What Are the Benefits of Steroids for Athletes?

The many benefits of steroids have created a culture of abuse in sports like weightlifting, bodybuilding and cycling. Yet you can improve your health without using these dangerous drugs. Learn healthy ways to quickly recover, build muscle and get stronger to safely enhance your performance in any sport.

Steroids help build muscles. (Image: turk_stock_photographer/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Doing resistance exercises like weightlifting can give you many of the positive effects of steroids without the long term risks. And exercise can increase the natural steroid content of your muscles, according to a January 2015 review in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Types of Steroids

Your body makes natural steroids from the sterols present in the food you eat each day. Scientists can also make synthetic steroids in a laboratory.

Athletes most often abuse anabolic (testosterone-based) steroids, but corticosteroid (cortisol-based) drugs like prednisone have become increasingly common in sports too. This dramatic increase has brought corticosteroids under greater scrutiny. An athlete should thus avoid these steroids as well, unless there's an imperative medical reason to use them, advises an October 2012 report in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.

There are also two distinct categories of anabolic steroids, according to a February 2019 fact sheet from StatPearls. The 17 alpha alkyl derivatives like oxandrolone make up one group. The 17 beta ester derivatives like nandrolone phenpropionate make up the other. The latter drug was one of the first steroid substances used for its benefits, and the International Olympic Committee banned it in 1974. It's important to note that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency deems all anabolic steroids are controlled substances, with a harsh penalty for manufacture, possession or use.

Build Muscle Mass

The many side effects of anabolic steroids make it unethical to give them to healthy adults. However, scientists can test their impact by studying the archival data of admitted users. The authors of a September 2014 report in PLoS One used this method to measure the benefits of steroids on muscle mass. The researchers compared the data of 10 steroid users to seven control subjects. Results indicated several positive effects of steroids, including greater muscle mass and larger fiber area. The authors believe that these changes would likely enhance the performance of the users.

Yet you can get similar results without taking anabolic steroids. The September 2014 report in PLoS One tested middle-aged, male subjects who were active and fit. A February 2013 paper in the Annals of Endocrinology showed similar results in similar subjects. These researchers found that eight weeks of moderate weight training resulted in increases in muscle strength and size in eight healthy, middle-aged men. That training also increased the subjects' circulating levels of the natural steroid testosterone.

Increase Exercise Capacity

Anabolic steroids have several legitimate medical uses, and some of those uses would offer a competitive advantage to an athlete. For example, the authors of an April 2014 report in Nutrition in Clinical Practice tested 32 people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Such patients are often not in good shape fitness-wise because of their decreased lung capacity. Compared to baseline, six weeks of anabolic steroid use increased the exercise capacity and life quality of these patients.

However, you can get nearly identical results with water-based training. A June 2013 article in the European Respiratory Journal discussed the evaluation of 53 COPD patients. These researchers had the subjects do water-based aerobics and weightlifting for eight weeks. This treatment increased exercise capacity and life quality, compared both to the baseline and a control group. Interestingly, water-based training also outperformed land-based training. Water-based exercise also tends to cause less injury because the water's buoyancy both increases resistance and offers more limb support.

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