Anabolic steroids are pharmacological agents which have similar effects to male sex hormones - testosterone and dihydrotestosterone. Anabolic steroids accelerate intracellular protein synthesis, which results in muscle tissue hypertrophy (this process is generally called anabolism). That’s why they are widely used in bodybuilding. The action of anabolic steroids is conventionally divided into anabolic activity and androgenic activity. The word “anabolic” comes from the Greek "anabolein", meaning “to build up”, while the word "androgen" comes from the words "andros" and "genein", meaning increased male sexual characteristics.


Anabolic steroids have a lot of synonyms:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Androgens
  • AC (abbr. Anabolic steroids)
  • AAS (abbr. Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids – an official term in foreign literature)
  • Steroids
  • Vitamins (slang name in bodybuilding)
  • Chemistry (slang name in bodybuilding)
  • Pharma (slang name in bodybuilding
  • Gear (slang name in bodybuilding)

The history of anabolic steroids

Anabolic steroids had been in use even before they were actually identified and isolated. Medical application of testicle extract began in the late 19th century. In 1931 Adolf Butenandt managed to purify 15mg of androstenone from 10 000 liters of urine. This anabolic steroid was later synthesized by Leopold Ruzicka in 1934.

In the 1930s, the testicle extract was already known to contain a more powerful androgen than androstenone. Three groups of scientists, funded by three competing pharmaceutical companies from different countries - the Netherlands, Nazi Germany and Switzerland – started looking for more powerful components. Thus, in May 1935, Karoly Gyula David, E. Dingemanse, J. Freud and Ernst Laqueur succeeded in isolating of crystalline testosterone. The hormone was named so due to its origin: testo – testis, sterol - steroid structure, and the ending -one, meaning that the substance is a ketone.

The chemical synthesis of testosterone from cholesterol was performed by Butenandt and G. Hanisch in the same year. Only a week later, the third group, Ruzicka and A. Wettstein, announced an application for the patent on the new testosterone synthesis method. Ruzicka and Butenandt were awarded the Nobel Prize for their invention in 1939.

Human trials, including oral intake of methyltestosterone or injections of testosterone propionate, began in 1937.

The first reference to anabolic steroid in the history of strength sports dates back to 1938, when testosterone propionate was mentioned in a letter to the editor of Strength and Health magazine. There are rumors that in Nazi Germany soldiers were administered anabolic steroids in order to increase their aggression and endurance, but at the present time these rumors have no official confirmation. However, according to his physician, Adolf Hitler himself was injected with anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids were applied by the Nazis to experiment on concentration camp inmates. In other countries steroids were used for the treatment and rehabilitation of malnourished ex-prisoners.

Modern history

The development of testosterone anabolic features was taking place in the 1940s in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Bloc countries such as East Germany, where anabolic steroids were applied to enhance the performance of Olympic weightlifters. In reaction to the success of Russian weightlifters, the US Olympic team physician, Dr. John Ziegler, in collaboration with chemists started working to develop anabolic steroid with suppressed androgenic activity. It resulted in the production of Methandrostenolone. The drug was approved by the FDA in 1958. In most cases it was administered to the elderly or to the patients with severe burns, but, in fact, Methandrostenolone was mainly used in bodybuilding and other strength sports.               Dr. John Ziegler prescribed small doses to athletes, but later he discovered that those abusing the drug, as a result, had prostate hypertrophy and testicular atrophy.

In 1976 anabolic steroids were banned by the International Olympic Committee. That was the end of steroids legal use is sport. A decade later there were even special tests introduced to check for anabolic steroids in urine.

Search for new anabolic steroids

Nowadays, the variety of anabolic steroids and their modifications is based on four main ideas:

  • Alkylation of a methyl or ethyl group in 17-alpha position to prevent the drug destruction in the liver, which makes possible oral administration in a tablet form.
  • Esterification in 17-beta position makes the drug fat-soluble, enabling the tissue depot production. This depot slowly resolves, thereby significantly increasing the effective anabolic duration (up to several months).
  • The change of anabolic steroid circular structure refers to oral and parenteral drugs and aims at increasing anabolic index.
  • Structure change prevents the conversion of steroids into estrogen.

Moreover, at the present time, a new class of selective androgen receptor modulators is actively developing.

Steroids mechanism of action

Anabolic steroid mechanism of action differs from the one of peptide hormones. Once in blood, the steroid molecules spread all over the body, where they interact with skeletal muscles, oil glands, hair follicles, certain brain regions and some endocrine glands. Anabolic steroids are fat-soluble, so they can penetrate the fatty cell membrane. In the cell anabolic steroids interact, binding to androgen receptors of the nucleus and the cytoplasm. Activated androgen receptors send signals to the cell nucleus, altering the expression of genes or activating processes that send signals to other parts of the cell. The process results in nucleic acids synthesis stimulation and initiation of new protein molecules formation. 

The anabolic steroid effect on muscle mass gain is determined by the following mechanisms:

  • Protein synthesis acceleration
  • Shorter recovery period
  • Reduced influence of catabolic hormones (cortisol etc.)
  • Shift if cell differentiations: more muscle sells, less fat cells
  • Accelerated metabolic reactions causing fat dissolution
  • Muscle memory

Anabolic steroid effects

The effects of anabolic steroids are divided into two main categories: anabolic and androgenic.

Anabolic effects:

  • A significant muscle mass gain (5-10 kg a month)
  • Better power performance
  • Enhanced stamina and productivity
  • Increased number of red blood cells
  • Strengthened bone tissue
  • Reduced depot fat

Androgenic effects:

  • Masculinization
  • Virilization
  • Prostate hypertrophy
  • Testicular atrophy
  • Hair loss on the head and the activation of facial and body hair growth

Bodybuilding pursues anabolic effects only. Scientists are currently working on the development of the steroids with a pronounced anabolic effect and a low androgenic one. The index, which reflects the ratio, is called anabolic index. At the present time almost all anabolic steroids have strong androgenic effect.

Additional effects:

  • Increased appetite
  • Boosting of self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Improved communication skills
  • Increased libido

Side effects of anabolic steroids

In the following list side effects are mentioned according to the occurrence frequency.

During the course

  • Irritation or "roid rage"
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Acne
  • Increased libido (in some cases is regarded as a useful effect)
  • Mood swings
  • Fluid retention (in aromatizing ones)
  • Increased cholesterol level (as a consequence - atherosclerosis)
  • Gynecomastia (caused exceptionally by those anabolic steroids, which are converted into estrogen, or those with progestin activity - trenbolone and nandrolone)
  • Women masculinization
  • Liver damage (characteristic of the drugs with a methyl group in 17-alpha position)
  • Myocardial hypertrophy and ischemia
  • Stunted growth
  • Hair loss (very rarely)

After the course

  • Decreased libido
  • Impotence
  • Psychological addiction (obsession to repeat the course)
  • Reduced sperm production
  • Infertility
  • Testicular atrophy (in case of overdose and long-term courses)
  • Depression

Almost all side effects are reversible, except for the case of abuse. Besides, complications are largely determined by the pharmacological profile of the drug, as some of them are safer than others. Modern drugs cause almost no side effects and complications, if you follow recommendations.

Mythical dangers of steroids

Despite numerous side effects of anabolic steroids, it should be noted that nowadays all the information about them is highly exaggerated. Press and television often warn that anabolic steroids allegedly cause inevitable infertility, impotence, liver damage etc., but, in fact, even steroids abuse doesn’t necessarily lead to permanent consequences. Besides, one should distinguish between “use” and “abuse”. 95% of users, who take anabolic steroids according to the instruction, have no complications or adverse effects and 4% have fully reversible side effects. So, in practice, the risk of complications is very low. Abuse means overdose or excessive duration of a course. In this case the risk of side effects reasonably increases, as well as the frequency of irreversible complications. The media usually presents steroids against the background of abuse, thereby creating false impression of extreme danger.

Side effects prevention

  • Avoid overdose
  • Do not combine several anabolic steroids, unless your course presupposes it
  • Avoid excessive duration of the course
  • Women should better avoid taking anabolic steroids or, at least, choose those with high anabolic index.
  • Anabolic steroids are not recommended for the people under the age of 25
  • PCT must be an integral part of the course, as it can significantly reduce or prevent many side effects.

These recommendations can reduce the frequency of side effects up to 1% or even less, and save the muscle mass and the results.

Anabolic steroids in bodybuilding

Anabolic steroids can be applied in bodybuilding primarily with the aim of the muscle mass gain and better strength performance. Moreover, steroids help to maintain muscle mass during “cutting phase” and contribute to better performance during trainings, increasing stamina and strength.


Aiming at the muscle mass gain, one should combine steroids with systematic weight training and high-calorie diet. Sport supplements can include protein, BCAA, needed for building proteins, creatine, vitamin mineral complex and some additives for PCT.