The Big Lie about steroids

 

I’ve heard countless times how a juicehead proclaimed that it was not his gear growing muscle, rather than just facilitating his own efforts to do so (“it’s just giving me the ability to work out harder, you see”). This is one of the biggest lies surrounding the use of anabolic steroids.

Because they work and does so very, very well. And even though they most likely do increase the adaptive response to training, they also grow muscle all by themselves. Naturally “roid”-driven hypertrophied muscle that will mostly come off, when you stop pinning, just like real “lifting muscle” will eventually come of when you stop lifting. But this fact, that steroids grow muscle even in the absence of training, is a fact that most juicers have a VERY hard time dealing with.

The purpose of this post is not at all to discredit the results of people on juice, just to discredit their claims of it being “all themselves”. Fact is, if they hadn’t juiced they wouldn’t be as big (while also being lean) or as strong and as this is part of what they are being judged by, it is not fair to blame all of their muscle mass or strength on their own efforts. Face it, when was the last time your heard “well, it wasn’t ALL me. I did use three cycles of test and tren to get here” when replying to a compliment on their size or strength?

Pre-Bhasin

In the 80’es and 90’es, it was actually controversial whether or not anabolic steroids had any performance-enhancing or macroscopically significant anabolic effects. The reason behind this was of course that no-one had done studies with supraphysiological doses of anabolic steroids yet and in the light of this absence, there was actually no real evidence to support the notion that anabolic steroids were the game changers that some people claimed even back then – usually the ones who were in lifting circles and had witnessed it first hand.

“The magic bullet” about steroids aka Bhasin et al, 1996

But lo and behold, in 1996 Shalender Bhasin had a paper published in one of the most prestigious medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine, describing a study that would forever change the view on anabolic steroids (Bhasin et al, 1996). Essentially the study was a double cross-over study in which 43 young healthy normal weight men, were put on standardized diets and then into one of four intervention groups:

  1. No exercise, placebo
  2. No exercise, 600 mg Testosterone Enanthate weekly
  3. Resistance exercise 3 times/week, placebo
  4. Resistance exercise 3 times/week, 600 mg Testosterone Enanthate weekly

for a period of 10 weeks. For reference, the recommended prescribed dose of testosterone for replacement therapy is 250 mg every 2 to three weeks. So 600 mg/week i preeeeetty supraphysiological, but still well below what is used in lifting circles, even for beginners. Naturally these guys grew muscle and got leaner, but how much? Bhasin reported that the changes in fat-free mass were as follows, per group:

  1. +0.8 kg
  2. +3.2 kg
  3. +2.0 kg
  4. +6.1 kg

Thereby proving beyond any reasonable doubt that 600 mgs of Testosterone Enanthate per week does indeed cause skeletal muscle hypertrophy and increases in strength (strength data not shown in this blog post).

figure from Bhasin et al, 1996, NEJM, detalining muscle mass results with graded doses of steroids

figure from Bhasin et al, 1996, NEJM, detailing muscle mass results

But besides showing that testosterone actually works, it also shows that testosterone causes skeletal muscle hypertrophy and strength improvements even in the absence of training! 3.2 kgs of muscle in 10 weeks with no exercise… That’s not too shabby, if you ask me. Also, no exercise and testosterone actually worked better than exercise by itself…

But wait, there’s more

Bhasin did another study in which he recruited young men, knocked their endogenous testosterone production down pharmacologically, effectively inducing hypogonadism and randomized them to graded doses of testosterone (25, 50, 125, 300 or 600 mg testosterone enanthate/week) for 20 weeks (Bhasin et al, 2001). Note that in this study, no one did any exercise. Again, consider that the normal dosage used for replacement therapy in hypogonadism is 250 mg of Test E every two to three weeks (more frequently 3 than two), i.e. 80-120 mg/week, indicating that the lowest group is probably somewhat below physiological levels, even with the administered testosterone, which shows from the figure below. The real interesting stuff is that with 600 mg/week the subjects grew 7-9 kgs of muscle (!) and lost 1-2 kgs of fat (check the table below)! That is again, without any exercise!!

tabulated results of changes in muscle mass and fat mass with hydrostatic weighing and DXA

tabulated results of changes in muscle mass and fat mass with hydrostatic weighing and DXA

Now, testosterone grows muscle even in the absence of training, but there are some interesting addendums. First, please note that the graph for changes in muscle mass by no means seem to indicate any degree of saturation. This indicates that much larger doses would be even more effective.

Changes in muscle and fat mass in groups adminstered 25, 50, 125, 300 or 600 mg of Test E/week

Changes in muscle and fat mass in groups administered 25, 50, 125, 300 or 600 mg of Test E/week

Also, note that the amount of muscle grown with the same dosages in 10 weeks was about 3 kgs. Considering that it takes some time for Testosterone Enanthate to increase blood levels of testosterone, it means that testosterone-driven hypertrophy didn’t start until 2, maybe even 3 or 4 weeks into the study. So if we subtract the first 3 weeks from each study and compare 3 kgs in 7 weeks vs. 8 kgs in 17 weeks, it looks like the rate of muscle gain is about the same in both studies, indicating that the muscle mass at the end of the 20 week study had not reached steady state for the given level of testosterone. Thus, if the testosterone therapy had been maintained, the subjects would likely have had even more dramatic results!

In a later study, in which they used the same protocol, they demonstrated essentially the same results, but in a larger cohort (and that conversion to dihydrotestosterone is not neccessary for testosterone to work) (Bhasin et al, 2012).

Discussion

Anabolic steroids grow muscle all on their own. It is indeed possible to sit on one’s ass, watching Netflix, playing GTA, and masturbating, while getting jacked. To put the numbers into context, a normal adult man of 80 kgs will have about 25-30 kgs of muscle mass and 10-15 kgs of fat mass. Going from 27 kgs of muscle and 12 kgs of fat to 35 kgs of muscle and 10 kgs of fat would be, ahem, a quite visible change. Those are approximately the changes that would be expected with 12 months of really serious resistance training and decent nutrition.

So when gearheads claim that the steroids are just enabling them to work harder, they are if not lying, then just wrong. Naturally, it’s just a case of them trying to reduce cognitive dissonance as they’d like to think that it is their own effort that builds those muscles. Sadly, they are wrong about that. In the lower dose ranges it may actually have an effect where it reinforces training adaptations, but the hypertrophy seen with higher doses is purely driven by chemistry.

A lot of people have been flaming this post complaining that the subjects were untrained. Well for comparison, the vast majority of natural lifters, even lifelong ones, will never increase their lean body mass by more than 15-20 kgs. This corresponds to an increase in muscle mass of about 50-70%. If you can increase your lean body mass by 7-8 kgs in 20 weeks with 600 mg of Test E per week, with the data indicating no dose or time saturation, then what can be accomplished using 1000 mg/week permanently (and yes, even though retarded, some people are doing this)? I’m guessing that would be enough to make most guys look objectively jacked (+15-20 kgs of LBM) without any exercise. The point I’m trying to make is not that jacked guys are not training, but that a significant part of their jackedness couldn’t and shouldn’t be claimed as results of their own effort in the gym and with the fork. That 120 kg guy hasn’t done more to get big than that 100 kg guy, he just decided to do roids which effectively gave him more for less, with some of the associated risks. Still, people are going to ask the 120 kg guy for advice in the gym, because their perception is of bigger effort, a perception that the bigger guys are often quick to reinforce – I mean, everyone wants to think they’ve done things the best way, right? But for all I know, for the big guy, doing roids could have been the easy way out and for some, it certainly has been.

Of course, after a steroid cycle, most of the muscle gained will be lost, but the period of having chemically hypertrophic muscle most likely provides a degree of size consolidation (i.e., muscle memory) that makes it possible to maintain some of it, just like people that have previously had muscle hypertrophy from lifting weights will also have an easier time regaining that muscle mass.

Conclusion

I do not mean to take anything away from people training hard and also taking steroids, but their cognitive dissonance should not get in the way of fact, and the fact is that the majority of gains to be had from anabolic steroids are from the steroids themselves and not an exercise/testosterone interaction.

So when you see that guy preparing for a natural bodybuilding show and the other one preparing for an “unnatural” one, it’s not because the “unnatural” dude is training harder that he’s much bigger. Actually, it’s probably somewhat easier for him, because he doesn’t have to be just as careful about overtraining and losing too much precious muscle with his fat as the “natty”. I do not intend to say that the natural athletes do “more”, but that the “un-nattys” get a lot more with the same level of effort. At least that’s what I’m told by the people I know that have tried preparing for both natural and unnatural bodybuilding or fitness shows ;o).

I don’t give a flying fuck if people juice themselves retarded, but they shouldn’t claim it was “all me” because, well, it wasn’t. But this is all a consequence of the hypocrisy in the bodybuilding community regarding steroids. A hypocrisy that most probably comes all the way from the top. The Weider Brothers wanted freaky bodies to put on the labels of supplements, while ignoring or even hiding the fact that these freaky bodies were based on lifestyles that were excessively unhealthy and in many cases caused very premature deaths. Stop the steroid taboo!

References

Bhasin, S., Storer, T. W., Berman, N., Callegari, C., Clevenger, B., Phillips, J., et al. (1996). The effects of supraphysiologic doses of testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men. The New England Journal of Medicine, 335(1), 1–7. doi:10.1056/NEJM199607043350101

Bhasin, S., Woodhouse, L., Casaburi, R., Singh, A. B., Bhasin, D., Berman, N., et al. (2001). Testosterone dose-response relationships in healthy young men. American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281(6), E1172–81.

Bhasin, S., Travison, T. G., Storer, T. W., Lakshman, K., Kaushik, M., Mazer, N. A., et al. (2012). Effect of testosterone supplementation with and without a dual 5α-reductase inhibitor on fat-free mass in men with suppressed testosterone production: a randomized controlled trial. Jama, 307(9), 931–939. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.227

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