ABC – Can a testosterone-challenged man still be muscular?

Hey Bret, 

I’ve got an ABC (Ask Bret Contreras) question for you. Can someone be consistently on the lower end of the normal range for testosterone and still be muscular? And if so, why?

Thanks, Bobby

Hey Bobby! Testosterone is valuable for hypertrophy for many reasons, including increased protein synthesis, increased growth factor activity (growth hormone, IGF-1, etc.), and increased satellite cell activation. In addition to its anabolic effects on muscle, testosterone also acts on the nervous system and can increase neurotransmitter release and nerve regeneration. So testosterone is definitely a good thing. But high levels are not mandatory for muscular growth, which is why some women are able to grow larger muscles than some men despite the fact that they produce one-tenth to one-twentieth the testosterone levels of men. Here’s why:

According to research, satellite cell efficiency appears to be the most important factor in muscular growth. Some folks have efficient satellite cell systems while others don’t. Satellite cells are located between the basil lamina and sarcolemma toward the periphery of the myofibers and function like stem cells. Once a nucleus and its surrounding sarcoplasm reaches approximately 2,000 square micrometers per nucleus (or 17-25% of the fiber’s initial size), a threshold is reached and additional nuclei are required for further growth (this has been coined the “myonuclear domain”). Efficient satellite cell systems are generous with their donation of nuclei to myofibers, and they’re also very expedient at replenishing themselves so the available pool stays bountiful. Poor satellite cell systems are stingy with their nuclei and inefficient at renewing themselves.

While testosterone is indirectly related to satellite cell efficiency through increased IGF-1 production (which has been shown to activate satellite cells) and increased androgen receptor density (which has been shown to be abundant in satellite cell nuclei), it appears that mechanical tension and muscular damage (and the associated macrophage/cytokine release) are closely related to satellite cell behavior as well. Mechanical tension also stimulates growth through increased mechanogrowth factor release and activation of the Akt/mTOR pathway, which appears to be a dominant pathway leading to muscular hypertrophy.

Another important consideration is how the low testosterone levels come about. To illustrate a point, let’s consider two examples at opposite ends of the extremes.

Male number one trains hard six days per week via heavy squatting, pulling, and pressing. He’s consistently oscillating between stimulating and overreaching. He eats and sleeps well and has low stress levels, but since he trains so hard his testosterone levels are usually on the low end.

Male number two doesn’t lift weights. All day long he sits on the couch, drinks beer, takes pain killers, smokes weed, eats cheetos, drinks red bull, doesn’t sleep well, is stressed out all the time because he can never pay his bills, and is sick all the time. Furthermore, he lives in an area where xanoestrogens are abundant and he’s sucking down PCB and BPA by the liter. Here would be the differences between the two guys:

As you can see, there are multiple (and many redundant) pathways to muscular hypertrophy, and even though testosterone helps tremendously, one can still see dramatic gains despite suffering from low testosterone levels.

10 Comments

  • Greg Castro says:

    Brilliant article about Testosterone and how the quantity of which affects people with varied personalities and or lifestyles.

  • dMorales says:

    hi Bret,
    Just wondering when the new eBook is coming out? I believe you said end of Jan in a interview

  • Coffee says:

    Bet that dude in the first pic has a sick set of spinal erectors.
    Bret whens your article/ebook on disc degeneration comming out? Will it help explain how Hershel Walkers back withstands thousands of daily situps?

  • Matias says:

    @ coffee that dude in the first pic is Ivan Stoitsov. He has a lot more than good spinal erectors.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAuS0R4dozs

    • Nick Efthimiou says:

      Yeah, he has a good pharmacist too 😉

      Not to get all cynical, because he is a sick lifter, and I’m sure not the only one doping, but he got caught and was banned – missed Beijing Olympics. Wonder if he will be back for London?

      Using a picture of him to illustrate a hard training-low testosterone guy probably wasn’t the best choice 🙂

  • Brion says:

    Thank you for the info Bret I am 38 and I have ad Gullianbrae Syndrome twice. I have recovered but I have nerve damage in my hands and feet. I recently started taking Propionate and Cypionate injections and I have notice my hands and feet were not as numb. I am thinking the testosterone is helping. My father has parkinson’s and I am wondering if this can help him as well or HGH.

    • william mcniff says:

      I has chemo induced raynauds disease and neuropathy, I think the weekly test cyp has helped very much reducing those side effects.

  • sjb says:

    hey Bret I got my test levels checked at 16.3 nmol/l and I’m 20 years old. is that low for my age and will it affect my strength/mass? thanks

  • Tom says:

    Bret, I couldnt help but notice something you said in this article: “but since he trains so hard his testosterone levels are usually on the low end.” Does this mean that hard training can reduce hour testosterone levels? The reason I ask is that I had routine bloodwork done and was surprised to learn that my testosterone was low. I had been lifting pretty hard around then and was actually sore from the previous days workout.

  • celicaxx says:

    Not a good example of the difference between the two guys. Guy on the right has been popped for steroids.

    A better example of high testosterone and low is the guy who plays pickup basketball for 2 hours, then goes and bench presses for 20 minutes after the game and casually does 300 for reps while not obsessively lifting weights and looking up training info on the internet and not even training consistently, then does some muscle ups after benching and goes home and smokes weed and eats Doritos and frozen pizza.

    Meanwhile, low test guy looks more like the left picture, while lifting weights 3-4x per week for hours at a time, looking up training info obsessively, being tired and shitty feeling all the time and thinking it’s only from overtraining, even if the tired shitty feeling doesn’t go if he tries to go a week or more with no training. For all this effort he gets “Do you even lift?” from people he knows, and a nice low 200s bench (if that) after years of training. Meanwhile, some online guru says the problem is “no, you added triceps extensions and curls after benching, you did 6×4 instead of 5×5, you ruined the magic program I made!”

    At least this is my experience with a “low normal” (which is not a normal level at all for a young male and is a bottom 5% level) testosterone level. But no, it won’t be roses and you won’t look like Ivan Stoitsov if you just work harder bro and do this next new exercise and diet trick. Every strength guru instead of this nonsense should just be honest and tell people to go to a damned doctor and get their levels checked if they can’t progress somewhat easily, and have problems with feeling tired or run down, lacking motivation, etc all the time. I mean thanks for the science, and that yes, it’s obviously possible to build more muscle and be much stronger than a sedentary person eating Doritos all day, but that does not make having low test fine and dandy.

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