Monday, November 15, 2010

Your mind as an anabolic steroid

The figure below, taken from Wilmore et al. (2007), is based on a classic 1972 study conducted by Ariel and Saville. The study demonstrated the existence of what is referred to in exercise physiology as the “placebo effect on muscular strength gains”. The study had two stages. In the first stage, fifteen male university athletes completed a 7-week strength training program. Gains in strength occurred during this period, but were generally small as these were trained athletes.

In the second stage the same participants completed a 4-week strength training program, very much like the previous one (in the first stage). The difference was that some of them took placebos they believed to be anabolic steroids. Significantly greater gains in strength occurred during this second stage for those individuals, even though this stage was shorter in duration (4 weeks). The participants in this classic study increased their strength gains due to one main reason. They strongly believed it would happen.

Again, these were trained athletes; see the maximum weights lifted on the left, which are not in pounds but kilograms. For trained athletes, gains in strength are usually associated with gains in muscle mass. The gains may not look like much, and seem to be mostly in movements involving big muscle groups. Still, if you look carefully, you will notice that the bench press gain is of around 10-15 kg. This is a gain of 22-33 lbs, in a little less than one month!

This classic study has several implications. One is that if someone tells you that a useless supplement will lead to gains from strength training, and you believe that, maybe the gains will indeed happen. This study also provides indirect evidence that “psyching yourself up” for each strength training session may indeed be very useful, as many serious bodybuilders do. It is also reasonable to infer from this study that if you believe that you will not achieve gains from strength training, that belief may become reality.

As a side note, androgenic-anabolic steroids, better known as “anabolic steroids” or simply “steroids”, are synthetic derivatives of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone is present in males and females, but it is usually referred to as a male hormone because it is found in much higher concentrations in males than females.

Steroids have many negative side effects, particularly when taken in large quantities and for long periods of time. They tend to work only when taken in doses above a certain threshold (Wilmore et al., 2007); results below that threshold may actually be placebo effects. The effective thresholds for steroids tend to be high enough to lead to negative health side effects for most people. Still, they are used by bodybuilders as an effective aid to muscle gain, because they do lead to significant muscle gain in high doses. Adding to the negative side effects, steroids do not usually prevent fat gain.


Ariel, G., & Saville, W. (1972). Anabolic steroids: The physiological effects of placebos. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 4(2), 124-126.

Wilmore, J.H., Costill, D.L., & Kenney, W.L. (2007). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.