Bodybuilding: It's Not All About Drugs
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All drugs”— two of the most disrespectful words a dedicated gym warrior can hear. It happens every day, at gyms in all neighborhoods. The bodybuilder walks through the club, arms busting through his shirt, lats flaring, traps to his ears, legs like tree trunks, trains twice a day, never misses a meal, and always forces the extra rep. He’s the envy of most, with the exception of a few cynics who prefer to diminish his hard work by whispering those two dismissive, recycled words … “All drugs.”
Bodybuilding, as a lifestyle, is among those rare journeys that lack a defined destination. It’s an arduous process, both grueling and gratifying. It’s the ultimate act of redundancy, a toilsome, relentless labor of love. Building an Olympia-caliber physique requires years of sacrifice, the blessings of genetics, and a work ethic unrelatable to most. To minimize it as “all drugs” is both insulting and ignorant. Unfortunately, drugs do play a role in the bodybuilding culture, so the skeptics will continue to cast their shadow.
But a world-class physique requires sustained physical and mental fortitude unrivaled by any sport, a reality misunderstood by anyone who tries to diminish the achievement of a bodybuilder— and a viewpoint shared by MD Senior Editor Peter McGough, who has covered many of the greatest bodybuilding champions of all time. “Some people said six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates won all those Olympia titles because he had a secret drug that no one else had. Rubbish!” McGough continues, “Hard work, supreme tenacity, the right genetics and a warrior mentality, not something found in a needle or bottle, made Yates the champion he is.”
When pressed to discuss those who point the “all drugs” finger at Ronnie Coleman, McGough responds, “Ronnie won eight Mr. Olympia contests because he had the best body in the world, not because he had the best drugs. That’s an inescapable fact. To assert otherwise contradicts reality and common sense. If drugs really do make the bodybuilder, then only drug gurus would win Mr. Olympia contests.”
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Some find it easier to dismiss the notion that hard work is the primary catalyst for extreme muscle gain. Do performance drugs aid in a bodybuilder’s recovery? Of course they do. Can drugs allow a bodybuilder to get more out of a workout? Absolutely! But regardless of the drug, the bodybuilder still has to enter a squat rack, rest a steel bar across the back of his neck and shoulders, and suffer through the burn of lowering and raising a massive amount of weight for as many reps as he can endure. He still has to march across the gym, doing lunges, carrying 50-pound dumbbells in each hand while the lactic acid buildup forces him to his knees. He still has to spend most days eating flavorless grilled chicken, fish, dried bake potatoes, and broccoli … while his neighbors enjoy burgers, French fries and cheesecake.
Former Arnold Classic champ and Mr. Olympia runner-up Shawn Ray cautions anyone who dares to minimize what it takes to be an elite bodybuilder: “I dare anyone to walk a day in the shoes of an IFBB Olympian. You’ll quickly realize the sport is much more physical and mental than it is CHEMICAL!”
But Seriously, Is Bodybuilding Really “All Drugs”?
In search of answers and perspective, we reached out to a few leading experts in nutrition, science and bodybuilding. Here’s what they had to say when asked if there’s any truth to the notion that bodybuilding is “all drugs.”
Victor Prisk, M.D. – Board Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon, IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
With all the media hype surrounding performance-enhancing drugs, bodybuilders clearly take the brunt of the criticism. One look at a Mr. Olympia and most people wonder, “What’s going on there?” However, if a lifter approaches me in the gym and asks, “Do you have to do ‘roids to be a bodybuilder?” I roll my eyes. This question often comes from the guy who doesn’t fully understand what the bodybuilding lifestyle truly demands. I typically respond by asking, “What did you have for breakfast today?” When they say a bagel and a Yoplait, I set them straight. Without the right fuel, meaning high-quality protein, fats, carbohydrates and supplements or even the right training stimulus, steroids would be useless. Even worse, there are bodybuilders who believe that steroids need to be the center of their universe. These are the misguided souls who end up destroying their livers and their physiques. They try all sorts of dangerous combinations of orals, injectables, peptides, anti-estrogens and bathtub soups. They end up with abscesses, lumpy muscles, disfiguring acne, bald heads, small balls, diabetes and heart disease. In the bodybuilder who has maximized their potential with scientific training methods and nutritional supplementation, only then should they consider a physician-monitored trial of hormone replacement.
Doug Kalman, Ph.D., Dietitian
To achieve a high level of muscularity plus ultra-low levels of body fat takes dedication beyond the normal. We are fortunate to live in a time when training equipment is phenomenal, and good-tasting, smart nutritionals are available to optimize training. If wanting to discuss if certain drugs can create an elite athlete, the answer for some is yes. For others, the drugs make no difference, as they didn’t have the right genetics or training ethics to get there anyway. For others, yes, drugs do make a difference that is undeniable, even to them. But, it would be unfair to say that the success of a top bodybuilder is only as a result of potential drug use.
Shawn Ray – Hall of Fame Bodybuilder
As with any extreme sport, the average observer never takes the time to actually calculate the amount of hours, weeks, months and years that goes into the final product. The criticism is fair because most people can’t quantify the amount of sacrifice and commitment to dieting, training, rest and recovery that goes into the bodybuilding lifestyle, not to mention genetics. Some bodybuilders are simply unworldly to the general public, almost barbaric in appearance, but for the most part we professionals, whom I consider artists, take these descriptions as compliments because it validates how far apart we have set ourselves from the general public. Simply put, if everyone could take a drug and wind up on a Mr. Olympia stage, we’d have a lot more athletes participating. Unfortunately, that’s not reality. However, there is truth to the fact that certain drugs work when used properly, but their shelf life is short as it relates to appearance, which in the end is the sum of our sport and its champions.
Ron Harris – MD Senior Writer, National Level Bodybuilder
Because steroids do play a significant role in the physiques of the best bodybuilders today, it’s all too easy to leap to the conclusion that drugs are entirely responsible for this freakish look. And, it’s all too convenient a belief for those delusional types who aspire to join their ranks despite lacking the genetic gifts that separate elite bodybuilders from the herds of wannabes. Here is the truth, based on the many thousands of bodybuilders I have known over the last quarter century. First, the right genetics have to be in place in terms of bone structure, muscle bellies, and the unique ability to add extreme amounts of muscle while staying lean. Then, you add drugs on top of that, and you start seeing something exceptional. But since all the top athletes have great genetics and access to the same drugs, it’s the ones who work harder in the gym and are more dedicated to their rest and nutrition who rise to the top of the heap.
Now, take someone with average human genetics, and load them up on the same drug regimen. Those who train harder and are more diligent about eating and resting will look better than the others who don’t, but nobody with average genetics is ever going to step foot on the Mr. Olympia stage, unless it’s to mop up the floor when the contest is over. Drugs don’t make the physiques you see in the pages of MD. If they did, there would be far more of them around because plenty of guys these days are taking exactly what the pros are— and in some cases far more. But higher doses of drugs can’t compensate for a lack of genetic blessings, and neither can they make up for laziness in the gym and at the dinner table. Many either can’t comprehend that drugs are not the magical transformation potion they thought it to be, or refuse to accept that inconvenient reality because it crushes their dreams of being a top pro bodybuilder.
Peter McGough – MD Senior Editor
Bodybuilding has long been the mainstream whipping boy for accusations of “It’s all drugs.” But the main qualities a champion bodybuilder brings to the table are superior genetics for responding to any form of muscle-building stimulus, plus a super drive to take advantage of those genetics. That being said, if a champion has those genetics and drive he will respond better than a mere mortal to a traditional drug cycle, which in turn leads lesser bodybuilders, who have tried a traditional cycle and don’t make spectacular gains, to believe, A) The champion bodybuilder has a “secret drug” and/or B) The champion is using an insane amount of drugs. Given that skeptical scenario, the truth is the “drugs are everything” stance is a view peddled by quite a few in the sport. Some gym drug dealers perpetuate the myth that the type of development we see at the Olympia level is all due to drugs. They act out of their own “step into my Aladdin’s Cave” self-interest, of course. The late Dan Duchaine, the first and most famous of the so-called steroid gurus, once told me that he had tried every steroid combo he could think of, and he still never got to be more than 180 pounds.
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