Testosterone is the main hormone associated with muscle mass, strength gains, and libido. But that's far from the only thing it does in the body. As Chris Lockwood, Ph.D., explains in the article "All About Testosterone," it impacts everything from mood and memory to bone health—but yes, to be clear, it also makes muscles bigger and stronger, and helps increase endurance and athletic performance.
So what do you do if you want more of it? If you've watched, read about, or listened to a sporting event in the last few years, you know that there are plenty of companies dying to sell you a supplement that promises to boost your natural production of testosterone.
To be clear, we're not talking about testosterone-replacement therapy here. That's a prescription-drug-based treatment, and is a popular option for men who get a low testosterone reading in a clinical setting. If you want to read about that, check out strength coach Charles Staley's article "Ask the Ageless Lifter: Does T-Therapy Work?"
Here, we're talking about dietary supplements, a popular choice for men who just want to bump theirs from "kinda low" to "kinda high," or from "I have no idea" to "I feel frickin' amazing" and see how it pays off in the mirror, the gym, and everywhere.
The question, of course, is this: Do testosterone boosters actually work? Let's dig deeper.
Testosterone Booster Basics
What Do Testosterone Boosters Do?
There is a long list of things that get better with age: jeans, whiskey, and cheese, just to name a few. However, your body and physical capabilities don't have it quite so easy. We start to see some not-so-favorable changes in strength and muscle mass as we pass through our third decade, and things don't get any easier from there.
What's to blame? Testosterone. In fact, after age 30, most men begin to experience a gradual decline in the hormone. It can be just a little dip, or it can be a nosedive, depending on a wide range of factors—from body composition to stress level.
Testosterone boosters are a class of herbal supplements aimed at naturally increasing your testosterone levels. Usually, they contain micronutrients that men are commonly deficient in, such as zinc, and which have been connected in research to healthy testosterone levels. They also may contain adaptogens, which are a class of supplement that are thought to help the body adapt to stress, or ingredients which have been connected to improved sleep. Sleep restriction has been shown to reduce testosterone in healthy young men, and as Chris Lockwood, Ph.D., notes, disturbed sleep is a common symptom of low T-levels.
Testosterone boosters can work by increasing testosterone within a normal range or by providing indirect hormone support. Either way, in the end, these supplements are meant to give all the benefits a healthy testosterone level can provide: faster recovery from exercise, bigger and stronger muscles, and increased libido, to name a few.
Are Testosterone Boosters Safe?
Similar to pre-workout supplements and fat burners, testosterone boosters don't always have a sterling reputation. Look on the shelf in a supp shop, and in all three cases, you'll probably see a few products that look amateurish, and have mysterious-looking proprietary blends on the label.
However, this doesn't mean that testosterone boosters are unsafe. It just means you need to be your own best advocate!
Always read reviews before purchasing, and choose a testosterone booster from a reputable, established supplement company. Only take the recommended dose, and keep your doctor in the loop about what you're taking if you have other health concerns or take medications.
Also, don't expect a testosterone booster or any supplement to "solve" your health and fitness for you. How you eat and exercise has a bigger impact on your testosterone levels than you might think! And if you want your test-quest to be both safe and effective, you need to take both into consideration.
If you're completely inactive, or if you're completely burned out from overly intense training, neither one is going to help your T-levels. And when it comes to nutrition, eating enough—and getting adequate dietary fats—are both essential for healthy testosterone levels, and for general health. In "All About Testosterone," Chris Lockwood, Ph.D., notes that extreme low-calorie dieting and fasting will hinder testosterone levels from staying at their peak, along with better-known villains like chronic stress.
Don't dig yourself into an even deeper hole. Give your booster a fighting chance!
Do Testosterone Boosters Help You Build Muscle?
In short, yes, they can. However, a crap diet and mediocre training program will certainly decrease the effectiveness of your testosterone booster. And a great training program and a solid diet can both help you build muscle and boost testosterone.
Certified strength coach Parker Hyde shows how to maximize your levels with your gym work in the article "How to Naturally Boost Testosterone Release with Exercise." In short, loading (or "intensity"), overall volume, exercise choice, and even exercise order can have an impact.
Likewise, the amino acids in a protein-rich diet play a big role in both testosterone and muscle growth. As Chris Lockwood, Ph.D., explains, "When combined with training, which increases the sensitivity of androgen receptors, and the consumption of essential amino acids necessary to support protein synthesis, the effects of testosterone on muscle and performance is significantly amplified."[3,4]
So before you take a single serving of your test booster, make sure you've got yourself set up for success. Exercise consistently with a well-designed muscle-building program, and make sure you are taking in adequate protein and overall calories based on your body weight, goals, and activity level.
Focus on eating right and training hard, and your testosterone booster will be worth more!
What Ingredients Are In The Best Testosterone Boosters?
You've probably noticed there's a wide range of ingredients when it comes to popular test-support products. If you want to achieve the best results possible, it's important to know the basics about science-backed ingredients. Here's my list of top ingredients that can make a big difference in your T-levels within a healthy, normal range!
Don't get confused by the name: There's nothing Greek about this plant. In fact, it's actually produced primarily in India, but I'm sure you're more concerned with its properties than its origins. Traditionally used in the preparation of curry powders, pickles, and pastes, studies are now investigating fenugreek for its anabolic properties.
A study out of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas, examined the effects of fenugreek supplementation on strength and body composition in resistance-trained men. Researchers found that while both the placebo and fenugreek groups significantly increased their strength during the first four weeks, only the fenugreek group saw significant increases in strength after eight weeks of training and supplementation.
This lends to the idea that fenugreek could help you continue to increase strength and muscle after hitting a plateau. Additionally, only the fenugreek group saw significant increases in lean body mass at both four and eight weeks.
Zinc and/or Magnesium
These are often in testosterone boosters individually, or combined in what is known as ZMA.
ZMA is a combination of zinc monomethionine aspartate, magnesium aspartate, and vitamin B-6. It's a recognizable name found on several supplement labels, including sleep aids and test boosters. Most often used as a recovery aid to help the body achieve deeper levels of REM sleep, ZMA claims to increase muscular strength and hormonal profiles.
Why bother with such common micronutrients? Because it's not uncommon for athletes to suffer from zinc and magnesium deficiencies, partly due to inadequate replenishing of levels after intense bouts of exercise. Deficiencies in these key minerals can lead to a poor anabolic hormone profile, impaired immune function, and increased cortisol, ultimately leading to decreases in strength and performance.
In a placebo-controlled study, 27 Division II football players received either a placebo or a ZMA supplement for a total of seven weeks during their scheduled spring practice. At the end of the seven weeks, the players taking the ZMA supplement had a 30 percent increase in testosterone, while the placebo group had a 10 percent decrease. The ZMA group also saw an 11.6 percent increase in strength, compared to only 4.6 percent in the placebo group.
Sleep better and get stronger—sounds like a win-win to me!
Yet another herb with a funny name! But this one is becoming more popular all the time, both in recovery-focused supplement blends and in testosterone boosters.
Popular through the centuries in Ayurvedic healing (a traditional practice of medicine in India) ashwagandha is what is known as an "adaptogen." This means the body may be able to use it to help adapt to stressors. While many people supplement with it for reducing cortisol, anxiety, and fatigue levels, ashwagandha also holds relevance for us here with potential testosterone boosting benefits.
Though evidence is limited, ashwagandha supplementation has been associated with increasing testosterone levels in men, as well as some growth in muscle and strength in comparison to a group taking a placebo.
Because of its anti-stress potential, ashwagandha is also one of the four supplements that exercise physiologist Mandy Wray recommends in the article "4 Supplements to Improve Your Sleep." There is also research connecting this herb to improved sexual health in both men and women.[10,11]
We should also mention that the name ashwagandha means "the smell of a horse," and in the ayurvedic tradition, it's said to give you the strength and vitality of a horse. So perhaps its reputation as a testosterone booster isn't so new after all.
D-Aspartic Acid (D-AA)
D-AA is a naturally occurring amino acid found in the testicular Leydig cells, where it acts as a messenger between your brain and Leydig cells to convert cholesterol to testosterone. In theory, supplementing with D-AA should increase T-levels by improving the messaging system between the brain and testes.
Scientists in Italy found that subjects who consumed roughly 3 grams of D-AA for 12 days observed a 42 percent increase in testosterone levels. The researchers also noted that the D-AA group still had 22 percent more testosterone than the placebo group three days after they stopped supplementing. Conversely, a more recent article published in Nutrition Research found no increase in testosterone levels in resistance-trained males after supplementing with 3 grams of D-AA for 28 days.
Why the difference? The discrepancy in findings between these studies is likely due to the initial training status and base testosterone levels of the subjects. While more research is warranted on this ingredient, D-AA is one of several ingredients suggested to be effective in boosting test levels, especially for older men whose natural testosterone levels have declined due to the natural course of aging.
How Can I Make My Test Booster More Effective With Exercise?
Test boosters can be an effective accessory for increasing muscle strength and size, but they won't take the place of a solid resistance-training program. Research has shown regular strength training has the potential to help boost your testosterone levels, not just benefit the testosterone you have. It's a win-win relationship.
Here are a few tips to take your training and T to the next level:
Think big to small: Research shows that starting your workout with compound lifts (bench press, squat, overhead press, etc.) followed by smaller isolation movements leads to a greater anabolic response.
Get in, get out: Try to shorten your workouts without decreasing overall volume. Testosterone levels are higher after shorter workouts, like less than 60 minutes. During that time, keep most rest periods brief, like 30-90 seconds, explains strength coach Parker Hyde in "How to Naturally Boost Testosterone with Exercise."
Keep more weapons in your arsenal: Occasionally use lifting methods like forced reps, negatives, and dropsets to further stress your body. Personal trainer and fitness journalist Michael Berg explains in "6 Ways to Crank Up Your Testosterone Levels" that going beyond muscular failure with these techniques has been shown to pump up T-levels in study subjects.
No, doing it on every set probably isn't a good idea, but going for broke on the final set of a safe exercise—say, curls or shoulder presses—can pay off over time.
As a final note, start using any test booster with the proper mindset. Building your testosterone levels, like building your dream physique, isn't an overnight project. Dig in, do the work, and make choices that will set you up for long-term success.
- Leproult, R., & Van Cauter, E. (2011). Effect of 1 week of sleep restriction on testosterone levels in young healthy men. JAMA, 305(21), 2173-4.
- Volek, J. S., Kraemer, W. J., Bush, J. A., Incledon, T., & Boetes, M. (1997). Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 82(1), 49-54.
- Kraemer, W. J., & Rogol, A. D. (Eds.). (2008). The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine: An IOC Medical Commission Publication, The Endocrine System in Sports and Exercise (Vol. 11).
- Shenkman, B. S., Turtikova, O. V., Nemirovskaya, T. L., & Grigoriev, A. I. (2010). Skeletal muscle activity and the fate of myonuclei. Acta Naturae, 2(2 (5)).
- Poole, C., Bushey, B., Foster, C., Campbell, B., Willoughby, D., Kreider, R., ... & Wilborn, C. (2010). The effects of a commercially available botanical supplement on strength, body composition, power output, and hormonal profiles in resistance-trained males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 34.
- Wilborn, C. D., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Taylor, L. W., Marcello, B. M., Rasmussen, C. J., ... & Kreider, R. B. (2004). Effects of zinc magnesium aspartate (ZMA) supplementation on training adaptations and markers of anabolism and catabolism. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 1(2), 12-20.
- Brilla, L. R., & Conte, V. (2000). Effects of a novel zinc-magnesium formulation on hormones and strength. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 3(4), 26-36.
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255.
- Wankhede, S., Langade, D., Joshi, K., Sinha, S. R., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1).
- Ambiye, V. R., Langade, D., Dongre, S., Aptikar, P., Kulkarni, M., & Dongre, A. (2013). Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Oligospermic Males: A Pilot Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, 1-6.
- Dongre, S., Langade, D., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Improving Sexual Function in Women: A Pilot Study. BioMed Research International, 2015, 1-9.
- Topo, E., Soricelli, A., D'Aniello, A., Ronsini, S., & D'Aniello, G. (2009). The role and molecular mechanism of D-aspartic acid in the release and synthesis of LH and testosterone in humans and rats. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 7(120), 1482-1488.
- Willoughby, D. S., & Leutholtz, B. (2013). D-Aspartic acid supplementation combined with 28 days of heavy resistance training has no effect on body composition, muscle strength, and serum hormones associated with the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis in resistance-trained men. Nutrition Research, 33(10), 803-810.
- Simão, R., Leite, R. D., Speretta, G. F. F., Maior, A. S., De Salles, B. F., de Souza Junior, T. P., ... & Willardson, J. M. (2013). Influence of upper-body exercise order on hormonal responses in trained men. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 38(2), 177-181.
- Kraemer, W. J., Marchitelli, L., Gordon, S. E., Harman, E., Dziados, J. E., Mello, R., & Fleck, S. J. (1990). Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise protocols. Journal of Applied Physiology, 69(4), 1442-1450.
- Ahtiainen, J. P., Pakarinen, A., Kraemer, W. J., & Hakkinen, K. (2004). Acute hormonal responses to heavy resistance exercise in strength athletes versus nonathletes. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 29(5), 527-543.