by Mike Arnold
While some may argue that PED use has become overcomplicated in today’s drug obsessed bodybuilding sub-culture, previous generations took a much more straightforward approach. Overall, steroid selection was much more limited, being comprised primarily of Deca and D-bol, while those preparing for shows might throw in some Primo, Anavar, or other non-aromatizable AAS readily available at the time. Unlike today, steroids were viewed as an addition to one’s program, not the centerpiece around which everything else revolved. For this reason, they were absent from the regimens of most for a substantial portion of the year. More so, there was a very clear distinction between being on and being off, with both components considered essential by pros and amateurs alike. There were no year-round cycles, no cruising, no bridging (an out-dated practice), no non-steroidal anabolics used to help maintain mass when off, and no post-cycle therapy. With steroids, you either used them or you didn’t. There was no middle ground.
No doubt, our Golden Era bodybuilders had the right idea about some things, but the sport has evolved to the point where most competitive bodybuilders are now required to stay on for longer periods of time, necessitating a change in the way PED’s are used. While it was common for old-school pros to run orals throughout their entire cycle, today, such a practice would be disastrous, as most bodybuilders stay on AAS 9-12 months out of the year.
Being that we are unlikely to ever revert back to the overly simplistic approach of the 70’s, I want to take a moment to address an issue that affects many of today’s aspiring bodybuilders. Namely, how does a bodybuilder balance his drug progression in relation to his physical development? More specifically, how does he know when to increase dosages, implement additional compounds, lengthen his cycles, or make the transition from cycling to cruising? These are all valid questions, the answers to which are crucial if one wants to maximize progress while minimizing unnecessary stress on the body. Fortunately, finding the answers is not difficult, but it does require a basic understanding of the primary anabolic and catabolic processes and how to balance them for continued growth.
The first rule you need to understand is that the body will only grow as large as its hormonal environment will allow. Now, there are numerous internal factors, both hormonal and non-hormonal, that play a role in the muscle growth/loss process. Many of them have not even been fully elucidated, but we don’t need to possess a doctorate-level understanding of all these factors in order to know when the body is ready to transition into the next phase. However, we do need to understand that muscle growth/maintenance is ultimately limited by our body’s hormonal environment, and while individual requirements will vary, everyone has a point where further muscle tissue accumulation becomes impossible without an up-grade to their hormonal status.
For the sake of explanation, it is vital that we make a distinction between our natural hormonal environment and our PED generated hormonal environment. This is because our natural hormonal environment is pretty much in a constant state of homeostasis—meaning that it is unchanging. Of course, even our natural hormonal environment is always in a state of flux, but the potential for variance is too limited to significantly alter our natural genetic set-point. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and any attempt to manipulate our natural hormonal environment for the sake of surpassing that genetic limit will yield minimal returns, at best. This is why all of us will eventually reach a point where we struggle to gain additional muscle tissue without drugs, regardless of how intelligent our training is, how well we eat, or what supplements we take. Then, as soon as we turn to PED’s, a whole new world of growth is opened up to us.
This is because PED’s allow for an extreme manipulation of our hormonal status. Through drug use, we can increase several of the body’s key anabolic/anti-catabolic hormones to such a great extent, that we re-set our limit for muscle growth…and the more drugs we take, the higher this bar is set. Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression and use this statement to justify a vigilante approach to drug use right out of the gate, because even with PED’s in the picture, there are multiple limiting factors which must be minimized in order to take advantage of their full muscle building potential. Furthermore, a novice PED user is not in a position, either physiologically or in terms of experience and education, to be able to benefit from very large dosages like a pro bodybuilder might. Therefore, a more moderate dosing scheme is recommended, but I am getting off-track…
Once a bodybuilder hits his natural genetic limit, he will not be able to build or maintain any additional muscle tissue beyond that point without the assistance of PED’s, and the farther away he gets from his natural limit, the more drugs it will take to build/maintain it. Conversely, if a bodybuilder goes on-cycle and gains 20 lbs over his natural limit, he will eventually lose those 20 lbs if he stays off long enough, as the body is incapable of supporting that amount of lean bodyweight without hormonal assistance. Moreover, the farther one pushes their development beyond their natural genetic limit, the more quickly they will lose that drug-induced muscle when they go off.
For example, if a bodybuilder goes on his first cycle, gains 15 lbs over his natural limit, and then goes off, it may take him several months before finally losing that 15 lbs and reverting back to his natural set-point. In contrast, a professional bodybuilder who is 70 lbs over his natural genetic limit may lose lean tissue at a rate of 15-20 lbs per month for the first few months, as the amount of hormones it takes to support 70 additional pounds of muscle mass is much greater in comparison to a meager 15 lbs. Therefore, when both bodybuilders drop the PED’s, the pro will drop muscle mass much more quickly.
Let’s use the following analogy in order to further clarify my point. We have two people who want to lose weight. One is a 300 lb man who requires 4,000 calories in order to maintain his bodyweight and the other is a 130 lb woman who requires only 1,500 calories in order to maintain her bodyweight. If we reduce both of their caloric intakes to 1,200, what do you think will happen? The man will lose weight far, far more quickly, as he is miles away from meeting his caloric needs, while the woman may only lose weight at the rate if 1-2 lbs per week, as she is fairly close to meeting her caloric needs. In the same way, if we have one 300 lb bodybuilder and one 225 lb bodybuilder, assuming all other factors are equal, the 300 lb bodybuilder will require significantly more hormonal assistance in order to maintain his muscle mass, as he will have exceeded his natural genetic limit by a far larger margin.
At this point some of you may be asking “Ok, but how do we know when to kick things up a notch?” In short, the answer is “as soon as you are no longer able to keep moving forward”. The fact is that unless you are always on the same drugs year-round, drug use will produce a yo-yo type of effect, in which you will go up and down in size and strength depending on what you are using and whether you are on or off. In those who cycle their steroids in traditional fashion (go completely off after each cycle for an equal period of time or close to it), this yo-yo effect is going to be even more extreme. This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you are steadily progressing and don’t allow this to play games with your head.
In this sense, traditional cycling is like taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back. Let’s say a bodybuilder, who goes by the name John, trains hard and eats well for 3 years, but then he reaches the point where gains are getting very hard to come by (signifying that the bodybuilder is not too far away from his natural limit) and decides to go on a cycle of AAS. Let’s say John utilizes the standard approach for a 1st time cycler and decides to run an 8 week cycle followed 8 weeks of off-time (which is to include PCT). During this cycle John gains 20 lbs, but after his 8 weeks of off-time he may only be left with only 14 of those pounds. On John’s 2nd cycle, after re-gaining what he lost during his off-time, he ends up adding 12 more lbs on top of that. On his 3rd time through it might be only 8 lbs, then 5 lbs, then 2-3 lbs. Eventually, it will be no pounds. He will just be spinning his wheels, adding a certain amount of lean mass during his cycle and then losing it all before his next cycle begins. As John’s gains diminish, instead of taking 2 steps forward 1 step back, it will be like taking 1 ¾ steps forward and 1 step back… then 1 ½ steps forward and 1 step back…then 1 ¼ steps…then 1 step…and at that point, his forward progress ceases.
While this progression is only an example and everyone’s experience will be different, it is well within the norm for this type of cycling approach. At this point John has a decision to make. He can either stay on longer and/or reduce his off-time, ramp up his cycles by adding additional compounds and/or increasing dosages, or begin cruising. Although the term cruising really only came into existence within the last 15 years or so, it is really nothing more than an old-school practice under a different name. The original practice was called “bridging” and involved the use of low-dose oral AAS during one’s “off” time (a contradiction, I know) in order to help preserve muscle mass.
These days few people employ orals in this fashion, due to their undesirable effects on cardiovascular and liver health. Instead, low-dose testosterone has taken its place as the premiere drug used for post-cycle maintenance, as testosterone lacks the negative side effects typically associated with orals. Although there really isn’t any difference between bridging and cruising, the use of low-dose testosterone for this purpose is a far more health conscious choice, as it can be administered long-term with little to no serious ill health effects.
After reaching the point where the traditional cycling approach (on time equals off-time) is no longer providing any sustainable benefit, as I said above, you will need to decide if you want stay on longer and/or reduce off-time, ramp up dosages and/or add more compounds, and/or begin cruising. In reality, most people will have already begun adding compounds and increasing dosages while still using the traditional approach, yet they will still eventually reach the point of diminishing returns simply because they are off drugs for too long inbetween each cycle. No matter what dosages or what compounds someone uses, they can only gain so much within a conventional 8-10 week cycle.
I advise milking the traditional approach for all its worth before increasing your on-time. Why stay on drugs longer than needed when you are still able to make steady progress the traditional way? The traditional cycling approach is not only healthier, but gains will be excellent, as everyone makes their best gains when they first begin using AAS, even when employing the traditional approach. It is also less damaging to the H.P.T.A (the system which governs testosterone and sperm production). Most people can get quite large with this method of cycling, especially if they are putting maximum effort into their training and diet. You may not be able to reach pro-size with this method, but everyone will know you are a bodybuilder. These days, most people jump the gun and switch over to cruising long before it’s actually needed, placing extra stress on their body prematurely.
Before switching over to cruising, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Namely, are you willing to accept the risks and side effects which accompany this method of drug use? In addition to placing increased stress of the cardiovascular system, liver, kidneys, prostate, etc, you also severely increase the likelihood of requiring T.R.T after you stop using AAS—a day which comes for everyone. Are you willing to subject yourself to weekly injections for life because your body is no longer capable of producing sufficient testosterone? This is a life-long commitment that many long-term AAS users will have to endure.
While infertility is a lesser concern, there are still those who struggle to restore sufficient sperm count and motility after long-term and in some cases even short-term use. The degree of difficulty encountered will be determined largely by one’s natural sperm count/motility, as well as their natural resiliency to the suppressive influences of AAS. In plain terms, some people’s bodies are genetically programmed to recover better than others. More so, if you had s sub-par sperm count and impaired motility to begin with (not uncommon these days), you stand a much higher chance of failing to restore normal sperm count/motility. This can cause very real problems for couples trying to conceive.
In my experience, while most former long-term steroid users are able to eventually impregnate their wives, the amount of effort it takes to do so can range from none at all (in those who are lucky enough to restore normal sperm count/motility without any fertility medication at all), to those who require extensive consultation with a fertility specialist, along with years of trial and error treatment before finally conceiving. I have seen in happen both ways on numerous occasions. Hell, some guys have impregnated their wives/girlfriends while in the midst of a heavy, long-term cycle, while others struggle to do so after just a few mild cycles. Obviously, these two examples would fall on the extreme, opposite ends of the spectrum, but they do happen. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Regardless, you should know the potential risks beforehand so you can make an educated decision. It may be wise to have your sperm count/motility checked beforehand, so you know exactly where you stand. Knowing this information will provide you a good idea of your potential risk.
In the end, the decision to transition from traditional cycling to cruising is a personal one. For those bodybuilders who wish to advance as far as possible in the competitive arena, they will need to take things a step further, ultimately reaching the point where they are on larger dosages for most of the year. Unfortunately, with the level of development expected in professional bodybuilding today, this has become a reality for all but the most gifted. Before you decide to take the next step, whatever that may be, I suggest thinking about how your choices will affect you in the long-run. What is important to you now may not be nearly as important 10-15 years from now. While I am not trying to discourage anyone from pursuing their bodybuilding dreams, I am encouraging everyone to weigh the pros and cons. In doing so, you stand the best chance of being at peace with your choices, both now and in the future.