Anabolic Steroid Use: Does Slow & Steady Win The Race?


by Mike Arnold

Every single one of us, upon contemplating our foray into the world of chemical enhancement, quickly learns that there is no general consensus regarding the best way to proceed. Opinions on this subject run so strong that it has even divided a large portion of the community, with one side recommending a progressive/conservative approach and the other advocating more of a vigilante or hit the ground running philosophy. While most bodybuilders eventually end up gravitating towards one or the other, the reality is that there is a lot of middle ground in which to find commonality. Certainly, there are those who promote extremes, but most serious bodybuilders tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

As a general rule, there are two schools of thought regarding the best way to use PEDs in the novice. One of these, the progressive/conservative approach, usually entails using only what is necessary to facilitate progress. This normally involves starting with low a dose of testosterone; a dose which is maintained until said amount is no longer sufficient for supporting further gains in muscle mass. At that juncture the dosage will be bumped (or compounds added) and the process repeated. The logic behind this method is simple. By using only what is necessary to continue stimulating growth, damage to the various bodily systems is minimized, thereby allowing the individual to continue making progress long-term at a reduced health risk. Some have also proposed that this method results in a slower rate of desensitization, thereby enabling the bodybuilder to continue benefitting from lower dosages long after more adventurous users have ceased responding (personally, I do not believe in this theory, as I have found that even a short time off AAS (maybe a couple months) is all it takes to restore sensitivity, regardless of one’s previous dosage).

Among those who belong to the other school of thought, rate of progress tends to be placed higher up on the priority list. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that health isn’t considered or valued, it does usually mean that the individual is willing to assume a greater degree of personal risk in order to achieve their goals more quickly. Still, among those who fall into this category there is considerable variance in terms of risk-taking, with each individual determining for himself what he is and isn’t comfortable with.

I have often been asked what school of thought I subscribe to and the answer is neither and both. With each individual being unique in their circumstances, goals, and priorities, I find it difficult to reconcile a one-size-fits-all approach with the entire bodybuilding universe. In short, while I consider health to be of utmost importance, I believe there is merit to both viewpoints. At the same time, I do not agree with the “let’s throw caution to the wind and blast 3 grams of testosterone right out of the gate” approach. Why? Health reasons aside, it simply isn’t necessary to maximize progress in the beginner. Unfortunately, I see far too many who have just entered the world of steroids doing just that. They have been duped into believing that if they just use “enough” they will achieve their physique goals that much more quickly.

In reality, total dosage (beyond a certain point) is far less important than compound selection when it comes to maximizing muscle growth in the novice. Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that 300 mg of test a week is sufficient for optimizing growth rate, but I will say that in my experience few beginning steroid users are going to receive significant additional benefit by going above roughly 750 mg of testosterone per week, regardless of how finely tuned their diet or training program might be. Going higher may result in more overall weight gain (largely due to greater water retention), but in terms of actual muscle fiber accrual, the difference will almost always be minuscule.

This is why so many are opposed to the current trend of mega-dosing in novices or those still new to AAS. If such cycles resulted in significantly greater growth, the reward might justify the risk, but the problem is that they don’t. You see, even when a bodybuilder’s diet and training are right on point (rarely the case in first-time or even intermediate users), the potential for making substantially greater gains is so small that it just isn’t worth it, especially when taking the big picture into consideration. But let’s say a bodybuilder is willing to do whatever it takes to gain as much muscle as quickly as he can. If blasting 3 grams of test isn’t the answer, what is? Assuming training and diet have been optimized (critical for being able to take full advantage of any cycle), the answer lies in polypharmacy (the use of multiple drugs at once), which allows the bodybuilder to stimulate growth through multiple pathways, rather than just one.

This approach, known for decades as stacking, is one of the most basic tenets of advanced PED use and is essential for maximizing size and strength gains. Often, such cycles include not only multiple steroids, but multiple categories of drugs as well. In my opinion, when it comes to steroids, oral AAS (i.e. methylated steroids) are, in general, the most effective type of AAS a beginner can utilize in conjunction with testosterone to promote further gains in muscle mass. Not only do these drugs tend to work more quickly, but they often have superior strength enhancing effects. While the end point of bodybuilding is not the attainment of muscular strength, it is an important consideration of any well-planned mass-building cycle, as increased strength allows for the use of heavier weights during training. As a result, muscle stimulation is increased, which leads to a greater growth response.

While all steroids can increase strength through muscle fiber growth, they can vary greatly in their ability to do so through improved neural firing—an area in which oral AAS tend to shine. For example, a steroid like testosterone does an excellent job at promoting strength gains via muscle growth, but when it comes to increasing strength through nervous system enhancement, it has only a moderate effect (relatively speaking). On the other hand, a steroid like Halotestin functions marvelously in this capacity, deriving almost all of its strength boosting effects from this single mechanism. This is why the addition of Halotestin to a testosterone-only cycle almost always provides a further increase in muscle strength, regardless of one’s current testosterone dose.

Although halotestin is rarely ever recommended for use in an off-season growth stack (mostly because there are other orals which have a similar effect on strength, but which are superior at stimulating growth through more direct mechanisms), there are plenty of other options available. Two of my personal favorites, and which have been proven to work exceptionally well in a large percentage of the population, are Superdrol and Anadrol. Not only do both of these drugs deliver a profound, direct muscle building effect (along with other unique benefits), but their ability to increase strength via improved nervous system functioning places them in a class of their own. So, while experience has demonstrated the ability of testosterone-only cycles to provide impressive gains, it is not uncommon for an oral such as this to increase gains rate by a full 50-100%.

The take home message here is simple. If a beginner wants to his maximize growth potential, rather than attempting to do so by raising one’s testosterone dose into the stratosphere, he should combine testosterone with a proven mass and strength building oral. While some may view this as basic or even common sense advice, the truth of the matter is that many bodybuilders have gotten away from this and novice bodybuilders have been making this mistake for years…and not just with testosterone, but with injectables of all sorts. They’ve been led to believe, through unreliable online sources, that multiple grams of injectables are a necessity for any beginner who wants to grow as fast as possible. By failing to differentiate between advanced and novice drug users, those with extreme risk-taking personalities are encouraged to engage in this practice—to their own detriment.

I am not going to go into growth hormone and insulin here, other than to say that it is my opinion that both of these drugs can be used to great effect in beginners, helping to dramatically accelerate gains rate with minimal risk. I understand that this goes against conventional thought, but with individual goals and circumstances varying to such a great degree, I see no reason for these drugs to be “off-limits” to everyone outside of advanced bodybuilders. However, proper supervision and preliminary education is essential if one is to proceed safely. Keep in mind that my position on this matter does NOT necessarily mean I recommend all beginners use these drugs…because to be frank, I usually don’t. The reason is simple—few first-time PED users are adequately prepared, both in terms of knowledge and experience, to be able to extract maximum benefit from such a comprehensive cycle. However, in those individuals who do possess the required attributes, an advanced cycle like this can provide phenomenal gains in muscle mass within a relatively short period of time. 50 pounds within 6 months is well within the realm of possibility for those who possess the mandatory genetic ability.

This brings me to my next question, and the one on which the article title is based. Let’s say an individual’s ultimate goal is to gain 50 pounds of muscle mass with PED’s. Of the following two methods, which one will allow him to achieve his goal with the least amount of long-term damage to his body? Is it the progressive approach or the hard and fast approach? To be more specific, is it safer to gain those 50 pounds over a 3 year period running more cycles at gradually escalating dosages…or to gain that same amount of muscle over 6 months using less cycles, but starting at higher dosages?

Of course, in order for this to be a fair comparison it assumes that the individual, after achieving his 50 pound weight gain (or whatever the goal is), would be content to simply maintain his newfound mass with a maintenance dose of testosterone. Now that we’ve established the parameters, perhaps we should re-phrase the question by asking “which method is safer for gaining a predetermined amount of muscle tissue?” This is a very different question than asking how to most safely use PED’s over the course of one’s lifetime. In that case the answer would be obvious—use as little testosterone (and only testosterone) as possible. But…the fact remains that most steroid users want to gain a considerable amount of muscle mass…and they want to do it fairly quickly, making the testosterone only approach less than ideal.

Therefore, in trying to answer this question the bodybuilder must evaluate numerous variables before coming to a conclusion. Because of this there is no black and white answer, but upon reviewing the evidence (both clinical and real-world) over the last 25 years, I feel safe in stating that the hard and fast approach can not only be equally safe for gaining a predetermined amount of muscle mass, but in many cases it can be safer. Now, keep in mind that when I say “hard & fast” I am not referring to Bostin Loyd type cycles, but to moderate doses of injectable in combination with orals (moderate by today’s standards, but which I still consider heavy) along with responsible growth hormone and insulin usage.

Given my previous recommendation regarding the use of orals to boost muscle growth, I know some of you are thinking “aren’t orals much more injurious to the cardiovascular system than injectables?” While orals (methyls) are generally considered a more risky class of AAS than injectables (non-methyls), short-term use (a couple years) in younger individuals, along with the proper cardiovascular support, is a relatively safe endeavor. I say “relatively” because circumstances can vary, but in the absence of pre-existing conditions, these individuals are unlikely to experience any life-threatening/quality of life impairing health issues. So, while orals certainly come with their own set of health risks that should not be minimized, short-term use under the right circumstances can usually be done fairly safely. It should also be said that while the progressive approach may not necessarily include orals right from the start, they are almost always added in eventually, so the risks associated with orals are by no means unique to the hard and fast approach.

While we’re on the subject of cardiovascular damage (since it is often the most serious of the various PED-induced health problems), it is important to note that the degree of damage sustained is not determined solely by dosage and compound selection, but by duration of use/total exposure as well. If dosage and compound selection were the only variables to consider, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion, but with duration of use/total exposure being a major factor in the development of many steroid related side effects (particularly cardiovascular damage), it cannot be ignored when assessing long-term risk.

It’s absolutely true that the progressive approach, especially in the beginning, is likely to cause less damage than the hard and fast approach when compared on a cycle to cycle basis, but we are not evaluating short-term damage. Rather, we are evaluating the total amount of damage incurred over one’s time using drugs, as this is usually the most important factor in determining one’s likelihood of experiencing many of the more serious PED-induced health problems, such as atherosclerosis, kidney failure, etc. The point I am getting at is that the progressive approach requires the bodybuilder to use drugs for a much longer period of time in order to achieve the same level of development. Consequently, these individuals often end up using more total drugs and as a result, quite possibly doing more overall damage to the various organ systems.

In order to demonstrate how each of these methods might play out in the real-world when trying to gain 50 pounds of muscle, allow me to use the following example. We’ll start with an imaginary bodybuilder named “John”. After 5 years of dedicated natural lifting, John decides to take the plunge and run his first cycle. Using the conservative approach he begins with 300 mg of test per week and gains 12 pounds, after which he loses 5 pounds during PCT. Liking what he saw, he bumps his dosage up to 450 mg a week for his 2nd cycle and gains 10 more pounds, putting him at 17 pounds total. After a short break John is back at it, but this time he adds some deca into the mix and not only gains back the 5 pounds he lost while off, but adds another 7 pounds on top of that, putting his total weight gain at 24 pounds.

John continues this progression by gradually increasing the dose and/or adding in new compounds with each successive cycle, allowing him to slowly but surely put on a few new pounds of muscle each time he goes back on the drugs. By the time he reaches the 40 pound mark he is starting to struggle, as gaining even 2-3 pounds of new muscle per cycle requires rigorous attention to diet and training. With a few years of drug use now under his belt, John is at the point where he is running fairly powerful cycles just to keep the gains coming at a consistent rate. By the time he gains his last 10 pounds and finally reaches the elusive 50 pound mark, he may have run 10-15 cycles over a 3-4 year period.

In the end, despite wanting to do things the “safer” way, John is eventually forced to concede that what he thought was safer may not have been so safe after all. Not only did he end up using drugs for a comparatively much longer period of time in order to achieve his goals, but what started out as low-dose use eventually culminated in moderately heavy use—at least in comparison to his original cycles. But what if John had done things differently? What if, rather than slowly working his way up to more comprehensive cycles over an extended period of time, he just bypassed those first couple of years and jumped right into the deep end? Would this have allowed him to get to where he wanted to go much faster, with less overall drugs, and less damage to his health? Would he have been better off in the long-run? He very well may have been.

One of the benefits associated with the hard and fast approach is that the body is still in a state of heightened sensitivity, putting the individual in a position where muscle can potentially be gained very rapidly. So, rather than waiting until the body has nearly stopped responding before finally deciding to move onto more comprehensive cycles, why not take advantage of this once in a lifetime hyper-sensitive state and employ such cycles early on…when they still have the potential to accelerate progress at a breakneck pace? At no point do we have the potential to gain muscle more quickly than when we first start using drugs. This then begs the question “why go slow”? Why run six cycles to do what can potentially be done in one? Dragging things out over a handful of years will only increase the possibility of developing serious (cardiovascular) health problems, especially when the individual is going to end up running heavier cycles anyway!

Assuming the individual possesses the knowledge and experience necessary for extracting maximum benefit from more elaborate cycles, I can see very little incentive for utilizing traditional methods when the goal is to gain and maintain a certain amount of muscle mass. Like I said earlier, there are many variables which need to be considered before determining which method is right for you, but in many cases the hard and fast approach is not only more efficient and effective, but when done properly, can actually result in reduced long-term damage. Of course, continuing to employ the hard and fast approach over many years means the individual is no longer using the hard and fast approach…because by its very definition it can only be utilized for a short period of time. But in my experience that is all that is needed. Most individuals, if they have built a solid natural base of size and possess the necessary genetic ability, can build national level size in just 2-3 years. Keep in mind that none of this applies to those who want to be professional bodybuilders and earn a living from the sport long-term, but only those who are content to gain a certain amount of muscle tissue and then maintain it via testosterone use.

After seeing innumerable bodybuilders use the progressive approach for years on end, only to eventually end up running the same kind of cycles they shun in beginners, it soon became apparent to me early on that this hypocritical stance wasn’t built on logic. It’s not like bodybuilders build up a resistance to the negative effects of PED’s over time. In fact, the opposite is true, with long-term use being more likely to cause health problems. The only real limiting factors in being able to take advantage of the hard and fast approach is knowledge and experience.

As long as those two prerequisites have been met, a beginner can do wonders within a very short period of time. I have seen people gain over 30 pounds of “new” bodyweight (most of which was muscle) in just 30 days using this method…and I have seen it more than once. At the same time, the only people I have seen be successful with this method (to a degree that would justify the approach) are those who have built an impressive amount of natural muscle mass over several years of consistent, dedicated training. In every instance where this prerequisite hadn’t been met, gains were mediocre by comparison…as these individual’s never learned how to apply diet and training in a way that allowed them to take advantage of such cycles.