Based on the ads we're seeing everywhere, you’d think that exercise is one of the best ways to boost testosterone. But can working out actually have an impact on your hormone levels? And are certain types of exercise better than others? In this article, I’ll answer these questions and more. But first, let’s cover some quick testosterone basics.
What is testosterone?
Testosterone is a growth hormone made by both males and females. In males, it’s made in the testes in the testicular tissue. In females, it’s made in another type of tissue called adrenal tissue.
This hormone is what drives the development of the male phenotype. That means it triggers the onset of puberty, the maturation of typical male characteristics, sexual drive, buildup of lean muscle mass, endurance, and so on. Testosterone is also thought to play a role in mood regulation. As you can see, it's a very important hormone for males.
In females, testosterone plays a role in ovarian function and sex drive, but to a much lesser degree, and is made in much smaller amounts. That’s because for females, it’s a secondary hormone. Instead, the adrenals and the ovaries produce other hormones, such as estrogens, which play a roughly equivalent role.
What causes low testosterone?
Quite a few things can cause low testosterone, especially in men under 50. In addition to factors like insufficient sleep, excessive alcohol consumption, and genetics, there are two big factors to know about that can cause “low T.”
This is the primary cause of low testosterone. Blood levels are very low in infants and children up to the age of 12. When puberty begins, around age 12 or 13, testosterone levels in males rise dramatically. This is typically when you start to see growth spurts, an increase in muscle mass, penis enlargement, and a rise in sexual drive.
This testosterone rise continues until around age 30. From there, it remains in a plateau or starts to slowly drop. In most men over the age of 50 or 60, testosterone has already started to drop. In older men, it continues to decline.
Medical conditions and treatments
When people are sick, testosterone can decline, particularly in those who are over 50. Medical conditions known to impact levels include AIDS, kidney disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and type II diabetes. In fact, chronic disease of any kind can lower your levels. Certain medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, can also decrease testosterone production.
Symptoms of low testosterone
You might be wondering if there are any clues you can pick up that might signal your levels are lacking. Low T can cause a number of symptoms in males including:
- Low libido
- Reduced erectile function
- Reduced muscle and bone strength (testosterone play an important role in muscle protein synthesis)
- Poor concentration and memory
- Loss of body hair
- Increased body fat
How will I know if my levels are low?
The best way to find out if you have low testosterone is by doing a blood test. You can have this test through your healthcare provider, or you can test it on your own at home. (If you discover through an at-home test that your levels are indeed low, you should follow up with your healthcare provider for next steps.)
Levels in adult males should be above 10 nmol/L. When your levels are lower than that, you have what’s known as testosterone insufficiency.
Usually, a doctor will want to test your testosterone level two or three times over the course of six months to establish true insufficiency before moving onto treatment with medication or exogenous hormones.
Can women have low testosterone?
In general, low T in women is a much less of an issue. Although some research has shown women with low libido may be able to increase it by taking testosterone, this hasn’t been fully proven. Other research has shown there’s not much evidence this treatment is effective.
Does exercise increase testosterone?
The short answer is that it’s relatively difficult to increase testosterone substantially through exercise. That said, certain types of exercise may boost your levels a little bit, while others may actually decrease it in some people.
If your main reason for wanting to boost testosterone is to change your body composition or enhance muscle growth, then exercise is likely to be effective—but not necessarily because of a testosterone boost. If your main reason for wanting to boost testosterone is because you have low testosterone, then exercise alone is unlikely to be enough to solve the problem.
The connection to exercise and strength training
If you believe those late-night TV advertisements, you might think that the best way to boost testosterone is by getting on a specific resistance training workout plan, using a particular piece of fitness equipment, or taking a certain supplement before your workout.
I can tell you that most, if not all, of what you see advertised for boosting testosterone won’t work.
So how is exercise related? We don’t understand the mechanism clearly, but we know certain types of exercise can cause a small increase in testosterone.
We also know that regular exercise, along with a healthy diet, can help with maintaining a healthy body weight. Research has shown that obese men have testosterone levels that are about 30% lower than men at healthy weights, and obesity is considered a major cause of low T in men.
The 20 best exercises to increase testosterone levels
There are two types of workouts that have been shown to have a small positive effect on testosterone. Those are weightlifting, and high intensity interval training (HIIT).
One study found that resistance training three times per week for a month resulted in higher levels of testosterone immediately after the workouts and over time. This would seem to indicate that weightlifting can boost testosterone. Research also shows that when you’re weightlifting, you want to minimize rest periods for the largest possible effect.
Another study found that when comparing testosterone levels after running for 45 minutes straight and doing 90 seconds of sprinting followed by 90 seconds of rest for about the same amount of time, the interval workout produced bigger testosterone spikes. Again, this seems to show that HIIT is more effective for increasing testosterone than steady-state cardio.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend these types of exercise as a treatment for someone with low T, as the effect won’t be large enough to resolve their symptoms. But if you have a normal level already, weightlifting and HIIT may help you maintain it.
Some exercises you might consider in each category are listed in the table below. In general, for the best effect, you want to choose exercises that recruit as many of the large muscle groups in the body as possible.
Does your workout timing matter?
Interestingly, it appears from the literature that if you want to increase your levels through HIIT, it’s best to do your workout in the morning. If you want to focus on weight training, it’s better to do that in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer as to why time of day has an impact.
Will running decrease my levels?
Research shows that endurance training may actually decrease testosterone a bit. We don’t know exactly why this is, but it seems that long bouts of endurance exercise (think: more than a few hours) such as running, cycling, and swimming may have a negative effect.
Does exercise increase testosterone in women?
You may have heard that certain types of exercise, such as heavy weightlifting, can increase testosterone in women. If this is a concern for you, rest assured there’s no evidence that any kind of training meaningfully increases testosterone in women.
Usually, when women have higher-than-normal levels of testosterone, it’s due to a medical condition like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or taking exogenous testosterone, as some female athletes might.
What else can you do to increase testosterone?
The best treatment for lower levels is testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). If you’ve tested low two to three times over a six-month period and you’re experiencing symptoms like fatigue, loss of muscle mass, or depression, you may be a good candidate for this treatment.
With TRT, testosterone is usually administered via a gel you can apply on your skin at home, or by intramuscular injection at your doctor’s office every three to four weeks.
Other solutions to boost testosterone and support healthy testosterone levels include:
- Taking certain supplements, such as vitamin D, zinc, and Ashwagandha
- Getting enough sleep
- Reducing stress levels (the stress hormone cortisol may reduce your levels)
- Avoiding substance abuse (including alcohol, nicotine, opioids, cannabis, and amphetamines)
The bottom line
Overall, exercise may be a useful tool for slightly increasing and maintaining healthy testosterone levels in men. In particular, weightlifting and HIIT seem to be the most effective forms of exercise for boosting your levels. But for men with clinically “low T,” hormone replacement therapy is likely a better option.