You’ve embarked on a lifelong journey of strength—one that will inevitably improve the quality of your health for decades to come. We’ve all come to know and appreciate the fact that strength forms the base upon which all other goals are accomplished, whether that be powerlifting, kettlebell training, or even bodyweight routines.
What you may be less familiar with, however, is the way in which strength is generated and harnessed, beneath what happens in the gym. In particular, the hormonal mechanisms involved that result in strength gain and muscle mass. What is responsible for increasing strength, and how exactly does it work? Today I will introduce you to DHT, the most potent natural androgen in our bodies, which is often overlooked in favor of testosterone.
A Biochemistry Refresher
As you may know (but possibly forgot), dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is a natural androgen produced via conversion of testosterone. This conversion is facilitated by a specific enzyme, known as 5-alpha reductase, following which the DHT is able to interact with an androgen receptor. Interaction with these receptors is what results in traits typical of male biology, including growth of body hair, sexual drive, and libido, and strength to name a few.
The majority of individuals are familiar with the effects anabolic hormones exert—an increase in tissue size and number. However, DHT does not manifest its effects that way. Rather, it acts via an intracellular mechanism, meaning that it affects hormones and blood chemistry. Men have an inherent advantage, in that they possess far higher levels of testosterone (which are capable of being converted to DHT), but women also produce small amounts of testosterone in the ovaries.
Get Excited (But Not Too Much)
DHT works in the brain by altering the levels of chemicals found there, better known as neurotransmitters. One such function is an increased level of circulating adrenaline (also called epinephrine). Adrenaline is well known for being able to activate the “fight or flight” response in mammals, and is extremely useful for athletes.
On the flip side, adrenaline can be a little too excitatory. It can cause palpitations, anxiety, or nervousness in susceptible individuals. Which is exactly why there is another balancing force called gamma amino butyric acid, or GABA. GABA is another neurotransmitter stimulated via increased DHT levels, the purpose of which is to calm overexcited neuronal activity in the brain.1 The result is a clean, focused burst of energy that many men associate with the “god complex” or alpha-male experience. Women experience feelings of extreme, clean focus, along with mild euphoria.
But that’s far from all DHT does to improve athletic performance. DHT also increases energy production by increasing levels of cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate).2 cAMP promotes the process of thermogenesis (energy production and fat oxidation), and stimulates the pituitary to produce more thyroid hormone (T4 specifically).
Other Functions of DHT
A less significant, but nevertheless useful effect of DHT on the brain has to do with estrogen antagonism. Estrogen has been shown to promote expression of serotonin receptors in the brain,3 which has mixed actions on neurochemistry, resulting in adverse changes to blood pressure and muscle-nerve coordination. Serotonin does promote a good mood, but too much interaction between serotonin at its receptor is not ideal for anyone.
What the antagonism of estrogen does is help attain the aggression and intensity sought after by athletes, and also suppress prolactin release facilitated by estrogen.4 Excess prolactin and estrogen work in tandem to cause breast growth in men (gynecomastia), something no man wants to experience! In women, an excess of these hormones may cause menstrual irregularities, along with abnormal growth of bodily hair.
Okay, But What Does It Do?
The bottom line from all these neurochemical changes? Increased firing of motor neurons in the periphery, along with increased focus and greater power output.
Now that the effects of DHT on strength and performance have been established, how you can go about optimizing or increasing your levels to squeeze out that extra ounce of power that’s lying dormant in your body?
How to Get the Most From Your Hormones
There are things you can do to increase your performance and make sure you tap into the benefits of these hormones. Try implementing these suggestions, and if you want to get hardcore, you can perform before and after blood readings to confirm these practices have had a measurable impact on your hormone levels.
Lose Some Bodyfat
Depending on your particular discipline; be that kettlebell training, calisthenics, or powerlifting, your bodyfat percentage goal may differ. For example, if you’re into calisthenics, your year-round bodyfat goal will be somewhere in the vicinity of 12-20%, as opposed to a powerlifter whose body fat levels may range from 20-30%. But while it is evident that powerlifters do have elevated levels of circulating androgens (either via administration of AAS or from hitting heavy weights), the ideal scenario is to have your bodyfat in the low range.
Why? Because aromatization (conversion of testosterone to estrogen) occurs in fat tissue. Hence, the more fat you possess, the higher the likelihood of this conversion. Subsequently, your conversion of testosterone to DHT may be reduced. To sum it up, testosterone, DHT, and body fat levels share a negatively inverse relationship.5 If you’re a woman, you already have much lower natural levels of testosterone, and need to optimize your natural production to achieve a modest blood concentration of its metabolite, DHT. Having excess bodyfat will only push testosterone to be converted to more estrogen, instead of DHT, which you need to boost athletic performance.
Eat the Right Fats
Time after time, it has been said that dietary fat is integral to optimize testosterone production, and this time is no different. However, not any old fat will do; it is important to select the right food sources to boost testosterone. Primarily, opt for saturated fats, such as those in meat and butter, and mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), such as those in olive oil and avocados. These fats in particular promote steroidogenesis, which will result in increased natural DHT synthesis.
Go Hard or Go Home
When it comes to eliciting the maximum synthesis of androgens, you need to work out with intensity. Mind you, intensity does not refer to working out to failure each and every set, but to such a degree that the body is forced to adapt by making changes to muscle density as well as the neurochemical and endocrine changes necessary for strength gain.
For example, take powerlifters, who primarily work out with barbells, and not to failure. Now compare them to athletes who work out with kettlebells, whose discipline requires them to perform much higher volume, even though the relative intensities may be the same. Intensity can take many different forms, whether it be lifting a near maximal weight with a barbell, or being able to perform one more rep with a kettlebell. Both are examples of training with intensity.
The bottom line is, don’t drag out your training sessions. Keep them short, keep them intense, and get out of the gym. Prolonged endurance-type sessions will do no favors for your androgen levels.6
Work With Your Hormones
One final thing that needs to be made entirely clear—do not expect to see an increase in DHT without a corresponding change in testosterone, since it is converted from that after all. Moderate consumption of carbs may be beneficial as well, as extremely low carb diets may make it hard for your body to keep cortisol levels under control.
Training hard will make your body produce more DHT to increase your strength, but you can also do your part to grow even stronger. Consider dietary and lifestyle changes that work with your hormones, not against them.
More on hormonal balance and performance:
1. Abdou, Adham M., S. Higashiguchi, K. Horie, Mujo Kim, H. Hatta, and H. Yokogoshi. “Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans.” Biofactors 26, no. 3 (2006): 201-208.
2. Velasco, Luc??a, Manuel Sánchez, José Manuel Rub??n, Agust??n Hidalgo, Carmen Bordallo, and Begoña Cantabrana. “Intracellular cAMP increases during the positive inotropism induced by androgens in isolated left atrium of rat.” European Journal of Pharmacology 438, no. 1 (2002): 45-52.
3. Sumner, Barbara EH, and George Fink. “Estrogen increases the density of 5-hydroxytryptamine 2A receptors in cerebral cortex and nucleus accumbens in the female rat.” The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 54, no. 1 (1995): 15-20.
4. Brann, Darrell W., C. D. Putnam, and V. B. Mahesh. “Antagonism of estrogen-induced prolactin release by dihydrotestosterone.” Biology of Reproduction 40, no. 6 (1989): 1201-1207.
5. De Maddalena, Chiara, Stella Vodo, Anna Petroni, and Anna Maria Aloisi. “Impact of testosterone on body fat composition.” Journal of Cellular Physiology 227, no. 12 (2012): 3744-3748.
6. Hackney, A. C. “Testosterone and reproductive dysfunction in endurance-trained men.” Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science, Internet Society for Sport Science 20 (1998).