Hormones And Muscle Growth

Hormones And Muscle Growth!  There are many aspects to bodybuilding. One of the most crucial is an understanding of the body’s naturally occurring anabolic hormones. Going farther, understanding what you can do to enhance their release. This has even more impact as you get older. This is because natural production slows as you age. 

The Natural Bodybuilder

If you’re natural this is as close as you can get to effects of steroids or prohormones. As a natural, you must pay careful attention to every single detail. No matter how small, it can have an impact on your results. 

The concept of natural hormones and muscle growth is one I am fascinated with. One thing is true about the aspects of your training, nutrition, recovery and supplementation. You can do a lot of things right. Yet get only one or two big things wrong and you won’t see the results you hoped for. Understanding how to train and eat for maximal hormonal results will take you a long way. You will see the results you would like to see.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – What This Article Will Cover

This article will cover the basics about the main anabolic hormones in the body. It will cover what you can do in your training and nutrition to maximize their release. It should be stated that this article is by no means a complete breakdown of the Endocrine system. That is a field of study in it’s own right. Rather, this article is a brief review of what hormones are. Also, we cover the main anabolic hormones and how they affect the bodybuilder. Having said that, it would be well worth the time of any bodybuilder to research the Endocrine system. It’s a complicated and fascinating field of study.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – What Are Hormones?

Hormones are chemical messengers that are released in one tissue and transported in the bloodstream to alter the activities of specific cells in other tissues. Each hormone has target cells. These are specific cells that possess the receptors needed to bind and read the hormonal message. Additionally, hormones alter the operations of target cells. They do this by changing the types, quantities or activities of important enzymes and structural proteins.

Hormones can be divided into three groups based on their chemical structure:

  1. Amino acid derivatives– this group of hormones are synthesized from the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan.
  2. Peptide hormones– this class includes some of the hormones of interest to bodybuilders, such as GH and insulin.
  3. Lipid derivatives– also known as steroid hormones. This class includes testosterone. They are structurally similar to cholesterol and are released by the male and female reproductive organs.

It should be noted that hormones must first bind to a receptor to affect a target cell, these receptors are a protein molecule ( after water, your body is made of protein, it affects everything). Each cell has receptors for responding to several different hormones.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – The Main Anabolic Hormones 

The main anabolic hormones in the body are:

Hormones And Muscle Growth – GH

GH stimulates cell growth and replication by accelerating the rate of protein synthesis. Every cell responds to GH to a point. However, muscle cells are particularly responsive to GH. The main stimulation of growth by GH is indirect. Liver cells respond to the presence of GH by synthesizing and releasing somatomedins. These are more commonly known as Insulin-like growth factor.

This is a peptide hormone that binds to receptor sites. In muscle fibers IGF-1 increases the rate of the uptake of amino acids and their incorporation to new proteins. These effects happen quickly after a meal. I’m sure you can see the implications as they tie into a bodybuilder’s typical six small meals a day eating plan. GH is also involved in fat burning. This takes effect some time after meals when blood glucose levels are normal again.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – Insulin

This is also a peptide hormone released by the pancreas when glucose concentrations exceed normal levels. Elevated levels of arginine and leucine also cause this hormone to be released. Insulin effects are asserted through a series of steps. These steps begin when it binds to receptor proteins on the cell membrane. This leads to activation of the receptor which attaches phosphate groups to intracellular enzymes.

What this means is that it enhances the glucose absorption and utilization and ATP production. It also enhances amino acid absorption and protein synthesis. Additionally, it stimulates fat storage. So it can be seen that insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone but also a double edged sword.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – Testosterone

This is part of a hormone group known as gonadotropins. They regulate the activities of the gonads. These are the ovaries in women and the testes in men. There are two gonadotropins. The first is follicle-stimulating hormone. The next is luteinizing hormone, also known as lutropin. This is the hormone that stimulates the sex hormones in men. They are also called androgens. The most important is testosterone, one of the most widely known hormones in bodybuilding.

Often thought of as evil, it’s confused with steroids. Sometimes wrongly frowned upon, testosterone is critical for muscle growth to occur. It’s a steroid hormone and is made from cholesterol. Testosterone is often thought of as a sex hormone. It controls the development of male sexual characteristics. It also has a much larger role as it ties into bodybuilding. This is because it promotes protein synthesis and nitrogen balance leading to greater muscle growth.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – How Does This Affect The Bodybuilder?

By doing the following:

The body’s natural production of testosterone can be increased through hard work on compound movements. These movements include the squat, deadlift and power clean. Have you heard about exercises like these that cause overall growth? Or that squats can cause a 10% increase in upper body size? This is why.

How Many Reps

As far as training, use heavy weights for low reps, say in the 4-6 range. Some will advocate even lower reps as in 1-2. For bodybuilding purposes 4-6 will work fine. Diet also affects this hormone. Eating a reasonable amount of carbs (no super low carb diet) and some cholesterol as healthy fats is important to maximize release. This leads to the 20% healthy fat to total calories rule.

GH & Test

GH magnifies the effects of testosterone when it is secreted along with testosterone. Research also shows that there is a direct connection between the muscle burn of lactic acid buildup and GH release. This is where intensity comes in. You need to use extended set techniques such as forced reps, partials, drop sets, super sets, etc. So now we have a system. This system indicates the use of “power ” moves for low reps with heavy weights. It also indicates the use of moves that allow intensity techniques.

The Double Edge Of Insulin

Insulin is a hormone primarily tied into blood glucose levels. It can cause your body to store fat if you have constant spikes all day. Remember the “double edged sword” I spoke about? That’s why watching your simple carb intake is a good idea. Also eating too many simple carbs in the absence of complex carbs and/or protein causes insulin surges.

Insulin increases the uptake of amino acids and creatine to muscle cells. This promotes protein synthesis. To get the anabolic actions without the fat storage, you want to cause an insulin spike at two key times of the day. First thing in the morning when you first wake up and after your workout. You do this by drinking a mixture of simple carbs and protein, about 40 grams protein to 40-60 grams carbs.

The Best Carb Sources

Your best carb sources would be either an engineered carb like cyclodextrin, or whole food based source. You want to get nutrients in the bloodstream as fast as possible after your workout. This takes advantage of the anabolic actions of insulin at the most critical time. This also starts the recovery and growth process.

But in the morning, you are also at a critical time as far as nutrient needs are concerned. This is because you have just come off a short fast while you slept. Research suggests this creates an anabolic window. Take advantage of this by triggering an insulin spike.

Keep Protein Intake High

Keep all your other meals high in protein and mixed with complex carbs. Avoid simple carbs. This way, you can keep insulin spikes under control during the rest of the day.

It’s important to note that protein should be at least 1 to 11/2 grams per pound of bodyweight divided over 6 feedings.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – What About Routines?

As far as routines, some sources will advocate a full body approach for optimal hormone release but I’ve never liked the typical, 3 days a week full body routines. These routines have you training M-W-F, doing as many as 15 exercises per session and anywhere from 3-6 sets per exercise. Are you kidding me? How can you possibly train hard enough over 90 sets to stimulate growth? On top of that, how can you possibly recover and come back to do it again after just one rest day? You can’t. You can, however, benefit from a simpler, compound movement only routine that’s great for generating a lot of hormonal release:

Hormones And Muscle Growth – The Routines

Routine #1

  • Squats– 3 warm up sets, 2 working sets of 8-10 reps
  • Deadlifts– 2 working sets of 8-10 reps
  • Bench press– 1 warm up set, 2 working sets of 8-10 reps
  • Clean and press– 2 sets of 8 reps
  • Wide grip upright rows– 1 set of 8 reps
  • Underhand close grip chins– 1 set of 8 reps
  • Close grip bench press– 1 set of 8 reps

Rep Performance

Heavy weight for reps in the 8-10 range, use rest pause and forced reps to promote “the burn” which helps to promote GH release. So you will pick a weight that allows you to fail before 6 reps, say at 4 reps. Then use a rest pause of an 8 count to knock a few more reps, then do it again. Do not take longer than an 8 count! If you do not feel enough of a burn at the end of the set, you can add static holds, where you would stop at the half-way point of the rep and count to 5, do this on all reps (use a power rack and have spotters). This will definitely increase the intensity of the set but you may have to work up to it. This will be an awkward technique, however, on certain movements like deads and cleans, so avoid it on those exercises.

For rep performance, I like to use explosive up and slow down on my sets, and I don’t like to pause at the top. This type of continuous tension keeps constant tension on the muscle, when you pause at the top, you take tension off the muscle. Add weight on all exercises every workout, even if it’s just a few pounds. This is a great routine to use periodically to get that maximal hormone release and to provide some variety to your training.

The Split System

Now this is a good routine but what about a split system? After all, one of the big inherent disadvantages to any full body is the inability to completely work a muscle for optimal development. While I do think a fundamental push/pull/legs split with maybe delts on their own day is the best choice for this approach, any split can work. It’s more about the exercise selection and performance than anything else.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – A Sample Split Routine

Routine # 1: push/pull/legs/delts

Training Day 1: Back, biceps, abs

  • Deadlifts
    • 3 easy warm up sets of 12-15 reps.
    • 3 working sets, 4-6 reps. Do not sacrifice form for weight.
    • Lat pull downs
  • T bar rows– do these as a super set, do partials at the end of the set. 8-10 reps on the pull downs, 8-10 on the T bars.
  • EZ bar 21’s– an old Arnold favorite
    • 7 reps in the first half of the movement
    • 7 at the top half but do not lock out, stop the rep about ¾ of the way up to keep tension on the biceps
    • and 7 full reps, again do not lock out.
  • Hammer curls – 2 sets of 8-10 reps. These will hit the forearms and that little muscle between the biceps and triceps that can add a lot to arm size.
  • Crunches– 2 sets of 30 reps

Performance Notes

Explosive up, slow and controlled down on all reps, no pausing, no momentum. On the back movements remember to start with your lats, not your arms.

Training Day 2: Chest, triceps, abs

  • Bench Press
    • warm up with 3 sets of 12-15 reps, these are easy sets.
    • 3 working sets of 4-6 reps, use a weight that allows you to fail at 6 reps.
    • Incline press- use a lower incline to better hit the upper chest.
  • Incline flys
    • do these as a super set but set up 3 progressively lighter pairs of bells and do a triple drop.
    • Do 2 super set/drop set combos, 6-8 reps on the press and 8 reps initially on the flys, as many as you can get on the remaining two drops

Here’s a great triceps movement:

  • EZ lying extension/pullover/press– this is one exercise, all one set, you begin by doing extensions behind your head, not a skull crusher but behind your head, go right into pullovers keeping the bar close to your head and then go right into close grip presses. 3 sets of 8 reps for each movement within the exercise.
  • Crunches– 2 sets of 35 reps

Performance Notes

Explosive up, slow down on all reps, no pausing and no momentum. Get a good stretch on the flys. For triceps don’t purposely keep your elbows tight to your head, allow them to find a natural spot, this saves a lot of wear and tear on the joints.

Training Day 3: Legs

  • Squats– set it up this way: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, increase weight with each set, your working sets are the 8, 6 and 4 sets, these are heavy sets.
  • Squats
  • Leg extensions– drop weight on the squats, enough to allow 10 solid reps, super set with the extensions, you will be doing drops on the extensions, allow for 3-5 drops ( sounds like fun, doesn’t it?) On your first set go for 8-10 resp, then as many as you can get on the remaining drops.
  • Leg curls- 3 sets of 10 reps, do partials at the end.
  • Standing calf raises– 2 sets of 50 reps
  • Seated calf raises– 2 sets of 35 reps

Performance Notes

Do your reps the same – explosive up, slow and controlled down, no momentum. On extensions, use a slight pause at the top to extend the burn, on calf raises get a good stretch at the top. On squats, keep your knees behind your toes.

Training Day 4: Deltoids, traps, abs

  • Clean and press– set this up like this: 12, 10, 8, 6. Use a weight that allows good form, do not sacrifice form for heavy weight. If you are at all unsure how to do this exercise, substitute overhead presses instead.
  • Side laterals
  • Rear laterals-do both of these as a triple drop super set, 8-10 reps each exercise, as many as you can on each remaining drop on each exercise
  • Haney Shrugs – 2 sets of 12 reps. These are done behind the back, an old Lee Haney favorite.
  • Crunches– 2 sets of 50 reps

Performance Notes

Again, be sure you know how to do the cleans which if you do know how are one of the great exercises. Do your reps the same: explosive up, slow down, no pausing, no momentum. On laterals keep your pinky above your thumb.

This routine is one example of how to approach the hormonal concept.

Hormones And Muscle Growth – Supplements

As far as supplementation, start with a good protein powder. I would use creatine, a nitric oxide booster, glutamine, and a pre workout. I would add BCAAs to keep you anabolic while you train.

You can also add natural muscle builders such as

Redcon1 MOAB

Redcon1 MOAB – I’ll Pump You Up (illpumpyouup.com)


5% Nutrition Bigger By The Day

5% Nutrition Bigger By the Day – I’ll Pump You Up (illpumpyouup.com)

Of course there are quite a few good, natural testosterone boosters out there as well as prohormones.

My hope with this brief review is to give some of you insight to better gains. 


  1. Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology, 7th edition, p591-628.

Jim Brewster


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