Natural lifting is fast becoming the most popular form of body composition training.
More and more people are becoming attracted to the promise of a muscle-bound body without all the dangers of steroid abuse.
There are many natural lifters out there at the moment who have become huge celebrities in their selected fields.
They may not have as impressive physiques as “Professional” Bodybuilders but they do have a certain degree of respect.
But the reality is that natural lifting is completely unenforceable. If you don’t compete in any competitions then nobody is ever going to test your blood-work for signs of steroids.
Even if they did enforce tests, a knowledgeable lifter would always be able to work around this obstacle.
Many of the most common performance-enhancing drugs can clear the system in less than a few days (insulin can clear the system within a couple hours). So unless the drug test is completely random, a natural lifter can easily work around this.
Strictly speaking, would taking high doses of caffeine, or creatine, or even whey protein be considered natural? Probably not, but they're legal.
Ephedrine used to be sold in pharmacies but is now banned in the US and UK, so there was a time when competitions would allow this drug and now they can't.
Technically, every bodybuilder would classify themselves as a natural lifter. They would be insane not to.
If Kai Green or Phil Heath admitted to taking steroids they would lose all of their supplement sponsorships.
They would also be in danger of legal consequences. But, because these lifters are clearly not natural they are perceived differently.
Sadly these people will be more likely to win, and therefore more likely to be successful and well known.
It’s an open secret that bodybuilders take drugs. Otherwise, there would be no need for a “natural bodybuilding” competition.
So when we discuss fake “natural lifters” we are focusing exclusively on people who train for natural bodybuilding competitions, and people who train for social media likes (you know the type).
Steroid use is a controversial subject in many gyms up and down the country, particularly in the more old-fashioned “spit and sawdust” type gyms.
On the one hand, people clearly use them, and the professional bodybuilders are all taking steroids, growth hormones, insulin, and many other illegal performance enhancers. On the other, as they are illegal it’s taboo to talk about them.
The subject is an open secret in bodybuilding circles. Of course, the top 10 bodybuilders in the world are taking banned substances (it would be impossible to create those physiques naturally).
But 1) if the bodybuilders admitted to it they could face legal troubles, and 2) they would lose sponsorship deals from supplement companies – which is a big part of their income.
While the jacked dude at your gym probably doesn’t have the same worries. He’s still unlikely to answer your questions regarding his possible use of anabolic steroids.
For those of you who are curious as to whether or not someone is “enhanced” then this article will help you to identify the signs that someone is on steroids.
Steroid Users Compared to Natural Bodybuilders
Natural bodybuilding is the same as regular bodybuilding but without the drugs.
No steroids, no ephedrine, no growth hormone, and no insulin. Just whey protein shakes, caffeine, and creatine.
As you can imagine there is a lot of difference in size between a competitive bodybuilder and a natural bodybuilder.
To make things confusing we need to first address a big issue in natural bodybuilding. A lot of the most successful competitors in natural bodybuilding competitions are also on drugs.
Obviously, they aren’t taking it to the same level as competitive bodybuilders (who end up looking nothing like a regular person).
They still want to look ‘natural’ but that doesn’t mean they don’t take shortcuts.
Whilst natural bodybuilding competitions try to administer drug tests, it is really hard to catch someone.
For example, Insulin is one of the most commonly abused performance enhancers in bodybuilding. But unless you can catch someone within an hour of them taking it, you will have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that they did.
Also, the competition cannot afford to take too many tests and certainly cannot afford random drug tests. So a natural bodybuilder who wants to win a competition can very easily take what they like!
But there are thousands of very good natural bodybuilders who don’t cheat. We are now going to look at how their training is different from steroid users.
#1: Natural Lifters Can’t Train Like a Juicer
Thanks to all the drugs that they take, steroid taking bodybuilders (juicers) are able to use a really high volume when they train.
Due to the high levels of testosterone in their system, juicers can manage to exercise a lot more because their body has increased muscle protein synthesis.
This means that their body can repair and rebuild a lot more damaged muscle fibres.
A guy with regular testosterone levels would not be able to keep up with this. And, as a result, his muscles break down at a faster rate than they can be repaired.
This can lead to catabolism of muscles (wastage), or it would do if anyone ever did manage to train with the same level of volume.
Remember you aren’t looking to achieve the same level of hypertrophy as a bodybuilder, so you don’t need to exercise as much. This is a valuable point, as many natural lifters have it the other way round.
They believe that because they aren’t taking the drugs, they need to work twice as hard.
Wrong, forget about competing to that standard it’s impossible. If you want to train like a juicer then you need to be taking steroids.
Instead, you should follow natural lifters, let them be your new idols. Follow their programs, you’ll find that they mostly train the full body, or push/pull.
They also keep resistance workouts to 45-60 minutes, rather than the 3-4 hours that non-natural bodybuilders take.
#2: Natural Lifters Must Concentrate on Recovery
One of the biggest reasons why growth hormone was so popular in competitive sports was that it sped up injury recovery.
Also, due to the effect that ridiculously high levels of testosterone and HGH had on muscle protein synthesis. A steroid taker would be able to train again after the kind of session that would leave a regular person unable to move for six days due to DOMS.
So as a natural bodybuilder you are going to need to concentrate on your recovery in a way that a steroid user wouldn’t.
Increasing dietary protein is a great place to start. Athletes require twice as much as regular people .
This will help increase the rates of muscle protein synthesis, which will help your recovery.
You could also look into taking Omega-3 supplements. A study in 2011 found that they had a positive effect on post-exercise muscle soreness .
There are also loads of other benefits to Omega-3 supplementation such as heart health, but that’s a topic for another article.
Improving your sleep quality and duration is also a great way to:
- Improve sporting (lifting) performance
- Increase testosterone naturally
A study by Mah et al (2011) found that extending sleep led to improved performance in collegiate basketball players .
This means that increasing your sleep by an hour or two could help you to perform better in the weights room.
A 2010 study on sleeps effect on testosterone found that there was a correlation between bad sleep and low testosterone.
So if you are a natural lifter you will need that extra rest for a testosterone boost!
#3: Diet is Different for Both Steroid Users and Non-Steroid Users
This is a tough distinction to make. On the one hand, a steroid taker can get away with more calories than a natural lifter. This is because steroids increase your metabolism.
Steroid takers will also most likely be taking other performance-enhancing drugs.
For example, Clenbuterol is used by bodybuilders as a really effective fat-burner. Natural lifters don’t have that same option available to them.
On the other hand, the stakes are much higher in competitive bodybuilding.
Because of the increased fame and fortune available, the competition is a lot fiercer. So you are unlikely to see a competitive bodybuilder eating worse than a natural bodybuilder.
In practical terms, the diet of a bodybuilder and a natural bodybuilder would be very similar. Lots of protein, lots of carbs, and minimal fat.
The calorie targets would be different due to competitive bodybuilders being bigger, and burning more calories (through extended workouts, a higher metabolism, and the use of very efficient illegal fat burners).
How To Tell If Someone Is Using Steroids
Not all of these signs will apply to every person (particularly the gender-specific ones) and neither does displaying one of these signs mean that a person is definitely on steroids.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are many other ways to do so.
It’s just that a lot of those other ways are impractical, for example, Anabolic steroid use can lead to testicular shrinkage.
FYI you’re not going to be able to verify this. Nor will you be able to check blood work, nor is it always easy to check for an increase in acne.
However, if you already suspect someone and they display two or three of these signs then you might just be on to something.
#1: Lifter Looks “Competition Ready” All Year Round
Do you know the guys on the front cover of magazines with the well-defined abs and vascular muscles?
Yeah, the picture you’re seeing is of a guy who has been dieting down for weeks in advance, who is probably dehydrated, and will be looking normal again within 6 weeks.
Non-drug assisted fitness models can only look that lean for a short amount of time and therefore have to peak in time for photo shoots.
Fake natural lifters can afford to look fitness-cover ready 24/7 because testosterone supplementation allows them to get away with it.
#2: Very Flexible Dieting
The fact is that taking Testosterone will massively ramp up your metabolism whilst also increasing fat oxidation. This means that you can eat a higher calorie diet and still have visible abs.
Whilst flexible dieting does work for non-drug taking lifters, it is self-regulating.
You have a certain amount of carbs, fat, and protein to play with. If you waste all of your fats on two bowls of ice cream then you’ll be screwed for the rest of the day!
This means that people who follow a flexible dieting approach may end up eating less junk than they thought they would.
But if you’re taking Testosterone injections your fat/carb allowance will be much higher so you can eat more “bad” food.
If a lifter is boasting how much ice cream, beer, and pop tarts they can fit into their diet and still rock a six-pack, there is a high chance that they are taking something.
#3: Building Muscle While Losing Weight
The holy grail for most gym goers, losing fat and building muscle at the same time!
While this is possible for brand new lifters, it’s essentially impossible for an unassisted lifter to lower their body fat down to single digits and also increase their muscle size.
#4: Fast Recovery From Injury
Admittedly this is a difficult thing to spot unless you know the full extent of the injury and the amount of time that it takes to recover from.
But one of the reasons that HGH is so popular with athletes is that it helps muscle repair itself at a much faster rate.
#5: Longer Workouts
One of the reasons bodybuilders who pretend to be natural give for their results is that they work harder than anyone else.
This is definitely true, they can train for 2 hours plus and get amazing results.
But the fact that they can work out for two hours is a major benefit that most likely demonstrates the fact that they are on steroids.
One of the main benefits of steroid use is the effect that they have on cortisol (the stress hormone). They can inhibit it which prevents muscle loss.
For a non-assisted lifter, cortisol begins to be released after an hour, which can really effect progress.
This means that a 2-hour training session would be almost impossible, and if they did do it they would get poor results.
#6: Fast Recovery From Workouts
Muscle protein synthesis is responsible for muscle growth and strength. The more MPS you can stimulate after a workout the better the results.
MPS will also help you to recover from exercise. It is for this reason that protein is so important.
Trying to increase MPS is the most important part of bodybuilding, and many exercise techniques such as drop sets, back off sets, and supersetting, are designed to do this.
One benefit of testosterone injections is that they massively increase MPS stimulation. This means that not only do muscles get bigger and stronger than they would normally, you can also recover from the workout faster. Meaning that a non-natural lifter would experience less muscle fatigue after a workout.
#7: Fast Muscle Gain
Truth is that if someone has doubled in size over the course of a year then there is a high chance that they are taking steroids.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, there are some people who are genetically “gifted” but even that has a limit.
Fake lifters will try and make you believe otherwise. And their fans may just call the detractors jealous, but the science is irrefutable.
Yes training is still a lot of hard work and consistency, and you’d probably be surprised by how many steroid takers don’t get decent results. But it’s silly to pretend that taking these banned substances don’t have huge benefits to body composition. And sadly the majority of the best-looking “natural” lifters are lying.
#8: Bad Skin
One of the most obvious side effects of anabolic steroid use is oily skin and acne. Like when you are going through puberty, increasing your testosterone levels can cause your sebaceous glands to release extra oil. This leads to oily skin which can cause acne.
This can be found all over the face and body, but seems to particularly occur on the upper back.
#9: Hair Loss
The idea that steroid abuse causes hair loss is incorrect. All it does is speed up the process in people who are already predisposed to male pattern baldness.
Steroid use can increase levels of the hormone DHT (Dihydrotestosterone) which is responsible for hair loss.
There are benefits of DHT as a steroid though as it is one of the few anabolic steroids that doesn’t cause gynecomastia.
Remember that lots of people who are on steroids will not have any hair loss and that lots of people who aren’t on steroids will lose their hair. So hair loss on its own is not enough of a clue for steroid use.
#10: Hair Growth
Whilst artificially raised testosterone levels can lead to hair loss, they can also lead to hair growth… Just not on the head.
Increased body and facial hair is another side effect of steroid use. Something that affects both men and women, but is clearly more obvious among the fairer sex.
#11: Jaw Development
Whilst Human Growth Hormone is more commonly associated with increased jaw size. Anabolic steroids have also been known to have an effect on the size of the user’s jaw.
Remember that when people lose body fat their jaw will naturally become more pronounced. So don’t jump to conclusions just because someone now has a great jawline.
#12: Shrunken Testicles
Just how badly do you want to know whether a guy is taking steroids? Because measuring their testicles can get you an answer!
Taking steroids can boost testosterone levels. However, as a result of this, the body will begin to produce less testosterone (as you don’t need it), this results in testicular shrinkage.
The results may be reversible once the guy stops his cycle, but it is not guaranteed.
#13: Deepened Voice
Mostly something that is noticeable in women who take steroids but it can also affect men. Steroids can affect the vocal cords of users and lead to a more deepened voice.
So if the 5 foot 3 woman beside you sounds like Barry White then she might just be using.
#14: Mood Changes
There is some debate as to whether anabolic steroids can affect mood, research has had mixed results.
Some studies indicate that they do whilst others find that they don’t. But with all the hormonal changes and the possible body issues that may have caused the steroid use in the first place depression is quite likely.
How to Look Your Best as a Natty Bodybuilder
The first question that needs to be addressed is why would you choose to be a natural lifter in the first place?
A lot of people would say that it is a hard road to go down and that the results are nowhere near as impressive as they would be for an artificially enhanced lifter.
Well first off, any form of bodybuilding is going to take all of your effort.
It is more like a second job than a hobby. A hobby is something that you do in your free time that ideally doesn’t impact on your job or social life.
Bodybuilding requires you to completely change your diet, spend up to 10 hours per week in a gym, and will affect your job (even if that’s just irritating your colleagues by filling the office fridge with Tupperware).
There are benefits to following either route, a drug-taking bodybuilder will get more impressive results and won’t struggle with diet to the same degree. They will also have the satisfaction of being able to lift more weight and using higher volume.
The downsides are that they will have to get a masters degree in biology just to understand what they are taking.
You will also have to juggle hundreds of different products to stay ahead of their bodies desire for homeostasis.
They also have to accept the fact that they are in danger of compromising their health and endangering their life.
Another issue is the cost, with many steroid users spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the many different drugs needed to compete. Then there is the issue of jail time for anyone caught selling or purchasing the drugs.
So the benefits of being a natural lifter are pretty obvious now right? No early death due to a cocktail of drugs affecting your heart, no visits from the authorities, no credit card debts. The downside is that you will never look like your heroes.
Let’s assume that you’ve decided to make the correct decision and want to become a natural (or ‘natty’) bodybuilder.
What strategy should you follow to look your best? The following tips will help guide you through this process:
#1: Ignore Your Heroes
Bodybuilding magazines are full of advice from IFBB pros. Telling you which program to follow what diet to follow and what supplements to take.
But as mentioned before a lot of their programming and diet is affected by their drug use.
You cannot follow this advice expecting the same results. In fact following the program of a pro bodybuilder could actually leave you worse off.
Due to the increased levels of testosterone in their body, pro bodybuilders are able to use an amount of volume that you would not.
This is because testosterone can massively increase muscle protein synthesis, which is the process where protein repairs damaged muscle fibres and rebuilds them stronger and bigger.
Having muscle protein synthesis outweigh muscle protein breakdown is the only way to increase muscle size.
This means that due to having more muscle protein synthesis available to them, a pro bodybuilder can safely increase the amount of muscle damage (i.e. increase the amount of exercise that they perform).
If a natural lifter did this then muscle protein breakdown would soon outstrip protein synthesis. This will lead to your muscles being catabolised for fuel.
In other words, without the extra testosterone in your system, you cannot train biceps with 30+ sets of bicep exercises in one session.
Instead, you can only hit them with 12 sets (or less). This means that you have to train them more often, so two or three times within ten days. Rather than just once every ten days like a pro bodybuilder would.
So design a program that involves multiple muscles being worked per session.
For example, a push/pull program could be very effective.
This would allow you to train biceps (for example) for 3-5 sets then rest and then train them again two days later.
#2: Sleep Like A Pro
You’re doing this unassisted so your recovery rates after intense exercise are not going to be the same as our chemically enhanced fellow lifters.
This means that sleep now becomes more of a priority than ever. If you are exercising regularly you should be getting your 8 hours (even more sleep has been proven to be beneficial).
#3: Diet Right
This point is actually the same for non-natural and natural bodybuilders, but it is worth saying anyway.
You need to track calories. If you are looking to bulk you will want to do so without gaining too much additional body fat. If you are looking to cut you will want to do so in a timely and efficient manner. For this to work, you will need to track your calorie consumption.
Another benefit of tracking calories is the ability to hit your macro targets correctly.
Helms, Aragon, and Fitschen (2013) identified the perfect macro combinations for a natural lifter .
In their paper, they stated that 2.3-3.1g/kg (lean body weight) was optimal for protein. That 15-30% of calories should come from fat, and that the rest should come from carbohydrates.
As you can see there is a fair bit of wiggle room here, and you can obviously change your macros quite a bit by using 30% fat rather than 15. Or use 2.3g per kg rather than 3.1g for protein.
Test it out on yourself and see what works best for you.
There are a lot of similarities between natural lifters and those that use steroids. You lift a lot of weight with both, you take in a lot of protein, you dedicate your life to achieving your goals.
But the differences lie in the risks taken by steroid users. Both health-related, and legal risks.
Whilst a natural lifter knows that they are doing something that is very beneficial for their body, a non-natural lifter cannot make the same statement.
Insulin use, dangerous fat-burners, and huge doses of testosterone are not medically advised. It is probably not too surprising that a lot of juicers die of heart failure way before their time.
There is one myth that should be laid to rest though. Steroid users may be ‘cheating’ but that does not mean they have worked any less than a natural lifter.
In fact, it would be accurate to say that they have worked harder.
Due to their use of drugs they have been able to train for hours per day. They’ve earned their physique, but ultimately is it worth it?
If you are looking to compete as a bodybuilder then you do have options. But obviously, the safest option and best (for your health) would be to train as a natural bodybuilder. And actually do it that way.
Follow the rules of the competition (each competition can have completely different banned lists) and enjoy bodybuilding as it should be.
If you are looking to compete as a bodybuilder but are not prepared to potentially risk your life then natural bodybuilding is still the better option for you personally.
You do have to look at the moral issues, it is absolutely a form of cheating. Even if most of the other guys around you are also cheating.
Finally, if your only goal is to get as big as you possibly can and nothing else matters then you can look into unnatural bodybuilding.
Just make sure that you know exactly what you are doing and are aware of all the risks.
Also, be prepared for the ‘supplement‘ bills. You can't put Clenbuterol as a tax exemption!