Note – This is the second of a four-part series. Click here for Part 1 for a primer, here for Part 3 regarding my TRT results, and here for Part 4 on finding treatment.
I suffered for many years with serious symptoms of low testosterone.
For a long time, I assumed that all of my physical, mental, and emotional shortcomings were due to my failings as a person.
That I was weak, that I wasn't on the right program or diet, that I wasn't working hard enough, that if I could just stop being pathetic and “get my head in the game,” I'd be able to fix problems that had plagued me my entire adult life.
When I got my low T diagnosis in spring of 2014, it allowed me clarity into many years of struggle and validation that maybe I was doing things right all along – just sans the testosterone necessary to make the changes I so desperately wanted.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Am I attempting to make myself sound pathetic?
If that was the case, after reading this post, I think you'll agree with me when I say Mission: Accomplished!
But obviously that’s not what this is about.
I’m telling you about all of this because there is a happy ending here!
In the next article, I'll detail how being diagnosed and treated for low testosterone has allowed me to overcome the vast majority of my symptoms and has greatly reduced the severity of those that remain.
Keep in mind as you read this that, if any of my experiences sound familiar, there are other people going through the same thing and there are ways to fix it.
The two typical paths to correcting low T are: (a) lifestyle intervention and (b) testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).
Before resigning oneself to a lifetime of medications and injections though, the first step is start living the high T lifestyle.
Living a High Testosterone lifestyle
As I noted in my Intro to Testosterone and TRT post, lifestyle can be a major factor in causing low T, especially for young men.
However, at the time of my low T diagnosis, I was living the highest T lifestyle possible, but had a testosterone level of 289 ng/dL (when a man my age should've been at least between 600 and 700 ng/dL).
But what does living a high T lifestyle mean?
Much has been written about increasing your testosterone naturally in recent years.
Most of the tips aren’t anything revolutionary, but rather, are aimed at correcting imbalances of our modern lifestyle.
Prior to my initial blood work in March 2014, I was living a lifestyle very conducive to supporting high T.
This is the way I was living and these are the things I was doing, all of which are commonly recommended to naturally boost testosterone production:
- Lifting weights 3 to 5 days per week for over 5 years,
- Sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night (every night),
- Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits (including some super foods),
- Supplementing with vitamins and minerals (D3, zinc, magnesium, etc.)
- Consuming lean meat and eggs 4 to 6 times per day
- Hovering around 10% body fat (obesity is associated with low T)
In addition to all this, I was not:
- Having any family, professional, or financial problems causing excess stress,
- Taking any medications or drugs,
- Smoking (and hadn’t had a cigarette in almost 7 years),
- Drinking excessively,
- Using steroids or pro hormones (and had never used them),
- Suffering any other known health problems.
Finally, I have never experienced serious trauma to my brain or testes (and I plan to keep it that way!).
That’s about as High T lifestyle as you can get. And what were the results of my efforts?
I looked like an active, 80-year old man (and I felt like it).
Other men have reported doubling their testosterone levels by incorporating these practices.
Seeing what my initial values were, I cringe at the thought of how abysmal my levels could have been had I not been doing everything in my power to raise them naturally.
Despite doing all that I could’ve been doing to encourage healthy testosterone levels, I was experiencing nearly all of the emotional, mental, and physical symptoms of low T.
Symptoms before TRT
I’ve always felt emotionally, physically, and mentally weak and was very unsure of myself. I'm sure that's quite shocking for most people to find out because looking from the outside, I have it pretty good.
I’m tall, fairly good looking, intelligent, and have a good life in general.
But on the inside, things never felt quite right.
Keep in mind, the following is how I used to feel. Things are quite different for me now.
Emotional symptoms from low testosterone
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a host of emotional “problems.” Nothing that warranted a hospital visit, but prohibitive none the less.
These symptoms included:
- Lack of confidence
- No competitive drive
- Social anxiety
- Moderate depression
- General feeling of helplessness
- Bad temper
Now, I’m really not one to talk about my feelings.
But I think it’s really important to be open about the things I experienced for many years because I want to help other guys out there who may be feeling the same.
That said, I want to give you an in-depth idea of the struggles I was facing on a daily basis.
I knew logically I was pretty awesome, but I didn’t actually feel that way.
I was only capable of seeing and focusing on my faults, and they were magnified a thousand times.
Anything I was good at or did well my mind would reduce to complete insignificance and I would continue to focus on the negative.
For a long time, I didn’t understand the source of this self-loathing. This wasn’t a learned behavior.
I didn’t have anyone tearing me down as a child and I don’t have anything or anyone to point fingers at. That’s not the type of person I am anyway.
My parents, teachers, and friends all recognized me as talented in almost everything I took part in, I just couldn’t internalize it.
I’d always had this overwhelming feeling of hatred for myself and I couldn’t pinpoint the cause or how to correct it.
Despite having all the things that normally instill confidence in a man, I was awkward in normal social situations. Meeting new people was always stressful.
My fear was that the conversation would require me to talk about myself, and for someone with extremely low self-confidence, that was a scary subject.
In the last few years, I was able to increase my confidence and overcome a lot my social anxiety by really focusing on improving my personal style and losing as much body fat as I could.
But that can only take you so far when you have a serious hormone deficiency.
Where anger is concerned, I’ve always been a very irritable person.
I chose to be very nice and personable, but sometimes my emotions would overrule my brain. I would basically explode if I was faced with a problem and didn’t see an immediate solution.
Even in my twenties, I still had the self control of an angry teenager. Not a good look on a grown man.
Often times, when I was in a situation that was frustrating, upsetting, or disappointing, those feelings morphed and were expressed as one thing: rage.
And when I got mad, usually the only thing I could do to feel better was to hit something. Never a person (though I wanted to many times), but a lot of my possessions took the brunt of my anger before TRT.
When my wife and I were first dating, I was showing her what had once been my basement bedroom at my parents' house. Taped all over the walls were lame pictures of cars from magazines.
“What's with the weird car pictures?” she asked. So I started peeling the faded pages from the wall. Behind every page, was two or three fist holes through the drywall where I had tried to hide all the times I had lost my temper.
Years later, I felt like I was still that same pissed off teenager with no control over my anger.
I’ve always been extremely good at being disciplined in the things I do.
I was a pack-a-day smoker from the ages of 13 to 23 and quit cold turkey, I can go months without spending money on entertainment, and over the past 6 years I can count the number of workouts I’ve missed on one hand.
When I set my mind to something, there isn’t anything that can stop me from doing what I set out to do.
But I was never able to figure out a way to control the way I felt.
I could read all the books, practice the exercises, and form the habits, but once I felt depression looming, there was no stopping it.
As soon as I noticed my thoughts going in a negative direction, I would try to get a jump on it by making a list of the good things in my life, occupying my mind with work or fun, or listening to up-beat music.
But my thoughts would spiral out of control and leave me feeling hopeless for anywhere between a few days to several weeks.
Then, like a light switch, I would feel perfectly fine and was free to go on with life for months without feeling depressed again.
I was never able to identify a trigger, it just happened without warning.
When I got depressed, it felt like I would never be happy again. Every positive thought and memory was removed from my mind as if they never existed and every bad thought and feeling I'd ever had would well up inside me and drive me crazy.
It felt like I was being hounded by a Dementor (for those of you who are familiar with Harry Potter).
I have never been suicidal but I used to often feel that life wasn't worth living.
I’ve never discussed these depressive symptoms with a doctor because, until my current care provider, I'd never actually had a medical professional really listen to me and didn’t feel comfortable initiating the conversation.
Despite all of these weaknesses, I always held myself accountable for the way I felt and the things I did.
I never once thought “there must be something medically wrong with me” or “I need professional treatment for this.”
My focus was always on improving in any way I could. I just chalked the symptoms up to not being ambitious enough, having a lazy attitude, or acting like a pussy in general.
Mental effects from low testosterone
When I was very young, I thought of myself as being pretty sharp. But in my mid to late twenties, I couldn’t even ballpark the tip at a restaurant.
I would stare at a check and not even really be thinking, just staring until someone snatched it from my hand and did the math themselves.
The same thing would happen at work or school, I would just stare at books and computer screens. Most tasks took me twice as long as they should’ve because I had to re-read everything.
It would best be described as mental fog. I didn't feel stupid, my mind was just extremely lazy.
If a daily problem wasn’t easily fixed, I didn’t have any interest in solving it.
I was capable of deep introspective thought and could make complex connections about the world, but routine tasks felt almost impossible.
Basically I was good at daydreaming, but had trouble functioning in daily life.
Sexual effects from low testosterone
Sex has been extremely low on my list of priorities since my late teens. I guess my libido was normal in my early to mid teens, but after that it was almost nonexistent.
Throughout most of my 20s, I would’ve been perfectly satisfied with a once per month schedule. Or even less frequently.
Unlike many guys suffering from low T, erectile dysfunction was essentially the only symptom I didn't have. But just because everything was in working order didn't mean I wanted to use it.
Since everything functioned normally, I strongly suspect that low testosterone wasn’t actually the direct cause of my decreased libido.
It’s more likely that it affected me indirectly by exacerbating my sense of failure, feelings of anger and frustration, and depressive symptoms, which were more likely to blame for my low libido.
Physical side effects from low testosterone
Luckily, I grew up nice and tall, have normal body and facial hair, a deep voice, and all the wedding tackle is in order (not always so with people who have naturally low T).
But anything related to performance and adaptation has been severely underwhelming.
Strength and muscle gains
As I said, I chalked up my mental and emotional flaws to just being a pussy.
But there was no denying that my near inability to gain muscle was pointing to a serious problem.
If a man has a decent diet and puts an honest effort into continually making progress in the gym, he should improve a noticeable amount. No question about it.
So what was going on with me?
Lack of Progress – High School (2000 – 2004)
Going as far back as high school when my testosterone levels should've been “through the roof” as everyone likes to point out, my progress in the weight room moved at a snail's pace, if at all.
Despite a solid lifting program, bodybuilder's diet, and almost scary levels of enthusiasm, I was making next to no progress.
I did managed to take my bench press from 115×10 to 135×10 within about 6 months or so, but it didn’t budge from there.
My muscle mass didn't increase during that time, so I can attribute the minor strength gain to learning the technique and improved neurological efficiency.
My only explanation at the time was that I wasn’t working hard enough or hadn’t found the right program, diet, or combination of the two.
And I wasn’t simply going through the motions or just “working out with the guys” as most high schoolers do.
Upon diving into bodybuilding I was completely invested and immediately took control of my diet and recovery habits. No doubt about it, bodybuilding was going to play a crucial part in my life.
Within a short amount of time, I could change my bodyweight as easily as I could write numbers on a sheet of paper.
But as I would bulk up at less than a pound per week, I still ended up gaining five times as much fat as I did muscle.
Then, as I would lose the fat at a slow and controlled rate, every ounce of muscle I’d gained would go with it. And I was gaining ounces of muscle, not pounds.
This continued in a similar fashion off and on for roughly the next 15 years. (Though I did take a 4 to 5 year break in which I was working various manual labor jobs that left me permanently exhausted and in the worst shape of my life.)
Lack of Progress – College and after (2009 – 2014)
Once I decided I’d had enough of the back breaking labor, I quit my job, enrolled in a 4-year Fitness Management program, and dedicated my life to achieving a great physique.
During this time, I monitored everything I ate and drank. Not to the level of ruining other aspects of my life, but everything that went into my body received some kind of consideration.
I lifted weights 3 to 5 days per week, always focusing on progressing in the big lifts and pumping up with plenty of accessory work.
I tried every major training style and technique and gave each a good lengthy run. I did cardio occasionally, but never overemphasized it.
In addition to busting my ass in the gym, I spent hours a day reading articles, talking to anyone who seemed knowledgable, and studying course material for my exercise science classes.
Bodybuilding was my life!
But you couldn't tell from the outside.
During college and a couple years after, I was giving my body every ounce of effort and was getting almost nothing in return.
After 6 years of consistent, brutal training, people would say things like “oh, you work out? Are you a marathon runner?” or “what do you do for exercise, yoga?”
And based on my appearance, I couldn’t blame them for their assumptions.
At this point, that same bench press of 135×10 I worked up to in high school still took me to within a rep or two of muscular failure.
Talk about a kick in the dick. I had dedicated my life to one thing and was getting almost nothing in return.
All of my friends and family would comment every time we were together “You’re so skinny!” or “have you lost weight since I saw you last?”
In my head I was screaming “No, I’ve just been squatting, benching, deadlifting, and eating fucking absurd amounts of meat and eggs!”
But I would just reply, “Oh, you know, I weigh about the same.”
They thought I looked better as 200 lbs of chewed bubblegum and made sure I was constantly aware of the fact.
I’ve never had a serious injury in the gym, such as tearing a muscle or blowing out a knee under the bar, but I always had some form of overuse injury.
While working construction, I herniated a disc and broke a vertebrae, so that was always a struggle to work around.
Beyond back issues, I always had either achy knees, burning and crunching in my shoulders, or some inflammation in various tendons.
I truly never thought that there was anything medically wrong with me, so I just kept pushing myself harder and harder.
I would attempt to progress at the rate described by other lifters or as a program had laid out.
That means on 5×5 programs, I was adding 5 lbs per workout. This resulted in choppy lifting speeds, sub-optimal bar path, and 5 to 10 minute breaks between sets.
When your body doesn't respond to a stimulus by getting stronger, but you consistently increase your demands, injuries are inevitable.
I just kept digging deeper and deeper into my recovery abilities and this perpetuated my diagnostic process.
I would think to myself, “It’s the injuries and resetting that are holding me back. I’m going to heal, start a new program and diet, and hit it hard this time!”
I was living in a constant cycle of pushing my body beyond its capabilities, injuring myself, blaming my lack of progress on the injuries, and then throwing myself as hard as possible into the next program in an attempt to “get it right.”
Typically when you train your cardiovascular system, it becomes more efficient. Meaning your heart will have to beat fewer times per minute at a given workload to pump the same volume of blood.
For example, let’s say you checked your heart rate (HR) at the beginning of a 3 month training program and registered 150 beats per minute (BPM) when jogging at a 10-minute mile pace.
After training for 3 months, your HR should now be lower, maybe 140 BPM, at the same 10-minute mile pace.
As a class requirement one particular semester, I had to design a cardio program for myself, adhere to it, and document my improvements.
As I said before, I’ve never relied too much on cardio for my fitness goals, so I should've had plenty of room for improvement.
I included at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular training per week (clinical guidelines) consisting of a mix of steady state and interval training.
I was diligent about recording my heart rates and gave the program full effort for the entire semester.
I made ZERO improvement.
My heart rate was exactly the same for the same workload despite a solid 4 to 5 months of vigorous training, including a weightlifting program and classic bodybuilding diet.
I may have looked like a skinny marathon runner, but after the semester was over, I still felt like I was going to die after jogging 3 miles at a 12-minute mile pace.
It wasn’t only my skeletal muscle that was stubborn – my body all but refused to adapt to any type of training stimulus.
Note – If any of this sounds familiar and you want get your levels checked, call the company I use, Primebody.com and get a free consultation, $25 off your monthly fee, and an additional 10% off your first month and when you use the code Lewis27.
Why did I fight for so long?
Growing up as a weak, pudgy kid and then morphing into a skinny-fat adult, there was nothing in the world I wanted more than an aesthetic beach body.
In hindsight, it never should’ve taken me as long as it did to get my hormones checked.
I guess it’s just my personality to not look for the “easy way out.”
Even with my extreme lack of progress, it took over 4 years of grinding away before the word “steroid” even entered my mind.
I never used them, but the thought would creep in every once in a while.
I kept learning and trying out new programs and techniques and working even harder (if that was even possible).
With all of my knowledge and determination, I was always bulking or cutting, striving for progress. But I was always taking two steps forward and the same two steps back.
I kept myself motivated with these bulking and cutting cycles for a long time. I would see the numbers on the scale moving and kept pushing harder.
I knew exactly what needed to be done in order to achieve a fantastic physique… it just didn’t work on me.
To give myself a little credit, I did make some progress over the 6 years of training and dieting. I managed to lose about 30 lbs of body fat, gained maybe a couple pounds of muscle, and got a little stronger.
This left me looking better and made dressing myself well a lot easier, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.
It basically took me over 6 years to make 6 months of progress.
Dealing with the frustration
When I go over my notes and compare body fat percentages and girth measurements, they were always just about the same for a given bodyweight, even though they were years apart.
How was it that I could spend two years working on strength and mass, cut some fat and end up with almost identical chest, thigh, and arm measurements as I started with?
I was gaining and losing the exact same 30 lbs and it was unbelievably frustrating!
Now, if you don’t get results in the gym, you’re automatically labeled as a “pussy.”
No matter how hard people see you training and no matter how much they see you eating, they simply cannot separate results from effort.
There were guys who I would see everyday in the gym for years. One day we would get to talking and they would hint at my lack of progress.
I would reply by explaining how poorly my body responded to weight training.
They would follow up with something like “Have you tried eating peanut butter?” or “Do you bench? Benching makes you huge.”
These are the same guys who’d seen me squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing for the past three years and “peanut butter” was the best they could come up with?
Never giving up
In addition to how I was perceived by others, my lackluster gym results were a major contributor to my negative self-image.
I truly couldn't understand how an intelligent, hardworking man such as myself could be so terrible at his craft.
As an aspiring fitness professional who couldn't make significant changes to his own physique I felt absolutely useless.
Imagine an engineering student whose scale models repeatedly crumble under their own weight despite proper design, materials, and construction. They’d surely consider another career.
But quitting was never an option for me, no matter how much it seemed I wasn’t cut out for my chosen goal.
This was something I wanted more than anything so I just kept searching for answers.
And once I finally found them, things turned around for me.
Remember, I've just laid out how my life used to be. The good stuff is in the next article!
Talk to you soon,