Topical DHEA for muscle growth and strength gains

DHEA is considered a prohormone and not an actual steroid. Although it does lack anabolic and exercise performance-enhancing effects compared to anabolic-androgenic steroids, it’s still banned by WADA.

Despite its lack of anabolic effect, it has many benefits, including assisting in muscle growth in certain circumstances and improving insulin sensitivity.

So, do you struggle to build muscle?

Or, even if you have a decent amount of muscle mass, you don’t look toned even at a low percentage of body fat?

It could be due to low androgens in your muscles (and/or low androgen receptors).

Why DHEA is important

Movement stimulates steroidogenesis in the muscle. If DHEA is used topically, DHEA is converted to androstenedione/androstenediol -> androstanedione/testosterone (via by 3β- HSD and 17β-HSD) -> DHT/androsterone.

Studies have found that there is a higher correlation between DHT and androstenedione than between DHT and testosterone. This suggests that the main formation of DHT in young men after DHEA intake comes from androstenedione via 5α-androstanedione and not via the testosterone pathway.

Studies have shown that DHEA converts to testosterone and DHT, which is crucial for:

  • improving insulin sensitivity (R)
  • stimulating muscle growth (R)
  • increasing the metabolic rate, since testosterone stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis in the muscles (R)
  • muscle force per cross-sectional area. The more muscle force you have, the faster, stronger and more explosive you can be.
  • Motor unit firing rate (R). Which means that the faster a motor unit fire, the more power and force you can produce and the stronger and faster and more explosive you’ll be.
  • Anti-catabolic effects (R). A high DHEA-S/testosterone/DHT to cortisol ratio is great for muscle and strength gains.

Blocking 5AR with finasteride resulted in suppression of the exercise-induced effects on skeletal muscle mass, fasting glucose level, insulin sensitivity index, and GLUT-4 signaling, with a decline in muscular DHT levels (R).

A few things that can lower DHEA and DHT levels include:

  • High fat diet, which leads to insulin resistance.
  • Cialis (20mg) before exercise, which blunts the increase in DHT (R) and leads to higher levels of cortisol release (R). Lowering the DHT to cortisol ratio is bad for hypertrophy.
    • A relative increase in cortisol may reflect the presence of stress and stimulate muscle catabolism, whereas a relative decrease in DHEA-S may cause a decrease in the anabolic action of DHEA on muscle; the combination of these factors may lead to sarcopenia (R).
  • Inactivity. Movement stimulates steroidogenesis and inactivity lowers it.

Exercise on DHEA and DHT

In animals

In this animal study, feeding the rats a high fat diet (OLETF group) to make them insulin resistant, also significantly decreased muscular DHEA, free testosterone, DHT levels, and protein expression of steroidogenic enzymes, which lead to hyperglycemia and a loss of skeletal muscle mass (R).

As you can see in the table above, the LETO group (normal rats not on a high-fat diet) had high/normal DHEA and DHT. The OLETF group had suppressed DHEA and DHT. Exercise increased DHEA and DHT levels, but didn’t store them to healthy levels.

In humans

Older individuals usually have lower steroidogenesis to begin with, not just in the blood, but specifically in the muscles. Muscular steroidogenesis is low.

Exercise has been shown to dramatically increase muscular DHEA, free testosterone and DHT. But as you can see from the graph below, exercise didn’t completely restore proper DHEA, free T and DHT levels.

This study found that “muscular DHEA significantly correlated with muscular DHT level, and the expression of 5a-reductase and muscular DHT level was significantly correlated in the present study.” (R)

This is where DHEA supplementation comes in. If you can restore DHEA levels, then free T and DHT should automatically fall in range with proper exercise.

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Supplemental DHEA and exercise gains

Elder individuals

In older individuals (65+), who likely have low DHEA to begin with, 50mg DHEA has been shown to potentiate the effect of weightlifting training on muscle strength and hypertrophy.

A 50mg dose was big enough to increase both IGF-1 (169 to 193ng/ml) and estradiol (average of 22 to 29pg/ml after 10 months). The increase in estradiol didn’t go over 30pg/ml, but I’d rather stick to 25mg to limit any increase in estradiol, since excess estradiol is associated with a host of negative effects.

This study provides evidence that DHEA replacement has the beneficial effect of enhancing the increases in muscle mass and strength induced by heavy resistance exercise in elderly individuals.” (R)

Young individuals

On the other hand, in young individuals (average age 23), 50mg of DHEA per day didn’t boost results in young men (R). This dose neither increased testosterone, estrone nor estradiol. It did lead to high androstenedione, but androstenedione went back to where it was at week 8.

As an important side note, the subjects in the above study were most likely untrained.

Elite athletes (male sprint athletes (mean age: 20 ± 1 years, athletic history: 7.1 ± 2.9 years) who were members of a collegiate track and field team (400 meter athletes) (regular track training: 5 days/week, 2–3 h/day; resistance training: 2 times/week)) have lower levels of DHEA and DHT compared to non-athletes.

So if you’re training hard, then topical DHEA will also make a lot of sense.

Injured individuals

The balance of these steroids after injury appears to influence outcomes in injured humans, with high cortisol: DHEAS ratio associated with increased morbidity and mortality. Animal models of trauma, sepsis, wound healing, neuroprotection and burns have all shown a reduction in pro-inflammatory cytokines, improved survival and increased resistance to pathological challenges with DHEA supplementation. Human supplementation studies, which have focused on post-menopausal females, older adults, or adrenal insufficiency have shown that restoring the cortisol: DHEAS ratio improves wound healing, mood, bone remodelling and psychological well-being.” (R).


DHEA can be highly beneficial for those that are overtraining, older, sick, injured, in a deficit and hypometabolic.

I prefer topical DHEA since the absorption is much better (“Peroral application caused only 3% effect of that achieved by subcutaneous application” (R).) and since the skin contains a high amount of 5 alpha-reductase (especially the scrotal skin). Hence more DHEA will go towards the androgenic metabolites, such as androstanediol and androsterone, filling up the androgenic pool faster and more effectively.

I use only about 10mg topically before training.

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