Since at least the 1970’s and probably much earlier than that, anabolic steroids have been part of sport. Testosterone was first synthesized in the 30’s and there are rumors of bodybuilders using it fairly early in the game. Even then, many like to downplay the impact of the drugs, claiming they only help a little. And, well, I disagree. So today I want to look at what is a somewhat unusual topic for me, the topic of anabolic steroids and muscle growth.
I am Not an Anabolic Steroid Expert
Ok, let me start this with a disclaimer: I am not a steroid guy. I know enough to be a little bit dangerous and can throw around big words like leutinizing hormone and steroidogenesis but that’s about it. I’ve read most of the major books (and I have both Duchaine’s Ultimate Steroid Handbook and USHII so nyah nyah) because it interests me on some level but that’s it. Here is some old school “knowledge”
Yeah, fine, I probably know more about them than the man on the street but I’m no expert. People have entreated me to become such and write about the topic but I don’t see it happening. There are plenty of people out there who have forgotten more about the use and effects of anabolic steroids than I will ever possibly know. So I’ll leave that topic to them.
So why am I writing about steroids?
I got out of college in 1993, where in addition to my studies (UCLA, kinesiology), I had made it part of my obsession to read all of the muscle magazines every month. What if one of them held the true true secret? I couldn’t afford not to read them. It was all the same stuff, Muscular Development, Ironman, M&F, Flex and the always hilarious Muscle Mag International which would publish the stupidest stuff you can imagine. And they were all more less the same (really just supplement ads with pretty pictures).
The routines were asinine, ghost written and having nothing to do with what the pros were actually doing. And since the goal of most of those magazines was to sell supplements to the gullible the drug issue was never addressed. More explicitly it was ignored. In many cases, guys who were obviously on steroids claimed to be natural. The whole thing was one big smoke screen.
Muscle Media 2000
But in 1993, things changed, that’s when Muscle Media 2000 started. Bill Phillips, who had originally published an anabolic steroid newsletter saw the money in the industry and launched the magazine. I read it for years and years before it went full potato and I stopped.
While it was mostly a supplement catalog (ah, Phosphagain, HMB that feels like deca, CLA), there were also some gems in it. Dan Duchaine for one. Even when he was wrong he was still brilliant. His writings and Bodyopus diet would set me on the path of whatever my current job description is exactly.
In any case, in my dotage, I started wanting to back to the things of my youth. Trust me, you’ll get there. You’ll hit your late 30’s and early 40’s and try find all of the books, magazines, music and movies of your youth. But you’ll have a much easier time of it because it was all digital for you. I listened to music on cassette tapes.
Anyhow, someone on my Facebook group happened to have some back issues of MM2k that he was nice enough to send me (for some cash). And as I was reading through them, I was reminded of something that happened about three weeks ago because in a 1996 research review they looked in detail at a study I had talked about.
Someone Was Offended
On a podcast or another (Kinobody maybe), I had made a comment about the fact that studies showed clearly, that anabolic steroids build muscle and strength without even training. I made a similar comment in the Webinars I did for the UK Epic Fitness Summit mentioning that these are studies people kind of don’t want to believe.
Let me state that clearly: studies clearly show that just taking anabolic steroids, without lifting a single weight, build muscle. This is not debatable.
And someone took issue with it.
He came onto the my Facebook group and proceeded to show me everything that is wrong with reading comprehension in 2015.
My statement, exactly was “Steroids build muscle without training.” Nothing more and nothing less.
But he appears to have heard “Steroids make you a competitive bodybuilder” or “Steroids build more and more muscle forever.” And I said neither of those things.
No amount of explanation would make it clear to him that what I had said and what he had heard weren’t the same thing. His arguments revolved around people who use steroids and still don’t look good and how just taking drugs can’t give you symmetry or whatever.
And all he was arguing with were what he thought he had heard me say. Basically all he proved was his own illiteracy and inability to understand basic concepts and words no matter how many times they were explained to him.
Mainly he seemed to be downright offended at the suggestion that it was the drugs and not his impressive work ethic responsible for his gains and physique. Of course I had never suggested anything of the sort to begin with.
Once again, I said only what I said which was that “Steroids build muscle without training.” I gave him the appropriate links to Pubmed so he could go look himself. It didn’t matter because facts never do when emotion is on the line. He was determined to keep arguing against what he thought I said rather than what I had actually said. Finally I just booted him. I can only stand so much stupid.
The Dirty Little Secret of the Industry
But this is one of those dirty little things, one I’ve talked about with a good buddy of mine: guys go on drugs and then want to really downplay the effects of them. They’ll say that they only help a little. They’ll say that it’s just their ass busting training getting all of the work done. Nevermind that when they go on drugs, their lifts take a quantum jump along with their muscle mass. Or that those same lifts crater and they shrink despite the same hard training.
Still, they say, the drugs only help a little. Sure.
Now don’t misread me. I know that these people probably are training hard as hell and nothing I said discounts that. My issue is with pretending that the drugs only help a little and it was mainly the training driving the results. I mean when you can find pictures of bodybuilders who were 280 on drugs and who barely look like they lift when they come off…..dude, it’s the drugs.
As an example, here’s Kevin Levrone both on and off drugs.
Don’t get me wrong, he was still pretty buff when he was off drugs. But he was a different species of human when he was on. This is not helping “A little”
So Just How Much Do They Help?
And that’s all just one gigantic leadin to the point of this article, to look at some of the studies on this topic to see what the real-world effects of anabolics are on size and strength, even without training. Most of this work comes from a group led by a Bhasin and I’ll provide links to the specific papers for people who want to delve. Most of the papers are free full text if you want to really get up your own butt or check my math.
The First Paper: Testosterone vs. Exercise
The first paper his group did came out in 1996 and is really the key one, it had the impressive title of “The effects of supraphysiologic doses of testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men.” and was the paper reviewed in the MM2k that made me want to write this piece.
In the study he took 40 men and assigned them to one of four groups: placebo with no exercise, 600 mg testosterone with no exercise, exercise only, 600 mg testosterone with exercise. They were at least given a standardized diet although they weren’t in a metabolic ward so there is some potential self-reporting issues.
For perspective on this dose consider that Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for men is usually in the realm of 150-200 mg of testosterone per week. So these men were given roughly 3-4 times that much. This is a lot of testosterone.
The training was a little weird, they did squat and bench only three times per week for 4 sets of 6 with varying intensity week to week and weights were increased at week 5. It wasn’t the greatest training program but it turns out to kind of not matter. Muscle size was measured by MRI and strength was tested directly for 1 repetition maximum. This went on for 10 weeks. Here are the results.
To nobody’s surprise the placebo group saw no changes in anything. Exercise alone got the guys four and one half pounds muscle in 10 weeks which isn’t bad. But steroids alone generated 6.6 lbs of LBM in the same 10 weeks. That’s one high dose shot of long-acting testosterone per week to make more gains than training. Yes, the combined group did best with the gains being close to what you’d predict by just adding the two together.
But it doesn’t change the point:
Steroids alone built more muscle than exercise alone along with just as much strength.
Let me add that, to my understanding, a single shot once per week is not an ideal dosing schedule due to the pattern of release of the drugs. Rather, 300 mg twice/week would give far more stable testosterone levels and, I would surmise, better results still.
Let me also note that despite being a supraphysiological dose of testosterone, 600 mg/week is still kind of a baby dose relative to what athletes actually use. In some circles, one gram of testosterone per week is considered being natural and generic cycles may include several grams of testosterone per week. And the industry always seem to include one crazy recommending up to a gram PER DAY.
So if a “relatively low” (relative to real world use) level of testosterone builds more muscle than just training, imagine what the real world doses are doing…Just imagine.
Now, this was a single study using a single dose of testosterone over 10 weeks. What happens when you use different amounts or go longer?
The Second Study: Dose-Response to Testosterone
In a followup study titled “Testosterone dose-response relationships in healthy young men.” the same group gave men doses of 25, 50, 125, 300 or 600 mg of testosterone enanthate per week for 20 weeks. Importantly, the men were told to do no training during the study. These were the results
So what you see is that the two lowest doses had no effect and then there was a progressively greater increase in LBM gains with an increasing dose. And that the 600 mg testosterone group gained 17.4 lbs of LBM in 20 weeks with no training whatsoever. This is nearly a year’s worth of gains for a natural trainee doing everything right. And it was still 4 lbs more gains than the previous study had generated in 10 weeks with steroids and exercise. The drugs alone worked better.
Now some people reading this who know a little bit about anabolic steroids will be thinking “What about water weight?” A known effect of anabolic steroids is an increase in water and this can certainly represent some of the “lean body mass” gains that show up.
So Bhasin looked at this too. A followup analysis of the second study showed clearly that the increasing doses of anabolics were associated with muscle fiber growth in both Type I and Type II fibers and increased myonuclear number. This second bit is interesting since there is some evidence that increased myonuclei number underly the muscle memory effect.
Basically, the LBM gains in this study was real growth. And it occurred in healthy males doing no training. The same research group also showed that anabolics alone activate satellite cells, a crucial step in muscle growth.
Once again, this is with drugs alone and no training.
The Third Study: Hypogonadal Men
Hypogonadism, a testosterone level below the low normal range, is not uncommon in men. And is ideally treated with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). As above a typical dose is 150-200 mg of long-acting testosterone per week.
And while it’s not a perfect model for otherwise healthy individuals, one study found that a baby dose of 100 mg/week of testosterone enanthate increased muscle mass by 11 lbs in 10 weeks in hypogonadal men. With no training, zero fat gain and a measured increase in both triceps and quadriceps size. With a mere 100 mg/week, bringing testosterone from low back to normal.
I’d have loved to see what 600 mg/week did for these guys.
More Testosterone Means More Muscle
And finally, in another analysis, the same group made a prediction that basically shows that more testosterone means more growth. That is, as the does goes up, so do the gains.
Much earlier Gilbert Forbes has done similar work although he was looking at the total steroid dose over time and it’s relation to LBM gains. But his results were right in line with this work, showing clearly that the greater the total steroid dose, the more muscle that was gained.
When he looked at the total dose of anabolics taken over the duration of a cycle, more steroids means more growth up to about 10,000mg total which gave 20kg (45 lbs) of muscle gained. That is a career’s worth of gains.
Perhaps more interestingly, if you look at the key, that gain was made with nothing but oxandrolone (anavar) which is usually considered a relatively weak drug to begin with. And it didn’t matter. The athlete who took 10,000 mg of it over some unindicated time frame gained more LBM than most can gain in an entire career of natural lifting.
The First Take Home Message
His illiteracy notwithstanding, the guy who came onto my FB group to complain really didn’t have a leg to stand on. I had stated that steroids will build muscle without training and all the science backs that statement. They build strength, muscle without any training whatsoever. Even when diet wasn’t optimized or possibly controlled they still do this. They do it. And they do it well, generating gains far in excess of what training alone can do over the same time frame.
Will steroids keep building muscle forever so you gain and gain? Probably not although the one longer study is suggestive. At some point you’d have to take more to keep growing and this is consistent with real world use. Duchaine once wrote that all of the complex stacking and cycling was irrelevant. That at the end of the day it came down to just taking more. I think he was right. Just go fool around with weights a little bit and keep upping the dosage when you plateau.
Does any of this mean just taking drugs will make someone a stage ready bodybuilder or give them symmetry or balance? Of course it won’t. But I never said that even if that’s what this guy heard. Our hypothetical non-training steroid using bodybuilder would at least need some fat burners to get contest lean.
Throw in some clen, thyroid and GH (or go nuts with DNP) and you can get ripped without having to even diet too hard. That still won’t make up for poor muscle bellies, symmetry and all of that but you get my point. A guy with 600 mg/week of anabolics and some basic fat burners will outgain and out lean a guy busting his ass in the weight room and watching his diet. It’s not even an arguable point.
Does this mean that it will make them a great athlete without training? Of course not. This is especially true when you’re looking at performance rather than just muscle mass per se. Performance has an immense number of other factors that steroids can’t necessarily help. Which is what led one person in the field to conclude that drugs only help a little.
I mean, he’s still wrong because his “little” (about a 10% difference in performance) is the difference in first and 40th-100th places in most sports. Importantly, anabolic steroids allow people to train more, at a higher intensity, more frequently and grow, gain strength and recover significantly than if they are not being taken. This is also non-debatable and clearly the idea that they only “help a little” is nonsense.
Issurin wrote in one of his books that steroids will make an athlete adapt positive to any kind of training and that you could only learn about training by looking at non-drug using athletes. He’s probably right. They sure as hell make you bigger and stronger without training so you have to figure that anything done beyond that will improve almost no matter what.
The Second Take Home Message
To deny that steroids build muscle, strength, etc. without training is simply not supported by the science. They work. Well. And the 600 mg/week used in these studies is still a moderate dose by today’s standards. Guys are using multiple times that with multiple drugs and if you want to know why naturals are stuck in the 180s if they are lucky and the top pros are up at 280 and ripped, well…now you know.
More is better, that’s what more means.
And guys now just take more along with a lot of other ancillary drugs that add further to the effect.
Does this mean that guys who are using don’t train hard or work hard? Absolutely not and that’s usually where people get into trouble with this. They equate the statement of “Drugs work without training” as “You guys don’t train hard.” Those aren’t synonymous statements. But more people in the world really need to buy Hooked on Phonics because their reading comprehension is simply appalling.
Drugs just enhance the training process, clearly by a lot more than most people want to admit or recognize. It can at least double the gains in muscle that training produces and longer periods of just drugs still beat both in terms of LBM and strength gains.
As well, the effect of these drugs explains why so much bullshit training and diet advice sure seems to work just fine for guys. With enough drugs, the training barely matters. With enough drugs, the diet barely matters. Pro bodybuilders found this out the hard way when contests decided to test and nobody could get into shape. The drugs covered up all the mistakes.
It’s also why taking advice from guys who are juicing about training and diet is generally a poor idea. So long as they take enough drugs, the rest of it truly barely matters. When they plateau or stop growing or getting leaner, the solution is not more intelligent training or dieting. It’s taking more drugs.
And the bottom line is that when it comes to anabolic steroids and muscle growth, they work incredibly. At even moderate (by real-world standards) doses they build more muscle than training alone. That may not make you a great bodybuilder or athlete but my original statement that anabolic steroids build muscle without training still stands.