Don’t fear the testosterone

July 6th, 2008  |  Published in Hormones  |  11 Comments

“But I don’t want to get huge!”

I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard that from other women when they ask if they should lift weights and I enthusiastically respond “yes!” Leaving aside the political issues for a moment (e.g., why is it bad for a woman to be muscular?), there is a basic physiological issue at work here: women’s bodies are generally not built in such a way that “getting huge” is a realistic goal. For most women, that would require taking lots of androgens, frequently called “steroids” in the athletic vernacular.

As the prospect of masculinization does not appeal to many women, androgens are often not considered as therapy, even when they should be. Give androgens a chance! Sure, they can make you (comparatively) huge, but let’s learn a little bit about them before we get all Reefer Madness about testosterone.

a bit o’ background

Observant (or bewildered) readers will notice that I have used three diferent words to refer to the substances in question: steroid, androgen, and testosterone. These terms are frequently misused, so any discussion should define the terms accurately. Since is the domain of the smart chicks, this article will do exactly that for the Mistress’ dear readers.

say hello to our little friends

Fig 1 (below): cholesterol, the big mama
Fig 2 (below): estradiol, the, um, other mama
Fig 3 (below): testosterone

“Steroids” are a generic name for a specific class of substances. Testosterone is a steroid. So are pregnenolone, cortisol, and all of the hormones known as estrogens. Chemically speaking, all steroids are structurally similar to a molecule called cholesterol. (Don’t panic: it’s not the same thing that clogs your arteries. That’s another article altogether.)

Androgens are steroids that act in the same or similar ways to testosterone.

Testosterone itself is an androgen. Your body produces several different kinds of androgens, but there are many synthetic androgens that have been cooked up in various biotechnology labs, too. Two of them are shown here: nandrolone (which is produced naturally in decent quantity by some animals, but not by humans) and trenbolone, a totally synthetic androgen.

synthetic androgens

Fig 4 (below): nandrolone
Fig 5 (below): trenbolone

Testosterone is produced by the body through a few different metabolic processes. It is synthesized in two separate places: in the testes, for those who have them, and in the adrenal gland, which pretty much everybody has. Yes, women too, but usually in about one tenth of the amounts produced by the body of a normal biological male! A body without some testosterone is not a healthy system.

Testosterone does many things with our innards. It is in significant part responsible for muscle growth. (And, while you might not want to look like Chyna, you probably do enjoy the ability to walk and to sit up on your own, so muscles are a good thing.) It has effects on sexual desire, on mood, on energy levels, and on the nervous system in general. (A curious fact: while testosterone is occasionally correlated with aggression, some studies have demonstrated that many violent criminals actually suffer from testosterone levels that are LOWER than normal. Makes you think, hmm?)

Since we became aware of the presence of testosterone in the early 1900’s, researchers and medical professionals have found a variety of therapeutic uses for it. It has been used to enhance mood, to stimulate hunger, to improve recovery from surgical procedures, to prevent muscle wasting in diseases like AIDS, and yes, to enhance athletic performance.

Until recently, the notion of using testosterone for treatment of women–at least in North America–was taboo. Testosterone is generally known as a “male” hormone, and as such it was thought that supplementing testosterone for women would be a bad thing because… well, I’m not sure. I guess they thought it would make us want to paint our faces, go to football games, and scream ourselves hoarse whenever an opposing player battered a quarterback. Or whatever it is that testosterone is supposed to make men do. (Chug a beer in one breath? Fart in public? Insert your own stereotype here for maximum, if worn-out, hilarity.)

At any rate, testosterone is experiencing a surge in popularity with women. As hormone levels fluctuate at menopause and drop off afterwards, some physicians who treat menopausal or post-menopausal women have hit on testosterone therapy as a way to ease the symptoms of menopause, to improve energy levels, and to aid in the prevention of muscle wasting and osteoporosis. A group of doctors known as Life Extension doctors — who are certainly some of the most progressive and innovative physicians working today — are using it to improve the quality of life for older women AND men.

Taken in normal physiological doses, and under the supervision of a trained and knowledgeable physician, testosterone is turning out to be a boon for many women.


  1. Helen M says:

    February 8th, 2011at 2:41 pm(#)

    Great info, thanks! I have always been fond of my androgens:)
    What do you make of supplements (for women) that supposedly increase testosterone (like tribulus etc)? Do you think they can be any use in improving performance or fat loss etc, or is it more along the lines of Krista’s “fuck supplements” post? ;-)

  2. Alaina says:

    February 9th, 2011at 3:59 am(#)

    Great question!

    I’m not a big fan of supplements like trib. There is little evidence that they lead to significant improvements in fat loss or sport performance, so yeah, I’m on the “fuck supplements” bandwagon. :) To see real results, you would need increases beyond what you can get with those sorts of supplements.

    I think that, if you have low testosterone, you should look for replacement testosterone from a pharmaceutical source. It should be done under the supervision of a physician who understands and has experience with what it does in the female body. Supraphysiological doses of testosterone have side effects that some women won’t be completely comfortable with; replacement doses come with all of the good stuff and little to none of the bad stuff.

  3. Marina says:

    February 27th, 2011at 6:33 pm(#)

    Love the article!
    I have a lot of interest in supplementing testosterone, but I can’t think of any doctor who wouldn’t say “WHAT????” if i ask for a prescription. I think the only ones “allowed” to get a testosterone prescription are transgenders and men with hormone disfunctions.
    So is there a way to get testosterone from a reliable source without having a prescription and to know the right doses to take?
    I’d hate to be showered with questions from doctors and i’m sure all i’d get would be a recommendation to see a psychologist.
    I also hate allopathic medicine and the whole system it’s built upon, so the less I have to deal with doctors, the better.
    Any tips?

    thank you for the awesome inspiring website!

  4. Alaina says:

    March 1st, 2011at 7:53 am(#)

    Well, testosterone supplementation is allopathic medicine, so you can’t really get away from it. :)

    Honestly, “allopathic medicine” has done a lot for human health and well being, so I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. I’m reminded of something Tim Minchin said: “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

    I was under the impression that you can walk into a pharmacy in Brazil and buy androgens. Since I’m not a physician and I know nothing about your medical history or current situation, I can’t recommend that you do this, nor give you dosing information. You would be much safer and much better off if you found a doctor who could help, and if I were you I would try to hunt down one of the life extension physicians I mentioned in the article.

    I’m sure this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but I’m being honest! :)

  5. Marina says:

    March 2nd, 2011at 5:54 pm(#)

    it’s ok! i wasn’t expecting much anyway, i know it’s dangerous to take hormones without a prescription, as well as any drug, and to suggest a dose without knowing anything about the person is just as risky.
    i’m not sure i’ll be able to find any life extension physician around here and even if i did i don’t think it would be worth the trouble. I guess it would cost me a lot more than i can afford, so i’ll just stick to the hard work and try to get the best out of that.
    thanks anyway!!

  6. Nicole says:

    March 21st, 2011at 9:39 am(#)

    Testosterone replacement therapy rocks. Having unmeasurable levels of testosternone, suppressed because of being on Diane 35 for acne, does not.

    I feel better, I dream better, my mood is better – and weight training at gym has been awesome! The funny muscle aches and pain in my knees disappeared. And that was with merely getting my levels back to something measurable….

    However, the cost and ease of getting my testosterone cream here in South Africa has gone from straight off the shelf without a prescription (!!!) to being a bit of a schlepp (I always had a prescription) in 5-6 years. And the price doubled over the past year.

    PS it does do something to the hair on your legs/top of feet, depending upon where you rub in the testosterone cream. My leg hair is no longer so fine nor so blonde.

  7. Exercise, gender and the Shake Weight | Empty Calories says:

    April 17th, 2011at 5:27 am(#)

    […] need to work out in a fundamentally different way. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Stumptuous has a great write-up of this, but in short: women don’t build huge muscles because we don’t have enough […]

  8. April 22, 2011 « CrossFit Motiv8 says:

    April 21st, 2011at 9:08 pm(#)

    […] Will CrossFit make me bulky? […]

  9. Skinny Fat? — RAW CrossFit | Premiere Fitness Training in Midland, Penetanguishene, Huronia, and Georgian Bay Ontario says:

    May 11th, 2011at 6:38 am(#)

    […] addressed this issue before by linking you to a post on testosterone from the smart people over at, but after reading a recent article written by more smart people from CrossFit Southbay, I thought […]

  10. She'sAllThat says:

    April 26th, 2012at 11:38 pm(#)

    Slightly OT comment / question: I’ve just started bodybuilding and fitness training for the first time. I’m 40+. And am finding that I’m suddenly incredibly horny all the time.

    Is this normal, or something other women have experienced? My husband is loving it(!!), but I’m worried it’s going to get worse, and as it is I’m finding it hard to sleep at night!

  11. Mistress Krista says:

    April 27th, 2012at 7:02 am(#)

    Yep, normal. Testosterone is involved in libido. So if testosterone goes up, either naturally as a result of training or as a result of supplementation, generally the frisky goes up too. There are other factors involved in shaping women’s libido too — blood flow, self confidence, etc. etc. It’s complex. But don’t worry — it’s not going to get intolerable. :) Generally with hormonal issues, what you feel most is the change in the hormone levels, so at times when things are going up or down is when you really notice them (sort of like when you’re flying — you notice takeoff and landing, and changes in acceleration).

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