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A Detailed Introduction to Anabolic Steroids – How They Work, Dangers and Cautions

By Adam Sinicki | Bodybuilding | Rating:

If you're at all interested in building muscle and cutting fat, then you may find yourself occasionally tempted by the idea of steroids. While it's possible to gain a lot of lean muscle naturally with the right training regime and diet, results can often be slow coming and they will always pale in comparison to those athletes and celebrities that get a little 'chemical assistance'.

The question then, is whether steroids are worth the risk. In this article we will look at how they work, examine the pros and cons and ultimately provide you with all the information you need to make a decision. The aim here is not to demonize steroids and scare you away and nor is it to encourage their use. This is simply an objective look at the facts – though of course you are urged to think very seriously before proceeding with any regime that could have long-lasting effects on your health.

How Do Steroids Work

The first thing to understand about anabolic steroids is that they are all different. The term 'anabolic steroids' refers to a large category of substances that have similar effects but exert their action in largely different ways.

One of the main mechanisms of action for steroids is to increase free testosterone by binding to the androgen receptors. Dianabol is an example of a steroid that works this way and which thereby increases the amount of free testosterone in the blood, resulting in exaggerated muscle building and fat burning. Trenbolone also has an affinity for the androgen receptor, that is five times higher than that of testosterone. Anavar is a 'safer' steroid that is less potent but which works as a derivative of DHT. DHT is dihydrotestosterone which in turn is a more potent anabolic hormone compared with testosterone. Winstrol is also a DHT derivative.

Meanwhile, something like Anadrol will work quite differently. Anadrol works by crossing into the kidney cells and from there stimulating the production of erythropoietin. This is then released into the blood where it encourages the muscles to absorb more oxygen and more nutrients. In turn, the body is able to get more fuels and materials to the muscles resulting in more rapid muscle growth and greater performance and recovery. Deca Durabolin works in a similar manner to help increase red blood cell count.

'Stacking' Steroids

Competitive bodybuilders will rarely use a 'single' steroid at a time and instead tend to use a combination of different steroids together in order to promote exaggerated results and sometimes to manage the unwanted symptoms.

For instance, as Anadrol works differently from something like Trenbolone or Anavar, it can be 'stacked' together with those. This way, protein synthesis and blood supply is increased alongside testosterone production to produce the best possible results.

Of course the benefits vary somewhat in form and potency depending on the steroids you take and the quantities. And likewise, doses will vary considerably depending on the steroid in question. Deca Durabolin for instance is a very strong steroid that can yield results from doses as small as 100mg per week (though 200mg per week is average). On the other hand, Dianabol is often taken as 50mg tablets daily with upper dosages being 70mg a day and above.

Due to the negative side effects and the strain that they place on the body, users will 'cycle' on and off of steroids. Usually a cycle will last anywhere from 4-6 weeks.

Strength Benefits and Positive Effects

So what is the purpose of taking these substances?

The main goal is of course to increase muscle growth and strength. Steroid users will typically gain much more muscle as compared with natural athletes and they will find that they need less time to recover and are able to work harder in the gym.

At the same time, steroids also increase fat burning, resulting in more lean muscle mass which gives a lean and 'hard' appearance. This combination results in the kinds of exaggerated physiques seen in bodybuilding competitions and on the cover of magazines. Is it possible to achieve that same hard look without steroids? For the most part yes but you will likely have to train very intensively and eat very strictly – and you always could have been bigger by using steroids.

At the same time, steroids also have some other effects that some guys will consider to be positive. For example, men will find that they have more drive and motivation often which is the result of increased testosterone. They might also experience a broadening of the body, alongside increased appetite (useful if you want to maintain a caloric surplus) and better sexual performance/greater libido.

Training With Steroids

Many people believe that simply taking steroids will allow them to develop lean muscle mass – but this is not in fact the case. Steroids should really be thought of as force multipliers that enhance your results – but they still require the initial input to have any effect at all. Steroids are not a 'silver bullet' and if you want impressive results, work is still involved.

What is interesting though, is that the manner in which you approach your training will change when you are using steroids. For starters, you will find that your recovery accelerates after working out and this will mean that you can train harder and more regularly before you see any negative consequences.

At the same time, steroids users will also often increase their protein intake even beyond that of a 'regular' bodybuilder. As protein synthesis has improved, they will be able to make more use of the protein in their diet and they will be able to see greater growth as a result.

Steroid users also tend to train with lighter weights for higher repetition. This leads to more hypertrophy which is the technical term for growth. To make the very most of a steroid cycle then, a user would have to increase their calories, their protein, their repetitions, their training frequency and their rest.

Negative Side Effects

But when considering the use of steroids it is highly important to weight these potential benefits against the significant side effects and risks.

Chief among these is the fact that a lot of steroids can a serious strain on the liver. This is very dangerous and can potentially be fatal if precautions are not taken.

Another serious issue is that of negative feedback. This essentially means that the body 'adapts' to having higher levels of testosterone by producing less natural testosterone. This then means that at the end of a cycle, the testes no longer produce sufficient levels of testosterone on their own resulting in the rapid loss of muscle, weight gain, depression, tiredness and impotence. Many men will end up on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) as a result.

Using steroids also elevates testosterone to extreme heights in many cases. Even steroids like Anadrol that have low affinity for the androgen receptors still increases testosterone through other means as a secondary effect.

To put this in perspective, consider that the healthy male should have about 700ng/dl to 1,000ng/dl of testosterone (nanograms per decileter). That said, various factors ensure that testosterone levels for most of us are lower than this – around 400ng/dl.

Using steroids puts your testosterone to about 2,000ng/dl and this can increase even further. An average competitive bodybuilder will likely have testosterone levels of around 3,500ng/dl and as high as 20,000ng/dl has been recorded!

This is what results in many of the positive effects that bodybuilders are looking for but it can also lead to a lot of negatives. These include acne, hot flushes, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, aggression (roid' rage) and hair loss. While many proponents of steroids will focus on the fact that testosterone can make you feel aggressive in a positive manner, this actually isn't always the case. Actually, a steroid cycle can leave you stressed, depressed and frustrated. Think back to your mood as a teenager and you're probably close to the mark – that was the last time you had high testosterone!

More concerning still for many guys, is that free testosterone can often be metabolized into estrogen. For those that remember their biology, estrogen is the polar opposite to testosterone and is considered by many to be the 'female hormone'. In fact men need estrogen too (just as women need testosterone) but steroid users will often see the side effects of excess estrogen. This then leads to gynecomastia for instance, which is the formation of female breasts – an embarrassing and unpleasant side effect that rather undermines the objectives of most steroid users (which normally involve being more 'manly'!). This can also lead to extra water retention, which makes muscle look puffy and less defined.

Steroids can also place strain on the heart due to hypertrophy. In other words, the heart grows more than it should, presenting a significant risk of problems.

Finally, a factor that is often overlooked when talking about steroids is their addictive nature. Steroids are not chemically addictive but they certainly are psychologically addictive. Once you see yourself start to grow you can easily become hooked on the use of steroids making it difficult to go back.

And consider too that steroids are illegal. That means you'll be buying them from shady sources and you'll have no guarantee of the quality or purity. You'll be hiding the steroids and related contraband around your house and you'll be spending a lot of money – all of which can put a strain on your relationships.

Don't underestimate the risk involved with steroid use, or the change it can bring to your lifestyle. You will in all likelihood lose friends, go through notable mood changes and notice at least some negative side effects whether they be baldness, impotence or liver and heart problems. And despite this, you will likely find it hard to stop using them once you have reached this point.

Oral Steroids Vs Injections

When using steroids, there is often the option to choose between oral and injectable options (depending on the substance). For many users, oral steroids will have a big appeal as they don't require the use of needles which can be painful and potentially dangerous. Popping a tablet seems like much less of a 'big deal' and simple and surreptitious whereas injections require more paraphernalia, involve various health risks (such as the dangers presented by air bubbles and/or infections) and leave behind visible scars that can mark you out as a steroid user.

On the other hand though, oral steroids take more of a toll on the liver and are far more likely to lead to liver problems. What's more, oral steroids are not as effective as their injectable counterparts, leading many users to take larger doses, significantly increasing their risk.

What Is PCT?

PCT is 'Post Cycle Therapy' and is a separate stack that is intended to help steroid users adapt following a steroid cycle. It is highly recommended that any bodybuilder who has used steroids follow this usage with PCT to avoid the symptoms of low testosterone/high estrogen.

PCT can be accomplished using a variety of different substances, including SERMs (selective estrogen receptor modulator) which reduce estrogen, aromatase inhibitors (which prevent testosterone from being converted into estrogen) and hCG (human chorionic gonadotrophin) which stimulates the testes to produce more testosterone.

All of these substances have their own risks and potential side effects however and are in many ways just as complex and involves as the steroid stacks themselves. Blocking estrogen in various ways for instance will almost always result in joint pain.

Should You Use Steroids?

While the aim of this article has been to provide an objective and comprehensive overview, it would be remiss to end it without giving any advice at all. So taking everything into account… should you use steroids?

The answer is of course, no. While professional bodybuilders unfortunately have no choice other than to use steroids if they want to compete, the rest of us do have a choice and the drawbacks far outweigh the positives. Even if steroids were complete safe, the fact that you would likely be ordering them from an unknown online source (or worse, a shady guy at your gym) immediately opens you up to all kinds of dangers.

In all honesty, some of the dangers associated with testosterone do get exaggerated. If you are careful in your use of steroids then the strain on the liver is going to be less severe than it would be for a heavy drinker for instance. Hair loss is only really a risk if you are already predisposed to male pattern baldness and a lot of people will never experience roid rage, acne or gynecomastia either.

But the question to ask yourself is how you would feel if you did develop gynecomastia – or impotence for that matter. When you came off a cycle and found yourself unable to get an erection, and the problem didn't fix itself for months, would you be happy with your decision?

And if you don't get any side effects the first time or second time, what are your chances during your 50th cycle? Or do you genuinely think you can stop after a year and just 'go back to normal'?

The reality is that you can most likely achieve your goals without using any steroids at all. Sure, it's hard to know who's really natural these days, but just take a look at pictures of old-time strongmen. When they were training, there was no such thing as steroids. You can be 100% certain that they're entirely natural!





Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics. He lives in London, England with his girlfriend and in his spare time he enjoys climbing, travelling, playing games, reading comics and eating sandwiches. Circle Adam on Google+! 

View all articles by Adam Sinicki

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