Let me start with this: I do not wish to promote the use of anabolic steroids. I hope, in fact, you will avoid (or at least delay) steroid use after reading this article. But I also don’t believe the media hysteria about the dangers of anabolic steroids. I can’t expect you to believe me if I do nothing more than regurgitate exaggerated warnings.
What are steroids? Here’s a very simple answer—anabolic steroids are synthetic hormones related to testosterone. If used properly, they can cause an athlete or trainee to get bigger, faster, and stronger than his natural genetic potential.
Where did they come from? German scientists discovered testosterone in the 1930’s when Hitler was trying to find ways to develop “super soldiers” (makes me wonder if Stan Lee knew about this when he created the Captain America character). They also figured out a way to synthesize this hormone and put in a syringe.
Anabolic steroids were studied further in the 1940’s. The Soviet Union and East Germany used them to enhance the performance of Olympic athletes. America caught on and began developing its own formulas. This led to the development of the second steroid, dianabol. These drugs were banned in the Olympics in 1976.
Human performance has since been permanently altered. We’ll never know just how many medals, trophies, and championships were won with the help of “pharmaceutical assistance.”
Let’s fast-forward to the 1980’s, my teenage years. I still remember the first time I saw a commercial for a bodybuilding supplement. There was Lou Ferrigno, drinking some concoction from a blender (one of Joe Weider’s products). The advertisement claimed he drank said supplement before lifting weights. I figured if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me. I started drinking this (awful-tasting) stuff before football practice. This was the beginning of my expensive obsession with bodybuilding supplements.
This was long before the internet, so many naïve young men like myself got our information from the magazines. They were filled with pictures of steroid-using bodybuilders along with articles about the dangers of steroids. Young men like myself were fooled by the marketing and believed we could look like the pro bodybuilders with hard work, and of course, supplements.
I grew up idolizing guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone—both of whom used steroids. I never really knew just how much of a difference drugs made in the physiques of my idols. I’ve seen some of them admit to using drugs in interviews, but many seem to downplay the dosage and cycles they used.
80’s muscle (and fashion)
The US government decided to classify steroids as Schedule 3 drugs with the passing of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990. Congress ignored the advice of the American Medical Association, Drug Enforcement Association, Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse—all of who agreed these drugs did not create psychological or physiological dependence (more on this later).
One of the first paradigm shifts for me came with a magazine called MuscleMedia 2000. This early 90’s publication actually interviewed bodybuilders about the “S word.” Someone was finally acknowledging the proverbial 500 lb. gorilla (with bulging biceps) in the living room.
The Internet came along a few years later. Information about steroids could be freely discussed on websites and forums. I began to learn the truth about these controversial drugs. Just as the discovery of testosterone changed human performance, the Internet has changed human knowledge. Supplement companies and their publications no longer had a monopoly on information.
The legal status of anabolic steroids has apparently had relatively little impact for those who really want them. Professional bodybuilders now use higher doses than ever (and usually add growth hormone and insulin to the mix). Modern bodybuilding contests have become a freak show and the aesthetic proportions of competitors from previous decades are a thing of the past.
The bodybuilding world isn’t the only place where these drugs are still widely used. Hollywood stars regularly use steroid cycles to bulk up for roles. Professional athletes are always trying to stay one step ahead of testing methods. Steroids are here to stay as long as there is money to be made from muscle.
The Hype vs The Facts
Why are steroids illegal? It has little or nothing to do with health or addiction. They were made illegal in response to doping in the Olympics. Why create a sweeping public policy (against the advice of all affected health and law enforcement agencies) based on issues with Olympic and professional athletes? Your guess is as good as mine. I find it odd that you can go to the corner store and legally buy cigarettes (which are proven to kill you) but you are treated like a criminal if you buy something to put on a few pounds of extra muscle. What you see on mainstream media is usually misinformed hysteria. Let’s cut through the hype and talk facts.
Are steroids dangerous? Yes… and no. Remember this: anything you inject or ingest can be dangerous, depending on the dosage and duration. Taking an aspirin for a headache will probably ease your pain. Taking the whole bottle may cause a permanent nap. Every drug (including over-the-counter medicine) has the potential for side effects. Anabolic steroids are no different in this regard.
One problem with the current laws is difficulty in conducting proper research—imagine the red tape and legal issues involved with testing what is now a schedule 3 drug. But here are a few things we know, based on studies and anecdotal evidence:
The primary danger of steroid use is unpleasant (though not life-threatening) side effects. These include gynecomastia (enlargement/development of breast tissue in men), testicular atrophy (shrinking of the testicles), baldness (especially if you are genetically inclined), acne, infertility, and impotence. The severity and duration of these would depend on multiple factors, including individual physiology, the specific drug used, and the dosage/duration. Most users manage these side affects by taking drugs to prevent them and limiting the duration of a steroid cycle. Post-cycle therapy drugs can also be used to minimize the effects of coming off a cycle.
What about health issues? I think this is the least understood aspect of these drugs. Oral steroids tend to stress the liver and kidneys. Blood lipid profiles (cholesterol/triglycerides) can be negatively affected during a steroid cycle, but it isn’t clear whether or not this has any negative effects on long-term health since things usually revert back to their normal state after the cycle is over.
Now let’s return to something I wrote earlier: risk is correlated with dosage and duration. A judicious cycle over 8-12 weeks can help you gain 15-20 lb. of muscle beyond your genetic limit (and probably produce even more drastic gains in strength). The risks of such a cycle are likely minimal, and the potential rewards may far outweigh them.
This is especially true for Hollywood actors. Let’s take Manu Bennett, for example (pictured above). Steroids were a part of his winning the role of Crixus in Spartacus. He used them in his mid-thirties to build an impressive physique for a role as a MMA fighter. The movie deal fell through and a broke Bennett was forced to earn a living as a day laborer. But the producers of Spartacus saw his photo and wanted him for the gladiator role. Bennett immediately began training (this time without steroids) and re-gained most of his muscle. From day laborer to action star—I’d say his cycle paid off. He is now in his mid-40’s and hasn’t ruled out using steroids to prepare for future roles. Can you blame him?
Let’s say a young trainee approached me and asked about using anabolic steroids. This would be my advice:
1. Forget about it if you’re a teenager. I just don’t think it’s wise to mess with your hormones when you’ve barely started shaving. I also suspect steroids may cause premature closure of growth plates, possibly stunting growth (there’s no ethical way to prove or test this, of course, but it seems quite feasible).
2. Train at least ten years to build your foundation of size and strength first. Take advantage of being at your natural peak years of testosterone production (early teens through twenties). Learn how to lift, eat and rest. You’ll be surprised at what you can do naturally if you put your mind to it.
3. Decide if the benefits of a cycle are worth the risks for you once you’ve reached your natural potential. The extra muscle or strength is not worth the legal risks for me. Impressing a few meatheads with my bench press isn’t worth sharing a prison cell with one.
4. Do plenty of research before trying something if you decide it is worth the risks. Don’t mess up your body or health with a poorly planned cycle.
5. Forget any bogus supplements that claim to be “steroid alternatives.” There is no such thing.
Read More: Five Ways to Boost Your Testosterone