Is Intense Training Actually Bad For You?

Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to your body, training year after training year, as you age? You gain muscle slowly each year while you continually stress your joints, deal with fluctuating hormones and go through numerous diets, you also undergo constant changes in your hormones, brain neurotransmitters, inflammatory markers, advanced glycation end markers, blood sugar cholesterol and blood pressure.

So when you go to your doctors office and he tells you that you have high cholesterol and low testosterone causing his only response to be “well your older”, then you know you’re screwed and need to go on potentially dangerous medicine. Not your health but your guidance from your doctor.

When I first started training around the age of 14 or 15, I remember seeing supplement advertisements that detailed how fast your testosterone dip after the age of 21. So I thought to myself “ I only get 21 years out of my testosterone?”

The fact remains that all the old rules that applies to the general population, who's physiques generally serve body doubles for Homer Simpson, do not apply to the average Physique Formula reader who’s physique and performance goals more closely resembles a NFL tight end (or for the ladies, a bad ass female super hero).

Here’s a few lessons that I’ve learned from monitoring blood tests and working with both elite athletes and “regular” everyday people that can help you avoid some of the common pitfalls of aging associated with hard training and extreme body composition goals.

Note: this is obviously not medical advice and should not be taken as such. It is also a good idea to regularly have your blood work checked by either your primary care physician or a testing company where you can decide which blood tests you’d like.

Lesson 1: Testosterone production doesn’t need to be boosted, it needs to be optimized.

The bodybuilding and performance worlds are enamored with increasing testosterone since everyone views testosterone as the muscle building hormone. I find it ironic that hard training individuals, bodybuilders and elite Crossfitters often suffer from clinically significant low levels of testosterone since often times, they think they are doing everything to optimize their testosterone.

The first area that needs to be addressed for these folks is their overall training volume. While multi joint exercises like squats and deadlifts do increase testosterone production more so than a concentration curl, the weird internet knowledge that a squat results in some Incredible Hulk like surge of testosterone, just doesn’t hold up.

Furthermore, the same exercises that increase testosterone are also the more physically taxing exercises on both the hormonal and central nervous systems. To spice things up further, advanced trainees tend to train multiple times per week and Crossfit games hopefuls often train two to three time per day.

Yet they are somehow surprised when they experience low testosterone and the various symptoms of low testosterone including erectile dysfunction. Aside from the sexual impact, aging lifters often present with the following elevations in their blood work

2-Increased Inflammation.

Studies who were given testosterone replacement therapy saw reduced inflammation markers including IL-1B, TNF-a and C-reactive protein.

3-Cognitive decline.

If you’re in your late thirties or early forties and notice simple mental tasks are harder then it’s likely linked to your testosterone levels according to studies.

4-Body fat.

This is a hard pill to swallow for  most readers who are diligent about their diet but if you’ve been struggling lately to get leaner than it can be a sign of low testosterone.

5-High blood sugar.

Another health marker that would confuse dedicated trainers who keep their sugar and carbohydrate intake low.Studies have suggested that low testosterone is linked to increased blood sugar levels. A study of 1,400 men found that those who were in the lower one-third of subjects in free testosterone levels were four times more likely to have diabetes than those with the top one third of free testosterone.

While I don’t expect dedicated trainers to have diabetes, this study does show a link between low testosterone and impaired blood sugar function.

6-High cholesterol.

If you routinely consume high levels of omega-3 fish oil and other fats like organic olive oil and organic coconut oil while minimizing pro inflammatory fats then you would expect your HDL or “good” cholesterol to be high and it likely will.

Yet your LDL or “bad” cholesterol and ApoB, which is the main component of LDL may be elevated

 Your doctors response will be to put you on cholesterol lowering medicine without realizing that age related increases in cholesterol ,according to one 2002 study, are a result of  the body increasing cholsterol levels to compensate for your low testosterone levels. Remember, cholesterol is a raw hormone material. You can go on any vegan, fish only, no meat diet that you like but you’ll only see marginal improvements in your cholesterol levels unless you fix your testosterone levels.

So what is it that actually lowers your testosterone besides hard training like Crossfit?

We’ve already identified aging and training volume as factors that reduce testosterone levels but is there anything else?

Is it the numerous environmental factors that impact testosterone production such as exposure to BPA and other xenoestrogens or nutritional factors including sugar and alcohol intake that are causing these low testosterone numbers?

The answer is more complex, as we age, our levels of DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) decrease. DHEA is a steroid hormones that is produced in the adrenal glands and is the abundant naturally occurring hormone in the human body.

DHEA is also the precursor or raw material that the body uses to build testosterone as well as estrogen and progesterone among other hormones. Not only are we getting older which naturally depletes DHEA levels but we’re also pushing our bodies which likely causes a degree of adrenal exhaustion or fatigue as I’ve discussed years ago. You can debate adrenal fatigue until you’re blue in the face but if you have all the symptoms of low testosterone including erectile dysfunction, lack of energy and a overall feeling of fatigue then you likely suffer from some decreased levels of DHEA.

Go ahead and get your blood work done and examine your total testosterone as well as your free testosterone. While we focus on our total testosterone number, our free testosterone is equally important since it indicates the level of testosterone that our body can readily use. If you have a low total testosterone number then you’re not going to have a high free testosterone number.

I don’t bring up DHEA to proclaim it as miracle bodybuilding supplement and I’m sure, if you’ve been around long enough you’ve tried it. As a recent article in a bodybuilding magazine summed it up,DHEA is a poor pro hormone. That’s because it never was suppose to be a pro hormone.

If DHEA supplementation didn’t work for you in the past then it’s likely because your body did not need it. DHEA supplementation isn't going to bring your testosterone levels up to 900 ng/dl, which is considered very high testosterone. Instead, DHEA supplementation combined with proper nutrition and training will increase your natural testosterone to average or above average levels which, if everything else is in order, will allow for noticeable gains in muscle mass and strength. Studies also show that the positive impact of DHEA supplement doesn’t vary with age.