I'm not here to judge or recommend the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But you have to realize these substances completely change your physiology. That means the nutritional and training strategies that are optimal for the enhanced guy will not be ideal for the natural guy. And vice versa. Whether you're natural or not, here are the ten biggest questions you need answered.
1 – Who Needs to Train More Often?
Answer – Natural lifters.
I normally recommend a higher training frequency, both in the form of more weekly workouts as well as hitting each muscle (directly or indirectly) frequently during the week. That's best for both enhanced and natural lifters, but it's even more important for naturals.
While enhanced lifters can still get significant gains from hitting each muscle once per week, naturals need to stimulate each muscle at least twice a week, and ideally three or even four to get significant growth past the beginner stage.
See, the key to building muscle is triggering protein synthesis, the process in which your body uses amino acids to build tissue. If you want more muscle growth, then protein synthesis has to be elevated to a higher degree and has to stay elevated longer.
After a workout, protein synthesis remains elevated in the trained muscles for around 24 hours – slightly more or less depending on the workout. By training each muscle only once a week, you aren't keeping protein synthesis elevated for long in each muscle. Not only that, if you're training each muscle only once a week, you might actually lose the positive adaptation (muscle growth) by not stimulating it soon enough.
This is called "involution." The body doesn't want to carry extra muscle mass that's not useful. So by waiting too long before hitting a muscle hard again you might slowly lose some of your gains. Not all of them, but it can certainly diminish your rate of progress.
A natural lifter needs the training sessions since they're the only significant protein synthesis trigger he has. Eating also increases protein synthesis, but in a systemic pattern and to a much lesser degree. So the natural lifter is far more dependent on each workout to stimulate growth.
On the other hand, enhanced lifters are artificially increasing protein synthesis with drugs. The steroids keep protein synthesis elevated around the clock. Their workouts of course increase protein synthesis to an even higher degree, but hitting each muscle more often isn't needed because the overall rate of synthesis will stay elevated all the time.
Some studies have found that taking anabolic steroids led to some muscle growth without any training. I'm not saying that people get huge that way, but it certainly prevents losing the adaptations that can occur from only training a muscle once per week.
Natural lifters need the workout to elevate protein synthesis. And since it only stays elevated for 24-36 hours after a workout, they need to hit each muscle more often if they hope to make significant gains. Enhanced lifters will also make more gains with higher frequency training, but it's not as necessary for them.
2 – Who Should Do More Cardio?
Answer – Enhanced lifters.
Let's say you decide to use steroids, growth hormone, clenbuterol, SARMs or peptides. Fine, it's your choice. But you should understand the importance of doing everything possible to minimize the negative impacts on your health.
The two most important things you can do is keep both blood pressure and blood lipids/cholesterol under control. Cardio can go a long way in keeping you healthier for a lot longer.
Low intensity steady-state cardio is good for improving vascular health and lowering blood pressure; intervals can help with cardiac function. It could even increase heart elasticity and potentially help break down scar tissue, both of which would increase cardiac function and decrease the risk of cardiac problems.
You don't need to do a huge amount either. Even just 20 minutes of steady-state cardio (heart rate of around 110-115 beats per minute) at the beginning or end of your workouts would be helpful. And don't worry, that's not enough to prevent protein synthesis from happening. Or take few long walks a week and do HIIT once a week.
3 – Who Needs to Limit Volume?
Answer – Natural lifters.
A lot of lifters, natural or not, believe that the more volume they do (more sets) the more they'll grow. We've been conditioned to believe that you get more results by doing more work. So in our quest for more muscle, it's easy to think that pilling on more sets is the key to getting bigger. And to some extent, if you're enhanced, that can be true. But for natural lifters it can be a gains-stopping mentality. Here's why:
- Volume and frequency should be inversely proportional. The more often you train a muscle, the less volume you should do for that muscle at each workout. Since natural lifters should train each muscle more often, they should do less volume at each workout.
- Natural lifters will be more negatively affected by cortisol than enhanced lifters. Cortisol increases the rate of protein breakdown and can decrease the rate of protein synthesis and nutrient uptake by the muscles. Growth depends on the difference between protein synthesis and breakdown. When cortisol is elevated too much it will negatively impact muscle growth.
Cortisol is the biggest enemy of muscle growth in the natural lifter. Why? Because steroids, especially the more androgenic ones, greatly inhibit the action of cortisol at the cellular level. It does so by binding to the androgen receptor and using the same second messenger as cortisol to send its message to the nucleus of the cell. If there are less second messengers available to cortisol, it will have a hard time doing its job.
Steroids like testosterone, trenbolone and Halotestin are great at this. And some steroids directly block the action of cortisol (Dianabol for example). So when someone is using steroids, the impact of cortisol on muscle growth will be greatly diminished.
That's also the main reason why steroid users lose muscle when they stop using steroids. People assume it's simply because steroids shut down your own production of testosterone, and when you stop your T levels are low until you recover. There is something to that. But that wouldn't explain the muscle loss.
Sure, low T decreases anabolism, but it doesn't increase catabolism. What happens is that when someone is "on" the action of cortisol is inhibited. The body tries to overcome that by increasing the output of cortisol as well as the number of cortisol receptors. When someone goes off he's left with a higher level of cortisol, more cortisol receptors, and basically zero testosterone. This will lead to a high level of protein breakdown and a very low level of protein synthesis. That means muscle loss.
Anyway, back to our topic. Natural trainees are not as protected against excessive cortisol levels. And what's the function of cortisol when training? To mobilize stored energy to make sure your muscles have enough fuel. The more energy you need, the stored glycogen (and fat) you need to mobilize, the more cortisol you'll produce.
It should be evident that the more volume you do the more cortisol you'll release, because more volume means a greater energetic demand. A natural trainee needs to train harder, more often because he can't afford to compensate a low level of these variables by an increase in daily workload.
4 – Who Needs to Push Harder During Each Set?
Answer – Natural lifters.
Natural lifters, if they want maximum growth, need to push their work sets harder. That's because they can't do as much volume. If you can't do as much volume to fatigue the muscle fibers, you must reach maximum stimulation a different way, and this requires pushing each of the work sets. Take a look at this scale:
Scale of Neurological Demands
- Level 1 – Complex gymnastic exercises, Olympic lift variations
- Level 2 – Olympic pulls, multi-joint movements involving the whole body or having significant axial/spinal loading
- Level 3 – Multi-joint exercises with free weights involving half the body and without significant axial loading
- Level 4 – Multi-joint exercises on pulley/cable
- Level 5 – Multi-joint exercises on machines
- Level 6 – Isolation exercises with free weights
- Level 7 – Isolation exercises on pulley/cable or machines
When using exercises that are lower on the neurological scale, or that have a lesser postural component (levels 4, 5, 6 and 7), go to failure or beyond. Normally I recommend going to failure when doing level 4 and 5 exercises, and going to failure and even beyond – using rest/pause, drop sets, isometric hold at the end of the set, partial reps, etc. – on levels 6 and 7.
Of course, the harder you push your sets, the fewer work sets you should do per exercise. The typical example is the HIT or Heavy Duty approach of doing one set to total failure per exercise. That's the cornerstone of my Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters and it has lead to amazing gains time after time. So natural lifters need to push their work sets harder to stimulate maximum growth.
When doing exercises that are higher on the scale (levels 2 and 3) go heavier and with low reps, really pushing hard to move more weight.
What about enhanced lifters? While they should also work hard to progressively overload these big lifts, they need to be more conservative, using a slightly higher rep range (6-8 instead of 3-5 for example) because steroids make the muscles grow stronger faster than the tendons.
While enhanced athletes would also benefit from the lower number of work sets, higher effort (failure or beyond) and more frequency for natural lifters is a prerequisite for maximum growth.
5 – Who Needs to Eat More Protein?
Answer – Enhanced lifters.
Remember, enhanced lifters have an elevated rate of protein synthesis around the clock. In addition to blunting the effect of cortisol, steroids increase how much protein you can use to build muscle.
An enhanced body is more efficient at using amino acids to build new muscle tissue. And since protein synthesis rate is elevated 24/7 they'll benefit from a higher protein intake as well as more frequent feedings. An enhanced lifter will, in fact, benefit from a constant influx of protein in their bloodstream.
A natural lifter won't. While it's undisputable that increasing protein intake to a certain point will help build muscle, a natural body has a limited capacity to use it to build tissue. Studies show that increasing protein intake up to 1 gram per pound when in a caloric surplus, and to 1.2 to 1.4 grams per pound when in a deficit, has benefits. But increasing it above that will provide no added benefit.
Furthermore, natural lifters might benefit more from more of a "protein pulse" approach rather than keeping a more constant protein intake. A sudden increase in blood amino acid levels (especially leucine, glycine, isoleucine, and valine) can be an anabolic trigger itself.
The key word is "sudden." You want a peak, but you can't really have a peak if protein intake is constant throughout the day. So you either need periods of higher protein intake preceded and followed by periods of a lower intake to create that spiking effect, or the use of a rapidly absorbed protein like casein hydrolysate. The faster a protein is absorbed, the greater the peaking effect.
Excessive protein intake for a natural might actually "program" the body to turn protein into energy (gluconeogenesis) instead of muscle tissue. And the more efficient your body becomes at that process, the harder it will become to build muscle and even lose fat. A decently lean natural who consumes more than 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight when in a mass phase, or more than 1.2 grams when cutting, is doing himself a disservice.
On the other hand, enhanced bodybuilders can and should consume more protein than that to maximize the effect of the substances they're taking. Up to 1.5 grams per pound, and sometimes more depending on the substance(s) they're taking.
For example trenbolone doesn't increase protein synthesis much. But it does drastically decrease protein breakdown, so the net effect is muscle building. But it doesn't require an increase in protein intake because your rate of protein synthesis isn't elevated.
6 – Who Needs More Calories?
Answer – Enhanced lifters (during growth phases).
This goes with the need for more protein. An enhanced lifter simply uses nutrients more efficiently when it comes to building muscle. Furthermore, a lot of anabolic steroids increase glycogen storage. If you're enhanced, your muscle can store more glycogen, which might be one of the reasons why enhanced lifters look more pumped even at rest.
While you can of course still get fat when you're taking steroids (especially the aromatizing kind) you won't pile on fat as fast as a natural lifter at the same level of caloric intake.
When you're putting super fuel in your body, it improves your capacity to use nutrients to build muscle tissue, so it only makes sense that you'd want to increase the supply of nutrients and take advantage of this enhanced state.
And when you're using steroids and/or growth hormone, you can more easily maintain muscle mass while dieting down. So even if you gain a bit more fat you'll be able to make drastic dietary changes without fear of losing muscle.
For a natural lifter, bulking makes little sense because your body is limited in its capacity to use nutrients to fuel growth by its own natural biochemistry. Once you've reached your maximum rate of growth (nutrient utilization) you won't be able to speed up muscle growth further simply by eating more.
You'll just retain more water, maybe store more intramuscular glycogen and triglycerides, which will make you feel bigger. But you might also gain fat, which will make you look thicker with clothes on. Both of these can help you lift more weight in some exercises (better leverage, joint stability, and fiber-pennation angle) which can make you believe that you're gaining more muscle. But in reality, you're not.
Adding more fat will make it harder for you to look good naked, since it's harder to get lean without losing muscle for a natural.
7 – Who Should Try to Decrease Cortisol Levels?
Answer – Natural lifters.
Natural lifters need to minimize excess cortisol if they want to grow. Ingesting some fast absorbed carbs like highly-branched cyclic dextrins before and during workouts will go a long way in preventing excessive cortisol output.
If you have carbs readily available for fuel while you train there's less need to mobilize your reserves. If you don't need to mobilize as much fuel, you don't release as much cortisol. Plazma™ is the best product for that purpose.
You can also use other strategies like using vitamin C pre or post workout (around 2000mg) as well as glycine post workout. Something like Z-12™ which will increase GABA levels (a neurotransmitter that helps fight stress and anxiety) and magnesium in the evening can keep your cortisol levels low at night, which will help you sleep better, recover, and grow.
Rhodiola is a great adaptogen that improves your overall capacity to handle stress and might reduce your daily average cortisol output, which will improve your immune system and muscle growth.
8 – Who Needs to Supplement the Most?
Answer – Enhanced lifters.
Everybody should use health-boosting supplements, but they're even more important for enhanced lifters. Life or death important.
Many enhanced lifters love to say that steroids and growth hormone are safe when used intelligently. But any foreign substance that changes your physiology can't NOT have potentially harmful effects. The ironic problem with "smart" use is that the problems may arise more subtly and lead to long term issues that could've been prevented early on.
Unless you get frequent blood work done, you don't have any idea how your blood lipids are, how your cholesterol is, or the amount of liver and kidney stress you're experiencing. The vast majority of enhanced lifters don't even measure their blood pressure. These things don't really have obvious symptoms. That's why high blood pressure is often called "the silent killer."
Pretty much all oral PEDs will mess up your lipid profile and cholesterol. And while liver problems aren't as likely as some people think, most oral steroids really do put a strain on your liver. Heck, even an oral that seems safer, like Anavar, can increase kidney stress, which is much worse than liver stress.
All steroids that cause water retention – Dianabol, Anadrol, testosterone, nandrolone, etc. – will increase blood pressure. This is also true of several SARMs, peptides, and growth hormone. Anything that increases water retention will increase blood pressure. Uncontrolled blood pressure is the most dangerous thing for steroid users.
Most steroids also thicken the blood. This is especially true of Equipoise and Anadrol, but testosterone in "bodybuilding" amounts will also do it. Thicker blood increases blood pressure too, but it also makes the heart work a lot harder to push the blood through the system. This can lead to left ventricle hypertrophy, another potential cause of heart problems.
This isn't a scare tactic. But if you decide to go the enhanced route, instead of investing your money on supplements that will trigger more muscle growth (you will already get a maximum amount of growth from anabolics) you should invest it in supplements that will help your health. So what should the enhanced user take?
Fish oil, which can reduce blood pressure, decrease blood thickening, and reduce inflammation. Or Curcumin, which reduces inflammation and can inhibit and even reverse left ventricle hypertrophy. Another option is ubiquinone, which drastically improves cardiac health and function. There are other supplements which can help reduce blood pressure, like celery extracts for example.
And if you're enhanced, the worst thing for you to use are stimulants. Think about it. Your blood pressure might be elevated, your blood might be thicker, and you're taking a product that spikes blood pressure even more and increases heart rate. That's a recipe for long term disaster.
9 – Who Can Eat Fewer Calories When Dieting?
Answer – Enhanced lifters.
The main culprit for muscle loss while dieting is chronically elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol has many functions, but here are two important ones: mobilizing stored energy to provide fuel, and increasing blood glucose levels.
Your body wants to maintain a stable blood glucose levels. Around 4.0 - 5.0mmol/L and up to 7.0mmol/L after a meal. If it dips down below that (hypoglycemia) you normally get cravings, which compel you to eat and elevate blood sugar, or you'll release stored glucose into the bloodstream. The hormones that increase blood glucose levels are cortisol, glucagon, and (to some extent) growth hormone. All three of these will tend to be more elevated during periods of caloric restriction.
And things can get even more problematic when you're on a low-carb diet because you could increase protein breakdown (breakdown of muscle tissue) into amino acids to produce glucose (gluconeogenesis) from these aminos to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
This means that the more restrictive your diet, and the longer the dieting period is, the more likely you are to have chronically elevated cortisol levels because you constantly need to mobilize more fuel and elevate blood glucose levels. This is especially true when carbs are very low and fats aren't high enough to compensate.
And since chronically elevated cortisol levels can be destructive for natural individuals, it makes it almost impossible to build more muscle, and even harder to prevent muscle loss.
When you're using steroids you're inhibiting the negative action that cortisol can have on muscle – both by reducing its action at the cellular level and by increasing the protein synthesis rate to compensate for the increased rate of protein breakdown.
If someone is using growth hormone, the need to produce cortisol might be reduced because GH also increases blood glucose levels and mobilizes stored energy. If growth hormone is taking care of that, there's less need to release cortisol.
Because of that, enhanced athletes have much less risk of losing muscle while dieting and can use a much stricter diet. They can even build muscle while losing fat.
10 – Who Needs to Stop Majoring in the Minors?
Answer – Natural lifters.
This is goes along with avoiding too much volume per workout. The most enlightened natural lifters avoid this. They focus their training around the most effective exercises.
But every time I train in a commercial gym, I'm reminded that enlightened lifters are few and far between. I see tons of people doing an endless array of minor exercises. It's not uncommon to see guys doing 6-8 exercises for pecs, back, biceps, triceps, delts and 1-2 for legs, if that. And when you look at their exercise selection it rarely includes movements that you or I would prioritize.
There are very few "worthless" exercises, but there's such a thing as prioritizing. When you're natural and can't grow from as much volume per session, you must carefully select your exercises to get the maximum return from your investment. Doing six types of curls is not a good investment. I'm not saying to avoid curls, just avoid redundancy and go with the biggest-yielding exercises.
You don't have to only use big compound lifts. But avoid doing garbage volume by doing too many variations of the same simple movement pattern. If you're a natural lifter, you just can't afford it.