The 100% Natural "Hormonal Approach" to Personalize Your Resistance Training Program: Using Saliva Testosterone to Discover Your Own, Personal Optimal Set- & Rep-Range

A pre- vs post-workout salivary testosterone test could hold the clue to the perfect workout.
Most of you are probably aware that my own personal interest in learning something new every day is one of my central motivations to sit down and write an article about the latest and (imho) most interesting studies from the realms of nutrition and exercise science. At first sight it may seem as if it was kind of stupid to waste additional time with writing about it. After all, it would seem as if just reading the study would be enough. From my seminars and lectures I have yet learned that teaching others about things you believe you would "know by heart" does usually improve your own understanding of the matter, significantly. This is similar with blogging, which does however have another often under-appreciated advantage: You get in contact with others who share a similar interest.

People like "Anonymous" (this is what happens if you don't use at least a nickname folks: you miss your chance of becoming "semi-famous" ;-) who recently pointed me towards the results of a 2008 study by Beaven et al. who conducted a pretty intriguing experiment that involved 16 male amateur Rugby players, sweat and a lot of saliva.

Can your T-level help you to find your optimal set- & rep-range?

The scientists who worked at the Waikato Institute of Technology and theHorticulture and
Food Research Institute of New Zealand Ltd.
hypothesized that the functional strength gains of an athlete may be further enhanced by a non-traditional periodization regimen that focuses on those set- and rep-ranges that maximize the individual's testosterone response (T-Max) to the given workout.
"But didn't you say?" I know, I have said countless of times: Testosterone does not build muscle! The idea behind Tmax based periodization, however, is not to exploit a causal relationship between higher T-levels and greater gains in a given resistance training regimen (which happens to be something West et al. have disproven in 2012, already). The idea is rather that the individual testosterone response can be used to decide which protocol provides a greater anabolic stimulus.
To this ends, the researchers conducted a cross-over study in the course of which the rugby players trained in groups of N=8. During both phases of the study, eight individuals trained according to their previously determined T-Max set- & rep-range (i.e. the protocol that yielded the maximal testosterone increases in a previously conducted baseline test), while the other eight subjects trained with the protocol that had proved the minimal testosterone (T-Min) response after the baseline test.

After three weeks the groups were "crossed over" and those who had previously trained on their T-Min protocol would not train in their T-Max set- & rep range, while those who had been randomized to the T-Max group for the first three weeks had to spend the 2nd phase of the study training their personal T-Min protocol.

"Hold on, how did that work?"

That sounds too complicated? Well, I guess I will provide you with an example - let's see: During the baseline testing all subjects performed the same standardized workout with the following four set- and rep-schemes:
  • A: four sets of 10 reps at 70% 1RM with 2 minutes rest between sets (4x10–70%)
  • B: three sets of five reps at 85% 1RM with 3 minutes’ rest (3x5–85%)
  • C: five sets of 15 reps at 55% of 1RM with 1 minute’s rest (5x15–55%)
  • D: three sets of 5 reps at 40% 1RM with 3 minutes’ rest (3x5–40%)
During these tests it turned out that subject 1 had the maximal testosterone response to protocol "B", where his T-levels increased almost twice as much as on protocol "C" ... I would guess that your initial response to this will be: "Of course, that's after all similar to 5x5; and 5x5 rulez!", but let's face it, if we stick to broscience, it should be protocol "D" that sucks and not protocol "C", right? I mean 3x5 reps at 40%, that's sissy stuff(!) and still, it "sucked" only for two out of sixteen participants, whose corresponding T-max regimen were protocol "C" and protocol "D".

No matter how you look at it, there is no pattern emerging!

How many subjects reacted with maximal T-responses to the individual protocols?
  • A → 4 subjects
  • B → 7 subjects
  • C → 3 subjects
  • D → 2 subjects
Interestingly, the re-test after the first three weeks yielded identical results - well, with the obligatory one exception to the rule: subject 14 must have been must have been convinced that 5x5 does in fact rule, because his T-max that has previously been observed in response to protocol "A" shifted to "B" after three weeks on sissy protocol "D".
This circumstance provides further evidence for the often heard hypothesis that the "optimal workout" looks different for everyone and that the perfect match between trainee and routine is stable, maybe fixed by genetics or certain physiological characteristics of the individual.
Much contrary to what you would expect there was thus no clear pattern emerging here. If anything you may be able to make out a couple of trends, with the most significant trend saying that the 3x5 @85% regimen could be the one that yielded (on average) the greatest benefits. That's however not very useful if you are subject 2, 10 or 16, because this would mean that workout "B" would be totally worthless for you.

If we simply overgeneralize these results and prescribe the same workout for all, this would have 19% of the subjects train on the worst possible and ~37% of the trainees on a suboptimal routine.

That sucks, right? Of course it does, but it's getting even worse! Up to now you could still sooth yourself by assuming that "Testosterone does not matter anyway!"
Figure 1: Effects of training on T-max protocol vs. T-min protocol on strength gains (Beaven. 2008)
Unfortunately, the results of the study at hand suggest that this is not the case, if you take the T-response as a guide, instead of doing an ex-post correlation to "prove" that testosterone was anabolic, the study at hand clearly suggest that not training in your individual "optimal" set- & rep-range will lead to stagnation and even strength declines.
Warning: The booze induced testosterone boost could mess with your training planning. So no Bloody Marys after your workouts (learn more)!
Bottom line: As of now, the technology to do larg(er) scale  cheap pre- / vs. post-workout saliva testosterone testing is not yet available. If there were follow up studies to support the usefulness of the "test testosterone first, plan your workout routine second"-approach to training optimization, I am pretty sure the demand, is going to rise and some clever engineer is going to develop a device every larger high-school football team and/or commercial gym could afford.

In view of the fact that even program "D" can be optimal for certain subjects, the introduction of this device could maybe even put an end to the "hardgainer" misery.
  • Beaven CM, Cook CJ, Gill ND. Significant strength gains observed in rugby players after specific resistance exercise protocols based on individual salivary testosterone responses. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Mar;22(2):419-25.
  • West DW, Phillips SM. Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;112(7):2693-702. 
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