In a previous blog post we touched on the relevance of hormones with regard health and fitness, since the article was well received I thought we would dedicate an exclusive article to the subject. These are considerations for you to take on board but bear in mind our hormones are naturally occurring chemical messengers in our bodies so our control over them can be limited, though not insignificant.
Cortisol is the body’s chief catabolic (meaning to break down) hormone and is released from the adrenal glands. Usually this hormone is released in the morning when the sun rises, and there is a second peak in the middle of the afternoon too. Exercising stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol and for this reason it is a good idea to try and train either early mornings or between 3-5pm so as not to cause an artificial cortisol spike. The adrenal glands also respond to other stressors and are heavily influenced by select dietary components such as coffee and/ or other stimulatory substances. Its relevance to progression in the gym is significant as heightened cortisol leads to a reduction in the body’s ability to synthesise protein, meaning our muscles don’t receive new raw materials. On top of this when cortisol is high it can transfer protein into a source of energy, wasting valuable muscle mass - and results in faltering of tissue growth. To give your body the best opportunity to respond and develop in an anabolic (meaning to build up) manner following training there are things that can be implemented, avoiding loss of muscle mass and speeding up recovery. If morning training is the only option for you, then its best to counter act these hormones with dietary aids such as BCAA’s (branch chain amino acids) that can be taken before, after or even during workout. It is also imperative your post-workout nutrition is on point, because training will increase the demands on your body (when in a catabolic state). Cortisol is at its lowest during sleep, which is funnily enough when your growth hormones are at their peak – so this is exactly why you need to make sure you are sleeping sufficiently to recover. There is no hard and fast rule for sleep volume but getting to bed as much before midnight as you can is a good start.
Following on from cortisol we have the main protagonist in how well you sleep at night – melatonin. This is a hormone that is secreted by your pineal gland and is responsible for your sleep wake cycle, it is a multi-functioning hormone in that it protects the body from dangerous free radicals and also communicates with the immune system. This hormone is supressed when light comes into contact with your retina and conversely darkness stimulates the release of this hormone. Melatonin release can also be affected by exercise and meals, for example late night training sessions can delay the release of the hormone and eating large meals at any time of day can put you into a vegetative state. This is applicable in the real world too; some literature has suggested that those individuals that train in the morning find it easier to sleep at night, with earlier release, greater volume and overall greater sleep satisfaction. So if you training mornings and feel that you’re particularly fatigued by early evening this could be one explanation, however this is also something to take advantage of if you struggle to unwind in the evening. Increasing dietary levels of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is the building block for our major sleep hormone, can increase melatonin levels.
Testosterone is a hormone that exists in both men and women, but concentrations are infinitely higher in men. It is released in the ovaries and adrenals in females and in men is released from Leydig cells in the testes. It is responsible for muscle growth and development, libido and plays a role in the development of sperm – so it is very important for sexual health. Studies suggest that excessive endurance training has a significantly negative effect on basal resting testosterone levels, therefore unbalanced training regimen can not only make poor use of the hormone but also reduce it’s production. Even in endurance athletes this reason should be enough to make them do plenty of strength & conditioning! However, high intensity resistance exercise has been shown to increase testosterone levels and IGF-1 - a metabolised form of growth hormone. This is useful when your training approach is geared around hypertrophy and strength but this doesn’t mean to say that if you’re an endurance athlete you cannot develop and improve - it just means that nutrition, sleep and recovery are absolutely vital.
I’d just like to finish up with some advice on training females or for the ladies reading the blog – trainers who don’t pay attention to the menstrual cycle are missing a trick, yes it can hold back some aspects of training but likewise it can be a really great thing to take advantage of. In my experience training volume should reduce slightly regardless of the training method – you can keep the intensity in there, lifting the same weights etc, but just hold back on the set duration/number of reps and consider increasing allowed recovery time. I would avoid structuring a whole workout around building your abdominal musculature too, the pelvic and abdominal cavities undergo certain changes during the menstrual cycle so fatiguing these muscles more is inadvisable – yoga is good as it encourages movement and flexibility but historically my female clients don’t respond too well to Pilates during their menstrual cycle. Finally, and this makes people laugh sometimes, but as you may be aware in the final days before you begin your menstrual cycle you can experience a bit of pent up frustration! These days are a great time to let it out in the gym and revisit exercises you have been building up for PR’s on.
I hope you enjoyed this weeks article, it has differed slightly with previous blogs where there are poignant take home messages – this one has been more educational in nature and has hopefully given you food for thought in terms of what is happening in your body.