Whether they’re Hollywood stars, pro bodybuilders, or influencers with gobs of followers, lots of the guys peddling fitness advice on social media are pumped up on PEDs—whether they admit to it or not. That’s a risk to their health, of course, with steroids and other performance enhancers being consistently shown in research to have deleterious effects, especially on cardiovascular health.
But for the non-steroid-using guys out there seeing their advice, there’s another problem: Many of their tips won’t work without the juice, and could put you at risk for overuse injuries, or just crushing disappointment when you can’t meet their enhanced standards.
“Everything about a natural lifter is going to look and be different, and repair differently, than with an enhanced athlete,” says pro bodybuilder Brandon Lirio, director of Battleground Fitness, an online personal training company.
Lirio should know: He’s a three-time Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association (PNBA) Mr. Olympia in Classic Physique—which means he’s won competitions drug-free. He’s built about as much muscle as he can without chemical assistance.
The 35-year-old says he doesn’t personally have anything against lifters or bodybuilders who use steroids. But men who want to be healthier and safer and skip PEDs need to be realistic about their goals. And they should not compare themselves with guys who might be juicing. “They’re like going into a time chamber where you can do 5 or 10 years’ worth of what a normal person could do in a fraction of the time, then turning it up to the 100th percentile.” Add on to this the fact that fitness influencers on gear frequently don’t admit to it, telling natural guys to simply work harder, and you get some very skewed, misguided perceptions.
If you are trying to build serious muscle without resorting to drugs, learn from Lirio’s hard-earned wisdom. Ignore these eight myths that get promoted in the enhanced bodybuilding community, to help protect yourself from injury and maximize your all-natural gains.
Myth: With hard work and discipline, you can build that body, too. Steroids are just a shortcut.
Fact: It’s not a matter of more time or more work. No natural lifter can match another on PEDs.
“[PEDs are] essentially like having a cheat code in a video game,” Lirio says. A steroid user reaps the maximum effects from every gram of protein they eat, and every rep they lift in the gym. And when they’re done, they recover faster, so that they can build more muscle and then do it all again sooner.
So no matter how hard you work, or for how long, “even if you are the number-one human embodiment of genetic coding, it is physically and physiologically impossible for you to look like one of the 16 [top-rated] bodybuilders in the world on a juiced stage,” he says. “Even if I started lifting from the time I was five years old, there is a 0.0 percent chance I would be able to look like that or do that.”
That shouldn’t discourage hard work, Lirio adds, but temper lifters’ expectations and allow them to focus on what they actually can achieve in a sustainable manner.
Myth: Eat 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, and you’ll get huge too.
Fact: Consuming the extreme amounts often suggested by lifters on gear is overkill and won’t get you to their size.
Whether you build muscle or lose muscle depends on the balance between two mechanisms: muscle protein breakdown (MPB), where proteins separate into component parts for use in various bodily processes, and muscle protein synthesis (MPS), where amino acids are used to fix micro tears in muscles and build more muscle fibers. When there’s more MPS than MPB, your body is adding muscle.
Strength training triggers a period of MPS, during which your body utilizes the protein you’ve eaten to amass muscle. If you aren’t eating enough protein, your body doesn’t have the raw materials it needs to do this. So, yes, increasing your protein intake can help you build more muscle, but eating like a juiced lifter won’t make you look like one.
Steroids send MPS into overdrive, which allows users to fuel the process with even more protein. “If you take lab-derived testosterone and boil it down to what it’s actually doing, it’s enzymes for protein synthesis,” Lirio says. But if you’re not artificially boosting your T levels, you can only stimulate so much MPS, and so you can only use so much protein.
How much protein is right? In a 2014 study, resistance-trained subjects who ate two grams of protein per pound of body weight per day each didn’t build more muscle than another group that ate less than one gram per pound of body weight. Other studies, like this one, have found that eating more than 0.82 grams per pound of body weight a day doesn’t provide any additional benefit to body composition. Since studies are based on averages, the upper limit could be a little higher, so Lirio suggests topping out at 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight (for example, if you’re 180 pounds, consider ingesting as much as 216 grams of protein in a given day for muscle-building purposes).
If you eat more than that, and you’re natty, your body won’t turn it into more muscle. But excess protein is not necessarily wasted, Lirio stresses. For men who are trying to restrict their calories to lose weight, excess protein can help stave off hunger, since it is digested more slowly than carbohydrates. In which case, by all means, enjoy another plate of grilled steak; just don’t expect steroid-sized levels of MPS.
Myth: You can add 10 pounds of muscle each year.
Fact: Experienced lifters need at least three or four years to gain 10 pounds of muscle.
When bodybuilders on PEDs underperform, they’ll sometimes get feedback like “you need to come in 10 pounds heavier next year, or you’ll get dwarfed,” Lirio says. “And when they say 10 pounds, let’s be clear: That’s 10 pounds of muscle.”
If you’re natural and it’s your first year of strength training, this might be possible: During the first months of lifting, trainees can experience “newbie gains,” significant jumps in the amount of muscle on their frame. In a 2003 study, scientists experimented on two groups of lifters—a group of newbies, and another with lifting experience. Both groups executed the same programs for more than five months. At the end of the study, the newbie guys had gained three times as much muscle as the seasoned lifters.
For advanced lifters, Lirio says, 10 pounds of muscle gain will take three or four years, and that’s with a perfect program. If you’re trying to undergo a muscle-adding transformation in a year, understand that “what your body looks like is what it’s going to look like, plus or minus two or three percent.”
You can add muscle gradually, as well as appear more muscular faster by shredding fat, he adds. But impossible-to-believe quick muscle development is just that: a myth.
Myth: You can bulk and cut in a few months to add significant muscle.
Fact: Natural lifters need significantly longer bulk and cut cycles.
Bulking is a multi-month process where bodybuilders and other athletes gain weight, hoping to pack on lots of muscle along with some extra fat. At the end of the bulking phase, they’ll “cut,” losing just the fat, and accentuating the newly built muscle.
Juiced lifters can bulk and cut multiple times in the same year and see significant gains. But natty lifters need to do both steps for longer to see results, Lirio says. “Anyone who is in a bulk should be doing it for a very specific purpose, even if that purpose is just ‘I want to be bigger next year.’ But next year should be the timeline, not three months.”
Gaining weight too fast means the majority of it is going to be body fat, he adds. And dropping the weight—or cutting—too fast won’t carve off as much fat as you hope. “The majority of the weight lost is either going to be muscle fiber, or you’re going to lose size on the muscle because you’re just losing glycogen [a carbohydrate stored in muscle], salt, and water out of the cells—in which case, you’re not really losing anything. What you’re going to do is eat away a lot of muscle, and your kidneys will start to produce a water-holding hormone called aldosterone, and you’ll look worse.”
The solution for natural guys: take a breath and give yourself plenty of time. To gain notable muscle, Lirio suggests bulking phases should be 6 to 15 months long, and cuts should span several months of dieting. You can do a “winter bulk” and “summer shred” each year to look leaner on summer vacation, but you won’t gain much muscle year over year.
Myth: No days off! Start at 4 a.m.! Nothing should get in the way of your training!
Fact: Consistency trumps intensity.
In a research review from July 2023, scientists found that while heavier loads do promote slightly more strength than lighter ones, and more sets provide slightly more size than fewer, the real difference comes from the total amount of work done over time. Basically, a less intense workout done more often will likely create more gains than sporadically performing a workout that leaves you totally drained and wasted for days.
But you also must factor in rest to see improvement, Lirio says. That’s because you aren’t literally forming muscle or strength in the gym at all, but rather, you trigger bodily processes that build these as you recover. Not giving your body that recovery will sabotage your gains.
“Sleep. Rest. Recover. These are the things that will make you stronger and keep your injury rate down. Your metabolic hormones, like testosterone, go up [when resting]. Your estrogen balances during REM sleep,” he says. “This idea that you’re supposed to only sleep four hours per night and never take a rest day—I guess it sounds cool, but that’s not how the body works.”
To that point: In a small 2021 study of young men and women, getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night reduced MPS by 18 percent, decreased testosterone levels by 24 percent, and increased levels of cortisone, a stress hormone that eats muscle, by 21 percent.
Lifters using PEDs, meanwhile, can get by with less rest because the substances do the recovering for them, per Lirio. “When their testosterone drops, they can get it from a syringe. When their metabolism drops, they can use clenbuterol to keep muscle while leaning out a little bit. And they can reach for some anavar when their sleep is bad.”
Myth: Athletes in drug-tested sports are bigger than you, so that size must be possible.
Fact: Pro athletes devote more time and money to their recovery than is realistic for normal folks.
Competitors in the CrossFit Games and NFL and NBA players all build significant muscle, and they’re all tested for PEDs. So, the scolding online wisdom goes, you’re just making up excuses for why you don’t look like Christian McCaffrey.
Even if you buy that these athletes are all fully without the assistance of substances, Lirio says, they’re still doing things you can’t reasonably access, or afford. “Stem cell therapies multiple times per day, cold and heat shocks, protein therapies, personal chiropractic medicine, massage therapists, physical therapists… All you have to do is watch the recent Quarterback documentary series on Netflix, and you’ll see that six days of the week that they’re not playing football, these guys are spending four hours per day on recovery and restorative therapies.”
These therapies, many unrealistic for those of us who do other, more boring things to make a living, have aims similar to steroids: They help athletes recover faster and better so they can train harder and more often than us mortals. If you don’t have the time or money to devote to such practices, you’re unlikely to match your idols.
Myth: Legal supplements can get you the same results as PEDs.
Fact: At best, good supplements can only provide marginal boosts that can’t compare to PED gains.
Supplements can potentially make a difference. Lirio takes a variety of them to hone his competition physique (and he owns two supplement stores). With quality supplements, he says, it’s possible to get small increases in muscle protein synthesis, testosterone release, and estrogen control—all hormonal changes that can improve muscle building. But these supplements will only bump you up a percentage point or two on each of these metrics.
“Get a nice stack going, and you’ll give yourself a five-percent edge on the guy you’re competing against,” he says. For non-competing guys, it’s probably too small of an edge to really matter. And it won’t stack up to PEDs. “None of these things are ever going to match even a 25th of a degree of the substances being used by enhanced lifters.”
Lirio also warns athletes to be wary of supplements trying to trick you into thinking they’ll act like PEDs. Their names end with “var,” for instance, to sound like Anavar, a popular oral steroid. Others start with “clen” to mimic clenbuterol, an asthma drug used to boost metabolism and fat-burning.
“It’s a natural supplement that’s playing on words to make it sound like it’s not a natural supplement,” he says. But that’s just marketing.
Myth: When you’re huge and cut, you’ll feel like a God.
Fact: After the rush of a competition fades, bodybuilders often feel like crap.
Building lots of muscle and torching fat to show it involves a ton of work, with or without steroids. “We look at these guys, and they look like titans. And we think they must feel like a God on that stage,” Lirio says. “And maybe for the 30 minutes you’re up there, and the crowd goes wild and the adrenaline spikes, you do.”
But for the rest of the time that bodybuilders or CrossFit athletes are looking their most ripped? That gratification is rare, he says. “When you’re operating at that peak level, whether it’s for an aesthetic or physical sport, it doesn’t feel great to be in that recovery mode. They actually feel tired and sick.”