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Are low testosterone levels holding you back?

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Charles Poliquin is one the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic medalists in 17 different sports. He is based in The Rockies, Colorado.

Men today have lower testosterone levels than at any point in human history. Can I provide you with a stack of peer-reviewed studies? No, because I’m not a librarian at the modern day equivalent of the library of Alexandria, but I do spend a lot of my time in and around some of the world’s best gyms. I’ve seen the evidence first hand, but do a quick search on PubMed if you don’t believe me and you’ll find plenty of research that proves testosterone levels have plummeted.

That’s despite us now having a better understanding of training, nutrition, supplementation and recovery than at any point in human history. Despite these incredible breakthroughs in the understanding of how the human body best operates, these advances only just offset the lack of testosterone typically seen in men today.

The reasons are numerous: pollution, exposure to environmental estrogen, the lack of a nutrient-dense diet, spending hours in front of computers, TVs and cell phones instead of getting physical activity, and many more besides. In fact, so many factors in your daily life are working against the likelihood of you having the levels of available T in your system that your father’s generation had, let alone your grandfather’s.

Overcoming the obstacles
When I was a kid of 14 or so you’d get laughed at in gym class if you couldn’t do eight chins-ups. That was the minimum accepted standard. Today most kids first step into a gym and can’t even support their own bodyweight. And when I was that age there was one type of peanut butter in the shops. Now’s there’s dozens, all of which are packed with sugar and trans fats.

Just speak to any old-school strength coach who’s been around the block for a few decades and they’ll tell you that the kids that come to them today are physically weaker and smaller than their age-matched peers in the seventies.

This makes it very challenging to pack on significant amounts of muscle in an effective, timely manner. But not impossible. If you’re training hard, eating well and recovering properly, an old figure from the seventies, which I think still holds true, is that you can add 8lb to 10lb of muscle per year. That rings true with guys I know who have gained, naturally, around 70lb over seven years.

So don’t let anyone tell you that all hope is lost in getting the physique that you want, because there are steps you can take to improve your chances of adding the maximum amount of muscle mass possible at a decent and consistent rate.

Respect the rules

The first step is to sort out your diet. Only genetic freaks will make impressive gains without too much consideration over what they stick in their mouths. For me, one rule rises above all others and it’s this: the worse your genetics, the more important your diet becomes. I am also a big believer in minimising your exposure to cell phones and dirty electricity. Keep your bedroom like the Bat Cave; as dark as possible with all electronic devices unplugged. And don’t sit for hours with a computer on your lap, unless of course you want to slow-cook your nuts.

And when it comes to training, you need to select the most bang-for-your-buck exercises, especially if you are limited for time to train, such as squeezing in a session before work or during a lunch break.
I’m not saying there’s no room for isolation lifts in your workout – they are essential for maximising muscle fibre development – but compound moves should make up at least 60% of your workout.

Make it count
When I work with professional athletes I often don’t have much time to get them strong. The off-season is short and I typically only get them four days a week for less than an hour at a time. So I need to work them hard but effectively so they can pack on muscle and start the new season strong, lean and healthy.
A lot of you guys will be in the same boat and can’t spend as much time training as you’d like. But that doesn’t mean you should ever use that as excuse for not making decent gains.

If you are limited for daily training time, then I recommend picking two big compound moves and doing ten sets of ten, in the German Volume Training (GVT) protocol I popularised. But there are variations I have been playing around with to stimulate more muscle fibres to make it even more effective and less mentally tiresome. If you have the ability to bench 120kg then the traditional GVT method won’t work as well for you, so you need to play around with different variables within the tens sets to tap into as many muscle fibres as possible to promote growth.

Here’s a protocol that you should try out if you’re done with the standard GVT model and/or can train four days per week when time isn’t on your side.
Monday Chest and back Bench press and chin-up
Tuesday Legs Front squat and hamstrings curl
Thursday Chest and back Incline bench press and bent-over row
Friday Legs Back squat and another form of hamstrings curl

If you have time do three sets of around 12 reps of biceps and triceps isolation moves on upper-body days, and some direct seated and standing calves work on leg days.

For the main moves, do ten sets. Here’s what I like to do for the bench press. For the first three sets do ten reps at a 4010 tempo. For sets four to six drop down to six reps at the same tempo. For sets seven to nine drop the weight and add a two-second pause at the bottom stretch position for a 4210 tempo. And for the final set, set the bench at a 10-degree decline, drop the weight again and aim for 25 reps.

For the chins you can play around with hand position, reps and tempo. For the two squat variations you can employ rest-pauses at the bottom, or do 1 and a 1/4 reps, and vary the weight and reps and tempo as well. Just basically play around with the variations open to you to increase motor unit recruitment and time under tension to give your muscles no option but to get bigger and stronger.

At the end of the day the choice is yours. It’s never been harder to build an amazing physique than it is today for the modern man. But you do have a choice. Fix the diet, bust your balls in the gym with a training programme that taxes your very being, and you’ll overcome these disadvantages to stand out from the crowd.

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