How your mental outlook influences the ultimate muscle-building hormone
Testosterone may get a bad rap in some circles these days, but even the least-informed bodybuilder has a pretty good idea that an adequate level of that hormone is paramount for building muscle. Those same bodybuilders also have at least some idea that training, eating, bodybuilding supplements, even sleeping affect their "test" scores, even if they're not exactly sure how. But if you told them that hormone is influenced by moods and attitudes as well, most men wouldn't even admit they have them, let alone consider the possibility that what's going on upstairs can affect what happens bio-chemically below the belt.
Yet, several studies suggest that individuals with winning attitudes enjoy higher testosterone levels, at least temporarily, than those without such an attitude. One group of researchers, for example, measured testosterone levels in six college tennis players and found that testosterone levels began to rise in all of them before their matches, apparently in anticipation of competition. The big surprise came after the fact: The testosterone levels of those who won their matches remained high, while the testosterone levels of those who lost plummeted.
A second group of researchers, at North Dakota State University in Fargo, took things a step further by trying to figure out if it was the competition itself, or the mood produced by winning, that caused the rise in testosterone. In their experiment, male college students either won or lost $5 through a series of coin tosses. The task removed all elements of skill or competition; blind luck determined winners and losers. After the tosses had been completed, the researchers measured the saliva of participants for changes in their testosterone levels. Those who won money experienced a more positive mood and a rise in "test"; those who lost showed a decrease in the latter. The results suggested that the act of winning, rather than the nature of the competition or the skill involved, improves mood and produces an increase in testosterone levels.
Two more recent studies by a single group of researchers went further still by finding that you don't even have to participate actively in winning to experience an increased testosterone release. In one study, the researchers measured the salivary testosterone levels of fans who attended a college basketball game. In another, they took the same measurement of a group who watched a World Cup soccer match on television.
The outcome even surprised the study's lead researcher, Paul Bernhardt, MS, a doctoral candidate in educational psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "Fans don't have much to do with the outcome; they're more like voyeurs to the team's experience of competition," he notes. Nonetheless, experiencing victory even vicariously apparently has a very real effect on a person's hormone levels.
The "Sports Bar" Workout?
Does this mean you can forget about the gym and build huge guns simply by punching ESPN for reps on the clicker? Hardly. For one, the amount of testosterone released as a result of the so-called winning-mood effect probably isn't enough to build muscle directly. The temporary, rather than sustained, nature of the change in "test" levels is also a limiting factor. "The changes in testosterone that seem to accompany winning or losing are fairly short term, so it's hard to see how they would have much anabolic effect," says Allan Mazur, PhD, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University (New York).
What's more, researchers don't yet know if a winning mood affects the release of other substances involved in muscle growth, such as human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor. Nor do the researchers understand the extent to which this effect might occur in women and older men, since their studies have typically examined either male college students or men no older than their early 40s.
The Rise & Fall of Testosterone
Given testosterone's link to muscle growth, many bodybuilders know surprisingly little about it. For example, did you know that testosterone levels vary greatly among different people? Or that women produce the hormone, too, albeit at much lower levels than men? Testosterone levels also tend to be higher right after puberty and then decline slowly throughout adulthood. However, since levels do vary so much among individuals, a man in his 60s can have a higher level of testosterone than some unlucky soul in his 20s.
'A short, mood-induced surge in "test" before or during a workout could theoretically increase concentration, strength and determination
Even within the same individual, testosterone levels can vary by up to 50% during the day, with levels tending to be higher in the morning and lower in the evening. In addition, the body normally produces a number of brief testosterone "spikes" throughout the day. It is possible, therefore, that any short lived boosts in testosterone induced through the winning-mood effect would even out over the course of the day, producing little or no change in the total amount of testosterone produced per day. In that case, any mood-induced rise in testosterone, in and of itself, wouldn't have a significant muscle-building effect. That doesn't mean, however, that bodybuilders can't exploit the winning-mood effect. Even if overall testosterone levels can't be increased significantly over a long period, a short, mood-induced surge in "test" before or during a workout could theoretically increase concentration, strength and determination, at least for a short period of time.
Getting in the Mood for Muscle
How might you try to use a brief increase in testosterone production to your advantage? While this approach hasn't been subjected to controlled studies, the aforementioned ones suggest that the following strategies might help you exploit the winning-mood effect:
SET UP FOR A SURE WIN. Psych yourself up for competition against the weights and stack the odds of winning in your favor by using poundage you know you can handle with strict form. Everyone knows, or at least should know, that using weights that are too heavy will prevent you from using proper form, which dramatically increases the chances for injury. Making matters worse, using excessively heavy weights can damage your confidence. Failing to complete the number of repetitions you thought you could using strict form may adversely affect your mood and possibly lower your testosterone levels. Using a weight you know you can handle will allow you to assume an attitude of confidence toward the weights.
YOU VS. THE MENTAL. Using a weight you know you can handle with strict form, you can then assert your dominance over it. You should be able to complete the reps you set as your target, and in doing so you'll have "defeated" your opponent. That should translate into a better mood and a short-term spike in testosterone.
BASK IN THE GLORY. Since the good mood induced by winning will boost free testosterone levels, according to the research, you can approach the following set with added strength, confidence and determination. That should enable you to bump up your poundage on your next set or, if you choose, train longer that day. Either way, you've just increased the intensity of your workout.
The Bottom Line
So if you're a fan of the Los Angeles Clippers, come to your senses ... I mean, should you start following the Lakers instead to enjoy short-lived boosts in your testosterone levels? Probably not - - while the mood-induced testosterone effect is real, its application to bodybuilders awaits research specific to weight training. Most researchers in the field do agree that the winning-mood effect, even if it were sustained for a significant period, likely wouldn't elevate testosterone levels enough to affect muscle mass directly. ("It is the sort of thing that could be studied experimentally, but I don't know of anyone who has done it," notes Mazur.)
Because elevations in testosterone levels could theoretically produce a distinct mood change, better concentration, more determination and short-term boosts in strength, however, taking a winning attitude into the gym can lead to more focused and intense workouts. And in the long run, that should mean a sounder mind and a bigger body.