All because they thought they were on ‘roids

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

Steroids work — in part because lifters expect them to work:

When someone goes “on,” they have been fully convinced that the drugs are going to make a huge difference in their training and their results. Those expectations are the critical issue though — those expectations are doing just as much work as the steroids themselves.

I’ll reference and expand briefly on two landmark studies regarding the placebo effect and steroids. If you’d like to look them up, here are the citations:

Ariel et. Al. (1972) “Anabolic Steroids: The Physiological Effects of Placebos,” Medicine and Science in Sports, vol. 4, 124–26.

Maganaris et. Al. (2000) “Expectancy effects and strength training: do steroids make a difference?” Sport psychologist, vol. 14, no. 3, 272–278.

In the first study, fifteen male lifters were put on a strength training plan, and were told that the ones who made the best progress during the first phase of training on seated shoulder press, military press, and bench press (researchers confirmed for being gym-bros in lab coats. Just saying…) would be chosen to use steroids for four weeks to evaluate their effects.

So, these guys trained as hard as they could for 4 weeks to get free, legal roids. The 6 guys who made the best progress gained an average of 11kg between the three lifts, and were selected for the “steroid” trial.

They were told they were being given 10 mg/day of Dianabol, but, in fact, they were given a placebo pill.

So, they made similar gains to the first phase, right? Maybe a little extra because of the placebo effect?


They gained an average of 45 kg (about 100 pounds) between their three lifts. They didn’t report the breakdown per lift, but that’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 pounds on the bench, and 30 apiece on seated and military press. That’s in contrast to 24 pounds TOTAL in the first four weeks between all three lifts.

All because they thought they were on ‘roids.

Second example:

Eleven national level powerlifters were given a saccharine pill before they maxed on squat, bench, and deadlift. They were told that it was a fast-acting steroid

They immediately beat their old PRs by an average of about 4–5% (and since we’re talking about national level lifters, that means we’re probably talking about at least 50–100 pounds on their total).

They were given more sham “steroids” for the next two weeks of training, after which they maxed again. Except…

Five were informed that they’d been taking a placebo the whole time, while six still believed they were taking legit steroids.

The five who knew the truth regressed back to their old “pre-steroid” maxes. They couldn’t even hit the PRs they’d set two weeks before, even though they knew that they were drug-free for those maxes too! They didn’t just fail to make more placebo gains — they lost their initial gains as well.

This was in spite of the fact that they’d reported lifting heavier weights in the gym or doing more reps with certain weights during the two intervening weeks. They knew their training was going better, they knew they’d hit bigger lifts drug-free before, but they just couldn’t put up as heavy of weights knowing that they didn’t have drugs in their systems.

The six who still thought they were juicing managed to hit new PRs again!

So, from these studies, we see people who got “steroid-like gains” in spite of the fact that they never took steroids. They merely thought they did.

Now, obviously steroids do play a role. They do, absolutely, “work.” However, we have to keep in mind that they don’t just “work” via physiological mechanisms — they also “work” by altering peoples’ expectations.


  1. I recently started lifting again after a 30+-year hiatus. Never have used steroids, but I’ve been stunned with my gains, recovery time, and lack of injury. Sessions feel like they did in high school, which is just bizarre at my age. At first I thought it was diet-related, but now I’m wondering if it’s got more to do with… Cialis. I avoid bodybuilding forums because much of the advice on there reminds me of the goofier conspiracy theorists, but it’s sure easy to find posts claiming Slide-and-fil and Ta-Da!-La-fill (private joke) are “the new steroids…”

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Isegoria recently had another article on placebos. Noting the effectiveness of the placebo effect the conclusion was placebos are a worthwhile palliative medicine. Now evidently a worthwhile weight training supplement.

  3. Isegoria says:

    It looks like ED drugs are known to help some people counter the effects of altitude, but I’m not sure how a vasodilator would be anabolic.

  4. My all-too-limited (I suppose) understanding of what’s alleged is not that it’s akin to a steroid in mechanism, but rather in the (easily identifiable by lay gym bros) effects of faster muscle repair (thus recovery) that one might believe is the “natural” result of greater blood flow to affected tissues; and, most importantly for the astonished discussions, a tremendously increased and long-lasting “pump” — the effect Arnold, in “Pumping Iron,” facetiously called “better than sex.”

    I can attest that lifting in the morning, and then walking around pumped up *all day long* feeling like your engorged muscles are encased in too-tight sausage skins is… not unpleasant at all. Beyond that, I may be imagining things.

  5. Bruce says:

    This is a throwback to the good old days when they could do cool experiments and not mind who got hurt.

    Steroids help you heal. Telling a guy he’s on steroids is like telling a guy you put a bandage on his cut. When you lie, you endanger him. Maybe he can’t throw a ball anymore the rest of his life because of you, maybe it’s his knees.

    I’m not enough of a Meathead-American to care, but if the guys running this study get thumped, that’s why.

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