Steroids and Training Volume
Reprinted from Training for Mass, Second Edition
The following is a Muscle and Brawn exclusive, adapted from Gordon LaVelle’s book, Training for Mass, Second Edition. Training for Mass, Second Edition is available through Amazon, and all major bookstores.
This excerpt is used with permission by the author.
Steroids and Training Volume
The benefits and dangers of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs have been well-documented. Bodybuilders use them to increase the size of their muscles, with added strength being a secondary effect. This contrasts with athletes, who mainly use these drugs to illegally increase strength and speed, with added size mainly being secondary (with the exception of sports like American football, where added size is also a desirable attribute). Although many bodybuilding contests are sanctioned by organizations that ban the use of such substances, lax or non-enforcement of these rules — along with prolific and sometimes universal use among competitors, particularly at high-level events — has in effect made their use an accepted and condoned reality. All users run the risk of a host of side-effects, which run a broad gamut depending on the particular drug used, from acne to liver and kidney damage to increased tendencies toward violent behavior, and numerous other maladies. An in-depth overview and analysis of the specific risks and benefits of performance-enhancing drugs is beyond the scope of the book Training for Mass.
The mechanism of action of these drugs does merit a brief mention however, since it bears relevance to the comparison of contrasting styles of training, which is of course a major theme of the work. More specifically, it’s worth addressing the idea held by some that high-intensity training is perhaps more suitable for those training without the assistance of drugs, while a traditional volume-oriented workout is better for those enlisting the help of chemicals.
It’s well-known that steroids will accelerate the recovery and adaptation phases of muscular growth. Those training without drugs must therefore place a premium on recovery: Because growth-stimulating workouts should be highly intense, they should be brief and infrequent. However, many jump to the conclusion that the drug-assisted bodybuilder need not be so concerned with the frequency and length of his workouts, since his recovery abilities will be unnaturally high. Some have further concluded that when drugs are used, it’s actually beneficial to perform more sets. There’s a simple flaw in this logic. Although the accelerated recovery and adaptation resulting from drug use will affect the training frequency variable, in no way will additional sets stimulate more growth.
If the problem of confusing correlation with causal relationship did not exist, there would be no need for either edition of Training for Mass to have been written. Some bodybuilders perform a lot of sets and take a lot of drugs and get rather big in the process. The extra sets are erroneously deemed necessary, the drugs make this look true, everybody buys it, and thus we find the status quo of bodybuilding training in the early twenty-first century and beyond. Elsewhere in Training for Mass it was mentioned that chemicals can atone for a great many training flaws, both in tactics and strategy. In fact, some people train rather horribly and benefit regardless, all thanks to magic pills that do a good job of neutralizing these flaws — sort of like how the “smart bomb” button would wipe out all your enemies in the original Defender video game. But whatever the ends results are, the extra sets are a waste.
Regardless of what chemicals someone might put into his body, intensity is still the only important exercise factor for muscular growth. For that to change, the body would have to alter its entire stress-response mechanism. No drug is capable of creating this change — at least not here and now, in early twenty-first century planet Earth. The principles of muscular growth are the same, with or without the presence of anabolic steroids or other growth-producing drugs. The growth stimulation of any exercise will still only occur during the single most intense set. Additional stimulation will not accumulate by performing more than that.
Yet beyond this, it’s clear that chemically-helped bodybuilders have even more reason to employ the high-intensity strategy: There is a greatly increased risk of injury when drugs and high-volume workouts are combined. The Volume and Injury chapter of Training for Mass explains the dangers associated with performing lengthy weightlifting workouts, the worst of these being complete muscle tears. Yet without the use of drugs, these types of injuries are pretty rare. With drugs, they’re almost common. The stronger a muscle gets, the greater the likelihood that its supporting connective tissue will fail. That risk is increased with every set of a weightlifting workout, due to the combination of accumulating wear-and-tear and sheer statistical opportunity. Human connective tissue was meant neither to absorb the punishment of long lifting sessions nor the demands of chemically-increased strength. Combining the two elevates the risk of injury significantly. This isn’t surprising, since neither is natural.
It should also be considered that even if no muscle tear takes place, the mix of added strength and overuse will certainly increase the likelihood of less-dramatic injuries like joint inflammation. There’s a growing army of bodybuilders (and former bodybuilders) who once-upon-a-time possessed respectable physiques but who now must make do with shot knees and badly sore shoulders.
The presence of drugs is a variable that can significantly influence the effectiveness and potential hazards of any training approach. Addressing these issues should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of the use of illegal chemicals. It’s not recommended that anyone take these drugs, since there are potentially substantial risks involved with their use. For those who choose to neglect this advice, be aware that they will not be made more effective by increasing the number of sets performed per exercise. Also be warned that their use in any type of weight-training routine will increase your risk of injury, and that this risk will become greater with every additional set that you add to the mix.