I receive quite a few questions about testosterone from members and prospective members alike. I must admit, I never really thought much about that topic; not when I was at school, or at university, or even when we were getting ready to open the gym. I usually just give the speech that by making positive lifestyle changes and getting some exercise, you don’t have to worry about things like testosterone, as it will take care of itself for the most part. Focus on the basics before thinking about specifics.
One day, this all changed. I was talking to a guy who uses our gym, who has lofty aspirations in competitive CrossFit. He has biceps like some people’s legs, truly one of those genetic monsters roaming this earth, and I saw a fair few of those being in Helderberg Koshuis where I was below average height at 6ft.
Like any smart athlete, as well as many executives looking to achieve peak performance, he is doing more than simply eating well, sleeping well, and training, he is getting things like bloodwork done to see what’s actually going on inside his body. He shared some of those results with me: certain health markers, and in particular, testosterone levels. He was near the top of the reference range (which is to say, he has more testosterone than probably 95% of the people you see on the street). This of course is not surprising at all when you look at him. This was the first time I thought to myself, what are my testosterone levels? In that instant, I had become one of those people concerned about such things.
I went to a doctor and had it tested, and was honestly a bit shocked at the results as I was near the very low end of the reference range. Most literature says that a healthy 27-year-old should have significantly higher levels, so of course that got in my head quite a bit. At that point I had a few choices of what I would do with the information I had just received.
- Start taking a steroid cycle.
- Go on TRT (testosterone replacement therapy), which is basically #1 but to a lesser degree as the testosterone doses are lower.
- Try and increase my testosterone and general health with better lifestyle choices (diet, sleep, supplements etc.).
- Ignore it.
Option #1 was definitely out. I don’t judge people who take that somewhat drastic step, I have friends who have gone that route, but it certainly wasn’t for me. Option #2 is gaining traction with many celebrities and past athletes going that route, but I didn’t like the idea of taking something for the rest of my life to fix something that isn’t even necessarily a problem. Not only would options #1 and #2 hamper my body’s ability to produce testosterone, it also isn’t a practical solution. Steroids give a temporary testosterone boost (unless you’re a bit crazy like Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell who has been on steroids for 30+ years), and TRT is a lifelong prescription.
I went with option #3 instead of option #4, because I like trying things for myself to then be able to make an informed opinion. After all, that’s how I found CrossFit, and how I discovered barefoot running and that I could, through somewhat tedious adaptation, run barefoot on tar for 10km+. Also, it would be good for the gym if I was more informed on this subject, as I do get a fair few testosterone-related questions.
So off on option #3 I went. Most of the changes I needed to make to my lifestyle I knew already, as I preach them as part of my job.
I tried to get 8 hours of sleep, or as close to it as possible. I realize some people can’t do this, but luckily I was in a position where I could. Not much more to say here, we all know we should sleep more.
I pretty much cut out things like fizzy drinks, sweets, chips etc. I just didn’t have them in the house, so I couldn’t be tempted. I stopped most of my visits to places like KFC or McDonald’s. I started eating more vegetables. Where I could, I chose the grass-fed meat option etc. I skipped breakfast (I had done this on and off for years, more out of preference than anything). I’m not going to be one of those annoying people that says intermittent fasting (i.e. by skipping breakfast) is the secret to weight loss; it just happened to fit my lifestyle quite well. If some of the somewhat outrageous claims about it are true, well then that’s good too!
I’m not going to lie and say I completely stopped every bad habit. If I found myself at my parents for supper, I had a glass of Coke. When Eleanor was busy or travelling, I got a burrito from Senor Onion. I didn’t want to completely cut certain things out of my life, just limit them. I think that’s why most changes to lifestyle fail, they simply aren’t sustainable. I’ll admit that the odd bit of Coke is just… nice. The difference is, it’s not multiple glasses, every single day of the week. The old cliché is very true, moderation is key!
I started taking things like vitamin D, fish oil, ZMA etc, all relatively well-known and proven supplements to support a generally healthy, active lifestyle. I strongly advocate that everyone do research (and lots of it!) on everything you put into your body, and don’t become a victim of the logical fallacy that correlation implies causation. Just because something increases your sex drive, and sex drive is linked to testosterone, does not mean that something also increases your testosterone. Especially if you are going to invest some of your hard-earned income on supplements, it is important to invest the time to make sure that the type of supplement is proven to be effective, as well as to do research on the supplement brand as quality can vary considerably between brands.
Some of these are perhaps a bit strange, but have plausible arguments for them. Things like washing yourself with more natural soaps/shampoos as all those chemicals probably aren’t good for you. Eliminating plastics from your life to avoid xenoestrogens (drink out of glass bottles, store food in glass containers etc). All of these are thought to be some of the reasons why testosterone levels are on a decline compared to our grandfathers. Again, I know this is a bit out there, but considering I was making a bunch of lifestyle changes, why not try it?
I made all the above changes and continued with them for a good 6+ months, hopefully enough time for them to make some changes to my body.
A few days ago I got my testosterone levels checked, and found that the above changes had resulted in barely any improvement. There are five logical conclusions I can make from that:
- The changes I made require more time to take effect.
- There is something in my body adversely affecting my testosterone levels.
- My genetics are the determining factor in things like testosterone and healthy lifestyle changes have little effect on such things.
- The results are somehow incorrect.
- I just have below average testosterone levels for my age.
I don’t think it’s #1 as I gave it a good 6+ months, but who knows; it’s perhaps silly to expect to reset 26 years of bad lifestyle choices with 7 months of good ones. Option #2, who knows, that is a very broad topic. Option #3 is maybe plausible, but there are many people who claim that lifestyle changes resulted in significantly higher testosterone levels, and I don’t want to say that they’re all lying. The chances of it being option #4 are next to zero. Option #5 is maybe the most likely conclusion. The very concept of “averages” means that there are people who are above and some people who are below average… I just happen to be the latter. Maybe a slight hit to my masculinity, but I then thought to myself, why do I care? Seven months ago I didn’t even think about such things!
What I can say is, I’m EXTREMELY glad I did this experiment, as I got some amazing results in other areas.
I was never really one for before/after photos as they’re hard to trust. Through some sneaky methods, you can take both photos on the same day and look completely different. Documentaries like Bigger, Stronger, Faster cover this. Add a filter to the one picture, change the angle, photoshop, lighting etc. I sent my girlfriend Eleanor a picture of what I was looking like recently, and she sent back one I had sent her 7 months ago, and I was amazed at the difference. I thought I was looking decent 7 months ago, but I was very wrong. I’m somewhat lucky she just happened to have a photo of me with the same context: after a workout, same lighting, pose etc. A bit blurry and one arm not quite in the right position, but close enough for comparison.
The first photo is of me in matric. I was that rather skinny 18-year-old kid with little muscle, foolishly thinking that I was a victim of my genetics.
The middle photo is the one Eleanor sent me from just before I started all of this 7 months ago. I had a trace of abs, a slight vein on my bicep. I wasn’t fat. I could run 5km in 20-22.5 minutes. I could do 15+ strict pull-ups. I was somewhat satisfied with how I looked.
But when I look at the after photo, it’s clearly evident I’m currently in much better shape. In fact, I look and feel better than I ever did when I was playing sport, which makes me regret that I didn’t do all these things when I was playing rugby or sprinting. Beyond aesthetic improvements, I feel much better during training, and recover a lot quicker without feeling as beat up. And more important than any of that, I feel a lot better, which is something that I would argue is priceless. My mindset is just happier and more positive, and I can honestly say I’d take that over a six-pack and/or more pull-ups any day of the week. Who would have thought that diligently following the very advice I preach could have such nice results?
I had a bet with my younger brother on whether my testosterone levels would increase from lifestyle changes. I lost that bet, but I ended up winning so much more. “Are you going to carry on with these healthy changes?” he asked.
Of course! I feel and look great (in my opinion). I also don’t view them as changes anymore, just a part of my day. Why would I go back to eating fast food more than I should, or sleeping less, or [insert bad activity here]?
Eleanor recently wrote a blog post for the gym about losing weight and living a healthier life, and I re-read it and realized that over the last seven months I was doing pretty much everything she listed:
- Choosing high quality food
- No dieting as a diet is by definition temporary, and is synonymous with deprivation, but instead making sustainable lifestyle changes regarding food intake
- Sleeping better
- Engaging in balanced, varied training
For those out there thinking that testosterone is the most important thing when it comes to training and aesthetics… it really isn’t. You can look great, perform well in the gym and more importantly feel great with levels that would be considered below average. My advice that I give people hasn’t changed, if anything I just believe in it even more now seeing what it’s done for me personally. Change up your lifestyle and you’ll be amazed at the results.