You Train hard.
You eat right.
Your supplementation and recovery are on point.
But you’re not gaining muscles!
I know what that feels like.
I’ve been there.
Building muscles without steroids is tough.
You might be even wondering … is it really worth all that effort?
Is building muscle naturally really possible?
The answer is …
Not only is it possible, but it’s also the best option for you!
Because once you get hooked on performance-enhancing drugs …
It becomes very difficult to stop abusing them.
It’s a sort of addiction.
In the long run, health complications might arise.
In this post, I am going to share with you a strategic approach to how to gain muscle as a natural bodybuilder.
But first, let me run you through a comparison between lifting naturally and enhanced, and whether or not if you should take steroids.
Should you take Steroids? Enhanced Vs. Natural Lifters
There is no doubt that trainers who use steroids build larger and stronger muscles.
But if we want to put things in perspective, the question now is:
By how much? Or inversely, how much less muscle will you build if you trained naturally?
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that natural lifters can get as much as 66.7% in muscle mass and 54.5% in muscle strength as those who use testosterone.
The study assigned 43 normal men randomly to one of four groups: placebo (injection with no substance value) with no exercise, testosterone with no exercise, placebo plus exercise, and testosterone plus exercise.
The study ran for 10 weeks. The injectable steroid received was 600 mg of testosterone enanthate or placebo. The group that trained, did it three times a week.
As a measure of gained muscle strength, all group participants were asked to perform bench press and squat at the end of the 10-week experiment.
For the gained muscle size, fat-free muscle mass was measured using magnetic resonance imaging.
The participants had very similar age, weight, and body-mass index range. No change in behavior (caloric consumption) was detected.
The results are summarized in the table below.
Muscle Mass Gained (Lbs)
Muscle Strength (Lbs)
No Exercise - Placebo
600 mg - Placebo
Bench: 0.0 Squat: 6.6
No Exercise - Enhanced
600 mg - Test Enanthate
Bench: 19.4 Squat: 28.7
Exercise + Placebo
600 mg - Placebo
Bench: 22 Squat: 55
Exercise + Enhanced
600 mg - Test Enanthate
Bench: 48.5 Squat: 83.7
These results highlight the superior muscle mass and strength gained when using testosterone with exercise.
The good news here is that you could gain 2.2 pounds in fat-free muscle mass if you train naturally!
The interesting news, however, is that those who took testosterone without working out, still gained as much as twice muscle size as those who trained naturally, but less strength, particularly for squat.
What happens when you take Steroids?
Inside the cell membrane, there are Pac-man-shaped androgen receptors swimming in the Cytosol fluid.
When a steroid/testosterone is injected into the blood, it enters into the muscle cell and attaches to the androgen receptors.
The newly formed steroid-attached receptor now attaches to the cell nucleus (see the schematic figure below).
When that happens, a few profound things take place that significantly promote your muscle gains:
1- Your muscle protein synthesis levels significantly increase.
In order to build muscles, the level of muscle protein synthesis (amino acids used to build new muscle fibers) has to exceed that of muscle protein breakdown (amino acids used as an energy source rather than building muscles).
When you train naturally, your protein synthesis level increases 24 to 48 hours after the workout, given the proper nutrition.
Then it goes down.
If you are enhanced, however, protein synthesis is kept elevated almost all the time.
Even if you do not train. This explains the increase in muscle size for no exercise group that took testosterone in the study above.
2- The testosterone molecule, when entering the muscle cell membrane, blocks cortisol from attaching to the cortisol receptors (Glucocorticoid).
This is an important process because when cortisol levels are elevated for a long time, it promotes muscle protein breakdown.
So when you train naturally, your cortisol levels increase due to the stress workouts exert on your body. This process increases the muscle protein breakdown.
You stop building new muscle fibers.
If you are enhanced, cortisol is now blocked from being attached to its receptors.
Your muscle protein synthesis will continue to take place without being interrupted by high cortisol levels.
What Happens When You Stop Taking Steroids?
The interesting question now is …
What happens when you come off testosterone/Steroids?
You love your muscle mass.
It comes back to Cortisol, this nasty catabolic hormone again.
When steroids block cortisol receptors from attaching to cortisol molecules, the body produces more of it thinking that it’s not being produced enough.
The cortisol levels keep building up (but not attached to their receptors in the cell).
So, when you come off steroids, the cortisol receptors open back up again and the built-up cortisol molecules quickly rush to attach with their receptors in massive quantities.
Suddenly, the muscle protein breakdown level becomes highly elevated. Much so that it exceeds the level of protein synthesis.
You lose muscle. And you lose it fast!
Even despite the hard training (assuming no change in mood took place).
Luckily, if you’re a natural lifter you will maintain your physique for a long time with one caveat.
If you keep the same training intensity and nutrition quality.
Training Intensity Tips: Enhanced Vs Natural - How to train if you’re natural?
For enhanced trainers, protein synthesis is always at high levels so they can go along with less intense workouts.
If you are natural you have no choice but to train hard.
By hard here, I mean intensity and frequency-wise. Drop sets, cluster sets, eccentric movements, etc.
Here are two tips on how to train if you’re a natural lifter:
Train with less volume but more frequency.
Take only one set of each exercise to failure. Not every set.
If you are doing, say, 3 sets of each exercise take the last one to failure.
But not beyond failure.
By failure I mean you do as many reps as you can until you cannot do any more reps with the correct form.
Nutrition Tips: Enhanced vs Natural Lifters - How to Eat If you're Natural?
As mentioned above, if you are enhanced, your protein synthesis levels are high.
Your muscles are very efficient at using the protein from nutritional sources to constantly build new muscle fibers. So, 1.25 g to 1.5 g of protein per pound of bodyweight works fine.
If you are a natural lifter, however, your muscles are not that efficient in doing so. You may not take as much protein.
One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is ideal. Perhaps a little more if you are dieting.
Nonetheless, as a nutrition strategy, there are two important tips for you, the natural bodybuilder:
Focus your carbohydrates and protein intake around the workout window.
This means a balanced meal pre-workout. And another one post-workout.
What’s new here is that you should incorporate an intra-workout nutritional drink.
This has two important supplements:
- Pre-digested carbohydrates, and…
- Essential amino acids.
The fast-acting carbohydrate increases insulin sensitivity. This means that it opens the muscle cells to be more receptive to nutrients during the workout.
The amino acids now go straight to replenish lost muscle fibers because of the enhanced protein breakdown during the workout.
The intra-workout drink will also keep cortisol levels down which promotes muscle protein synthesis.
Do not over-consume calories.
If you do, like the enhanced bodybuilders, you will gain a lot of fat.
When that happens, you will risk losing muscle when you diet back.
This is because you will be on a caloric deficit for a long time and don’t have the efficiency of burning fat from external substances (steroids).
Moreover, extended periods of the caloric deficit will result in elevated cortisol levels which will cause muscle loss.
Clean bulk is the way to go. Meaning that: 15 to 20% surplus over your daily maintenance calories is always a good cap on your caloric intake.
Use the BMR calculator above to find out your daily maintenance calories.
Finally, remove any limiting beliefs.
Don’t put yourself in a defeatist mentality or a negative mindset.
You can build muscle as a natural lifter as the study above (and many others) shows.
Sure, there is a limitation to what you can achieve as a natural bodybuilder. But also remember there is a limitation to what steroids can do, too.
Setting the bar too low for your muscle gain will hurt your confidence and limit your growth.
I am rooting for you!