For decades, anabolic-androgenic steroids, more commonly known as simply “steroids”, have been a go-to performance enhancer for bodybuilders and athletes looking to get bigger, stronger, and faster. But along with the rapid muscle growth and performance gains, steroid use comes with a host of hazardous side effects and health risks that make their use highly controversial. This article provides an in-depth look at steroids in bodybuilding, their benefits and risks, legal status, ethical concerns, and safer alternatives.
A Brief History of Steroids in Bodybuilding
Synthetic versions of the male sex hormone testosterone were developed in the 1930s, but their muscle-building effects were not widely known or used by athletes until the 1950s. After it was discovered that injectable testosterone could help bodybuilders pack on muscle faster, steroids quickly spread through the world of competitive weightlifting and bodybuilding.
With top bodybuilders singing their praises, steroid use skyrocketed in the 1970s as competitors looked for any edge to get bigger and more defined. Strict drug testing policies by sports federations led to a decline in overt steroid use by the 1990s, but steroids continued being used covertly in bodybuilding circuits to attain superhuman size and lean muscle mass.
Today, steroids remain a staple in professional bodybuilding, fitness modeling, and strength sports, though most governing bodies prohibit their use. For amateur and recreational bodybuilders though, the appeal of rapid muscle gains makes steroids an ever-present temptation.
What are Anabolic Steroids?
Anabolic-androgenic steroids, referred to simply as ‘steroids’ or ‘roids’, are synthetic versions of the naturally-occurring male sex hormone testosterone. They have dual effects in the body — anabolic effects help build muscle mass, bone density and strength. Androgenic effects are responsible for male sex characteristics like facial hair, deepened voice, and reproductive functions.
Some key traits of commonly used steroids in bodybuilding include:
- Can be taken orally or injected
- Stimulate protein synthesis and muscle growth
- Reduce fat and improve body composition
- Increase nitrogen retention in muscles
- Allow for faster recovery between workouts
- Boost strength levels and endurance
- Enhance performance and stamina
For professional and amateur bodybuilders alike, this powerful combination of muscle-building, fat-burning, and performance-enhancing effects makes steroids a supremely effective shortcut to getting a bigger, leaner, stronger physique.
Why do Bodybuilders Use Steroids?
Bodybuilders turn to steroids primarily for two performance-related benefits — improved physique and increased strength.
On the physique side, steroids accelerate lean muscle growth well beyond what could be achieved naturally. Increased protein synthesis from steroids enables bodybuilders to pack on more muscle mass at a faster rate. The anabolic effects also increase nitrogen retention in the muscles, creating an optimal environment for growth. At the same time, the fat-burning properties improve body composition and muscle definition.
In terms of strength gains, steroids boost endurance and allow bodybuilders to push harder during workouts, lift heavier weights, and train more frequently. The accelerated recovery allows more intense and frequent training without overtraining.
Together, these physical performance improvements give bodybuilders on steroids an advantage for building freakish amounts of muscle and strength. Success in competitions often requires these supraphysiological enhancements that exceed normal genetic limitations.
Types of Steroids Used in Bodybuilding
Bodybuilders use a wide variety of injectable and oral steroids to bulk up and improve muscle definition. Some popular steroids include:
- Dianabol — One of the most common and well-known steroids, dianabol is an oral steroid that provides dramatic gains in muscle mass and strength. It’s an ideal beginner steroid due to its milder side effects, but it can increase blood pressure.
- Anadrol — This extremely powerful oral steroid is another favorite for fast muscle and strength gains. It has more intense side effects than dianabol, including liver toxicity.
- Winstrol — Mainly used for fat loss and cutting cycles, this oral steroid improves lean muscle gains without water retention. It also enhances strength, endurance and vascularity.
- Testosterone — The granddaddy of steroids, testosterone is the basis of most steroid cycles. Injectable testosterone directly increases muscle growth and protein synthesis for rapid gains in mass.
- Trenbolone — Considered one of the most effective steroids, trenbolone boosts strength, endurance, muscle definition and nitrogen retention. Side effects may include insomnia, mood changes and high blood pressure.
- Deca Durabolin — Excellent for bulking and strength cycles, deca durabolin adds impressive muscle gains while reducing joint pain from heavy lifting. Side effects include water retention.
Pro bodybuilders frequently combine multiple types of both oral and injectable steroids in high doses during bulking and cutting cycles to maximize their effectiveness. This practice is known as “stacking” steroids.
Benefits of Steroids for Bodybuilding Goals
For competitive and recreational bodybuilders alike, the number one reason steroids consistently remain in high demand is simple — they deliver remarkable results.
Beyond just accelerating muscle growth and allowing bodybuilders to increase training volume and intensity, some of the touted benefits of steroids include:
- Bigger Muscles — Steroids directly stimulate protein synthesis and muscle growth. The extra nitrogen retention in the muscles enables faster growth of lean muscle tissue.
- Increased Strength — Steroids allow bodybuilders to lift heavier weights, perform more reps, and get stronger by pushing past normal strength limits through boosted endurance and recovery.
- Less Fat, Improved Body Composition — The enhanced protein synthesis and nitrogen retention encourages growth of lean muscle mass. Steroids also speed up fat burning for improved muscle definition.
- Faster Recovery — Reduced fatigue and accelerated recovery allows bodybuilders to increase training frequency and volume for making faster progress without overtraining.
- Enhanced Performance — Steroids boost stamina and endurance, allowing bodybuilders to work out longer and harder. The drugs enhance vascularity as well.
For competitive bodybuilders, only steroids make it possible to attain the mind-blowing amounts of mass and shredded conditioning needed to win contests. Steroids separate the champions from the rest of the pack.
Potential Side Effects and Health Risks
Unfortunately, along with the benefits, steroid use comes with a laundry list of hazardous side effects and health risks that can be severe, permanent, and even life-threatening in some cases.
Some of the most concerning potential side effects include:
- Liver Toxicity -repeated steroid use stresses the liver which can lead to permanent liver damage, disease and failure. Oral steroids are particularly taxing on the liver.
- Heart Problems — Steroid use raises bad cholesterol levels and lowers good cholesterol. This imbalance contributes to clogged arteries, heart attacks and strokes — all potentially fatal.
- Kidney Damage — The kidneys are under increased strain when filtering the high amounts of hormones. Long-term steroid use can lead to kidney problems or failure.
- Mood Changes — Many users suffer mood swings, aggression (aka ‘roid rage’), depression, anxiety and other mental side effects from steroid use.
- Hypertension — Steroids raise blood pressure to unsafe levels, putting users at major risk for heart attack and stroke. Blood pressure often stays elevated even after quitting steroids.
- Gynecomastia — The imbalance between testosterone and estrogen levels causes a hormonal reaction that leads to male breast tissue growth in some male steroid users.
- Infertility — Shrinking testicles, low sperm count, erectile dysfunction and even male infertility are possible due to the impact on the HPTA axis and testosterone production after coming off steroids.
- Acne, Hair Loss — The androgenic effects can cause teen-like breakouts and accelerated male pattern baldness in genetic predisposed users.
Clearly, steroids are playing with fire in terms of health. While these extreme risks mainly affect hardcore steroid abusers, even cautious use may cause irreversible damage.
The Legal Status of Steroids
In most countries, including the United States, steroids are classified as Schedule III controlled substances, making possession or sale without a prescription illegal. Steroids are also banned by all major sports governing bodies.
However, law enforcement tends to prioritize stopping underground trafficking rings over targeting individual users. First-time offenders with small personal amounts rarely do jail time. Large-scale distribution or additional crimes committed while on steroids receive harsher penalties.
Selling steroids illegally can lead to 5 years or more in prison. Professional athletes also face permanent bans and public disgrace if caught using steroids.
Some countries like Mexico and Thailand are more lax, allowing easier access from local pharmacies with no prescription needed. Given the legal risks and unreliability of underground labs, this grey market approach is also unfavorable.
Ethical Concerns and Controversies
Aside from the obvious health risks, the ethics of steroid use is hotly debated, especially for professional athletes. Opponents point to the unfair advantage it creates and harmful example it sets for youth.
But many bodybuilders argue steroids are necessary to compete at the highest level. Further, they claim adults should have the freedom to use medical enhancements and assume personal responsibility for any risks involved.
Some key ethical arguments around steroids include:
- Competitive Advantage — Since steroids are banned in most sports, some view steroid use as cheating and unsportsmanlike. But if everyone’s using, are they really unfair?
- Promotes Unrealistic Body Standards — Does the extreme muscularity displayed in bodybuilding competitions encourage unrealistic beauty ideals, poor body image, and unhealthy behaviors?
- Health Risks Outweigh Benefits — For non-medical use by healthy adults, critics argue any benefits never justify the laundry list of hazardous health side effects.
- Sets a Poor Example for Youth — When professional role models use steroids, some worry it sends the message that dangerous drug use is the only way to excel in sports.
- Personal Freedom of Use -Proponents believe informed adults should have the right to use steroids and assume personal responsibility for potential risks as they see fit.
Reasonable points abound on both sides of the ethics debate. Ultimately, educating users on risks and safer alternatives may address concerns better than outright prohibition.
Healthier Alternatives to Steroids
Some bodybuilders prefer safer, natural alternatives for adding muscle that come without the cost of dangerous side effects.
A few of the most popular alternatives include:
- Creatine — This popular supplement provides muscles with energy, increases repetition ability and leads to gains in lean mass without steroid-like side effects. It’s one of the safest muscle builders.
- Whey Protein — Protein powders derived from whey provide the amino acids necessary for muscle growth without added hormones. Combined with strength training, whey protein can yield impressive gains.
- BCAAs — Branched chain amino acid supplements help stimulate protein synthesis for muscle growth and reduce fatigue for faster recovery between workouts. They also boost strength and endurance.
- Proper Training and Diet — Without the pressure to win competitions, many amateur bodybuilders find using a consistent progressive overload lifting program and eating a clean high-protein diet allows them to build impressive muscle naturally.
Natural alternatives still have some minimal risks and limitations compared to the rapid strength and size from steroids. But ultimately, hard work with patience pays health and safety dividends.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most common steroids used by bodybuilders?
Testosterone, dianabol, anadrol, trenbolone and winstrol are the most popular steroids used for bulking, strength and cutting phases.
What are the main benefits of steroids for building muscle?
Steroids directly stimulate protein synthesis for accelerated muscle growth. They also boost strength, endurance, nitrogen retention, and speed up recovery between workouts.
What are the most dangerous side effects from steroids?
Some of the most concerning potential side effects are liver toxicity, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and infertility. Mood changes like aggression are another hazard.
Are steroids legal to buy?
No, steroids are classified as controlled substances and illegal to sell or possess without a prescription in most countries, including the United States.
What is a safe, legal steroid alternative supplement?
Popular options like creatine, whey protein, and branched chain amino acids can encourage lean muscle gains without the health risks of steroids. Proper training/diet is key too.
Can teenagers safely use steroids for bodybuilding?
Absolutely not. Steroid use in teens can stunt bone growth, hormonal development, and cause permanent short stature and health problems. Steroids should never be used non-medically by teens.
In summary, anabolic-androgenic steroids offer impressive gains in muscle size and strength that appeal greatly to competitive and recreational bodybuilders. However, steroid use also carries serious health risks like organ damage, heart disease and mood changes.
Most medical experts argue the harm outweighs any potential benefits, especially for non-competitive users. For bodybuilders set on avoiding the dangerous side effects, natural alternatives like creatine combined with proper training and nutrition offer a much safer path towards adding muscle.
Ultimately, steroids are a high-risk shortcut with major consequences that should not be taken lightly. But the choice belongs to individual bodybuilders to assess those risks for themselves. Through education and open discussion of both benefits and risks, the controversy around steroids in bodybuilding may eventually give way to broader understanding and smarter choices.