"This routine only works for bodybuilders on steroids. You can only recover from that amount of volume if you're on the juice."
This is something you often hear. In fact, in my Best Damn Workout for Natural Lifters series I explain why too much volume, relative to your own physiology, is the main enemy of natural gains.
For most of us who've been seriously involved in the training game, it's obvious that you can do more training without side effects when you're on steroids. After all, steroids increase protein synthesis and more protein synthesis means faster muscle repair.
If you're more efficient at repairing muscle tissue damaged by training, you can recover from a greater amount of damage, so you can tolerate more volume and frequency.
But is that the whole story? Is recovery simply a matter of repairing the damaged muscle tissue and adding new tissue in response to training?
Let's examine the issue and find out if steroids indeed allow you to become a gym Wolverine.
The Elements Of Workout Recovery
When we talk about strength and hypertrophy training, several things need to happen so that you're optimally recovered:
Muscle damage repair and building
This is the most obvious one, and many people tend to only see this one. Those who see muscle repair as the only factor involved in workout recovery are those who think that steroids make you able to recover from pretty much any level of training stress. But it's not the only element involved.
In this case, we're talking about bringing the neurotransmitter systems back to their pre-workout state. This can involve the central nervous system, the neurotransmitter levels and (more importantly) the receptors. More on that in a moment. For now, understand that if the central and/or peripheral nervous system(s) are suboptimal, your performance, motivation, and well-being will drop significantly. In fact, when people think of overtraining, 9 times out of 10 it's neurological fatigue, not a muscle recovery issue.
This one won't be pleasant to hear for keto fans, but functioning on low intra-muscular glycogen stores isn't optimal for lifting performance. Yes, you can run on ketones during a workout, but performance will not be optimal. Some can reach a good level of performance and muscle growth on a low-carb diet, but it's not ideal for most. Since a hypertrophy workout relies on glycogen for fuel, after a workout your stores will be low and replenishing them will be part of the recovery process.
By the way, a low carb diet can interfere with "neurological recovery" too and I'll talk about this in another section.
This doesn't even have to be its own category since it's highly dependent on the neurotransmitter systems. But for the purpose of understanding recovery, it's useful to mention it separately. A workout can drain you mentally and even emotionally. The more you push yourself the greater the chances of feeling like a zombie for up to 1-2 days. Heck, I've seen athletes feel like crap for a week after a competition.
So now that we know what recovery entails, will steroids help with all of these? Because if it helps with one element (like muscle damage repair) but not with the others, you could end up in a really dark place.
What We Call "Overtraining"
When motivation drops, you feel like crap, performance suddenly goes down, your muscles feel softer, and you can't seem to get the same quality of contraction. This is what we normally consider overtraining.
In most cases, it's due to neurological factors. Specifically, a desensitization of the beta-adrenergic receptors.
These are the receptors interacting with your adrenaline to create an activation/excitation of a structure. For example, if adrenaline binds to the beta adrenergic receptors on the muscles, myogenic tone, contraction strength, and speed increase.
If it binds to the receptors on the heart, it contracts more strongly and faster to push more blood toward the various muscles and organs that need oxygen.
If it binds to the receptors in the brain, it increases drive, aggressiveness, and competitiveness. You feel more motivated and less patient; stronger and more capable.
What we often see as "overtraining" is simply a desensitization of the receptors to your own adrenaline.
Beta adrenergic activation causes:
- Higher muscle tone (harder muscles even at rest)
- Stronger muscle contractions
- Faster muscle contractions
- Less protective inhibition (your body allows you to use more of your strength potential)
- Increased oxygen transport to the brain, muscles, and other organs
- More motivation/drive
- More aggression and competitiveness
- Feeling stronger, more capable
If you desensitize the beta-adrenergic receptors, all of that can come down. So, you end up with these effects:
- Psychological – Your self-esteem and trust in your capacities go down and you feel less motivated to engage in demanding activities. You become lazier and less driven to overcome obstacles.
- Physical – Your muscles feel softer, your mind-muscle connection is impaired, and overall physical performance will decrease. You get weaker and slower which will affect lifting performance. But you also can't send as much blood around the body which can negatively affect endurance. This also reduces the "pump" you can get when lifting.
- Mental – Your focus may decrease; it'll be harder to concentrate. You may lose your train of thought during a conversation, end up in a room and not remember why you came there, or have to read a sentence 2-3 times to understand it. You'll also be less creative.
What Leads to Beta Adrenergic Desensitization?
When you produce too much adrenaline, you can desensitize your receptors quickly. In fact, out of all the hormone and neurotransmitter receptors in your body, the beta adrenergic ones are the easiest to desensitize (or downregulate).
That's because staying in "amped up" mode is dangerous for your health and survival. It's like running your car on NOS as your primary fuel source. Sure, you'll go faster, but you'll blow your engine up!
Same thing with being on high adrenaline for too long – it's a lot of stress on your heart and kidneys. The more adrenaline you produce, the more likely you are to desensitize your receptors.
Here's what will help you connect the dots: One of the main sources of increased adrenaline is cortisol. Specifically, cortisol increases the conversion of noradrenaline into adrenaline. So, the more cortisol you produce, the more adrenaline you get. That means the more likely you are to desensitize your receptors.
That's what a "burnout" really is. Excess overall stress – often a combination of job, family, and financial stressors – which leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels. This means elevated adrenaline around the clock (which is why you can't sleep even if you're dead tired) and receptor desensitization.
The 6 Training Variables That Increase Cortisol & Adrenaline
Cortisol and adrenaline go hand in hand. Anything that'll raise cortisol will also lead to an elevation of adrenaline. That's why you have problems sleeping during periods of high stress.
Resistance training will increase cortisol. This is actually needed if you want to train hard. Without cortisol there's very low adrenaline, which means lower strength, speed, endurance, and drive. But too much – especially when combined with chronically elevated levels due to a stressful life – can lead to what we call overtraining.
When it comes to training, we have six main variables that can impact cortisol and adrenaline:
Cortisol and adrenaline can both be used to mobilize stored energy. The more volume you do, the more energy you need. As a result, you'll need to mobilize more energy leading to greater cortisol and adrenaline levels.
This refers to how hard you're pushing each set, not the actual weight lifted but how close you get to failure. The closer you get, the greater the stress response is and the more cortisol/adrenaline you produce. Going past failure with methods like rest/pause, drop sets, and the like push cortisol and adrenaline even higher.
These are the two big ones when it comes to cortisol in training. If you want to avoid high cortisol levels, both cannot be elevated at the same time. If you want to do a higher volume of work, the intensiveness has to come down – stopping each set a few reps short of failure. If you prefer to push your work sets extra hard, you'll need to lower the volume. And there's a middle ground where you can have both at a moderate level.
Other variables can also contribute to cortisol and adrenaline elevation, and they're not to be overlooked.
3. Psychological Stress
This can happen if a set or max rep makes you nervous or even a bit anxious. If you need to get psyched up beforehand, or if you're anticipating pain or discomfort before a workout, your cortisol and adrenaline levels will ramp up. This is actually your body's way of preparing itself for battle. This is where those big weights come in, but also painful CrossFit WODs where you know you'll hurt.
4. Neurological Demands
The harder the brain needs to work to coordinate your movements, the more it needs to be activated. And activation requires adrenaline. As such, when you use more complex movements, when you have to produce a lot of force or speed, try to learn an exercise you've never done before, or combine several complex exercises in a circuit, you increase nervous system activation via an increase in adrenaline (and cortisol).
The shorter the rest intervals the more "up" your body and nervous systems need to remain, and the higher cortisol and adrenaline stay during the workout. That's why sessions with long rest intervals are often boring to many and why adrenaline junkies tend to jump from set to set with very little rest.
If you want to beat a partner, your record, the clock, etc. you will increase adrenaline. Anything that gives you a sense of urgency or gets you more motivated will raise adrenaline and cortisol.
Programming Around These Variables
- Excess cortisol is the main enemy of the natural lifter when it comes to hypertrophy.
- You can increase every one of the six variables that plays a role in increasing cortisol/adrenaline, but you must counterbalance this increase by a reduction in one or more variable(s).
- For hypertrophy, the two variables that likely play a bigger role in maximizing growth are volume and intensiveness. But both are mutually exclusive (can't be high at the same time) the vast majority of the time.
- For any training phase, you must decide if you're going to prioritize volume or intensiveness. You can have a fairly high level of both provided that every single other of the 6 variables are minimized. But even that's not sustainable for a long time.
- As far as hypertrophy is concerned (strength and performance are different), psychological stress, neurological demands, and training competitiveness don't bring a lot to the table. Density can play a role on minor movements.
- Carbohydrates prior to, during, and post-workout can help control cortisol levels. However, overdoing carbs pre/during workout can lead to sluggishness by lowering cortisol/adrenaline production too much.
Steroids and Neurological Recovery
There's no doubt that steroids will help with muscle damage repair because they increase protein synthesis. They also speed up glycogen replenishment and can even increase glycogen storage. (This is one of the two reasons why steroids make you look more "pumped" even at rest.)
But their impact on neurological recovery is less clear cut. Can they help or not?
You need to look at the effect of steroids on the adrenergic system. Some steroids actually increase the sensitivity of the adrenergic receptors. Increasing the sensitivity of the receptors is the opposite of desensitization: it makes your receptors more responsive to your adrenaline.
That's why some steroids can make you stronger even without adding muscle mass. For example, Halotestin is known for giving an immediate strength boost. Powerlifters will take it right before an event.
You can't build muscle between the intake and the event, yet it makes you stronger. Why? Because it makes your beta-adrenergic receptors more sensitive to your own adrenaline, which leads to an increase in contraction strength and speed.
That's why some steroids will get you stronger in a matter of days. It's not because you suddenly built more muscle. You just made your muscles more responsive to being amped up.
That's also the reason why some steroids can make it appear like you've gotten more muscular the first day or two. Trenbolone is known to do this in fairly lean individuals. You can literally wake up looking more muscular the day after a Trenbolone acetate injection.
Why? Because it has a very strong effect on making the beta-adrenergic receptors more sensitive and has a diuretic effect. In simple terms, it increases muscle tone and dehydrates you... which is one of the reasons why Trenbolone is really bad for the kidneys.
While there are exceptions, the more androgenic a steroid is, the greater its effect on making the beta-adrenergic receptors more sensitive. This is why the more androgenic steroids tend to have more long-term side effects. The more responsive your body is to your own adrenaline, the higher your heart rate and blood pressure will be.
That's also where "roid rage" comes from. Some like to say that roid rage doesn't exist. Well, it does. But it won't affect everybody, and not all steroids can cause it.
Remember, one of the effects of activating the beta-adrenergic receptors is increasing aggressiveness and competitiveness. It also makes you less patient. Basically, it puts you in fight-or-flight mode (emphasis on fight).
The steroids that increase the sensitivity of the beta-adrenergic receptors will give you a stronger response to your own adrenaline, which means they can make you more competitive, less patient, and more aggressive. This can lead to what we call "roid rage" in people who already have a short fuse.
Side note: One of the most dangerous drug combinations is using both high androgens (which make the adrenergic receptors more responsive to adrenaline) and stimulants like amphetamines, clenbuterol, and ephedrine (which activate the beta-adrenergic receptors).
Androgenic steroids make you more responsive to stimulants. This can make them stronger and more addictive, but also a lot more stressful on the cardiovascular system.
The effect of androgens on the beta-adrenergic receptors is one of the reasons why men with lower testosterone are less assertive and competitive, more agreeable, and less likely to be resilient.
So, Do Steroids Make You Recover Faster Or What?
Anabolic steroids speed up muscle repair because of their impact on protein synthesis and nitrogen retention. They also help with glycogen and creatine storage. So steroid users can definitely tolerate more volume in that regard.
But what about neurological recovery?
As we saw earlier, many steroids will make the beta-adrenergic receptors more sensitive. This will help prevent neurological fatigue. If we make receptors more sensitive, it takes a lot more to make them desensitized, which is what leads to neurological fatigue.
Furthermore, other steroids like Dianabol actually lower cortisol levels which will lead to lower adrenaline levels. Dianabol activates the dopamine receptors (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and decreases cortisol and adrenaline. Dianabol users report feeling more chill and relaxed. As such, it can also reduce the risk of desensitizing the beta-adrenergic receptors, helping delay or prevent neurological fatigue.
So do steroids help with neurological recovery? Well, it's not really that they help with recovery, but that they make it harder to achieve neurological fatigue by increasing the sensitivity of the beta-adrenergic receptors or even lowering adrenaline production.
It should be clear by now that steroid users will have an advantage when it comes to tolerating any type of training stress, not just volume.
Not All Sunshine And Rainbows
This isn't an infomercial for steroids. Far from it. It's simply to show you what a steroid user can get away with when it comes to training stress, and what the natural lifter cannot. Both need to plan differently – especially when the natural lifter has average genetics or a lot of life stress.
But despite the fact that steroid users can get away with more without immediate side effects, it doesn't mean they should actually include a lot more training stress.
This is very important. Steroids "protect you" against the direct effects of too much cortisol and adrenaline.
They increase anabolism and protein synthesis so much that they can counter the catabolic effect of too much cortisol. Even if the steroid user produces a boatload of cortisol due to excess training stress, he'll still be able to build muscle because the anabolism from the steroids will still surpass (by far) the catabolism from cortisol.
The drugs will also delay neurological fatigue by making your beta-adrenergic receptors more sensitive. The users can train harder more often and for longer before suffering from desensitization.
But here's the problem: unless you plan to be a 'roid head for life, you'll have to come off your cycle eventually.
What you did during your cycle will affect what happens in your "off" period. By doing too much, too hard, too often, for too long while "on cycle," you magnify your chances of losing your gains and feeling like total doo-doo in your off period.
Here's what happens. At the cellular level, cortisol and androgens (steroids) bind to their respective receptors (androgen receptors for steroids and glucocorticoid receptors for cortisol).
But once bound to their receptors, they must send their message to the nucleus of the cell. At the muscle cell level, they both use the same carrier (messenger) to get the message to the nucleus.
By over-flooding the cells with androgens – bodybuilders often take more than 10-20 times the normal level of androgens in their body – you essentially use the majority of the messengers for the androgens, leaving cortisol with a harder time getting its job done.
But your body needs cortisol to do its job.
As a result, it'll start pumping out more cortisol to try to get the message across. That's not a big deal while you're on big doses of steroids because steroids will still be more prevalent than cortisol.
When that doesn't work, the body can use a second strategy. It'll start making the glucocorticoid receptors (cortisol receptors) more sensitive. That way the cortisol response is stronger even with less cortisol. This is often when gains slow down on a cycle.
If the cycle continues, or worse, if the doses are increased because of the stagnation, the body can resort to a third strategy to try to even out the cortisol/androgen balance: it can increase the number of cortisol receptors to again increase the cortisol response.
As long as you're taking drugs, you won't lose your muscle. However, the excess of cortisol can also lead to higher adrenaline levels, and that's when you can start to have problems sleeping, get big mood swings, etc. That can also lead to beta-adrenergic desensitization due to too much adrenaline.
The biggest problem is when you stop your cycle. You're still producing more cortisol, your glucocorticoid receptors are still more sensitive, and if you pushed your cycle too hard for too long, you can be left with MORE cortisol receptors.
Now you have lots of cortisol, more receptors, and a stronger response to cortisol. This is a recipe for losing muscle.
The real reason for the loss of gains is the excessive cortisol activity, not because they shut down their natural testosterone production. That doesn't help (and it'll remain shut down for some time after their cycle). But by going beast mode with their training while on cycle, steroid users increase the likelihood of losing gains post-cycle.
In fact, for a certain period of time post-cycle, a steroid user will be inferior to a natural lifter when it comes to how much training stress he can recover from. And the more excessive he was with his training while "on," the less training stress tolerance he'll have during the recovery period.
Take Home Message For The Natural Lifter
If you see a training program that's built (voluntarily or not) for steroid users, you should avoid it. How can you tell? If a program is high in both volume and intensiveness at the same time it's a dead giveaway that it won't work well for a natural lifter, at least not for more than a few weeks.
If a program has a very high volume and includes lots of training to failure and post-failure methods like rest/pause, drop sets, clusters, etc., it likely won't work well for you. If you have great muscle-building genetics, you might be able to tolerate it for a while and gain muscle, but you'll still suffer the neurological effects.
Your best bet is to emphasize either volume or intensiveness in a training phase. You can alternate between both from phase to phase. Or you can use intra-phase periodization, ramping up the intensiveness (or volume) gradually over four weeks, followed by a deload.
Progressive Volume Example
- Week 1: High intensiveness (RPE 9-10) / very low volume (3-5 sets/muscle)
- Week 2: High intensiveness (RPE 9-10) / low volume (6-7 sets/muscle)
- Week 3: High intensiveness (RPE 9-10) / low-moderate volume (8-10 sets/muscle)
- Week 4: High intensiveness (RPE 9-10) / moderate volume (11-12 sets/muscle)
- Week 5: Moderate intensiveness (RPE 7-8) / very low volume (3-5 sets/muscle)
Progressive Intensiveness Example
- Week 1: Moderate-high volume (12-15 sets/muscle) / very low intensiveness (RPE 6)
- Week 2: Moderate-high volume (12-15 sets/muscle) / low intensiveness (RPE 7)
- Week 3: Moderate-high volume (12-15 sets/muscle) / moderate intensiveness (RPE 8)
- Week 4: Moderate-high volume (12-15 sets/muscle) / high intensiveness (RPE 9-10)
- Week 5: Low volume (6-7 sets/muscle) / very low intensiveness (RPE 6)
Note: RPE = rate of perceived exertion
Another Tip For The Natural Lifter
Pay close attention to muscle tone, mind-muscle connection, and muscle contractility. A decrease in these things indicates a decrease in beta-adrenergic sensitivity – one of the first signs that you're producing too much cortisol and adrenaline.
If, all of a sudden, your muscles feel softer, you can't seem to get a good sensation when training, and you even seem to have problems getting a strong flex, I'd recommend lowering a few of the variables that cause higher cortisol: volume, intensiveness, psychological stress, neurological demands, density, competition.
When you regain your normal muscle tone and get your mind-muscle connection back, you can slowly ramp up training again.
Also remember that carbs are your best ally to combat excess cortisol and adrenaline. They're super important for the natural lifter, especially around the workout and in the evening. That's why I like Plazma™ intra-workout so much.
Take Home Message For The Steroid User
Just because you can get away with a lot more training stress while on-cycle doesn't mean you should go crazy. It'll make it much harder to maintain your gains when you go off.
I'm not telling you NOT to train hard. But just like a natural lifter, you should pick one training dominance (volume or intensiveness) per phase and stay reasonable with the overall training stress.
Look at a program like Fortitude Training by Dr. Scott Stevenson. A lot of steroid-using bodybuilders use it and it's very low in volume but high in intensiveness (and high in frequency). Same could be said about the famed "DC training" and even the way Dorian Yates trained.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a guy like Cutler who did a lot of volume, but not to failure. You don't have to push everything to the extreme to gain.
When you come off, you need to lower the overall training stress significantly, especially if your cycle was long. I'd recommend a very low volume but high intensiveness approach in that situation.
Post-cycle is also the worst time to diet down. I see a lot of steroid users do this though. They figure, "Well, I won't be able to get bigger so might as well get lean AF." The problem? Calorie and carb restriction increases cortisol significantly, which will make it even more problematic for the bodybuilder with high cortisol activity post-cycle.
If anything, post-cycle you should increase calories and carbs for a few weeks. Do everything you can to fight off cortisol because it's what will make you lose your gains.
Can Steroids Users Do More Than Natural Lifters?
Yes, they can. Or more precisely, they can get away with more.
They don't need it though. Steroids will give them a greater progression from the same training stress, and doing too much can lead to problems, as we saw.
It's fine for a steroid user to do around 20% more overall training stress than a natural lifter. That's likely not going to cause issues and will speed up gains a bit more. This doesn't have to be in the form of more volume. It could be using more failure/post-failure sets, for example.
One last thing: Unless you're preparing for a competition, when your on-cycle gains stop, it's smarter to stop your cycle than to bump up the doses.