Hormones and their behaviors are, arguably, the most important players when it comes to training adaptations and increasing performance, keeping a healthy sex-life with your partner, and maintaining your overall health. But, what do you know about hormones? Yes, they were, in part, responsible for plenty of awkward moments during your teenage years. But, what do you REALLY know about them?
If the last time you really thought about hormones was when you spent hours studying for your CSCS or zoned out in Anatomy 101, you’re probably not alone.
Don’t worry if you aren’t as well-versed in hormonal knowledge as this guy. Just as they are extremely important regulating factors in your body’s response to training, they are an incredibly deep and complex topic. The goal of this article is to serve as a field guide for how hormones affect training. We’ll be digesting the complexity of the scientific literature into a reference for you to increase your knowledge base and empower your performance as a coach.
What is a hormone?
Before we tear into the meat of this topic, let’s start with the simple question, “What is a hormone?” A hormone is simply a signaling molecule that your body produces as a response to…something. Think of them as regulators, responsible for driving the many processes in the body. Why can young men pack on muscle so easily? High levels of testosterone and growth hormone. What causes the dreaded #DadBod? Cortisol mostly, but likely paired up with it’s buddy insulin. That feeling you got when you earned your place at the table? All epinephrine and norepinephrine!
Now knowing a bit more about hormones at play, let’s peel back the layers a bit more.
Two types of hormones
In humans, there are three classes of hormones but we will address the two you have the greatest control over:
These fat-soluble hormones are derived from cholesterol and can be thought of in two classes: corticosteroids and sex steroids. Fat soluble means they passively diffuse into the cell meaning your body doesn’t have to spend any energy getting them to where they want to go.
The first fat-soluble steroid would include cortisol, the major stress hormone, as well as aldosterone, a major player in blood pressure regulation. Sex steroids would include progesterone (pregnancy and menstruation regulation), estrogens (female secondary sex characteristics), and testosterone (male secondary sex characteristics).
Amino acid derived hormones
These hormones include peptides, polypeptides, and proteins. Some examples are melatonin, insulin, and human growth hormone. These hormones can bind to receptors in both the blood and the cell itself. However, unlike their fat friends above, these hormones are not fat soluble which means they rely on help getting their message sent. These helpers, or secondary messengers, are there to relay the signal sent from hormones bound to the cell membrane
While there are three classes of hormones, for the sake of this field guide we will focus on hormones of the steroid and amino-acid derived classes. This is simply because the “heavy hitters” that can impact our athlete’s training and performance fall into these categories. In true Power Athlete form, we’re going to cut out the bullshit and give you only what you need to empower your performance as a coach. What Bedrock is to unlocking athletic potential, this will be to hormone physiology.
You don’t have to be a genius to notice recurring themes in the physiological actions of these hormones. Growth...protein synthesis...metabolism. While this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of their functions, it’s plain to see managing these hormones will be vital to your athlete’s performance, both in the weight room and on the field. So how do we make sure these hormones are at optimal levels? What’s the secret to success? Three words: sleep, nutrition, training.
Your athlete’s life is a busy one, we get it. We’ve got our main hustle and our side hustle, too. But if you don’t want to be caught slippin’, you’ve got to start sleepin’. There’s just no way around it, but you already knew that.
Continuous sleep through the night (>7hrs) allows for earlier peak levels of testosterone (Luboshitky et al., 2001), higher peak levels of growth hormone release (Takahashi et al., 1968), increased insulin sensitivity (Buxton et al., 2010), increased plasma levels of IGF-1 (Prinz et al., 1995), decreased resting cortisol levels (Spiegel et al., 1999), and better regulation of sympathetic nervous activity (epinephrine and norepinephrine) (Meerlo et al., 2008).
While time spent in the weight room is important, it's time spent in bed that really builds the machine. The breakdown that occurs during training only works if they can be put back together. For a deeper dive in the importance of sleep, check out Dr. Kirk Parsley and Cheri Mah on the Premier Podcast in Strength and Conditioning-ing...ing.
If sleep is when the pieces get put back together, it’s your athletes nutrition that will provide many of the building blocks for those pieces. When talking about maintaining optimal hormone profiles, you’ll want to eat a diet with plenty of monounsaturated and saturated fats (Volek et al., 1997) and stay in a positive nitrogen balance by eating protein (real protein, not salad toppings).
If possible, you’ll want to avoid calorie restriction (Opstad & Aakvaag, 1981) but hormonal balance can be maintained if you stick to the basics. If you want to get more specific and personalized, we’ve got the two most badass nutrition coaches in all of the flat Earth who can work with your athletes to Fuel The Fire.
As a coach, this will be the easiest aspect of your athlete’s program to control. You can suggest sleep and dietary guidelines, but that is up to them to follow. Training, however, is your world. Following a resistance training protocol using repeated repetitions of compound lifts at high intensities (80% 1RM and higher...i.e. Bedrock), athletes will see an acute increase in testosterone (Raastad, Bjøro, & Hallen, 2000), growth hormone (Craig & Kang, 1994), cortisol (Ahtiainen et al., 2003), epinephrine, and norepinephrine (Kraemer et al., 1987).
Chronically, there is evidence that heavy resistance training, specifically eccentric exercises, may down regulate the glucocorticoid receptor content binds to acting as a protective mechanism against the catabolic effects of cortisol (Willoughby et al., 2003). Bottom line: have your athlete lift heavy and often while regularly perform eccentrics (i.e. manual resistance) to allow for the best physiological environment for #gainz.
Blinded by Science
There, now that you know about the importance of hormones, you’ll need to go back and rework all the season planning you’ve done up to this point. PSYCH! Yes, you’re a little more knowledgeable now, but that doesn’t mean you have to change a thing. What it does mean is that you have a more mechanistic tool to use. This doesn’t mean you’ll have to rush to get blood tests every time an athlete misses a lift. But this does allow for a more educated approach to training allowing for more predictable improvements in performance.
- Cadegiani, F. A., & Kater, C. E. (2016). Adrenal fatigue does not exist: a systematic review. BMC endocrine disorders, 16(1), 48.
- Luboshitzky, R., Zabari, Z., Shen-Orr, Z., Herer, P., & Lavie, P. (2001). Disruption of the nocturnal testosterone rhythm by sleep fragmentation in normal men. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 86(3), 1134-1139.
- Takahashi, Y., Kipnis, D. M., & Daughaday, W. H. (1968). Growth hormone secretion during sleep. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 47(9), 2079.
- Buxton, O. M., Pavlova, M., Reid, E. W., Wang, W., Simonson, D. C., & Adler, G. K. (2010). Sleep restriction for 1 week reduces insulin sensitivity in healthy men. Diabetes, 59(9), 2126-2133.
- Volek, Jeff S., et al. "Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise." Journal of Applied Physiology 82.1 (1997): 49-54.
- Leproult, R., & Van Cauter, E. (2011). Effect of 1 week of sleep restriction on testosterone levels in young healthy men. Jama, 305(21), 2173-2174.
- Prinz, P. N., Moe, K. E., Dulberg, E. M., Larsen, L. H., Vitiello, M. V., Toivola, B., & Merriam, G. R. (1995). Higher plasma IGF-1 levels are associated with increased delta sleep in healthy older men. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 50(4), M222-M226.
- Spiegel, K., Leproult, R., & Van Cauter, E. (1999). Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. The lancet, 354(9188), 1435-1439.
- Meerlo, P., Sgoifo, A., & Suchecki, D. (2008). Restricted and disrupted sleep: effects on autonomic function, neuroendocrine stress systems and stress responsivity. Sleep medicine reviews, 12(3), 197-210.
- Opstad, P. K., & Aakvaag, A. (1981). The effect of a high calorie diet on hormonal changes in young men during prolonged physical strain and sleep deprivation. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 46(1), 31-39.
- Raastad, T., Bjøro, T., & Hallen, J. (2000). Hormonal responses to high-and moderate-intensity strength exercise. European journal of applied physiology, 82(1), 121-128.
- Craig, B. W., & Kang, H. Y. (1994). Growth Hormone Release Following Single Versus Multiple Sets of Back Squats: Total Work Versus Power. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 8(4), 270-275.
- Ahtiainen, J. P., Pakarinen, A., Kraemer, W. J., & Häkkinen, K. (2003). Acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses and recovery to forced vs. maximum repetitions multiple resistance exercises. International journal of sports medicine, 24(06), 410-418.
- Kraemer, W. J., Noble, B. J., Clark, M. J., & Culver, B. W. (1987). Physiologic responses to heavy-resistance exercise with very short rest periods. International journal of sports medicine, 8(04), 247-252.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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