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How Much of a Pro Bodybuilder's Success Is Dependent on Steroids?

Is it the drugs, the genetics, or both?

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steroid use among bodybuilders
Simon Hausberger / Getty

Ever take a look at a professional bodybuilding competition and wonder how many of the participants are using steroids? Curious to get some answers? We posed the question to Dr. Thomas O’Connor, MD, an internal medicine physician, wondering just how prevalent steroid use is within the pro bodybuilding circuit and how much they use compared to the average gym rat that dabbles in it.

The response that O’Connor, aka the “Metabolic Doc,” provided is staggering. “The professional bodybuilders, yes, they do use up to 10 times the dose [of steroids] that a recreational man ... who’s in the gym,” O’Connor estimates. “The professionals do take it to a very high level.”

O’Connor, a longtime participant and surveyor of the pro bodybuilding landscape, also used patient feedback—many of them current and former bodybuilders—in his estimate. He even took his estimation a step further by explaining how bodybuilders might cycle steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. “There’s a bulking phase and cutting phase,” O’Connor says. “[Bodybuilders] blast and cruise. They’ll blast for eight to 12 weeks very heavy before shows. The cruising happens after the show. They won’t come off; they’ll lower the dosage, and they’ll cruise.”

Anabolic steroid use or just plain genetics
Simon Hausberger / Getty

Clean Build of Health

That’s not to say that these drugs are the only key to their success. O’Connor says that any top pro bodybuilder must possess great genetics. “I’ve been involved in this underground steroid bodybuilding, powerlifting world of performance-enhancing drugs for over 20 years,” he says. “The top professional bodybuilders, every single one, they have great genetics. You can’t give steroids to me and you. You can’t just say, ‘I’m gonna take drugs and have a professional body.’ I want to make that clear. These guys are genetic masterpieces.”

The issue with that, however, comes with these “genetic masterpieces” extending their blasting period to an all-year affair—either ingesting steroids in pill form or relying on injections (intramuscular steroids) daily—to endure the rigors of the competitions and the subsequent endorsement deals with supplement companies that often follow. They need to look their best all year round.

The "New" Golden Era

While O’Connor suggests that pro bodybuilders are taking steroids at a much higher rate than non-competitive lifters, he says that steroids aren’t the only performance-enhancing drugs being abused by pros and average Joes. “It’s not just steroids. It’s insulin, human growth hormone (HGH), clenbuterol, diuretics,” he says. “I would say the Golden Era in the 1970s, they didn’t use very much. Now, they’re doing upward of tenfold. The drug use now is off the chart on the recreational guy and the pros.”

To further drive his point home about how severe this current climate is, O'Connor says Arnold Schwarzenegger, who admitted to using steroids, "used nothing" in comparison to today's bodybuilders. "He was a church boy—that's why he's still alive," O'Connor says. "I'm telling you, this is an epidemic."

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