When you think about your body’s heavy hitters, hormones might not come to mind. But these powerful chemical messengers impact everything from mood to hunger to metabolism to sex drive. And they can’t do it alone — they require support to work synergistically and meet your body’s lofty KPIs. Support like getting enough sleep, staying stress-free, eating healthy foods, and here’s a big one: exercising.
In fact, muscle mass can begin to decline starting in your 30s — especially if you’re moving less than you used to. “Physically inactive people can lose two to 10% of their muscle mass per decade,” says Renae Thomas, MD, MPH, a Lifeforce Physician. “And the speed of muscle loss only increases with advancing age,” also known as sarcopenia, she notes.
Exercise is one of the best-known natural ways to promote hormonal harmony, says Dr. Thomas. And it’s even more vital if your hormones have become imbalanced due to conditions such as PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), obesity, and insulin resistance. Hitting the gym for healthy hormones is also critical as you age into your 40s when levels of androgens (sex hormones) but mostly testosterone peter off — and weight gain, muscle loss, loss of sex drive, and problems with mood and brain function creep in.
Here’s how our muscles are inextricably linked to a handful of hormones, and which workout regimen can help optimize your levels to get you back into balance.
How Resistance Training Impacts Our Hormones
Exercise of any type, duration, or intensity helps combat the age-related decline in hormones, says Dr. Thomas. But resistance training is your best bet when it comes to minimizing sarcopenia and symptoms related to menopause and/or andropause — the life phases when estrogen and progesterone levels drop in women and testosterone levels drop in both men and women.
“Anaerobic exercise, such as resistance training, tends to be more associated with boosting androgen hormones and balancing estradiol,” says Dr. Thomas. “That’s because of the type of hormones anaerobic exercise releases.”
There are two types of hormones in relation to exercise. Anabolic hormones — such as testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) — build new muscle and promote metabolic activity, while catabolic hormones — such as cortisol, catecholamines, and progesterone — break down cell protein and encourage fat retention.
Both processes occur during exercise, but resistance training maximizes anabolic hormones and keeps catabolic hormones to a minimum.
“High catabolic hormones can impair body composition and overall health by encouraging less muscle and more body fat (adipose tissue), which creates inflammation throughout the body and a hormonal chain reaction,” says Dr. Thomas. “For instance, as part of the catabolic response, your body may secrete higher levels of SHBG, which binds to and inactivates hormones, and can further exacerbate hormone imbalances.”
“Resistance training improves your overall body composition, but it also optimizes your hormones simultaneously,” says Dr. Thomas. “That’s because when strength training, muscles get slightly damaged and need repair to grow back stronger.” Immediately post-workout, your body churns out testosterone, human growth hormone, and IGF-1 to repair those damaged tissues.
Hormones Impacted by Strength Training
While numerous hormones are at play every time you move a muscle, here are the essential hormones that affect your performance and physical results. “These hormone responses not only play a role in tissue remodeling, muscle repair, and recovery,” says Dr. Thomas. “They also contribute to long-term strength, power, and lean muscle gain.”
What it does: Testosterone helps your body repair damaged muscle proteins and build muscle.
How to boost it: Lifting weights is the best form of exercise to boost testosterone in the short and long term. After a strength workout, testosterone levels rise for 15 minutes to an hour, depending on your age, fitness level, and how intensely you exercise.
But the benefits of this boost in testosterone don’t end there; it can eventually alleviate andropause symptoms in older men. Research suggests that these effects from resistance training can make the endocrine system more adept at producing hormonal responses after training, which will accumulate in higher testosterone levels over time.
It is important to note that the hormone-boosting effects from strength training will not get excessive and will rise only to appropriate levels, says Dr. Thomas. “Women will not turn into testosterone machines or become masculine, and those struggling with excess androgens, such as in PCOS, the excess testosterone and DHEA can normalize with regular resistance training, as their insulin sensitivity improves and body composition changes.”
2. Estrogen and Progesterone
What they do: Estrogen and progesterone make conception and pregnancy possible, but in the right amount, these sex hormones also help burn body fat, lift your mood, assist metabolism, and promote sleep. The key is balance, but progesterone and estrogen levels typically worsen with age, starting at perimenopause.
How to boost them: The decline and imbalance of these hormones can cause changes in body composition (more fat, less muscle), a decrease in muscular strength and muscle mass, a decline in physical function, and a significant decline in bone mass. Dr. Thomas says strength training can help balance these hormones and increase testosterone levels post-menopause, which helps maintain muscle mass and bone mineral density.
Men can also harbor excess estrogen in adipose tissue, so strength training would also help decrease estrogen levels and boost testosterone.
3. Human Growth Hormone (hGH)
What it does: Human growth hormone (hGH) encourages your body to draw energy from your fat reserves during intensive exercise. This powerful hormone also promotes muscle growth, supports immunity, and revs up fat metabolism.
How to boost it: Your body naturally produces hGH during REM sleep, so get enough hours every night. You can also stimulate hGH with explosive workouts, such as HIIT and weight lifting.
4. Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1)
What it does: IGF-1 manages human growth hormone and supports hGH in repairing tissue and telling your bones and muscle to grow.
How to boost it: Similar to hGH, intense and strenuous HIIT workouts and strength training can cause a significant increase in circulating levels of IGF-1 in your body.
Why You Should Never Skip Leg Day
The legs and glutes are where the largest muscle groups are, says Dr. Thomas. Exercising them, especially with relatively high volume and moderate-to-high intensity, requires the most effort and tends to produce the most significant hormonal release of the hormones mentioned above.
Lower body strength training is also associated with better overall hormone balance due to improvements in insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism and reduction in excess cortisol and excess estrogen, says Dr. Thomas.
You’ll still get these effects in your upper body and full body strength exercises, just generally to a lesser degree, says Dr. Thomas. In short: “Greater muscle recruitment, greater hormone release!”
5 Lower Body Exercises for Healthy Hormone Balance
“A lot of people shy away from strength training as they don’t know where to start,” says Dr. Thomas. “It can be helpful and safer to hire a professional or engage in self-education to learn the basics.” Lifeforce Members can also tap their dedicated Health Coach for tips on getting started.
Here, Lifeforce Health Coach and fitness expert Dotun Olubeko demonstrates five lower body exercises that’ll get your legs and glutes fired up. “These movements, including squats and deadlifts, are fundamental movement patterns everyone should be able to do,” says Olubeko, a Pain-Free Performance Specialist (PPSC) and former All-American in 110m hurdles. “The importance of these exercises cannot be understated, and you should do them throughout your life.” There are, after all, correlations between a person’s mortality and their ability to squat.
A few things to remember as you embark on a new exercise regimen:
“Focusing on the quality of your form is the most important thing, especially when you’re getting older,” says Olubeko. “Maybe you could get away with bad form when you were younger, but that’s not going to cut it now.”
Always give yourself at least 10 minutes to warm up properly. As you get older, warming up becomes increasingly essential, not only for injury prevention but also for performance.
It’s not about going heavy. Progressing and regressing various exercises by gradually adding or removing weight and resistance is key, says Olubeko. Even simply adding a weight vest for your daily walk is considered a progression. “Start with a level of strength training that is relatively easy and that you can easily recover from,” says Dr. Thomas. “Slowly increase the intensity and quantity over time as your body adapts and improves.”
Doing a 30-minute session of lower body resistance training twice a week is good, but if you don’t have a half-hour chunk of time to spare, getting movement in throughout the day is just as beneficial, Olubeko says. “Fortunately, our main mode of movement is our legs, so when in doubt, just keep moving and move often.”
Bonus Tips for Experienced Lifters
For those who have already been strength training for years and have the basics taken care of, here are a few strategies from Dr. Thomas that can help maximize the beneficial hormonal effects of strength training.
Don’t train to failure. Training hard, at maximal strength and power, but stopping short of failure, tends to be associated with greater increases in strength and power, says Dr. Thomas. According to this study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, stopping short of failure also boosted participants’ resting testosterone and lowered cortisol levels, compared to those who trained to failure.
Choose free weights. Compared to machine-loaded weights, this recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that training with free weights tends to induce greater increases in free testosterone (in men), despite similar increases in muscle mass and strength.
Mix in some higher volume sessions. One study suggests that periodized high-volume resistance training (in this case, two to four sets of 3-15 repetitions) was shown to be associated with higher levels of testosterone, IGF-1, and lower cortisol levels in the women participants. They also had greater improvements in muscular strength, power, and speed compared to the low-volume circuit-style training group.
Play around with different velocities. Incorporating bouts of speed into a hypertrophy-type resistance training can provide an additional boost in testosterone and hGH, says Dr. Thomas. (Hypertrophy training focuses on developing muscle mass by increasing the overall volume of your workout to induce muscle fibers to grow.)
A small study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism showed that men performing exercises at max speed increased testosterone and hGH but also cortisol, while the group that performed the exercises at 70 percent of their max speed with more repetitions stimulated even more hGH without the spike in cortisol.
Keep the rest break short. When training smaller muscle groups, such as biceps, calves, and triceps, try mixing in periods of low-medium intensity with short rest periods (think: one minute), as this can cause a bigger release of growth hormone.
Ready to measure your hormone levels and work toward a healthier hormone balance? Get your Lifeforce Diagnostic today.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Renae Thomas, MD, MPH; ABFM Board Certified in Family Medicine, ABPM Board Certified in Public Health, & General Preventive Medicine; ABLM Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism