My understanding of taking Steroids

This post will culminate my standpoint on steroid use and include what I learned from my MSc research.

Taking any illegal or black market drug comes with certain risks. Research shows that what you buy is not what you get.  Numerous studies evidence this risk (Kohler et al, 2010; Thevis, et al, 2008; Ritsch & Musshoff,2000) Alarmingly one study identified that when purchasing black market steroids the dosage labelled may vary between 0 and up to 176% of the dosage. When a person deals with someone who is essentially acting outside the rule of law there are no safety checks for the quality of what you buy. This has severe implications. This is exactly what can and does happen to people who buy steroids illegally.  In the recent case of a Monaghan footballer who was caught using stanozol, the interesting thing is he said his dealer said it was Anavar. Anavar is an expensive black market steroid so by the dealer replacing it with a stronger but cheaper steroid and having it labelled as Anavar can make the dealer more money. The severe consequence is that he is then thinking that he is taking a milder steroid and dosing in such a way that may be harmful when using a stronger steroid.

During my time spent interviewing steroid users who have experienced side effects I learned of one dealer who was arrested with thousands of pounds worth of steroids, when they were tested by the police they were all found to be fake. The awkward thought for his customers is what exactly had they been injecting into themselves.

Of particular interest is the method by which users facilitate the perceived reduction of risk, note that that is perceived and not actual risk.

Risk is mediated psychologically though self-education. In all of the people I met they attempted to educate themselves prior to taking steroids. They did this by reading the internet, talking to other people who take steroids and asking questions. Most people said they did this for between 3 to 12 months before hand.  In addition to this it became evident that they also thought that they knew more than doctors or endocrinologists.  Nordgren, Van Der Pligt & Van Harreveld, (2007). Discuss how risk taking (which taking steroids most certainly are for your health) is affected by volition and control. Volition is the extent of the voluntary nature of the action e.g. voluntarily running across a firing range versus voluntary running across a battle field to get to a safer place. One is freely chosen and the other is imposed. Where we freely choose to take a risk there is a greater perceived risk and also a greater threat of regret.  The other factor is perceived control.  When running across a firing range or a battle field we can enhance our feeling of control over the situation by gaining knowledge and preparation such as planning a safe route or wearing body armour.  The more control we think we have the less the risk appears to be. The exact same situation occurs with steroid use. Self-education formed a means of increasing perceived control and therefore played a part in allowing people to take more risks such as “stacking”. This is the practice of combining a multitude of steroids in attempt to make a bigger effect.

The human mind is capable of incredible gymnastic feats of rationalisation. During one of my interviews this became very apparent when one of the steroid users stated that Steroids where probably one of the reasons he was so fit and healthy as they had kept him in the gym making steady gains (gainz) for the past decade. Later in the interview I asked him about any side effects he had experienced. He proudly stated that he had experienced over 16 different side effects, and began to list them off. One of these side effects was polycythaemia (the excess production of blood cells).  This lead the interviewee to buy a Peristaltic pump. (A medical device used to pump blood in surgery) so that he could on a regular basis go into his garage and pump out the blood. He said he got so good at this procedure he started doing it for friends who also were using steroids.

I suppose the bottom line for me when it comes to the thought processes is a single human including me (and you) is susceptible to all manner of flawed rationalisation. I personally don’t like smoking, I think it’s horrible and I know it causes cancer. Many times in my life people who smoke have told me how bad it is and how they regret it and want to quit. Despite me holding all this knowledge next time I will occasionally enjoy a cigar. Every human being is capable of rationalising the absurd; this is facilitated by over 30 inbuilt cognitive biases. Because of this humans really shouldn’t blindly accept their own understanding of the world.

Therefore when it comes to opinions on steroids, steroid users literally cannot trust their own opinions, as they generally have lack correct knowledge and expertise.

When we consider that steroids grow muscle it is important to remember that there are more uses of muscle in the body than skeletal muscle. The heart is a muscle, and the consumption of steroids causes the abnormal growth of heart. This coincidently is also related to heart failure. When you hear of relatively young strength athletes dying of heart attacks it is likely the side effect of steroid use.   It is perfectly acceptable for the heart to grow larger as one becomes fitter, it is a normal adaptation.  However the growth of the heart from steroid use differs in function and is pathological.

“The side effects of anabolic steroids have been underestimated in order to legitimize their use in sport, … This paper presents four subjects with serious clinical problems, all of whom took anabolic steroids in massive doses for many years while weight training. All four patients exhibited abnormal cardiac hypertrophy”

Niemine et al (1996)

 Steroids and Society

Given the research I conducted for my masters I have formed a number of opinions about steroid use and sport.

The punishment of dopers is irrelevant whether it is 2 years, 4 years, or a lifetime ban. Research on criminal behaviour indicates that it is certainty of being caught that is a deterrent and not severity of punishment. There is a vast array of scientific research to support this. (Nagin & Pogarsky, 2001; Drago, Galbiati, & Vertova, 2009)

We know that Lance Armstrong was one of the most tested men on the planet and never failed a test. Similarly the recent doping scandal in athletics sheds much doubt on the sport. I watched first hand as Chika Amalaha became the youngest girl ever to win a commonwealth gold medal (2014). She was just 16. It was shocking in the following days that it emerged that she had been doping. I honestly don’t think a 16 year old girl from Nigeria would have the ability to dope without the help of a coach or support staff. This then becomes a question of how long for? Was she a child when she doped, are other nations harking back to the East German days of doping children? In all of these instances doping ruins the event, and discredited the sport, the athletes and their country.  No one wants to watch a sporting spectacle and then say to themselves, I wonder were they on drugs.

I was happy to hear that Bolt was not indicated as having doped, in the recently leaked IAAF files. His victory in 2012 Olympics was astounding as he was the only one in the top 4 not to have ever been caught doping. This type of superior performance is a spectacle in its own right but even though the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd place dopers are not him, their ill-repute effects his credibility as emphasised in this video from The Irish Sports Council

Throughout my time in sport one sentence will always resonate with me. A person whom I respect and has represented Ireland in weightlifting said; when referring to someone who had been brought over for a display of strength but competes is a doped sport,

“I don’t care what he can do; I want to get weightlifting to a point where nobody cares what someone can do on drugs”

It’s a great sentiment  is also where modern sports organisations are going  in terms of drug abuse, educate the people and create a value of intolerance to this sort of behaviour.

The bottom line is we can blame the cheaters, but it is (y)our responsibility to ensure that attitudes to doping are challenged. There can be no room for tolerating those who poison sport. It is Ironic that one of the most famous drug abusers Arnold Schwarzenegger now is calling out the current crop of body builders for too much drug use.  Looking comparably at both these drugged people it is clear to see that the abuse of steroid use and growth hormone in Arnold’s day is now significantly increased. (The bloated midsection is a consequence of human growth hormone abuse)

Some drugs V Lots of Drugs

The reality is Pro Bodybuilding is a poisoned sport. There are NO worthy role models.  When I see bodybuilder I am immediately reminded that larger proportions of them are people who have suffered as children. There is a strong link between those who have felt vulnerable as adults and obsession with size and strength or enhanced dominance. They are not a by-product of a healthy or admirable life they are a population so skewed in their understanding it can only deserve our empathy.  (Boyda & Shevlin 2011;Wolke & Sapouna 2008).

The UKAD Doping advisor course. Can be found on, in their “learning Zone”.

This course is free to do and is a valuable resource for people involved in sport. It educated me and I thought I knew a significantly larger amount of knowledge than required given my research. I would encourage everyone to do it.  The underlying feature of it is about empowering people to challenge views that are flawed. We don’t need to catch more dopers we need to create a culture where doping is unacceptable.

 “Anti-doping is a people problem not a system problem”

 Dick Pound former WADA President

People who have soft opinions are the problem. Using statements like, “It’s their own private business” or “they are entitled to their opinions”

These are great rhetorical statements; it creates an idea that a person’s opinion is legitimate and creates a false air that they should not be spoken out against. It also makes it sound that the person being the critical thinker is committing an act against the doper’s freedoms. If the two above statements where used to justify racism it would be unacceptable similarly such views are unacceptable with regards doping.

The reality is that people’s opinions are not “protected”. No person has any right to utter words and assume that their logic can go unchallenged by another person. And statements without any reminisce of logic and reason deserves to be given no credence.

What I believe is Anti-Doping is a people problem.  It’s not the dopers who are the problem it’s not the people who are anti-doping who are the problem. It’s every coward who sits on the fence and refuses to pick a side. It would be great if Usain Bolt would speak out about the shame that his fellow doping Jamaican teammates have brought.

I think there is a brighter future ahead when it comes to Anti-doping when we start to see a change in the attitudes of those who are at the root of sport, the people at the ground level.

It’s time for athletes and coaches at all levels to be part of the solution and have no forgiveness for those who cheat.

My hope in writing this is that after reading it is you will appreciate that Pro-doping sports/federations where there is no testing like some federations of Bodybuilding, Powerlifting and strongman will hopefully become less appealing, and sports where there are good people who want clean sport even if at the highest levels the athletes disgrace themselves become more appealing. I look forward to a point where no one cares what the dopers can do.

Finally this post needs perspective, doping is unneeded risk to your health, athletes cheating is annoying.  But there are many bigger and more important problems in the world. But that doesn’t mean we cannot speak freely and harshly and hold strong opinions about those who disgrace themselves and sport by cheating chemically or otherwise in sport. Many people will question some of my standpoint, and say but they did this and he or she did that and we can’t control other countries. That’s true the past is in the past, but we can make a difference by choosing to shape the attitudes of the future.

“I would prefer even to fail with honor, than win by cheating.” (Sophocles, 496-406 BC)


Boyda, D., & Shevlin, M. (2011). Childhood victimisation as a predictor of muscle dysmorphia in adult male bodybuilders. The Irish Journal of Psychology32(3-4), 105-115.

Nagin, D. S., & Pogarsky, G. (2001). Integrating Celerity, Impulsivity, and Extralegal Sanction Threats into a Model of General Deterrence: Theory and Evidence Criminology,39(4), 865-892.

Drago, F., Galbiati, R., & Vertova, P. (2009). The deterrent effects of prison: Evidence from a natural experiment. Journal of political Economy117(2), 257-280.

Kohler, M., Thomas, A., Geyer, H., Petrou, M., Schaenzer, W., & Thevis, M. (2010). Confiscated black market products and nutritional supplements with non‐approved ingredients analyzed in the cologne doping control laboratory 2009. Drug testing and analysis2(11‐12), 533-537.

Nieminen, M. S., Rämö, M. P., Viitasalo, M., Heikkilä, P., Karjalainen, J., Mäntysaari, M., & Heikkila, J. (1996). Serious cardiovascular side effects of large doses of anabolic steroids in weight lifters. European Heart Journal,17(10), 1576-1583.

Nordgren, L. F., Van Der Pligt, J., & Van Harreveld, F. (2007). Unpacking perceived control in risk perception: The mediating role of anticipated regret.Journal of Behavioral Decision Making20(5), 533-544.

Thevis, M., Schrader, Y., Thomas, A., Sigmund, G., Geyer, H., & Schänzer, W. (2008). Analysis of confiscated black market drugs using chromatographic and mass spectrometric approaches. Journal of analytical toxicology32(3), 232-240.

Ritsch, M., & Musshoff, F. (2000). [Dangers and risks of black market anabolic steroid abuse in sports–gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analyses].Sportverletzung Sportschaden: Organ der Gesellschaft fur Orthopadisch-Traumatologische Sportmedizin14(1), 1-11.

Wolke, D., & Sapouna, M. (2008). Big men feeling small: Childhood bullying experience, muscle dysmorphia and other mental health problems in bodybuilders. Psychology of Sport and Exercise9(5), 595-604.