We all know that Pro Bodybuilding is impossible to succeed in without the use of anabolic steroids. But what about natural bodybuilding? Can Bodybuilding Be Done Without Steroids? Or is success predicated on breaking the rules?
It is possible to be a successful natural bodybuilder without anabolic steroids. However, natural bodybuilding has a lot more steroid use than people assume. Your chances of becoming a Pro Bodybuilder without steroids are negligible. The situation is unlikely to change in the coming years.
In this article, I will be taking a look at what anabolic steroids are, and what they do. The use of steroids in Pro bodybuilding. The use of steroids in natural bodybuilding. I will also look at ways to compete in natural bodybuilding without using steroids.
Thanks to supplement sponsorships and international laws, no Pro bodybuilder is about to admit to using anabolic steroids. It would be career suicide and could have legal ramifications. However, let’s be clear. There are no bodybuilders who have a pro card who don’t use anabolic steroids. Zero.
But, as I point out in my article on finding a career in bodybuilding, getting your Pro card is not the only way to make a living as a bodybuilder. There is natural bodybuilding, there is also a path to YouTube or Instagram fame through natural bodybuilding. Though I believe that this career path is more difficult than people assume.
The problem is, that a lot of natural bodybuilders who have found fame and fortune have almost certainly used anabolic steroids. They just don’t use them to the same degree as Pro bodybuilders. Check out this 2014 article by T-Nation that looks into the ways in which natural bodybuilders can bend the rules.
Alternatively, check out this YouTube video by Kenny Boulet, which I think sums things up nicely. There are many natural bodybuilders who are completely natural, but clearly, it is possible to cheat the system, and the cheaters tend to win (for obvious reasons).
If in the future, Natural bodybuilding takes drug testing more seriously (more on that later), then steroid-free bodybuilding could become a serious option. At the moment though, it’s all about the honour system, and that isn’t working!
People talk about steroids all the time, it is often used as an insult, hurled at sports professionals, bodybuilders, and people at work who look slightly stronger than regular people. But how many people who throw those accusations around actually know what anabolic steroids are? Or how they work?
An in-depth analysis of anabolic androgenic steroids is beyond my capabilities and would take multiple articles. But I will give you a quick explanation here so that we all know what I’m talking about in the rest of this article.
For starters, while this article is focused on anabolic steroids, there are many illegal drugs that are taken by bodybuilders. I may not be talking specifically about Human Growth Hormone (HGH) in this article. But I might as well be. You could read this entire article swapping “steroids” for “HGH” or “Insulin” and you would get the same result.
People who don’t want to take anabolic steroids, probably don’t want to take HGH or insulin either!
Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids (AAS) are medicines that are used to mimic the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone and similar hormones in the body. They can be taken in tablet form or injected in liquid form. Steroids can help to increase muscle mass, improve strength and power, raise metabolism, and improve athletic performance.
A 2018 study on gym athletes found that up to 30% of them used anabolic steroids. This is a lot higher than most people would assume, but perhaps lower than people who scream “steroids” at the first sight of a bicep, suspect.
There are several reasons why bodybuilders use anabolic steroids, but the main one is to keep up with everyone else! If you’re at the starting line of a 100m sprint and every other athlete has mini rockets attached to their shoes then you are certainly going to be making some footwear adjustments as soon as possible.
Here are the most common reasons why bodybuilders use Anabolic Steroids:
Everyone has a natural limitation. You can only train so hard before your body rebels. You can only build so much muscle, or produce so much testosterone. Anabolic steroids allow you to defy your genetic limitations.
This does not make bodybuilding easy. You still need to work harder than everyone else, eat better than everyone else, and lift heavier than everyone else. But steroids give bodybuilders a huge advantage over everyone else. This is why steroid use is so common among professionals.
There are two main reasons why pro bodybuilding will never be steroid-free:
There are many downsides to anabolic steroid use. Firstly, it’s illegal, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years in the UK if you are caught supplying it (even if you just play the part of a middle-man for your mate). Remember, that anabolic steroids are manufactured and sold by large criminal enterprises, it’s not a victimless crime.
Then there are the numerous health effects that can lead to bodybuilders dying at a much younger age than most people. But for many men (and an increasing number of women) these negatives are easily ignored. The “It will never happen to me” attitude hugely prevalent in the bodybuilding community.
The problem is that the negatives are too abstract for most people. The idea that taking steroids at 21 could lead to you dying of a heart attack at the age of 50 is just not real enough for most people. There are also the people who understand the risks but will go ahead with it anyway. Because the desire to be famous and successful outweighs any self-preservation.
The IFBB technically already has rules about steroid use. It is actually against the rules to use steroids. But thanks to the unique circumstances that affect bodybuilding, the authorities have to turn a blind eye to any rule-breaking.
Think about it. Let’s pretend that in 2022 the IFBB and all other bodybuilding organizations decided to ban all steroid users from competition. They started taking random out of competition blood tests and urinalysis, and anyone caught taking steroids would be fined and reported to law enforcement.
How many bodybuilders would turn up to the 2023 Mr Olympia? What would happen to all current pros? Bodybuilding competitions would vanish overnight.
This is why Pro bodybuilding will always have steroids. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing by the way. I have a lot of respect for pro bodybuilders, and I must admit that I have no real interest in natural bodybuilding competitions. I find it fascinating seeing the results of steroids on the physiques of pro bodybuilders. Most people do.
It’s the only way bodybuilding competitions attract fans, and everyone is happy ignoring steroid use.
In this article and many previous articles, I have talked about drug use in natural bodybuilding competitions. But I will also state that many natural bodybuilders don’t take any performance-enhancing drugs. There are many superb natural bodybuilders with completely natural physiques. But there are also a lot of natural bodybuilders who have taken steroids in the past or are still taking them during competition time.
This is a bit of a problem because a natural bodybuilder who is taking steroids is going to have a much better physique than a natural bodybuilder who follows the rules. Because bodybuilding is a purely aesthetic competition, natural bodybuilders who cheat are much more likely to win competitions and build a name for themselves.
There are a few reasons for this, and it isn’t as clear-cut as some will have you believe. Most of the reasons can be split into business decisions and financial constraints.
What you need to understand is that year-round random drug testing is expensive. Seriously expensive. It costs an absolute fortune to do, and no natural bodybuilding competition is going to be able to afford to do it. There just isn’t the money. Even the IFBB would struggle to enforce this. You would need a list of all competitors, an international team of drugs testers, you’d need year-round lab testing, flights, salaries, and you would also need the consent of all competitors.
That last one may sound easy, but actually, it would be difficult to get. Unless all of the natural bodybuilding competitions simultaneously changed the rules. Which is not going to happen. Bodybuilders would just avoid your competition and choose a less strict competition to compete in.
Even the natural bodybuilders who absolutely aren’t taking steroids would still need convincing. Olympic athletes need to keep drug testing teams informed of their movements at all times. This creates a lot of hard work, which is only compensated by Olympic glory, sponsorship money, government funding, and professional contracts.
Natural bodybuilding cannot offer any of that. So why would a natural bodybuilder agree to this?
This is a more cynical view on my part, but I believe that it is also likely. Natural bodybuilding competitions may be turning a blind eye to some competitors because they are bringing fans to watch their competitions.
At the moment, there is little reason to watch a natural bodybuilding competition when you can instead watch Mr Olympia or the like. A natural physique just isn’t as impressive, though the fact that it was created without drugs is obviously incredibly impressive in itself.
Bodybuilding is a visual competition. As Natural bodybuilding competitions can’t prove if an athlete is taking drugs or not (there are many ways to fool drug tests), then why not just roll with it? You get better physiques, better competition, and attract larger audiences to your competitions.
Catching your biggest performers taking steroids and banning them is NOT going to help natural bodybuilding competitions increase in popularity. Or perhaps it will, but certainly not in the short term. The Tour De France had a similar conundrum during the 90s and early 00s. Almost everyone knew Lance Armstrong was cheating but it was difficult to prove and the allegations harmed the sport’s reputation.
Bottom Line: Natural Bodybuilding competitions do not have the funds to properly test their performers, nor do they have any real inclination to start a witch hunt. This means that many steroid users slip through the net. But that does not mean that the majority of natural bodybuilders use steroids.
Considering the fact that avoiding anabolic steroids could reduce your chances of winning competitions, prevent you from ever becoming a Mr Olympia winner, and reduce your likelihood of getting the career of your dreams, you may wonder why you would choose the natural bodybuilding lifestyle.
But there are many reasons why you would want to avoid anabolic steroids:
Anabolic steroids can be very dangerous if abused or used incorrectly. You are increasing your chances of heart disease, low testosterone production in later life, stress, anxiety, and problems with your joints (due to the increased muscle mass).
Don’t forget all the health benefits that are associated with training hard and dieting too. Improved sleep, libido, healthy heart, low body fat, and better mood and cognition. All the benefits of exercise and proper nutrition without any of the worries that come with purchasing steroids from some gym bro you don’t even like.
The two biggest issues with steroid use and abuse are the risk to your health and the risk to your livelihood. While bodybuilders getting arrested for purchasing steroids is very rare, it is not unprecedented. Who are you buying them from? How are you arranging delivery? Can you trust the person/company doing it?
I don’t believe that it is too risky an enterprise compared to buying heroin, but there is a risk that a natural bodybuilder will never have to worry about.
Steroids are not incredibly expensive, but they aren’t exactly free. But there is also a huge increase in the food you need to help you take advantage of all the extra training and protein synthesis. This can cost a LOT, and as a natural bodybuilder, you won’t have to worry about that.
Don’t get me wrong, the negative perception of bodybuilders as roid headed freaks sucks. It certainly is inaccurate for most. But that stigma is there, and the more obvious steroid users have to get used to it. As a natural bodybuilder, you are unlikely to have to deal with backhanded compliments, whispers behind your back, or testicle jokes from some loudmouth in the pub.
Yeah, you won’t have the completely unnatural yet still impressive physique of a pro bodybuilder. But you will still have an incredible body if you work hard and eat right. Most women (and men) prefer a more natural look.
If you are looking to become a natural bodybuilder, then there are hundreds of programs and books that you can read about the subject. But here are five steps to success that I’ve learned from writing hundreds of articles on the subject.
Most bodybuilding programs are designed by bodybuilders who use steroids and they are designed for bodybuilders who use steroids. That means that they are very high in volume, expect you to train every day, and don’t pay much attention to proper rest and recovery.
These programs are excellent for bodybuilders who use steroids, and I’m not bashing them at all. If I was taking steroids this would be my first port of call. But as a non-steroid using bodybuilder you need to find programs that will work for you.
Treat natural bodybuilding like a completely different discipline, because in reality, it is.
Just because you are not training every day like a pro bodybuilder, it doesn’t mean you won’t be training as hard as you can within your limitations. This means that you need to approach rest and recovery like it is the single most important aspect of your life.
You can use active rest, this is where on your days off you do foam rolling, stretching, yoga, walking, or even some light cardio. But stay away from the gym, and if you are feeling particularly dead, even avoid the low-impact exercise.
Up your protein intake, get some caffeine in (reduces pain from stiff muscles), get an extra hour or two in bed. Have an Epsom salts bath. Remember, it is during your recovery that your muscles will grow.
Cutting and bulking are cornerstones of anabolic steroid assisted bodybuilding. People use cuts and bulks around their steroid cycles, and it is incredibly successful. As a natural bodybuilder, you will still need to cut and bulk, but nowhere near as crazily.
In fact, you could probably get away with minor bulks and minor cuts once you’ve been training long enough. With big cuts reserved for competitions. Without steroids, you will struggle to maintain enough muscle mass while cutting for too long, and you will also struggle to burn excess fat from a crazy bulk.
This comes back to volume, you are not going to be spending as many hours per week in the gym, so you will need to be a bit more efficient with your time if you want to work all of your muscles. A push/pull program is a good call, or you could do an upper/lower split.
Put more emphasis on compound movements. Not only will this work multiple muscles at the same time (saving you time) but it will also help to raise your testosterone and growth hormone levels post-exercise.
You are not going to be taking anabolic steroids, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do everything in your power to ensure your testosterone levels are naturally high. Sleeping 8-9 hours per night is a great way to do this. As is eating healthy fats, keeping a low body fat, exercising regularly, and you could even consider some natural testosterone boosters.
I know that they have a bad press from a lot of fitness experts. But that’s because they are often promoted as a way to boost testosterone past natural levels. In fact, all they do is help you to maintain healthy levels. Which is super important! Particularly during cuts.
Don’t expect too much from natural testosterone supplements, but they may help a little. Even just ensuring that your vitamin D levels are optimal could make a difference.
Bodybuilding can and probably should be done without steroids. Though you should be aware that going down that route may limit your career options. But as your chances of becoming a professional bodybuilder are about the same as your chances of becoming a lottery winner, that shouldn’t really affect your thinking.
Natural bodybuilding will probably always suffer from cheating and a lack of accountability. But there are good natural bodybuilders out there, and this career path is the most sensible one in terms of your long term health and safety.
If you do decide that steroids are for you, then just make sure that you know what you are doing and that you avoid endangering your life for the sake of bigger biceps.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.