- Many guys worry that sex and masturbation can decrease their testosterone levels and thus make it harder to build muscle and get stronger.
- Most research shows that masturbation and sex have almost no impact on your average daily testosterone levels, and probably wouldn’t affect your ability to build muscle even if they did.
- Keep reading to learn why sex and masturbation don’t affect your testosterone levels, the two other ways sex and masturbation could hurt your gains, and what to do about them.
You’ve probably heard that masturbation can drain your testosterone levels, dampen your drive to work out, and decrease muscle growth.
This idea that masturbation (or more specifically, ejaculation) hinders muscle building and athletic performance goes all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman times, when athletes would refrain from sex before athletic contests.
It turns out this idea still persists among many modern athletes.
As former heavyweight boxing champion David Haye said, “I don’t ejaculate for six weeks before the fight. No sex, no masturbation, no nothing. It releases too much tension. It releases a lot of minerals and nutrients that your body needs, and it releases them cheaply.”
Hmm . . . sounds an awful lot like an international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
Perhaps he’s right. But what does the scientific literature say?
Does masturbating interfere with your gains or your athletic performance?
The short answer is no, it doesn’t, unless you masturbate immediately before working out.
The long answer is studies show masturbation and sex have a variety of effects on the body and can impact your testosterone levels in the short term, but they’re highly unlikely to affect muscle growth.
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The main reason people think masturbation interferes with muscle building has to do with its effects on testosterone.
As you probably know, testosterone (aka “test” or “T”) is a hormone that promotes masculine characteristics such as facial and body hair growth, increased sex drive, and most importantly for our purposes, muscle building. Both men and women have testosterone, but men have about 15 to 20 times more than women.
Most guys who want to build muscle have something of an obsession with testosterone. In 2013, men spent 2.2 billion dollars on testosterone replacement therapy, and that’s not counting the millions of dollars guys (and some gals) spend on black market testosterone and other steroids. Some guys resort to testosterone booster supplements, special diets, and other gimmicks to bump up their test levels, too.
This brings us back to masturbation. If you poke around online, you’ll find many articles and videos that claim masturbation reduces your testosterone levels, which makes many guys uneasy.
Is this true?
Well, several studies have shown that abstaining from sex and masturbation for several weeks may slightly boost testosterone levels. (Although most articles you’ll find online claim masturbation is uniquely damaging to testosterone levels, there’s no reason to think sex would be any different.)
For example, in a study conducted by scientists at University Hospital Essen, the researchers measured plasma testosterone levels in 10 healthy adult men during masturbation before and after a three-week period of abstinence (no sex or masturbation). And sure enough, they found that the men had slightly higher testosterone levels during masturbation after their three-week ejaculation hiatus.
This study had a major limitation, though: the researchers measured the men’s testosterone levels only when they were masturbating, so we have no idea what their test levels were like the rest of the time. As you’ll learn in a moment, brief spikes in testosterone levels, like the ones men experienced in this study while masturbating, have little to no impact on your ability to build muscle.
Another study conducted by scientists at Hangzhou Normal College took things a step further by looking at how abstinence affected daily testosterone levels in 28 healthy men aged 21 to 45. The researchers divided the subjects into two groups:
- Participants in group one were told not to masturbate over the next eight days.
- Participants in group two were told they could masturbate over the next eight days.
The researchers measured everyone’s testosterone on each day of the study, and they found that group one’s testosterone levels were 50% higher than group two’s on the seventh day of the study.
Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. These gents must have been strutting around like a rutting buck that just ate a truckload of Viagra.
While this study seems like strong evidence for the masturbation-is-bad-for-muscle-growth idea, there’s good reason to be skeptical of the results.
For one thing, average testosterone levels remained largely unchanged for the first five days of the study, then suddenly spiked on days six and seven, and then fell back to normal levels on day eight. The researchers offered no explanation for why this happened except for a vague theory that testosterone levels rise and fall exactly every seven days so long as masturbation doesn’t disrupt this rhythm, which is little more than dubious conjecture (it’s never been proven, either).
The authors also made little effort to standardize their testing procedures or data-gathering methods.
They told participants in group two they could masturbate and have sex, but they didn’t measure how often they masturbated or had sex during that time. In other words, some of them could have been beating their meat like butchers, and the researchers wouldn’t have known.
Instead of having everyone start the study on the same date, they allowed participants to begin their periods of abstinence on different eight-day periods, which could have affected the results. For example, some of the participants’ eight-day period of abstinence might have started on a Monday, others on a Friday, others on a Wednesday, and so forth.
Finally, the study lasted only eight days and included a small number of participants, which makes the results even less reliable.
So, while the study is interesting, it’s not wise to get too excited about it.
And when you compare these studies to the majority of the scientific evidence, you quickly see why worries about masturbation and testosterone levels are overblown.
Summary: Several studies have shown that refraining from masturbation and sex can increase testosterone levels, although these studies have several major limitations that make the results far from reliable.
Although a handful of studies have shown masturbation and sex may reduce average testosterone levels, most studies have found the opposite.
Normally, testosterone levels rise during masturbation and sex, peak during orgasm, and then decline to normal levels afterward. Thus, masturbation doesn’t decrease testosterone but just causes a short-term bump in testosterone levels that disappears shortly thereafter. Most research shows this short-term ebb and flow of testosterone is too small to have any significant effect on average testosterone levels throughout the day.
Some studies have even shown that regular orgasms may have a positive impact on testosterone levels.
For example, a study conducted by scientists at the University of L’Aquila found that people who abstained from sex for three months due to erectile dysfunction experienced a decrease in testosterone levels, and their testosterone levels rose again after they resumed having sex. Of course, this was in people who had erectile dysfunction, so it’s hard to say how much this applies to healthy people, but masturbation certainly didn’t seem to cause any problems.
What’s more, even if masturbation did affect testosterone levels, it still probably wouldn’t decrease muscle growth.
Well, it turns out that although large changes in testosterone levels can significantly impact muscle growth, small fluctuations within the normal physiological range have no effect on muscle growth.
That is, if your testosterone levels are right-down-the-middle normal, and you increase or decrease them slightly above or below normal for a few hours, days, or weeks, you aren’t going to notice any difference in your ability to build muscle.
Before you label me a heretic and string me up on a gibbet, consider the following:
In a study conducted by scientists at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, scientists gave young, healthy men varying amounts of testosterone enanthate (a common anabolic steroid) for 20 weeks, as well as a cocktail of drugs to shut down their body’s natural testosterone production.
While higher testosterone levels did produce greater muscle gains, it wasn’t as pronounced as you might think.
What researchers found was that so long as testosterone levels were within the physiological normal range, between 300 and 1,000 ng/dl (nanogram/deciliter), muscle growth didn’t change very much. That is, the subjects on the low end of normal weren’t that far behind subjects on the high end in terms of muscle growth.
The participants didn’t start to gain significant amounts of muscle until their testosterone levels were about 20 to 30% higher than the upper end of what they could achieve naturally.
This study does have one limitation: the participants weren’t lifting weights. That said, while total amounts of muscle and strength gained would clearly have been higher if they’d been weightlifting, you would still see a relationship between testosterone levels and muscle growth.
This was partially demonstrated by another study conducted by scientists at McMaster University with 56 young, resistance-trained men.
The researchers had the participants lift weights five times per week for 12 weeks and follow a standard dietary protocol (high protein intake, postworkout nutrition, etc.). They also measured everyone’s blood levels of testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 before and after working out, and measured their muscle mass using dual x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) and muscle biopsies before and after the study.
Exercise-induced spikes in anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1, which all remained within physiological normal ranges, had no correlation with overall muscle growth and strength gains.
That is, all the participants gained muscle, but the variations in the size of their hormone spikes had no bearing on the results. Someone who had only a small boost in testosterone levels after a workout gained just as much muscle as someone whose testosterone levels shot up.
It’s also clear that short-term changes in testosterone levels have little to no impact on exercise performance.
For example, testosterone levels tend to be highest first thing in the morning and decline up to 40% by the evening. Despite this, most research shows that people are slightly stronger and build more muscle when they lift weights in the evening, when their testosterone levels are lowest.
So, circling back to the topic of masturbation and muscle growth, even if masturbating decreased testosterone levels for a few hours afterward, how much do you think this would affect muscle growth?
Now, some fitness gurus have made other specious claims about how masturbation could theoretically interfere with muscle building without affecting testosterone levels.
For example, one fitness author claimed that masturbation is “similar to high intensity interval training (HIIT)” and that “. . . masturbation is draining your muscles of glycogen.”
To that I answer . . .
Let’s break this down.
First of all, masturbation burns remarkably few calories—about the same number you burn sitting and talking. In fact, you’ll burn more calories typing on a computer or washing dishes than you will masturbating.
Second, let’s be honest, masturbation doesn’t typically last that long. Maybe 10 or 15 minutes max. And in that time you’ll probably burn a whopping 20 calories (when you could have burned about 15 calories just sitting still).
Finally, to burn through your body’s glycogen stores, you have to be doing either very prolonged or very intense exercise (think an intense two-hour bike ride), and masturbation doesn’t meet either of these criteria. (Glycogen is a kind of carbohydrate stored in your muscles that your body uses during exercise.)
At most, you could expect to burn a few grams of glycogen, or about 0.5% of your body’s total glycogen stores.
Summary: Your testosterone levels rise during masturbation, then decline back to normal levels shortly after orgasm, and this small increase and decrease isn’t nearly enough to have any meaningful effect on your ability to build muscle.
Masturbation probably isn’t going to affect your testosterone or glycogen levels, but it can interfere with muscle growth in a few other ways.
First of all, masturbating immediately before a workout will almost certainly decrease your performance.
After orgasm, your body releases a hormone called prolactin, which suppresses levels of the “feel-good” hormone dopamine. Dopamine also supports your libido, motivation, and mood, and this drop in dopamine is partly responsible for why you feel tired, unmotivated, and sluggish after orgasm.
So, how long should you wait after orgasm before working out?
It takes about 10 to 20 minutes for prolactin levels to start to decline, and up to several hours for them to return to normal levels.
This period while prolactin decreases and dopamine rises is referred to as your refractory period, and strangely, it tends to be shorter after masturbation and longer after sex. That is, you’ll generally feel like yourself again faster after masturbating than you will after having sex.
This period can last anywhere from 30 or so minutes to several hours for younger people, but it tends to get longer as you become older.
A team of scientists from the University of Florence conducted a review study on high-level athletes to see how the timing of sex affected their performance in competition or in lab tests of physical fitness. They concluded that so long as the athletes separated sex and intense workouts by at least two to three hours, there was “. . . no evidence of a negative impact in males and females.”
Now, these people were also pushing their bodies to the limit, so you may be able to have sex close to your workouts without noticing any negative effects if you’re doing easier workouts.
As a rule of thumb, it’s probably a good idea not to have sex or masturbate at least an hour before a hard workout, with more time generally being better.
Another reason many people think sex and masturbation interfere with muscle growth probably has to do with how these activities can disrupt sleep.
Many people stay up late to have sex (or try to find someone who’ll have sex with them), which obviously can have a negative impact on your performance in the gym and thus your ability to build muscle. As Casey Stengel, manager of the New York Yankees, put it, “It’s not the sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.”
This is equally if not more true for masturbation. Many guys who masturbate do it while watching porn late at night, and they often watch many videos before they settle on the one that gets them off. Thus, it’s likely that losing hours of sleep while surfing porn websites is what’s hindering progress, not the actual act of masturbating.
In other words, it’s not sex or masturbation that’s sapping your gains, per se, but the lack of sleep caused by sex and masturbation.
So, if you choose to masturbate, make sure you don’t let it interfere with your sleep habits. Although this might sound strange if you’re the kind of person who feels like sex or masturbation need to be “spontaneous,” it’s probably best to go to bed early if you plan on getting it on.
Summary: Although some people blame sex and masturbation for their poor performance in the gym, it’s more likely that the lack of sleep caused by late-night sex and masturbation is more to blame rather than sex or masturbation, per se.
Although you’ll often hear people say masturbation hurts your gains, there’s more or less no evidence this is true.
A handful of studies have shown abstaining from sex and masturbation for a few weeks can increase testosterone levels, but the increase tends to be small and short lived, and there’s good reason to question the results of these studies due to methodological flaws.
Most studies show that testosterone levels rise during masturbation and fall back to normal levels after orgasm, but the change is simply too small to have a meaningful impact on daily testosterone levels.
Even if masturbation did increase or decrease testosterone levels slightly, this probably wouldn’t have any impact on muscle growth.
That said, there are two reasons sex and masturbation could conceivably decrease muscle building:
- If you have sex or masturbate in the hour or so before a workout, your performance will likely suffer, which will compromise your ability to gain muscle.
- If you lose sleep staying up late to have sex or binge-watch porn videos, your performance in the gym and ability to build muscle will also decrease (it’s not necessarily masturbation or sex that causes problems, but the accompanying sleep loss).
Luckily, avoiding these two pitfalls is easy:
Leave at least an hour between sex or masturbation and working out (and at least two or three hours for your hardest workouts), and make sure you don’t let sex or masturbation cut into your beauty sleep.
What’s your take on masturbation and muscle growth? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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