Some people say steroids are safe and awesome. Others say they cause permanent damage to your body and can even be deadly.

Many drug users swear they’re not addicted and can quit at any point. Others admit that life is just better on steroids and don’t plan on giving them up.

Many recreational bodybuilders often claim that steroids don’t make as big of a difference as everyone thinks. A quick look at professional fitness competitors suggests otherwise.

My point is there’s a lot of mystery surrounding steroid use and even more confusion. Like most things health and fitness, opinions are all over the place.

I assume you’re reading this article because you want to know things like how steroids work, how effective they are, their side effects, and how to know if someone is likely natural or “enhanced.”

Well, in this article we’re going to take an in-depth look at steroid use and touch on all of those points and more.

Before we start, I’d like to make my position on steroids clear:

I’m mostly (but not completely) anti-steroid, I’ve never used them and never will, and I think most people don’t need steroids to achieve their goals.

Keep that in mind as you read the first half of this article, which may give you a bit of a chub for doing at least a cycle or two of steroids. Get through the rest of the article before you run off to the juicehead in your local gym.

So, let’s start at the logical beginning: what are steroids, exactly?

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What Are Steroids and How Do They Work?

When we say “steroid,” what we really mean is “anabolic steroid,” which is a man-made substance that has similar effects to testosterone in the body, including increased muscle growth and recovery, strength, and leanness.

Steroids accomplish this through various different mechanisms, but the net result is the same: protein synthesis rates are greatly increased or protein degradation rates are greatly reduced or both, which results in rapid muscle growth. The mechanisms whereby body fat levels are reduced or suppressed vary from drug to drug and aren’t worth diving into here, but just know that’s part of the “package” that steroids deliver.

While testosterone itself is the best known steroid, there are many others that are quite popular among athletes and bodybuilders, like…

  • Nandrolone
  • Stanozolol
  • Trenbolone
  • Oxandrolone
  • Deca Durabolin
  • Dianabol
  • Methandrostenolone
  • Boldenone
  • Oxymetholone
  • Drostanolone

Why so many different types of drugs, you wonder?

Because each have unique profiles in terms of potency, toxicity, side effects, and synergism. They, and others, are combined in various ways to create different types of steroid “cycles” for different purposes and goals.

For example, if you were a competitive bodybuilder and wanted to add 20 pounds of muscle in your off season, your steroid cycle is going to be very different than when you’re cutting for a show and need to reduce body fat while preserving muscle and increasing muscle fullness, dryness, hardness, and separation.

How Effective Are Steroids?

Many steroid users would like you to believe that their superhuman bodies are more a result of hard work than drugs, but this just isn’t true.

Yes, it takes a lot of hard work to build a top-tier physique but it also takes a lot of drugs.

The reason for this is quite simple: you can only build so much muscle and get so lean naturally.

But before we talk about natural limits to muscle growth and fat loss, let’s take a brief look at the facts of how powerful steroids really are.

One study conducted by scientists at Maastricht University found that, during a period of ten weeks or less, the average muscle gains in people doing resistance training while on anabolic steroids ranged between 4 to 11 pounds. The most impressive amount of muscle growth researchers found was nearly 16 pounds of lean mass gained in just 6 weeks of weightlifting with steroids.

If those numbers don’t boggle your mind, consider this: the most accurate science-based models of natural muscle growth predict that men can gain no more than 20 to 25 pounds in their first year of weightlifting (and women can gain about half that).

Thus, with the right steroid cycle and training and diet regimen, you can do in just 2 to 4 months what would take a year to accomplish naturally.

Another bit of research that lends insight to the power of steroids was a case study conducted with an elite bodybuilder. He worked with scientists for a year, using steroids for all but four weeks of the duration. In that year, he gained about 15 pounds of muscle, which is about three to four times as much as someone natural with his level of training experience and conditioning could gain.

Another refutation of attempts to downplay the effectiveness of steroids is a study conducted by researchers at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

43 men were randomly assigned to one of four groups: placebo with no exercise, testosterone with no exercise, exercise only, and testosterone with exercise. They were given a standardized diet to follow as well but it was self-reported, which isn’t ideal, but also doesn’t really matter given the results of the study.

The exercising subjects squatted and bench pressed three times per week for a total of twelve sets of six reps, with varying amounts of weights lifted in each workout. Muscle size was measured by MRI and strength was determined by actual one-rep maximums.

After ten weeks, here’s what happened:


No, that’s not an error.

The testosterone-only group gained more muscle than the guys weightlifting three times per week.

Some people will try to argue that what we’re really seeing here is increased water retention in the muscles registering as lean mass, but other research conducted by the same group clearly demonstrates that anabolic steroids increase muscle fiber growth.

Another thing to keep in mind is that study involved the use of 600 mg of testosterone per week, which is a moderate dosage by today’s standards. Many people are using multiple times that amount with multiple other drugs, and research shows that the more anabolics you take, the more muscle you gain.
Muscle growth and strength aren’t the only benefits of steroid use–they also help keep you lean.

Research shows that testosterone directly inhibits the creation of fat cells, which helps explain why higher levels of testosterone are associated with lower levels of body fat, and lower levels of T with higher body fat percentages.

And, as I’ve mentioned, that’s just testosterone. Several other steroids also promote a leaner, more muscular physique and, when combined properly, are incredibly powerful in this regard.

The bottom line is steroids are incredibly effective at increasing muscle growth and strength and promoting leanness.

You don’t need steroids to build a great body, but they make it a much easier and faster process.

How Much Muscle Can You Build Naturally?

To better understand how much muscle we can ultimately build drug-free, let’s look at the research done on the correlation between fat-free mass index and natural and chemically enhanced bodybuilding.

First, a couple definitions.

Fat-free mass is everything in your body that doesn’t contain fat, such as muscle, bone, and water.

Fat-free mass index (FFMI) is a measurement of how muscular you are. It’s calculated by dividing your fat-free body mass in kilograms by your height in meters squared.

Now, the research.

A study conducted by scientists at McLean Hospital involved the analysis of 157 male athletes, including elite natural bodybuilders and strongmen. About half of the men had used steroids (with two-thirds of them having used steroids in the past year) and half had never used steroids at any point in their lives.

Here’s what researchers found:


As you can see, the average steroid user had an FFMI of about 25 whereas the average non-user was close to 22. The most muscular steroid-enhanced physique clocked in at about 32 and the best drug-free physique around 25.

Yep, the average steroid user was as muscular as the best of the natural athletes, and the best of the steroid group was about 50% more muscular than the average natty.

Now, let’s put some visuals to various FFMIs. I’ll start with myself.

I’m 6’2, I’ve never used steroids, and my FFMI is about 23. Here’s a recent picture of me at 188 pounds and about 7% body fat:

I know what it’s like to work incredibly hard in the gym with little to show for it. I know what it’s like to jump from diet to diet without ever finding something truly workable and sustainable as a lifestyle. I know what it’s like to think I just don’t have the genetics for the type of body I really wanted. If you’re in that boat, I understand. It’s frustrating and discouraging and it sucks. It doesn’t have to be that way though. One of my biggest fitness “aha” moments was the realization that I can use a handful of relatively simple diet and exercise principles to do whatever I want with my body composition. Every time. Without fail. I can get shredded eating foods I like and maintain this look for months at a time. I can put on muscle while gaining minimal fat. I can even go buck wild for a bit, like over the holidays, and undo the “damage” within a few weeks. This knowledge is incredibly liberating and my mission as an author and educator is to share it with other people like you and so you too can come to the same understandings. And don’t think that I’ve just figured out MY body, and that what I’ve learned somehow won’t work or doesn’t apply to YOURS. Trust me–your body was built with the same blueprint as mine. Your metabolism runs on the same laws of thermodynamics, your muscles respond to training in the same ways, and your body fat percentage changes for the same reasons. Sure, some bodies are able to build muscle and lose fat faster than others, and there are various reasons for this ranging from genetics to hormones, but the underlying mechanisms are the same in everyone. Once you truly understand the physiology of muscle growth and fat loss and use that knowledge to guide your training and diet, you can’t help but reach your goal. It may take a bit longer than you’d like, but you WILL get there. And that’s my goal for you. If you haven’t already, check out my site (link the in the bio) and start perusing through my articles. In just an hour or two of reading on my site, you can learn more about building muscle and losing fat than years of brotips and gymlore.

A photo posted by Mike Matthews (@muscleforlifefitness) on

And here’s a picture of well-known fitness model and competitor Jaco De Bruyn:


Jaco’s 6’1 and competes at about 194 pounds (4 to 5% body fat), putting his FFMI around 25. Jaco says he doesn’t use steroids.

And here’s Phil Heath, the current Mr. Olympia:


Phil is 5’9 and weighs about 250 pounds on stage (4 to 5% body fat), making his FFMI about 35. Phil claim’s he’s natural too.

And, just for comparison’s sake, here’s a shot of the legendary Frank Zane, who has been open about his steroid use:


Frank is 5’9 and competed at about 185 pounds (4 to 5% body fat), pegging his FFMI at about 26 in his prime.

And here’s The Oak, who has also admitted to using steroids throughout his bodybuilding career:


Arnold is 6’2 and weighed about 235 pounds on stage (4 to 5% body fat), which gave him an FFMI of about 30.

So, as you can see, once your FFMI starts approaching 25, every uptick equates to a pretty significant change in terms of your overall physique. And in terms of how much muscle you can build as a natural weightlifter, it’s safe to assume that 25 is going to be your FFMI ceiling.

Another reliable way to determine your muscle growth potential is to use a simple formula devised by Martin Berkhan.

Here’s how it looks:

Height in centimeters – 100 = Upper weight limit in kilograms in contest shape (4-5% body fat)

And here’s how it plays out for a few heights and poundages:






 160 lbs

 170 lbs

 153 lbs


 171 lbs

 180 lbs

 162 lbs


 182 lbs

 192 lbs

 173 lbs

To calculate numbers for other heights, multiply the inches by 2.54 to get centimeters. Then subtract 100 for your maximum weight in kilograms at 5% body fat. Multiply this number by 2.2 to get pounds.

According to this formula, the biggest I can get naturally would be about 194 pounds at 5% body fat. This would require that I add about 9 pounds of muscle to my frame, which I do believe would be doable over the course of the next 3 to 4 years. (Yes, building muscle after 5+ years of proper weightlifting is that slow.)

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What Are the Side Effects of Steroids?

Steroids may not be as dangerous as some people think, but anyone using them in the belief that they’re safe and harmless if managed properly is whistling past the graveyard.

  • Research shows that some of the side effects of steroid use are reversible and some aren’t. Permanent damage is possible.

For example, reversible changes include testicular atrophy (shrinking), acne, cysts, oily hair and skin, elevated blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol levels, increased aggression, and lowered sperm count.

Irreversible damage includes male-pattern baldness, heart dysfunction, liver disease, and gynecomastia (breast development).

One study found that 30% of steroid users developed a dependence syndrome, and if you speak to enough honest drug users, you’ll hear about the addictive properties.

One of the more common things I hear from steroid users is how much better they feel while on cycle than off. I often talk with a long-term user of several steroids in my gym, and he puts it simply: when he’s on cycle, he feels utterly invincible. He can train hard, he has sky-high energy levels all day, he pursues his goals more aggressively, he needs less sleep, and his confidence is out the roof.

When he’s off cycle, though, he says he feels like a shadow of his “superhero” self. It’s like he’s stuck in second gear.

He’s open about regretting ever starting steroids for this reason alone. He knows the many health risks associated with long-term use but can’t bring himself to quit because it makes him feel too good.

Some people argue that you can mitigate or even eliminate the risks of steroid use by properly managing your drug cycles and health. This is wishful thinking.

Yes, you can greatly reduce the risk of catastrophes by being smart about your drug use and overall health, but you can’t bring this risk to zero. Steroids put a lot of stress on the body and every time you inject or swallow them, there’s a chance something can go very wrong.

How to Tell If Someone is On Steroids

It’s pretty easy to know if someone is on steroids.

If they look better than you…if they’re stronger than you…if they are making better gains…if they have more money…if their girlfriend is hotter… Steroids. 100%.

Well, that’s how the average gym bro thinks at least.

The real way to know is the more they claim natty or talk about their #dedication, the more drugs they’re on.

…I’m only half joking there. Heh.

Before we get into how to spot steroid use, let’s talk about why we should even care. Because as a general rule, I don’t think we should.

People have the right to do whatever they want with their bodies. Using steroids isn’t “cheating” if someone just wants to look a certain way or competes in a league (any sport) where everyone is on drugs (regardless of its “official” stance on drug use) or if his job requires that he be in extremely good shape, such as fitness modelings or acting.

Where I object to drug use, however, is when people use steroids to achieve a physique that isn’t attainable naturally and then claim natural to sell others on their advice, products, and services.

This is a huge disservice because everything changes when you’re on drugs. You can train a lot more frequently and intensely. You don’t have to be as strict on your diet. You don’t have to be as concerned with recovery.

And when chemically enhanced “athletes” claim natty and advise others to do what they do, these people never get anywhere near the same results. Many then assume they just don’t have the genetics to have a great physique and either give up or relegate themselves to mediocrity.

There are fake natural trainers and coaches out there that understand this difference and know how to modify routines and diets for natural weightlifters, but they’re few and far between.

So, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about spotting steroid use.

Their FFMI is too high.

As you know, this is a very reliable indicator of drug use.

  • If someone’s FFMI is between 25 and 27, it’s almost guaranteed that steroids are involved.

I feel like there are probably a few people out there with freak genetics and a couple decades of training under their belts that could do this naturally, but I’ve never met one yet.

  • If someone’s FFMI is over 27, they’re on drugs.

It just can’t be done without it. No way no how.

They have a massive upper chest, shoulders, and traps.

This is a reliable sign of drug use because these areas of the body have a lot of androgen receptors, which are special types of proteins in cells that respond to certain anabolic hormones in the blood.

Here’s a good example of this look, which I pulled from a steroid forum where guys openly talk about their cycles:


His shoulders are almost as big as his head, his upper chest is incredibly full, and his traps are several inches thick. This just isn’t attainable naturally.

They’re ultra-shredded, dry, and full, with amazing muscle separation.

You can get very lean and dry naturally, but you can’t achieve that look of being carved out of marble with full, striated, “3D” muscles that “pop” off your bones.

For example, here’s a shot of me at about 183 pounds and 6% body fat:


This is more or less the best I can possibly look without drugs. And while I think I did a good job getting lean and preserving muscle, compare it to the following picture of a well-known bodybuilder and fitness model:


…I guess I just don’t have as much #dedication.

They stay extremely lean, full, and dry year round.

This is a corollary to the previous point.

With proper training and dieting, you can naturally look impressive for a photo shoot but you just can’t maintain that look for long. Trust me–I’ve tried.

The problems are many: you can’t eat enough food to feel good, your training goes to shit, your sleep suffers, your sex drive plummets, and your energy levels bottom out. The human body just wasn’t mean to stay that lean.

The right drugs change all this completely. You can stay absolutely shredded while eating quite a bit of food every day and training extremely hard and your body won’t have issues with recovery or hormone levels (because you’re artificially inflating them).

If you have good genetics, maintaining 7 to 9% body fat year round is possible (I do it), but it requires that you carefully watch what you eat and how much exercise you do.

They have bad acne and male-pattern baldness.

Some people are genetically prone to breakouts and baldness, but steroids can aggravate these problems.

If someone is huge, shredded, dry, and full, with acne all over their backs and deeply receding hairline, they’re on drugs.

Are There Natural Alternatives to Steroids?

Forget what the supplement companies tell you–there are NO natural substances that even come close to steroids in any way, shape, or form.

“Test boosters” are worthless and HGH boosters belong in the trash can with them.

The only supplement that will directly help you build muscle and strength is creatine. It’s not nearly as effective as steroids, but it does work.

The Bottom Line on Steroids and Bodybuilding

I hope this article has given you a well-rounded understanding of steroids and has also shown you what to realistically expect in your own physique.

If you’ve been chasing the dream of naturally achieving a physique that is only possible with drugs, or following the poor advice of a fake natty, you now know better. Adjust your expectations and unfollow the asshole.

If, however, you want to do well as a competitive bodybuilder or physique athlete, you’re going to need steroids. End of story.

And while I personally have no interest in competing or drugging, if that’s your passion, I understand. Nobody should judge you for that.

What’s your take on the effects of steroids? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!


+ Scientific References