Last week I featured in the Evening Echo in a piece by journalist Padraig Hoare about steroid use in teenagers, and as it is a very serious and unfortunately popular subject these days, I wanted to expand a bit on the bit that was published. Hopefully this can be a very basic useful guide/ advice for parents of teenagers who are starting out with the gym, and teenagers who want to get into great shape. Its not something that has been discussed on this blog at length, or one that I spend a lot of time on, but it is a serious issue that needs to be discussed openly, as anecdotal evidence certainly suggests a growing culture of anabolic steroid use in young people. This is not some far-away problem on another land. It happens right here in Cork and probably every other town and city in Ireland.
To give you an idea of my own perspective, and where I am viewing this issue from, I need to bring you back to the Beechmount Weightlifting club in the early 2000’s. My brother Cairbre, and I heard rumours that there was an Olympic weightlifting club right on our doorstep down the Falls Road, run by a man name Eddie. Sure enough, when we found out what time training was at, we were greeted by old-school Olympic weightlifting coach Eddie Finnegan, who actually held a Masters World Record, at the tiny door of the squash-court-come -weightlifting gym. The first thing he asked us both was were we into steroids. He wasn’t quite happy that through our shock of being asked in the first place that we said ‘no way’, and went on to let us know in no uncertain terms that if we touched them that, number 1, he would know, and number 2, that we could take ourselves to hell out of his club to where the sun does not shine. At the time we started training in Beechmount, I was also getting stuck into my Sport and Exercise Science degree at the University of Limerick, and have been neck deep in sports science, strength and conditioning, learning, coaching, and teaching ever since. I have word in professional sports and with a wide range of athletes from top flight GAA to track and field athletes, swimmers, triathletes, and sprinters. With all the recent controversy surrounding steroid use in sports, the topic has been well covered, and I do not want to go into that subject here, but I do want to concentrate this article on steroid use in young adults and teenagers who are training mostly for aesthetic purposes.
There are several questions to be asked and areas to be addressed here, and I want to cover a few of them briefly.
1. Should you take steroids to get into great shape?
Short answer. No. If you are starting out with weight training, or even if you have been at it for years, there are so many gains to be made with tightening up your nutrition, boosting your recovery, and training optimally that its just not worth the investment in time, money, and the risk of messing up your body, mind, and hormones with steroid use. Think of it in terms of risk and reward. The risk is massive when it comes to self medicating, bro-science, and taking any form or drug on a regular basis. The rewards on the other hand are not as great as you might think when you consider how much of the progress you will make could have been made anyway with the right food/ training/ recovery strategy with practically zero downside, and the added benefit of building long term health, strength, mobility, and function. If you are young, and want to look good, I get it. But messing with your hormonal profile, and trying to short circuit nature, is absolute madness. There are better, safer, and more effective ways to get into great shape.
2. Where is the line between steroids and supplements?
The line between steroid use and supplement use can sometimes become a bit blurry, especially considering that supplement companies in the past have been found to be selling food supplement products contaminated with steroids. If we class steroid use in the ‘absolutely stupid’ class, mindless supplement use can be places neatly into the ‘unnecessary waste of money’ class most of the time. My main protein ‘supplements’ come from locally reared beef, free-range eggs, and quality poultry and fish. Personally I do not take any form of powdered protein supplement, and rarely take any supplements at all, preferring to eat and enjoy more food when the need arises. However, there are some supplements that can help boost your diet, including a high quality fish oil, a high quality vitamin D supplement, and occasional zinc/magnesium supplementation. A high quality protein powder from a reputable company with a clean track record can also be a useful addition to your diet. Of course, all supplementation should be considered only after getting advice from a professional who knows what they are talking about, and in conjunction with a quality overall diet. The point is that supplements are NOT steroids, and should not evoke a knee jerk reaction in the same way as steroid use does. At the same time, work on the diet first to get that up to scratch before spending on the supplements to avoid wasting your Euro bills.
3. Why is steroid use so popular?
In a place I used to work id see lads coming in the door covered in pimples and getting sick on the gym floor because of steroid us. Yes, they would be bigger in size, but still as useless in terms of ability, and causing serious damage in the long term. Who knows what the results of messing around with hormones is when you havent even fully developed naturally yet.
In Ireland today, we have a major problem with mental health as can be seen from the suicide rates, especially in young men. In my own opinion, the social media age feeds this problem, with people resting their whole identity on their physical appearance, and putting it out there on Instagram and Social Media. This used to be in Magazines, but now there is a massive and constant stream of it in each person’s pocket on the phone. Its much easier to become obsessive with physical appearance and the pressure can be enormous. Coupled with falling in with the wrong crowd, or happening upon steroid use by someone who can get you some can be catastrophic.
This obviously raises the much deeper question about what values we hold as a society, and how much deeper into the social media age we are going to go before we start turning our backs on the constant stream of information, and also get to grips with teaching young people to build self esteem from within without constantly relying on the fake perceptions that they see on social media. There is so much more to be gained in terms of strength, appearance, physical health, and mental health by training right, and eating right, but it can be hard to grasp this when you are only seeing carefully selected snapshots of some random model or bodybuilder who posts on the social media sites. A lot of the so called models on social media are getting some form of sponsorship as well, and make it their business to want people to be like them.
There are also gyms out there these days that are either oblivious to people using steroids in their facilities, or are turning a blind eye to it, and its time they wised up. Turning a blind eye to adult steroid use, only makes it more likely that the younger gym goers will get into it. This comes down to misunderstanding, bad influences, and an environment that allows it to happen, so being wise to this as a parent or trainee is essential.
4. What is the best way to get into superb shape WITHOUT steroid use?
The short answer is to nail your nutrition, train hard and train smart, and focus on getting a quality recovery between sessions. Get a quality coach, and train in the right place. Part of a coaches job is to instil self-belief in his/her athletes or clients, and making them believe they can get their goals with hard work, and by following the right guidance. Getting into great shape is a noble pursuit, and is 100% possible and safe with the right guidance, training, and effort, but there are no shortcuts. Do the work and earn the gains. Value your health.
This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.
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