One question potential anabolic steroid users frequently ask is, How long do muscle gains last after you get off a steroid regimen? Some people think that's a trick question, since many scientists still believe that the majority of gains produced by steroids consist largely of water. In fact, official position statements of several sportsmedicine organizations declare that any gains following steroid use are likely more water than muscle. On the other hand, muscle is 72 percent water anyway.
Solid gains would consist of protein and the connective tissue components of muscle. They'd tend to be more permanent than the ephemeral bloat characteristic of pure water gains. Exercise favors protein and connective tissue gains, although, depending on several other factors, such as diet, water may also accompany muscle gains and be reflected on the scales.
Doubts about the genuineness of steroid-induced gains arise from casual observations that many steroid-using athletes don't appear to be as massive when they aren't taking the drugs. That leads to the impression that the previously displayed muscle size must be temporary and can only be maintained with a constant steroid regimen.
Another frequent observation is that while the drugs appear to promote muscular gains, they also seem to favor bodyfat losses. That's readily apparent when you compare so-called natural bodybuilding competitors to their steroid-using peers. The drug users are not only usually more massive, but they also appear to show a far greater degree of muscular definition than the naturals. The effect is so common, in fact, that some bodybuilders who swear they're natural are often suspect due to their steroidlike degree of muscularity. The consensus is that you just can't get super-ripped without resorting to drugs.
So the question is, How do anabolic steroid drugs actually affect body composition, and how long do you retain gains after you stop using them? Those questions and others were examined in a recently published study that featured 35 experienced male strength athletes, 19 of whom self-administered anabolic steroids, while 16 were clean.1
To assess the men's body composition, the researchers measured body circumferences at baseline, eight weeks and six weeks after steroid withdrawal (in the steroid users). Since another goal involved determining any differences between effects noted with short- vs. long-term steroid use, nine of the steroid users took the drugs for eight weeks, while 10 others took them for 12 to 16 weeks.
Of those in the study, 28 considered themselves bodybuilders, yet only seven competed in bodybuilding contests. While several of those subjects got their drugs with a physician's prescription, most purchased the drugs on the black market. They designed their drug regimens after conversing with other athletes and experimenting on their own. The drugs consisted of typical injectable anabolic steroids, such as various types of nandrolones, testosterone and oral drugs such as stanozolol (Winstrol or Stromba). One key point is that all of the steroid users took a combination of drugs, a process known as stacking.
After eight weeks the steroid users showed a significant lean body mass increase of 4.5 kilograms, or just a tad under 10 pounds. In contrast, the nondrug users showed no significant changes in lean mass or weight gain. The percentage of fat in the steroid group dropped 1 percent, yet it wasn't reflected in any loss of muscle mass. The gains in lean mass made by the steroid group persisted after the subjects had been off the drugs for six weeks.
The steroid users also showed size gains in the neck, upper arm, forearm, wrist, thigh and calves that were significantly greater than the nondrug group experienced; however, the measurements of chest circumference, waist and buttocks didn't differ significantly between the groups.
The size gains made by the steroid users did decrease slightly when they stopped using the drugs but still remained greater than they'd been at the start of the study. Another interesting finding was that gains made by the long-term steroid users weren't significantly different from those made by the short-term users. The authors think that debunks the long-held idea that a longer steroid cycle produces greater gains.
Another curious result was that the lean mass gains made in the upper arms of the steroid users were twice those of the legs or trunk areas. That wasn't the result of any training differences, since all subjects trained with similar levels of exercise volume and intensity. It led the authors to conjecture that steroid stacks may affect specific body areas more than others. Taking that a step further, they're saying that using certain drugs may target some muscle areas more than others. They mention a previous study that found greater gains in the legs and trunk after subjects used nandrolone drugs, such as Deca-Durabolin.
The researchers also carefully measured the composition of the lean mass gains made by the steroid group. While some of the gains did include water, the majority were clearly muscle. They also note that the usual practice of getting back on drugs several weeks after being off, when gains start to recede, appears to make sense, although they warn that the long-term health effects of such cycling remain unknown.
A study published nine years ago examined the effects of body composition changes in seven healthy young men, ages 20 to 24, none of whom were bodybuilders and only one of whom exercised, after they received injections of testosterone enanthate for 12 weeks.2 The study began with five of the subjects getting a 0.75-milligram per kilogram injection of testosterone for four days. Then all seven subjects received a three-milligram per kilogram weekly dose for 12 weeks. That amounts to about 270 milligrams weekly for a 200-pound man, not considered a hefty dose of testosterone. In contrast, a later study that proved the lean-mass-building effects of testosterone used a dose of 600 milligrams a week.
Despite the paltry dose of testosterone provided in this study, the subjects still managed to average a 16-pound gain in lean body mass, which reflected a 12 percent increase above baseline lean mass measurements. They also lost an average of 3.4 kilograms of bodyfat, or 27 percent less than starting values. So a low dose of just one steroid drug led to gains in lean mass coupled with significant fat loss'even in a group that didn't exercise!
After the subjects stoped getting testosterone injections, the lean mass gains gradually declined to the point where half were gone in two months; however, five to six months after they stopped using the drug, they still showed more lean mass than they had at the start of the study, indicating that the muscle gains were longer lasting than most people expect.
The study concluded with the observation that anabolic steroids promote greater lean mass gains than can be achieved with exercise alone and that such gains consist nearly entirely of muscle. That's the same conclusion arrived at by a study that used a 600-milligram dose of testosterone, four years after the initial study was published.3
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, anabolic steroids do work, and the gains produced are mostly muscle coupled with a significant loss of fat, particularly subcutaneous fat. While some of the muscle increase does decline after the end of a steroid regimen, much of it remains, especially if you continue to train hard and eat correctly.
I also want to add one other observation: If you start with two people who had comparatively equal genetic bodybuilding abilities and put one of them on a steroid-stacking regimen, the drug user will nearly always defeat his or her natural counterpart in bodybuilding or another athletic competition. That's because drugs such as anabolic steroids provide increased training recovery, as well as greater degrees of muscular size and definition. Anyone who disputes that notion is either dishonest or naive. From a health and longevity viewpoint, however, the odds are likely in favor of those who shun drug use, especially long-term use. IM
1 Hartgens, F., et al. (2001). Androgenic-anabolic steroid-induced body changes in strength athletes. Physical and Sports Medicine. 29:49-66.
2 Forbes, G.B., et al. (1992). Sequence of changes in body composition induced by testosterone and reversal of changes after the drug is stopped. JAMA. 267:397-399.
3 Bhasin, S., et al. (1996). The effects of supraphysiologic doses of testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men. NEJM. 335:1-7.