Anabolic steroids and Human Growth Hormone (HGH) are increasingly used today by both athletes and the general public.
They are used because the benefits (increased muscle size, increased strength, and improved recovery) are perceived to outweigh the risks (liver/kidney/heart disease, depression, and increased tendency towards suicide).
Interestingly, a study by Hoffman & Ratamess (2006) concluded that the risks of anabolic steroids may have been exaggerated to dissuade athletes from partaking .
Whether the medical risks have been exaggerated or not, steroid use is illegal and costly, and should be avoided.
Personally I would recommend targeting drug-free bodybuilding competitions because exaggeration or not you can't avoid the fact that many of the most famous bodybuilders have died early due to heart failure. And there is a connection between taking steroids and heart failure .
So how can you achieve similar results without drugs?
Well you'll need your diet to be perfect, your training to be specifically targeting hypertrophy, and you will need some supplements (of the legal variety).
What Diet Do You Need For Muscle Growth?
You will have to learn how to track calories, get yourself a tracking app and work out what your current calorie target is.
Depending on where you are in relation to your bodybuilding goals you will either need to be bulking up, or cutting. I'm going to assume you are at the very beginning of your journey and are currently quite lean with little muscle.
Your first goal will be to increase the size of your muscles (hypertrophy), to do this you will need to increase calories so that you can gain size.
As you are not taking steroids you will almost certainly gain some body fat whilst doing this, but you will also gain strength and muscle size.
I would recommend slowly increasing your calories rather than just increasing them by 500/day straight off the bat.
Increase daily calories by 100-200 every week, and measure everything! Weight, inches, strength etc … If you are gaining too much body fat then add some cardio to your workout regime, or lower the calories slightly (look at your current carb intake).
Whilst bulking remember to increase your protein first, then carbs and fat second. If you are bulking and are not eating enough protein, then your muscles will not repair themselves properly and this will inhibit growth.
Most natural bodybuilders will make sure that protein is around 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight if not more.
Once you have reached your muscle size targets you will need to begin your cutting phase. As with bulking, the trick is to slowly lower calories over a long period of time rather than all at once.
Lower the daily calories by 50-100 per week whilst measuring all the time.
Remove calories from carbohydrates first, then fats, and protein last. If you are consuming 800 calories less than you were a month ago, then your protein levels will have had to go down! You still need carbs and protein in your diet.
What Training Do You Need For Muscle Growth?
Whilst bulking you should take advantage of the growth potential and look to perform compound exercises such as Deadlifts, Barbell Squats, Pull Ups, Bent Over Row, Bench Press etc …
Perform them in either 4 sets of 6 or 5 sets of 5. This period of training will be where you get some serious size and strength so take advantage of it with these big exercises.
Don't waste it on isolation exercises (though you can add them to the program fine).
A sample workout
- Barbell Squats 4 x 6
- Deadlifts 2-3 x 4-6
- Romanian Deadlifts 4 x 6
- Bench Press 4 x 6
- Pull Ups 3 x AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible)
- Military Press 3-4 x 6
- Hamstring Curls 3-4 x 6-8
- Leg Press 4 x 6-8
- Walking Lunges 3 x 10
- Incline Bench Press 3 x 6-8
- Bent Over Row 4 x 6
- Rear Delt Flyes 2-3 x 12
- Front Squats 3-4 x 6
- Glute Ham Raises 3 x AMRAP
- Close Grip Bench Press 3 x 8-10
- Lat Pulldown 3 x 6-8
- Bicep Curls 4 x 6
For the cutting phase I would recommend keeping the program very similar but increasing the reps to between 8-12 (or even as high as 15 reps) as this will help with hypertrophy. Add some cardio HIIT or LISS (or both) and remember that diet will make the biggest difference.
What Supplements Should You Use?
A whey protein shake is definitely recommended, as numerous studies have shown protein's help with recovery, strength, and hypertrophy .
Creatine is also a good supplement to take as it can produce similar effects to steroids in terms of growth whilst being completely safe and legal . Incidentally take your creatine post-workout, as the results are significantly better than when taken pre .
I would also recommend caffeine tablets such as pro-plus before a workout as caffeine has a lot of benefits for performance, fat-oxidation, and energy expenditure (it will increase your metabolism) .
So there you have it, everything you need to know about getting started as a natural lifter. Remember, you have chosen the hard path but the benefits for your health, mind, and future will make it all worthwhile.
 Hoffman, J., Ratamess, N. 2006. Medical Issues Associated with Anabolic Steroid Use: Are They Exaggerated? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 5(2): 182-193
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