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Why you don't need steroids to gain bigger muscles

The abuse of steroids in the fitness industry is a growing problem. Doctors and fitness experts talk about why they can be tempting and why they must be avoided

Do big muscles mean steroids?
Do big muscles mean steroids? (Istockphoto)

Anyone who has ever stepped into a gym and has had their head turned by the rippling muscles on some men and women, must have heard someone whisper, “that’s steroids, not natural.” The commonly used steroids in the healthcare industry are corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory medicines. The ones that we associate with unfair advantage in body building or sports are anabolic steroids, that increase muscle mass and athletic performance by mimicking the effects of the male hormone testosterone. 

Anabolic steroids are unanimously banned across all sports and are strictly prescription-only medicines that doctors turn to as last resort drugs in healthcare. One of the most dangerous and common side-effects of anabolic steroids use is addiction, and this makes them extremely dangerous, say health and fitness experts.   

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So why do some people at gyms often tempted to use these substances? Ashutosh Nimse, who is an associate consultant for sports medicine at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, says this is because they can enhance muscle growth and reduce body fat. “Many people interested in building muscle quickly turn to anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), which are synthetic forms of the male sex hormone testosterone. These substances are used to boost muscle mass and strength beyond what is naturally achievable. Steroids can offer several potential benefits, including increased muscle size due to enhanced protein synthesis, reduced body fat, greater muscle strength and power, faster recovery from workouts and injuries, improved bone density, better endurance, and increased red blood cell production,” he explains. 

While steroids are not an acute problem in India just yet, anecdotal evidence points to increasing use as people become more eager to achieve the ideal body under the influence of social media and influencer marketing. It is a huge problem in a country like the US, which has an estimated three million steroid users, and among young adults who attend gyms and health clubs, approximately 15% to 30% have used them at least once in their lives, says Nimse. 

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Many people turn to steroids to improve their physical performance and achieve the body they desire. Dr. Sonal Anand, psychiatrist at Wockhardt Hospital in suburban Mumbai warns that merely focusing on body symmetry and size can be overwhelming and taxing on the brain leading to stress; that can lead to unnecessary use of steroids, which could even cause physical damage because of overuse. It’s important to remember that steroids come with potential side effects that should be carefully considered. 

In the world of competitive sports, such as bodybuilding, powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, some athletes have been known to abuse anabolic steroids to gain an edge. These drugs can lead to significant strength gains, ranging from 5% to 20%, and weight increases of 4.5 to 11 pounds, primarily from the growth of lean body mass, says Nimse. “Steroid use in combination with strength training stimulates muscle growth by both increasing the size of existing muscle fibres and generating new ones. Activation of satellite cells plays a crucial role in this process, and steroids can enhance this activation, contributing to muscle growth,” he adds.

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Steroids can be harmful due to their short-term and long-term effects on the body. Short-term effects, often reversible upon discontinuation of use, can include high blood cholesterol levels, severe acne, hair thinning or baldness, high blood pressure, fluid retention, liver disorders, and the risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV from sharing infected needles, says Nimse. “In males, these effects can also include a decrease in sperm production, breast and prostate enlargement, sterility, loss of sexual drive, and testicular tissue wasting. For females, short-term effects may manifest as menstrual irregularities, infertility, and permanent changes like facial hair, a deeper voice, an enlarged clitoris, and decreased breast size,” he adds.

Steroid abuse can also have significant psychological effects. Steroids can interact with certain receptors in the brain, leading to increased anxiety. They can also cause depression, nervousness, irritability, mood swings, and even episodes of hostility and aggression, sometimes referred to as “roid rage”. Additionally, steroids influence cellular functioning and gene expression through androgen receptors. They can rapidly increase calcium levels in various body tissues, including skeletal muscles, the heart, and the brain.

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The thing is, building muscle, reaching your fitness goals and excelling in sports is very much possible without steroids. “To achieve this, it’s important to combine a well-balanced exercise and nutrition plan. First, focus on increasing your calorie intake gradually. If you are currently consuming 1,500 calories per day, consider increasing it to 1,600 or 1,700 calories with a focus on nutritious, high-calorie, low-fat foods like lean meats, protein, beans, fish, and healthy carbohydrates,” suggests Nimse. 

Incorporating a proper post-workout nutrition regimen—like consuming a meal or snack within 30 minutes after finishing your workout—helps nourish your muscles as they recover and grow. As for exercise, aim for 6-10 reps and at least three exercises for each muscle group. Avoid lifting extremely heavy weights to prevent injury. After about a month, change your routine to challenge your muscles in different ways. Don't forget to prioritise leg exercises, as strong legs are essential for overall muscle development. Additionally, include cardiovascular exercises in your routine for heart health and to maintain a lean physique. And, never take steroids.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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