In general, I try not to be that guy who just craps over other articles. I mean, yeah, I could spend my career just taking apart other people’s work. But I find it generally more productive to produce what I think is good content. That said, a recent article entitled “Drugs only help a little.” has led me to make an exception. It’s a commonly held idea, usually by drug users who want to downplay their role.
You Don’t Know My Work Ethic, Bro
They want it to be about their intense work ethic and such (and make no mistake, I am NOT saying that drug using athletes don’t train their nuts off) but to dismiss the enormous potential role performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) play in results is just rationalizing nonsense so far as I’m concerned. Non-using athletes train just as hard if not harder and don’t get the same result. The drugs are the difference.
For the record, by PED’s here, I’m not just talking about anabolic steroids, by the way but by the entire cornucopia of compounds in use in various sports. Anabolic steroids have been part of that for decades. To that we can add things like insulin, growth hormone, IGF-1, various peptides and other injectable compounds, thyroid, clenbuterol, EPO (in the endurance events) and probably more.
Different sports use different combinations of each but, at a logical level, if drugs only “helped a little” athletes wouldn’t use them in such an intense and dedicated way. Why not just train harder, right?
Drugs Only Help a Little
The original analysis did a comparison of strength results in tested vs. non-tested federations (I forget offhand if it was in powerlifting or Olympic lifting but suspect the former) and concluded that drugs only provided a roughly 10% difference in performance. This was concluded to be “only a little” bit of help since 10% doesn’t seem like that much.
Interestingly, this is fully consistent with an analysis done in Milo in the 90’s about Olympic lifting where it was argued that anabolics provided a 5-10% boost in performance with 2.5-5% of that being maintained when they were discontinued before competition to pass the tests. Indirectly supporting this, when the IWF was testing, world records were roughly 5%+ off the previous bests.
Similarly, in research, EPO is thought to give a 10-20% boost in VO2 max and the fact is that tour power outputs and speeds were down in the couple of years after the UCI really cracked down on drugs. Without the drugs, the previous performances couldn’t be achieved.
Tangentially: this is part of why it’s usually felt that most groups don’t really want to see drug testing succeed. Sports is big money and if athletes can’t set records, nobody watches. But that’s a different topic for a different day.
Now here’s a question before I continue: is anybody prepared to argue that somehow athletes were training less intensely or more poorly in years when drug testing was occurring and performances were measurably down? That is, that somehow in the couple of years after drug testing got more serious that they backslid in their training and effort?
I mean, fine you want to argue that training and nutrition are better in 2015 than 1975 and I won’t disagree with you. modern natural athletes can beat the arguably drugged records of the 70’s (although there are exceptions: women’s track and field records set by the notoriously drugged German team that have yet to be broken in the modern era) but that’s due to more people involved and better training and nutrition.
But are you going to argue that training, nutrition and work ethic was worse in 2015 than in 2012? I would hope not. Which means that you have to be ready to accept that drug-fuelled performances can’t be matched, irrespective of the difference being “only a little” without the drugs. Because that’s reality.
And while the above really makes my major point, I want to get into it a bit deeper with my own turgid mathematical analysis. Let me start with bodybuilding. Admittedly it wasn’t part of the original analysis and I’m not claiming it was. But I think it makes a pretty good point about drugs and how much they potentially help.
Do Drugs Only Help a Little in Bodybuilding?
Dan Duchaine famously (and wrongly) stated many many years ago that with the new supplements and drug testing, natural bodybuilders would soon surpass drug using athletes. And it never happened. And it never will happen. Natural bodybuilders are, on average, no larger than they were before despite all of the amazing new findings in training and nutrition. Because human genetics hasn’t changed and because there are clear genetic limits to growth. And because the benefits of drugs are simply insurmountable.
Now, bodybuilding isn’t a performance sport in the true sense. It’s honestly the only sport I can think of where the activities done in training have exactly zero to do with what is done on stage. Yes, fine bodybuilders practice posing but most of it is weight room work, cardio and diet (physique sports are more diet contests than anything else). But it’s in bodybuilding where the biggest impact of drugs is truly seen. It’s also arguably where the most and largest combination of drugs is used with the possible exception of cycling.
Now back in the early days of the sport, and drugs have arguably been in use since at least the 70’s or earlier, drugs were used in relatively low doses for relatively short periods of time. Although it’s tough to pin down an exact number, Arnold Schwarzenegger competed in the realm of 235 to 250 in competition shape. Conditioning and dehydration wasn’t nearly what it is now and he would have been a good bit lighter in the modern era.
Let me conservatively call it 220 if he was as lean and as dehydrated as guys today. Maybe he’d be a little bit heavier, maybe a little bit lighter. Don’t get hung up on a few pounds since it doesn’t change much. Now outside of those 1 in 10,000 freakshows, you can find the occasional in-shape natural heavy weight who comes in around 200 lbs and actually gets lean. It’s not common but they do exist. So that’s about the 10% difference or so (220 vs. 200 lbs) that was originally cited for the benefits of drugs.
It doesn’t change the fact that in most natural shows, the big classes for men are in the realm of 165-185 or so. You see a LOT of guys in this class if they get into shape. Just huge classes. And when you work the math on that, Arnold at 220 compared to a guy at 165 or 185, you’re looking at about a 16-25% difference. That’s certainly more than the 10% for performance sports and already you’re at a point that a natural athlete simply can’t hit and be in shape. And that was with low doses of infrequently used drugs (or so it is claimed).
But Arnold competed in the 70’s. Let’s look at now.
Modern Professional Bodybuilding
Let’s look at now when you have guys coming into contest shape at 260-280 pounds. That’s 40-60 pounds over Arnold at his peak which is a 20-25% improvement. Yes, fine, you can argue all you want that training and nutrition is better but then you have to explain why naturals, presumably using the same advanced training and nutrition approaches haven’t moved up. Because they factually haven’t as I stated above with the biggest classes still being in the 165-185 ranges or so.
It’s like all of the blather over this enormously improved training in powerlifting with bands and chains and speed work and everything. Which is all fine and well except that only geared performances are really improving while RAW lifting is relatively stagnant in terms of top lifts (they are inching up while geared records continue to jump). It’s equipment, not physiology and training here. At best you can argue that training has changed to better utilize the gear to its maximum potential.
But now let’s compare the current crop of drug monsters to the average natural at 165-185 who is fully conditioned at his show. Here the effect of drugs is somewhere between 30-40%. Read that again. As I said, assuming naturals and drug users have access to the same improved training and nutrition and are training just as hard, the drugs are contributing 30-40% improvement in terms of muscle mass. And that’s before you consider the ability to diet down with less muscle loss in the drug users.
Testosterone reaches near castrate levels in contest lean bodybuilders while they are maintained if someone is using anabolics. Thyroid and nervous system output goes down in natural dieters as metabolic rate craters; clen and thyroid reverses that. GH is a potent fat burner and appetite suppressants help to fight off the gnawing hunger as NPY makes people it’s bitch.
I’m sorry but 30-40% is not a “little” bit of help. That’s another species of human being. And if you ever get a chance to stand or sit next to a current professional bodybuilder, you’ll understand what I mean. Ronnie Coleman is big in pictures. And he’s mind shatteringly large in person.
Steroids Build Muscle Without Training
Now, I have written about this before, how anabolics by themselves will generate muscle gain even without training. In the major study, 600 mg of testosterone enanthate generated a huge increase in LBM, about the amount that a hard training natural *might* gain in a year. And it did it in 20 weeks. In one case study, reported by Forbes, a bodybuilder using about 10,000 mg total anabolics gained 20kg, about 45 lbs of LBM. This is a career’s worth of growth for a natural if they are lucky.
Now a counterargument that was made to that article is that 600 mg/week will not continue to generate gains in muscle past a certain point (the person who made this was the same one who said drugs don’t give that much of an advantage). That’s a lovely strawman since I never said it would and I doubt anybody would argue that. Go read what I wrote and show me where I said what he heard.
But, as I stated clearly in that piece, 600 mg/week is also a baby dose these days. When guys consider themselves natural when they *only* take 1000 mg/week of testosterone and some are taking 1000 mg PER DAY total anabolics with other drugs, it’s an asinine counter argument. 600mg is only supraphysiological in relative terms. To modern athletes, it’s not even a day’s dose.
In the research 600 mg had huge effects and guys take far more than that in practice. As guys get bigger, they keep ramping their doses up and up and up. Which means more of an effect. And regardless of how you want to argue back and forth, the difference in muscular size shows that without any possibility for argument. 30-40% more muscle in drug using pros vs. naturals is not a “little help”.
Edit: in 2020 we now have drug fuelled monsters competing in the low 300’s. So what’s that now, a 60% advantage over naturals. A little help, my ass.
Do Drugs Only Help a Little in Performance Sport?
As I stated above, bodybuilding is not really a performance sport in the sense we would typically use the word performance. It’s not measured in pounds lifted, time to run a given distance, how far you throw something and is an aesthetic sport.
So it’s arguable if the analysis above is really relevant to the original one that was made. I won’t deny that and only looked at it to show that potential magnitude that drugs can have in at least that one activity (I would argue that drugs probably impact on muscle size and growth per se more than on any aspect of performance).
When you’re looking at performance sports you introduce a whole host of other issues. Technique, mechanics, efficiency, etc. And here you don’t see nearly the same benefit of drugs in terms of performance. That is, I won’t in any fashion disagree that drugs may only provide a 10% or so difference in performance. What I will disagree with is that 10% represents “only a little help” in the world of modern sport.
Put differently, it’s possible to reach a correct conclusion and still miss the point entirely. And saying that “It’s only a 10%” gain completely misses the point as far as I’m concerned. I say that as, when you consider the differentials in the top competitors in high levels sports, 10% is enormous.
The top three are often separated by a few percent and 10% may be the difference between first and last place or first and doesn’t even make it to the competition or finals. To show this, I want to do my own analysis of real-world results in three different sports.
I’m too lazy to hack out a table since the WordPress interface sucks and I can’t be asked. All I’ve done is look at results and done some basic division to get the percentage differences. I’m sure I’ve screwed up one or more of the numbers since I don’t recheck my math. Let’s focus on principles.
In 2015 International Weightlifting Championships, I looked at a handful of weight classes, comparing the total results (you see slightly more variability in snatch and clean and jerk since you often have relative specialists).
In the 56kg class, for example, only 5% separated first and third place. By the time you take the best finisher and take 10% off of his total, you’re in 5th place. Ok, not bad. Move to the 77kg class and a mere 2.5% separates first and third. By the time you get t0 10% off of first you are in 20th place. In the 105+kg class, 8% separates first and third. At 10% off the top finisher, you don’t crack the top 10.
I didn’t look at every class but you wouldn’t expect major differences to occur from class to class (for whatever reasons the lightest and heaviest are different than the middle weight class I picked). The top three guys are within a few percentage points of one another and to give up 10% takes you completely out of the running. It may only be a little but in high level sport, it means EVERYTHING.
Men’s 100m Sprinting
Next I looked at the 2012 Men’s 100m Olympic sprint results. I was going to look at the preliminary rounds but realize that sprinters don’t go all out in the early rounds so the comparisons won’t be that accurate. So only the finals are relevant. And in those finals, 1.7% separates first and third place.
With the exception of an odd blip with Asafa Powell (who finished in more than 11 seconds and must have pulled something), a mere 3.4% differences separates first and last place. Lose 10% off the fastest time and you don’t make it out of the prelims.
Hell, consider that Bolt has run a 9.59, a 10% reduction in performance is a 10.51. You’re in another county at that point and consider that the high-school 100m world record is a 10 flat (the girls run 10.98). A 10.5 100m is a good men’s high school time or so. That’s what 10% is worth.
Ice Speed Skating
Moving to ice speed skating, at Sochi in the 2014, 0.3% separated first and third in the men’s 500m and outside of two guys who clearly fell (their times were a minute off the best), first and fortieth place were separated by 4.6%.
In the 1000m, 0.6% separated first and third and the fourtieth place finisher was 7.4% slower. In the 10,000m, 3% separates first and third and last place was only 7.4% behind that. This is a sport where the top 40 in the world get to compete and being 10% off the best time doesn’t even get you into the B-group (lowest 20) much less the A-group (top 20).
10% is a staggering difference in elite sport although some sports are more sensitive to it.
As a related example Sir Chris Hoy once failed to set a track cycling world record by 0.005 seconds. That’s 5 milliseconds. An eye blink is 150-200 milliseconds. His final time was 58.880 so he missed the world record by 0.008% (and I already multiplied that by 100). That’s 8 thousandths of 1%. Just let that sink in. And then compare it to the idea that 10% isn’t a big advantage.
This Pattern Holds Across Sports
I could continue to look at sport after sport (I wanted to look at track cycling where 10ths of a second often separate first and second but couldn’t find good numbers easily and gave up) but hopefully this makes the point that a 10% difference in performance due to drugs, even if only seems like mathematically a little, is absolutely enormous in the real world of sport.
If all athletes are clean and one of the last place competitors get on drugs, he can literally jump over every single athlete, moving from last to first. Of course, the counter argument to this is that if everybody is juicing the placings don’t change but that was never the point of the original analysis I am taking issue with which is that “drugs only help a little. If 10% boost can take you from way past last place in any meaningful competition to first, that’s more than a “little” help so far as I’m concerned.
But Wait, There’s More
But there’s another issue that I think is forgotten in the whole discussion of the role of drugs in training. Even if we accept that the performance boost isn’t that big (except that it is actually enormous in terms of real world results), there is the simple fact that the types of training needed to even reach the top level is often not even achievable without drugs.
That is, there is a generalized belief that reaching the top level requires a certain amount and intensity of training. And in almost all cases, that level of training cannot be sustained or survived without drugs. It’s wonderful to argue that two guys training identically but one is on drugs, the second only get a “little bit of help” but this simplistically ignores that they won’t be training identically; the drug user can handle more. More volume, more intensity, more frequency.
Many who have mistakenly tried to apply the Bulgarian approach to training naturally find this out the hard way. Abadjaev, in addition to thinking it’s hilarious that the US prepares it’s lifters without drugs, has stated that his elite training program can’t even be done without drugs. He waters it down with reduced volume and intensity drastically if they aren’t being used. Even with drugs, the system breaks 65 out of 66 lifters.
I recall another example, I couldn’t source it for the life of me, a cyclist who had turned pro who was given a damn near impossible training program along with the drug schedule needed to survive it. They synched up the drugs with a training load that nobody could do without them.
Another, fairly famous, powerlifting club apparently takes its new lifters, puts them on drugs and then ramps up their volume and frequency until they break. And then dials it back. They want to find the absolute maximum amount of training that can be sustained on the drugs. Remove the drugs and that maximum load can’t even be approximated.
With his sprint athletes, between the anabolics and the massage, etc. Charlie Francis was able to do 3 speed workouts per week. Without those two factors, only two can be survived. The elite training can’t be done without props. Period.
So in addition to any direct effects drugs have, the very concrete fact is that without them, guys can’t even get to the top levels in the first place. The training isn’t survivable or recoverable without them to begin with; the recovery and benefits is insurmountable. Hell, it’s usually been felt that most athletes top out in progress after about year 3…unless they start using drugs. They allow you to move past any upper genetic limit that might exist and without them. You hit a performance wall you won’t ever get past without them.
Even if the percentage magnitude is “only a little” (despite that 10% being enormous in real world sport), the effect isn’t.
So Do Drugs Only Help a Little?
Clearly I don’t think so. And I don’t think the real world of sport does either. Because even if the advantage in strength sports is “only” 10%, that 10% is the difference between winning and not being anywhere close to the podium.