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Anabolic balance


Proper hormonal signalling is essential for the the physiological adaptations of exercise to occur. In sport, hormones work a bit like an orchestra. Hormonal signalling is dependent on the training program variables such as load, volume, intensity, duration, modality, rest, and sleep, to create a harmonious balance between training load, and an athletes physical and psychological gains.

The key performers that are critical for athletes are, testosterone, cortisol, dehydroepianandrosterone (DHEA), GH, (growth hormone), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG), and luteinizing hormone (LH).

Testosterone is needed for protein synthesis, red blood cell production, glycogen replenishment, and for reducing protein breakdown (catabolism).

Avoiding overtraining is a tricky subject for many male and female competitors. It is however vitally important to monitor this and reduce the risk to both long-term health and performance.

Decreased testosterone levels accompanied by decreased performance, reduced energy, or strength during training may be an indicator that the training volume is too high.

When chronically elevated, cortisol becomes catabolic as well as immunosuppressive which will affect an athletes ability to maintain muscle mass, low body weight, and will hinder their recovery from training.

Cortisol works antagonistically to testosterone , inhibiting protein synthesis by disrupting testosterone's binding to its androgen receptor and by blocking anabolic signalling through testosterone -independent mechanisms.

In its normal function, cortisol helps us adapt to challenges by stimulating the release of free fatty acids from fat cells and converting proteins into energy and counteracting inflammation.

When emotional and/or physical stress becomes a dominant state, chronic high cortisol levels slowly breakdown muscle and bone, slow down healing, impair digestion, interfere with endocrine function and weaken the immune system.

As well as monitoring testosterone and cortisol separately, measuring their relative levels. i.e the T:C ratio may also provide a valuable indication of anabolic/ catabolic balance, particularly in males.

Poor performance and sub-optimal training adaptations have been observed in both footballers and tactical athletes with a low T:C ratio.

In female athletes monitoring hormones such as SHBG (sex-hormone binding globulin) or DHEA in relation to cortisol may also offer additional insight into the anabolic/catabolic balance.

DHEA is a precursor to both estrogen and testosterone and plays a role in body composition. Changes in DHEA and cortisol are helpful for determining susceptibility to overtraining in females.

Depleted levels of testosterone and DHEA in males has unfavourable consequences for anabolic gains and recovery. This can also be an indication of estrogen dominance in males with low testosterone and DHEA. Chronic exposure to environmental xenoestrogens as well as high stress hormones such as cortisol can result in aromatisation of androgens into estrogens.

SHBG is a useful marker for determining strength and force in training. SHBG transports hormones such as testosterone in the body and the levels rise in response to exercise training in both males and females.

Other key hormones such as GH, IGF-1, and LH, also provide information for training adaptations.

Growth hormone promotes anabolism by stimulating muscle protein synthesis and inhibiting protein breakdown. GH increase IGF-1 levels and both hormones are essential in muscle mass regulation. LH (luteinizing hormone) may also provide information on overtraining or insufficient energy intake.

When an athlete's hormonal response is compromised its important to slow everything down.

Reduce the training volume and make use of stress reduction techniques and nutrition to build resilience up again, so that you can get back out there stronger, and healthier.


Cevada T et al. (2014)Salivary cortisol levels in athletes and non-athletes: A systematic review. Horm Metab Res 46: 905-910

Elaine C Lee et al.(2017). Biomarkers in Sport and Exercise: Tracking health, Performance, and Recovery in Athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 31 (10):2920-2937


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