We field your questions about female testosterone usage, losing fat while getting strong, and making gains on a budget.
Losing Fat While Gaining Strength
Q: Most say that you can't lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, but can you lose fat and gain strength at the same time?
A: I think you can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, but that's not what you asked. You wanted to know about the opposite situation, but my answer is the same: Sure, you can lose fat and gain strength simultaneously and some Australian researchers, writing in "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research," just published a paper to that effect.
The scientists had 14 powerlifters and weightlifters follow a low-carb diet (less than 50 grams a day) for 3 months. The lifters lost 3.26 kilos (about 7.2 pounds) of mass. I need to point out, though, that about 2.26 kilos (about 5 pounds) of this was lean body mass.
Regardless, the subjects, when adjusted for their body weight, got a little stronger. The researchers theorized that they'd come up with an "alternate weight making strategy" for weight class athletes, one that didn't compromise training or performance.
Granted, the loss of about 5 pounds of lean mass was troubling, but I don’t know the specifics of their low-carb diet. It's possible they could have prevented some of that loss of muscle by manipulating protein intake.
Still, it seems that you can lose fat and gain strength at the same time. After all, strength is determined as much or more by the efficiency of your nervous system as it is by muscle size. – TC Luoma
Fill the Gaps, Get the Gains
Q: If I can only afford one supplement, which one should it be?
A: Hmm, that's a bit vague. Are you an 18-year old guy wanting to get huge? A woman wanting to lose fat? A college athlete looking to increase recovery?
Well, whatever your goal, let me throw a radical idea at you. Before you buy any muscle gain or fat loss supplement, first spend part of your supplement budget on what I call "gap supplements." These are supps that fill any nutritional gaps or basic deficiencies you may have.
This is important. Why? Because your body is going to fight against your physique and performance goals if something foundational is missing.
Also, health should come first. Dying early or getting an easily preventable disease really kills gains. And finally, many of these deficiencies just flat-out make you feel awful in one way or another. And who wants to feel like a lukewarm turd all day?
Here are a few gap-filling supplements most people need:
Just about everyone is deficient, and we probably need even more than what most guidelines recommend. Besides all of that silly health stuff, a deficiency can make you weaker and less powerful in the gym. Take 1000 to 5000 IU per day, maybe more in the winter and then less in the summer.
Cost: About 4 cents a day.
Magnesium plays a role in insulin sensitivity, muscle function, and protein synthesis. And recently, researchers have found that magnesium deficiency is linked to depression, anxiety, inflammation, and even difficulty losing fat. Yep, it's called the "master mineral" for a reason.
The trouble is, today's heavily-farmed soils are stripping out a lot of the magnesium in foods. Sweating at the gym can also deplete your supply of magnesium (as well as zinc). So, most human beings should be supplementing with something like ZMA®. Just take three capsules before bed and you're good to go.
Cost: About 50 cents a day.
Iron for Women
It's incredibly easy for a female to become iron deficient, even if she eats red meat. Low iron can lead to depression, fatigue, irritability, and all kinds of things that make women feel terrible and men feel like playing golf instead of hanging out with their wives.
Cost: Just a few bucks a month once you get your levels up.
Here's another supplement that everyone benefits from: DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids (re-esterified triglycerides). I recommend inflammation-squashing Flameout®. Most fish oil supps are formulated for a woman's physiology. Flameout® is tweaked to work especially well for men. (Males need more DHA than females for heart health, among other things.)
Cost: $1.59 per day, which sure beats the average cost of having a mild heart attack: $760,000.
You need quality protein for muscle gains and fat loss. And a good protein powder blend (hormone-free whey isolate and micellar casein) without any junk fillers can provide you with benefits you can't really get from food alone. Metabolic Drive® Protein is the top choice.
Cost: About $1.26 a serving, or about the same price as a cup of coffee at McDonalds. A two-scoop meal replacement shake would be $2.52. For comparison, the average combo meal at Taco Bell runs $6.50. And it makes you ugly.
This one doesn't really fill a nutritional gap, but it does take care of the sleep gap. Remember, no sleep, no gains. Poor sleep, poor fat loss. Taking 2-3 capsules of Z-12™ helps you to relax and get to sleep faster, then sleep deeper. (You'll have awesomely vivid dreams too.)
Cost: Less than a dollar per night.
Every day we hear about a new "super food." And most of them really are nutritional powerhouses. But many are also expensive and almost impossible to source, like coffee berry and real wasabi. And even with moderately-priced super foods, you'd have to choke back a pound or two of each of them every day to actually get the super nutritional benefits. That's why I consider Biotest Superfood a staple. Just click that link and have a look at the ingredient list. Wow.
Cost: About a dollar a day. Cost of eating all these things in whole-food form in amounts that actually provide results? I have no idea, but it's a lot. And you'd be consuming a lot of calories, too. That is, if your stomach didn't pop from eating several pounds of fruits, veggies, and berries.
The Worst Choice: Standard Multivitamins
Read TC's Stop Taking Multivitamins for info and make some room in your budget by ditching the One-a-Days.
Filling these crucial gaps will make a world of difference in how you feel and how you respond to your hard training. And as you can see, they're all pretty budget-friendly.
The next step would be workout nutrition, but I'll stop babbling. Just read this: What You Don't Know About Workout Nutrition – Chris Shugart
Testosterone Use For Women
Q: Should female recreational bodybuilders take testosterone, or will there be negative consequences?
A: Just to clarify, by female recreational bodybuilder, I take it you mean a non-competing lifter who does bodybuilding-style training. I like this question, and there are two good answers for it: yes and no. It all depends on why you'd want to.
For the "Yes" Answer
If you've had your testosterone tested and it's clinically low, then it might be worth considering (under doctor's supervision). Granted, most women never even think about testosterone replacement therapy, so hear me out.
TC wrote about the female low testosterone epidemic before, and it's actually quite common in women. Surprisingly, even women who lift and eat reasonably well can have low testosterone.
The side effects of clinically low testosterone kind of suck too – low libido, low energy, a harder time building muscle, a harder time losing fat, irritability, and other shitty things.
So, if you have a doctor who's somewhat more progressive than others, he might prescribe extremely low dose testosterone. We're talking about 1 mg a day, or 7 mg a week. And it doesn't have to be injected. Some doctors will prescribe these little pills that dissolve sublingually (under the tongue).
Just for comparison, a male on TRT might take around 100 mg a week or more. So you'd be getting nowhere near that by getting your levels up in the optimal range.
Keep in mind though, a good doctor would want to find out what's causing your testosterone to be low, and he'd want to try and tackle that first before having you take testosterone to raise it.
He would also be testing you for deficiencies – iron and vitamin D are common, but there are others. If you're on an extremely low-fat diet, you could also be missing out on cholesterol which is necessary for us to produce testosterone.
There are some lifestyle-related things that can cause lagging testosterone too, like over-exercising and undereating, poor digestive health, lack of sleep, and stress.
So, as you can imagine, if these things can lead to low testosterone, then improving them can help you get those T levels up to an optimal range.
For the "No" Answer
If you're wanting to take testosterone (at any amount) and your levels are good, then ask yourself why. You've already said that you're a recreational lifter, so you're not trying to win any contests by using it.
Is your goal to impress people on the internet? Or to pretend like you built a lot of muscle without any assistance? When you look through social media it seems like this is what a lot of lifters do in order to hawk a product or a coaching program.
In essence what they're saying is, "All you have to do is hire me or buy my workout program, and you can get results like this too!"
It's a surprisingly common practice, and it's a little disingenuous... unless they also share their cocktail of drugs and where to get them. Some are totally open about their use, and I respect that.
For the record, most women don't really use testosterone when they're trying to impress their Instagram followers or win a figure or bikini competition. They go for Clenbuterol, Anavar, or T3.
And the ladies (who I've known) who've used one or more of these, ended up gaining a substantial amount of weight and being extremely depressed once they were done with their competition. Does this happen to every woman? I'm not sure, but I'm not about to test it and find out.
Why put yourself through that if you're not competing? Why put yourself through that even if you ARE?
You asked about the potential side effects of testosterone, though. And if you're clinically low, and taking testosterone just gets your levels up to a healthy range, then theoretically you shouldn't have any negative side effects.
But if your testosterone levels are already in the optimal range, and you're wanting to take more on top of that, then there are some potential androgenizing effects – hair loss, acne, and a change in skin texture for starters.
One concern is that you dabble with a little, and you like the attention you get from using it. So you try a little more, and then a little more, not noticing the subtle changes in your face and body. Then one day you look exactly like a woman who went overboard on steroids.
You THINK this would never happen to you – as most women do – but it's entirely possible. Sometimes people don't realize when they've gone too far until it's too late. I don't think any woman has ever said, "I'm going to get really jacked but I'd like to permanently alter my face and get confused for a dude in the process!"
Once you've gone too far, yes, your face will be noticeably more angular, your torso will have a masculine, un-tapered width even when you're lean, your clitoris will grow (!!), you may get a receding hairline, your voice will deepen, and you'll have a greater amount of hair growth in unwanted places. To be fair, some people are really into it.
And I'll be honest with you – I'm sincerely impressed by the bodies of those who use steroids. But I wouldn't want to BE them. So, are the benefits worth the drawbacks? Definitely not for a recreational female lifter, unless you like those side effects.
And that's why it's a hard "no" from me (Dani) unless a doctor prescribes it. If you truly love bodybuilding-style lifting, just let it do its awesome thing naturally. Or maybe fill in the gaps of your training and see if you could be building more muscle by changing the way you lift. Sometimes a dramatic shift in your training program can spur new gains.
Enjoy the craft, get the benefits, and don't worry about how you stack up to steroid-using women. Just build muscle and eat to support it. This is the look of realistic health and beauty, and it's pretty damn impressive on its own. – Dani Shugart
The College Diet for Iron Addicts
Q: Can you recommend a drug-free AND supplement-free diet for college students with a low budget?
A: I get it, good supplements and good drugs cost money. While you didn't describe the type of diet you're interested in, I'm going to assume you're not talking about a weight-loss diet, but one that's geared towards eating healthy and putting on muscle.
Eating pricey organic is obviously out, and fast food restaurants (occasionally) and discount warehouse stores are in. Here's your grocery list:
- White rice (5-pound bags)
- Canned tuna (Live Planet brand, in cellophaned stacks from CostCo, if possible)
- Canned chicken
- Mayonnaise (made with olive oil)
- Dave's Killer Bread
- Cottage cheese
- Dehydrated fruits
- Natural peanut butter
- Olive oil
- Milk. Lots and lots of milk.
While this diet isn't perfect, you're college-aged, which should mean you're pretty much indestructible and can survive a less-than-optimal diet for months, if not years. Still, a diet consisting of the foods listed above covers most of your fatty acid and nutrient needs and is probably healthier than 99% of what your situational compatriots are eating.
Buy yourself a small rice cooker. Use it to make tubs of rice that you can store in your meager refrigerator. (Cooking it beforehand and then sticking it in the fridge makes the starch more resistant.) Mix the canned tuna or chicken in it, along with some olive oil, to make a fairly palatable meal.
Likewise, use that same canned chicken, along with tuna, peanut butter, or hard-boiled eggs (with a spreading of the olive oil mayo) to make a variety of sandwiches with Dave's Killer Bread, which is a nutritional phenom all by its lonesome.
Milk, however, can be your insurance policy. It's pretty cheap and each glass has about 8 grams of protein. While I'm not one of those GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) guys, I think plain milk is a fair substitute for a lot of conventional, run-of-the-mill, made in China by convicts, protein powders.
The protein in it is 80% casein and 20% whey, which is pretty close to perfect for bodybuilding purposes. An 8-ounce glass has about 8 grams of protein, so 4 glasses will give you an additional 32 grams of protein a day. Drink at least 4 glasses of whole or 2% milk every day. It's cheap, so you can drink another glass or two if you see that you're not going to hit your protein quota for the day.
The only thing that's missing from this "diet" is some vegetables, but vegetables are easy to get. Just make it a rule that whenever you eat at a fast-food restaurant, you have to order the crummy, obligatory salad they offer on the menu. Consider it the penance you have to pay before eating your bacon cheeseburger. – TC Luoma