Who’s using steroids? Who’s natural, and who’s not? The answer isn’t always clear, but here are the seven signs you need to know.
It’s normal to wonder about who’s natural and who’s not. For many, it seems to be a way to feel better about themselves. But it’s not all bad. For some, it’s a way to avoid falling into the marketing trap laid by fit-looking Instagram trainers asking for your cash. Regardless, it’s a hot topic.
I’m not here to call out specific online trainers, fitness personalities, or actors. Rather, my goal is to give you the tools to objectively evaluate who may be natty and who’s most likely enhanced.
We’ll go through several clues that can make it fairly easy to spot a fake natty or just someone who’s using steroids (without faking it). However, there are three things to keep in mind:
It’s possible for someone to check many boxes and still be natural. However, most people claiming “freak status” or playing the “genetics card” are NOT freaks or genetically gifted. And if you’re looking for training advice or a program, what a genetic freak is doing is about as relevant to an average person as what a steroid user is doing.
Fitness experts and actors might have families and kids. I’d hate for my son or daughter to read about people accusing me of being a 'roid head. (I’ve talked about my past use elsewhere.) That’s not something I want to do to somebody else. Also, making too big a deal out of someone else’s natural status can be perceived as bitterness or insecurity about your own physique. So simmer down a bit.
Like a detective, you can’t make a case with only one clue. The more clues point to the enhanced conclusion, the more likely you will be right. I’ll show you how to evaluate your “case” at the end of the article.
The first solid cue is a very rapid increase in muscle mass with no increase in fat mass. A normal human has a limit to their rate of muscle growth. And while there are outliers that can exceed this rate, it’s less than 0.1% of the population. Human traits tend to respond to the normal distribution curve (reverse bell curve).
The people on the far right of the curve are the outliers that can build muscle a bit more quickly (2.1% of the population) than normal or at a freaky rate (0.1% of the population). Everybody on the left of that will fall somewhere in the normal range.
That means 84% of the population will fall somewhere in the normal maximum growth rate potential, while 13.6% will be in the high normal or very slightly above it.
What’s the normal maximal growth rate potential? It’s between 0.25 to 0.5 pounds of muscle per week. And that’s under the best possible conditions, which normally means gaining some fat in the process.
Monthly, this means the most muscle the vast majority of the population will be able to build is two pounds. Of course, this refers to pure muscle gain, not body weight.
Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, that comes up to 24 pounds per year. When was the last time you saw someone (who wasn’t a beginner) gain 24 pounds of true muscle in one year? It rarely happens. Oh, some can gain more than that, but that includes some fat gain, water retention, extra glycogen, etc.
Even those slightly above average (the 13.6%) might gain 2.5 to 3 pounds in some months for a possible yearly limit of 30-ish pounds of muscle. If someone suddenly gains 15-20 pounds of muscle (or more) in a few months, it’s a big red flag.
Similarly, I’m suspicious of someone who looks like a high-level fitness model, physique competitor, or bodybuilder after a year of training. Unless they started from an already superb physique, it’d take more than 20-24 pounds of muscle to reach that level. Not to mention, part of the year would have to be spent losing fat… so not being able to build muscle quite as quickly.
As for more experienced lifters, the amount of muscle they can build per week/month is lower than that. We have a limited amount of overall muscle we can carry. The closer we get to that, the slower the gains will come. It’s even more suspicious when an advanced lifter suddenly adds 15-20 pounds in a few months.
Summary: If someone’s gaining more than 3 pounds of muscle per month, and he’s not a beginner or not regaining lost muscle from a layoff, it’s suspicious.
Muscular, enhanced lifters tend to have much bigger traps, neck, and delts relative to their other body parts. One theory is that those muscle groups have more androgen receptors, making them more responsive to steroids.
There’s a lot of truth in that, at least regarding the neck/traps area, which has a greater androgen receptor concentration and expression than the limb muscles (1). I haven’t found research on delts, but they may have more androgenic receptors than other muscles.
It’s also possible that because the delts work in pretty much every upper-body exercise you do (even curls), they receive a lot more growth stimulus than every other muscle. For the natural lifter, that might be too much to recover from optimally, but for the enhanced lifter, it could mean more growth. Regardless of the reason, the overdevelopment of the traps, neck, and delts in relation to the other muscles could indicate steroid use.
For me, the neck is the most obvious “tell sign” because deltoids and traps are often trained hard by lifters while the neck rarely is. If the neck is growing without direct stimulation, it’s a pretty good indication of possible steroid use.
Again, don’t jump to conclusions. Someone could have big traps or delts because these are the areas he focuses on. Take me, for example. I always loved big traps. When I was 16, I did endless sets of shrugs several times a week. Then I moved to Olympic lifting, which heavily involves the traps. Not surprisingly, my traps have always been one of my best muscle groups.
Summary: If someone has huge traps, delts that appear to be blown up like a balloon, and a thick neck, it’s a red flag – especially when someone has a big neck without direct work.
One of the most obvious signs of steroid use is when someone carries an amount of muscle that exceeds what should be achievable naturally. But how much muscle are we talking about?
Dr. Casey Butt, Ph.D., created a predictive formula that extrapolates your maximum muscular body weight based on your height and skeletal structure (wrist and ankle circumference). I find it to be fairly accurate.
However, it doesn’t account for genetic outliers. For example, with his formula, a 5’6" male with an average bone structure has a muscular limit of around 176 pounds in ripped condition (6% body fat). When I was in high school, a friend of mine had those exact measures, and he was super lean. But he didn’t even train! He played football and soccer, but he didn’t lift. This is an extreme case, but these exceptions exist.
A simpler approximation: Your maximal muscular body weight is 40-50 pounds (for men) heavier than your normal adult body weight (with the same level of leanness). Regardless of the tool you use, unnatural levels of muscle mass normally indicate the use of steroids.
I do recommend Googling the formula, but a good starting point for what the muscular limit would be (at a true 10% body fat) is around:
- 5’2" – 167 pounds
- 5’4" – 175 pounds
- 5’6" – 183 pounds
- 5’8" – 204 pounds
- 5’10" – 213 pounds
- 6’ – 222 pounds
- 6’2" – 231 pounds
- 6’4" – 245 pounds
- 6’6" – 257 pounds
Don’t forget, though, that most people grossly underestimate the amount of fat they carry. Most who claim to be 10% are really closer to 13-14%. At a true 10% body fat, someone who trains hard will have full abdominal definition, and all the muscles will be separated.
Summary: If someone is at or above the theoretical limit of muscular body weight, it’s a good indication of possible steroid use unless they’re a rare outlier.
It’s widely believed that steroids make you more aggressive, impatient, and prone to mood swings. So when we see a muscular individual who displays these signs, we automatically assume he’s using steroids. Is there any truth to that?
There is. Several steroids, especially the more androgenic ones, can increase aggressive behavior via several mechanisms:
- An increase in adrenergic activity. This refers to the action of adrenaline. Several steroids increase the sensitivity of the beta-adrenergic receptors, meaning your body will respond more strongly to adrenaline. At the muscle level, this makes you stronger and more explosive and gives you a higher muscle tone. But at the brain level, it makes you more aggressive, competitive, assertive, and fearless. The more androgenic a steroid is, the greater its impact on the beta-adrenergic receptors.
- Long-term use of anabolic steroids can enlarge the amygdala (2), increasing aggression as this region of the brain is active during aggressive behaviors.
- Chronic steroid use can also increase glutamate turnover in the brain. This higher glutamatergic activity can increase aggression by two mechanisms: first, by increasing the intensity of your emotions (including aggressive ones) and leading to important mood swings, and second, by being neurotoxic to the brain.
- Finally, hormonal imbalances that come with steroid use could also contribute to aggression.
But steroids will not turn Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. Plenty of steroid users are gentle, friendly, and agreeable.
Steroids can make you a little less patient, a bit more prone to fits of anger, and more assertive (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). But if you’re someone who’s already disagreeable, steroids can put you over the edge. The effects are likely to be magnified the longer steroid use persists. In the long run, the effect of steroids on glutamate can make you respond more negatively to criticism and you’ll tend to take things more personally.
Summary: Someone who carries a lot of muscle and is prone to aggressive behavior could be using steroids. This clue is especially effective if you can see a significant change in the person’s behavior.
During a workout, your pumped muscles look and feel much bigger and harder. Later, they deflate back to their original size. That’s the hand most natural lifers are dealt. But steroid users seem to look pumped, hard, and vascular all the time. What causes that?
Muscle hardness is a function of the partial activation of the muscles, even at rest. The more ready-for-action you need to be, the harder your muscles will be. This makes it easier to reach maximum contraction if you need to suddenly produce a lot of force or speed.
What increases that muscle tone? Adrenaline. Specifically, adrenaline binds to the beta-adrenergic receptors of the muscle tissue, which increases its degree of activation/readiness.
Steroids increase the sensitivity of the beta-adrenergic receptors. This is one mechanism by which a steroid user could look harder even at rest: the more sensitive receptors require less adrenaline to get activated and increase muscle tone.
That said, anybody with high adrenergic activity will have a more prominent muscle tone. We all know of people who are “wired.” They always move around and fidget, talk fast, and seem to have endless energy. They also seem to look hard all the time. That’s because they’re always amped up, but it doesn’t mean they’re using steroids.
As for the pump, we’re talking about intramuscular pressure, which is due to cell volumization. Basically, you fill the muscles with a lot of stuff. When you’re training, water, blood, and metabolites fill the muscle, causing swelling. But at rest, a muscle looks full if it’s storing more glycogen, water, creatine, and fat.
Steroids can increase glycogen and creatine storage, and some can increase water retention. This includes intramuscular water retention by increasing sodium and potassium levels, which lead to more water retention in various parts of the body.
But this clue isn’t conclusive by itself because a lot of factors can impact muscle fullness and hardness, like diet.
Summary: If a very muscular person looks just as pumped at rest as he does during a workout, he could be using steroids. However, this isn’t a great clue because many things can influence muscle fullness and hardness.
If you’re lean, you’re more likely to have a lot of vascularity, especially in your arms and forearms, maybe legs too. If you have some muscle, it’ll be even more pronounced. But that’s not a good sign of possible steroid use.
However, there’s a difference between having a lot of visible veins in your arms and having a roadmap across your body. Vascularity on the chest, back, and delts – especially if those veins are thick – is a potential sign of steroid use.
See, many steroids increase blood volume. They specifically increase the “solid” part of the blood (red blood cells and blood lipids mostly). Several steroids increase red blood cell production. Anadrol, for example, was first developed for that specific purpose (to treat anemia). Testosterone and equipoise are other steroids well known to boost red blood cell production.
Thicker blood places more stress on the cardiovascular system as well as the kidneys. It is, in large part, responsible for the enlarged heart that comes from steroid use – a huge risk factor for cardiovascular disease. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of bodybuilders regularly give blood.
Several steroids can significantly increase blood lipids. Those based on DHT or that convert to DHT (stanozolol, masteron, primobolan, anavar, testosterone, etc.) have a greater impact. Higher blood lipids will also contribute to making the blood thicker, which increases vascularity and causes those supersized veins.
Finally, high blood pressure can also contribute to an increase in vein thickness. And steroids, especially those which increase beta-adrenergic receptor sensitivity or water retention, can increase blood pressure.
Again, just because someone is vascular, it doesn’t mean he’s using steroids. Being super lean, having a naturally elevated hematocrit (red blood cells) level, or having high blood pressure can also make you more vascular. But unnatural vascularity is a pretty good clue.
Summary: Excessive vascularity, especially in regions that aren’t normally vascular (chest, back, delts) or very thick veins, is a solid sign of steroid use.
Gynocomastia (enlargement of the breast tissue in males) and severe acne (back and chest) are common side effects of steroid use. While not everybody will get them (not even the majority), gyno and/or severe acne compounded with a muscular physique is a pretty good clue of steroid use.
When it comes to acne, other factors can have an impact. For example, football players can develop acne under their shoulder pads. Gyno can happen even in natural individuals if they have high estrogen levels, and it can occur during puberty. By themselves, these are not enough to conclude it’s steroid use. But when added up with other clues, it can strengthen your suspicions.
Hair loss is often seen as a sign of steroid use. It’s true that several steroids can speed up hair loss if you’re genetically prone to it. But high natural testosterone levels also tend to lead to hair loss in men. Maybe I’m biased because I’m balding (all the men in my family are bald), but I don’t see hair loss in men as a strong clue.
Summary: Physical side effects are another good indication of steroid use, especially in a muscular individual.
Finding one or two clues isn’t enough to conclusively say that someone is using steroids. You need to act like a detective and accumulate clues. The more you have, the stronger your case. Some clues are also stronger than others. From the strongest to the weakest:
- Rapid muscle growth
- Excessive muscle mass
- External signs
- Disproportionate traps/neck/delts growth (especially with no direct work)
- CRAZY vascularity everywhere
- Pumped all the time
- Aggressive behavior
If someone is showing one (or both) of the very strong clues, you might only need one other clue to be pretty darn sure that he’s using. But in the absence of one of these first two, you’ll need several clues to be fairly certain of drug use.
Someone could be on steroids and not show any of these clues, especially if the doses used are low. In fact, a lot of the Instagram fitness models that look natural can still be on very low doses of steroids or using SARMs. They use just enough to get to a level of muscularity that will help with their business, but not so much that they look enhanced.
You also have athletes using steroids without even lifting (like cyclists) because they provide recovery and performance benefits outside of muscle growth. A road cyclist could be on testosterone and growth hormone and still be 130 pounds.
The take-home message: You can’t always know, unless you know. But most of the time, if you know the telltale signs, you can know fairly certainly if someone is natural or not.
- Kadi F et al. The expression of androgen receptors in human neck and limb muscles: effects of training and self-administration of androgenic-anabolic steroids. Histochem Cell Biol. 2000 Jan;113(1):25-9. PubMed.
- Kaufman MJ et al. Brain and cognition abnormalities in long-term anabolic-androgenic steroid users. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015;152:47-56. PubMed.