I probably don’t have to tell you that steroid use is rampant in the fitness space.
What’s more, there’s still a strong societal stigma against steroid use, so most people are reluctant to admit they’re on the #dedication.
So instead, they lie.
They outright insist they’re natural, of course, but often go further, lying about their stats, diets, training routines, blood tests, and anything else that’ll throw people off their strangely anabolic scent.
Such shenanigans make it hard to know who’s actually natural and who’s not.
And whenever this topic comes up, trolls are quick to ask:
“Why do you care if someone takes steroids? That’s their business.”
To which I answer:
I don’t care whether people take steroids.
If they need abnormally big, bulging muscles to muster enough self-esteem to get out of bed in the morning, that’s cool by me.
What gives me a hot case of heartburn, though, is lying about it to gain followers and sell stuff.
Not only is this fundamentally dishonest, it also messes up other people’s ideas and expectations about their own physiques.
Because let’s face it: no matter our genetics or how hard us naturals try, we’ll never look nearly as good as drug users.
We can certainly build a body we can be proud of—big, lean, and strong—but we’ll never hold a candle to much of what we see on the ‘Gram.
So, when Chuckles the Massive Man-Child says the secret to his killer biceps is his shitty pills, powders, and PDFs, my eyeballs roll into the back of my head.
Many other eyeballs are riveted, though, and this often begins a frustrating, disappointing, and dysfunctional relationship with weightlifting.
One that often, and ironically, leads to steroid use as a last resort.
So, that’s why it’s worth knowing how to spot fake naturals, and why I wrote this article.
Let’s get started.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell if someone’s on steroids.
If they’re an IFBB pro or look like one, for example, they’re on gear.
Many times it’s not obvious, though. In fact, many drug users look far more “normal” than you might think.
That’s why you need clear, empirical methods of detecting steroid use.
One such method—for men at least—would involve obtaining someone’s wrist, ankle, and body composition measurements and then using Casey Butt’s formula to determine whether his total lean mass is beyond what’s attainable naturally, but that’s too impractical.
Instead, you’ll have to rely on more feasible ways of assessing someone’s “natty probability,” including evaluating:
- Their normalized fat-free mass index (FFMI)
- Their overall size, leanness, and strength
- The size of their shoulders, upper chest, and traps
- Their muscle separation and symmetry
- And more…
Let’s get to it.
The fat-free mass index (FFMI) is a measurement of how much muscle you have per unit of height.
A normalized FFMI is a version of the FFMI measurement that does a better job of accounting for differences in height between two people (which can make some people seem more or less jacked than they really are).
It’s calculated by dividing your fat-free mass in kilograms by your height in meters squared, and you can find yours by plugging your height, weight, and body fat percentage into this calculator:
As there’s a correlation between height and potential muscularity, and as organ weight doesn’t vary much from person to person, you’d expect to see a higher average FFMIs among steroid users than non-users as well as FFMIs among steroid users that are simply unattainable naturally.
And that’s exactly what research has shown.
A good example of this is a study conducted by scientists at McLean Hospital, who calculated the FFMIs of 157 male athletes (some admitted to taking steroids and others claimed natty status) and found steroid users had an average FFMI of 24.8 while the purported non-users averaged at 21.8. Another significant finding was not a single natural participant had an FFMI over 25, whereas many “enhanced” ones did.
This has led many people to declare 25 as the FFMI ceiling for natural (male) weightlifters. (There’s no similar research available on women, but it’s fair to assume their ceiling would be significantly lower.)
One important caveat is FFMI doesn’t account for differences in height. The taller someone is, the wider and thicker they are as well, and if you look at the data in the study, you’ll see the taller athletes naturally had a higher FFMIs regardless of how much muscle they had gained through training.
In other words, FFMI increases with height, regardless of steroid use.
The researchers were aware of this, though, which is why they normalized the data to the average height of the participants, 5’11. This allowed them to more or less remove height as a potential confounder in determining the relationship between steroids and FFMI.
After normalizing the data and reassessing it, the scientists found that every single natural athlete had a normalized FFMI of 24.9 or less, whereas about half of the steroid users had a normalized FFMI of 25 or greater.
The bottom line from this study is sporting a normalized FFMI above 25 is proof positive of steroid use.
Now, naysayers will point to the bodybuilders and strongmen of old to discredit such an assertion. A number of these men exceeded a normalized FFMI of 25 before the advent of steroids (~1940), they say, and therefore it’s clearly not the true cutoff for natural bodybuilders.
Not so fast.
One issue with relying on data from bodybuilders and strongmen from the late 1800s and early 1900s is there was no formal system of record keeping in place. What’s more, these men would often exaggerate their claims of strength, muscularity, and leanness to draw crowds and sell tickets.
So, the reality is bodybuilders of the “drug-free era” (~1940 to 1960) were likely not drug-free. Testosterone wasn’t as mainstream as it is now, but it’s very likely that top-tier bodybuilders were quick to take advantage of it.
Even if we accept that these bodybuilders were truly natural, when we calculate their normalized FFMIs with more realistic body fat estimates, only a small handful surpassed the 25 threshold. That means about 1% of the top 1% of dedicated weightlifters of that era achieved a normalized FFMI over 25, so why should we assume that just about anyone can now do it, too?
Circling back to our initial question, how can you tell if someone is natty or not based on their normalized FFMI? Here’s what the evidence says:
- If someone’s normalized FFMI is over 25, it’s almost certain they’re taking or have taken steroids.
- If someone’s normalized FFMI is between 24 and 25, then it’s likely they’re taking or have taken steroids.
- If someone’s normalized FFMI is between 22 and 23 and they’ve been training consistently for 3+ years, they may be natural.
- If someone’s normalized FFMI is between 21 and 22, they may be natural as well.
- If someone’s normalized FFMI is between 18 and 21, they likely don’t even lift so who cares. 🙂
(And remember we’re talking just about men here. Unfortunately, there’s no data on the correlation between steroid use and FFMI in women. It’s fair to assume, however, that their ceiling is significantly lower than men’s.)
If you’re unsure why I said people with normalized FFMIs below 25 “may” be natural, the answer is simple:
There are plenty of guys using steroids with normalized FFMIs below 25 due to poor genetics, low dosages, poor training or dieting, etc.
That’s why you have to consider factors other than normalized FFMI when determining whether someone is likely using drugs or not—factors you’ll learn if you keep reading this article.
Summary: If someone’s normalized FFMI is 25 or higher, it’s almost certain they’re taking or have taken steroids. If they’re below 25, they may be natural, but it’s not guaranteed.
When you decide to become a natural bodybuilder, a genie appears and allows you to pick two of the following three options:
- You can be big.
- You can be lean.
- You can be strong.
What? You never met a magic genie when you decided to start lifting weights? Weird.
Ok, I didn’t meet a fantastical wizard either, but my point is this:
If you want to be big and strong, forget about being lean, and if you want to be big and lean, forget about being strong. And let’s be honest: if you want to be big and lean, you probably can’t be “big,” but something more akin to “not small.”
More importantly, no matter what you do in the kitchen and gym, you’ll never be able to stay big, lean, and strong by any worthy standards.
This is why jacked, shredded dudes who press, pull, and squat gargantuan amounts of weight are basically dripping in steroids.
In the final analysis, however, the biggest people in the gym tend to be the strongest, and when the biggest and strongest people are also the leanest, they’re taking steroids.
Summary: The leaner you get as a natural lifter, the more your strength and (to a lesser degree) your muscle mass will decrease. If the biggest and strongest people in your gym are also the leanest, they’re almost certainly taking drugs.
When you first start lifting weights properly, you’ll gain more strength than any other period in your natural lifting career. At this stage, your body is hyperresponsive to training and has a lot of room to improve. This is what we call newbie gains.
A large jump in strength in an intermediate or advanced weightlifter is a major indicator of steroid use.
After your first couple years of proper training, you’ll be lucky to add 50 total pounds to your big compound lifts in a single year. And once you’ve been training for 7 to 10 years, adding 10 pounds to your bench press, squat, or deadlift in one year is cause for celebration (seriously).
How does this change when you take steroids?
Well, one study conducted by scientists at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science found that lifters with about one year of training experience who took steroids added 132 pounds to their squat and bench press in just 10 weeks. That’s absurd and shows just how much of a difference drugs can make.
Keep in mind that this was just due to taking a relatively small dose of testosterone. Most bodybuilders and powerlifters also “stack” testosterone with even more powerful steroids like trenbolone, Winstrol, or SARMs which amplify the results even further.
So if an experienced lifter “naturally” adds 50 pounds or more to a major exercise in one year or less, well, let’s just say I’d be extremely, utterly, voraciously suspicious.
Summary: Gaining strength as an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder is a slow process. If an experienced lifter suddenly gains a lot of strength, they probably started taking steroids.
Why is this a sign of drug use?
These areas of the body have a higher concentration of androgen receptors than other parts of the body. Androgen receptors are special types of proteins in cells that respond to anabolic hormones like testosterone.
When you take steroids, these receptors go into overdrive and cause these muscle groups to develop much faster than others.
Here’s a good example of this look, which I pulled from a steroid forum where guys openly talk about their cycles:
So, if someone looks like they’re wearing football shoulder pads beneath their skin, it’s likely they’re taking a hefty dosage of #dedication.
Summary: The upper chest, shoulders, and traps are particularly rich in receptors that respond to anabolic drugs. So, if those muscle groups are especially massive, drugs may be involved.
It’s possible to get very lean and “dry” as a natural athlete, but your muscles won’t have that “3D,” marble-like appearance that’s common among steroid users.
For example, here’s a shot of me at about 183 pounds and 7% body fat:
This is more or less the best I can possibly look without drugs. And while I think I did a good job getting lean and preserving muscle, compare it to the following picture of a well-known bodybuilder and fitness model:
Oh, and he stays like that more or less year-round. I guess I just don’t have enough #dedication.
This is particularly apparent with female steroid users who are able to maintain very low body fat percentages compared to what most women can achieve naturally:
This level of leanness, size, and separation simply isn’t achievable for women without steroids, and fat burners like clenbuterol are often involved as well.
Summary: Getting lean naturally is possible, but being lean, large and chiseled like a statue requires drugs.
This is a corollary to the previous point.
The problems are many: you can’t eat enough food to feel good, your training goes to shit, your sleep suffers, your sex drive plummets, and your energy levels bottom out. The human body just wasn’t meant to stay that lean.
The right drugs change all of this. All of a sudden, you can stay absolutely shredded while eating piles of food, sleeping far less than recommended, and pushing yourself through grueling workouts.
If you have good genetics, maintaining 10% body fat for men and 20% for women year-round is possible, but it requires you to carefully watch what you eat and how much you exercise.
Staying leaner while also enjoying significant size, energy, and conditioning, however, is only possible with some “chemical assistance.”
Summary: As a natural athlete, you can get very lean, but maintaining that level of body fat for long periods requires some exogenous help.
Most of us have some degree of muscle imbalance. It’s very rare to find perfect size, symmetry, and definition in all major muscle groups.
The bottom line is almost no natural athlete has perfect 10/10 size, symmetry, and definition of every single major muscle group.
With steroid users, however, this becomes common.
Why? Two reasons:
- Every cell in the body has androgen receptors and artificially raising your androgen levels forces even stubborn muscle groups like the calves, shoulders, and arms to grow.
- Steroid users can more easily “sculpt” their bodies by neglecting their strong points (which will stay big) and hammering their weak points (which will grow rapidly).
Summary: Achieving perfect symmetry between muscle groups is rare. Steroids can make it much easier by allowing you to work your weak areas more, which quickly catch up to the rest of your body.
Some people are genetically prone to breakouts and baldness, but steroids can aggravate these problems.
This is why acne-covered chests and backs and receding hairlines are so prevalent among bodybuilders, and particularly those who are huge, shredded, dry, and full.
To hide this, steroid users often photoshop and filter out pimples and acne scars in pictures they post online, but every so often a candid shot makes its way into the wild and looks something like this:
It’s also common for steroid users to have unusually thick, fast-growing facial and chest hair—another side effect of the masculinizing properties of anabolic steroids.
Summary: While some of us are more prone to acne and baldness, these issues are exacerbated by drug use, and could be signs of steroid usage.
Steroids are firmly entrenched in the fitness industry and have been for decades.
Legal and health issues aside, one of the biggest problems caused by steroids is unrealistic expectations, especially among people new to lifting weights.
Many fitness influencers claim their brand of dieting, training, and supplementing is responsible for their freakish size, strength, and shreds, but often steroids are the real culprit.
Not only is this fundamentally fraudulent, it also encourages people to chase unrealistic goals they’ll never be able to achieve without themselves taking steroids.
This is why it’s worth identifying who’s natural or not–so you can correctly categorize what you seen online as worthy or unworthy of your consideration.
The eight most surefire ways to tell if someone is on steroids are:
- They Have a Normalized FFMI of 25 or More
- They’re Very Big, Very Lean, and Very Strong
- They Suddenly Got Way Stronger
- They Have a Massive Upper Chest, Shoulders, and Traps
- They’re Shredded, Dry, and Full, with Amazing Muscle Separation
- They Stay Extremely Lean, Full, and Dry Year Round
- They Have Excellent Overall Development and Proportions
- They Have Bad Acne and Male-Pattern Baldness
If check any of those boxes, chances are good they’re taking or have taken steroids. Caveat emptor, my friend.
If you want to know more about how much muscle and strength you can gain naturally, check out these articles:
And if you want to learn how to get bigger, leaner, and stronger naturally, start with these articles:
+ Scientific References
- Kadi F, Bonnerud P, Eriksson A, Thornell LE. The expression of androgen receptors in human neck and limb muscles: effects of training and self-administration of androgenic-anabolic steroids. Histochem Cell Biol. 2000;113(1):25-29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10664066. Accessed September 16, 2019.
- Bhasin S, Storer TW, Berman N, et al. The effects of supraphysiologic doses of testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men. N Engl J Med. 1996;335(1):1-7. doi:10.1056/NEJM199607043350101
- Kouri EM, Pope HG, Katz DL, Oliva P. Fat-free mass index in users and nonusers of anabolic-androgenic steroids. Clin J Sport Med. 1995;5(4):223-228. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7496846. Accessed September 16, 2019.
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