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Anabolic Steroids and Muscle Gain Retention Rate


by Mike Arnold

For over 50 years, there has been a general misconception regarding the gains retention rates of the various anabolic steroids. Most steroid users believe that anabolic steroids vary widely in their ability to provide maintainable gains in muscle size; a common sense claim born out of decades of real-world experience. From a visual and performance standpoint, this has never really been in dispute, as it is readily apparent that some drugs provide big, but fleeting gains in muscle mass, while others deliver smaller, more maintainable gains in muscle size.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy, most of which have nothing to do with the maintenance of muscle tissue, but in order to view this subject from the proper perspective, we should first define the term “gains”. Most would say it is used to describe the amount of muscle fiber built when on-cycle; a statement I agree with, yet you might be surprised at the number of long-time steroid users who still refer to the amount of body weight gained, minus any increases in subcutaneous water retention and/or adipose tissue, as gains. In other words, as long as they haven’t accumulated any visible water or bodyfat, the remainder of the added body weight is considered lean gains…or muscle tissue.

The problem we run into here is that anabolic steroids can cause weight gain through multiple mechanisms, including increased muscle fiber size, subcutaneous water retention, intramuscular water retention, increased blood volume, and others. More so, the percentage of weight gain attributed to each of these factors can vary considerably among the different anabolic steroids. If visual assessment alone was sufficient to determine the percentage allotted to each, then it would be easy to ascertain the amount of muscle fiber added during each cycle. However, with subcutaneous water retention being the only visibly distinguishable element among the bunch, it is easy to come to false conclusions regarding total muscle gain when using body weight gains as the primary determinant.

In reality, muscle fiber retention rates are very similar among anabolic steroids as a whole, with inconsistencies in post-cycle body weight maintenance being almost entirely dependent on fluctuations of the variables listed above. Intramuscular water retention in particular accounts for the largest difference in perceived gains. Unlike sub-q water, which is located under the skin and readily visible to the naked eye, intramuscular water is stored directly inside the muscle and therefore, is often mistaken for actual muscle tissue. This increase in intramuscular water is what causes the exaggerated muscle fullness witnessed with certain anabolic steroids and is also responsible for the quick loss in size experienced upon cessation. Anadrol is one example of a steroid which exhibits this characteristic.

Think about what happens when Anadrol is administered. The user quickly adds body weight, while his muscles become full and tight. However, after a couple weeks the weight gains drop-off dramatically, with only small to moderate gains in body weight taking place beyond that point. This is in significant contrast to a steroid like methenolone (Primo), which causes slow, but consistent gains in body weight throughout the entire duration of the cycle. This is because Primo is a relatively poor inhibitor of 11-beta hydroxylase.

What is 11-beta hydroxylase and why is it relevant to this discussion? Originating with the CYP11B1 gene, 11-beta hydroxylase is an adrenal enzyme involved in the production of cortisol and corticosterone. More specifically, it assists in the conversion of 11-deoxycortisol to cortisol and deoxycorticosterone to corticosterone. When this enzyme is inhibited through AAS use, levels of deoxycorticosterone rise while cortisol levels fall. This is significant, as deoxycorticosterone is a potent mineralocorticoid associated with intramuscular water retention. As levels of this mineralocorticoid increase, so too does the amount of water stored within muscle tissue. Decreased cortisol concentrations also lead to a host of other effects within the body, such as reduced extracellular fluid retention, an enhanced anabolic environment, and elevations in potassium. Depending on the steroid employed, the end result is often a bigger, harder, drier looking muscle.

The more strongly a steroid inhibits the 11-beta hydroxylase enzyme, the more I.M. water retention the steroid will cause. This effect is especially deceptive when it takes place in the absence of sub-q water retention, leading many to believe that the majority of their body weight gains are legitimate muscle tissue. Of course, as soon as the steroid is discontinued, I.M. water levels quickly return to normal, resulting in a rapid decrease in muscle size & fullness. In terms of appearance, the user looks to have lost a considerable amount of muscle mass, but in reality, it is simply the body restoring a normal water balance.

All muscle fiber, whether it was built with Anadrol or Primobolan, will be maintained or lost at roughly the same rate once the drugs are discontinued. The claim that certain steroids provide more retainable, such as Primobolan, is without basis. In reality, the main reason a steroid like Primo does not result in rapid post-cycle weight loss is because the majority of the body weight gained is legitimate muscle tissue. It causes very little I.M. water retention and no sub-q water retention. In addition, it does not increase blood volume to the same extent as some other anabolic steroids, which can account for at least a few pounds over the course of a cycle. By comparison, a steroid like Anadrol causes a massive increase in I.M. water levels, often results in at least some sub-q water retention, and significantly increases blood volume. Altogether, this can account for over 50% of one’s on-cycle weight gains, all of which will be abruptly lost upon cessation of the drug.

While I maintain my position that gains retention rates are similar among the various anabolic steroids, I will not claim equality, as there is likely to be at least some variability present. For example and as previously stated, cortisol suppression is a common characteristic of anabolic steroids. However, not all anabolic steroids exhibit the same degree of potency in this area. Therefore, it is feasible to suggest that those anabolic steroids which cause the greatest degree of cortisol suppression are also the most likely to cause cortisol rebound. This would certainly have a negative effect on gains retention rate, although probably relatively minor, as anabolic steroids are not capable of causing the type of severe suppression observed with some other classes of drugs.

Before concluding, I should make a distinction between the gains retention rates of muscle fiber and muscular strength, as there is a substantial difference between the two. Unlike muscle fiber, the maintenance of strength gains can vary tremendously depending on the steroid used. Some anabolic steroids generate their strength boosting effects primarily through muscle fiber acquisition, while others add strength almost exclusively through enhanced nervous system activity. Many others fall anywhere between those 2 extremes. Therefore, when it comes to strength retention, each steroid must be evaluated on case by case basis.

The take home message here is that muscle fiber retention rates are basically the same across the board, with multiple non-muscle factors playing a role in post-cycle body weight maintenance.

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