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SARMs: Golden Goose or Sitting Duck?

SELECTIVE ANDROGEN RECEPTOR MODULATORS: 

A GOLDEN GOOSE OF GAINS, OR JUST ANOTHER SITTING DUCK FOR YOUR LIVER?

 

Have you ever heard the story of the golden goose?

It’s an old incredibly old fable, literally about a goose that one day lays a golden egg. Rather than waiting to see if the goose would lay more gold, it was killed by its impatient owner who wanted all of the riches immediately.

On the surface this may not seem like anything more than a foolish children’s tale, the tale of the golden goose serves as vivid reminder that ‘greed loses all by striving all to gain.’  You’d probably never guess, but there’s a similar story behind the mythical substance, known as SARMs.

 

Originally developed as a 'big-pharma' ticket item since the late 1990’s, in recent years, selective androgen receptor modulator or SARMs have gained a cult-like following as the new magical-anabolic substance within the fitness industry. However, outlandish claims together with the exploitation of pharmaceutical patents, abuse of legal-loopholes, and booming black-market business, have the potential to destroy SARMs before they can even turn a legitimate profit or be used to treat some of the most vulnerable clinical populations.


What exactly are SARMs? Believe it or not, that’s not actually the simplest question to answer. For the purposes of this article we’ll be looking at a novel class of nonsteroidal selective androgen receptor modulators that fall under the popular umbrella-name of SARMs.
 

Before we go any further, let me clarify something about SARMs – they are drugs. They have medical, ethical and legal implications associated with them. Yet, many recreational users probably don’t have a clue what they are or how they work. To be honest, with so much misinformation about them out there, I can’t entirely blame them for that either.

Unlike many other popular-fitness articles about these drugs, you won’t get any advice on how to take SARMs here. Not only would that be totally unethical and illegal, but in my opinion, the trend of the blind leading the blind has only fueled the unsubstantiated worship of these compounds by bro-pharmacists and guru-prep coaches.

Don’t let the fact that until a couple years ago you could readily and legally purchase SARMs from various pseudo-supplement retailers, and often voluntarily be sold false claims about the effectiveness, safety or purity of these drugs.

As it stands today, there’s a lot still to be uncovered about the newest kid on the anabolic block. Indeed, SARMs are steroidal millennials. They haven’t even been a ‘thing’ for 20 years, yet have a reputation that far precedes the research, data and efficacy of these drugs.


With so much bad, incorrect and misleading information on SARMs, we’ve literally got to start at the very beginning. Let’s talk about androgens.

 

 

LAYING ANABOLIC GOLD

I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible, but in order to better understand how these drugs work it’s important to know a little about the biochemical properties and physiological processes of androgens and SARMs.

Even though they are dubbed ‘male’ hormones, each of us produce varying degrees of androgens naturally throughout the life course. They are complex molecules that act as ‘chemical messengers’ for numerous processes essential to bodily function. Made at different locations throughout the body including the ovaries or testies, adrenal glands and fat cells, androgens all share a 4-ringed cholesterol structure.

Regardless of the job at hand, many androgens act on - or send messages inside specific target cells known as “androgen receptors” or “AR”. As a member of the steroid receptor superfamily, the androgen receptor is an incredibly important target for numerous pharmaceutical interventions, including in, for example, cases androgen deficiency, osteoporosis, and muscle wasting. There are many drugs that interact with androgen receptors, and promote androgenic or anti-androgenic effects. These compounds are known as “androgen receptor ligands” and typically are thought of as either causing: (a) androgenic results (“agonists”); or (b) anti-androgenic results (“antagonists”).

 

Another way, and possibly simpler way to understand this process is by thinking of lock and key: only certain keys can unlock certain doors.

Here’s an example of what I mean. You have a house that has a front door, back door, side door, and a door that provides entrance to a basement suite. It’s likely that you would have a master key – a skeleton key of sorts that can open all four doors. This “key” represents substances like testosterone and other anabolic-androgenic steroids. These drugs “unlock” androgenic receptors, which results in various androgenic effects.

But, what happens if you want to provide limited entrance to your house only through the basement door?

Thanks to SARMs, you can now do that too.

 

The ability to only “unlock” some or selective androgen receptors is the main reason behind the development of SARMs. By doing so, researchers thought that it would be able to minimize undesirable side-effects normally associated with anabolic-androgenic steroids. At the same time, it was believed that by opening some ‘doors’ and not others would allow users to exploit desirable effects - aka. the gains. And, all it would take would be to swallow a pill or two, once a day. I’ll let you decide for yourself if maybe that sound a little to good to be true.

While it took a few decades, a lot of money and numerous failed experiments, by the late 1990’s pharmaceutical companies believed they finally had created the perfect oral-anabolic drug for use in clinical populations. To do so, they developed a nonsteroidal substance that could do the job of a steroid by acting on specific androgen receptor sites. It also had simply dosing, little side effects and all the anabolic benefits desired. Hopefully it goes without saying that this was no easy feat – and arguably came with some issues for both researchers and trial users.

How exactly do you create a substance that can act on androgen receptors and provide all the tuff’ with none of the fluff?

Completely change the way it looks.

 

Let’s go back to our house analogy. Is there a way to unlock a door without having the key? Sure, grab yourself a hair pin and pick the lock. Now, if you’ve ever tried picking a lock with a hair pin, you’ll know this is a skill that requires mastery. While it’s not impossible to do, you must have the right combinations to be successful.

Does a hair pin and a key look anything alike? Heck no.

Guess what?

Neither do steroids and SARMs.

As I mentioned above, as a steroid, androgens share a 4-ring cholesterol structure. Guess what? SARMs don’t. Just by nature of them being a nonsteroidal compound they can’t and don’t have this same signature structure. Instead, there are 8 different chemical structures or “scaffolds”, that make-up the SARMs family – and each family has a host of different SARMs nested within it. As a result, the total number of specific SARMs structures are endless.

Unlike steroids, SARMs shouldn't metabolize into DHT (dihydrotestosterone by 5-[alpha]-reductase) or aromatise to estrogen – which means there shouldn’t be the same side effects such a male patterned hair loss, or gynecomastia.

In theory, SARMs may sound like a pretty golden product to try… all gains and only glory. Think again. This goose needs a lot more time, before it can safely take flight.

 

 

THE DUCK TEST

Have you ever heard of the duck test? You know the one I mean … "if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."

What happens if it doesn’t look like a duck?

What happens if we change one of the crucial identifying components? If it doesn’t look like a duck, but it swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it probably a duck? I’ll let you be the judge of that one.

The reason I bring this up, is that this premise underlines the popular opinion of SARMs safety.

If it looks like a steroid because of a specific 4-ring structure, works on an androgen receptor, and can promote muscle growth and strength, then it must be an anabolic steroid… and those come with some hefty side-effects. So, what happens if it doesn’t look like a steroid? There aren’t any side-effects, duh.

Just like that, we have the foundation for one of the biggest myths surrounding SARMs. That they are somehow ‘safe’ to use - a ‘healthy’ steroid alternative that doesn’t have any side-effects. Sure, SARMs many not ‘look’ structurally like steroids, but they still share a lot in common with anabolic steroids, including similar associated health risks.

 

Before I go any further I also want to make something else clear – contrary to what many in the industry are saying about SARMs, they are not “100% anabolic.” While a major selling point of these compounds is that they are drugs that can provide only the anabolic effects of anabolic-androgenic steroids, and that’s just not the case - at least not yet. Plus, many of the popular SARMs used within the industry still have androgenic components – thus, opening the door for androgenic side effects. And these go beyond potential visual changes, and suppression of testosterone and sperm development through suspending the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis.

SARMs have many of the same side-effects of oral anabolic steroids, including influencing a rapid breakdown to levels of HDL or high-density-lipoprotein cholesterol (the good stuff) and inflammation-induced rise in liver enzymes. While it’s possible these could be rectified by using an injectable form of SARMs, the reality is, that probably won’t be manufactured anytime soon. Keep in mind, these drugs were almost exclusively designed for oral use in therapeutic populations.

Many of negative sides of SARMs are exaggerated by supraphysiological dosages … you know, the “higher than suggested” standard doses used by athletes and bros alike.

Clinical studies on SARMs have only been done in vitro, isolated cells or in either animal studies (aka on rats) - or like many steroids, on the sick or old within clinical population settings. They have not been tested on healthy, young active males and females, and the doses within the research on SARMs are significantly lower than those required for performance enhancing effects. Even those lower doses have been seen to result in negative side-effects!

I think this is a good time to remind you that we’re dealing with the millennial anabolic. If after over 75 years we don’t know the full extent of AAS side effects, how do we know the health consequences of SARMs? We don’t.

We do not know the health consequences of SARMs.

Not only that, but by the time that we learn about a new SARM, it’s often already been re-configured by researchers. Currently pharmaceutical companies are testing “second-generation” non-steroidal SARMs (maybe even third by the time you read time) – leaving an entire flock of first-generation SARMs behind.

Why didn’t those ones go to clinical trial? Simple, they didn’t work like they were supposed too. Many first-gen SARMs had far too many risky side effects to ever get ‘stamp of approval’ required for their use.

No stamp = no approved used = no profit for drug companies.

And so, first gen-SARMs got scrapped by the pharmaceutical world. But you know what they say. One man’s trash, is another man’s treasure.

 

 

KILLING THE GOOSE

First-gen SARMs were found by researchers to dangerous and not actually effective, but that didn’t stop our industry’s serial snake-oil supplement gurus from manufacturing, propagating and making millions off sales. Unfortunately, this is one of many shortcomings associated with mainstream SARMs use.

The propaganda surrounding SARMs are plentiful. Much of it is nothing more than a myth – it holds small fragment of reality, and a whole lot of bs.  

For example, SARMs do build muscle. I can’t deny that. In some of the early studies on first-gen SARMs, there were ‘modest gains’ in lean mass – 1.0 to 1.5kg over the course of 4 to 6 weeks. Here’s the kicker – studies on injectable testosterone resulted in 5 to 7kg of lean mass gains over the same period. Plus, the modest SARMs gains came with nasty side effects!

 

If you’re familiar with SARMs you’ve probably noticed that many of them have code names, usually being made from a combination of letters followed by numbers. The reason for this is rather simple. SARMs are patented products that have not been approved for use, and are either still in – or never made it out of trial phases. They are experimental drugs that have not been offered for commercial sale by legitimate companies. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) or recent law changes from tightening the iron anti-doping grip on the sale and use of SARMs.

In early 2008, SARMs were added to WADA’s prohibited list, becoming one of the many substances banned for use in athletic competition. Mainstream use continued to fly under the radar. But in May 2016 that would come to an end when the FDA reportedly explored complaints of specific SARMs being marketed and sold by supplement companies.

Basically, a pharmaceutical company caught wind that one of the drugs they had been studying in clinical drug trials for nearly a decade was being reproduced by sport supplements companies and marketed to the masses. Under the guise of calling this drug a “dietary supplement”, these companies almost got away with it too! Obviously, there’s more than one legal issue here. One of these include that under US federal law, dietary supplements can’t include a substance being investigated as a new drug. Which as you’ve just read, many SARMs most definitely are!

 

There’s also been recent (and growing numbers of) reports discussing SARMs being found in various products that they shouldn’t have been included in… buyers beware: tainted supplements do exist!

As I mentioned earlier, SARMs are patented – that means any company manufacturing them without the consent of the founding pharmaceutical, is doing so illegally. While it’s recorded that at least one pharmaceutical company has begun sending cease-and-desist letters to stop the illegal manufacturing of a specific SARM, there remains numerous other SARMs still readily available for purchase.

 

How did supplement companies get away with selling SARMs illegally for so long?

Through the lovely legal loophole known as “research chemicals.” Discussing it is out of the scope of this article, but I’ll say this – at this time, SARMs are not available for resale under any circumstances in both United States and Canada. Yes, Canada too… contrary to popular belief SARMs are not licensed or permitted for medical or therapeutic use in here either. If you doubt this, just take a look at the numerous cases against athletes who have been caught using SARMs through the Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada.

There are also major questions being raised about the purity of SARMs currently being sold. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Those backyard black market labs who make dirty gear, are now also in the SARMs game too. Underground SARMs tested by academic researchers found that instead of containing a pharmaceutical-grade drug as claimed, the products were more like a D.I.Y. disaster – containing at least 15% impurities.

So, what does all this mean? Although SARMs can’t be legally defined as ‘anabolic steroids’ (since they don’t have structurally resemble testosterone), that doesn’t mean they are free game.

 

Thought to be the “future of androgen therapy,” SARMs were truly believed to be an alternative to steroids – a Utopian drug that would revolutionize the pharmacological world. It’s been nearly 20 years since their inception, and there has yet to be an approved drug in this category yet. Few have been close, and while there are a few hopefuls currently in trial stages, at this point in time the golden egg hasn’t had time to hatch. Ultimately, the golden goose of gains hasn’t even been laid yet.

Thankfully, this hasn’t killed the SARM dream yet. Researchers are continuing to reconfigure molecular structures at an astronomical pace, and the newest generation of drugs may be available for clinical use within the next few years. Presently, both the side-effects and suspicious claims are alive and causing a lot of potential harm for the future of these drugs.

For now, it looks like SARMs may be nothing more than a sitting duck.

 

 

 

© Victoria Felkar. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.

 

 

The Enigma of Anabolics for Her

 

Women & Steroids:
Ignorance & the Enigma of Anabolics for Her.

Lately I've found myself disgusted with the sheer amount of overly simplistic and dangerous discussions of female anabolic-androgen steroid (AAS) use. By no means is this an easy area to unpack. Quite frankly, it's an enigma, and in order to host a responsible conversation requires a lot more than just reciting 'scientific data' like it's gospel.

To begin to understand this massively intricate topic takes challenging certain personal beliefs like biological difference between the sexes, typical “masculine” or “feminine” characteristics, and knowledge about the body itself. It involves understanding physiology, biomedicine, the endocrine system, hormones, and of course androgens specifically, while not forgetting to mix in ‘personalized medicine’ – a method emphasizing evaluation and programming based on the individual and their uniquely dynamic characteristics. It demands a grasp of the physical and chemical properties of AAS, and basic clinical pharmacology of the effects of specific compounds is also essential.

Most critical of all, there needs to be context. Who exactly are we talking about? What other health and performance variables must be considered? What additional factors - whether internal or external to that particular individual's body must be explored? What drugs were used, for how long, and what source are they from? In this conversation, context is everything. 

As an academic researcher I am writing this not as scare tactic. In fact, I’m very critical of, and often appalled by, pseudo-scientific, unethical, and propaganda-like scholarly publications preaching the ‘evils’ of steroid use without citing relevant studies to back such claims. Nothing irks me more than reading information, hearing conversations, and seeing firsthand the damaging results of uneducated and ill-informed bro-pharmacists. I recognize fully the dangerous influence of Dr. Juice – the contest prep cocktail isn’t just a concern for females but all AAS users, but to say it simply – the body is complicated. 

 

Often I see athletes getting so focused on the ‘outside’, that what is happening on the inside gets ignored. At the crux of most sport is the desire to perform, and not just 'good enough' but to excel. To take your body to a new limit - whether it's an achievement of strength, speed or physical appearance. It's ok to want to win. It's ok to push the limits. But we have to start appreciating that by doing so, we alter and modified how well our internal systems can function. No matter how much 'science' or 'evidence' is involved during the process, many times the extent of this is unbeknownst until it's too late.

 

Fem chem.

While AAS are a class of drugs often containing synthetic testosterone, we all have this steroidal hormone flowing naturally in our bodies. Of course there are large variations in natural (endogenous) levels of testosterone. Since we are talking about women, I want to mention a hugely important point – whether genetic or due to other causes, some females have high levels of androgens. Indeed, androgen excess is the most common endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age.

Women naturally produce sex steroids in various parts of their body – primarily the adrenal glands and ovaries. Other tissues such as fat and skin can also assist in converting weak androgens to stronger ones. Furthermore, some women with excess androgens may have excess levels of circulating insulin (insulin resistance), which has a massive effect on metabolic function, and can manifest in a wide range of symptoms including weight gain and lethargy. High androgens are also a common marker for an endocrine disorder called 'Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome' (PCOS) (as I've discussed before, this is a misunderstanding panacea). While it may come with a list of sub-characteristics and manifestations, little is known about 'PCOS' in “fit” women. Currently there is a limited study exploring how AAS may interact with 'PCOS', metabolic function, or influence the body’s ability to create and use androgens naturally.

Why am I spewing this medical mumbo jumbo? All of this is hugely important to remember when discussing women and steroids for a number of reasons including the fact for whatever reason people seem to think the female body lacks any amount of androgens to begin with. Furthermore, there appears to be a lack of regard for the variance in natural levels of androgens, and the different ways in which women can metabolize these steroids. I told you, it's complicated. But guess what? All of this gets even more complex when you add in our abysmal knowledge of athlete steroid use in general.

 

Bro Knowledge

For over 50 years AAS have been a cluster of controversy and panic, which unfortunately has limited academically sound and clinically applicable information on these drugs. The studies that do get discussed within the industry often pertain to the use of AAS within medical populations, or are concerned with self-administration by males – neither can be translated for female use! So where do you go then to learn about women and steroids? Internet forums of course! And if that doesn’t work, hire a prep coach. If those thoughts crossed your mind, even for a second, please give yourself a very hard smack, as that assumption couldn’t be more wrong and dangerous.

Let's break a few things down –

Your prep coach is not a researcher and Internet forums are not medical textbooks. Many times the information isn’t even on the specific compound you are looking to better understand because (surprise) anabolic steroids are sold on the BLACK MARKET. They are unregulated and not controlled for purity or strength. Thus, there is a high chance they have been cross-contaminated. Please note that a little sticker saying “pharmaceutical grade” means absolutely nothing. For men this is important, but for women it is absolutely crucial. Although health risks exist with any AAS, there are certain properties associated with specific compounds that may pose less of a risk for some women (please note the absolute lack of any generalizing statement within this comment).

The effects of female hormone manipulation are murky. Even if you determine a particular steroid is acceptable for personal use, you’ll be lucky to get your hands on a bottle actually containing the desired drug. And this matters! You should know what you are taking as all AAS are not the same!

Different AAS elicit different anabolic and androgen responses- anabolic induced changes to rates of muscle growth AND androgenic responses such as acne, hirsutism (abnormal hair growth), and reproductive dysfunction. These vary from drug to drug, and are often described in the form of a ratio. For example, synthetic testosterone has an anabolic to androgenic ratio of 1:1. This is the one and only time you’ll read a specific compound name in this article. Why? There’s a sickening sense of “protection” associated with specific drugs due to this ratio. An assumed safety net has been cast over certain drugs deemed “ok” for female consumption simply because they have lower androgenic activity. This notion is not only irresponsible and foolish, but it’s created a lack of critical thinking and laziness around female anabolic use. It amazes me that someone will prep for months BUT won’t put in the time and effort to truly understand the drugs they are putting into their body, and the influence on their health. While there’s little assistance from medical sciences on anabolic steroids, education is not impossible.

 

I'm not getting off my soap-box yet. Please know, I’m all for personal choice. I completely respect an individual’s decision to build their body as they please, but regarding AAS, there is a responsibility to fully understand risks, rewards, and long-term consequences of usage. Who you are today may not reflect who you want to be tomorrow. While you may want to be the next Ms. Olympia, life changes - your health changes. If you really want to learn more about steroids for the female users start with the basics. Understand basic human physiology. Work with a health care practitioner to track your sex hormones and menstruation patterns, and know the interaction of these on the endocrine system. There is some work out there on women and steroid use - however, there is a lot of room for improvement... variables not controlled for or even mentioned, problematic methodologies, and just all around bad science. 

 

Ignorance & bad science

So no, women and steroids is not a topic that you can simply search on the Internet or ask a random bro about. As I mentioned above, unfortunately it's also one that recently some of the industry's "most educated" have completely dropped the ball on - spewing off preconceived notions and unsubstantiated information without any critical reflection of the impact that their words have on the health of others.

To be honest, I get sick to my stomach when I think about the far reaching consequences of the conversations happening on social media about women and steroid use. I'm not just talking about female AAS use either, but steroids and other pharmaceuticals used in hormone manipulation in all forms: androgens, peptides, selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), anti-estrogens, oral contraceptives, hormonal IUDs, hormone replacement therapies -  oral, injectable, implants, patches, creams, sprays, and powders.

 

Do I know everything there is to know about female hormone manipulation? Hell no. By no means do I see myself as an authority on this topic. Even with my doctoral research being on women and steroids - the use of AAS and oral contraceptives by female athletes, and all the time I have spent specializing in this area and working directly with female athletes, doctors and other professionals, I am no expert. 

Guess what? When it comes to women and steroids, I'm not afraid to admit that there is a lot that I don't know. Now that I've probably lost the confidence of a few by admitting this, I'll tell you something that I do know about this topic: I don't know because we don't know. We don't know because there is a complete lack of study, critical conversation and personal dialogue - not only as it relates to female hormone manipulation, but women's health issues as a whole. Especially, information from a female perspective, which when it comes to these topics isn't important - it's essential.

 

As a result, it's vital to get good, reputable and contextual information out there. It's crucial to host conversations about women and steroids openly and without bias. But, there is a warning that should come with doing this - 

Words have power.

When you have power, words become the divine

 

Be careful what you put out to the world because the publication of inaccurate or misleading data is no different than the ignorance you seek to destroy. Ignorance is not bliss - it is dangerous. Ignorance disguised as scientific knowledge has infinite power. It is an incurable disease that spreads like wildfire, and puts the health and safety of women in serious danger.

It's time to start respecting that anabolics for her is an enigma. You are not an expert on this topic because no one is an expert. Maybe once you do that, we can actually start helping women.

 

 

Ps. I am working relentlessly to be able to start sharing more of my research on women and steroids with you. After the recent events online, it's clear that right now - more than ever it's needed. 


Copy the link, share and help spread the word.
victoriafelkar.com/library/womenandsteroids

 

 

Muscle Expert: Hormone Manipulation & Food as Therapy

Muscle Expert Podcast with Ben Pakulski #58

USING food as a therapeutic tool and hormone manipulation in sports

 

Can’t thank Ben Pakulski enough for having me on The Muscle Expert. I'll admit, I was nervous as all when I found out that I was the first female guest - but I think he managed to keep the entire conversation organic and flowing by not telling me we were even recording! Seriously, though - this was such a good podcast, and it was great to catch up, talk shop and educate on some really critical topics. Thanks again Ben!

 

Key Highlights:

  • How to balance fat ratios.
  • The menstrual cycle myth and why women should be wary of missing their menstrual cycle.
  • Glucose disposal agents, sex hormones, sleep deprivation, post-diet binge eating mitigation strategies.  

 

"Just don't eat like an asshole" 

 

EPISODE LINK:

http://www.benpakulski.com/podcasts/victoria/

 

ITUNES: 

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/ben-pakulski-podcast-muscle/id725296816

 

STITCHER: 

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/ben-pakulski-podcast-muscle-expert-interviews-how-to-build/ben-pakulski-podcast-muscle-expert-interviews

 

Learn more about Ben Pakulski & The Muscle Expert podcast:
http://www.benpakulski.com
FB: @IFBBbenpakFANPage
IG: @ifbbbenpak
Youtube: MI40 Muscle Intelligence

 

 

Time Stamps:

4:00 Victoria's dissertation topic, exploring the world of female hormonal manipulation in elite sport.

10:47 Hyperandrogenism in females. 

11: 40 Metformin for women post competition.

13:40 Strategies for women recovering from androgen use. 

16:12 Progestron, chronic inflammation and more.

17:35 Reducing dietary triggers, changing your breakfast and eliminating the major allergenic foods.

20:06 Testing for gut health, food mapping protocols, and biofeedback.

21:50 Using food as a therapeutic tool. 

23:38 Balancing fat ratios. 

25:29 The modern American diet,

25:1 omega 6:3 ratio? 

28:50 Women, the first line of defense to overcome the psychology the binge and purge mindset. 

33:43 Glucose disposal agents, hormones, sleep deprivation. 

38:05 Less is more when it comes to training and more is more when it comes to food.

39:00 The menstrual cycle myth.

42:10 Victoria's book, nonhormonal ways to fix hormonal imbalances. 

45:50 The critical biopsychosocial physical ecological model of dynamic relations. 

52:00 Finding gratitude and acceptance.

56:42 Managing variables. 

1:00:20 Morning routines and avoiding emails.  

 

 

 

The 'Secondary' Side Effects of Steroids.

The Secondary Side Effects of Steroids: Sex, Gender and the ‘Unnatural’ Female Sporting Body

IN PROCESS

For over half a century controversy has swirled around the use of anabolic androgen steroids (AAS) by athletes and bodybuilders. They have received significant media and political attention though both the academic and clinical literature are sparse. Robert Goldman’s Death in the Locker Room (1984) helped to create and perpetuate hysteria and panic surrounding steroids, especially their use by women. Focusing on what he calls, “The New Unisex – Female Athletes Turning Male,” Goldman describes anabolic steroids as exclusively “masculine hormones,” and suggests that women who take them are ‘unnatural’, resulting in a ‘bastardization of the female form.’ Goldman is not alone in his concern for the female use of anabolic steroids. The little research that surrounds women and steroids tends to endorse powerful cultural norms about a ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ female sporting body. Often, discussions of female athlete steroid use echo long standing beliefs about the appropriate appearance, health and abilities of the female sporting body.

This project will examine why there has been so little attention to female steroid use and discuss the underlying assumptions on which biological determinism, sex, gender, and the ‘natural’ body have been built into the steroid discourse. As Nelly Oudshroon pointed out, ideas regarding the function of hormones, and the terminology surrounding these chemical messengers have embodied rigid cultural ideas about sex, gender, and the body. Although hormones, including synthetic hormones, do not possess an inherent sex or gender, the debate over anabolic-androgen steroids use in sports continues to distinguish anatomical and physiological differences in the ‘male’ and ‘female’ sporting body.

Despite recent scholarship on gender verification, sex testing and the female athletic body that challenge dominant ideas about ‘normal’ levels of ‘natural’ endogenous androgen levels in female athletes, little research has addressed exogenous androgens, women and AAS use in sport, or the gendering of synthetic sex hormones. Furthermore, although there is a growing body of critical literature on anabolic steroids, the gendering of synthetic sex hormones has not gained the same level of critical inquiry as other aspects of the topic, such as the reframing the philosophical debates of ‘fairness’, debating doping-control measures, or the unsubstantiated physiological and/or psychological ‘risks’ associated with male athlete use.

Drawing upon historical and contemporary medical and popular literature, this project will explore the interplay around the construction of biological sex, gender and hormones, with misrepresentations and myths about the use of steroids by female athletes. It aims to address the current ‘science’ of steroids as it relates to the sporting female body, and show how presumptions about what a ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ female should look like underscores much of the discourse around women’s use of AAS.

 

Want to learn more? Contact me for details. 

The Iron Bar

 

Winner of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport Essay & Junior Scholar Award; Published in STADION – International Journal of the History of Sport; Master Thesis.


The Iron Bar: The Modern History of Prison Physical Culture and the Ban on Correctional Weightlifting.
 

From representations of prison physical culture in movies and televisions shows, mainstream workout regimes, exercise programs, even exercise names such as the “prisoner squat” – muscles and strength building exercises have become associated with the prisoner’s body in various, and often negative ways. Rarely mentioned are discussions about appropriate or health promoting sport and daily recreation programs for prisoners or inmate involvement in prison organized and self-guided bodyweight exercise programs or calisthenics routines. Popular culture tends to show prisoner’s bodybuilding with heavy barbells and dumbbells though in fact there has been a federal weightlifting ban on such activities in the United States since the early 1990’s.

Utilizing a Foucauldian perspective, the aim of this research study was to explore the modern history of prison physical culture to better understand how popular perceptions of the muscular inmate body - embedded within the disciplines of criminology and penology - influence opportunities for physical activity in correctional facilities. I focused on the recent correctional weightlifting ban enacted in the United States to gain insight into the potential influence of body typing theories, specifically somatotyping (suggesting a link between criminality and muscular physiques), on the construction of contemporary prison physical culture. Working from a critical socio-historical perspective, I worked to add to the limited knowledge of prison physical culture, research on types of physical activity available in correctional facilities and the corporeal experience of those confined to prison.

Overall very little information exists to illuminate general attitudes toward prison physical culture and measure opportunities for physical activity in correctional facilities. The following research questions will guide my study: (1) How have historical perceptions of the muscular criminal body influenced penal policy? (2) In particular, what have been the influences of body profiling and somatotyping on the role of weightlifting in prisons? Insights into these questions will allow me to better understand the reasoning behind the enactment of the 1994 weightlifting ban placed on prison physical culture within the United States. In particular, I will use one particular case study, San Quentin Correctional Facility to estimate the effects of this weightlifting ban on contemporary prison physical culture.

Although it is not known exactly when the practice of weightlifting was tolerated in American corrections, other forms of physical practice can be traced to the beginning of the modern penal movement of the 18th century. An example of a physical technique in this period of “penal enlightenment” was the “tread-wheel” developed by Sir William Cubitt in 1818 and was used to rehabilitate inmates through hard physical labor and solitary confinement (Shayt, 1989).

During the mid 1800’s American prisons underwent many shifts in correctional practice, including the introduction of recreational sports into some prisons (McKelvey, 1968). Described as fundamental in the new era of corrections, Elmira Reformatory in New York opened in 1876 as one of the first adult “reformatories” for offenders, and for years lead the American reformatory system in the application of modern theories of criminology (Smith, 1988), and use of innovative physical practices as “methods of reform” (Pisciotta, 1983).

While “prison athletics … presaged a new era in prison discipline” (McKelvey, 1968, p.229), organized sports programs did not become a feature in the adult penitentiary system until the early 20th century. During this time there have been significant changes in penal ideology in the United States, however far too little is known about the history, development and present day prison physical culture. As a result of high rates of incarceration and recidivism, beginning in the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s a shift in correctional philosophy and ideas of improvement resulted in a new penal focus for American corrections. Higher value was placed on punishment, denouncement and incapacitation as opposed to the more traditional correctional goals of rehabilitation. Coupled with the enormous growth in the prison population at the time, and the public fervor for the “get tough on crime” rhetoric (Tepperman, 2011), many states began to limit inmate privileges and activities – in particular, prison weightlifting (Hanser, 2012).

To date, very few researchers have discussed prison weightlifting, or addressed those influences which lead to the weightlifting ban. It has been regarded by some scholars as a result of a societal “moral panic” and a product of harsh punitive penal reform (Pawelko & Anderson, 2011); while other research speculates that the ban can be attributed to the popular media’s construction and representation of weightlifting and prisons (Tepperman, 2011). Tepperman (2011) asserts that central to the ban was an “ethos of panic” regarding weightlifting’s ability to construct physically larger, more powerful and aggressive inmates (Wagner, McBride & Crouse, 1997). The impact of this language and the encompassing ideologies regarding the “super breed” of muscular criminals (Foster, 1995) can thus be seen to be integral to the prison weightlifting ban (Tepperman, 2011). 

It is important to note that ideas regarding the muscular inmate body are not simply a creation of the “No Frills movement” and the prison weightlifting ban – they can be found deep within the field of criminology, and in many respects, these perceptions echo ideas of body typing and biocriminality. Since the 18th century there has been inquiry into the relationship between body type and criminality, specifically addressing the idea that criminals typically embody a mesomorphic or muscular physique. Scholars note the importance of examining the historical origins of the various viewpoints within constitutional theory and body typing “to understand the origins, acceptance, and maintenance of criminological ideas” (Rafter, 2007, p. 805), however little research has investigated the influence of criminological ideas on penal policy, prison physical culture and inmates’ opportunities for physical activity.

Without a better understanding of prison physical culture and the identification of important influencing ideologies there remains an absence of context regarding the socio-historical and institutional conditions that govern particular forms of physical activity in correctional facilities. As a result the proposed research will add a socio-historical perspective of physical practices in prison to enhance our limited knowledge of prison physical culture and highlight those factors which have impacted opportunities for physical activity including the weightlifting ban within the United States.

 

Excerpt From: Felkar, V. (2016). “The Iron Bar. The Modern History of Prison Physical Culture and the Correctional Weightlifting Ban”. Stadion 40 (2014): 19-37.

 

 

 

See my Thesis:
https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0135657

 

Want to learn more? Contact me for details. 

 

Built Both Ways – The Paradox of Muscularity

How can a muscular body be both feared and revered within popular culture at the same time?

Project Overview:

The issue of the relationships among muscularity, body type and criminal behaviour has long intrigued scholars. Criminologists, psychologists, physical educators and the health profession more broadly have enquired into the relationship between body type and criminality, specifically addressing the links between criminal behaviour and a “mesomorphic” or muscular physique (Rafter, 2007; Vertinsky, 2007; Walby & Carrier, 2010; Wright & Miller, 1998). Although early biological theories of crime, such as body profiling, in particular William Sheldon’s somatotyping categories (Sheldon, 1954), have undergone extensive scientific scrutiny and subsequent critique, they continue to persist within contemporary culture. Why has criminology and body typology constructed the muscular body as deviant? What are the implications for linking criminal behaviour to muscularity? What other fields propagate somatotyping’s mesomorphic-delinquency correlation?  

From growing fears about the dangers of muscular prisoners to the enduring stigmatization encountered by female bodybuilders (Shilling & Bunsell, 2009), there remains an open “disdain for the culture of muscle” (Darkes, 2000). At the same time, there is a growing admiration for a muscular appearance and accompanied athletic excellence. This “muscular ideal” and the drive for muscularity in men is well-documented in Western culture (Thompson & Cafri, 2007). In addition to the traditional norms of masculinity that associate the male gender role with a muscular physique (Helgeson, 1994; Mussap, 2008), male and female athletes operate within a context that requires heightened levels of muscularity to achieve sporting excellence and for functional performance-based purposes, such as increased athletic performance and decreased risk of injury (Steinfeldt, Carter, Benton, & Steinfeldt, 2011). How did the dominant and largely negative narratives around the muscular body in contemporary culture develop and what ramifications do they have for those who pursue muscle? Why are there conflicting messages around the pursuit of muscularity in contemporary culture? How are these messages understood and addressed in competitive sport, the recreation and fitness industry, and physical culture?  

Through the perpetuation of somatotyping and the mesomorphic-delinquency correlation, criminology has continued to construct, promote and re-produce knowledge of what a “delinquent” body is. Rafter (2007) argues that in order to “understand the origins, acceptance and maintenance of criminological [theories]” (p. 825) an analytical framework that includes social histories is fundamental. As a result, the proposed research intends to add a historical perspective to enhance our limited knowledge of muscular profiling and highlight the development, impact and influences of criminology’s construction of the muscular body as deviant. The aim of this study is to explore the ways in which criminology and body typology have constructed and reinforced knowledge of the muscular body, and the impact of these beliefs in contemporary thought and practice.

Want to learn more? Contact me for details. 

 

References

Darkes, J. (2009). Muscular Profiling – Is Muscularity Evidence of a Crime? Retrieved from http://thinksteroids.com/articles/muscle-profiling-steroids/

Helgeson, V. S. (1994). Prototypes and dimensions of masculinity and femininity. Sex Roles, 31, 653– 682.

Mussap, A. J. (2008). Masculine gender role stress and the pursuit of muscularity. International Journal of Men’s Health, 7(1), 72-89.

Rafter, N. H. (2008). The criminal brain: Understanding biological theories of crime. New York: New York University Press

Rafter, N. H. (2007). Somatotyping, antimodernism, and the production of criminological knowledge. Criminology, 45(4), 805-833.

Sheldon, W. H. (1954). Atlas of men: A guide for somatotyping the adult male at all ages. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Shilling, C., & Bunsell, T. (2009). The female bodybuilder as a gender outlaw. Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, 1(2), 141-59.

Steinfeldt, J. A., Carter, H., Benton, E., & Steinfeldt, M. C. (2011). Muscularity beliefs of female college student-athletes. Sex Roles, 64, 543–554.

Thompson, K. J., Cafri, G. (Eds.). (2007). The muscular ideal: Psychosocial, social, and medical perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Vertinsky, P. (1990). The eternally wounded women. Women, doctors, and exercise in the late nineteenth century. New York: Manchester University Press.

Vertinsky, P. (2007). Physique as destiny: William H. Sheldon, Barbara Honeyman Heath and the struggle for hegemony in the science of somatotyping. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History = Bulletin Canadien d'Histoire De La Médecine, 24(2), 291-316.

Walby, K., & Carrier, N. (2010). The rise of biocriminology: Capturing observable bodily economies of ‘criminal man’. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 10(3), 261-285.

Wright, R. A., & Miller, J. M. (1998). Taboo until today? The coverage of biological arguments in criminology textbooks, 1961 to 1970 and 1987 to 1996. Journal of Criminal Justice, 26(1), 1-19.

 

How Muscle Became Bad.

Maybe being muscular isn’t all it’s built up to be.

 

You’ve been mugged.

Late one night under the cover of darkness you found yourself blindly cowering at hands of an attacker. You didn’t see the guy who attacked you but the police still call you in to view a line-up of possible suspects. From right to left your eyes scan over 4 men. Too old … too skinny … too short ... eureka! Standing in front of you is a complete monster with arms so big that they could burst through his shirt at any second. Even without ever laying eyes on your mugger, you don’t have a single doubt in your mind that this jacked-up animal is him. That’s the criminal who attacked you.

Although the above is simply a fictional story it represents a powerful and inescapable stereotype that for decades has haunted those with muscles.

Got muscle? Welcome to a lifetime of typecasting as a violent, mentally-ill, unintelligent, steroid using criminal – and if you’re a female then you can add the fact that somehow you’ve suddenly grown balls and have dreams of becoming a man.

But how can this be? We’ve all got muscle to some extend or another. So, why is a muscular body ridiculed, criminalized and condemned? Since when did muscle become bad?

To answer this we must to turn back the clock to the late-1800s. Here in the shadows of a time known for many great discoveries, is the start of a long and disturbing history that continues to promote what a criminal body looks like.   

Emerging as a product of Darwinism, the field of criminology started as a way to help society identify and get rid of anyone that they perceived to be ‘bad’. For example, in Italy a physician and psychiatrist named Cesare Lombroso began to make claims that all criminals had similar physical features. How could a crooked nose and anchor tattoo on the arm of a sailor automatically condemn a man as criminal?

Such ideas quickly found their way across the Atlantic and with America’s growing prison system more theories of what it meant to look like a criminal erupted. Here’s when muscle first got added into the mix.  

By the turn of the 19th century the notion of muscular Christianity gained popularity throughout the United States - which linked muscle building to improving morality. This movement inspired prison officials at New York’s Elmira Reformatory to use physical activity and sport as a way to fight the physical decay that had become associated with criminality. That’s right, being muscular was thought to make a man less criminal.

The support for men to build muscular bodies continued into the turn of the 20th century. A growing sport movement was taking Western nations by storm and event such as the first modern Olympics of 1896 helped to show the world what being physical fit could do for a man’s body and mind. Clear boundaries of how much muscle was socially tolerable was set by the same field that has brought to us the science of body composition testing – the field of anthropometry.

For the average man some muscle and strength was desired … but if you went too far … got too big and too strong then you were literally forced to run off and join the circus. As traveling performers, strongmen and women helped to build popular opinion of the muscular body – often one of curiosity and mystery. Muscle had now been made into another sideshow act of the Freak show.                                   

The arrival of Prussian strongman and founder of bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow to the United States further developed public interest in a heavily muscled physique. Sandow’s vaudeville acts were closely followed by the launch of Bernarr MacFadden Physical Culture magazine in 1899. Headed by the motto “Weakness is a crimedon't be a criminal!” the magazine revealed to the average man all the fitness and diet strategies needed to develop a mainstream muscular physique.

And so another element is added into the muscular myth. Too much muscle will turn you into a one-man circus freak show … but too little muscle makes you a criminal.

Even after the horrific Nazi eugenics movement defined the muscular male body as god-like there was little judgement against muscle within popular culture – that was until in the 1950’s the father of somatotyping, William Sheldon, suddenly defined muscle as bad.

Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, his work was a melting pot of pseudo-science, power struggles and dirty money. To say it nicely, Sheldon was a bit of a crock – and unfortunately a very resilient one.

Here’s what Sheldon preached. All male bodies can fit into 3 basic body types – endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph - an idea that many of us in the fitness industry know well.

BUT here’s something most don’t know about somatotyping theory. Sheldon specifically promoted that men with muscular mesomorphic bodies are more prone to criminal activity, violence and aggressive acts.  

Exploring the merits of body typing theory is beyond the scope of this article. It’s one that we can have another day, but regardless of if you agree with the disillusion of somatotyping or not there is one very important take away message here.

Sheldon’s work and those who followed in his theoretical footprints have created an incredibly stigmatizing message about the muscular body:

Muscularity = Deviance.

Muscularity = Aggression.

Deviance + Aggression = Criminality.

It would be easy for me to end the story there but unfortunately there is a lot more to this dangerous equation. And so we continue in the 1970s. Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger something really interesting happen that would for better or worse rebuilt muscles reputation.

In bodybuilding circles Arnold and Pumping Iron have been regarded for bringing bodybuilding into the mainstream but they did much more than just that – they helped to change what it meant to look like a man… muscles! Suddenly muscle became the standard for American manhood. That’s right muscularity = masculinity.

Size now mattered when it came to muscle, and it was nowhere more apparent than in the media. By the early 1980s the hard-bodied action star dominated the silver screen and made a place for heavily-muscled bodies within popular culture. Pair this with an enormous in spike in films suddenly showing jacked-up inmates pumping iron in the pen and we can start to see a highly visible - yet completely false - representation of exactly what Sheldon’s research stated… the big bad bodies of muscular criminals.  

Back behind the gates of academia, researchers continued to pump-out studies focusing on how muscularity was responsible for criminal behaviour. As if being muscular wasn’t bad enough, during the early 90s researchers had started to explore the relationship of testosterone to criminal behaviour. One study went as far to state a “well-established relationship” between testosterone’s effects on the brain and body build – but get this. The researchers state that testosterone only enhances upper body muscle. Unfortunately, this particular study became the media’s go-to source to try to explain everyday acts of criminal behaviour.

Fast forward to today. Where does having a muscular physique get you in 2015? For both men and women this remains a conversation full of complex contradictions.

While there continues to be an open disrespect for bodybuilding and the culture of muscle it represents, there is also a sense of admiration and respect for those who have average or “good” levels of muscularity.

Rigid social norms require men to have some muscle in order to be considered masculine, and it is necessary for female and male athletes to have heightened levels of musculature in order to achieve sporting excellence.

Furthermore, when female muscle serves a functional purpose such as when a Xfit athlete flings her body over a chin up bar in a convulsing motion society seems to be a-ok with her shredded six-pack but when this same body is posed on stage in front double bicep wearing a sparkly bikini her body suddenly becomes grotesque and “manly.”

Don’t forget about the absolutely absurd pathologization of muscle as a mental illness, such as Dr. Harrison Pope’s psychological diagnosis of “muscle dysmorphia” or bigeroxia. Pope and his colleagues have such strong ideas on what is are ‘appropriate’ levels of muscle and the wrongful desire to work out that they have created a mathematical formula (the Fat Free Mass Index) to determine the level of musculature a person can achieve without anabolic steroid use. How’s that for science!

And if it wasn’t complex enough, the condemnation of muscle has morphed into an all-out war against performance enhancing agents and the ridiculous automatic vilification of anabolic steroids and those who use them. Regardless of their rich and vast cultural history, the discussion of anabolic steroids revolves around a combination of legal, ethical and medical arguments that steroid use is unfair, unethical, medically dangerous but above all criminal.

Furthermore, most popular discourse around anabolic steroid use pertains to only one user, and one user alone – the muscular male. This is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in Sweden’s recent law changes which now allow police officers to search, arrest, and conduct mandatory drug testing based “anabolic steroids physical characteristics” such as “puffy and bloated body” and “swaying walk.”

How do the police get away with blatant acts of stereotyping in the 21st century? It’s a little something the legal system calls “probable cause” based on a person’s physical appearance. Like skin color or ethnic background, muscularity should not provide the grounds for violating someone’s basic human rights and personal privacy.

Let’s get something straight here.

Muscle itself is neutral in biology.

It is neither male or female – nor is it wicked, immoral or evil. Having varying degrees of muscularity does not produce more or less intelligence, aggression, mental illness or criminal behaviour.

In its most pure form, muscle is simply a grouping of muscle fiber cells surrounded by some connective tissue - yet, overtime society has and continues to constructed particular meanings and definitions of what it means to be muscular ... we have made muscle bad.

Simply put, being muscular isn’t all that it is built-up to be.

 

 

Originally Published: Feature, Muscle Insider Magazine, 24: Aug/Sept 2015

 

 

Muscle Minds: Sex, Gender & Anabolics

Advices Radio: Muscle Minds with Dr. Scott Stevenson and Scott McNally #19

 

I'm back with my good friend Dr Scott Stevenson, and his partner in podcast crime Scott McNally, on Muscle Minds to answer listeners questions and discusses gender issues and how they have impacted female anabolic steroid use

 

EPISODE link:

https://www.advicesradio.com/track/episode-19-3

 

ITUNES: 

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/advices-radio/id1104299645?mt=2

 

Stitcher: 

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/scott-mcnally/advices-radio/e/51707031

 

 

Learn more about Advices Radio:
www.advicesradio.com
FB: @advices.radio
YOUTUBE: Advices Radio

 

 

Too Big to be Natural?

Debunking the Gospels of Dr. Harrison Pope

Are you male? Do you lift weights or participate in bodybuilding? Do you want to change your physique … maybe add some muscle or decrease your body fat? Do you lift weights for more than a few hours a week? Do you pay attention to your diet? If you said yes to any of the above questions then you could have a psychological illness – one that the field of psychology believes is a growing ‘secret crisis’ and epidemic among men who workout. 

A variant of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) - also known as bigorexia, megarexia or reverse anorexia nervosa - is formally defined as a pathological preoccupation or obsession with muscularity and leanness. In other words, it is that constant drive to get jacked. The official list of criteria includes a range of characteristics such as feelings of guilt or shame when having to miss a workout, constantly checking one’s reflection to see if they have added size, training “past the pain” or while injured, an “excessively controlled” dietary regime, and anabolic steroid use.

Hold on… from the sounds of it, it seems nearly every bodybuilder that I have ever crossed paths with is considered by psychology to be a little unhinged. My goal is not to debate whether or not muscle dysmorphia is a legitimate mental illness or not. As a teen and former competitive ballet dancer I personally struggled and overcame severe anorexia nervosa – a disease that to this day still has lingering physiological health effects. Needless to say, I am the last person who will argue the legitimacy of what defines a mental illness. But I digress. Let us get back to the topic at hand.

Yes, the concept of muscle dysmorphia has some validity BUT there are some big problems with the methodology and theories of the mastermind behind the bigorexia phenomenon. Ladies and gentlemen, I let me introduce you to Dr. Harrison “Skip” Pope. 

Published in 2000, Pope and colleagues introduced the world to muscle dysmorphia (MD) in their book, The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsessions. Like with any new sexy scientific finding, the media quickly swallowed up Pope’s new diagnosis of MD without much criticism. In fact, during the firestorm of the Major League Baseball drug scandals in the early years of the new millennium Pope became the media’s go-to ‘steroid expert’ tasked with explaining why anyone would ever go to such dangerous lengths to improve their sporting performance.

For Pope, the motives behind anabolic steroid use are not about a desire to achieve athletic excellence but rather are solely fueled by a culturally induced desire to improve personal appearance. In other words, Pope claims that (and I’m not exaggerating here) men take steroids to get bigger. Performance enhancing drug use is less about becoming a better athlete and more about achieving the ultimate muscular appearance.

Pope links this relentless desire for size through AAS use back to the Adonis Complex that he declares “afflicts millions in our society” and has been brought on by “modern society’s and the media’s powerful and unrealistic messages emphasizing an ever more muscular, ever more fit, and often unattainable male body ideal.” Said best by former powerlifting world record holder and Sport Historian at the University of Texas, Dr. Jan Todd, if that is truly the case then “perhaps we should rename gyms – if there are truly millions of such folks – Body Dysmorphic Centers.”

I agree that there has been a sort of steroid driven metamorphosis since the 1940s in how the male body is depicted within popular culture. Whether it is in action figures and comic books, professional wrestling and bodybuilding, in magazines and movies or even just in advertisements, there has been a remarkable transformation of the muscular male body over the past 75 years. But can we really boil a supposed male need for anabolic steroids and automatic diagnosis of a MD down to this? Could the development of new techniques of athletics and strength training have anything to do with this unquestionable growth in muscularity and strength? What about the countless new findings within the fields of kinesiology, sport science, nutrition and medicine? Are women immune to developing muscle dysmorphia? What about athletes? Where do you draw the line between obsessive behaviour and doing simply what is needed in order to excel in elite sport?

Due to an overwhelming lack of scientific detail, the complete absence of a bibliography, questionable research methods and overall weak scholarship, there remain countless questions that could be further discussed regarding Pope’s Adonis Complex – however the most problematic of his claims we haven’t even got to yet.

Measuring Steroid Use.

Possibly the boldest and most absurd of Pope’s claims is not only the discovery of a “natural limit” of muscular development without steroids but also that a simple formula could be used to detect anabolic-steroid use. The formula, called the Fat Free Mass Index (FFMI), can “predict” steroid use by combining a series of mathematical calculations to determine a person’s lean muscle mass determined from height, weight and body fat percentage. Pope believes that the higher your FFMI is, the more likely it is that you are using anabolic drugs.

Wait a second. Could the FFMI really be a new cheap and non-invasive alternative to drug testing? Think about it. Natural bodybuilding federations can just weigh and measure competitors, throw some numbers into a free online body composition calculator and within minutes know exactly who is juiced up. To some this may sound like a promising development, however the reality is the FFMI is not only dangerous but pretty darn idiotic.

First, let us look at exactly how Pope and his colleagues have come to find this “sharp upper limit to how muscular you can get by natural means.”

The FFMI uses a subject’s height, weight and body-fat percent to gauge overall muscularity. This score is then compared to a scale in order to determine anabolic steroid use. Sound simple enough?

To create this scale the researcher took data from 84 AAS users and 74 non-users. In this same study, FFMI estimates were derived from photographs of Mr. America winners (1939-1959) from the “pre-steroid era” and compared to estimates obtained from pictures of modern bodybuilders featured in bodybuilding magazines from 1989 to 1994. It was found that the average Mr. America had the FFMI average of 25.4 but the modern bodybuilders had much higher FFMI results. 

What does this all mean?

From these two data sets the researchers created a score to represent the highest level of muscularity that one could potentially achieve naturally. With an estimated FFMI score of 25.7, former Mr. America Steve Reeves was cited to exemplify this new natural limit of muscularity.

Pope was so confident about this natural limit that he stated “any male scoring 26 or higher who is not visibly fat, and claims that he has achieved this physical condition without the use of drugs … is almost certainly lying.”

While there are many different issues with the FFMI, for the sake of brevity, let us focus on three:

1. The issue of using young male amateur bodybuilders to further demonstrate this ‘upper limit of muscularity’ that can be achieved naturally.

Is it not just a little problematic to be classifying young males who have yet to finish puberty and only have a few years of lifting experience as recreational bodybuilders? Or what about the fact that to obtain the subject’s FFMI score Pope used skinfold caliper measures – a method that has many sources of error, not only with the technique of ‘pinching’ but also with the formula that is used to predict body density. When it comes to tracking change over time skinfolds testing can do a pretty good job – but when it comes to predicting body composition there can be as much as a 5% or more range in results even when computed by the same person. Sounds like a great method to me… NOT!

2. Using photographs to predict FFMI in bodybuilders.

There are some major discrepancies in the methodology used by Pope and colleagues to obtain the FFMI results. Furthermore, although Pope cites Steve Reeves with a FFMI of 25.6 as the upper limit, he fails to recognize that two-time Mr. America John Grimek (1940, 1941) has an estimated FFMI of 31.99. Why wasn’t Grimek used then to demonstrate the highest level of muscularity that could be achieved naturally? Your guess is as good as mine.

3. Pope’s lack of understanding of the history of physical culture and development of sport training over the past century is appalling.

Pope selected his sample of Mr. America winners from the 1939-1959 timeframe simply because he believed that they competed in a time before steroids were used by athletes and bodybuilders. Hmm… really?  

Before WWII bodybuilders didn’t specifically train for physique competitions. In 1939, the sport of bodybuilding was still in its early years. During this time, competitors were most often weight lifters who would strip down after a meet to have their physiques judged. This was a time before specific machines were used to isolate set muscle groups – before specific bodybuilding resistance training techniques were invented, or knowledge of how diet and proper supplementation could help ‘build’ a body. Needless to say, the use of bodybuilders from this era as exemplary of the ‘natural’ ideal or a steroid-free maximum is utterly misleading and a prime example of poor research. If Pope had had a more thorough understanding of the iron game might he have been able to develop a more accurate measure of muscle mass?

Overall, it saddens me deeply that an unsupported claim such as this can be made and disguised as ‘science’, distributed to the general public and accepted without any critical thought. It is because of this and more that I fear the FFMI has and will continue to fall into the wrong hands. I fear we will see the false naming of individuals as steroid users and the continued profiling of those with hyper-muscular bodies.

Yes, anabolic steroids have been a contributing factor to the development of bigger bodies over the past 100 years but there have also been astronomical advances in medicine, sports science, nutrition and coaching. Such advances have forever changed not only bodybuilding but all of sport more broadly.

For some, all of this may seem irrelevant. Why should we even care about some silly formula used to estimate anabolic steroid use? The answer is simple. Pope’s work has become embedded in contemporary physical culture. Within recent years, Pope’s FFMI has already made media headlines and the Adonis Complex has become a go-to theory in the field of psychology. Pope is hailed as one of the foremost leading experts on steroid use and has even testified before Congress on the issue - all of this without any critique or inquiring into his methods. Rather than question his research or explore the impact of his unproven claims, Pope continues to receive attention and funding, recently receiving a grant of nearly 2.5 million dollars to study the long-term dangers of steroids.

It is no wonder that popular perception of anabolic steroids is not one of fact but rather a fictional story of mentally disturbed mass monsters. As one of the most cited psychiatrists of the 20th century, the impact of Dr. Pope approaches the “biblical proportions” range. In a world where there is a preoccupation for athletes to continue to push the limits of athletic performance, Pope’s will to set ‘natural’ limits to muscular development is more than just problematic, it is an example of literal ‘natural’ selection. Except rather than allowing the big, strong and fast to excel, an overly simplistic math equation and psychological diagnosis may have the power to undermine the evolution of human potential.

 

 

Originally Published: Feature, Muscle Insider Magazine, 26: Dec/Jan 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Juiced: A Critical Conversation about Muscle

SWIS OZZIE TALK2016

From booming numbers of new dietary supplements to the rising celebrity status of social media’s fit-bodies, the popularity of today’s fitness industry is unquestionable. While current fitness trends provide for a greater social tolerance of muscle, there remains continued cultural condemnation of bodies that are arbitrarily deemed as ‘overly’ muscular. The boundary between what is defined as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ muscle is further complicated by problematic perceptions of anabolic steroids. In fact, the automatic vilification of the drugs has shaped popular representations and misconceptions of the hyper-muscular body with devastating results. Regardless of the lack of academically sound and clinically applicable information on anabolic steroids, suspected users are often viewed as social sinners, demonized, and in some countries arrested and prosecuted based solely on a muscular physique.

Guided by a critical socio-cultural historical perspective, this project explores how, overtime, the muscular body has become ridiculed, condemned and criminalized. Through the use of several examples, including the rise of criminal anthropology in the late-1800s and the evolution of the ‘evils’ of anabolic steroids use, within this project I challenged popular perceptions of muscle and identify the impact of these powerful and inescapable stereotypes for contemporary fitness culture. 

Want more? Watch the full video here.