Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teens, Steroids, and Training

A new study's analysis has been making the rounds. For an example, here is one article on the study:
Young teens turning to protein powders, steroids to bulk up: Survey

Long story short, as many as 6% of teens surveyed reported using anabolic steroids, and a larger number in turn using muscle building supplements and even more using protein powders.

This use of steroids and supplements is very bad, for a lot of reasons:

Teens are already producing these growth hormones naturally. Generally, they are producing the most growth hormone and testosterone they will at any future point in their life. So this is not only ironic - they take supplementary drugs that replace their natural supply with a lesser, external supply - but dangerous - taking steroids can disrupt their body's natural production of hormones. So by taking steroids - either orally or intramuscular injections - they risk shutting down their own hormone production. They are essentially short-changing themselves and damaging themselves by trying to for a quick fix solution.

And that is all assuming they are actually taking steroids - since these drugs are controlled, they aren't likely to get these prescribed. It isn't clear if these self-reporting teens are taking something else sold as a steroid, a tainted drug, or re-using or sharing needles. They are risking damage if it is what they think they are taking, and risking damage if it isn't.

Muscle enhancers generally aren't so effective. Most of the supplements don't really do that much, even if they are effective. The ones that mimic steroids are removed from the market as steroids, the ones that don't stick around until sales drop or people are harmed by it.

My guess is that 99% of these teens would improve more on a higher calorie diet of real food and a solid progressive weight training program under the supervision of a trained coach. Programs like 20-rep squats and Starting Strength are built around adding weight to the bar, exercising in good form, and drinking whole milk and/or eating lots of healthy food. Steroids plus a bad program will be less effective and be harmful; it's like watching someone fritter away their savings on lottery tickets.

However, the conclusions in the article go a bit beyond this. There are some issues with the conclusions presented in the media:

Lumping protein powders in with steroids. Protein shakes shouldn't be on the same continuum with anabolic steroids. One is a food supplement, albeit one that can be over-used, and the other is a controlled drug that adds an external supply of testosterone to a growing body. Yes, protein powders tend to be a bit light on the nutrients; real whole foods would be a much better choice. But grouping it with steroids is like grouping other sub-optimal food choices with addictive and illegal drugs. While both may be indicators of a teen obsession with changing their bodies, they are extremely far apart in terms of legality, health effects, and seriousness of that obsession.

Protein powders as unhealthy. Using them to excess, using them instead of food, and using them without any kind of plan isn't very good behavior, that is certain. You will miss out on nutrients you would get eating real, healthy food. But it is probably better to regard this as a point of entry into a discussion about healthy diets than it is a warning sign of steroid abuse or unhealthy behavior. This is true not just for teens but for anyone - if the question is "What is the best supplement I can take?" the best answer is, usually, "What real food do you eat?"

But they aren't in and of themselves a bad thing, they are at most a sign of preoccupation with shortcuts.

Athletes do more of this. Well, of course, it's competitive, and society sells this as an edge that pros use. That is an issue of society allowing children to be considered a target demographic, treated as consumers, and as a possible breadwinner for the family if they succeed in sports. As long as society does this, is seems unlikely that kids won't try for any "edge" they see used by professionals.

Oddly, Asians also use more, as a group - but it seems likely this will be pulled as a possible outlier or statistical oddity, not generalized as a cause like athletics will.

Injuring growth plates (and other things). Yes, this could happen. You could get injured lifting weights. But how common is this? Children shouldn't be lifting unsupervised (or even worse, "supervised" by their equally underqualified peers). Weight training should be considered the same as any other sport - you want qualified coaches teaching proper technique, and ensuring the teens take the training seriously. Gym safety is paramount, and not just in terms of form, but also in terms of care loading and unloading bars, replacing weights, using machines correctly, and other forms of safety consciousness.

So this study, at least as presented in the media, is a mixed bag. What is discussed is mostly good, but some of the conclusions lump all behaviors aimed at gaining muscle together with the demonstrably dangerous use of anabolic steroids in a not-yet-adult trainee. This sort of lumping together is why people will ask if you "take protein" (it's food, you don't take food), or "use steroids like creatine" (it's not a steroid), and it serves to at least partly mask the truly dangerous abuse of anabolic drugs.

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