Steroid Users and You
If you're a drug-free lifter, it's highly likely that you've been duped steroid users. They didn't do it intentionally, but you've suffered nonetheless.
Here's what they did: They made you, the natural lifter, assume that drugs simply enhanced the response to training. You figured that there wasn't any reason you couldn't train like the drug user. The only thing that would be different was the magnitude of the results.
Not only was that assumption wrong, but that reasoning messed you up in a number of ways. Make no mistake about it, natural lifters shouldn't train the same way as "enhanced" lifters. Here's why.
We know that building muscle is all about protein synthesis. The higher the rate of protein synthesis and the longer the rate of protein synthesis, the more muscle is produced.
Performance-enhancing drug users have an enhanced level of protein synthesis 24/7 because that's one of the main effects of steroids (the effect of growth hormone on protein synthesis is debatable).
Even if PED users didn't trigger a higher level of protein synthesis through training, it doesn't matter, they'll still progress. A natural lifter's normal state is homeostasis: protein synthesis and protein breakdown are pretty much equal. He needs to stimulate protein synthesis (through mTor activation, mostly) with the workout itself.
In other words, the natural guy is dependent on the training session to stimulate protein synthesis. That's not true of the enhanced lifter. That doesn't mean the training session isn't important for the drug user, it just means that his workout is pretty much bulletproof.
Even if the PED user breaks down a lot of tissue using too much volume, or even if he doesn't do enough to maximize protein synthesis, he'll be fine. Protein synthesis and growth will still occur. Not so for the drug-free lifter. He needs "Goldilocks" training: Not too little volume, not too much volume, but just the right amount of volume. Otherwise, he doesn't grow, and he could even lose muscle.
Cortisol is devastating for natural lifters. First, it opposes protein synthesis by increasing protein breakdown, but it also has an impact on the expression of the myostatin gene, which limits the amount of muscle you can carry.
Cortisol can also inhibit mTor activation via an increase in AMPK. mTor is basically a muscle-building switch, so if you inhibit mTor you stop muscle growth. This means that cortisol not only increases protein breakdown (muscle loss), it can actually decrease or even stop protein synthesis.
The role of cortisol during training is to mobilize energy stores to give your body fuel for muscle action. The more fuel you need during your training, the more cortisol you will produce.
It's easy to understand that the more training volume you do, the more fuel you'll need to mobilize, and thus the more cortisol you'll release. That's why excessive volume is the number one problem for natural bodybuilders. Doing too much high volume in a workout can actually stop a natural guy's gains.
A steroid user, however, is somewhat protected against the negative impact of cortisol. Since the anabolic drugs greatly increase protein synthesis around the clock, he will more than counterbalance the increase in cortisol, within reason.
Steroids and cortisol also share the same intracellular second messenger, so the more anabolic hormones you have in your body, the harder it is for the cortisol to interfere with muscle growth. Again, what's called for is a volume sweet-spot where cortisol release is limited.
Enhanced lifters can gain a lot of muscle from doing plenty of work with lighter reps – things like high-rep work, drop sets, etc. That's because they don't need to trigger protein synthesis with the workout itself.
Doing very high rep-work will drive more blood into the muscles, and if that blood is loaded with amino acids, they're then supplying their muscles (that already have an enhanced level of protein synthesis) with the nutrients needed to take advantage of their high rate of protein synthesis.
As such, steroid users don't need fairly heavy work as much as natural lifters do. In fact, since many steroids tend to make the muscles proportionally stronger than the tendons themselves, focusing too much on heavy lifting might lead to devastating injuries.
I'm not saying that light pump training doesn't work for natural lifters. Hypertrophy can be stimulated with light weights if you go to failure. The problem is what happens in the body when very high reps are combined with light weights. Sure, you'll eventually get maximum muscle-fiber recruitment as you build fatigue during the set, however, if it takes you 15 or 20 reps to "get there" instead of 6 to 8, then you're spending twice as much glycogen to achieve the same effect.
Remember, the more energy (glycogen) you need to mobilize, the more cortisol release you'll get! That's why super-high rep work is not ideal for natural lifters, especially if you do a lot of sets.
- The volume per workout should be limited. Excessive exercise variation is the enemy of muscle growth. Look at all the top natural lifters. They stick to a small number of exercises. They'll use some variation from time to time, but for the most part they stick to the same exercises.
- Push/pull routines are often optimal for the natural bodybuilder. They allow for the most recovery between training sessions.
- Generally speaking, most sets should be in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 reps, with higher-rep sets reserved for warm-up or preparation sets. However, if a natural guy is going to do lighter pump work, he should make sure to consume a carb/protein blend pre-workout and during the workout. (Surge® Workout Fuel is the top choice here.) This makes glucose readily available for fuel so he won't need to mobilize as much stored glycogen and he won't release excess cortisol.
- Since a natural lifter needs to rely on the actual workout to trigger protein synthesis, and considering that protein synthesis remains elevated for 24-36 hours in a muscle after it's trained, a natty needs to train each muscle more often. Otherwise protein synthesis in a muscle won't be elevated long enough over the course of a week to get maximum growth. Once is not enough. For the most part, working a body part twice every 8-day period is optimal.
Want a full workout plan for natural lifters? Check this out.