A physique capable of winning at the highest level in professional bodybuilding requires extreme training and genetic goodness. Increasingly, say the people familiar with the culture and its consequences, it cannot be done without illicit drugs and a willingness to push a body to — or past — its limits.
More than a dozen scientists, trainers, judges and competitors interviewed for this report said that just earning a pro card, an amateur’s ticket to the pro ranks, is very difficult without anabolic steroids. Is it possible to win a marquee title without using drugs? The question was laughed at by several people.
“Impossible,” said Harrison Pope, one of the country’s leading anabolic-steroid researchers.
The behemoths that win the most well-known and lucrative titles don’t look like the famous, classicly muscled champions from the past. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the sport’s premiere title, Mr. Olympia, seven times between 1970 and 1980.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger would not win today,” said Brad Schoenfeld, a professor at Lehman College in New York and author of several books on bodybuilding and muscle growth. “He would not even get a pro card.”
LEFT: Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Pumping Iron” filming, amid his string of Mr. Olympia wins in the 1970s. Contact Press Images/George Butler RIGHT: Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay competing in 2020. He was crowned Mr. Olympia in the past two seasons. (Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire/AP)
Although bodybuilders spend years lifting weights and honing each muscle, they don’t need to demonstrate strength for the judges beyond the ability to hold poses onstage.
They need only look strong.
Some competitors — and a growing legion of young, mostly male admirers — chase that look by diving into a reckless pharmacological game of whack-a-mole that insiders say has grown more intense and dangerous as sheer size has trumped the “Greek god” ideal of previous generations.
They stack various steroidsAdd in other muscle-building drugs and compounds that burn fat, suppress appetite, or drain water below the skin. They may counteract side effects caused by other medications, vitamins or supplements.
This can lead to bizarre physiques that seem indestructible, but are often very fragile.
Chaos within is the price
Certain drugs used by bodybuilders are known to cause severe illness or even death. Steroids, except in rare cases, are not included. Although large doses of steroids can cause hormonal changes in every major body system, they are not recommended for use.
“Steroids get sort of a break when in fact they are an illicit drug like any other,” Pope said. “And like lots of other drugs, if they’re used in small quantities, their effects are relatively modest, and if they’re used in larger quantities, for longer, their effects become increasingly dangerous.”
Because volunteers cannot be ethically given large doses of illegal drug to scientists in clinical trials, the long-term implications are still being understood.
They can’t, even if there was a standard test.
Bodybuilders make their own combinations of drugs and supplements. This is often done based on recommendations from friends, family, or internet. recommendations from a coach or dealer. Buyers don’t always know what they’re getting, because fake and contaminated products abound in the underground supply chain, several trainers and bodybuilders said.
But those who took large amounts of steroids and other substances found that they were not safe. performance-enhancing drugs in the 1980s and 1990sThe consequences for middle age and beyond are becoming more obvious, especially in the heart and reproductive system.
Training: Hours at the gym
Heavy lifting is the best way to build muscle. Top bodybuilders usually spend about two hours a day in the gym — sometimes more — five or six days a week, not counting hours choreographing and practicing posing routines that will show off their best assets to the judges.
Juan Pla, a New Jersey trainer and former bodybuilder, says they require near-perfect lifting mechanics. Poor technique can cause injuries to the shoulder, neck and lower-back, as well as tennis elbow.
Many steroid users suffer from tendon tears, according to many trainers and muscle experts. As matched sets, tendons and muscle grow together. Steroids can make muscles too large for their tendons.
“That’s when you attempt some diabolically heavy lift and you just rip a bicep tendon or you rip a pectoralis muscle‚” Phillips said. “There’s all kinds of disgusting things that happen.”
A 2015 study of bodybuilders done in Pope’s lab found that upper-body tendon injuries are more common in steroid users than in nonusers, possibly because steroids disproportionately grow muscle in the arms and torso.
Steroid users might inject more growth hormone than their pituitary glands normally release to help strengthen their connective tissue.
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Growth hormone is a growth hormone that strengthens collagen and reduces fat. But it isn’t terribly selective about what it enlarges, and doses that are greater than the body normally produces can cause overgrown bones in the face, hands and feet, an enlarged heart and increased risk of heart failure, irregular heart rhythms, sleep apnea and colon cancer.
High doses can also cause water retention in the midsection and may enlarge other organs, contributing to “roid belly,” in which a competitor has a distended abdomen under six-pack abs, said Schoenfeld, the muscle growth researcher.
Many bodybuilders use Viagra before their workouts to increase blood flow and improve muscle gain. (It probably doesn’t.) Others say it increases the “pump,” when muscle cells swell with fluid during a hard workout and get visibly bigger for a few minutes. This is why bodybuilders do a few biceps curls and lifts right before going on stage.
The diet: ‘A mind game’
Two main phases are used by bodybuilders: cutting and bulking.
Bulking is when they pile on muscle, and they may spend months eating mountains of high-protein food and guzzling protein shakes — up to 12,000 calories a day for some men. (That’s about four times the amount a typical active man would need per day.) Some people use appetite-boosting peptide hormonal to make it easier.
They may inject insulin around mealtime to build muscle and temper growth hormone’s blood sugar-raising effects. Anawalt said insulin’s muscle-building capabilities are “unproven and minimally plausible” at best, and that insulin comes with risks. A drop in blood sugar too large can lead to confusion, seizures, and even death.
All that weight gain is bound to result in some fat. So the next phase of drastic cutting is required.
Bodybuilders will continue training but will cut calories — often drastically — to try to reduce body fat to artificially low levels. Large men may eat food that is barely enough to sustain them.
Cutting is especially miserable for drug-free competitors who don’t have chemical help, said Schoenfeld, who competed in natural contests in the 1990s. “You become very ornery and obsessed with food.”
Brianny Terry, a powerlifter and bodybuilder who placed fourth in her physique class at the NPC nationals this summer, called cutting-phase dieting “terrible” and “a mind game,” but she said she also appreciates the self-discipline it requires. “You learn a lot about your willpower and how deep you can dig to get through to the end goal,” she said. “It’s just a really bad way of promoting self-growth.”
Many bodybuilders use legal stimulants like caffeine, prescription drugs like thyroid hormone, or online purchases, such as the powerful asthma drug. clenbuterol.
“Clen” is approved only for use in horses in the United States, but athletes in various sports consider it to be a “non-steroid steroid” because it is thought to preserve muscle and cut fat with fewer side effects, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. These risks include anxiety and tremors as well as high blood pressure, low potassium, seizures, cardiac arrest, and hypertension.
DNP (dinitrophenol), an explosive and toxic chemical used in munitions once, is a lethal drug for cutting. DNP is prohibited for human consumption due to its ability to accelerate the metabolism so fast that people are dangerously overheating. However, you can purchase it online as a weight loss supplement. A report found that four bodybuilders were killed, one of which was a 17-year old girl. 2011 surveyDNP exposure in Medical Toxicology.
The final few weeks of bodybuilding competition are called show prep. They are trying to improve their physiques, eat more carbohydrates to bulk up their muscles and lose as much body fat as they can.
Others may have so little body fat to be able to walk on stage. deprivation sends their bodies into survival mode. It becomes more difficult to sleep. To conserve energy, metabolism slows. The brain and immune system suffer. The reproductive system comes to a grinding halt.
“The look of leanness that they reach is inhuman,” Pla said, “and completely unsustainable.”
Reasons: Why do they have to go through all this?
It’s rarely the money, as very few are able to support themselves with bodybuilding alone, Davies said.
For some, it’s the competition.
“I love training, and I love powerlifting and bodybuilding,” said Terry, 26. “But I will never sacrifice my femininity or my health for it, because I still have a life to live after this. I want children. I would like to start a family. It is risky behavior, but I’m doing the risky behavior in the most responsible way.”
Others seek a shortcut.
Jamie Pinder (three-time Olympia competitor) is now a Coach. Pinder said that young bodybuilders are enticed by social media to use drugs as a way to get instant gratification. “They are skipping over the foundations of training, the foundations of good nutrition, the foundations of rest and recovery,” she said. “Instead of having the mind-set of ‘I’m using these drugs so I can work harder,’ they’re thinking, ‘What drugs, how many drugs and what can I use so I can do the least amount of work?’”
Some chase success to places they hadn’t planned to go.
“Often people start out not thinking about steroids, and then once they start getting caught up in winning competitions, they realize that that is necessary to win at the pro level,” Schoenfeld said. Brandon Curry, Mr. Olympia in 2019, is a professional bodybuilder. podcast that year that he didn’t need to use drugs “until it became my job.”
Some just like being big.
Schoenfeld claimed that he was told by a bodybuilder that he wanted to be like the Incredible Hulk. “I remember vividly his specific words,” he said. “‘I want to look like a comic book superhero.’”
Israetel (38), started bodybuilding at high school. He found that he was able to build muscle quickly. He claimed that he never used drugs until he was 27, when he stopped using them.
“I kept getting bigger,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Oh, I could look even bigger.’ And then I started reading muscle magazines, and I fell in love with the idea of just becoming a freak.”
He finished second in the super-heavyweight category at the NPC Masters USA Championships last year, which was his best finish ever. However, he just missed winning a professional card. He said that he intends to continue competing for a few years and hopes to attain a certain appearance, after which he will be happy to quit.
“I’m almost to that size,” he said. “These are pictures that I’ll have forever, that I can look back on and say: ‘Wow, I really did the thing. I really looked the part, like the part that I was truly capable of looking — within reason.’”
He estimates that bodybuilding and the drugs he has taken for it will probably take five years off his life — less, he hopes, than those who take far more drugs than he does. And he said it will be worth it — “Barely, but yes.”
“If I wanted to live until I was 90 or 100,” he said, “I would absolutely have never taken steroids, or I sure as hell would’ve quit by now.”
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