Let's get one thing straight: Anabolic steroids do work. That statement must be qualified, however. Steroids add muscle only under certain conditions; for example, research shows that they work
best when the body is in a catabolic state. This can be caused by any of the following factors: starvation, lack of calories, trauma, extensive burns, using drugs such as corticosteroids or
The key to steroid effectiveness in bodybuilding is that last factor: intensity. If you aren't training hard, you'll get little or no benefit from using steroids. If you take large doses, you may get bigger, but if you aren't training hard, the so-called growth is probably just water retention. This explains the ephemeral "size" in-creases seen in some bodybuilders. You know the type-one month these guys look huge; a month later they look like they've lost 40 pounds of muscle.
If you take the time to check the medical literature on steroid use by athletes, you will find a plethora of inconsistent evidence. Some studies say these drugs don't work at all; others report increases in both strength and muscular size.
How do we account for the equivocal results of these studies? Most of the research indicating that steroids don't work was performed using subjects who had never trained before - people who knew nothing about what constitutes training intensity. They had never approached a catabolic state, so the steroids did nothing for them. On the other hand, when researchers looked at experienced trainees who trained intensely, these subjects invariably showed positive results in terms of added muscle.
The variety of studies and results initially caused confusion among medical professionals. Physicians, who had little or no experience with anabolic steroids, advised athletes that steroids don't work. "It's all water retention," they replied when asked about the obvious results seen in some steroid users.
Until recently the consensus of doctors maintained this position about the negligible effects of steroids. Due to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, however, organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine have now revised their official positions on steroids to more accurately reflect the updated findings.
Today the steroid debate continues between two opposing camps. One group says that steroids are dangerous and will cause anything from heart disease to cancer. The opposition holds that the dangers of steroids are overstated. These proponents maintain that the drugs produce few side effects when used for short periods and that any side effects that do occur are quickly reversed when the athlete stops using the drugs. These days no one argues that steroids "don't work," and anyone who does is classified in the same category as people who still insist that the earth is flat.
Hidden among the pro and con rhetoric, however, is one irrefutable fact: Steroids don't work forever. All drugs, including steroids, eventually become less effective. The body always tries to return to a normal state, which is known as homeostasis. When a drug ceases to exert any pharmacological effect, this usually means that the body has developed a tolerance for it.
In the case of steroids, cellular receptors that ferry the drug into the cell nucleus-where it exerts its effects - close up. Doctors call this "receptor down regulation," and it serves two purposes: It prevents overload of the cellular machinery by the drug, and it helps the body return to homeostasis.
Down regulation can be overcome to some extent. You can either switch to another drug (in this case, another anabolic steroid), or you can increase the dosage. Many bodybuilders use the latter technique, and this often leads to side effects. There's an ancient Latin maxim that applies here: Sola dosis facit venenum (Only the dose determines a poison).
Anabolic steroids, like any other drugs, come with possible side effects. The greater the dosage, the greater the side effects. There is no free ride. Or is there?
Most people who use steroids are seeking muscle mass. Is it conceivable that comparable gains can be obtained without drugs? Drug-oriented athletes might consider heresy the very idea that gains can be made without steroids, but evidence exists that such gains are indeed possible. Proper diet is the key.
One man who believes that drug-free muscle mass gains are possible is Keith B. Wheeler, a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry. Wheeler, who has studied extensively the nutritional requirements of athletes, including strength athletes such as bodybuilders, pointed out that even steroids fail to produce results if you don't take in sufficient calories. Specifically, it takes 2,500 additional calories to add one pound of muscle to the body, according to Wheeler. This, of course, assumes that you're also exercising intensely.
Wheeler believes that even with all the hoopla about the importance of complex carbohydrates in the diet, most athletes still aren't eating enough carbs to support muscular growth. He pointed to the well-known "protein-sparing action" of carbohydrates, which means that if you consume sufficient carbs, most of the protein you eat is used for its primary function, tissue building (as in increased muscle protein synthesis).
Several studies have shown the importance of a high-carbohydrate diet in stimulating muscle mass gains. One study divided athletes into three groups. The first group was a control group that ate self-selected foods in any desired quantities but took no supplements other than a multivitamin/mineral. A second group ate the same basic foods as group one but added 12 ounces per day of a high-carbohydrate supplement drink. This drink supplied 540 calories a day, which comes out to 3,780 per week- or enough calories to add about a pound of weight per week. The third group consisted of steroid users, who ate a similar diet to the other two groups.
The goal of all three groups was to add one pound of muscle per week. All participants lifted weights at least three times a week. The athletes in group three supplied their own steroids, and in all but one case the steroid of choice was Dianabol. The other subject used testosterone cypionate.
An analysis of the diets found that the steroid users took in only 1,926 calories a day. The group using the carbohydrate drink consumed more than twice as many carbs as the steroid group (377 grams vs. 182 grams). The steroid users ate a higher percentage of fat as compared to the carb-supplemented group.
The results of this study showed significant weight gains in both the steroid group and the carb-supplement group over the control group. The steroid users showed a greater increase in bodyfat levels, however, which was attributed to their greater fat diet. The steroid and carb groups achieved similar gains in strength, in both cases greater than any gains made by the control group. After 15 weeks the steroid and carb-supplement groups had made comparable gains in both strength and muscle mass.
Another study found that a diet in which 65 percent of daily calories came from carbohydrates produced greater lean body mass gains than did a 40 percent carb diet over a nine-week period.
According to dietician Ann C. Grandjean, M.S., Ed.D., the ideal carbohydrate intake is between five and 10 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight.
Increased insulin secretion accounts for much of the gains in lean body mass that result from a high-carbohydrate diet. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that functions to control blood sugar levels and promote amino acid uptake, which helps increase cellular protein synthesis. The latter effect explains the anabolic results seen with high-carb diets. As mentioned above, the protein sparing action of carbs adds to the mass-building effect.
But what about protein? Will eating a high-protein diet help add muscle mass?
Wheeler said that the ideal body-building diet should consist of 65 percent complex carbohydrates, 20 to 25 percent fat and 12 to 15 percent protein and that "if you aren't eating enough calories, you won't synthesize muscle regardless of how much protein you consume."
The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, according to the National Research Council, but this standard is set for the average sedentary person. How much protein athletes need is an active debate among researchers.
As with steroids, the evidence for-or against-a higher protein intake for athletes is both confusing and contradictory. For example, one study showed that nitrogen balance (a measure of effective protein intake) was positive in bodybuilders who ate either 1.1 or 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. The odd aspect of this study was that bodybuilders supposedly required no more protein than the sedentary control subjects.
Even so, a 41-week study of two men who used a strength-training program found that maximum gains occurred on a protein intake of two grams per kilogram of bodyweight. One theory is that you need more protein when you begin training and that later this need tapers off to a lower requirement.
Here again the protein intake correlates with carbohydrate consumption. Nitrogen retention increases by 2.9 milligrams per kilogram per calorie when there is a 25 percent addition of carbohydrate to the diet. In addition, such added carb intake decreases protein breakdown (catabolism) in the body.
As you increase your protein intake, your body's absorption rate gradually lowers because there is little or no capacity to store excess protein. But can high-protein intake be dangerous in the long run, as is the case with steroids?
One problem with high-protein intake is possible dehydration. Protein metabolism produces waste products such as urea that must be disposed of by the body (in this case the kidneys). To do so requires an approximate 5-to-1 ratio between grams of protein and water intake-that is, five grams of water for each gram of protein. Therefore, if you consume either protein powders or amino acid supplements, it's important to drink lots of water. Never restrict fluid intake on a high-protein diet.
A high-protein diet also stimulates calcium excretion. According to Gail Butterfield, Ph.D., director of nutrition studies at Palo Alto Veterans Ad-ministration Medical Center in California, the amount of calcium in the urine increases by 50 to 75 milligrams when protein intake increases from 0.8 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day.
Protein, particularly the sulfur-containing amino acids, such as cysteine and methionine, causes calcium excretion by creating an acidic blood condition. The body uses calcium to buffer the high blood acidity, after which the calcium is lost in the urine. This is of special concern to women, who are usually already on borderline calcium-deficient diets. Loss of calcium may predispose women to the bone-wasting disease, osteoporosis, which starts taking effect at around age 30.
The late Nathan Pritikin often warned people about the dangers of consuming a long-term high-protein diet. He attributed the gradual loss of kidney function in older people to years of eating high-protein foods. As noted earlier, the nitrogen waste pro-ducts of protein do stress kidney function.
Researcher Peter Lemon, Ph.D., a professor in the Applied Physiology Laboratory at Kent State University in Ohio, doesn't agree that a high-protein intake damages kidneys. "These problems are not well documented in healthy people," he said. Lemon pointed out that bodybuilders consume high-protein diets for years with few ill effects. He also cited a study in which rats were fed an 80 percent long-term high-protein diet with minimal side effects. Compare this to the average 12 percent protein intake of most Americans and the 25 to 30 percent intake of competitive bodybuilders.
The early studies examining protein requirements were flawed because of inattention to overall caloric need. More recent studies show that athletes who have inadequate calorie intakes do require increased protein, not because they need more protein, but because they need more energy.
And the extra protein supplies that energy. Most nutrition experts suggest a protein intake of between 1.5 and 2.0 grams per kilogram of body-weight for hard-training athletes.
Another way of looking at protein requirements is by studying the com-position of muscle tissue. Muscle consists of about 72 percent water, 15 to 22 percent protein and 5 to 7 percent other materials, such as inorganic salt, lipids, glycogen, enzymes and minerals. To add one pound of muscle in two weeks requires an additional 35 to 50 grams of protein, or about five to eight grams per day.
There may be differences in the required protein intake for either male or female bodybuilders. One study found that women who exercised 1.5 hours at 65 percent of their maximum oxygen capacity had no change in urea excretion. A group of men exercising under similar conditions increased urea excretion by 30 percent. Researcher Mark A. Tarnopolsky, M.D., concluded that "the increased urea was indicative of protein catabolism. The women did not appear to need more protein, whereas the men did."
The consensus among scientists is that hard-training athletes do indeed require additional protein. The continuing question is, exactly how much?
Taking into account the theory that protein needs taper down as an athlete continues to train, an intake consisting of 15 percent of your daily calories is probably sufficient to support lean mass gains in bodybuilding. This is particularly true if you obtain at least 65 percent of your calories in the form of complex carbohydrate, which, as noted, stimulates protein sparing and anabolic insulin secretion and thus leads to increased muscle protein synthesis.
Nutritional support as outlined in this article will lead to maximal strength and lean mass gains of a more permanent nature than anything you can accomplish on anabolic steroids-with none of the risks associated with steroid use.