Steroid Dosing and Diminishing Returns – How much can the body really use?


by Mike Arnold

In today’s world of bodybuilding it is not uncommon to hear of some individuals using doses which, 20 years ago, would never even have been contemplated by the typical professional BB’r. In fact, things have progressed so far that cycles which were once reserved for only the most daring of competitors are now being employed by low-level amateur BB’rs the world over. As a whole, the BB’ing community has been conditioned to accept these doses as a prerequisite for success. With 3-4 gram cycles now considered a minimalistic approach by many, one must wonder at what point a further increase in dose becomes futile, or possibly even counterproductive.

When attempting to answer this question, rarely is science brought into the equation. While it is true that the majority of our knowledge regarding the application of performance enhancing drugs has been gleaned from real-world experience, it makes sense to evaluate all the available evidence before drawing conclusions, including that which has been provided to us by the scientific-medical community. In doing so one may find that the answer is not as clear-cut as originally thought, but before I start spitting out numbers, let us first examine how we ended up at this point in the first place.

With muscle size being such an important component of BB’ing success, it is only natural that those with serious competitive aspirations would do everything in their power to enhance this aspect of their physique. With both nutrition and training having been tailored to this goal, it is not surprising to see performance enhancing drugs follow the same path. Regardless of one’s stance on PED’s in sport, there is no denying that their use is rampant, particularly in BB’ing and the strength sports. Some would even say that steroids and BB’ing are joined at the hip; incapable of being separated from one another. There may be some truth to this, as professional BB’ing in its current incarnation grew up alongside its chemical cousin, coming into its own during the 1960’s. As time went on, the lines between the two became blurred, leaving old ideals in the dust and giving way to the pharmaceutically driven, quasi-physical culture hybrid known as modern professional BB’ing.

There are some within our community who mistakenly believe that the Golden-era BB’rs were almost solely reliant on hard work and proper eating to power their BB’ing efforts, while health was the over-riding priority and drugs were given relatively little consideration; being viewed more as an afterthought than part of the main course. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as that generation was just as focused on the acquisition of muscle size as the current crop of competitors and therefore, many were willing to do whatever it took to get as big as possible. Arnold was once quoted as saying “I would eat a pound of shit if it would help me build one pound of muscle”. Although some might argue that the pre-80’s protein powders qualified as shit, Arnold’s comment provides us with clear insight into the mentality of the typical 1970’s BB’r.

With the previous generation possessing a mind-set and goals similar to today’s champions, it stands to reason that any aspect of their program which had the power to profoundly influence muscle growth would have been strongly considered and heavily prioritized. Knowing this, one can logically conclude that dosing was never an issue of insignificance. It has been proposed that the lower doses utilized in that day were a sign that less emphasis was placed on drug use, but when viewing the situation within its proper context, we see that this is not the case at all. Back then, the doses being used were considered large by nearly everyone’s standards. After all, just 15 years prior, when Dr. John Ziegler first brought Dianabol to the table, both BB’rs and Olympic athletes were administering just 10-15 mg daily.

By the time Arnold was racking up his Olympia wins, a dose of 50-100 mg daily was not uncommon and was regularly combined with other anabolics, such as Deca or Primo. Lest you think that these doses were only used for a few weeks at a time, think again. Growing into shows was the norm, so many BB’rs would begin preparing at 4 or more months out. Since orals formed the base of most cycles, they were almost always included from the very beginning and remained a central part of one’s program until contest day. Just one decade prior, this type of dosing regimen was unheard of.

Over the next couple decades doses would continue to escalate and by the year 2000, mega-dosing had made its way onto the scene in earnest. At this juncture, the question being posed by many BB’rs is “How much AAS can the human body actually use?” Unfortunately, there is no single answer, as there are too many variables, both known and unknown, which play a role in determining the point of diminishing returns. While pin-pointing an exact dose may not be possible, the ever-advancing field of science has provided us with a pretty good starting point in our search for an answer.

The primary mechanism by which AAS stimulate muscle growth is through androgen receptor (AR) binding. Most of the physical effects we experience when taking AAS are mediated through this well-known pathway. All AAS, before they can be used by the body, must first make their way into the bloodstream. From there, they will remain in circulation until they come in contact with an AR. After doing so, as long as the AR has not been previously occupied or the resident molecule does not have a stronger binding affinity, the new arrival will latch onto the AR and begin to exert its specific effects on the body. However, not all AR’s are located in muscle, but can also be found in various bodily tissues, such as the prostate, skin, brain, and scalp, to name a few.

When referring to the average, un-trained, drug-free person, it requires roughly 3,500 mg of AAS per week to reach receptor saturation. Receptor saturation takes place when all available androgen receptors have been occupied by a steroid hormone. When this occurs there is no sense in administering additional AAS, at least from the standpoint of AR activation, as they will have no vehicle through which to exert their effects. Without anywhere to go these orphan AAS will continue floating around the bloodstream until either an AR opens up, or if it is an aromatizable drug, it converts into estrogen. Neither scenario is ideal, with the latter potentiating estrogenic side effects.

So, is 3,500 mg per week or thereabouts the maximum usable dose of AAS? While many have stated as much, the fact is that this number only applies to the average, un-trained, drug-free individual. This is because the aforementioned variables (training status, drug use, and genetics) can potentially alter androgen receptor count/density (i.e. the number of AR’s present), invalidating the 3,500 mg claim. Despite their significance, rarely are these factors accounted for by your typical internet guru when debating this subject.

While steroids work through a rather limited number of mechanisms to manifest change, they can sometimes appear to affect the body in contradictory ways. For example, steroids can both increase and decrease sex drive in the same cycle, they can enhance masculinity while simultaneously leading to the development of female sex characteristics, and they can promote an alpha-male mind-set in tandem with the emotional instability of a 15 year old girl. However, more relevant to this discussion would be the issue of desensitization and androgen receptor proliferation. While it is fairly well known among steroid users that the body tends to desensitize to the effects of AAS with extended use, it is this very exposure which has been conclusively shown boost androgen receptor density in human beings. In other words, just using steroids will increase the number of androgen receptors present in muscle tissue, effectively increasing the amount of AAS the body can use at any given time.

In addition, some drugs, particularly in conjunction with certain forms of training, can induce muscle cell hyperplasia. Hyperplasia is the formation of new muscle fibers from satellite cells. Under normal circumstances the number of muscle fibers we possess is static throughout life, with any change in muscle size being attributable to either hypertrophy or atrophy of these previously existing fibers. However, by intentionally manipulating our physiological environment through training, it is possible to turn on the process of hyperplasia through the timed introduction of specific drugs (particularly those which govern satellite cell activity), thereby increasing muscle fiber count and altering our genetic blueprint. Like other muscle fibers, these newly born muscle fibers have the capacity to increase in size when provided with the proper stimulus (i.e. weight training). These new muscle fibers also have androgen receptors of their own, increasing the individual’s maximum usable AAS dose.

Up until now the conversation has remained centered around the androgen receptor and while AR binding is the primary mechanism through which AAS influence muscle growth, it is not the only one. Steroids also work through non-genomic pathways to build muscle. In simplified form, the term non-genomic can be defined as any action which does not directly influence gene expression via the AR. Although this area of study is still in its infancy, scientists are discovering new pathways through which AAS might promote muscle growth, either directly or indirectly. Since we are generally ignorant concerning this category of effects, we can’t even begin to speculate on what dose might optimize each of them. Regardless, an awareness of these pathways eliminates the notion that AR density alone determines maximum usable AAS dose.
As you can see, trying to pinpoint the amount of AAS a drug-using BB’r can actually use is not so simple. In fact, as it now stands, it is impossible. Still, we can be 100% certain that the 3,500 mg ceiling stated earlier does not apply to all hard-training BB’rs, especially those who have administered a smorgasbord of steroids and IGF-1 increasing drugs over a prolonged period of time.

Now, before anyone uses this article as justification for blasting 5-6 grams of gear, you may want to rethink your strategy. Just because you may have enough receptors to house that amount of AAS (or you might not), it does not necessarily mean you will be able to use it all. There are numerous limiting factors involved in the muscle growth process, any and all of which could interfere with your ability to optimally utilize the AAS you are administering. I am not going to name them all here, but I will list a few of the most basic ones.

Dietary insufficiencies are the most common BB’ing pitfall. If your diet is lacking in calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats, or even certain vitamins or minerals, the muscle building process can be short-circuited, stunting your growth and in some cases stopping it altogether. There are many BB’rs out there using mountains of drugs, yet they have very little to show for it. Although a shitty diet is most often to blame, far too many of these people think that the solution to their problem lies in using more drugs. This generation has been foolishly taught that if they want to get bigger, their first course of action should be to bump the dose. While a larger dose increases the potential for growth, it does not guarantee better results, as several other requirements must first be met in order to take full advantage of the anabolic effects that PEDs provide. The body depends on nutrition in order to fuel all of its metabolic processes, including muscle growth. Without adequate food intake, you could use all the drugs in the world and not gain a single ounce of new muscle tissue. There are numerous real-world examples of guys who have consistently failed to make progress, who then proceeded to blow-up on much lower doses after radically improving their diet.

In order to get my point across I will use an analogy, in which the muscle growth process is compared to a car race. First off, your body is the car, food is the gasoline, PEDs are the enhancements (turbo-chargers, nitrous, better tires, etc), and muscle growth is the race itself. By adding enhancements to your vehicle, it will no doubt improve its racing performance; it will increase its ability to go farther in a shorter period of time. However, any racer knows that without gasoline, he isn’t going anywhere. Without this critical component, it doesn’t matter what kind of car he has or what upgrades are on it; the race is over. In the same way, the driver also knows that as long as he has adequate gasoline, he will be able to take full advantage of his car and all of its enhancements in order to finish the race as quickly as possible.

It is no different in BB’ing. To whatever degree your diet is compromised, your ability to build muscle will be compromised to the same degree. You will never be able to take full advantage of the drugs you are using unless you diet enables you to…and the more drugs you use, the more finely tuned your diet will need to become in order to continue building muscle at maximum capacity. I bring up diet primarily because it is the most common stumbling block in BB’ing and the main reason why most guys never achieve their goals. Likewise, it nicely illustrates the role that limiting factors play in the muscle growth process relative to drug use.

There are a variety of both internal and external limiting factors which can adversely affect muscle growth, which range in importance from minor to major; hundreds, in fact. Manipulating all of these in your favor is unrealistic, but the better job you can do, the better your progress will be. Very few people live a lifestyle in which every aspect of their program is ideally suited to bodybuilding and therefore, an equally small number can justify using a 5-6 grams of AAS per week.

The man who relies on drugs while downplaying the importance of diet & training will never achieve his full potential. My advice to you, if you want to progress as far and as fast as possible, is not to be overly focused on drugs, but to view them from the proper perspective, in which their ability to build muscle is ultimately dependent on your willingness to manipulate as many limiting factors in your favor as possible. Once you are willing to do that, you can move forward with strong resolve, knowing you are doing everything in your power to become a better BB’r.