I’d like to propose something:
The king of testosterone-and-GH-producing training movements is the muscle-up.
Not the squat. Not the deadlift.
That may concern some people because they may think they could never do a muscle-up. Please stop selling yourself short. If you’ve got the desire to do them, you can. There’s a simple step-by-step approach to doing so. I wrote a tutorial on Greg O’Gallagher’s blog about exactly how I learned to muscle-up in two weeks, and the philosophy behind the unorthodox training style that you can use for reference.
I’m also planning on doing an even more in-depth post on MU’s that focuses on how to get from zero to a MU over 6 months, to empower anybody with the desire with a plan to actually implement it correctly.
In terms of my own life, and the journey over the last couple years, my body really began changing, and my testosterone level increased by about 100% (from mid-600′s to ~1200 ng/dL) after I began training for neuromuscular adaptations (NM) using compound calisthenics movements, with the muscle-up being the core movement to most workout sessions.
Before that, the increased T levels were mainly from lifestyle factors and nutrition improvements, along with some less advanced training techniques.
Below, I detail three sample training weeks, based on the natural periodization that I followed during this period of time. Because it is natural and occurred somewhat intuitively and over a long period of time, it takes the progression from beginner to intermediate to advanced quite nicely.
Exactly How To Train For Optimal Hormonal Response (Short and Long-term)
Very recent study into the dual steroid (T and Cortisol) effects on training in elite athletes (as late as 2011), as opposed to older studies that often focused on untrained or moderately trained (with loose definitions of the word ‘trained’, varying from study to study) has, interestingly enough, opened up a ton of insight into this new paradigm for optimal endocrine response training.
In short, studying elite athletes gave us new insight into how average (untrained & moderately trained) individuals should train to optimize testosterone up-regulation.
The idea (in the following algorithm and program later in the article) is to use certain factors (workout design, nutrition, genetics, training status and type) to modify T and C concentrations and therefore influence resistance training performance and adaptive outcomes.
Changes in the concentrations of T and C can moderate or support neuromuscular (NM) performance through various short-term mechanisms such as 2nd messenger signaling, lipid/protein pathways, neuronal activity, behavior, cognition, motor system functioning, muscle properties, and energy metabolism.
A greater understanding over the recent years of T and C has led to suggestions that, beyond the more popular applications in morphological (ie. muscle size) and functional (ie. power and strength) enhancement, these hormones also exert heavy influence over NM functioning (ie. neuronal activity, intracellular signaling, and muscle force production), which means they contribute to the adaptive responses to training by regulating long term muscle performance via short term regulation of NM performance.
In short, we need to use NM training to influence long term muscle performance and optimize hormonal response to training.
It all comes back to my original philosophy of always addressing the roots of an issue as opposed to a symptomatic approach (and in life, operating on principles as opposed to stressing over details).
What is the neuromuscular system?
When I say NM system, I am referring to the peripheral nervous system (PNS in short). This consists of motor neuron units and innervated (stimulated to action) muscle fibers.
When looking to design a training program, we want to operate on the premise that acute elevations in endogenous hormones will increase the likelihood of receptor interactions, which will mediate long term adaptive responses.
Researchers are now shifting a lot of focus onto NM research in athletes because they’re recognizing that neural factors may play a role beyond that of hormones, especially in early phase adaptations (which I’ll discuss momentarily). However, the specific mechanisms for action still need to be examined as this is a relatively young (and ridiculously complex) field of study.
One thing that studying elite athletes made very clear to us is this: beginners may have a distinct advantage over highly trained individuals in terms of ability to elicit a workout-dependent testosterone and growth hormone response.
While elite athletes can generally elicit higher magnitude responses to their training, the stimulus needs to be far more specific.
For untrained or average individuals, the stimuli can be far reaching in variety and still elicit a high response, but they must operate on a set of known principles for the optimal response.
This initial testosterone response in untrained individuals is thought to occur mainly as an adaptive response of the NM system to support continual training under the new stimulus, which makes a lot of sense. Your muscles need to rapidly change to support your training, and the main way for them to do so (if you do the correct type of training) is to up-regulate androgen receptors with increased content and sensitivity.
So for the majority of guys reading this article right now, even those who believe themselves to be highly trained (even if you are, it is probably in a very specific sport-related style) you will experience rapidly elevated workout-dependent testosterone levels with the correct training to assist muscular adaption.
For example, I was considered an elite triathlete for the period of time before embarking on this multi-year self-experiment. My testosterone levels were very low, but my level of muscular and cardiovascular training relative to my sport-specific functions was very high. I could run and cycle very fast over long distances.
However, when I stopped training that way, and shifted slowly into my current style of training, I quickly realized how untrained my muscles were to support this NM style for hormonal optimization.
In short, I was weak.
I will extrapolate this notion and speculate that even common weightlifters, crossfitters, and gym rats (ie. people with several years experience in resistance training) will find themselves noticeably untrained in this specific capacity when first embarking on this NM-style training according the algorithm I am going to propose.
Gymnasts and street workout guys will probably not have such a difficult time.
Endurance athletes, yes… it’s going to be a big change.
(For example, several of my clients find they need at least one short nap per day along with a good nights’ sleep to recover initially from the shift in training style during the first few weeks of the program, even though training sessions only run around 60 minutes in length – they adapt shortly thereafter).
To illustrate the advantage (I’m framing it as an advantage, but of course, it’s all relative) that untrained individuals have over elite athletes when it comes to general T response to workouts (again, not magnitude, but reach and lack of specificity) I’ll use an example that researchers found in elite 400m sprinters vs average individuals sprinting 400m.
In the elite 400m runners, every repetition decreased T levels post-sprint and increased LH levels (which, as you’ll see in article 2, act as a precursor to stimulate T production). What this says is that they may have a decreased androgen receptor (AR) response to the training stimuli due to extensive training. Either that or an increase in glucocorticoid receptor (GR) sensitivity which would naturally suppress the T. I’d put money on the notion that it’s a mix of both.
By comparison, the untrained sprinters saw a significant increase in T concentrations post-sprint with unchanged LH levels, indicating an increased AR sensitivity due to the new stimulus.
This indicates that it may be better for untrained individuals to hit harder fatigueable bouts, but in low enough quantity to not elevate cortisol significantly, which introduces the idea of a training stimulus threshold.
A Formula For Optimal Testosterone Production via Training
Take what you just learned, and remember it. We’re going to introduce a couple more concepts now, then mash them all together to formulate the perfect algorithm for training-induced T production.
Researchers have found that explosiveness encourages NM adaptations necessary to support the training demands (ie. indicating a long term adaptation), and that a training threshold very likely exists.
We want to up-regulate AR content in fast glycolytic muscle tissue (as opposed to slow oxidative tissue).
Resistance training is unanimously agreed upon as a potent stimulus for testosterone production and muscle growth, but the specific type is either not discussed or not agreed upon. What we do know is that resistance training promotes an increase in both AR mRNA (ie. gene transcription) and protein content and T concentrations.
So combining both of these ideas, we can come to the conclusion that explosive resistance training is the optimal form of stimulus – as long as it is performed under the performance threshold (so as to continually promote AR up-regulation without compromising due to cortisol/stress-related suppression).
But that’s not the entire picture. It’s also not entirely different from what the pop-fitness media promotes (though rarely practices).
One more key element to the equation is often overlooked.
And that’s the idea of work load and its relationship to muscle volume activation (MVA) relative to intensity.
It has been demonstrated that the magnitude of the hormonal response to training is proportional to the size of the muscle volume activated. This is why we hear the old paradigm of “squat, squat, squat” to increase testosterone. Big leg muscles = more muscle tissue activated.
However, this MVA-dependent hormonal response is relative to the intensity of the movement performed.
Squatting high reps for hypertrophy training may stimulate GH and T production, but I’d argue that it won’t be optimal because the intensity is not high enough, it is just drawn out over more reps. On the flip side, low rep squatting implies higher intensity, but allows for less total work done on the muscle.
Work, as a mechanical construct in physics, was originally defined by French mathematician Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis as “weight lifted through a height.” The main equation you see everywhere is:
W = Fd
Where W is work, F is the magnitude of the force and d is displacement.
Researchers have found that, in terms of GH response, high amounts of work done – that is, high amounts of force related to the weight displaced – generated a significantly higher hormonal response to training than low work done.
So let’s recap, and combine all of the knowledge up to this point in the article in order to formulate the idea of an optimal T-response-oriented training paradigm.
High work load, with a high proportion of muscle volume activated relative to intensity of the stimulus on said muscle volume, which should be performed via explosive resistance training done under a performance threshold (ie. self-limiting) = optimal.
Expressed in an algorithm, it would look something like this:
W (MVA * i) < Stress Threshold
Where W is work (Fd), MVA is muscle volume activation, and i is intensity.
The stress threshold is defined as the point after which negative adaptations occur in terms of GR up-regulation and the subsequent increased sensitivity to stress-hormones, which are known to suppress androgen production.
So in short, we need to use this style of training, and walk the line under the stress threshold.
This is achieved best through explosive resistance and optimized by activating the most muscle possible over maximal displacement (at explosive intensity) while remaining just beneath the threshold.
I believe that in order to keep our training beneath the threshold, calisthenics becomes an increasingly attractive form of training due to its self-limiting nature and relationship with gravity (ie. if you can’t do another muscle-up, you can’t just subtract weight from your body as you could with a barbell in order to get additional reps or sets into the workout session).
This hypothesis, based on the literature to date, is also supported anecdotally by my own training style and the subsequent response that it had on my total testosterone levels.
I am very interested in carrying out a much more detail-oriented self-experiment with use of in-home hormone analysis via subscription to a company like WellnessFX or Talking20, and will be carrying out an experiment in the future so I can measure and report acute changes in hormone levels even multiple times throughout the day, which will amount to, over time, a body of data we can then analyze to make more informed conclusions since the literature has a general lack of cohesiveness in terms of study design and controls.
If anyone at WellnessFX or Talking20 is reading this and is interested in sponsoring that experiment – I’m in.
In terms of rep ranges, I believe that, with challenging calisthenics and weighted calisthenics movements, staying the in the 5-rep range and focusing on explosiveness is optimal (with slight variation up to maybe 7-8 reps and as low as 3 reps due to fatigue later in the session).
This is based on the idea that in the 5 rep range you are able to perform an explosive set with high force and displace enough weight to keep total work high, but relative stress low. Much higher than 8 reps at the correct intensity will, I think, negatively effect your performance threshold, and any lower than 3 reps will compromise the intensity of the movement.
This is also why I advocate “enough rest between sets to recover just enough to perform another intense, slightly sub-maximal set” – no more, and no less. This will vary based on the individual but will probably fall in the 1-3 minute range based on the movement and the training level of the individual.
And this brings us back to the original idea I proposed early in this article: the muscle-up is the king of testosterone-inducing training movements.
1. The muscle-up is inherently explosive. There are only two ways to make it any more explosive than it already is… either add weight to your body weight, or do a plyometric muscle-up (yes, people actually do these). The latter involves quite a bit more momentum though, so the additional explosiveness may be slightly compromised.
2. The muscle-up, especially the weighted muscle-up, activates a HUGE percentage of muscle volume, from the feet (if weighted on the feet) to the fingertips. Abs, quads, back, shoulders, chest, calves, facial, etc etc etc are all activated with a weighted muscle-up. The entire upper body & core is activated in bodyweight muscle ups, with slight activation of the quads and large leg muscles due to isolated contractions.
So I’d argue that the muscle-up (especially the weighted muscle-up) is either comparable or superior to squatting and deadlifting in terms of muscle volume activation.
The benefits that it has over those other movements that makes it superior all around for testosterone and GH production are the facts that it is inherently explosive, which will lead to a much higher fast glycolytic action in muscle tissue than the inherently slower, less explosive barbell movements (also necessary in terms of safety), and that it allows you to displace a large amount of weight with that explosive force and high intensity, which amounts to a high work load.
For example, a 6 foot tall 200lb man may do a workout of 5 x 5 muscle-ups (bodyweight), displacing 5000lbs total over the session, with the magnitude of the Force being exerted over a distance of 3.5m (rough calculations based on the common 7-8 foot high pull-up bar). That’s a lot. 81,000 Joules of work, roughly*.
Conversely, let’s say that same man squatted 300lbs for 5 x 5 (we do not count any bodyweight since the weight he’s displacing is in fact the barbell and not his body weight), displacing 7500lbs total over the session, with the magnitude of the Force being exerted over a distance of roughly 2m (since he’s 6 feet tall – he’s also not doing ass-to-ground squats but we’ll leave it at 2m). That amounts to 61,000 Joules of work. Significantly less than the muscle-up work.
Now add to that the (very difficult to measure) physiological differences between the two movements in terms of muscle volume activation and overall explosiveness and glycolytic action in the muscle tissues.
Based on my estimates the muscle-up wins.
Add weight to the muscle-up and it sh**s on squats.
MU’s also don’t give you a bubble butt and chafing quads.
Sample Training Plans For High Testosterone
Now that all of that is understood, let’s get into the action.
I understand not everybody can do MU’s. However, I love teaching people how to do them (we’ve set the goal with several clients, for example) and I highly advise that you train in a way that will support your testosterone production as well as work your way toward muscle-ups.
Your physique will change and look great as a side-effect of the training (and nutrition, to be discussed elsewhere).
Since there are most definitely a wide variety of people reading this article, it makes sense to split the sample training plans into three types: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
These training plans are based on the premises we established above: explosive resistance movements (mostly calisthenics to keep stress below the performance threshold) and high work done throughout the workout.
First off, I like to set up training in a non-weekly cycle. For example…
and cycle in this manner.
It’s far better IMO than splitting up body parts into isolated movements all week.
Remember, we want a high amount of muscle volume activated (ie. compound movements) so training in this manner is far more time efficient and more productive overall for both physique and hormonal development.
On the rest days WALK.
Nothing else. Just a leisurely walk for 45-90 minutes – stroll around. Listen to the Road To Ripped podcast, or your favorite songs on your phone. Whatever. Just don’t train.
Recovery is HUGE for endocrine optimization, and walking is one of the best rejuvenation exercises there is. Just get out and get your blood circulating.
The training sessions also will likely not take up more than 60 minutes of your time (maybe more depending on the amount of time you take for rest). This keeps you under the performance threshold.
Remember, take ”enough rest between sets to recover just enough to perform another intense, slightly sub-maximal set.”
The Beginner Plan
Begin every workout with sufficient warming up your muscles. Walk, dynamic stretch, do some yoga poses, etc.
Also, if you cannot complete this workout when you’re beginning, keep at it. Just attempt to get through, even if it means cutting down the number of sets or ending a specific set of one movement early.
Just keep working at it – the fact that you’re doing it, not necessarily completing the entire workout – will be enough to stimulate positive changes.
Workout A: Chest, Shoulder, and Core focus
- * Parallel bar dips (5×5)
- * Behind neck pull-ups (5×5) (please please please keep your hands as wide as you can – you’ll hurt yourself with your hands too close together)
- * Hanging leg raises (5×5)
- * Front dips (like the top half of a muscle-up movement) on a straight bar (5×5)
- * Jump roping 5-10 minutes total
Workout B: Legs, Back, and Arms focus
- * Jump roping warm up
- * Reverse box jumps (start on top of box, drop off, then rebound back up immediately) (5×5)
- * Pull-ups (do what you can, work toward doing 5×5 – use assistance if necessary)
- * Exploding squats (squat down with bodyweight and explode upward) (5×5)
- * Chin-ups (same as pull-ups)
- * 3×50-100m hard sprints (bound into the sprint so you don’t pull a hammy)
Intermediate Training Plan
This is for those of you with a decent amount of training under your belt, either with calisthenics or in the weight room. This is designed to challenge you and strain your muscles just enough to stimulate the changes we’re trying to make.
If these movements get easy for you at any point, either add more weight or progress to the advanced plan.
Workout A: Chest, Shoulders, Core focus
- * Weighted dips (5×5)
- * Weighted behind the neck pull-ups (keep it WIDE please) (5×5)
- * Dips-to-V (do a dip and hold at top of movement then raise legs straight out and open them in a V then close and bring them back down) (3×5)
- * Front dips (weighted if possible) (3-5×5)
- * Jump rope cooldown
Workout B: Legs, Back, and Arms focus
- * Jump rope warm up
- * Reverse box jumps (high enough to make completing the last set a task but not impossible) (4×5)
- * Plyo pull-ups (3×5)
- * Assisted pistol squats (put your hand on a bench) (3×3-5)
- * Weighted chin-ups (4-5×5)
- * 3×50-100m hard sprints, bounding into them
Advanced Training Plan
This is for those individuals who can muscle-up no problem and pull a lot of weight already. This will stimulate the right areas to increase your training load further and encourage a good amount of T and GH secretion from the training session itself.
Workout A: Chest, Shoulders, and Core focus
- * Set of 5 muscle-ups after little warm up
- * Heavy weighted dips (5×5)
- * Hold to V (top-of-dip movement hold and open legs to V to crash obliques) (5×5)
- * Front dips (with weight) (5×5)
- * Lever ab raises (on pull-up bar do a front lever all the way up into inversion then lower back down, hits your core and lats really nicely) (3×3-5)
- * Weighted behind neck pull-ups (3×5)
- * 5×5 Hard, controlled (ie explosive) muscle ups (add weight if you can)
Workout B: Legs, Back, and Arms focus
- * Jump rope warm up
- * Reverse box jumps with weight in hands or weighted vest (4×5)
- * Weighted pull-ups (3-5×5)
- * Clap pull-ups (3×5)
- * Pistols (3-5×3-5)
- * Weighted chins (5×5)
- * 3x50m hard sprints
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*There’s quite a bit more to this than the current overly simplified calculations, but I still think they illustrate my point.