Pumping iron makes you stronger, that’s pretty obvious. Increasing the amount of strain you subject your muscles to will over time grow them stronger. But where does this strength come from?
We have all seen it, the most muscular guys in the gym seem pretty strong, but then you get into competitive powerlifting, and there’s a guy half his size benching more than double his max. It clearly has less to do with muscle mass, so what’s the secret?
When it comes to building core strength, there are hormonal mechanisms at play. What few guys know is that nervous system strength is equally important as muscle strength, and the mechanism behind the two differ.
The hormone DHT (dihydrotestosterone) is a natural androgen that is produced in men via the conversion of testosterone into DHT. The enzyme responsible for this conversion is called 5-alpha reductase, or 5a-reductase.
DHT is mostly known as the hormone blamed for causing androgenic alopecia (hair loss) in genetically susceptible males, as well as being able to negatively affect the prostate, contributing to conditions such as BHP (benign prostatic hyperplasia). The truth is much more complicated than that.
DHT is the most potent androgen in the male body and is crucial for the healthy development of testicles as well as other typical male traits such as body hair, facial hair and a deep voice. It has essential functions in the male body and many beneficial effects on the nervous system, but more on that later.
DHT also has anti-estrogenic effects. The body can convert testosterone into estrogen. However, not DHT into estrogen. There is a lot of research pointing towards that the real cause of issues such as androgenic hair loss and BHP, is not DHT, but rather from an excess of estrogen. It is likely that the way the body tries to handle excess estrogen levels is by increasing DHT production since it can prevent the feminizing effects of estrogens. There has for example been studies made in Europe where BHP was treated with DHT gel which improved the condition, not made it worse.
The reality is that DHT is a complex subject and no matter what, guys need to understand that you do your manliness no favors in trying to lower it. Your strength will suffer, and you can potentially cause a cascade of negative side effects such as sexual dysfunction and depression. This can be seen in guys using the popular 5a-reductaste inhibiting drug Finasteride (for hair loss) long term, were severe side effects often can develop. Besides, would you give up everything that makes you a man for some more hair on your head? We think that is a pretty stupid thing to do.
DHT and Strength:
Like we mentioned before, DHT first works on the nervous system and by intracellular mechanisms that affect other hormones as well as blood chemistry. Testosterone, in fact, is only active in muscle tissues, so everywhere else DHT is the male hormone at play. Maybe now you are beginning to understand the importance of DHT in men.
Being first active in the nervous system, DHT can alter brain chemicals and neurotransmitters. It is especially potent at increasing levels of GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) which is the calming neurotransmitter, resulting in that calm and focused alpha male state that all guys strive for. GABA counteracts the excitatory catecholamine adrenaline, which can cause nervousness and palpitations. A stronger nervous system is also able to handle heavier lifts. If it was true that only the size of your muscles was responsible for your strength, try using them to the same degree after a sleepless night when your nervous system is out of shape, and you will see what we mean.
DHT also contributes to other aspects of performance which are not related to muscle growth, namely increasing energy production. It does this by increasing levels of cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate), resulting in increased thermogenesis, thyroid function and fat oxidation. Basically, it will help you burn more body fat.
Maintaining healthy levels of male androgens such as DHT will help protect you from potential estrogenic side effects and keep you more manly. One of the most feared conditions among men, know as gyno (gynecomastia, man boobs) can develop from hormone imbalances such as an excess of estrogen and prolactin (which are also common side effects of poorly planned steroid cycles). Maintaining adequate DHT levels can for some guys protect you from developing these conditions even when you are experiencing severe degrees of hormonal imbalances (however not enough to protect against steroid side effects).
Now that we have established what DHT does and why you want to have more of it let’s jump into the fun stuff, how we can optimize for DHT production.
As you can judge from the training routines and programs of competitive power lifters, building strength is all about short and intense resistance training. It’s about taxing your nervous system in short high-intensity bursts to mold it and make it stronger. The classic 5×5 strength training routines are ideal for increasing androgen receptor density and boosting DHT levels.
Also, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) has a pronounced positive response on all anabolic hormones and is beneficial for DHT conversion. The opposite, prolonged endurance training or even low intensity, high reps resistance training, does not help much for boosting anabolic hormones and conditioning your nervous system. Keep it heavy, keep it intense, and get out of the gym as quickly as possible.
Eat More Fat & Shed More Fat:
Don’t believe the hype concerning fat. Humans have been eating fat for hundreds of thousands of years through sources of animal foods such as meat, eggs and fish. That saturated fat is not good for you is false information that came from an unfortunate series of events where faulty research and personal bias was promoted as ‘facts’, which in turn derailed nutritional research for decades. The reality is that saturated fats and cholesterol in animal foods are healthy, as well as vital for male reproductive function.
In fact, healthy fats are the building blocks for hormones such as testosterone and in turn also DHT. Make sure you get them from good sources of saturated fat such as red meat, butter as well as healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), from olive oil and avocados. These fats all promote steroidogenesis and higher levels of circulating androgens.
Reducing body fat levels is also an important aspect of maintaining healthy hormone balance in men. Testosterone is converted into estrogen by the aromatase enzyme which is concentrated in fat tissues. The higher your body fats levels are, the higher your estrogen levels will be, and the lower your testosterone, in turn, will be. There are studies that prove that DHT and body fat share a negative inverse relationship. Eating more fat does not make you fatter, excess calories do. However, fat provides more satiety which can help you eat less and make it easier to maintain weight loss, hence increasing the number of fats in your diet is a win-win. Aim for at least 30% of your calories from healthy fats; we recommend going even higher than that if possible.
DHT Boosting Foods And Supplements:
There are also some specific foods that can help boost DHT levels more than others. These are best to focus on:
Yes, good news! The most loved morning beverage in the world can help increase your testosterone as well as DHT levels.
Sorghum Bicolor is a gluten free grain which is native to Africa. It is unheard of among most of us westerners, but in Africa, it is one of the continent’s most important crops. What makes Sorghum unique is that it can be considered an androgenic grain. Compared to many other plant foods, it can increase 5a-reductase, resulting in higher DHT production. This is a rare effect from food and we highly recommend switching out any grains in your diet to Sorghum instead. There is sorghum flour readily available, and this can be handled like any other flour and works in normal recipes. We suggest Sorghum pancakes with butter (DHT boosting fats) and cinnamon.
One of the most popular fitness supplements ever is creatine monohydrate, and maybe even for better reasons than previously understood. A study on athletes showed that 21 days of creatine supplementation led to an increase of 56% in DHT levels, making it just about the best supplement for boosting DHT on the market. Of course, that is just the hormonal aspect and creatine has many other benefits for promoting strength and lean mass. If we have to choose one supplement, creatine is the #1.
- Butea Superba
This is an uncommon herb to the west but a very common and well-known traditional remedy in Thailand. It is used traditionally to treat symptoms of aging in men as well as for erectile dysfunction. It has been used traditionally for centuries and has much merit to its effectiveness. There is even research that confirms this as there was a case where one Thai male even sought out medical assistance because he felt his sex drive was too high! After blood tests, they revealed unnaturally elevated levels of DHT in serum from ingesting Buta Superba. It is likely this case was unique, and this man had an unusual sensitivity to the herb, but you can expect to see benefits in libido and exercise performance after a few weeks of consuming it.
To experience a substantial increase in your DHT levels, you can expect to have to increase testosterone as well since this is the hormone DHT is made from by conversion. In other words, everything you can do to optimize for testosterone, as well as DHT, will be beneficial to your workout performance and building strength.
The best way to approach building core strength is through adopting sustainable dietary, exercise and lifestyle habits that work with your hormones, not against them. It is about more than just pumping iron.