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Testosterone Boosting Exercises

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One of the best ways to elevate your testosterone levels is through good, old-fashioned gym work. Crushing your sessions helps to reduce body fat, lay down new muscle cells and improve your confidence.

Choosing the right exercises is like triggering the hormonal on-switch both for your body and for your mind. It’s just finding the most effective way to do it that can be the problem.

But get it right and in the battle between you and the iron there’ll only be one winner.

Be victorious and you’ll be granted all of these benefits and more.

In this article we look at how to program your gym sessions to boost your testosterone levels and ramp up your athleticism, aesthetics and health.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Why should you increase testosterone levels?
  • How to structure your T-boosting gym program

Testosterone – the key to health and performance

Testosterone (T) is a hormone released from your testes. It is a natural steroid and is involved in everything from the maintenance of masculine characteristics and regulation of protein synthesis, to promotion of metabolic and vascular health.

But unfortunately the peak levels you enjoy in your twenties don’t last forever.

Because as you age your hormone production begins to slow down. These masculine traits quickly get replaced with belly fat, loss of muscle, man boobs and loss of confidence.

But this downward slope isn’t inevitable. You can fight back.

Become an alpha male

When T levels are running optimally you look and feel great. You are confident, assertive and commanding, and your body oozes manliness with its low body fat, toned muscles and broad frame.

Testosterone helps you chisel out some rippling abs, build a barrel-like chest and a pair of quads that will even a heavy weight powerlifter would be proud of.

You’ll have better endurance, head-turning aesthetics and a powerful, solid approach to your workouts.

Here’s exactly what you need to know to harness the anabolic hormone benefits of exercise…


Make strength training your priority

If you look through a microscope at a muscle fiber you’d see that it’s made up of two protein filaments called actin and myosin.

These filaments wrap around each other a bit like rope does. And as such they make for a strong connection that helps you lift against a resistance such as your grocery bag, your kids or your gym equipment.

But if you life a weight you’re not used to (if it’s heavier for example) you can cause small micro tears in the functional parts of these filaments. And when you do your body has to ramp up its repair process to build them back up and help them heal.

This is what’s commonly referred to as the ‘tear and repair’ process. And whilst it sounds like something you’d want to avoid it’s actually quite the opposite. Because when new muscle filament cells are laid down they made stronger and bigger – and this is where you get larger, more powerful muscles from.

Testosterone and protein synthesis

Weight training means more muscle damage. More muscle damage means more growth.

But where does testosterone come in?

Testosterone plays a key role in the repair aspect of this cycle because it is in part responsible for promoting increased protein synthesis and the growth of new muscle cells.

For example, one study showed that when men with low T elevate their hormone levels it leads to enhanced skeletal muscle mass due to an increase in muscle protein synthesis rate of 56% [1].

As you’d expect, there’s a sharp rise in T levels after strength training as your body realizes that damage has occurred. It’s like sending in the anabolic clean up squad.

Lifting weights 3-4 times per week is enough to stimulate enough muscle damage to have a significant effect on your hormones. And not only that – you’ll soon be adding slabs of muscle to your frame as well.


Young, athletic man doing cable crossovers to build chest muscles in the gym

Focus on compound exercises

Now that you know you have to add strength training into your gym workouts we need to look at how to program effective exercises to really optimize those testosterone levels.

To do this, the main focus on your sessions has to be around compound exercises not isolation.

And just in case you’re not sure of the difference between the two – compound exercises use more than one joint and consequently more than one muscle group, whereas isolation exercises are singular-joint, singular muscle based.

Here’s a list of the best bang-for-your-buck compound lifts to throw into your sessions:

  • Upper body – bench press, lat pulldown, military presses, seated row
  • Lower body – squat, deadlift, leg press, lunges

Hit the big lifts first

Although you’ll be focusing on the compound lifts in your program it doesn’t mean you cant use isolation exercises though – they’re just the backbone of a good workout.

If you have a lagging muscle, a particular area you want to work on or you just like performing a particular exercise (we all like to throw a few bicep curls in on a Friday!) then go for it. It’ll definitely not hurt your progress.

But research tells us that if you are going to mix your compounds and your isolations then go for the bigger lifts first [2].

That way, the surge from the pushes, pulls, squats and deadlifts will increase serum testosterone levels prior to smaller muscle group exercises, leading to maximal anabolic hormone release and potential for muscle growth.


The best testosterone boosting exercises are free weight

Although all compound lifts will ramp up your hormone release, it seems that free weight exercises are far more useful here than fixed resistance machines.

Published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning [3], researchers found that when 10 trained men were asked to complete 6 sets of 10 reps on either the leg press or squats, the squat group came out on top.

At both 15 minutes and 30 minutes after the workout, T was higher in the free weight group than in the leg press group, as were growth hormone (GH) readings too. And although the squat group lifted a heavier weight (as measured by the weight they lifted plus body mass), there were no differences in perceived exertion between the two groups.

And it doesn’t have to be a session of barbell or dumbbell training either.

kettlebell training has also been shown to elevate testosterone and growth hormone levels immediately after a workout too [4].

When 10 men were asked to complete 12 rounds of kettlebell swings with a 16 kg bell, both T and GH readings went up significantly after the challenging workout – as did their heart rate!


Increasing Testosterone through Bench Press

Get in, get out… like a fitness ninja

Although you hear stories from bodybuilders about mythical, monster 3-hour workouts, research tells us that shorter, more productive workouts stimulate T production much more effectively than longer, more drawn out sessions.

This is because when you start your workout your testosterone levels begin to increase. They peak somewhere between the immediate post-workout period and 30 minutes after your last set. From there they then begin to taper off.

But at the same time as your T production has peaked, another hormone called cortisol has also started to creep up. The problem is that cortisol is a little bit like the brake to the gas of testosterone. It slows it down and has the opposite effect to T and can blunt the muscle protein synthesis that your anabolic hormones create.

In order to keep cortisol at bay (but at the same time maximizing testosterone production) it is important to keep your sessions as short and productive as possible. 45 to 60 minutes is perfect for getting your workout finished off without any negative effects.

It won’t make a massive difference if your sessions are longer, but the idea is to get in, do a job and leave. And if you’re working hard enough then that’s plenty of time to do what you need to do.


Lift… and lift heavy

Just as a quick recap so far… by now you know that in order to maximize testosterone production you’ll need to smash the gym with some strength training. You also know that you need to focus your attention on bigger, more compound exercises too, supplementing them with single-joint lifts where you see fit.

But what about the actual weights you should use?

According to hormone profile research the answer is go heavy!

The best study to illustrate this came from a research project published in Mechanisms of Ageing and Development [5].

A team of scientists responsible for collecting the data asked a group of young and old volunteers to take part in a 12-week program of progressive strength training.

They were specifically asked to use a full-body, compound lift approach and make sure the sessions lasted no longer than 60 minutes. Each lift was completed as 3 sets of 8-10 reps.

GH levels measured at the end of the program had gone up by nearly 45% – and testosterone went up too.

…and use high volume too

In this study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning [6], a group of experienced weightlifters were asked to join one of three different treatment groups.

  • 8 sets of 6 reps with 45% of 1RM. 3 minute rest period
  • 10 sets of 10 reps with 75% 1RM. 2 minute rest period
  • 6 sets of 4 reps using 88% 1RM. 4 minute rest periods.

The group who had the highest increase in testosterone was the second group. This was attributed to the fact that not only were they lifting heavy; they were also using a high volume of lifting too.


A young athlete man lifting heavy deadlifts in the gym

Don’t rest for too long

The only thing tougher than having to lift heavy for high volume is lifting heavy for high volume… with short rest periods.

But if testosterone is what you’re after then that’s what you have to do. 

There’s a fair amount of evidence to show that keeping your inter-set recovery low has a more beneficial impact on your T levels than longer chill outs.

So instead of taking your time, filling up your water bottle or checking out the gym bunnies across the other side of the gym, you should be zoning in while you gear up for your next set.

An interesting study by Villanueva and colleagues [7] found that the perfect rest time in between sets was a relatively short 60-90 seconds. This was thought to allow just enough time to recover from the previous set, but not long enough to give testosterone an opportunity to taper off.

The study also found that short rest times also had minimal effect on cortisol elevation which helped to keep it low. And as we’ve already mentioned, low cortisol is also a plus when it comes to the anabolic effects of exercise on hormone profiles.

The authors themselves were pleased with the outcome and stated in their conclusion that “shortening rest periods within high-intensity weight training may lead to concomitant enhancements in muscle strength and size over a longer period of training”. 

Similar results have been reported in a number of other studies too.


Make sure you have rest days

The common theme that runs through these tips so far is hard work.

But it’s just as important to take time away from the gym as well or you run the risk of burning out. Otherwise known as staleness, unexplained under-performance syndrome or overtraining, too much training with not enough recovery can lead to a massive drop in testosterone levels – no matter which exercises you choose to program.

The symptoms of this progress-halting disorder include:

  • Poor performance and loss of stamina
  • Feelings of low mood, loss of energy and exhaustion
  • Loss of muscle mass and strength
  • Increased cortisol and decreased T.

The International Journal of Sports Medicine found that even after 2 weeks of intense exercise, testosterone levels were lower than baseline – as was performance [8].

And another study reported a drop in testosterone by 30-50% in a group of tired and excessively trained rugby players [9].

Bottom line?

When you start to feel tired or your normal weights begin to feel heavy, take sometime off – even if it’s just a day or two.


Crossfit athlete stood resting and tired in the gym

Key Points:

  • You need to incorporate strength training into your testosterone-boosting exercise workouts.
  • Opt for the core of your exercises to be multi-joint, compound lifts. Use isolation exercises to supplement.
  • Keep your workout time to around 45-60 minutes.
  • Lift heavy – choose weights that fatigue you within 9-10 reps.
  • Keep your rest times short. 60 – 90 seconds works well.
  • Have days off. More isn’t always better.
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References

  1. Brodsky, IG et al. Effects of testosterone replacement on muscle mass and muscle protein synthesis in hypogonadal men–a clinical research center study. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1996; 81(10): 3469-75
  2. Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and trainingSports Med. 2005;35:339–361
  3. Shaner, AA et al. The acute hormonal response to free weight and machine weight resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 28(4): 1032-40
  4. Budnar, RG et al. The acute hormonal response to the kettlebell swing exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2014; 28(10): 2793-800
  5. Craig, BW et al. Effects of progressive resistance training on growth hormone and testosterone levels in young and elderly subjects. Mech Ageing Dev. 1989; 49(2): 159-69
  6. Crewther, B et al. The salivary testosterone and cortisol response to three loading schemes. J Strength Cond Res. 2008; 22(1): 250-5
  7. Villanueva, MG et al. Influence of Rest Interval Length on Acute Testosterone and Cortisol Responses to Volume-Load Equated Total Body Hypertrophic and Strength Protocols. J Strength Cond Res. 2012; 26(10): 2755-2764
  8. Flynn MG, Pizza FX, Boone Jr JB, et al. Indices of training stress during competitive running and swimming seasons. Int J Sports Med. 1994; 15 (1): 21-6
  9. Maso, F et al. Salivary testosterone and cortisol in rugby players: correlation with psychological overtraining items. Br J Sports Med. 2004; 38: 260-263

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