Low Testosterone, Cortisol & CrossFit

Johnnie,

I need some advice; an athlete of mine was recently told that his low testosterone readings at his general health check-up could be a result of his “metcons”. The argument was that his “metcons” are raising his cortisol levels and lowering his testosterone levels. 

Would putting this athlete on the amateur program coupled with shorter “metcons” (in the 7-12 min range) be an appropriate course of action or suggestion?

Thanks!

Katie S.

low-testosterone

Katie,

I have been grinding on getting JWOD launched and new training cycles for Jacked Street and Field Strong but when this landed in my inbox, I decided to take a detour. There is a lot of confusion in traditional circles when it comes to hormone testing. And sometimes the least knowledgeable people are the guys in white coats evaluating the tests.

Lets start with Hormone Testing 101 and look at some simple reasons why your athlete’s test "could" less than optimal.

First, performing the blood draw too soon after an intense workout would make the test a colossal waste of time.

Strength training and working out causes your testosterone levels to go up significantly, and then in a rebound effect, your testosterone levels will be greatly reduced the next morning. The standard rule for anyone experienced in the hormone testing of athletes is to wait 72 hours after working out for accurate testosterone levels.

Another common factor that will result in a low testosterone score on an androgen test is the consumption of alcohol the night before. Alcohol significantly impairs testosterone production and could be another factor in a low score.

The next one is sleep. If you fail to sleep within your circadian rhythm (10 pm – 2 am) and go to bed late, this can adversely affect your testosterone levels when tested the next morning.

According to good friend, former Navy SEAL and sleep expert, Doctor Kirk Parsley, "Getting less than 6 hours sleep one night: lowers serum testosterone 30%, IGF-1 30%, Insulin sensitivity by 30%, Increases fasting insulin and fasting blood glucose about the same, and lowers sex drive by 25-30%."

Also, we need to understand the difference between total testosterone and free testosterone. Were both values tested?

And just for future reference, you can’t contact me about low testosterone without including some values complete with ranges and what you are doing for training. While total testosterone is not as vital as free, it is still important, as it is the pool we “pull” free testosterone from. The free testosterone number indicates that testosterone is more available for our desired use, like building muscle, increased energy, boosted sex drive and being able to Sparta kick a dude into a bottomless pit.

sparta_kick_high_testosterone

Now that we established some reasons your client could have had a poor test, lets look at some basic physiology. Good chance many of you may have likely forgotten or never were taught back in your scholarly years, but it always good as refresher.

“Strength training activates the synthesis of contractile muscle proteins and causes fiber hypertrophy only when there are sufficient substances for protein repair and growth.” – Zatsiorsky

Before I go further, I'm going to define anabolic and catabolic so we can all get on the same page.

*Anabolic means to promote anabolism. Anabolism refers to the building process that occurs in the body, like when you build muscle.

*Catabolic refers to the metabolic process that breaks molecules down into smaller units and released energy. This could be the body breaking muscle down into energy to be used to lift weights

The building blocks of the proteins that Zatsiorsky talks about are called amino acids and must be readily available for optimal recovery during rest periods, with aminos being the product of protein digestion. The full gambit of amino acids is required in the blood for the anabolic effect to take place. Amino acids come as a result of proper nutrition and eating a sufficient amount of protein.

There will always be those hard charging athletes wanting to use a low carb or ketogenic diet while pushing hard glycolytic workouts day after day. What they always seem to forget is proper intake of protein and carbohydrates before and after a workout affects the amount of testosterone that will bind to androgen receptors, with increased binding of testosterone to these receptors is a good thing. This allows the testosterone to signal the body to increase protein synthesis and rebuild muscle.

In the Johnnie WOD Starter's Guide, I recommended a pre and post workout protocol to maximize circulating insulin in the body. This will result in a greater uptake of amino acids into the muscles. GH secretion from the pituitary gland and IGF-1 from the liver can be maximized when macronutrients like carbs and protein are present while training.

*If you want to get a copy of the Johnnie WOD Starter's Guide click here. 

As I stated earlier, athletes with great strength requirements need to consume adequate amounts of protein to speed recovery. In addition to a large amounts of amino acids, an athlete needs a healthy androgen profile. This specially includes anabolic hormones, testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factors and catabolic hormones like cortisol. These hormones are secreted from glands within the body.

Remember strength training changes the level of anabolic hormones circulating in the blood by increasing resting serum testosterone concentrations. The higher the testosterone the greater increase of muscle hypertrophy and central nervous system efficency. It's worth mentioning that growth hormone levels increase the most during exercise with heavy weights.

*In his book, Zatsiorsky gives the percentages of 70-85% of maximal force to increase GH levels. He states there is no change in serum GH when the resistance is reduced to allow completion of 21 or more reps.

When a muscle is trained to failure, as in HITT or CrossFit, lactic acid is produced. Training multi-jointed movements coupled with short rest periods to muscular failure produces lactic acid. And the body releases GH in response to lactic acid.

While the pathway might not be entirely clear, there is an interesting study that linked people with McArdle's Disease (their bodies don’t produce lactic acid during exercise) and a lack of exercise induced growth hormone release during workouts.

Many of us understand the value of testosterone and growth hormone, but it seems the catabolic hormone, cortisol, secreted by the adrenal glands always gets blamed when testosterone levels suck. This comes from cortisol being released in response to stress, and when in released in large amounts suppresses immune function.

caffeine-jwod-cortisol

Entire books have been written about testosterone, but cortisol is less understood. However, cortisol is no different than any of the hormones in the body, but it gets lumped in the same internment camp with insulin. Hormones are not good or bad, they just a role in creating homeostasis in the body.

Lets take a look at cortisol; it is a steroid hormone which is produced in the adrenal cortex of the kidney. It is a stress hormone, which stimulates gluconeogenesis, which is the formation of glucose from sources other than glucose, such as amino acids and free fatty acids. Cortisol also inhibits the use of glucose by cells. This can initiate protein break down, freeing amino acids to be used to make different proteins and decreasing protein synthesis.

As it relates to hypertrophy and muscle repair, an increase in cortisol results in an increase protein breakdown. And since cortisol breaks down muscle, it should be counterproductive to putting on muscle and some chasing hypertrophy.

But I am not sure it is that simple.

Layne Norton made reference to research done in Canada that stated, an increases in lean body mass and hypertrophy of Type II muscle fibers were most closely associated with elevated cortisol levels. It stated muscle growth was mostly associated with elevated cortisol, not testosterone, growth hormone, or IGF-1.

Elevated cortisol levels in the body during and post workout might not be the boogie man we have been lead to believe. But more research needs to be done to see how long as a workout would it be advantageous to keep cortisol elevated. Remember, consuming CHO/PRO in a PWO shake blunts cortisol as does static stretching.

I do not believe elevated cortisol is dangerous when it comes to training and frankly, I believe it is necessary. But where it becomes problematic is when it is constantly elevated due stress and disease. These are likely to result in catabolism from other factors like lack of sleep, poor recovery and sub-optimal nutrition choices.

Sounds similar to how I view insulin - elevating insulin is necessary to refuel cells but where people run into problems is with chronically elevated insulin.

I am guessing the fact that you are sending me this email is because your client asked you about cortisol and the relationship to Crossfit and you didn't know what to tell him. Lets start with CrossFit; by definition CrossFit is, “Constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensity.”

This means by performing a constant barrage of new movements, in varying time domains and in infinite combinations we avoid accommodation and can drive perpetual adaptation. Am I correct in assuming you are training your clients in this manner?

If you are not, and your clients are executing the same movement patterns with the same implements over the same time domains, then you could run into overuse injuries, elevated cortisol which can lead to adrenal fatigue.

By constantly varying movements, we tap into different fibers and metabolic pathways and can continually drive adaptation. Interesting fact, as fibers and neuromuscular pathways fatigue, new ones are recruited to complete our given training task. By tapping into these unused fibers, we can create a new stimulus that can result in increased muscle mass. Assuming there is adequate protein consumption and cortisol levels are not chronically elevated outside the post workout-training window.

So to answer your question, do I believe that metabolic conditioning circuits, like the ones used in CrossFit, are lowering your testosterone levels?

No.

Do I believe that elevated cortisol due to compounding poor lifestyle factors could be contributing to your less than optimal testosterone levels?

Chances are strong.

John

John

John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and creator of Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year starter in the National Football League and NFL veteran. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early and retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL and other professional and Olympic athletes. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete and the CrossFit Speciality Seminar: Sports Specific Application. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie or at Power Athlete.

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Posted in Talk to Me Johnnie | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

3 Responses to Low Testosterone, Cortisol & CrossFit

  1. Conor Lynch

    Dear John,

    Reading this post made me feel like Marty McFly did when Doc explained how he invented the Flux Capacitor and then turned the DeLorean into a time machine.

    Damn fine work sir.

  2. Ingo "Joey Swole" B

    I’d like to think this coach who wrote in already did their due diligence with the basics (in this case, diet and recovery/sleep), but I wouldn’t be shocked if not. This is a really good example of folks not keeping things simple. Sometimes too much info isn’t a good thing, and the best solution is often the simplest.

  3. JayBird

    Legit ad always

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