Then with stretched arm swing high
the key thou'rt holding!
Good! grasping firmly, fresher
strength I win: My breast expands,
let the great work begin!
Faust Part II
What follows are
my best recollections of how I felt about anabolic steroids as an aspiring
athlete, what I have learned about steroids in the past 20 years and how my
feelings have changed over that time. I make no claim of objectivity, having
had a front-row seat. I've watched what was at first a "secret" drug
known only to a handful of elite weightlifters become a phenomenon so
widespread that a majority of recent Olympic athletes, male and female, in
track and field and the strength sports, are believed to have used some form of
steroid; a phenomenon so widespread that pro football players have told me that
as many as 50% of the active NFL linemen and linebackers have used steroids
with the intent of improving their performance; a phenomenon so widespread that
reports surface from time to time of teen-agers being advised by their high
school, or even junior high school, coaches to take steroids.
The term anabolic
steroid refers to various synthetic derivatives of the male hormone
testosterone that have been developed through the years by the pharmaceutical
industry to stimulate a building-up, or anabolic, process in the body. This
involves the synthesis of protein for muscle growth and tissue repair.
Normally, one way the body is helped in meeting its anabolic requirements is
through the effects of the naturally occurring testosterone, which is produced
primarily in the testes. Testosterone has both anabolic effects and
masculinizing, or androgenic, effects. The androgenic effects—aggressiveness,
facial hair, deepened voice, body fat reduction, increased libido, etc.—were
significantly reduced several decades ago by biochemists who manipulated the
molecular structure of testosterone to increase certain of its properties and
decrease others. There was a medical need in the treatment of debilitating
illnesses or severe accidents, which involve the breakdown of body protein, for
a substance with a high anabolic-low androgenic effect, and Ciba Pharmaceutical
Company responded in the late 1950s with an anabolic steroid called
methandrostenolone. Trade name: Dianabol.
I first heard of
Dianabol in 1962 from some weightlifter friends who had gone from Austin, Texas
to York, Pa. to learn from the lifting champions of the York Barbell Club the
best way to use the newest rage in strength-building techniques, isometric
contraction, which consisted of straining against an immovable object.
What had been
puzzling my training partners and me was that we'd been unable to make much
progress at home, though isometric contraction was being heavily publicized as
a real strength training breakthrough by the York Barbell Company's magazine,
Strength and Health. It wasn't that any of us lacked the capacity for hard work
or faith in the new system. Our faith arose from our observation over the
previous year or so of the startling advances in power and musculature made by
a veteran lifter from our area who, after years of having been good, but hardly
great, had switched to isometric contraction.
The lifter was in
his mid-30s, and it was an especially bitter blow to our young manhood—most of
us were in our early 20s at the time—to have his progress so far outstrip our
own. Isometric contraction was reminiscent of the old Charles Atlas system of
Dynamic Tension, but however much fun we had yukking it up about 97-pound
weaklings having sand kicked in their faces, we were willing to try any program
that could apparently produce the gains in size and strength that we coveted.
We thought we understood the new system, but though we huffed and puffed and
even ruptured an occasional capillary, we failed to make much progress.
Meanwhile, our 35-year-old friend continued making remarkable advances.
Bob Hoffman, the
York Barbell Company's president, had published an article on isometric
contraction in November 1961. He subtitled it "The Most Important Article I
Ever Wrote," and it began, "I am about to tell you about the greatest
system of physical training, the greatest system of strength and muscle
building the world has ever seen."
continued in that vein and outlined the theoretical principles, originally
formulated by Theodor Hettinger and Erich Müller of Germany in 1953, of
isometric contraction. It also recommended the regimen we were already using.
Why, then, had we failed to make the promised gains? This was the question my
friends took to York in 1962.
Upon their return
I questioned them at length about isometric contraction, but the answers didn't
satisfy me. Apparently the guys in York were training more or less as we were,
and though I found the news depressing, my friends plunged back into their
exercises with increased enthusiasm and with a growing tendency to look at one
another in a knowing way during workouts and laugh out loud. Finally they
showed me a small brown bottle that contained 100 five-milligram tablets of
Dianabol. "This is the secret," they told me. "It's these little
pink pills, not the isometric contraction." And so it was.
To learn how the
York lifters and Hoffman got wind of isometric contraction—and anabolic
steroids—we need to turn our attention to an unusual physician from rural
Maryland, John B. Ziegler. Now retired and weakened by a variety of heart
ailments, Ziegler was a big, robust man in the 1950s, full of good cheer and
ideas about how to get strong. He knew the people at York, and in 1954 was the
team physician for the U.S. weightlifters at the world championships in Vienna.
"That was an important trip for me," he says. "I got to be friends
with the Russian team doctor, and one night we went out on the town. We had a
few drinks, and he told me some members of his team were using