Steroids vs. Natural Training

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I recently received a great question on the differences between programming for the natural and the enhanced lifter. From reading or watching the Powerlifting Programming Series, I think a lot of people got the idea that I was saying that I personally believe training more frequently is better for naturals whereas training less frequently is better for enhanced lifters. Actually, I don’t consider this to be case; it is just what tends to happen in reality when we’re talking about powerlifting.

I think all athletes need to maximize volume in order to maximize their personal levels of adaptation.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes here, I’d like to personally recommend William Llewelyn’s Anabolics as the best resource for learning about steroids. The book contains over 800 medical references and is backed by actual science. Don’t leave yourself open to getting terrible advice from “the big guy” at the gym; get the scientific facts.

If you’d rather watch than read:

Volume for Powerlifting

The best analogy for training volume that I’ve ever seen is that of sun tanning. What happens to a pale, pasty white person who tries to go into a tanning bed for thirty minutes on their first session? They burn. They burn badly. You might think of this as “overtraining” for a lifter.

However, what if someone has been tanning for weeks using fifteen minute sessions? Would you expect their progress to continue indefinitely at those levels? Of course you wouldn’t. Eventually, such a person would need to start using twenty minute sessions to see further progress.

Now let me ask you another question. Who would you expect to be tanner: the person who works up to being able to handle thirty minute sessions or the person who just keeps using fifteen minute sessions? Again, the answer is obvious. The person who acquires the ability to withstand more overall tanning time is going to be darker.

Jacked AND tan, brah!

Jacked AND tan, brah!

The Effect of Drugs on Volume

Now, here is where drugs really to start to confound the issue. As all bodybuilders know, there is a drug called Melanotan II that improves some people’s response to tanning by 300-400%. In simple terms, they will get three to four times as tan given the same amount of exposure time. The additional darkness will also quickly allow them to tolerate longer sessions.

This is Melanotan 2. Consult google for some fun before/afters of people using this stuff.

This is Melanotan 2. Consult google for some fun before/afters of people using this stuff.

Let’s put this into a lifting context. The first and most important impact of drugs is not that they allow you to “do more”, it is that they make the training you already do far more effective. In other words, even if volume is held as a constant, you’ll respond better to training when you’re enhanced. It isn’t merely that drugs improve recovery; drugs improve the response to training. Keep that in mind.

However, drugs ALSO improve recovery and allow for more overall volume to be done as well. For whatever reason, in powerlifting, most people don’t take advantage of this effect. Why? This is very hard to say, but the primary reason is probably due to the fact that many genetically gifted powerlifters simply do not need to keep pushing the volume up to continue to see gains.

Drugs Imitate Great Genetics

Think of the novice who is doing linear progression. Genetics, among a myriad of other factors, are going to determine when that type of programming stops working. For most people, this takes 3-9 months. Now, think of the intermediate phase where you’re making gains once a week or once a month. For most people, this lasts two to three years if not longer. It isn’t until you’ve been training for at least three years or so that you really need to move on to truly advanced programs.

Well, with great genetics, a great response to drugs, and dosages that increase over time, these stages of advancement last even longer. And why wouldn’t they? Drugs, in some respects, give you the same effect as having super human genetics compared to the natural trainee. So, in these cases, very basic programs can work for a decade. By that time, many of these lifters are elite by powerlifting standards.

However, if we look at other strength sports, I think it is pretty clear this isn’t optimal.

Drugs in Weightlifting and Strongman

The best pound for pound squatters on the planet are enhanced Olympic weightlifters. If you want to argue this fact, you’re out of your mind. Sure, the top powerlifters can hold their own, but there are many Olympic weightlifters who squat near, at, or above the powerlifting world records using high bar technique, ass-to-grass depth, and they don’t even use a belt or wraps most of the time.

Igor Lukanin, former Oly lifter, broke the world record squat by hitting 639lbs at 181lbs in his first powerlifting meet.

Igor Lukanin, former Oly lifter, broke the world record squat by hitting 639lbs at 181lbs in his first powerlifting meet.

The best deadlifters on the planet are actually professional strongman. You could argue this has to do with sheer size, but you’d also have to admit that a huge portion of it is how often and how hard they train their lower backs. These mammoths often do a deadlift workout each week in addition to event training which also hammers the lower back. The typical enhanced powerlifter trains the deadlift every other week.

Benedikt Magnusson, strongman, holds the all-time world record deadlift at 1015.

Benedikt Magnusson, strongman, holds the all-time world record deadlift at 1015.

In my opinion, the difference is that in Olympic weightlifting and strongman there are actual financial rewards if you are a champion. Particularly in weightlifting, in some countries, going to the Olympics is the only realistic way out of poverty. As such, many of these athletes do insane squatting programs where they are literally squatting 10-13 times a week and maxing out nearly every session.

Drugs in Powerlifting

It all comes back to the tanning analogy for me. Who is going to be darker: the guy who spends fifteen minutes a week tanning or the guy who spends thirty minutes a week tanning? Assuming all else is equal, the athlete who puts in more work will better. Drugs, in the end, do allow you to do more work and you should take advantage of that fact. Most don’t.

Everyone has a different tolerance for volume. I’m not suggesting you immediately jump into a high volume routine. What I am suggesting is, just like a tan, over time, you have to continually expose yourself for longer and longer times in order to keep making gains. Your natural limit will eventually be defined by what you can realistically recover from. Drugs push that line a lot further down the road.

With that said, I don’t think there is any real difference in how natural and enhanced lifters should train. If you’re autoregulating the volume and intensity for both groups, the issue takes care of itself. Over time, after years of training, you’d notice that the enhanced lifters would, on average, being doing much more volume. That said, there will still be some individuals who do significantly less volume because that is simply what works best for the body.

Regardless, in a majority of cases, the best athletes will be the ones who best tolerate the largest amount of volume. Whether you’re natural or enhanced, your goal should be, eventually, to work up to the highest level of volume you can personally handle. Just like with a tan that is the only way to keep getting darker.

In the end, in my opinion, the only real difference is that enhanced lifters will be able to push themselves much farther than they otherwise would while making better progress in the process. However, the process remains the same for both groups: gradually add volume over time until you simply can’t anymore.

If you’d like to learn more about performance enhancing drugs, again, I won’t hesitate to recommend Llewelyn’s Anabolics which contains more than 800 medical references on the subject. Don’t get broscienced; inform yourself with actual science.

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