Anabolic Steroids: The Past, Present, and Future


by Josh Hodnik

The use of substances to enhance performance is nothing new. In fact, drugs used to enhance performance can be dated back to the original Olympic Games (776 BC). The ancient Greeks used an opium juice called droop; and the word doping can be traced back to the name of this tincture that was used to fuel Greek athletes. Ancient Greeks used hallucinogens and ate animal hearts or testicles in search of increased strength.

The Greek methods would seem absurd today, but medical use involving testicle extract would be the starting point in developing anabolic steroids. In 1849 Arnold Berthold, who was known as a pioneer in endocrinology, performed experiments with castrated chickens. Berthold observed that the castrated roosters failed to show the same male characteristics that the non-castrated roosters had. They failed to crow and failed to be aggressive. While this proved a correlation between the testicles and male characteristics, it would be much later before the recognition or isolation of the hormones produced by the testicles would occur.

In 1931, German chemistm, Adolf Butenandt, isolated 15 milligrams of the androgen androstenone from tens of thousands of liters of urine. This androgen would be synthesized three years later by chemist Leopold Ruzicka. At this time it was known that the testes contained an androgen more powerful than androstenone, which happened to be testosterone. A group of scientists that were funded by pharmaceutical companies in the Netherlands would work to isolate testosterone. Testosterone would first be identified in 1935, and Butenandt would chemically synthesize it from cholesterol later that year. Clinical trials involving methyltestosterone and testosterone propionate on humans began in 1937, and this would be the beginning of anabolic steroid use to what it has evolved to today.

It is reported that German soldiers were administered it to increase aggression and stamina. According to Adolf Hitler’s physician, he was given injections of testosterone derivatives. If these rumors are true, this could be some of the earliest use of anabolic steroid use by humans outside of clinical trials.

During the 1940s, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries such as Germany, began using testosterone derivatives with their Olympic and amateur weightlifters. This showed results and Soviet and Eastern Bloc athletes would rule the Olympic standings. The U.S. knew that they would have to do the same if they wanted to compete with these athletes in the future.

Until the late 1950s, methyltestosterone, testosterone propionate, and norethandrolone were the only steroids being used. In 1959 U.S. Olympic team physician John Zeigler would introduce the newly developed Dianabol to Olympic weightlifters at York Barbell. He prescribed 10 milligrams a day to weightlifters John Grimek, Bill March, Tony Garcy, and Louis Riecke. While Zeigler has been credited with developing Dianabol, and has been referred to as the “godfather of steroids”, some believe that Swiss researchers developed Dianabol with no association to Zeigler.

During the 1950s and 60s pharmaceutical companies spent aggressively on developing new synthetic anabolic steroids. Many of the steroids used today were developed during this time. These include: trenbolone, oxymetholone, oxandrolone, methenolone, nandrolone, stanozolol, and methandrostenolone.

The diosgenin-rich yam species dioscorea Mexicana, a plant native to Mexico, would help ignite the Mexican steroid market in the 1950s. This plant would be fermented and the diosgenin extracted and sold to pharmaceutical companies who used it to produce synthetic hormones. The emergence of the Mexican steroid trade during this time would drive the cost of steroids down dramatically. Mexico would eventually go on to be the largest supplier of anabolic steroids to American bodybuilders and weightlifters. The availability and low cost of steroids in Mexico would make it convenient for West Coast bodybuilders to cross the Mexican border to purchase whatever they needed. Keep in mind that steroids were still legal at this time; bringing steroids back from Mexico was not a crime. Mexico would dominate the steroid market until 2005, when Operation Gear Grinder shutdown numerous steroid labs that supplied the bulk of anabolic steroids to the United States and other parts of the world.

By the 1960s, steroid use had become common among bodybuilders and powerlifters around the world. Several forms of testosterone, Dianabol, Winstrol, Deca-Durabolin, and Anavar were now available. Bodybuilders such as Larry Scott, Dave Draper, Bill Pearl, and Arnold Schwarzenegger would present much more massive physiques in comparison to bodybuilders of the 1940s and 50s. It was common during this period for bodybuilders to cycle off of steroids after a major competition, and then start back up 6-9 months before the next show. There would be a greater fluctuation of muscle being gained and lost by bodybuilders during this period compared to today because of this.

The 1970s would be considered the golden era of bodybuilding. Steroids were still legal and bodybuilding would draw more interest in the United States than it ever had in the past. While steroid doses during this period are considered moderate or low compared to today’s standards, steroid use would help to create bodybuilding icons such as Frank Zane, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mike Mentzer. These men, among many others, would help pave the way to what bodybuilding is today.

Popularity of bodybuilding continued to climb throughout the 1980s. Physiques displayed by Arnold and Sylvester Stallone made their way into movies that would dominate the box office. Bodybuilders were viewed as oddities in previous decades. This type of muscularity was not only accepted during the 80s, it would be admired. During this period HGH would be sought like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow by bodybuilders. The only source of HGH during the early 1980s was from the brains of cadavers. This form of HGH was dangerous and resulted in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in some users. A synthetic form of HGH would be available in 1985. As with the cadaver derived HGH, the synthetic form would be hard to find and costly. HGH would be viewed as a magical potion at this time, and it was rumored to be more effective than anabolic steroids for gaining muscle and shedding body fat. The internet didn’t exist during this time, so much of the information about steroids and HGH were often just passed around by word of mouth. With HGH use being uncommon, legitimate information did not exist among bodybuilding circles. During this time anti-estrogens were rarely available and PCT was not practiced. A bodybuilder would have to stay on anabolic steroids or come off without PCT, which would result in a large amount of muscle being lost. Because of this, staying on year round or bridging between heavier cycles became a much more common practice.

Congress would pass the Anabolic Steroid Control Act in 1990. This would make possession of anabolic steroids by anyone without a prescription a crime. This did nothing to curb the use of anabolic steroids. Steroid availability would ironically increase after steroids were first criminalized. Foreign pharmacies were still willing to sell bodybuilding drugs to bodybuilders, regardless of U.S. law. The internet would become available to the general public in the early 1990s, and a small number of bodybuilding message boards would be formed. Information about anabolic steroids would now be more available to more people. Pharmacies in Mexico would supply the bulk of the steroids, HGH, anti-estrogens, and other bodybuilding drugs such as clenbuterol and T-3 during this period. However, European steroids were in high demand in the U.S, and the internet now gave people access to a larger variety of drugs.

The 2000s brought about some big changes in the steroid world. Steroid doses have increased in a big way since use first began in the 1950s. Countless steroids became available, and aromotase inhibitors (AIs) were available to help combat estrogen related side effects that accompany high steroid doses. The market changed with China and other countries producing steroids, HGH, and other peptides. This change has driven the price down, and bodybuilders that couldn’t afford to use large doses of steroids and HGH can now do so. This has lead to today’s bodybuilder being bigger and leaner than ever.

Today there is a much better understanding of how steroids and other bodybuilding drugs work. The information today is endless. While much of the information available is often distorted by many so called “gurus”, there is still legitimate information available as long as someone knows how to weed through the B.S.
The use of anabolic steroids has evolved quite a bit. Many of the cycles that were used 40-50 years ago would be considered a low dose for a beginners cycle today. The addition of insulin, thyroid drugs, diuretics, and a large range of peptides have changed the look of the average bodybuilder. HGH and IGF-1 were once considered exotic drugs that were only used by top tier bodybuilders. These drugs are much more common now and are being used by non-competitive bodybuilders. Today there are a large number of growth peptides available, and new ones are constantly hitting the market. Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs) are now being used to increase anabolism while avoiding many of the side effects that coexist with anabolic steroid use.

The future is full of possibilities. The next big thing looks to be gene doping. This involves gene expression of particular genes that affect muscle growth, fat loss, and vascularity just to name a few. While anabolic steroids will never be obsolete, more avenues will be available in the future that will continue to advance muscle-building methods.