What are the Benefits of Steroids for Athletes?
Scandals involving steroid use are frequent with sports figures - athletes will jeopardize their health, employment and the freedom to gain an "edge" over the competition. This risk is not surprising, given the huge financial gains that are often involved. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is typically covert. Thus, a well-researched study on the effects of anabolic steroids on athletes is rare. Testosterone, however, increases muscle strength, body size and recovery speed. However, these benefits are associated with many short-term and long-term risks.
INCREASED MUSCLE STRENGTH
Scientifically and anecdotally, steroid use is known to increase muscle strength. A recent study by Rogerston et al. (2007) nicely explained this effect of performance-enhancing drugs. These authors showed that testosterone enanthate, the most widely used (and abused) form of testosterone, increased compression and cycling performance in healthy subjects relative to height. Previous research had shown that such effects are usually achieved in 6-12 weeks of treatment, but these researchers showed significant effects within 3 weeks. These surprising results suggest that steroid use can rapidly increase muscle strength.
INCREASED BODY SIZE
The Rogerston et al study also showed that steroid use increases body size. In fact, a large amount of research supports this finding. A well-conducted experiment by Giorgi et al (2009) is emblematic of such studies. The latter authors tested the effects of testosterone enanthate on healthy weight trainers. Testosterone significantly increased body weight, biceps circumference and quadriceps circumference. This study also revealed an increase in abdominal "tightness". However, the finding is unusual as most studies do not show a fat reduction effect of steroid use (Hartgens and Kuipers, 2004).
INCREASED RATE OF IMPROVEMENT
Another documented effect of steroids is their positive impact on the rate of recovery. Recent steroid scandals involving professional athletes such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Roger Clemens involved the repeated use of performance-enhancing drugs to speed recovery. Unfortunately, few studies have tested these effects in healthy individuals. However, there is a nice collection of steroid studies on "trauma" subjects, including people who have suffered burns and injuries. For example, a recent study by Miller and Btaiche (2009) showed that oxandrolone (a synthetic derivative of testosterone) improved lean body mass, increased muscle strength and body weight in patients with severe thermal injuries.
STEROIDS INCREASE RISK
It is irresponsible to describe the benefits of steroids without mentioning the risks associated with their use. Hartgens and Kuipers (2004) present both positive and negative effects of performance enhancing drugs in an excellent review of the steroid literature. These authors note that testosterone use increases unwanted libido and aggression as well as acne and hair loss. Performance enhancing drugs also alter the internal hormone milieu during (and months after) their use. Most importantly, however, are the unwanted heart effects of anabolic steroids. Exogenous testosterone increases resting blood pressure and reduces the level of "good" cholesterol. In addition, steroids alter heart structure and function.