I knew when I began this series that at some point I’d have to address the issue of anabolic steroids. The time has come to get that out of the way so you can clearly understand what role, if any, they play in building muscle. While steroids don’t begin to represent the whole spectrum of bodybuilding drugs, they’re mentioned often enough in the mainstream press to warrant at least a preliminary discussion.
I once asked a bodybuilder who had just won the national championship what drugs he took. He took a pen and wrote down on a sheet of paper the following:
600 mg cyp. every other day
300 mg test sup. every other day 10 Dianabol a day
10-20 clenbuterol a day
This is nonstop; no time off
(1 ounce of Mary Jane per week)
Six Weeks Out [from a show]: 1 Parabolan + 1 Primo Depot every other day
3 cc test sup. every other day
50 mg Halotestin
2 Fastin a day
20-25 clenbuterol a day
Percodan as needed.
(1 ounce of Mary Jane per week)
Take a look at that list for a minute. What an absolutely staggering confession! Consider the quantity of such substances that would be coursing through your bloodstream on a daily basis and what the long-term effects might be. And that was six years ago. (Incidentally, this fellow never placed in the professional shows, indicating’so I was told’that he wasn’t taking ‘enough’ or ‘good enough’ drugs.)
I had always believed that bodybuilding was about training intelligently and building your body through scientific dietary practices. Evidently, there are two classes of bodybuilding: real and professional. The real bodybuilders are from the old school and build hard, honest muscle through their efforts in the gym. The professional bodybuilders inject all sorts of bizarre substances into their bodies, their muscles become swollen, or ‘puffy,’ and they’re paid big money to risk their health and look that way. Small wonder that most of the bodybuilders who are heavy drug users look like hell, and the vast majority of the competitors of the ’80s either are off the drugs and look like they’ve never touched a weight in their life or have developed a host of health problems and look considerably older and worse for wear than most beginners to the sport. Contrast that with bodybuilding champions such as Steve Reeves, John Grimek, Reg Park and Larry Scott’not to suggest that none of them knew what testosterone was (although both Reeves and Grimek denied to me personally that they’d ever used steroids), but even if they did, the doses were so minuscule in comparison to what goes on today as to be almost negligible.
It’s no secret that anabolic steroids (also referred to as ‘roids, the sauce, gear or the juice) abound in the sport of bodybuilding, not to mention most other professional sports, and they have for decades. Many champions won’t train unless they’re on them, some swear that you can’t expect to compete without them, and some have recently gone to jail for peddling them to aspiring bodybuilders.
While it’s true that bodybuilding is a lightning rod for steroid use’which is why the mainstream media have singled it out’steroid use is also rampant among the strength and power sports. It wasn’t all that long ago that a major North American newspaper proclaimed in big, bold print, ‘Animosity Shows as Johnson, Lewis, Meet!’ The headline referred to the fact that Ben Johnson, Canada’s infamous 100-meter Olympic sprinter, had encountered his archrival, America’s Carl Lewis, during a visit to Washington, D.C., in which Johnson showed his support for the introduction of legislation to crack down on steroid abuse in the United States.
It’s well known that Johnson was caught red-handed when his drug test at the ’88 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, came back positive and his gold medal was passed on to the second-place finisher, Lewis, who, according to rumors, wasn’t as innocent of the ways of the physician’s needle as was thought at the time. Nevertheless, Lewis did not test positive in Seoul, while Johnson did, which caused a great deal of animosity between the two. It wasn’t just a matter of the medal’Johnson would have earned millions of dollars in endorsements.
While that sort of personal confrontation makes for an interesting read’and sells newspapers’almost buried in the commentary on the dueling sprinters’ confrontation was the disturbing problem that the athletes had come to highlight: According to several recent studies, no less than 60 percent of all teenage males and 1 percent of all teenage females in the U.S. have at one time or another used anabolic steroids. Sixty percent! Another study pegged that figure at closer to 10 percent, but even so, given the population of the United States, those statistics are nothing short of staggering.
Whether we care to admit it’and all political rhetoric about our vast ‘cultural differences’ not withstanding’Canadians and British tend to emulate their American counterparts very closely indeed. When I was in university in Canada in 1985, steroids were quite commonplace in the locker rooms and the weight-training facilities on various campuses throughout the province of Ontario, and they certainly weren’t introduced there overnight. The juice has been with us in greater or lesser amounts for quite a while. After the fiasco in Seoul, Canada became synonymous with steroid use in the eyes of our international peers, and after a drug test given at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic in Columbus, Ohio, in 1990, bodybuilders from the United States, Lebanon and West Germany were also indicted for using the drugs.
Does that mean all track and field athletes and bodybuilders are on anabolic steroids? No, but it does mean that athletes now must seriously weigh the consequences of their using the drugs should they be caught, and that if there are efficient drug tests, they will probably get caught. (I say probably because most athletes know how to beat the tests). But will athletes who use anabolic agents cause irreparable damage to their bodies or, perhaps, die from it? That’s where the issue becomes very murky.
The Origins of Anabolic Steroids
Anabolic steroids are, technically, synthetic derivatives of the male sex hormone testosterone, and they have two components: They’re androgenic and anabolic. Androgenic refers to the drugs’ masculinizing effects, such as facial hair, deepening of the voice and aggressiveness, while anabolic refers exclusively to their tissue-building properties. To a large extent the chemists have been successful over the years, and the anabolic steroid of today is much safer than the anabolic steroid of 100 years ago.
The medical community had long suspected a connection between the body’s muscle mass and the activity of androgens. For example, we’ve known about the limited muscular development of eunuchs since antiquity. In 1895 Sacchi related the development of a nine-year-old boy with premature puberty and tremendous muscular development who also had cancer of the testes, which Sacchi described clinically as the ‘infantile Hercules syndrome.’
The first real report on the effects of androgens (steroids) injected intramuscularly was done by Borgrows in 1981. It revealed that protein was spared when subjects were injected with synthetic hormones. Forty-six years prior to that German physicists had isolated pure crystalline hormone from testicular material and synthesized it in a test tube.
The research of those and other scientists enabled drug manufacturers to market relatively safe steroids to the general public’but by ‘general public’ I mean patients who had a legitimate need for them. Those initial steroids were never intended for the healthy. In World War II they were used to treat burn victims specifically because of their tissue-building properties.
Other patients who received anabolic steroids as treatment included men who were unable to manufacture their own testosterone and, consequently, weren’t getting the benefit of the hormone’s androgenic properties’i.e., the secondary male sexual characteristics necessary for their normal and complete physical development.
Enter the Athlete
Upon hearing of the drugs’ muscle-building properties, athletes became very interested in steroids. Since the male sex hormone testosterone was responsible for the development of sex characteristics such as increased musculature and reduced adipose storage, it followed that by increasing the amount of testosterone in their bodies, they would create a corresponding increase in their muscle size and strength’a definite plus for their athletic endeavors. Ben Johnson is proof that, to a substantial degree, their assumptions were quite correct. Bodybuilders in particular exploited the new drugs. There are reports of bodybuilders using steroids for the purpose of increasing muscle mass as far back as the late 1940s.
Side Effects and Other Negatives
Bodybuilders who consider using steroids are immediately faced with an ethical decision: Will the end really justify the means? Does a moment of fame and a medal really compensate for possible liver impairment, heart disorders and sterility? The attitude of athletes is already well known. For the most part they develop a tunnel vision about victory. They feel they must win’at any price. What’s less known, however, is the price that attitude carries with it in terms of the physical and emotional problems.
Several international medical societies and sports organizations have issued strong statements advising against using steroids, citing the issues of sportsmanship and health hazards. Both are somewhat ambiguous. If people compete in a sport, they’re expected to direct all of their energy toward their objective, and the use of steroids’as statements from the Dubin Inquiry Into Drug Use in Amateur Sports have revealed’is viewed by many members of the athletic community as simply another means to the attainment of that end. As for the health-hazard statement, thus far the research hasn’t backed it up conclusively, owing to a lack of long-term experimentation in a controlled environment.
Since steroids act directly on the nervous system, your personality’being a product of your nervous system’is the first noticeable area of change. And the many psychological symptoms noted while people are on steroid therapy range from fluctuating libido to headaches, lethargy and/or aggression. Research also reveals those side effects to be dose-related and reversible when you stop using the drug. The physiological effects, however, are much more dramatic.
In the literature published by Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals about its steroid Adroyd (oxymetholone), the information pertaining to dosage and administration takes up little more than one paragraph, while the information pertaining to ‘potential side effects’ takes up 10. The effects range from hepatitis to temporary sterility in males, and hirsutism, menstrual irregularities and male pattern baldness in females. Again, the literature points out that most of those conditions are contingent on dosage and duration of steroid therapy and are usually reversible when the person stops using the drug.
Given such strong statements from pharmaceutical companies and sporting organizations, the fact that athletes have been using the drugs in increasing quantities appears on the surface to be disastrous. And yet the athletes, in spite of their frequent use of anabolics, appear on the surface to be the picture of health and vitality. Indeed, there exists a massive breach between the medical statements and athletes’ experiences with regard to steroids.
Having listened to the warnings of the medical community, one would conclude that steroids have the same effect on the body as cyanide: The experts cite liver impairment, sterility, acne, fluctuating libido and possibly death as direct consequences of steroid use. Despite those terrible and (presumably) scientific conclusions, however, just about every top strength athlete uses steroids. What’s more, the athletes are all stronger, more muscular and apparently in better health as a result’or perhaps in spite’of their steroid use.
There is, in fact, evidence that the medical data is intentionally misleading. It seems the medical community has gotten together with certain sports associations for the express purpose of issuing statements intended to ‘protect athletes and to promote health and fair play in sports.’ While it can be argued that distorting the truth and legislating what other people should or should not do are unfair and immoral, I must point out that the statements are almost entirely based on data obtained from studies involving animals and untrained clinical patients, the results of which are hardly relevant or applicable to athletes. A person who is institutionalized is hardly a ‘healthy’ individual in any meaningful sense of the term. When you consider that steroids act directly on the endocrine system, you have to know that anybody who’s in the hospital with health problems or who’s susceptible to certain ailments stands a good chance of coming down with those ailments when he or she uses a medication that plays havoc with the nervous system the way that steroids do. Even so, scientists are just now beginning to realize the significant physiological differences between not only athletes and hospital patients suffering from an injury or debilitating disease, but between athletes and nonathletes’what the public calls normal people.
In fact, steroid studies conducted on nonathlete subjects have shown, not surprisingly, that there was little or no difference between the experimental and control groups. None of the experiments led to strength increases (hence the ‘steroids do not enhance athletic performance’ tag), as none of the subjects participated in any strength-building activities. It’s interesting to note that if you take steroids but don’t train, you don’t get any bigger or stronger; however, if you don’t take steroids and train, you do get bigger and stronger. So training, rather than drugs, is the real catalyst in the muscle-building process.
It’s not the first time scientists have refused to recognize the physiological differences between athletes and other subgroups of the general population. For example, so-called athlete’s heart was once thought of as a negative side effect of exercise because of its contractile characteristics, as judged by EKG records, which often superficially resembled those of patients with coronary disease. In light of new evidence, however, that’s no longer the case. What was commonly referred to as athlete’s heart is now viewed as a beneficial physiological adaptation.
In another study Dr. Viktor Roqozkin of the Dynamo Research Institute for Physical Culture in Leningrad reported that food passed through the gastrointestinal tract of weightlifters three times faster than in untrained individuals and that there was no reduction in how the food was assimilated. That’s interesting when you consider the reported association of intestinal cancer with slow passage of food through the tract.
None of what I’ve mentioned is intended to undermine the statements of the medical and sporting associations in regard to steroid abuse. Taking steroids in excess (as with most anything taken in excess, from aspirin to alcohol) is potentially dangerous. An individual’s response to a given drug is unique and based entirely upon his or her biochemistry. The above is intended to illustrate the rather dramatic physiological differences between athletes and nonathletes and point out that they make it difficult to apply data obtained from hospitalized patients to highly trained athletes.
The reality is simply that steroids, like most things, have the potential to do the user much harm if they’re either abused or are used by people who are genetically susceptible to certain medical conditions, such as liver tumors and heart disease, which alone should give one pause for thought. The only problem is that you can make an accurate assessment of how they’ll affect you only in retrospect, and then it just might be too late.
Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. Watch for his latest book, Fast Mass: The Max Contraction System. IM