A Steroid By Any Other Name

What do you get when you put dianabol, stanzolol, Testosterone propionate, Testosterone enanthate, etc. together in a room? Well, besides one big mofo, you get the terms steroids, androgens, androgenic steroids, anabolic steroids, anabolic-androgenic steroids, or one or another in a laundry list of names – depending on which expert you speak to.

Unfortunately, all the aliases serve only to confuse the general public as well as our weight-lifting brethren. So, in an attempt to use a single name for "that group of testosterone-like compounds that make 'ya huge," I reduced the list down to two names: steroids and hormonal bigness. Although I prefer the latter, from here on out, we will, quite simplistically, refer to this class of hormones as steroids simply for brevity and simplicity.

Steroids can be Testosterone itself or one of the naturally produced or artificially produced derivatives of this sex hormone. When we say "derivative," we mean compounds with a relatively similar chemical structure that possess only a few structural modifications. Take the Testosterone ring structure seen below and add a carbon here, take one away there, add an alcohol here, take one away there, and you're forming all sorts of different steroids.

Figure 1: Unaltered Testosterone

If this chemical modification occurs in the body, then we say that the steroid is naturally produced. The natural production of steroids occur through what we call endogenous (made within the body) Testosterone metabolism. In this pathway, cholesterol goes through a series of metabolic steps to form all of the sex hormones. The eventual pathway to Testosterone includes intermediates such as DHEA and androstenedione (seen below).




Figure 2: Endogenous Steroids Leading Up To Testosterone

On the other hand, the artificial production of steroids, or the production of exogenous (meaning made outside the body) steroids, can occur in a research laboratory, a manufacturing facility, or some black market drug dealer's leaky bathtub.


Testosterone Cypionate

Figure 3: Two Exogenous Steroids

Below is a list of some of the endogenous steroids as well as some of the exogenous steroids. The endogenous steroids are mostly produced in men by the testis and in women by the adrenal glands. These steroids are responsible for the masculinization (androgenic) and the tissue building (anabolic) effects seen during adolescence and adulthood.

Endogenous Steroids Exogenous Steroids






Testosterone Cypionate (ester)

Testosterone Enanthate (ester)

Testosterone Propionate (ester)






While adequate production of the endogenous (made by the body) steroids is critical for normal homeostatic function, exogenous (made outside the body) steroids can be used to increase lean body mass, decrease fat mass, increase nitrogen retention, restore sexual function, alleviate depression, and promote a host of other effects, especially in those who suffer from hypogonadism (low endogenous manufacture of testosterone).

With the aforementioned health, sport, and functional links clear, there are several groups of individuals who use steroids, including athletes interested in performance improvement or body composition changes, non-athletes interested in body composition changes or "cosmetic enhancement," and clinical patients. The latter group is, of course, the only group that can obtain a prescription for legal steroid use. Illegal use of steroids, however, is widespread.

Bodybuilders obviously use them to increase lean body mass while decreasing fat mass.

Similarly, competitive weight lifters use them to increase muscle strength and nervous system activation, thereby increasing the amount of weight they can lift as well as their explosiveness.

Since anaerobic sport athletes benefit from increased muscle mass, decreased fat mass, increased muscle strength, and increased explosiveness; they also use steroids for performance enhancement and recovery.

Even endurance athletes frequently use steroids to combat the decline in endogenous steroid production seen with high volume training, along with wanting to provide some anti-catabolic protection, and to boost blood volume.

However, of course, the biggest population of steroid users is not made up of elite athletes. Instead, recreational athletes and weight lifters tend to make up the largest population of steroid users, their goals being to improve body composition in order to look better clothed or naked. Some people have called this cosmetic enhancement.

Since Joe Weider Invented Bodybuilding, Did He Invent Steroids Too?

I hate to break it to ya but Joe Weider didn't invent bodybuilding nor did he invent steroids. Steroids were "discovered" back in the 1920's. At this time, male urinary extracts were shown to increase the skeletal growth and reproductive development of experimental dogs and roosters.

After some tinkering around with the extracts, the scientists discovered a purified lipid soluble chemical that was derived from cholesterol. This compound was called Testosterone (as it was produced in the male testis).

After more tinkering, it was found that Testosterone wasn't the only substance that would induce growth and development. Other naturally produced compounds could also do the same, including DHEA. These experiments and others also demonstrated that small chemical modifications could enhance the effectiveness of Testosterone when extracted and given to other organisms.

Oral studies demonstrated that the addition of a functional group to the 17th carbon made Testosterone orally active. Without this addition, Testosterone seemed to have no effect. In addition, fatty-acid additions (etherification) increased the biological activity and half-life (i.e. the time that the stuff sticks around in the body) of Testosterone. Again, without these additions, Testosterone would be much less effective, either never making it to the target cells or only sticking around for a few minutes if they did. These new preparations, made way back in the 30's, were the precursors to today's popular Tstosterone esters (again, basic Testosterone with functional groups attached to prolong life) including propionate, cypionate, and enanthate.

The medical community was then made aware of the effects of steroids in the 30's. Of course, shortly thereafter, it was rumored that athletes were getting "the juice" from their doctors. In particular, it's been discussed that German athletes had been given steroid preparations by their team doctors in preparation for the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. Throughout the next decade or two, as doctors and athletes gained more experience with steroid use, the performance and "anti-aging" benefits were becoming evident. As was bound to happen, by the 1950s, a significant number of bodybuilders and Olympic athletes around the world had been reporting dramatic gains with steroid use.

While, back then, steroid use was only associated with a small percentage of the world's athletic population, presently an estimated 3 million male and female athletes in the United States alone have used steroids. Interestingly, despite nearly 70 years of positive feedback on the performance benefits of steroids, it wasn't until recently (within the last five or six years) that steroids were convincingly proven (via well controlled experimental studies) to increase lean mass and strength.

Of course it seems somewhat of a puzzle that so many experts, for so long, insisted that didn't work. The reason could very well be that they were simply trying to dissuade people from using them. After all, why would someone want to use steroids if they didn't work?

In addition, the early research didn't demonstrate the effectiveness of steroids. These studies, many of which demonstrated that anabolic steroids offered no athletic benefit whatsoever, had several design flaws. Many were neither blinded nor randomized, nutritional intake was usually not controlled, and the exercise stimulus wasn't controlled. Moreover, the biggest problem was probably that many of the studies used only small doses (replacement doses or less), unlike the supraphysiological doses (above the normal physiological range) that are necessary to promote positive effects. Regardless of the medical community's lack of support, athletes have known for decades that steroids undoubtedly improve body composition and performance.

The medical community has finally caught up with what the athletes have known all along.

Wanna' know how steroids work and what, exactly, they do? Check back next week for part II. At this point, now that we've introduced some definitions, structures, and a brief history of their discovery and use in sport, we'll give you a week to process this information. Next week we'll talk about how steroids are used, how they work, and we'll discuss the side effects (both positive and negative).