Steroids, dosage, and the placebo effect


A MUCH more thorough treatment of this subject can be found here:  The Science of Steroids

Steroids.  Just start talking about ‘roids and most people get antsy.  They have an air of danger and mystique around them.  Obviously steroids have substantial physiological effects – that’s not debateable at all.  However, you can’t chalk all the gains (especially strength gains) people get from steroids up simply to physiological causes.

The main issue with steroids is that people expect to get a lot stronger in a hurry. 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.  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.

It’s an article about steroids, and I love this picture. Do I need another reason?

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

(as an aside – this study was conducted in 2000.  These guys should have known that, even if they WERE taking steroids, it’s not going to have any major effect that quickly.  Oh well.  Research can control for a lot of things, but it can’t control for stupid, it seems.)

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.


The Takeaway

You’re probably stronger than you realize.  I’m honestly not sure how you can tap into the extra 5% you have in you that placebo “steroids” could bring out.  I just wanted to present you with the idea.  Mull over it.  You’re already ready for PRs.  Now you just need to convince yourself of that fact.

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