Get the greatest training gains by creating the most anabolic response and positively manipulate your hormonal system. The hormonal, or endocrine, system supports your body’s equilibrium by releasing hormones in response to stresses such as resistance training or sprint conditioning. While testosterone is often considered the most potent anabolic hormone, growth hormone (GH) is possibly the most interesting one.
GH is released from the anterior pituitary gland in bursts throughout the day, with the largest burst usually coming at night. One of its key functions is to regulate body fat and lean tissue, but it also builds bone and connective tissue, and boosts the immune system. GH stimulates the secretion of Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), and with resistance training, it increases amino acid uptake to enhance protein synthesis and muscle building—all good stuff you need for optimal health and a lean physique.
GH is not only affected by resistance training but other external factors such as sleep, nutrition, and alcohol consumption play a major role on GH release patterns. Here are eleven things you need to know to increase GH levels and reap the benefits of increased fat burning and protein synthesis.
1) Use a High Total Volume of Work and Short Rest Periods
Extensive research shows that short rest periods and large total volume of work are the two most important factors in leading to a significant increase in GH levels. Use a heavy resistance (not a maximal strength load), such as 75 to 85 percent of the 1 RM with rest periods between 30 seconds and one minute.2) A Hypertrophy-Type Protocol is Best to Trigger GH
We know that a large number of sets and high total volume results in the greatest GH increase. Research supports this with evidence that a hypertrophy-type protocol, such as training four sets of ten reps of squats at 75 percent of the 1 RM is more effective at increasing GH than a strength (3 x 11 at 90 1RM) or power protocol (8 x 6 of jump squats with no weight). Researchers note that for optimal results, a greater number of exercises than were used in this study should be trained for peak GH stimulation.
3) Train Above the Lactate Threshold: Lactate Associated with GH Release
High volume and short rest periods will result in greater lactate concentrations, which has been shown to trigger GH. A 2010 study compared the effect of rest period length on GH release, testing 60, 90, and 120 second rest periods with a training program that used four sets of bench press and squats at 85 percent of the 1 RM. Participants lifted each set to failure, meaning that the two longer rest periods of 90 and 120 seconds allowed for about a 15 percent greater volume of work than the 60 second rest period group because participants were able to recover more completely between lifts. Even so, GH release was highest in the 60-second group. Researchers point to the increased metabolic stress of the heavy lifts with short rest to increased lactate and hydrogen ion accumulation that elevates GH.
4) Use Eccentric-Enhanced Lifts: Increase GH and Lactate
Training with heavier eccentric loads is a great way for advanced lifters to gain strength and trigger GH. Researchers compared training the bench press and squat using a traditional program (4 sets of 6 reps at 52.5 percent of 1RM) with an eccentric-enhanced program (3 X 6 at 40 percent 1RM for the concentric motion and 100 percent 1RM for eccentric) and found that GH increased more after the eccentric-enhanced training. It also led to both a greater post-exercise lactate response and subsequent increased lactate clearance rate than traditional training. It was surprising that the eccentric training group had a greater GH response because this group performed a lower volume of work than the traditional group, suggesting that this form of training may be more efficient in eliciting anabolic stimuli and strength adaptations based on relative total volume. The correlation between elevated lactate response and GH was likely the key. Trainees with limited training time will benefit from adding eccentric training as would athletes who compete above the lactate threshold (boxers, wrestlers, rowers).
A second study of eccentric training had similar results. A group that trained with 90 percent of the 1RM load generated the greatest GH spike. Researchers note that their study used too low of a training volume (four sets to failure of the bench press, comparing eccentric loads at 70, 80, 90, and 100 percent) for a large GH increase. Despite this, they did find that GH was highest after the 90 percent load, and this elevation was significantly more than with the 100 percent load. The takeaway point from these studies is that eccentric training can be incorporated into a complete program to train the human strength curve and trigger GH.
5) Do Conditioning with Sprint Intervals to Trigger GH
Sprint intervals of varying lengths will allow you to produce more GH because they allow you to train above the lactate threshold and pack a potent metabolic punch. Two studies from Israel tested hormone response with a variety of sprint schemes. Using four 250 meter sprints at 80 percent of maximal 100 meter speed elevated GH with no increase in cortisol. Additionally, IGF binding protein-3, which is GH dependent and has anabolic effects because it stimulates IGF-1 bioactivity, did increase.
A second study by the same research group looked at hormone response to both a decreasing (400, 300, 200, 100 meters) and an increasing (100, 200, 300, 400 meters) sprint interval scheme. The decreasing distance protocol had a greater GH and lactate response, indicating a higher metabolic demand. Take note that trainees rated the decreasing distance protocol as easier on a rating of perceived exertion scale. Having the 400 meters, the longest, hardest distance at the end was very difficult from a mental standpoint. Combining a psychologically easier workout with a greater GH anabolic response is obviously the best choice.
6) Target GH Bursts With Nutrition
It is essential to make sure you’re feeding your body with the right nutrients at the right times to target the protein synthesis that comes when the pituitary releases bursts of GH. Include a whey protein supplement and essential amino acids (EAAs) in your nutrition program for the best results.
Research shows that whey protein is more anabolic than casein protein even though they are both derived from milk. A recent study found that protein synthesis following training with consumption of whey was 122 percent greater than with casein because whey is more rapidly digested. There is additional evidence that ingesting a supplement of 20 grams of EAAs combined with carbohydrates (both 30 g and 90 g were tested with similar outcomes) stimulates protein synthesis after training and results in a decrease in muscle protein breakdown. This means supplementing with EAAs/carbs facilitates a significant anabolic effect, while slightly decreasing the catabolic processes that come with cortisol release from metabolic stress.
7) Take EAAs and Train to Failure: Sensitize the Muscle to Feeding
The greatest anabolic environment is created through nutritional supplementation and training to muscle failure. Research shows that taking 15 grams of EAAs immediately after training to failure, and again 24 hours after training, increases protein synthesis more than if submaximal exercise had been done. Weight training to failure is necessary because it recruits Type 2 muscle fibers and sensitizes the muscle to EAA feeding.
Interestingly, researchers found elevated protein synthesis and enhanced EAA sensitivity in response to using two very different loading schemes to failure: a 90 percent 1 RM load and a 30 percent 1 RM load. This was not the case with an exercise protocol using a 30 percent load that didn’t train to failure.
Use this knowledge when doing eccentric-enhanced training—remember research shows it should be done to failure—by targeting the GH bursts with the right nutrition for peak protein synthesis and fat burning.
8) Strategic Programming to Be Anabolic: Do Large Muscle Mass Lifts First
It’s crucial to train single-limb exercises to correct structural imbalances between the left and right side of the body, and between the agonist/antagonist muscle pairs. Unilateral training decreases the risk of injury and improves improper motor patterns, allowing for greater health and longevity as an athlete or trainee. Plus, unilateral lower body training in addition to regular bilateral training has been shown to result in faster short sprint times, even in elite sprinters.
Single limb training (single leg squats, single side dumbbell chest press, single side cable low row to name a few) is effective at improving strength unilaterally but not bilaterally, meaning it needs to be done in addition to other bilateral training to trigger an anabolic response. A recent study compared GH response in unilateral and bilateral exercises at 80 percent of the 1RM. GH increased for both groups but was more elevated in the bilateral training group. Insulin, another anabolic hormone, increased equally for both groups.
For best GH response, on the day you include unilateral training, start with large muscle mass exercises to stimulate testosterone and GH—lower body exercises such as squats, power cleans, and dead lifts are recommended at a high percentage of the 1 RM, with a high total volume. This strategic programming should dramatically increase hormone secretion once unilateral or smaller muscle mass exercises are started.
9) Take Arginine, Ornithine, and Betaine
Add arginine, ornithine, and betaine to your nutrition stack for a greater GH response after training. All three are amino acids (actually betaine is a derivative of the amino acid glycine) and they’ve all been shown to improve performance and make you more anabolic.A new study found that taking 1.5 grams twice a day of betaine improved participants vertical jump height, bench press throw power, and maximal number of squat reps at a 90 percent load. It also resulted in a greater GH and IGF-1 release than a placebo group. Plus, cortisol release decrease, indicating that betaine creates a potent muscle building environment. Researchers suggest that performance improved because betaine helps support the synthesis of creatine phosphate, the body’s energy source for intense short-term exercise.
Additionally, taking a combination of arginine (3000 mgs) and ornithine (2200 mgs) twice a day has been shown to result in elevated GH levels after performing five sets of five squats at 80 percent of the 1RM. Interestingly, long, five-minute rest periods were used, which is different from previous evidence that short rest periods are ideal to elicit maximal GH release. This suggests that with proper programming longer rest can be used to allow for more complete recovery and greater maximal lifts.
10) Take Alpha-GPC: Stimulate GH and Produce More Force
Alpha-GPC helps create a potent anabolic environment because it stimulates the pituitary gland thereby elevating GH production. It is particularly effective in increasing GH response in older trainees, and has been shown to improve brain function cognition in the elderly.
Alpha-GPC is a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in muscle contractions throughout the body. One study found that Alpha-GPC increased GH levels in young and older individuals after resistance training and that the hormone elevation was more pronounced in the older subjects.
A second study presented at the conference of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that taking 600 mg of Alpha-GPC prior to performing six sets of ten reps of squats at 70 percent of the 1 RM improved GH response 44-fold compared to a placebo group that only had a 2.6-fold GH increase. Participants performed three sets of bench press throws thirty minutes after the squats to test their peak force. The Alpha-GPC group produced 14 percent greater force than the placebo group.
I’ve counseled the use of Alpha-GPC for years to improve lean body mass and fat burning, while supporting brain function. You’ll improve force production, strength and muscle mass by taking Alpha-GPC prior to your workout. Check out the Poliquin Alpha-GPC.
11) How to Use Longer Rest Periods For Maximal GH Release
It is generally accepted that shorter rest periods with a high volume of work results in the greatest GH response, but there is evidence that if you program correctly and use a wave-like program, you can still maximize GH with longer rest. Researchers have cautioned that short rest intervals are associated with cortisol release, possibly inhibiting a long-term hypertrophic effect and that testosterone and IGF-1 are not elevated with short rest intervals. Plus the highest-threshold motor units are only recruited without heavy loads or by training to failure.
One strategy is to include eccentric training to failure with longer rest periods, which we’ve already discussed in #4. Another option is to vary your rest periods within the workout or to do a program for two weeks that includes mainly short rest periods for hypertrophy and peak GH response followed by a maximal strength phase with longer rest. Additionally, research suggests that circuit training can be used to trigger GH and get equal strength gains as a traditional training program. A new study found circuit resistance training resulted in equal blood lactate accumulation to a traditional program indicating that this style of training will equally trigger GH. Strength gains were equal in participants in both the circuit and traditional training groups.
The benefit of circuit training comes from the fact that it is part of a varied training approach (and it takes less time). Nutrition, wavy training, a high volume, eccentric-enhanced lifts, and relatively short rest periods will make you more anabolic and help you achieve the ideal physique.
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