Anabolic/androgenic steroids are not medically approved to promote excessive muscle mass gains (bodybuilding) or improve athletic performance. Aside from early experimentation on athletes by a handful of sports physicians, an extensive effort to study the physique- and performance-enhancing properties of these drugs, specifically with an eye on developing strategies for using them to maximize benefits and minimize adverse effects, has not been undertaken by the medical community. Because of this, illicit users have been left to develop their own protocols for administering these drugs. The result has been a large variety of different approaches to using these agents, some safer or more effective than others. While it would not be possible to comprehensively evaluate all known approaches, this section will discuss some of the most fundamental and time-proven methods for using AAS.
When first considering what steroid(s) to use, one will notice there are many different medications that fall under the category of anabolic/androgenic steroids. This has been the result of many years of development, where specific patients and needs are addressed with drugs that have specific characteristics. For example, some drugs are considered milder (less androgenic), and produce fewer side effects in women and children. Others are more androgenic, which makes them better at supporting sexual functioning in men. Some are injectable medications, and others made for oral administration. There are limits to this diversity, however. All AAS drugs activate the same cellular receptor, and as such share similar protein anabolizing properties. In other words, while different AAS drugs may have some differing properties, if your objective is to gain muscle mass and strength, this could be accomplished with virtually any one of the commercially available agents.
While all AAS drugs may be capable of improving muscle mass, strength, and performance, it would not be correct to say there are no advantages to choosing one agent over another for a particular purpose. Most fundamentally, the quantity and quality of muscle gained may be different from one agent to another. In a general sense, AAS that are also estrogenic tend to be more effective at promoting increases in total muscle size. These steroids also tend to produce visible water (and sometimes fat) retention, however, and are generally favored when raw size is more important than muscle definition. Drugs with low or no significant estrogenicity tend to produce less dramatic size gains in comparison, but the quality is higher, with greater visible muscularity and definition. In reviewing the most popular AAS drugs, we can separate them into these two main categories as follows.
- methandrostenolone – Oral
- oxymetholone – Oral
- testosterone cypionate – Injectable
- testosterone enanthate – Injectable
- boldenone undecylenate – Injectable
- methenolone enanthate – Injectable
- nandrolone decanoate – Injectable
- oxandrolone – Oral
- stanozolol – Oral
The early stages of AAS use usually involve cycles with a single anabolic/androgenic steroid. Building muscle mass is the most common goal, and usually entails the use of one of the more androgenic substances such as testosterone, methandrostenolone, or oxymetholone. Those looking for lean mass often find favor in such anabolic staples as nandrolone decanoate, oxandrolone, or stanozolol. First time users rarely welcome injecting anabolic/androgenic steroids, and will usually choose an oral compound for the sake of convenience. Methandrostenolone is the most common choice for mass building, and is almost universally regarded as highly effective and only moderately problematic (in terms of estrogenic or androgenic side effects). Stanozolol is the oral anabolic steroid most often preferred for improving lean mass or athletic performance.
The potential for adverse reactions should also be considered when choosing a steroid to use, especially if AAS use is to be regularly repeated. For example, the listed oral medications present greater strain on the cardiovascular system, and are also liver toxic. For these reasons, the injectable medications listed are actually preferred for safety (testosterone most of all). Potential cosmetic side effects may also be taken into account. For example, men with a strong sensitivity to gynecomastia sometimes prefer non-estrogenic drugs such as methenolone, stanozolol, or oxandrolone. Individuals worried about hair loss, on the other hand, may isolate their use to predominantly anabolic drugs, such as nandrolone, methenolone, and oxandrolone. A detailed review of personal goals, health status, and potential side effects of each drug is advised before committing to any AAS regimen.
The dosage used is important in determining the level of benefit received. Anabolic/androgenic steroids tend to be most efficient at promoting muscle gains when taken at a moderately supratherapeutic dosage level. Below this (therapeutic), potential anabolic benefits are often counterbalanced, at least to some extent, by the suppression of endogenous testosterone. At very high doses (excessive supratherapeutic), smaller incremental gains are noticed (diminishing returns). In the case of testosterone enanthate or cypionate, for example, a dosage of 100 mg per week is considered therapeutic, and is generally insufficient for noticing strong anabolic benefits. When the dosage is in the 200-600 mg per week range, however, the drug is highly efficient at supporting muscle growth (moderate supratherapeutic). Above this range, a greater level of muscle gain may be noticed, but the amount will be small in comparison to the dosage increase. Below are some commonly recommended dosages for the steroids listed earlier.
- boldenone undecylenate - 200-400 mg/wk
- methandrostenolone - 10-30 mg/day
- methenolone enanthate - 200-400 mg/wk
- nandrolone decanoate - 200-400 mg/wk
- oxandrolone - 10-30 mg/day
- oxymetholone - 50-100 mg/day
- stanozolol - 10-30 mg/day
- stanozolol - 10-30 mg/day
- testosterone cypionate - 200-600 mg/wk
- testosterone enanthate - 200-600 mg/wk
There are additional considerations other than the cost effectiveness of a particular dosage. To begin with, high doses of anabolic/androgenic steroids tend to produce stronger negative cosmetic, psychological, and physical side effects. In light of diminishing returns, the tradeoff between results and adverse reactions becomes less and less favorable. Gains made on lower doses also tend to be better retained after steroid discontinuance than those resulting from excessive intake. It is generally not realistic to expect that rapid double-digit weight gains induced by massive dosing will remain long after a cycle is over. Slower steadier gains are advised. It is also very important to remember that higher doses aren’t always what are needed to achieve greater gains. An individual more focused on his or her training and diet will often make better gains on lower dosages of AAS than a less dedicated individual taking higher doses. With this understanding, AAS should only be considered when all other variables of training and diet have been addressed, and always limited to the minimum dosage necessary to achieve the next realistic training/performance goal.
The administration of anabolic/androgenic steroids at a given dosage will typically produce noticeable increases in muscle size and strength for approximately 6-8 weeks. After this point, the rate of new muscle gain typically slows significantly. A plateau may be reached soon after, where all forward momentum has ceased. To continue making significant progress beyond this point can entail escalating dosages, which is likely to coincide with a greater incidence of adverse reactions and diminishing anabolic returns. Even without dosage escalation, negative health changes are already likely to be apparent, and should be corrected fairly quickly. The practice of extended or continuous steroid administration is discouraged for these reasons. It is generally recommended to use AAS drugs for no longer than 8 weeks at a time (10-12 weeks at the maximum), followed by an equal or longer period of abstinence before another steroid regimen is initiated. This pattern of rotating between “on” and “off” periods is referred to as cycling.
Off-Cycle (Recovery, Bridging, and Tapering)
The period immediately following steroid cession can involve a state of hypogonadism (low androgen levels), and as a result protein catabolism. In an effort to minimize muscle loss, the objective here is usually on restoring natural testosterone production, maintaining an optimal level of muscle stimulation, and remaining dedicated to proper nutrition. A hormonal recovery program is usually initiated, which may involve the use of HCG, tamoxifen, and clomiphene (see PCT: Post Cycle Therapy). A substantial off-cycle period is also advised, involving abstinence from anabolic/androgenic steroids for at least 8-12 weeks. Some AAS abusers have difficulties with complete drug abstinence, and will initiate “bridging” routines between full-dose cycles. This may involve the periodic low-dose administration of an injectable steroid, such as 200 mg of testosterone enanthate or methenolone enanthate every 2-3 weeks. Such practice is discouraged, however, as it can interfere with hormonal recovery, and prevent a return to metabolic homeostasis.
When concluding a cycle, some steroid users also follow a practice of first slowly reducing their dosages (tapering). This tapering may proceed for a 3-4 week period, and will involve an even stepping down of the dose each week until the point of drug discontinuance. It is unknown, however, if such tapering offers any tangible value. This practice has never been evaluated in a clinical setting, and is not widely recommended with steroid medications as it is with some other drugs such as thyroid hormones or antidepressants. Virtually every highdose AAS administration study can also be found to end at the maximum dosage, with no time allotted to tapering. One flaw in the logic of using a tapering program is that they are ostensibly designed to aid hormone recovery. Recovery is not possible, however, while supraphysiological levels of androgens are present, and such levels are usually found during all weeks of a normal (nonmedical) steroid taper. Individuals remain cautioned that dosage tapering is not a proven way to reduce post- cycle muscle catabolism.
As individuals become more experienced with anabolic/androgenic steroid use they may begin experimenting with the use of more than one steroid at a time. This practice is referred to as stacking. Stacking is most common with advanced bodybuilders who find that at a certain level of physical development they begin hitting plateaus that are difficult to break with a previous single-agent approach. In many cases, however, it may simply be the greater cumulative steroid dosage that is necessary for the resumed progress. Stacking usually involves the combination of a more androgenic steroid with one or more primarily anabolic agents. On the anabolic side, common steroids of choice include boldenone, methenolone, nandrolone, oxandrolone, and stanozolol. Testosterone, oxymetholone, or methandrostenolone will serves as the androgenic base of most stacks. The reasons for stacking androgenic and anabolic steroids together in this manner are two fold. On the one hand, high doses of testosterone, oxymetholone, or methandrostenolone are prone to producing strong androgenic and estrogenic side effects. Stacking first became very popular during the 1960s, a time when effective estrogen maintenance drugs were not widely available. An anabolic-androgen stack allowed the use of a higher total steroid dosage than would be tolerable with a single androgen. Anabolic-androgen pairing also appears to offer efficacy advantages over the use of primarily anabolic agents alone, even when they are taken in higher doses. This conflicts with the original expectations for “anabolic” steroids, which were specifically designed to emphasize muscle-building properties, but is repeatedly noticed by users. The reason the basic androgenic steroids are more anabolically productive is not fully understood, but is believed to involve the interplay of estrogenic hormones, androgenic stimulation in the central nervous system, and potentially other unidentified synergisms necessary for optimal muscle growth.
Today, the availability of drugs that can reduce estrogenic activity makes the continued use of single agent cycles based on a strong androgen like testosterone enanthate or cypionate much more viable than it was decades ago. Side effects like gynecomastia and water retention can now be effectively minimized with anti-estrogens or aromatase inhibitors, even when taking higher doses. Individuals should be aware that stacking is, likewise, not a necessary practice. It is likely to remain commonly applicable in competitive bodybuilding circles, however, or when an individual is sure they have progressed as far as they possibly can with a single-agent approach. Otherwise, for many athletes and recreational bodybuilders, the periodic use of a single steroid will be more than sufficient to maintain optimal levels of muscle mass and performance, and it may never be necessary to deviate from this approach.
Wlliam Llewellyn (2011) - Anabolics