Testosterone Spikes: Predictor of Performance?

For a long time, I’d never really considered the hormonal aspects of training as being very important. It seems like a lot of wanking over what is, at best, a transient hormonal spike in response to a stimulus (in this case, exercise).

We’re talking brief here, like 45-60 minutes of increased testosterone which is, at best, a slight elevation off baseline. Steroid cycles have to magnify this level many times over to see drastic results.

However, there has been some correlation between testosterone and cortisol levels with the condition of the athlete. The first group I’m aware of that really investigated it were Lon Kilgore and Glenn Pendlay, who determined that the ratio of testosterone to cortisol was an accurate predictor of the state of the athlete — a marker of overtraining and overreaching, in other words.

Pendlay, G. and L. Kilgore (2001). Hormonal fluctuation: A new method for the programming of training. Weightlifting USA 19(2): 15.

Other (apparently unpublished) thesis research from Glenn Pendlay and Michael Hartmann has more or less confirmed that the test:cortisol ratio is depressed during hard training, but when unloading occurs it will sharply increase above baseline after adequate rest has occurred.

It seems like there’s definitely a correlation between testosterone levels and the athlete’s condition, even if it’s not responsible.

Is there anything more to it? There just might be.

I came across this in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:

Salivary Testosterone and Cortisol Responses in Professional Rugby Players After Four Resistance Exercise Protocols
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 22(2):426-432, March 2008.

The acute response of free salivary testosterone (T) and cortisol (C) concentrations to four resistance exercise (RE) protocols in 23 elite men rugby players was investigated. We hypothesized that hormonal responses would differ among individuals after four distinct RE protocols: four sets of 10 repetitions (reps) at 70% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM) with 2 minutes’ rest between sets (4 x 10-70%); three sets of five reps at 85% 1RM with 3 minutes’ rest (3 x 5-85%); five sets of 15 reps at 55% 1RM with 1 minute’s rest (5 x 15-55%); and three sets of five reps at 40% 1RM with 3 minutes’ rest (3 x 5-40%). Each athlete completed each of the four RE protocols in a random order on separate days. T and C concentrations were measured before exercise (PRE), immediately after exercise (POST), and 30 minutes post exercise (30 POST). Each protocol consisted of four exercises: bench press, leg press, seated row, and squats. Pooled T data did not change as a result of RE, whereas C declined significantly. Individual athletes differed in their T response to each of the protocols, a difference that was masked when examining the pooled group data. When individual data were retrospectively tabulated according to the protocol in which each athlete showed the highest T response, a significant protocol-dependent T increase for all individuals was revealed. Therefore, RE induced significant individual, protocol-dependent hormonal changes lasting up to 30 minutes after exercise. These individual responses may have important ramifications for modulating adaptation to RE and could explain the variability often observed in studies of hormonal response to RE.

Basically what they did here is test these guys out on the workout protocols, then check their T responses after the fact. The responses were interesting, as there was no single protocol that created the greatest effect.

This was followed up:

Significant Strength Gains Observed in Rugby Players after Specific Resistance Exercise Protocols Based on Individual Salivary Testosterone Responses
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:Volume 22(2)March 2008pp 419-425

Our previous work has demonstrated that professional athletes show protocol-dependent variability in salivary testosterone (T) responses to resistance exercise (RE). The current study examines the consistency and functional outcomes of prescribing a RE regimen based on T response. We hypothesized that prescribing an individual-specific RE protocol based on T response would enhance weight training gains. Sixteen amateur rugby players [(mean ± SD) age: 20 ± 2 years; height: 181.5 ± 8.2 cm; weight: 94.2 ± 11.1 kg] were characterized by their maximal (Tmax) and minimal (Tmin) T response to four RE protocols: four sets of 10 repetitions (reps) at 70% of one repetition maximum (1RM) with 2 minutes’ rest between sets (4 ×10-70%); three sets of five reps at 85% 1RM with 3 minutes’ rest (3 × 5-85%); five sets of 15 reps at 55% of 1RM with 1 minute’s rest (5 × 15-55%); and three sets of 5 reps at 40% 1RM with 3 minutes’ rest (3 × 5-40%). Eight athletes then performed a 3-week training block performing only their Tmax protocol. The remaining eight only performed Tmin. After 3 weeks, the athletes were retested on the RE protocols and then crossed over and performed the alternate 3-week training block. All 16 athletes showed significant increases in estimated bench and leg press 1RM strength and bodyweight while performing Tmax. When Tmin was performed, 75% of athletes showed either no change or a significant decline in 1RM performance. Consistent protocol-responses over the experimental period were seen for both the Tmax and Tmin protocols in 12 of 16 athletes. Thus, a relationship between an individual’s biologically available T response to RE and enhanced functional gains is reported.

The protocol that caused the greatest T response also correlated with the greatest performance gains; likewise, the lowest T response was associated with the lowest T response.

Not surprisingly, this varied across the groups – there was no single superior protocol among them.

Now, as with most research of this nature (sadly), there are some potentially serious problems. Salivary hormonal tests may not be the most accurate things out there, for one. They seem close to the mark here, but they may have some issues that need to be accounted for. Secondly, the sample size in both of these studies is fairly small.

On the bright side, at least they’re done in trained athletes – but even this can have some problems. It’s known that elite athletes tend to have a “better managed” hormone response to exercise, for one. Not that this was the case, but it’s something to be aware of.

All in all, this does at least implicate the T response with positive adaptations to training. Whether or not it’s the causal factor is still unknown (and potentially unlikely, all things considered), but there’s definitely a correlation that would be stupid to ignore.

What I like most of all is the use of a relatively cheap and easy (compared to blood tests, anyway) method of measuring hormonal status and correlating it positively with performance. This would be a rather easy way of prescribing training, by assessing the hormonal response, not to mention the ability to monitor potential overtraining symptoms.

Doubtful that it’s a magic pill in any event, but a useful tool regardless.

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