the joy of strength training


August 20th, 2009 at 1:03 am

Your thoughts: performance enhancing drugs

Yes I know it’s another hoary old chestnut but there’s a reason why: it’s a fascinating, annoying, intriguing, frustrating, astonishing, awkward and curious topic.

The issue of performance enhancing drugs has popped up again because of the World Athletics Championships (which I have been glued to all week since I am off work), but it is never far from the world of sports, especially strength sports.

Bigger Stronger Faster

If you haven’t seen the movie Bigger Stronger Faster yet watch it here or view the trailer here.

It is a very intelligently made documentary by Chris Bell about the use of anabolic steroids. Bell comes across largely as a seeker after truth, not someone pushing a particular agenda. His own family’s involvement with steroids makes it all the more engaging.

What I found interesting about the documentary is not so much effects on the individuals who take performance-enhancing drugs (although these stories are compelling) but the effect on society as a whole – particularly American society. In fact the subtitle of the film is The side effects of being American.

It is thought-provoking to see just how many people and organisations have an interest in the existence of heroes and super humans. How much we desire records to be broken and amazing feats to be undertaken. How much money there is to be made, glory to be attained, dreams to be realised…

Human cost

…and broken. Because the other aspect the documentary clearly shows is the effect on ordinary people who often become the victims. It’s not just winners who take drugs – it is other people who want to emulate them.

T-Muscle published an interview with an anonymous ‘drug coach’ from the bodybuilding/physique world which sets this out pretty starkly.

“It used to be guys wanted to know what they could do in the gym or in the kitchen to be better on stage. Now it seems the goal is to see how much gear they can shove in the pin.”

I was pretty shocked at the world that was described in this article. I’m aware of training strategies and eating strategies and I know more or less what these look like. But I suppose in my naivety I assumed drug use to be a case of just popping a few pills every day…

Powerlifting is another sport with which it seems drugs will be forever associated. I don’t know how it got to this stage. I belong to a federation that has to explicitly say in the title that it is drug free, just so everyone understands this up front!

The future?

If everyone’s on drugs, isn’t it a level playing field again? What about genetic manipulation? If it isn’t happening already, presumably very soon someone will find a way of altering genetic structure to improve performance. As one scientist says in Bigger Stronger Faster, “what we call talent is simply genetic variation”.

What do you think? Is it inevitable that every record breaker is on drugs? Can we ever get rid of drugs in sport? Or should we redraw the line and say use of drugs is inevitable? How about the ordinary people down the gym who are using drugs to help them attain their dream?

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  • 1

    The problem we have is people do say that drugs are inevitable, why dont we regulate their use etc. It is this attitude the encourages drugs cheats and those desperate to achieve greatness, to continue to use and find different ways to beat the testing process. The public knows that after a ban is served, the cheat is free to carry on competing against the honest athlete which is unfair. Cheats should be banned for life! If I get made redundant, I have to find another job, if an athlete loses his/her livelihood as a result of cheating, they should find another job…no sympathy with them! A short ban is no deterrent. I trained for years in karate, represented my country…I would have been gutted if someone had had my place as a result of cheating! As for genetic manipulation….it’s scary…is winning really that important???

    Rob on August 20th, 2009
  • 2

    the truly amazing thing to me goes beyond competition.

    I belong to just an ordinary gym (bit corporate gym). Nobody is competing for anything. Yet I know that anabolic steroids are rampant. Another gym- a few miles from here but in the more affluent Marin county- probably 50% of the clients are injecting hgh to burn fat and chase the fountain of youth.

    So it’s not just competition. it’s some ideal about life that I find astonishing.

    deb on August 20th, 2009
  • 3

    Hmmm …

    I think steroid use reflects broader social realities … a fixation with winners, beautiful people, famous people, wealthy people, ‘perfect’ people.

    It’s not enough to be the best you can be … You must be the best. This means ‘cheating’, whether it be at sport, business, appearance (ie plastic surgery) etc., has become much more socially acceptable (if not desirable).

    I personally think it’s pointless attempting to ‘police’ steroid use. It’s a symptom of a much larger problem. Dealing with a symptom, without taking into account the cause, is futile.

    For an individual, I think that training hard and living healthy is the best way to combat steroid use. Let everybody see that a healthy and vibrant fitness lifestyle is far superior than an unhealthy, drug-enhanced one.


    KIra on August 20th, 2009
  • 4

    Performance enhancing drugs is cheating, it also ruins a healthy environment in all ways (competition, training, idols, goals, family/life, work etc.) so I always thought offenders should be banned from organized sports and gyms for life.

    Not taking action on drug abuse is the same as accepting it in my humble opinion. Looking at the underlying cause is of course useful, but with todays western consument society it is very hard to influence any changes. People want “easy and fast” and industries are all happy to reinforce and deliver this. It dont matter to them if people are killed or maimed for life by cancer or other problems as long as the product sells and they avoid beeing caught.

    Reading Debs example on people injecting hgh to burn fat is highly descriptive of our society. We dont bother to seek knowlegde and do the hard work, we just want an easy solution. Bodybuilders know how to get their fat percentage really, really, low, but average Joe and Jane are not willing to read up and do the work such a diet demands. So much easier to buy the “wonder stuff” in a syringe and get the results you want. The irony here is that what most people want is based on media images which are false, misleading and outright dangerous. It is pretty well known that Hollywood stars are put through intense training and diet programs sustained by drugs to get their bodies. Most people will not have the opportunity to do that and this can never look like the Hollywood people.
    Our idols and goals are not worthy, but I dont think enough people care deeply enough to do anything about it. Todays consumerism sucks in my opinion and “performance enhancing drugs” is a derivate of just this.

    Rolfe on August 20th, 2009
  • 5

    From a sporting perspective steroids have absolutuely no place and anyone caught using should be banned sine die. Sport is a beautiful pursuit that is essentially pure until corrupted by humans and their devious ways. There is nothing more stimulating than two athletes going at it after months of nothing but hard training. Throwing steroids into the mix just leaves a sour taste in your mouth and nullifies any validity in the result

    It becomes a grey area when people take steroids for purely cosmetical reasons. If someone wants to use them in order to look good then who am I to judge? I know people who will think nothing of ramming cocaine up their noses at the weekend yet will take the moral high ground over someone taking steroids. Some folk will spend a couple of hours every week under a sunbed frying themselves yet baulk at the mere mention of steroids. As Rolfe has previously mentioned, it’s just another method utilised in this ‘quick fix’ society that we live in.

    Lee Hazard on August 20th, 2009
  • 6

    Let me state something first before you fall all over me: I would never use drugs in training.

    Unfortunately, when I was younger and competing in several sports, I saw and experienced lots of drug use and (much more) drug abuse. National trainers injecting 14-year olds daily with god knows what the hype at the time was against who cares what the human cost (one down, 10 contenders waiting to be taken in, so who cares). Trainers would use whatever was new without real knowledge about the effects or side effects as there was no serious scientific research done on the effects of uncounted types, dosages and combinations of drugs. There are only a few serious lists and books abou the effects and use of steroids and other drugs used in sports that have any kind of solid scientific research behind them. People take and are given drugs without control because there is no knowledge or real scientific experience about what works or not.

    I give you this to think over; if certain (for god’s sake not all!) performance enhancing drugs were legalised in sports (and as far as I know from experience, a lot of serious athletes would and do use them, sorry to bust your bubble guys), would legalisation increase knowledge and “proper” use through real research and thus decrease health problems and hazards for all athletes?

    Lieke on August 20th, 2009
  • 7

    Could we get rid of drugs in Sports?


    I recall hearing that it would cost, on average, around $65,000 a year for a team to test EVERY, SINGLE PLAYER for EVERY, SINGLE GAME in the regular baseball season. Even for the poorest team in the league, this is chump change.

    Another approach that I believe Don Caitlin advocated was to do a yearly blood test on an athlete’s blood, checking the hormone levels. Then, keep these on record for the duration of the athlete’s career. This way, the league could keep ahead of new drugs that they can’t recognize because the alteration to the athlete’s hormones would be readily apparent, especially if they barely change over a period of, say, 5 years.

    Now, the question is: do they WANT to find out?

    Justin_P on August 20th, 2009
  • 8


    I dont think the question you raise is worth discussing. I dont see a need for any drugs or performance enhancing drugs in sports, and that takes care of the athletes safety.

    From wikipedia:
    “Sports commonly refer to activities where the physical capabilities of the competitor are the sole or primary determinant of the outcome ”

    Now why allow any drugs at all when all this do is levelling the playing field + opens a can of worms when discussing which drugs to allow. Science is a good helper, but science takes time. Nobody can guarantee that any substance is really safe. For instance recent research on grains and human digestion indicating that grains and flour is something we dont digest very well leading to illness. This have taken us no less than 10.000. years to find out, and we are still not certain. What about drugs then? No, drugs are not and will not be safe. The only alternative is to ban its use and expell the users for life. That is a very powerful deterrent.

    PS: I dont personally dislike anybody who have used drugs to manipulate their performance, but I dont want them to be active in or affiliated with sports.

    Justin_P: You mention baseball as an example. What about american wrestling, like the WWF shows. Do you think “they” want to find out what is going on there? I dont think so and you make a good point.
    As a norwegian I often wonder at norways dominance in winter skiing events. When it is too good to be true, it often is. Even if the latter sports are very small, I dont see how we can beat the swedes and finns all the time when they train and do the same things we do.

    Rolfe on August 20th, 2009
  • 9

    As posted on another forum the best drugs testing program I have come accross is in cycling (rcenently since all the issues they had in the sport a few years ago). They have introduced a testing/biological passport process which basically pairs a comepletely random drug testing timetable with the publication of the results and is recorded for the career of the athlete. This has a big imact on sponsorship (the real paychecks of elite athletes) where a sponsor would be aware of any issues over the past x amount of years.

    I think this is an intelligent way forward.

    PS – In case it’s not clear, I am on the side of zero tolerance (I don’t even use caffiene).

    FKPimp on August 20th, 2009
  • 10

    I HAD to start watching that movie at midnight last night… thanks Gube…

    Alcohol and tobacco are legal at a certain age, I think growth hormones should be as well. Just because something is legal and available doesn’t mean everyone is going to use it. There will be abuse, just like with alcohol and tobacco, but there is absolutely no way to keep stupid people from doing stupid things. It would be more effective if stupidity and poor judgement were regulated.

    If steroids were legalized, there is a possibility that I might try them. Just like I occasionally try alcohol and tobacco. I KNOW what the side effects of those are, and I don’t care for them, so I very infrequently use them, and only very lightly. At 37 years old, there is no motivating reason for me to be a regular user of steroids, except maybe to help reach my strength goals. But I have fixed goals, I want to reach them and maintain that level, not to be the strongest powerlifter or best martial artist or whatever.

    Athletes are already using drugs, and there will be no stopping that. Thinking otherwise is a pipe dream. So if there is no stopping it, and it isn’t any more dangerous than the multitude of vitamins and supplements people needlessly ingest, what is the point of worrying over it? There will be a brief spike in usage before people start realizing there is no point in regular people using them.

    bRobert on August 20th, 2009
  • 11

    bRobert – Can’t say I agree with any of that at all – let’s regulate stupidity and poor judgement – what? like drink driving, murder, robbery, rape etc etc – where do you stop?

    what are the point of goals if you are going to cheat to attain them? Unless you set your goals with the fact that you would use drugs to attain the then you are only cheating yourself.

    Cheating athletes are the only ones using drugs and I would expect that 99.9% of the next olympics will be drug free so accepting thet there is no such thing as an absolute then not really a pipe dream.

    Finally, one of the major issues is that it is more dangerous than most of the popel using it realise/understand.

    apart from that you’re right…

    FKPimp on August 20th, 2009
  • 12

    Firstly, i don’t use steroids and don’t advocate them.

    I have a thought on this much in line with Lieke.

    Everyone has a right to do what they want right? so for us mere morsals that aren’t competitive atheletes the decision is down to the individual, period. If they want to take roids for whatever reason be it lift more weight, lose body fat, battle against disease I.e AIDS as in BSF then who are we to cut them down? We don’t take them for whatever reason scared, not knowing enough about them, point blank detest the thought and don’t want to cheat yourself. Roid users don’t attack us for not using them!

    Next is the elite sportsperson. Professional, gets paid to compete and we see them on t.v. At the moment people that do take them are seen to be in the minority (although) this might be different after seeing BSF). Drug use is banned and so anyone caught using should be banned. For life? not sure on that one. Everyone deserves a second chance etc. If it continues to increase and more people are taking drugs with or without good knowledge then it will spiral out of control with more deaths and health issues being apparent. From watching BSF it seems to me that there isn’t that many side effects from roids (that aren’t reversable anyway) but the main issue is that people who are taking them are out performing those that aren’t. So, if this is going to continue (as it will because you will always have those competitors that will do whatever it takes to win) then maybe a structured and managed drug system would be the answer. I don’t actually think we should do that BUT it is a very valied option if you can never rid sport of roid abuse.

    Andy C on August 20th, 2009
  • 13

    thinking that 99.9% of the next olympics will be drug free is blind to the fact. They will just stop using giving them enough time for the trace to be out of their system in time for the competition.

    I had a south african friend who dad was involved in the south african rugby team. Advertising and marketing rather that coaching but he said that not one international rugby player isn’t on roids. You cannot compete at that level and intensity for that long with out.

    Andy C on August 20th, 2009
  • 14

    I have been involved and an observer to several olympic careers both through family and friends. My own sister peaked with a silver medal at the worlds in female wrestling “back then”. To claim that there is widespread use of steroids in developed countries is against all my experience. Certain countries have “anti doping agencies” that are more lax than others, but I know that cheating the agencies are harder and harder. To say that international rugby players are all on steroids off season is a big claim. That means the national doping agency dont do their job, which dont justify any use of performance enhancing drugs.

    It is a funny moral perception of sports when we want to allow cheating becouse somebody else cheats.

    Rolfe on August 20th, 2009
  • 15

    Rolfe’s perception of how sports should be is very valid. And laudable. No question. I do believe that the right training with the right person will produce the results of Rolfe’s sister (wow, by the way).

    But sorry to say, sports and athletics are not moral any more: they’ve become big business. Furthermore, apart from the glory, in many countries where status and/or financial/career succes later in life (after the sports career has ended) are dependent on sport’s succes, you will use if you want to give yourself a future (shining example: Greek Ekaterina Thanou, whom I personally saw growing into the female Hulk during 4 months of training in 2003). It’s supposedly the easy option that will give you extra performance and succes without training yourself by the right methods only.

    If we could break open this notion by amassing real scientific research results and SCIENTIFIC proof through monitoring of athletes and part legalisation of performance enhancing drugs, it could be worth it.

    btw, very interesting topic and comments everyone! Gubernatrix, you really got us on a roll!


    Lieke on August 20th, 2009
  • 16

    not saying we should allow it as a matter of course but you will never rid sports of drugs. as long as there is competition there will be drugs and people using them. Some people think they are smarter than the system.

    Congratulations to your sister BTW rolfe. a great feet!

    Andy C on August 20th, 2009
  • 17

    Yes Lieke, it’s been an interesting discussion so far and hasn’t turned out quite how I expected….I love it!

    gubernatrix on August 20th, 2009
  • 18

    Do we all respect the achievements of Mr Olympia? Of course, even if you are not a bodybuilding fan you can respect the athlete. The dedication required is a testament to the athletes ability to sustain hardship, lack of social life, neglect of loved ones, the planning of the smallest details of programming & nutrition, supplementation and rest. All these are foundations that elite athletic ability are built from. Drug use does not give the athlete those abilities, you must have that drive in the first place, and the genetics and skill/ability to achieve in your chosen sport/arena, no amount of drug use will replace that.

    Also don’t just blame the player! The pressure from sponsors etc and most importantly the pressure from the public, if you paid £3000 pounds to go and see the Olympics in Beijing you want to see World records, you want to see freakish athletic ability the human body pushed to its limits not a 12 sec 100m or a 100kg C&J you want to see awesome not normal. The same with Bodybuilding, you wouldn’t want to pay £250 to go to the Mr Olympia final to see twenty 150-200 pound guys in their pants!!! You want to see 300 pound plus freaks in their pants and that is the nature of the armchair sports fan, they want freaks not normal, we can go to any athletics track for that.

    Steroids DO NOT make the champion it is still the individuals drive and talent that achieves the win………….. If steroids were the wonder drug that many naive people think they are then we would all be Olympic/World champions/Mr Olympia.

    I have been around people all my training life who take steroids, from track & field – Bodybuilding – Olympic lifting – Rugby and cosmetic and the list could go on. Does that make them cheats? In my eyes NO, it is the nature of the world we live in and whether you want to believe it or not the majority of athletes of what ever discipline are taking something at the highest levels if they are winning or achieving good results, if they are not then they are not competitive and will never win or get close.

    All things being equal, and that there were no such things as steroids, the same people would still be champions because of all of their other abilities and drive and determination.

    It just shows how screwed this world is when we think its normal now to chop ourselves up for appearance, perform gastric bypass on kids, smoke, drink, dish out anti-depressants because the dog died. Its OK to have a beta blocker if I am nervous prior to a job interview, but if I want to improve my athletic ability…ooooh that’s cheating.

    Steroids a part and parcel of sports face it, the testing procedures are a joke, tip offs etc. There is far too much money involved in high & elite level sports for them to EVER stamp out drug use and that is fact!

    Mark on August 21st, 2009
  • 19

    Well, some like to make excuses while other just say plain no to cheating. I say cheating becouse by definition steroids and use of other illegal “performance enhancing drugs” by definition is cheating. If it hurts or provoces some of the people here, I am sorry, but the message on all levels of sports is very clear and use of these substances.

    I disagree strongly that the same people would be winners even if they did not use drugs. There is no substance to that claim. At the top level of the large sports it is all about the right training in the right amounts, motivation, diet and some genetics. Those who use illegal performance enhancing drugs try to do a shortcut outside that route to achieve their goals. It is symptomatic for our society but still the wrong thing to do on all levels. I dont doubt that those who use these substances work hard on their training, but if they were winners they would not need to use these substances to win or reach their goals.

    The right thing for anybody who witness use of illegal performance enhancing drugs is to inform WADA through your national anti-doping organization.

    Rolfe on August 23rd, 2009
  • 20

    This is a good discussion!

    There’s quite a spectrum of what I’d consider “drug use” and I don’t think it’s quite as black and white as it might appear to be. I’m not going to take a stand one way or another but suggest the “drug use” line may be a little bit trickier to define than it might seem. And getting to a level playing field may be more difficult than it would appear as well.

    On one end of the spectrum we’ve got Bob who is injecting 1 gram of test a week, IGF, HGH, insulin, and probably many other things along with an optimized diet. One the other end of the spectrum we’ve got Steve who knows nothing about food, diet, rest, and nutrition and is working out hard—someone who gets maybe 30 grams of protein a day and eats poorly.

    Somewhere in the middle of the “drug use” spectrum are the following:

    Users of caffeine (coffee, tea, red bull, etc.) Caffeine is a drug. Do you grab a cup before hitting the gym? Hmmm…yet I think IOC bans caffeine in all forms, yes?

    Users of protein supplements. Is it “natural” to ingest highly concentrated protein food products, whey fractions, etc.? These are manufactured products–they’re not by true definition “natural”. But, I’ll bet every “natural” athlete worth their salt uses them. No bans on this, right, yet it’s not natural in the purest sense.

    Users of post workout hydrolyzed protein/glucose/glucose polymer drinks. This causes an insulin spike, pushes aminos into muscle, helps recovery. It’s the poor man’s way to use insulin. Is this natural?

    Herbal supplements….natural, yes, can they improve performance? Possibly…some seem to increase the amount of free testosterone. Herbs are food–or are they?

    Programmed dieting. Food really is in a sense a drug delivery system….Diet optimization is a way to manage fatigue and induce max recovery. Is maximizing knowledge in this area to advantage fair? Natural?

    High altitude training. This increases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen (something drugs can provide as well at even higher levels). But this IS a form of manipulation…is it natural?

    Ammonia salts in powerlifting…natural?

    Bench shirts and squat suits…natural?

    In some ways I think we’re just debating where to draw the line. I doubt many of us think of that cup of coffee or energy drink is “cheating” yet the IOC would see it that way. Where do you draw the line? The extremes are easy pickings I think—the points along the spectrum are much more difficult to draw a conclusion about…at least for me.

    Other things to consider:

    Natural testosterone (the grand daddy of all steroids and one that men and women produce naturally) levels vary significantly in individuals (the “normal range” can vary by a magnitude of 3-4). Those with higher natural levels have greater recovery capacity, strength, muscle mass, recovery, etc.

    Let’s say there are no drugs—then does the guy or gal with the highest level has an “unfair advantage” over another athlete of the same exact talent and skill (or so it might seem from one perspective). Is it fair that some guy is, compared to another guy, juicing like crazy out of his own system?

    Should we insist that all athletes take “leveling drugs” to ensure the same levels of testosterone, GH, and other endogenous (natural body created) compounds? That would level the playing field and put more emphasis on “talent, skill, and determination”.

    Genetics play a role as well. Not everyone who takes steroids becomes “the hulk”. Genetic affinity and receptors vary–many top athletes have reportedly taken very small steroid dosages with extreme effects. By the same extension they’re going to get a bigger bang for the buck on what they produce naturally as well. Why? Because some folks have more receptors for these compounds and a small amount yields big results. If you’ve got the genes, and high natural levels, that’s an advantage without adding drugs over those with lesser amounts.

    Leveling the playing field by reducing the influence of drugs seems to be the goal for many posters. But where do you stop in trying to level the playing field?

    But even without drugs the field may not be as level as we’d like to think. It misses part of the picture to think that in a perfect world without performance enhancing drugs talent, skill, dedication, and training are the only factors determining performance. Drugs, whether natural or injected/taken play a significant role in sports performance and always will as will variations in genetics.

    How far do we want to go to “level the playing field”? Clearly, the extreme is easy to single out and take to task. But if we examine what appears to be the goal–the level playing field untainted by any kind of drugs–the issue becomes a bit more complex.

    Ron on August 26th, 2009
  • 21

    You introduce some interesting thoughts, Ron (nice to hear from you again, by the way!). The testosterone issue is particularly apposite given the current controversy surrounding Caster Semenya’s (apparently) unusually high testosterone levels and the accusation, not that she is taking drugs, but that she might not be ‘female’ from a medical perspective. (see

    And a quote from Mark Rippetoe based on the fact that men have 10 times more testosterone than women: “Testosterone produces a more robust strength-enhancing response, and that is why testosterone and its analogues are often used by athletes to enhance training. Gentlemen, I suppose this means that we are cheating.”

    gubernatrix on August 26th, 2009
  • 22

    I agree fully with Ron that it is all about where we draw the line.

    IOCs guidelines and rules are in line with WADA. WADA decides what is appropriate or not and they removed caffeine from the 2009 list (but caffeine is still on the monitored list). It seems pretty simple to me.

    To me the WADA guidelines and rules are what defines the playing field in the practical sense. In the moral sense we all know pretty well when we are eating snake oil. If we choose to eat in a way that will increase hormone levels, we know that we better not take that approach too far or we will bust the limitations set by WADA. I have read the work by Rob Faigin, but I choose to take the simple approach and accept that WADA is defining the playing field.
    Eating plans are neccesary to perform at the top level but need to be adapted to the athlete. I have no issue with eating plans to stay healthy and to recover as well as possible. Still need to watch the hormone levels though.
    I also set the limit on popping pills to vitamins. If an athlete have a cold or a headache, she better know what is on the WADA list at the moment. Anything outside that and they are taking calculated risks. Needles are way out of scope, as is pills to help you recover faster etc. Athletes er well educated on the science of eating and what to eat so they know well what they are doing. Long term damage from “innocent” or “harmless natural supplements” have been documented in lots of cases.

    I think WADAs approach of monitoring athletes levels of hormones and “whatsit” is a strong strategy. If something in the body chemistry of the athlete spikes, they are on top of it. I shudder when thinking about the privacy implications..

    Rolfe on August 26th, 2009
  • 23

    I use Whey protein a lot before and after my bodybuilding routines. Whey helps a lot in building muscles.;”

    Amelia Gray on May 11th, 2010


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