While there are many aspects to bodybuilding, one of the most crucial is an understanding of the body's naturally occurring anabolic hormones and what you can do to enhance their release. This has even more impact as you get older since the natural production slows as you age. For the natural bodybuilder, this is as close as you can get to effects that are usually reserved for users of steroids or pro hormones. Not that you can reach that same level but as a natural, you must pay careful attention to every single detail that can have an impact on your results. The concept of natural hormonal manipulation is one I am fascinated with, as it ties directly into muscle growth and is largely ignored in most mainstream resources. As is the case with so many aspects of your training, nutrition, recovery and supplementation, you can do a lot of things right and only one or two big things wrong and fail to see the results you hoped for. An understanding of how to train and eat for maximal hormonal results will take you a long way to the results you would like to see.
This article will cover the basics about the main anabolic hormones and what you can do in your training and nutrition to maximize their release. It should be stated that this article is by no means a complete breakdown of the Endocrine system which is a field of study in it's own right, rather it's a brief review of what hormones are the main anabolic hormones and how they effect the bodybuilder. Having said that, it would be well worth the time of any bodybuilder to research this field; it's a complicated and fascinating field.
Hormones are chemical messengers that are released in one tissue and transported in the bloodstream to alter the activities of specific cells in other tissues. Each hormone has target cells, specific cells that possess the receptors needed to bind and read the hormonal message. Additionally, hormones alter the operations of target cells by changing the types, quantities or activities of important enzymes and structural proteins.
Hormones can be divided into three groups based on their chemical structure:
- amino acid derivatives – this group of hormones are synthesized from the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan.
- peptide hormones – this class includes some of the hormones of interest to bodybuilders, such as GH and insulin.
- lipid derivatives – also known as steroid hormones, this class includes testosterone. They are structurally similar to cholesterol and are release by the male and female reproductive organs.
It should be noted that hormones must first bind to a receptor to affect a target cell, these receptors are a protein molecule ( after water, your body is made of protein, it affects everything). Each cell has receptors for responding to several different hormones.
The main anabolic hormones in the body are:
- Growth hormone or somatropin – stimulates cell growth and replication by accelerating the rate of protein synthesis. Although every cell responds to GH to a point, muscle cells are particularly responsive to GH. The main stimulation of growth by GH is indirect: liver cells respond to the presence of GH by synthesizing and releasing somatomedins, also more commonly known as Insulin-like growth factor which is a peptide hormone that binds to receptor sites. In muscle fibers IGF-1 increases the rate of the uptake of amino acids and their incorporation to new proteins. These effects happen quickly, and is important after a meal – I'm sure you can see the implications as they tie into a bodybuilder's typical six small meals a day eating plan. GH is also involved in fat burning, this takes effect some time after meals when blood glucose levels are normal again.
- Insulin – this is also a peptide hormone released by the pancreas when glucose concentrations exceed normal levels. Elevated levels of arginine and leucine also cause this hormone to be released. Insulin effects are asserted through a series of steps that begins when it binds to receptor proteins on the cell membrane, which leads to activation of the receptor which attaches phosphate groups to intracellular enzymes. What this means is that it enhances the glucose absorption and utilization and ATP production. It also enhances amino acid absorption and protein synthesis. Additionally, it stimulates fat storage. So it can be seen that insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone but also a double edged sword.
- Testosterone – actually this is part of a hormone group known as gonadotrophins which regulate the activities of the gonads – the ovaries in women and the testes in men. There are two gonadotrophins: follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone, also known as lutropin. This is the hormone that stimulates the sex hormones in men, also called androgens of which the most important is testosterone, certainly one of if not the most widely known hormone in bodybuilding. Often thought of as evil, confused with steroids, and sometimes wrongly frowned upon, testosterone is critical for muscle growth to occur. It's a steroid hormone and is made from cholesterol. Although testosterone is often thought of as a sex hormone as it controls the development of male sexual characteristics, it has a much larger role as it ties into bodybuilding: it promotes protein synthesis and nitrogen balance leading to greater muscle growth.
So, how does all of this affect the bodybuilder? By doing the following:
- The body's natural production of testosterone can be increased through hard work on compound movements such as the squat, dead lift and power clean. When you hear about exercises like these that cause overall growth, or that squats can cause a 10% increase in upper body size, this is why. As far as training, use heavy weights for low reps, say in the 4-6 range. Some will advocate even lower reps as in 1-2 but for bodybuilding purposes 4-6 will work fine. Diet also affects this hormone. Eating a reasonable amount of carbs (no super low carb diet) and some cholesterol in the from of healthy fats is important to maximize release, this leads to the 20% healthy fat to total calories rule.
- Research shows that when GH is secreted along with testosterone, it magnifies the effect of the testosterone. Research also shows that there is a direct connection between the muscle burn of lactic acid buildup and GH release. This is where intensity comes in: you need to use extended set techniques such as forced reps, partials, drop sets, super sets, etc. So now we have a system, if you will, that indicates the use of "power " moves for low reps with heavy weights but then you will need to use moves that allow the use of intensity techniques.
- Insulin being a hormone primarily tied into blood glucose levels, can cause our body to store fat if you have constant spikes all day -remember the "double edged sword" I spoke about? That's why watching your simple carb intake is a good idea as eating to many simple carbs in the absence of complex carbs and/or protein causes insulin surges. It also causes amino acids and creatine to be stored - this promotes protein synthesis. To get the anabolic actions without the fat storage, you want to cause an insulin spike at two key times of the day - first thing in the morning when you first wake up and after your work out. You do this by drinking a mixture of simple carbs and protein, about 40 grams protein to 40-60 grams carbs. Your best carb sources would be either waximaize or a maltodextrin/dextrose combination. You want to get nutrients in the bloodstream as fast as possible after your workout and take advantage of the anabolic actions of insulin at the most critical time, this also starts the recovery and growth process. But in the morning, you are also at a critical time as far as nutrient needs are concerned because you have just come off a short fast while you slept and research shows this creates an anabolic window - take advantage of this by triggering an insulin spike. By keeping all your other meals high in protein and mixed with complex carbs and avoiding simple carbs, you can keep insulin spikes under control during the rest of the day. It's important to note that protein should be at least 1 to 11/2 grams per pound of bodyweight divided over 6 feedings.
As far as routines, some sources will advocate a full body approach for optimal hormone release but I've never liked the typical, 3 days a week full body routines. These routines have you training M-W-F, doing as many as 15 exercises per session and anywhere from 3-6 sets per exercise. Are you kidding me? How can you possibly train hard enough over 90 sets to stimulate growth? On top of that, how can you possibly recover and come back to do it again after just one rest day? You can't. You can, however, benefit from a simpler, compound movement only routine that's great for generating a lot of hormonal release:
- Squats – 3 warm up sets, 2 working sets of 8-10 reps
- Dead lifts – 2 working sets of 8-10 reps
- Bench press – 1 warm up set, 2 working sets of 8-10 reps
- Clean and press – 2 sets of 8 reps
- Wide grip upright rows – 1 set of 8 reps
- Underhand close grip chins – 1 set of 8 reps
- Close grip bench press – 1 set of 8 reps
Rep performance: heavy weight for reps in the 8-10 range, use rest pause and forced reps to promote "the burn" which helps to promote GH release. So you will pick a weight that allows you to fail before 6 reps, say at 4 reps. Then use a rest pause of an 8 count to knock a few more reps, then do it again. Do not take longer than an 8 count! If you do not feel enough of a burn at the end of the set, you can add static holds, where you would stop at the half-way point of the rep and count to 5, do this on all reps (use a power rack and have spotters). This will definitely increase the intensity of the set but you may have to work up to it. This will be an awkward technique, however, on certain movements like deads and cleans, so avoid it on those exercises.
For rep performance, I like to use explosive up and slow down on my sets, and I don't like to pause at the top. This type of continuous tension keeps constant tension on the muscle, when you pause at the top, you take tension off the muscle. Add weight on all exercises every workout, even if it's just a few pounds. This is a great routine to use periodically to get that maximal hormone release and to provide some variety to your training.
Now this is a good routine but what about a split system? After all, one of the big inherent disadvantages to any full body is the inability to completely work a muscle for optimal development. While I do think a fundamental push/pull/legs split with maybe delts on their own day is the best choice for this approach, any split can work. It's more about the exercise selection and performance than anything else.
So then here's a sample split routine:
Routine # 1: push/pull/legs/delts
Training day 1: Back, biceps, abs
- Dead lifts
- 3 easy warm up sets of 12-15 reps.
- 3 workings sets, 4-6 reps. Do not sacrifice form for weight.
- Lat pull downs
- T bar rows – do these as a super set, do partials at the end of the set. 8-10 reps on the pull downs, 8-10 on the T bars.
- EZ bar 21's – an old Arnold favorite
- 7 reps in the first half of the movement
- 7 at the top half but do not lock out, stop the rep about ¾ of the way up to keep tension on the biceps
- and 7 full reps, again do not lock out.
- Hammer curls – 2 sets of 8-10 reps. These will hit the forearms and that little muscle between the biceps and triceps that can add a lot to arm size.
- Crunches- 2 sets of 30 reps
Performance notes: explosive up, slow and controlled down on all reps, no pausing, no momentum. On the back movements remember to start with your lats, not your arms.
Training day 2: Chest, triceps, abs
- Bench Press
- warm up with 3 sets of 12-15 reps, these are easy sets.
- 3 working sets of 4-6 reps, use a weight that allows you to fail at 6 reps.
- Incline press- use a lower incline to better hit the upper chest.
- Incline flys
- do these as a super set but set up 3 progressively lighter pairs of bells and do a triple drop.
- Do 2 super set/drop set combos, 6-8 reps on the press and 8 reps initially on the flys, as many as you can get on the remaining two drops.
- Here's a great triceps movement:
- EZ lying extension/pullover/press – this is one exercise, all one set, you begin by doing extensions behind your head, not a skull crusher but behind your head, go right into pullovers keeping the bar close to your head and then go right into close grip presses. 3 sets of 8 reps for each movement within the exercise.
- Crunches – 2 sets of 35 reps
Performance notes: explosive up, slow down on all reps, no pausing and no momentum. Get a good stretch on the flys. For triceps don't purposely keep your elbows tight to your head, allow them to find a natural spot, this saves a lot of wear and tear on the joints.
Training day 3: Legs
- Squats – set it up this way: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, increase weight with each set, your working sets are the 8, 6 and 4 sets, these are heavy sets.
- Leg extensions - drop weight on the squats, enough to allow 10 solid reps, super set with the extensions, you will be doing drops on the extensions, allow for 3-5 drops ( sounds like fun, doesn't it?) On your first set go for 8-10 resp, then as many as you can get on the remaining drops.
- Leg curls- 3 sets of 10 reps, do partials at the end.
- Standing calf raises – 2 sets of 50 reps
- Seated calf raises – 2 sets of 35 reps
Performance notes: do your reps the same – explosive up, slow and controlled down, no momentum. On extensions, use a slight pause at the top to extend the burn, on calf raises get a good stretch at the top. On squats, keep your knees behind your toes.
Training day 4: Deltoids, traps, abs
- Clean and press – set this up like this: 12, 10, 8, 6. Use a weight that allows good form, do not sacrifice form for heavy weight. If you are at all unsure how to do this exercise, substitute overhead presses instead.
- Side laterals
- Rear laterals -do both of these as a triple drop super set, 8-10 reps each exercise, as many as you can on each remaining drop on each exercise
- Haney Shrugs – 2 sets of 12 reps. These are done behind the back, an old Lee Haney favorite.
- Crunches – 2 sets of 50 reps
Performance notes: again, be sure you know how to do the cleans which if you do know how are one of the great exercises. Do your reps the same: explosive up, slow down, no pausing, no momentum. On laterals keep your pinky above your thumb.
This routine is one example of how to approach the hormonal concept.
We touched on nutrition earlier, as far as supplementation is concerned, besides a good protein powder I would use creatine, nitric oxide, glutamine, a solid pre workout drink, I would consider a intra workout drink which is great for keeping you anabolic while you train such as Mass Xplosion by Nutrex ( this has exciting implications) and of course there are quite a few good, natural herbal based testosterone boosters out there ( pro-hormones are all but gone by the time you read this).
My hope with this brief review is to give some of you insight to better gains. Feel free to email me with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology, 7th edition, p591-628.