C’mon, Rock. C’mon, Thor. C’mon, Wolverine. You’re all using, or have used, steroids to get in shape. Here’s how we can tell.
A lot of us rolled our eyes whenever the Liver King used to insist that his extreme muscularity was the result of his caveman diet and not drugs.
It reminded me of the time when my dad came home and found his expensive Warhol print defaced by crayons, the kitchen flooded because of a Play-Doh clogged drain, and an empty blackberry pie tin floating on the currents.
Much like the Liver King, I claimed innocence to all of it, even though I was sitting in several inches of water wearing a floatie, had a crayon sticking out of each of my ears, and had blackberries smeared all over my face.
Similarly, most of us were/are also hugely skeptical of the superhero physiques in all the Marvel and DC movies. Are we really supposed to believe that Hollywood actors got that way because they can afford suck-up personal trainers and nutrition coaches who feed them protein shakes every few hours?
How about Hugh Jackman? One film he’s Wolverine, and the next his lithe self is prancing around the set in some musical, only to beef up again in an amazingly short time for the next Marvel movie. Either the guy puts on muscle with the ease most of us slip on a pair of boxer shorts, or there’s something steroidal in the air.
And then there’s The Rock, already “outed” by Joe Rogan, bragging about how he, unlike other actors in their superhero roles, didn’t have to wear a padded suit to play Black Adam.
Granted, Mr. Rock, sir, you were probably beefier than those other celluloid superheroes before you started your career(s), but the steroid chain you carry is a ponderous one; you have labored on it mightily!
The question you might be asking at this point is, why should any of us care? Steroid use isn’t really something actors need to hide. It’s just something they did to prepare for a role, like Charlize Theron gaining 30 pounds of fat for her role in “Monster” or Christian Bale losing 60 pounds for “The Machinist.”
And even among regular Joes, steroid use is so prevalent that it shouldn’t be any more scandalous than using Just for Men to cover up some graying temples.
However, Hollywood types inflict some damage when they keep their drug use a secret. It creates unrealistic expectations among the great unwashed. They believe that all it took to look like Thor or Wolverine was a few months of specialized training and some protein shakes.
These expectations are nothing, however, compared to those created by unconfessed steroid-using “fitness influencers,” like the thousands of male and female Instagrammers who have cashed in on their surreptitious steroid use.
They use their chemically altered bodies to beef up their bona fides as trainers. The unspoken message is, “See what my knowledge of training and diet did for me? I can do the same for you.”
The crimes of the Liver King, however, are more egregious than most. He deked a significant portion of his 1.7 million Instagram users into not only buying his supplements, but also eating the testicles of an awful lot of barnyard animals. There’s got to be a special circle of hell for guys who make you eat horse and pig testicles.
In general, following the advice of steroid-assisted “athletes” is like getting chess lessons from a guy who has a strategy-relaying buzzer up his ass at a chess tournament.
Then there’s the issue of steroid use in sports. That’s an entirely different matter. With so much money involved and the difference between an average player and a superstar often coming down to several thousand milligrams of anabolic steroids, it’s easy to understand the allure.
Still, it’d be nice to know who’s a legitimate superstar and who’s riding on the coattails of pharmaceuticals. Their peers and competitors deserve to know, too, as do the people who pay them colossal salaries.
It’s very easy, though, to pre-judge an actor, fitness influencer, athlete, or regular Joe and brand them with a scarlet S for steroid user. There are other possibilities. They might even be legit.
So how do we tell? Let’s look at the different possible categories of suspect buffitude and see if we can come up with some conclusions.
I’ve known a lot of pro bodybuilders, but there’s only one that I’m fairly convinced was natural, at least early on in his competitive career. His name is Jean-Paul Guillaume and he competed in the 90s. He never fared better than 10th place at the Olympia, but that’s pretty damn good for an alleged natty.
He trained at the same gym as I did in San Diego, and he certainly didn’t have any special training secrets, and he didn’t train any harder than a lot of us. Still, he had admirably round muscle bellies, some supernatural hamstrings, and a tiny waist you could imagine slipping your hands around if he was your square-dancing partner. Maybe not so much the dancing, but you get the idea.
I was friends with his girlfriend, too, and she steadfastly backed up his steroid-free assertions. I believed him, as did most of the bodybuilding world. He simply didn’t have any of the telltale signs, which I’ll get to later. Quite simply, he was a genetic freak.
It’s difficult to say how many genetic freaks like Jean Paul there are in the world, but a sane guess would be one in a million. Of course, most of them probably never end up picking up a weight. They just quietly assume their lives, their larger-than-normal muscles concealed by flannel shirts or suitcoats as they tend to their everyday business.
There’s another type of genetic freak too, but it’s far rarer than the type represented by Jean-Paul Guillaume. You’re no doubt familiar with the Belgian Blue cattle, at least by appearance, if not by name.
These cattle have “myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy.” Myostatin is a protein secreted in muscle tissue that negatively regulates muscle growth. The Belgian Blue, however, have a mutation that knocks out the myostatin gene, leading to a phenomenon known as “double-muscling.”
This phenomenon is also seen in the occasional human. In 2005, the New England Journal of Medicine reported the existence of an unidentified child with the same mutation as Belgian Blues, which became apparent the moment he was born:
“He appeared extraordinarily muscular, with protruding muscles in his thighs and upper arms. With the exception of increased tendon reflexes, the physical examination was normal. Hypoglycemia and increased levels of testosterone and insulin-like growth factor I were excluded. Muscular hypertrophy was verified by ultrasonography when the infant was six days of age.”
In 2008, another such boy surfaced. Three-year-old Liam Hoekstra became known as the “World’s Strongest Boy” as he had approximately 40% more muscle mass than other children his age. He was able to do chin-ups at the age of one. By 18 months, he was picking up and moving furniture.
He could climb ropes and wield 5-pound weights as if they were pom-poms. He was faster than a speeding Nerf bullet, more powerful than a Scoot About, able to leap tall bean bag chairs with a single bound. He also had the metabolism of a hummingbird on meth and had almost no body fat.
Today, Liam is a relatively normal-looking young man (at least with his shirt or jersey on) who aspires to play football for the University of Michigan. Who knows what he could have looked like if he’d decided to be a bodybuilder?
It’s impossible to say how many people, let alone fitness influencers or athletes, are walking around with this “defective” gene. It’s remotely possible that some bodybuilders, fitness influencers, or pro athletes who look the way they do, or partly the way they do, because of a defect in their myostatin gene, but it’s likely they would be missing many of the telltale signs of steroid use.
The first time I became aware of steroid use outside of bodybuilding and beefy Russian female shot-putters from the 1960s was when sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive and was stripped of his Olympic gold medal.
Johnson, however, could plausibly have passed as a non-steroid user. He just wasn’t that inflated. He had some nice rounded delts and some impressive quads and hamstrings, but they weren’t all that out of place for sprinters. Most likely, he was, as his coach Charlie Francis attested, using amounts that were almost inconsequentially small, a duck snort of stanozolol.
However, the first time I was able to visually detect that some athletes outside of bodybuilding were using steroids was in 1993, the year the Philadelphia Phillies lost to the Blue Jays in the World Series.
I’d noticed early in the season that a few of the players, most notably outfielder Lenny Dykstra, looked completely different than they had the year before. Having been relatively slight of build the year before, Lenny now had Popeye forearms, a chest struggling to stay confined in his jersey, a huge, bullish, veiny neck, and a reddish face that looked like it was going to explode from the slightest provocation.
Lenny, in my opinion, was sort of like the Rosa Parks of steroid use in baseball, only instead of taking a seat in a bus, he ripped out a whole row of seats and tossed them out the emergency exit onto the freeway.
Soon after, baseball players embraced steroid tech wholeheartedly and monsters began to roam the outfield, but they were easy to detect, as long as you took off the rose-colored glasses that came in your Cracker Jack box. Most people, though, kept the glasses on, not wanting to believe their heroes were chemically enhanced.
We’re less innocent now, but we still, as a society, seem to give a lot of steroid users, particularly Hollywood types and fitness influencers, a pass. We shouldn’t. We need to apply some Sherlock Holmesian logic and some steroid detection science to help us determine exactly who’s a charlatan and who isn’t, so the innocents are protected.
Christian Thibaudeau, in an article on how to detect steroid users, beautifully laid out the findings of exercise physiologist Dr. Casey Butt, who created a formula (the fat-free mass index, or FFMI) that extrapolates the maximum amount of muscular body weight a person can gain.
It looks to be wonderfully accurate. The trouble is, it requires you to know the suspect’s height and weight, along with their wrist and ankle measurements. Terrific. Except how the hell are you going to nab Thor’s wrist and ankle measurements, let alone his exact height and weight?
It’s like another famous telltale sign of steroid users: shrunken testicles (except for the ones using human chorionic gonadotropins to keep them full and functionable). How the hell do you know if the Wolverine or the Rock have small balls?
I suppose you could hope they’re the type who doesn’t wear underwear while bench pressing, in which case you could surreptitiously whip out your iPhone and use the Testicle Size Chart developed by Mona Chalabi. All you need to do is place the suspect’s testicles on the screen. Small like Mediterranean black olives means they’re probably using, while ones the size of Kakadu plums would mean they’re clean.
Too awkward? Okay. Maybe we just need to employ the more common, less intrusive visual cues to tell us if someone’s using or not.
Christian Thibaudeau also described how much muscle a person can realistically gain in a year. His research suggests that 84% of the population is in the “normal” range, meaning they could, under optimal conditions, gain between 0.25 and 0.5 pounds of muscle per week, which adds up to a max of 24 pounds in a year.
That rarely happens, though, as Christian quickly pointed out. That leaves the 13.6% who are above-average gainers and the 2.1% who are freaky gainers. Even among those groups, however, the most muscle gain they might experience in a year’s time is around 30 pounds.
All the preceding stats apply mostly to beginners whose muscles in general are eager to grow and blossom. They don’t apply to experienced lifters. Their gains come much slower.
Christian’s paraphrased bottom line: If someone looks to be gaining more than 3 pounds of muscle per month and they’re not a beginner or regaining lost muscle from a layoff, you can justifiably shout, “J’Accuse!”
There are reportedly more androgen receptors in the neck, traps, and delts, which makes them more responsive to steroids and more eager to grow.
Extreme development of the neck, in particular, is especially suspicious, as few bodybuilders and even fewer fitness influencers expose the neck to any direct work, aside from twisting their heads for a selfie.
You’re no doubt familiar with the rest of the clues, stuff like back acne (“backne”), being preternaturally ripped all the time, having so much vascularity that the whole body looks like an angry pecker, sudden hair loss (in those genetically predisposed), excessive irritability, aka “'roid rage” (although steroids are more likely to make those that were already pissy in general more pissy), and gynecomastia.
Regarding the last item on the list, “gyno” can and does occur in plenty of non-steroid-using males, too. There are even estimates that it affects between 4 and 69% of all adolescents. (The Grand Canyon-like variance is because clinicians have widely divergent views about what constitutes actual gyno). Most of the time, this pubertal gyno resolves itself within 18 months. However, some 20% have residual gyno at the age of 20.
Anyhow, gyno that’s not accompanied by any appreciable muscle mass certainly isn’t indicative of steroid use; it’s just Mother Nature being bitchy.
Looking like a steroid user all comes down to dosage. Probably 90 percent of the people who cop to using don’t even look like bodybuilders. Their body fat percentage isn’t that low, and they aren’t big. They might be using tiny amounts, or, more likely, they give their training and nutrition short shrift, thinking that the drugs alone will bring them to the promised land of adulation from their peers and delectable women with loamy loins.
That brings us to men who are on testosterone replacement therapy, or TRT.
A few years ago, I became an investor in a testosterone replacement (TRT) clinic. I was interested in drumming up business, so I approached a guy I knew from my gym. He was probably in his early 40s, but he had the best body in the gym. Not too big. Maybe like a taller Wolverine and similarly ripped all year long. He never let any of us forget it, either, as he wore tight, white, perpetually sweat-stained tank tops and workout shorts that weren’t much longer than one worn by a circa 1980 Larry Byrd.
I told him about the TRT clinic that was only a few blocks from the gym but man, hit me over the head with an inflated pig bladder, he acted like he’d never heard of testosterone. “I don’t know much about any of the stuff,” he replied, a little too quickly.
You are lyin’ mo-fo, I thought. Clearly, he was on some sort of steroid cycle, or at least using hefty amounts of test. And therein lies the rub. The standard protocol among a shockingly high number of TRT clinics is 200 mg of test cypionate a week, often accompanied by the anti-aromatase, Arimidex, which serves to elevate testosterone levels further.
My point is this: Anyone using 200 mg of test for TRT is on a perpetual, possibly lifelong, steroid cycle. I say this because 200 mg is far more than required for normal physiological TRT. Provided the patient trains moderately hard and pays at least a little attention to nutrition, he can easily attain a physique that’s comparable to a competitive CrossFit athlete.
It’s highly unlikely the individual in this category of buffitude will have any of the undesirable side effects seen in mega-steroid or GH users. They will, however, look just a little too damn good all year round.
It must be stated up front that it’s unlikely anyone’s gotten big and ripped solely because of growth hormone (GH), with the possible exception of Andre the Giant, who had big-time pituitary problems. Instead, GH is merely the Hamburger Helper to steroid’s ground beef. It works synergistically with anabolic steroids to build muscle.
That’s not to say that several studies showed that GH, by itself, failed to increase lean body mass and decrease body fat. It did. But the studies that showed positive results all involved old bastards or GH-deficient patients in general.
Still, its reputation grew and continues to grow among poorly educated athletes. It’s still purported to be a “clean,” elegant drug that’s hardly ever tested for and does all its magic without making your back all oily and pustular, or shrinking your testicles until they were indistinguishable from some Green Giant brand frozen peas.
Clearly, bodybuilders from the “Golden Age” didn’t use GH, but it was probably more a matter of availability and expense more than anything else because, prior to the mid-1980s, GH came from a rather grisly source: scientists would use the equivalent of an orange juicer to grind up the pituitaries of cadavers and then painstakingly extract the GH.
We later found out just how potentially dangerous a practice that was because the cadaver-sourced GH sometimes carried with it the virus (the prion, more accurately) that caused Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, aka subacute spongiform encephalopathy, which ultimately lead to dementia, blindness, coma, and death, none of which would enhance your physique or your chances with the ladies.
Then, in 1985, the genetic engineering company, Genentech, received a patent to market its recombinant GH, which was of course free from any coma-causing prions. Even so, its use in bodybuilding was rare. This is why, for the most part, we didn’t see bodybuilders with the extended guts that were emblematic of the visceral fat that comes hand-in-gland with excess GH.
Witness the preternatural V-taper (57-inch chest, 28-inch waist) of pro bodybuilder Brian Buchanan, who placed 7th in the 1988 Mr. Olympia. He most assuredly never used GH. We shall never see his like again.
So, if you see a bodybuilder or fitness influencer with very low body fat percentage but who still looks like there’s a “terror” of aliens (you know, like gaggle of geese, only with face-hugger aliens) ready to burst out of his stomach or chest, or, even worse, has an abnormally long cranial base, a “tall” face, or hippopotamus-like mandibles, that person has likely augmented their steroid use with a large amount of GH, which no doubt enhanced their musculature and their rippitude.
This brings us to the fringe drugs, things that are less commonly used but might be used to push someone’s physique to the outer membrane of plausibility. One of these is synthol, the injectable “filler” (85% MCT oil, 7.5% lidocaine, and 7.5% alcohol) used to artificially pump-up biceps or calves.
Overuse makes it look like the bodybuilder had a surgeon implant bags of suet in the patient’s appendages.
How do you detect a synthol user? You mean, other than the fact that they look ridiculous and you want to pelt them with ostrich eggs? Well, like fat, synthol don’t flex. I doubt very much any actor superhero-in-training or fitness influencer would use it. It just looks too fake and anyone with an IQ with a fightin’ chance of hitting three digits to fall for it.
The last thing I can think of, or the last relatively mainstream thing I can think of that people use to quickly change their physiques, is the asthma drug clenbuterol, which, aside from treating asthma (in several countries, but not the U.S.), is used to muscle-up pigs. As such, several athletes who tested positive for the drug have blamed tainted meat, or in the case of American distance runner Shelby Houlihan, a tainted burrito. Bodybuilders and fitness influencers covet the drug because it acts as a nutrient partitioner, preferentially using calories to build muscle than to be stored as fat.
I used to work at EAS and the word around the company was that we were sending the drug to actress Demi Moore (hidden in boxes of protein powder) to help her prepare for her role in G.I. Jane.
Despite the drug’s effectiveness, it’s not nearly effective enough, on its own, to dramatically change someone’s physique, at least not to a degree where you might suspect them of cheating.
Let me repeat my original point. In most circumstances, it doesn’t matter if someone is using drugs to change their body. I don’t even begrudge the synthol users their silly vanities. It is, however, dishonest and often corrupt of fitness influencers to use their clandestinely augmented physiques to give them cred.
Similarly, Hollywood should 'fess up to their steroid and chemical practices in general because not doing so allows poor schlubs to think that they too can look like Thor, Wolverine, Black Adam, or many of the other physique icons if they just trained a little harder.
While it’s unlikely that the two previous categories of potential drug users will reveal their practices, it’s a safe bet that drug-using baseball players, football players, etc., will never make their practices public. That’s why many organizations test. Most players, however, will escape detection.
That’s why it’s important for people to recognize the telltale signs of drug use and kick those that lie to them to the curb. But, if you can’t tell if they’re using drugs, go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they might be the rare genetic freak or beneficiary of a flawed myostatin gene. Still, if it looks like a steroidal duck, puts on muscle like a steroidal duck, and is year-round ripped like a steroidal duck, it probably is a steroidal duck.
None of this is to say that people who have used drugs have nothing to impart. In many cases, they do, but in general it’s better to judge coaches and fitness influencers by what they say rather than what they look like and remember that some of the best, smartest coaches in the business probably never touched a steroid and might not look the stereotypical part.