By Christian Royston
A crowd starts to gather around a man in the corner of the gym as an unfathomable amount of
weight leaves the ground. The man locks out the lift with one last triumphant yell, and the
weight comes crashing back down to Earth. All the people around him cheer and give him their
congratulations. A smile comes across his face as he high fives people around him.
The locker room is a quieter environment where the man can gather his thoughts. He looks in
the mirror, not satisfied with what he sees. Out on the gym floor, he is the biggest and
strongest person around. However, staring back at him in the mirror is the skinny kid that is
forever chasing the goals he has set for himself. Although the man is not real, his problems are.
Steroids are everywhere, whether it’s on the biggest stage in bodybuilding, scrolling through an
Instagram feed or even at a local gym. Even with the many negative downsides, people still
choose to take drugs. So why do people decide to take steroids?
There are many reasons that people partake in performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) or
steroids. They want to get bigger, stronger, see fast progress or just feel good about
themselves. One similarity does come up in all people on PEDs, a lack of satisfaction with who
they currently are.
Body image issues have become more prevalent and talked about with people in the fitness
world. Many people that consistently work out have encountered some form of body
dysmorphia, an obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance, at some point in time.
However, is fixing those minor flaws worth the adverse effects of steroids?
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, there are many short and long-term side
effects of anabolic steroid use. In the short term, men experience high blood pressure,
shrinking testicles, increased chance of infertility, baldness and mental effects including
extreme aggression, paranoid jealousy and sometimes mania. Women experience many of the
same side effects but also experience masculinization, such as deepening the voice, increase in
body hair and male pattern baldness.
Long-term side effects of prolonged steroid use include an increased risk of blood clots, kidney
problems, liver damage, heart problems and an increased risk of stroke or heart attack. These
long-term issues can be fatal if they are not monitored well, as some bodybuilders have
experienced. A notable bodybuilder who died recently was 2018 Mr. Olympia champion Shawn
Rhoden died at 46 due to a heart attack in November. Although there had been controversy
surrounding Rhoden in the few years before his death, he was still a big name in the
bodybuilding world. In 2018, he took down seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Phil Heath to
become the oldest ever champion of the Joe Weider’s Olympia Fitness and Performance
Weekend, one of the biggest events of the year for bodybuilding.
Other big names in the bodybuilding world also experienced the great toll that PEDs have on
the body. Dallas McCarver was an up-and-comer in the Mr. Olympia scene when he died from
cardiac arrest at the age of 26 on Aug. 22, 2017. Rich Piana, well-known throughout the fitness
world, died just days after McCarver on Aug. 25, 2017, at the age of 46.
Although the major side effects are scary, it is not as common as it might seem. According to a
research paper released by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, around 3 million
to 4 million Americans used some form of anabolic steroid, which is around 1% of the U.S.
For some users, the benefits of PED use outweigh the risks. Most steroid users can look the way
they want, without the need to abuse large amounts of PEDs. Also, to stay competitive at the
highest level of bodybuilding, it is almost a requirement to take PEDs, despite the legality of
them. To be the best, everyone uses whatever edge they need to compete with the best.
Side effects of steroid use can also be managed to a degree. Bodybuilders get regular blood
work taken to determine if their organs are operating correctly. Because of the toll that PEDs
take on the kidneys, liver and heart, monitoring the side effects and being proactive with
treatment and pulling back on PED use is recommended.
During an interview with Muscle and Fitness, former International Federation of Bodybuilding
and Fitness (IFBB) competitor Fakhri Mubarak said, “I won’t go more than six months without
getting my blood checked. There’s no direct link to a death by steroids, but if you have a
predisposition to something, then steroids increase the risk factors.”
Most people on some form of PED take precautions to stay as healthy as possible. Bodybuilders
will cycle off certain drugs when needed, and many people have enjoyed long, relatively
healthy lives, even after prolonged steroid use.
However, the most effective way to manage and treat the side effects of anabolic steroids is to
stop taking them. Steroid addiction is a real and scary issue, as it is hard for most people to stop
taking PEDs after they have been reliant on them for a long time. It is hard to see all that
progress lost after someone gets used to being that massive and strong person.
“The negatives are going to come back at you eventually. It all equals out,” Rich Piana said
during an interview with Generation Iron Fitness Network in 2017. When those effects start to
come back, the mental side effects start to show. (Piana died at age 46 on Aug 25, 2017.)
Body dysmorphia is an issue, not only in people that look toward the path of PED use but in
many people around the world. According to a research paper written by Katharine Phillips,
professor of psychiatry at Cornell University, about one in 50 people are affected by Body
Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) in the U.S. alone. This means that nearly 10 million people in the
U.S. are affected by the disorder, and the number could be a lot higher since many people with
body image issues are reluctant to disclose that.
For many people affected by BDD, working out may seem to be the cure. However, as many
people who frequent the gym know, trying to fix the minor flaws in their bodies through
working out can be a slippery slope. Many people are never satisfied with their look, even if
they decide to take PEDs.
President of the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation and natural bodybuilding
competitor Ryan Irwin said, “you see yourself, and you’re never big enough, you’re never lean
enough, you always want more. That’s the same whether you are enhanced or natural.”
“I always tell competitors, ‘If you’ve got body image issues, if you have an eating disorder, if you
have a bad relationship with any of that, bodybuilding is not going to help.’ It will probably
make it worse,” Irwin said.
If someone is not content with looking the way they look, then steroids will only become more
of an issue for them. Many people want to look a certain way, and steroids can be a fast way of
getting to that goal. However, the progress that people see when using steroids can be
With the increase of social media use in the fitness industry, unachievable physiques are on
display more now than ever. Not only that, the dishonesty in the fitness industry results in
inexperienced athletes thinking that they can become as big and strong as their favorite
influencers when many of them are enhanced to some degree.
This social media influence has become an issue in the bodybuilding world, as more people are
trying to look like fitness influencers and want to reach that goal as fast as possible. A reason
that many people decide to take PEDs is that reaching their goals is “fast. They don’t want to
put the time in, and it’s a shortcut,” Irwin said.
Not only is impatience an issue, but body image issues can also arise from seeing fitness
influencers posting pictures of themselves at their prime physiques. People end up trying to
look like those influencers when in reality, fitness influencers do not look like that all the time.
They post pictures of themselves online when they are in prime conditions, whether that be
good lighting, having pumped up muscles after a workout or even posting old pictures when
they looked better.
“With bodybuilding, you don’t look stage-ready year-round,” Irwin said. That’s the reality of the
situation, inexperienced gym-goers are trying to chase that “stage-ready” look, and they will do
whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
Social media is starting to become more open and honest. Some top fitness influencers are
talking more about their experience using PEDs, while others show what they look like when
they are not on stage or in prime conditions. In a video uploaded to YouTube, popular fitness
influencer Noel Deyzel said that “too many influencers are chasing money and profiting off of
Many young or inexperienced people are buying into fitness influencers’ words when the
advice often won’t yield the promised results. Some influencers, such as Deyzel, spread
awareness about false information and steroid use. This honesty will help the fitness
community in the long run, as more people are aware of the good and bad effects of PED use.
As social media shifts toward more honesty with steroids, many influencers involved in the
natural bodybuilding scene are looking to gain attention. Natural bodybuilding has been gaining
traction worldwide, as drug-tested bodybuilding shows are becoming more common. Although
the shows are not as widely known as the big bodybuilding shows such as Mr. Olympia, natural
bodybuilding raises awareness of paths people can take in bodybuilding that do not require PED
Irwin has competed and been heavily involved with the natural bodybuilding scene for many
years and has proved that people can acquire a great physique with time and patience. One big
attraction of natural bodybuilding is the ability to compete for much longer and not have to
worry about life-altering side effects.
“I wanted to be able to continually do this sport and have the physique that I developed,” Irwin
said, “I might never look like Superman, but at the same time, I won’t look like Clark Kent
For most people, steroids are not worth the great toll it takes on the body. However, if
someone decides to pursue a career in professional bodybuilding (in non-tested contests), PEDs are almost always
necessary to compete with the best. As long as people are aware of the side effects and
manage their bodies well, there are ways to compete in a somewhat healthy way.
In the end, it all comes down to personal choice. Whether people decide to stay natural or deal
with the risks of steroids to achieve a higher-end goal, it all comes down to the individual.
Owen McGuffin, a senior at Iowa State University said, “I think for most people it is not worth
[the risks], just because most people’s goals can be reached naturally, granted it will take more
time. Unless you are trying to look huge or lift a ridiculous amount [of weight], it is not needed,
but if people want to do it… it is all personal choice.”
Every day, people worldwide decide to take steroids to reach their goals or feel better about
themselves. These choices are not wrong in any way but raising awareness of alternatives to
PED use is important so that new gym-goers can make decisions for themselves. They may
never look like Chris Bumstead, reigning three times Mr. Olympia Classic Physique champion,
but people can live a long healthy life and achieve the aesthetic they want with proper
knowledge and dedication.