Make Cortisol Work For You

From Charles Poliquin


Gain the most strength and muscle from training by using cortisol to your advantage. The key to improve body composition is to ensure cortisol is elevated and cleared at the right times and that its elevation occurs simultaneously with an increase in growth hormone.


Cortisol is commonly maligned and can break down muscle mass, while persistently high levels are associated with fat gain. However, research shows that in certain situations, such as in the morning, or during an intense workout, elevated cortisol is a good thing. In addition, a blunted cortisol response is bad news because it indicates dysfunction of the hypothalamic pituitary axis, which can lead to extreme fatigue, problems sleeping, and an inability to recover from training or gain muscle as you might expect.


A recent study tested the hormone response during a 12-week strength training program done by young men. Results showed that elevations in growth hormone and cortisol were associated with muscle mass gains and an increase in type II muscle fiber area. There was no relationship between testosterone response and muscle mass development.


This doesn’t mean testosterone isn’t important for body composition and strength, or that cortisol is an anabolic hormone. Rather, it indicates that the relationship between the muscle building hormone cascade is more complicated than black and white.


In regards to testosterone, there was a two-fold elevation in testosterone after lower body workouts during the study, but there was wide individual testosterone response. This is in line with other studies indicating that testosterone levels are very individualized to the trainee, perhaps due to nutrition, genetics, or some other unidentified mechanism. Still, over and over again, studies suggest that higher testosterone in men will predict performance in athletic competitions and maximal strength tests, so it can’t be ignored.


The cortisol response indicates overload during training that will elicit gains in size and strength. Cortisol has the ability to increase energy use in the body in certain nutritional environments and it frees up fatty acids and amino acids to be broken down and used for energy. For example, in the absence of carbs and insulin, cortisol can increase fat for use as fuel.


It may be that the elevation in growth hormone inhibited the break down of muscle (protein degradation) during the workouts. Basically, the growth hormone elevation may have counteracted the increase in cortisol, since growth hormone is known for it’s “anticatabolic” properties.


In addition, researchers suggest the large increase in growth hormone indicated greater neural drive and muscle activation that led to dual body composition and strength gains. Overall, they think hypertrophy was related to protein consumption post-workout and the activation of satellite cells and gene signaling more than hormone response to the workout.


The take away is that if you are not seeing the results you expect in the gym, whether in terms of strength, muscle building, or fat loss, a part of your program is lacking. Consider the following components:

1) Get adequate protein in your diet (at least 10 grams of essential amino acids at every meal and between 1.5 to 2.5 g/kg of body weight a day).


2) Take protein post-workout. Shoot for as much as 40 grams of whey protein or a blend of amino acids after training.


3) Ensure hydration: Dehydration will significantly elevate cortisol and most people are chronically dehydrated. Shoot for drinking 37 ml/kg of body weight. For a 75 kg person this equals 2.8 liters.


4) Take vitamin C. It’s been shown to lower cortisol post-workout and may elevate testosterone if taken daily in a high enough dose—try 6 to 10 grams.


5) Ensure you are not deficient in nutrients that affect hormone levels (magnesium, vitamin D, zinc).


6) Take Vitamin B5—a.k.a. pantethine—because it is commonly depleted in people with elevated cortisol, which leads to greater cortisol production and lower testosterone. Try taking 300 mg/3 times a day.


7) Avoid caffeine post-workout because it will elevate cortisol.


8) Avoid all alcohol because it will increase aromatization of testosterone to estrogen.



West, D., Phillips, S. Associations of Exercise-Induced Hormone Profiles and Gains in Strength and Hypertrophy in a Large Cohort after Weight Training. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2012. 112, 2693-2702.



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