Published: February 4, 2021
Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is an important factor relating to how much muscle you can build, how fast you gain it, as well as how easily you can burn fat and achieve six pack abs. Healthy testosterone levels are also an important part of maintaining overall health and well being, and directly correlate to levels of energy, mood, libido, immune function, and it also protects against diseases like osteoporosis and heart disease.
Related: What is a Hardgainer?
Simply put, having below average testosterone levels, which is becoming increasingly common these days due to various reasons (such as our overly sedentary lifestyles and lack of sunlight), may be the single biggest reason why you’re not getting the results you want in the gym in terms of muscle mass gains (assuming you’re already training and eating properly for muscle gain).
Without healthy levels of testosterone production within your body - or with higher than average estrogen levels - you can do everything right in the gym and kitchen day in day out, but hardly get anywhere and end up spinning your wheels for months, years, or even your entire life.
This is the unfortunate reality for many lifters who do not realize that their testosterone levels could be significantly getting in the way. But the great news is, there are many proven dietary strategies and lifestyle tweaks that can boost testosterone naturally over time to much more healthy levels. If you want to maximize your efforts in the gym and build the physique you desire, you would be wise to adopt some of the following methods for the long-term. They are all healthy ways to live a long life in the first place anyway, so it's not just about increasing testosterone levels.
So, based on my research over the years and personal experience, here are the best proven ways to increase testosterone naturally using food and other lifestyle changes. Just remember this is not medical advice, and seek a doctor if you are having issues with your health.
Before discussing diet, which plays a huge role in testosterone levels, let's get this out the way because it is just as crucial and forms a solid foundation for your testosterone boosting efforts. Consistently lifting weights - especially doing heavy compounds lifts (exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once) - encourages testosterone production within the body due to their highly taxing nature on the body. Focusing your weight training routine around staple compound exercises like heavy squats, deadlifts, rows, pullups, lunges and presses will help boost your T levels naturally over time more so than you may realize, especially if you combine it with the right dietary practices. Speaking of which.
If you want to promote healthy hormone production, including testosterone, avoid the generic myth that "fat is bad". The source of fat is what matters, and there's a huge difference between say trans fat (avoid at all costs) and healthy sources of fat like avocados, fatty fish (eg salmon), olive oil, coconut oil, macadamias, brazil nuts, and whole eggs. Low fat diets are linked to lower testosterone levels, not to mention sub optimal general health (ie your brain requires fats to run optimally). Just don't go overboard with fat consumption as the calories can very easily and quickly add up.
Besides eating plenty of healthy fat and not being scared of a little cholesterol and saturated fat (you need some in your diet), for a diet that promotes healthy testosterone production you want to often consume cruciferous vegetables which are linked in studies to lowering estrogen levels which can help you maintain the right proportion of testosterone and estrogen. When estrogen levels are higher, testosterone is lower, and vice versa. Cruciferous vegetables are foods you really should consider eating for general health anyway (due to their nutrient-dense nature), with some sources being:
Vitamin D is an essential steroid hormone for various bodily functions, with healthy levels of it correlating to healthy sperm quality and count, as well as testosterone levels. If you have low vitamin D, which is increasingly common these days as people do not get as much sunlight as they used to, you are putting your testosterone levels as risk (among other things such as immune function).
The absolute best way to get vitamin D is from direct sunlight, but make sure to do so responsibly so that you don't put your skin at risk of disease in future. Vitamin D supplements are less effective, and should only be a last resort if you cannot structure your daily routine to get in enough sunlight. If you want to supplement with it, this is one I can recommend:
Recommended Vitamin D Supplement: Designs for Health Vitamin D Supreme 5000 IU
Like vitamin D, getting adequate zinc is another crucial aspect to not just overall health but specifically to healthy testosterone production within the body. Simply put, you must be eating enough zinc each day if you want optimal testosterone levels, which can be achieved by eating foods rich in zinc such as:
Combine some of these sources into your diet along with eating plenty of foods that are moderate sources of zinc such as eggs, and you will go a long way to maintaining healthy zinc levels that therefore testosterone levels.
Zinc supplements are also an option if you cannot get enough from whole foods, but if taking a zinc supplement avoid consuming more than 40mg per day. Getting too much zinc can limit your body's ability to absorb other key nutrients like copper. Oh and don't forget to get enough magnesium in your diet too, which is indirectly linked to testosterone levels, and an especially key nutrient when consistently training with heavy weights anyway (as your body depletes it when sweating).
All vitamins and minerals are important to general health and well-being, and you should always eat a varied diet full of nutrient-dense foods, but vitamin D and zinc are two of critical importance in specific relation to healthy testosterone levels.
Sleep is crucial not only to overall health but to healthy testosterone levels too. When you don't get in a good night of deep, restful sleep, your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) will be higher than they should be, which in turn is correlated with lowered testosterone levels. Plus, when you don't sleep enough hours or don't get good enough quality rest, you won't be as fresh the next day to train hard and you therefore lower your chance of being able to build muscle size and strength.
High stress levels in general should be avoided at all costs too, as they not only wreaks havoc on your mental state, but can take its toll on you physically, specifically increasing cortisol levels in the body which as mentioned leads to lower testosterone. The two work in tandem - when one rises, the other falls.
Unfortunately for those who like to party, drinking alcohol has been proven to decrease testosterone levels, so try to avoid it as much as you can - especially binge drinking. Life is a balancing act though, so if you enjoy a drink here or there, don't let that stop you as plenty of people have been able to build muscle mass whilst drinking occasionally. Just don't take it overboard, and if you're serious about getting the absolute most muscle gains possible, consider cutting it out completely and your general health and energy levels will benefit too.
Higher bodyfat levels are linked to higher estrogen levels, and consequently lower testosterone levels. The more estrogen you have, the lower your testosterone will be. Therefore, never let yourself go too much when gaining muscle mass, or in other words, avoid dirty bulking and putting on too much excess bodyfat in your quest to gain muscle mass. It's not worth it in the long run and will lower your health, put testosterone levels at risk, increase estrogen, and make cutting a whole lot harder.
When you increase estrogen in the body, testosterone subsequently goes down. Soy contains phytoestrogens - naturally occurring estrogenic compounds - and has the potential to bind to estrogen receptors and cause estrogen-like effects on the body, and a prime example of food with the potential to affect hormone levels.
However, the key word here is potential, and there are conflicting opinions and inconclusive studies on this topic, with the reality being that soy - especially in smaller doses - may just be absolutely fine and with no affect on estrogen/testosterone. But if you want to leave nothing to chance and avoid potentially increasing estrogen levels (therefore lowering testosterone levels as the two are linked) - you may want to either lower or remove soy from your diet.
As just one example, this study mentioned:
"The possibility that widely consumed soy products may cause harm in the human population via either or both estrogenic and goitrogenic activities is of concern".
I would also avoid soy lecithin where possible, an additive that is found in many products these days, which this study found to be highly estrogenic.
What are Symptoms of Low Testosterone?
If you have low testosterone, you may encounter any of the following symptoms, but get a test done from a medical professional because the symptoms are all very general in nature and it's very hard (borderline impossible) to know whether you have healthy levels of testosterone or not.
Are Testosterone Boosting Supplements Worth It?
I'm not a fan of most bodybuilding or health supplements in general, and only take and recommend them if there is a really good reason such as occasionally tapping into the convenience of whey protein powders to help reach daily protein intake goals or if you're lacking in a certain nutrient that you just cannot get through your diet for whatever reason.
Same goes with testosterone boosting supplements, which from my research are mostly a waste of money in my opinion and include ingredients that lean mostly towards marketing hype or speculation in general, rather than ingredients that are actually proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to have testosterone boosting effects.
Natural supplements like ashwagandha and ginger extract are worth considering though, which some testosterone boosting supplements include to their credit, as they both have studies tying them to increased testosterone levels. But in terms of most testosterone booster supplements that you see advertised, I would be very skeptical and look carefully at the ingredients, being sure to do your research into their validity.
Is TRT Worth It?
TRT, short for Testosterone Replacement Therapy and also referred to as androgen replacement therapy, is a type of hormone therapy that replaces androgens like testosterone, normally used to counter the effects of male hypogonadism. But some men sometimes consider TRT as a way to increase their below average testosterone levels (or to fully maximize it), even if they don't have a medical condition like hypogonadism. I'm not a doctor, and again this article is not medical advice, but I strongly advise against TRT unless you have a medical condition or are willing to invest heavily into deep research for a long time (since it's no light decision).
In my opinion, it's infinitely better to stay completely natural, and TRT has many potential side effects. Besides, as I've outlined in this guide, your hormone levels are much more in control than most people realize, and there are endless ways to change your habits in order to achieve optimal levels, making TRT simply unnecessary for the far, far majority. Yes, there are many things in modern society getting in the way of optimal hormone levels, from food to plastics to daily habits and beyond, but if you put in the effort you can counter these things and there's no need for TRT. Again, this is just my two cents, and I have never used TRT and never intend to. Seek an experienced, level-headed doctor about such topics.