If you want to know the difference in muscle growth between natural and enhanced bodybuilding, then you’ll want to read this article.
We’ll look at how steroids work, how effective they are, how much muscle you can build naturally, and more… all based on the latest scientific research. So let’s dive in!
What are Anabolic Steroids?
Anabolic steroids are man-made substances that have identical effects to testosterone in the body. They speed up recovery between workouts, boost fat loss, and increase strength and build muscle.
While testosterone is the most popular steroid, here are some other often-used variations:
The exact muscle building mechanisms of steroids are complex and depend on the variation being used. All steroids, however, induce muscle growth by benefiting muscle protein balance.
Besides increasing muscle growth directly, steroids also speed up gains indirectly. This is because steroids influence the psyche.
One study, for example, found that lifters still gain much more muscle and strength if think they’re on steroids but in reality take a placebo.
In other words, part of the reason steroids work is that users expect them to work.
Now, while steroids may seem alluring if you want to get buff, they have a dark side.
Steroids carry various short-term risks, such as liver toxicity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, acne, lowered sperm count, and testicular shrinkage.
Steroids can also have (permanent) long-term side effects, such as liver disease, male-pattern baldness, heart dysfunction, and gynecomastia (breast development).
And steroids carry the risk of biological and psychological addiction, causing about 30% of steroids users to become dependent on the drug. [2-3]
How Many People Use Anabolic Steroids?
Due to the potent muscle building effects of steroids, it’s no wonder that they’re often used by bodybuilders, strength athletes, and even regular folks.
Just consider the following:
- A 2002 self-reported study found that 4% of twelfth-grade high-school students had used steroids. 
- An article by US Department of Justice notes that 1,084,000 Americans – that’s 0.5% of the adult population – said they’re using anabolic steroids or have done so in the past.
- A 1989 study indicates that among competitive bodybuilders, 54%of males and 10% of females use steroids on a regular basis. 
- Researchers from a study published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine estimate that “at least 90% of the male professional bodybuilders and about 80% of the women currently use steroids.” 
While these are high figures, the actual number of steroid users is likely even higher. This is because the findings above are based on self-report surveys.
Sure, these surveys were anonymous, so maybe all participants were honest. But that’s unlikely due to the stigma attached to steroids. Some steroid users likely gave a false negative.
Besides, the numbers are based on research that is at least fourteen years old. Since it’s believed that steroid use has risen over the last decade, the current numbers are likely higher.
How Effective are Steroids?
There’s much controversy on steroids.
Many bodybuilders claim that steroids don’t benefit muscle growth as much as everyone thinks. Others believe that it’s impossible to sport a decent amount of muscle tissue without juicing.
Well, to see how effective steroids truly are, let’s consider a fascinating ten-week study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The study involved 43 men of normal body weight between the ages of 19 and 40. All of them had resistance training experience, and they were split into four groups, as follows:
- Group one did not receive steroids and did not exercise.
- Group two received 600 mg of testosterone enanthate each week and followed a progressive weight lifting routine.
- Group three did not receive steroids but followed a progressive weight lifting routine.
- Group four received 600 mg of testosterone enanthate a week while following a progressive weight lifting routine.
The diet of each man – calorie intake, protein intake, and micronutrient intake – were standardized based on body weight, and these nutrition variables were adjusted every two weeks based on body weight changes.
The results? Here’s what happened after ten weeks:
- Group one (natural, no exercise) saw no significant changes in muscle tissue and strength.
- Group two (steroids, no exercise) gained, on average, seven pounds of muscle.
- Group three (natural with exercise) gained, on average, four pounds of muscle
- Group four (steroids with exercise) gained, on average, thirteen pounds of muscle.
In other words, those who were given testosterone injections gained over three times as much muscle in ten weeks compared to those who trained naturally (13 pounds vs. 4 pounds).
And those who received testosterone but did not work out still gained a lot more muscle than the naturals who lifted weights three times a week (7 pounds vs. 4 pounds)!
Yes, that’s right, taking 600 mg of testosterone caused more muscle growth than following a progressive weight training routine three days a week.
And please note that 600 mg is a moderate dosage by today’s standards. Lots of athletes take much higher amounts, often combined with other steroids.
And also keep in mind that steroids have a dose-response curve relating to muscle growth. The more you take, the more mass you gain.
So, as a natural lifter, it’s impossible to compete with an enhanced bodybuilder who takes a decent amount of steroids – no matter how hard you exercise and how well you eat.
How Much Muscle Can You Build Naturally?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict your exact muscle growth potential. That amount is influenced by many factors, including:
- Your natural hormonal levels: If you naturally have high testosterone levels, you can build more muscle than those who’re less gifted.
- Your height and bone structure: If you’re naturally large-structured, you have the potential to build more and larger muscles than those who are shorter and have a smaller frame.
- Your dedication: Most people never come close to their genetic potential because they don’t eat and train properly or because they give up before reaching their genetic limit.
In addition, there are many other factors that impact how much muscle you can gain naturally. That’s why it’s impossible to predict your exact natural muscle building potential.
You can, however, make a relatively accurate estimate with a formula created by natural bodybuilder Dr. Casey Butt.
His formula, which is outlined below, is based on six years of statistically analyzing drug-free strength athletes and bodybuilders, ranging from the pre-steroid era up to the modern days.
H = Height in inches
A = Ankle circumference at the smallest point
W = Wrist circumference measured on the hand side of the styloid process (the bony lump on the outside of your wrist.)
%bf = The body fat percentage at which you want to predict your maximum lean body mass
Now, if that looks like balderdash to you, then don’t worry: just click here and you’ll go to a calculator develop by Dr. Casey Butt to make the math easy.
The formula requires you to take some measurements, such as assessing your ankle and wrist circumferences and your body fat percentage.
If you don’t have the required measuring tools nearby or don’t want to go through the hassle, there are simpler, although less accurate, alternatives available to predict your natural muscle building potential.
The well-respected health and fitness writer Lyle McDonald created one of such alternatives. Here’s his formula:
Years of proper training VS Potential muscle gain rate per year
- 1 year = 20-25 pounds (2 pounds per month)
- 2 years = 10-12 pounds (1 pound per month)
- 3 years = 5-6 pounds (0.5 pounds per month)
- 4+ years = 2-3 pounds (not worth calculating)
In other words, Lyle states that men can build 40 to 50 pounds of muscle during their first four to five years of proper training and dieting, after which the rate of additional muscle gains become fairly negligible.
So, if you start out at 140 pounds, you should be able to reach around 180 to 190 pounds after four to five years. (That is due to an increase in muscle mass, not due to fat gain.)
It’s important to note, however, that these numbers are based on male lifters. According to Lyle, females can build muscle at about half the rate outlined in the formula.
He also notes that starting age plays a role. Someone who is in his or her twenties can, generally speaking, gain muscle faster than someone age forty or above.
It’s also important to note that the numbers outlined above are for those who exercise, eat, and recover properly.
So, it’s for the lifters who have the fundamentals in check. These include working out consistently, applying progressive overload, consuming enough calories and protein, getting enough high-quality sleep, and so forth.
Someone who’s been lifting weight poorly for years may still be able to reap the benefits of the “newbie gains” linked to the first years of working out.
How to Tell if a Bodybuilder Uses or Has Used Steroids?
It’s easy. Everyone who’s bigger than you… stronger than you… leaner than you… makes more money than you… and has a hotter girlfriend is on steroids – period! At least, that’s how the average gym bro thinks.
In truth, however, it’s hard to tell if someone is taking steroids, although some clues can give it away.
The most obvious clue is if someone’s fat-free mass index (FFMI) is above 25.
Here’s how that works.
The FFMI is a measurement of how much muscle mass you have relatively to your height. You can view it as the body mass index (BMI) for muscle.
To figure out your FFMI, you first have to know your total fat-free mass. To do this, subtract the amount of body fat you have from your total body weight.
So, if you weigh 80 kilos and 25% (20 kilos) of that is body fat, your fat-free mass is 60 kilos.
Then, use the following formula to figure out your FFMI:
- FFMI = (Lean / 2.2) / ((Height in ft x 12.0 + in) x 0.0254)² x 2.20462
(If that looks like gobbledygook to you, just use this simple calculator. Fill in your height, body weight, and body fat percentage and the app will calculate your FFMI.)
So, if a guy’s fat-free mass is 60 kilos and he is 180 cm tall, his FFMI according to the formula is 18.519.
What’s the relevance of FFMI?
Well, one study on 157 male athletes, including elite level bodybuilders and strongmen athletes, compared the difference in FFMI between using and not using steroids.
And the researchers found that an FFMI of 25 was the highest a natural athlete achieved.
In other words, if someone’s FFMI overreaches the 25-points mark, it’s very plausible that he is or has used steroids.
Here are some visuals of different FFMI’s.
First, let’s look at a photo of Cristiano Ronaldo at 187 cm, 84 kg, and 7% body fat, which gives him an FFMI of 22.39.
Such a physique is achievable naturally if you train hard and smart, follow a proper nutrition plan, get enough high-quality sleep, and stay dedicated.
The next physique, however, is more questionable. It is bodybuilder Steve Cook at 186 cm, 6% body fat, and a body weight of 93 kg. This puts his FFMI at 25.5.
Because his FFMI is above 25, you likely won’t achieve this physique naturally; however, it may be possible if you’re blessed with excellent genetics.
Okay, moving on, here’s a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who admitted to having used steroids.
Based on Arnold’s stats (188 cm, 107 kg, 5% body fat), his FFMI in the photo is 28.55 – a state that is not attainable naturally. If you want to attain such a figure, you’ll have to reach for illegal substances.
At last, let’s look at the current Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden.
At 109 kg, 178 cm, and 4% body fat, his FFMI is 33.10. Once more, you won’t build such a body with just chicken, rice, broccoli, and creatine.
Other Visual Signs of Steroids Use
Calculating someone’s FFMI isn’t the only way to estimate whether someone is natural. Other signs include:
Overdeveloped Shoulders and Traps but Underdeveloped Legs
Sure, this can also be due to neglecting leg day. However, if the upper body – with the shoulders and traps in particular – is significantly bigger than the lower body, that can be a sign of steroid use.
The reason is that the upper body has much more androgen receptors than the lower body, which is why steroids stimulate more growth in these areas.
Breast Tissue Development in Males
Gynecomastia, also known as breast development in males, is a common side effect of steroids. It’s caused by an imbalance between estrogen and testosterone levels.
Male Pattern Baldness
Steroids often cause elevated dihydrotestosterone levels. That can lead to male pattern baldness (hair loss that begins at the crown or temples of the head).
Acne (Especially on the Back)
Sure, some people are naturally more prone to acne than others. But steroids can significantly intensify acne. So, if someone is huge and their entire back is covered with zits, he’s likely taking steroids.
Extremely Lean Year-Round
As a bodybuilder, you can obtain and maintain a very lean (<8%) physique for a short period, such as when you prepare for a photo shoot or wedding.
But maintaining such a lean state year-round is not sustainable as a natural. If someone carries a lot of muscle and is always shredded to the bone, he’s likely juicing.
How Steroid Use Indirectly Hurts Natural Bodybuilders
Steroids can not only have severe drawbacks for their users, but also for those who decide to stay natural. There are various reasons why steroids can hurt natural bodybuilding, for example:
It Causes Unrealistic Expectations
If, as a natural bodybuilder, you compare your progress and appearance to those of enhanced bodybuilders, you’re setting yourself up for frustration.
Certain physiques just aren’t attainable as a natural lifter, no matter how hard and smart you exercise and how on-point your diet is.
So, don’t compare your results to those of enhanced lifters. Instead, focus on your own progress and ensure that you get a little bit better each day.
It Scares Women Away from Lifting Weights
Many females believe that lifting more than the plastic, pink dumbbells will cause them to look like the She-Hulk.
The truth, however, is that females only become bulky in response to strenuous strength training combined with steroid use.
If, as a female, you follow a well-designed workout routine involving exercises such as squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, rows, and lunges without using anabolic steroids, you won’t become overly muscular.
Instead, it will help you obtain and maintain a “toned” figure – like the ones you see on the cover of magazines like Shape and Women’s Health.
It Creates Unqualified Experts
We’ve all been guilty of believing that a particular gym bro must be a trustworthy information source just because he is ripped.
And while it may be true at times that someone who looks like a Greek god must be smart about fitness and nutrition, that’s often incorrect.
Many times, steroid users have the dumbest fitness advice. They just “look the part” because they can overcome stupid with steroids.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t trust all steroid users. Some of them share excellent information. But what I am saying is that you must be careful from whom you take advice – whether he or she is on steroids or not.
The Bottom Line on Natural versus Enhanced Bodybuilding
While there’s a lot of misinformation on the difference between natural and enhanced bodybuilding, you now know better how steroids influence muscle growth.
For instance, you’ve learned that much progress is possible as a drug-free lifter, but that if you want a physique like Arnold in his prime, you’ll need steroids. That’s just the way it is.
It’s up to you whatever path you choose. No one should judge you for deciding to stay natural or not. But at least you now have a better view of your muscle building potential.
Sounds fair? Great. But before you go, we’d like to hear from you. What is your opinion on natural versus enhanced bodybuilding? Or do you have any questions about the topic? Let us know by commenting below.
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Eddie Johnson is an ex-bodybuilder, fitness addict, writer, editor and founder of Anabolic Bodies. Also a proud father of two boys and passionate about bodybuilding, nutrition, and the science behind modern-day supplementation.