals of 30 to 60 seconds best stimulates anabolic hormone production. I would also recommend using weights that are between 75-95% of your 1-rep max for a moderate to high volume.
Note: The intensity of the load and amount of volume are dependent on the experience of the trainee. Start easier than you think with any exercise program and build up gradually.
Aerobic endurance training does not increase the release of testosterone, GH, and IGF-1. This is a problem because cortisol is still elevated with this type of training without the GH and test surge to balance it.
12 Ways to Maximize Your Training and Hormonal Cascade: The Good Stuff
- Prioritize resistance training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as outlined above. If you only have 3 hours/week to train this is your best bet.
- Limit training time to one hour or less. Intensity, not duration, is the key to exercise unless you are specifically training for an endurance event. Test and GH production begin decreasing after approximately 45 minutes at which point cortisol release begins to outweigh test and GH.
- Avoid carbs post-workout so you can maximize the GH release you created through hard training and avoid the insulin surge.
- Drink a post-workout shake or eat a meal high in protein within 30 minutes of training.
- Take branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) along with post-workout shake/meal. BCAAs decrease post-workout cortisol and increase testosterone levels. I’ve bounced around between a lot of BCAA formulas over the years and have stuck on Energy Lab’s Armor, which is my definitive favorite because of the high BCAA content and the fact that it has a full dose of L-Glutamine along with anti-oxidants to defend against free radical damage and electrolytes to help you get rehydrated.
- Take omega-3 fish oils to enhance protein synthesis.
- Add L-Glutamine to post-workout shake. Glutamine speeds up tissue repair and boosts your immune system. In the absence of glucose from carbs the brain can use glutamine as a fuel source.
- Avoid caffeine, which stimulates cortisol, post-workout.
- Include Vitamin C into your post-workout shake because it clears cortisol from your system.
- Take a green powder, red powder or some supplement high in anti-oxidants to reduce the damaging effects of cortisol and free radicals. This will speed up recovery.
- Re-hydrate! Minerals and electrolytes along with water are superior to water alone.
- Meditate or do something relaxing post-workout to further reduce cortisol and speed recovery.
Part IV, Recommendations on the best supplement brands as well as additional supplementation that can augment your goals such as, creatine, branched chain amino acids (BCAA), L-glutamine, fish oils, Greens Powders and other high anti-oxidant blends, adaptagens, and much more.
Part V, Importance of central nervous system (CNS) recovery for the advanced/hardcore trainees and so your workouts don’t leave you bonking at work.