You’ve read about it in the papers, perhaps even seen it around the office, and most definitely noticed its imprint down at the gym. You may even have acquaintances who are practising, albeit quietly.
We’re talking about steroid use. And according to the latest data, those who are taking them are among a growing herd. In fact, they’re perfectly normal.
Over the past five years, steroid use in Britain has exploded. Its mainstream coming-out moment occurred when Made In Chelsea’s Spencer Matthews was thrown off I’m A Celebrity… thanks to an apparently unmanageable addiction.
And now there’s news steroid users visiting one exchange clinic in Wales increased more than eight fold, from 269 to 2,161 in five years.
(Related: How to tell if someone is using steroids)
But there’s more reasons to be worried. In 2015, professional rugby was identified as the nation’s most doped sport by UK Anti-Doping’s latest sanction list, with 29 out of 47 banned sportsmen being rugby players. UEFA, meanwhile, has admitted that one in 12 top footballers, including those from the Premier League, have suspiciously high levels of testosterone in their bodies.
But it isn’t just sportsmen and reality stars looking to ‘level the playing field’ at a time when more athletes than ever are shooting up. If anything, these high-profile transgressions are indicative of the new rule, not the exception. So much so that in 2016, steroid use has become disconcertingly commonplace for gym-going British men seeking instant results.
A Numbers Game
“There are nearly a million steroid users nationwide,” says Joe Kean, a substance misuse counsellor behind the National Steroid Survey, an initiative funded by Public Health Wales that interviewed over 700 steroid-takers from health centres, sports clubs and needle exchanges across the UK.
It’s a shocking figure, overshadowing the comparatively trifling 60,000 estimated users following the Home Office’s most recent survey of England and Wales. It’s especially unsettling when you consider that, at last count (the 2011 UK Census), there were around 31 million men in Britain.
A million active steroid users means that on average, 3% of the male population (it is a male phenomenon, after all) is injecting steroids. That’s one in every 31 men working for the police, or the MPs you see bickering at PMQs. And when you look at it like that, it’s clear steroid use is not just a trend, but a cultural preoccupation that on statistics alone should change the way you perceive modern day Britain.
During scarcer times steroid use was big in industrial areas like Manchester, Merseyside and South Wales. Now it’s rife across the nation; Essex has been identified as the anabolic capital of Britain. But why?
“Taking steroids has become a rite of passage for men,” says Dave Crosland, a former user who works as a harm-reduction counsellor. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that this explosion is down to the internet.”
Supply & Demand
As a Class C substance controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it’s illegal to manufacture or import anabolic steroids into the UK with intent to supply – unless you hold a licence to do so. Nevertheless, cursory investigation suggests Crosland is right. Type ‘Buy steroids UK’ into Google and you’re inundated with options. ‘Like’ a steroids group on Facebook and you’ll be overwhelmed by users offering advice on which courses yield results, along with the photos to prove it. Comments sections are full of posts from people openly selling steroids. When MH last checked, a 10-week course costs around £70.
Sifting through this online information dump, the choice is staggering. “Steroid” isn’t a brand name – rather, it’s a catch-all term for a variety of synthetic derivatives of the testosterone that is naturally produced in the body. Dianabol, deca-durabolin, masteron and winstrol are just some of the names being bandied around the gym locker room. When you take them – orally, as pills, or via injections in the upper quadrants of your backside – they enter your bloodstream, flooding you with an excess of T. This in turn increases strength via hugely improved protein synthesis in your muscles.
In some cases it will make you noticeably more aggressive, give you back acne and short-term libido issues. Should you continue with your weight training, you’ll see almost immediate gains in the form of disproportionately large shoulders, traps and upper chest.
Among those peddling online advice is Tom Maw, a steroid user and amateur bodybuilder. Maw started his own steroids regime two years ago and despite having no formal medical training, he tackles the subject of steroid use head-on via his YouTube channel, TMCycles. One of a number of steroid advocates MH approached through the YouTube comments section on their videos, Maw was the only person to respond without hostility, citing his desire to educate new users by sharing his experiences.
The way the media portrays steroid users is a recurring theme of Maw’s videos – perhaps understandably so – with Maw informing MH he had recently turned down the prospect of a television documentary looking into his steroid use, for fear his story would be sensationalised. However, most people who get in touch with Maw are young men simply wanting to look good, much like him.
“A lot of people are just taking them as a quick-fix to get ripped before going on holiday,” he says.
Mike Matthews, a health and fitness expert behind the book Bigger, Leaner, Stronger, agrees: “Having a good body has become a way of getting a huge amount of attention on social media. By taking steroids you’re instantly getting the look you want, making yourself more popular – even if it is slightly misleading to those who don’t know you’re relying on drugs.”
As well as holiday-goers, Maw regularly responds to emails from teenagers as young as 17 wanting to get on the gear. It’s a trend that echoes the situation in the US, where 11% of high school kids are said to have tried, or currently be taking, steroids, according to a 2013 study by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
(Related: meet the teenagers on steroids)
It’s a startling statistic and one that Maw (who currently lives with his parents) believes, in the UK at least, has its roots in economic hardship. “A lot of young people are using as a reaction to the lack of jobs,” he says. “I’m 22 and my generation has been fucked over by the government. We’re all a bit lost and don’t know what to do with ourselves at the moment. For the younger kids, bulking up isn’t just a hobby. It’s a way to boost their self-esteem.”
But despite what the tabloids would have you believe, it isn’t just those living on Benefits Street getting into steroids. “Men working in offices need an outlet for their aggression that their white collar existences don’t give them,” says Jim McVeigh, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and Britain’s leading expert in the misuse of anabolic steroids.
According to McVeigh, for the unemployed, blue and white-collar men alike, shooting steroids and hitting heavy weights is an easy way to fill a shared void in 21st-century life. The NHS disagrees, with its website attributing body dysmorphic disorders in adulthood to being bullied or abused in childhood. Whatever its causes, a recent YouGov survey revealed that almost a third of men are unhappy with their bodies. And, according to The Body Dysmorphic Foundation, one in 10 men at the gym feels the need to pack on size, a condition referred to as ‘muscle dysmorphia’ or, in the buzzword parlance of social media, ‘bigorexia’.
Pain & Gain
If bulking up is the aim, then why not just lift heavier? Often, the answer lies in frustration. Ask any weightlifter and they’ll talk about hitting the wall, the point at which gains no longer come as fast as at the start of their training. Plus, there are limits to human physicality. It’s almost impossible to have muscles that look abnormally pumped while also appearing drastically low in body fat – that is, without chemical help.
“The truth is that you can only get so big naturally,” says Matthews. “It can take between 10 and 15 years to reach your genetic potential as a natural weightlifter, and some people don’t want to wait that long. Plus, people who take steroids have the advantage of looking ripped, in spite of a bad diet, because the more testosterone you have in your body, the harder your body finds it to store fat.”
But taking steroids is far from a failsafe method of sculpting an Adonis physique. “It’s not like you can just start injecting shit into your body, go to the gym, then suddenly look like a fitness model,” says Matthews. “You still need to know what you’re doing with your training. Drugs will only help you get there faster if you know what you’re doing.”
It’s impossible to quantify how many users have properly researched the steroids they’re taking. But one thing we know for certain is that so many men are now injecting steroids in gym changing rooms that the demand for needle bins has gone through the roof.
Mainstream brands including EasyGym, Bannatynes, Fitness First, David Lloyd and Pure Gym have had to install refuse facilities in a number of their branches. And it’s the branches of those gyms in the north, more than elsewhere, who have been quickest to the draw in terms of accepting what’s really going on in their locker rooms.
One non-branded backstreet gym that Kean liaises with at his needle exchange clinic drops off 1000 used steroid needles a week. The owners even supply needles to their members over the counter at the gym’s entrance. “Some gyms are so littered with needles these days they start to look like crack dens,” Kean says.
It might not be quite on a par with crack cocaine, but injecting steroids is an increasingly serious health issue in the UK, thanks in part to the naivety of users when it comes to using needles. You’re now as likely to contract HIV taking steroids as you are injecting heroin, with 1.5% of all users of both testing positive.
“When you ask users in the gym they say, ‘Oh, we’ve never shared a needle,’” says Kean. “Then you say, did someone else give you a jab? Invariably, the answer is: ‘Yeah…’ Then how do you know they used a clean pin? ‘Well, I don’t…’ Naively, crucially, they don’t think of themselves as drug users.
Or as susceptible to these harms.” And although needle exchanges have seen a 600% rise in steroid users in the past decade, Crosland believes the only reason there aren’t even more is because people are put off by using a needle. Another concern is the danger of mixing steroids with recreational drugs and alcohol. A study carried out by McVeigh found half of the people who regularly use steroids also dabble in Class A drugs like cocaine, often taking multiple doses of both over a weekend. “The thinking is, ‘if you already use recreational drugs, why not use steroids?’” says Matthews. But when combined, the results can be fatal.
(Related: all the facts about steroid side effects)
In a strange skewing of the market, many dealers of illegal drugs have also begun to sell steroids. The fact that many users stay on steroids year-round (rather than the recommended short-term courses) makes for a reliable customer base. But as well as making ‘traditional’ drug dealers richer, the rise in users is creating a boom industry of DIY dry-makers. This, of course, has led to steroids being made in insalubrious conditions and not containing what dealers claim.
Consequently, a culture has arisen of users having to work out for themselves what’s fake and what’s authentic. Recently, Crosland became part of the conversation after undertaking a challenge to get as big as possible on steroids and documenting the results online.
While the experiment left Crosland with medical complaints, he argues that steroids aren’t inherently dangerous, with the risks needing to be put in context beside similar products we use each day. “You can’t overdose on steroids but you can easily overdose on paracetamol,” he says. “Steroids are not safe, but the risks can be managed. I’ve always tried to be balanced and say ‘Look, they’re not the demon they’re made out to be, but equally you can’t mess about with them’ – they can bite you in the arse.”
Maw also believes that taking steroids in moderation isn’t necessarily dangerous, pointing to the longevity of juiced up bodybuilders from the ’70s era as proof that there don’t seem to be many serious long-term effects. “Arnie admitted to taking steroids in his bodybuilding days. He’s 68, and he looks fine. That whole generation are doing well.”
Schwarzenegger’s apparent rude health aside, there is proof steroids can be deadly, with three deaths over the last few years. Last July, a coroner ruled that amateur bodybuilder Dean Wharmby’s death from liver cancer was a direct cause of steroid misuse. A study the same month by Northumbria University found steroid users are also more prone to memory problems, endorsing Harvard University research that found long-term users were sometimes left with visuo-spatial memory problems.
Last year, 19-year-old Andrej Gajdos collapsed and died of a ruptured aorta after taking anabolic steroids. At the time of his death, the 7ft 2in college student weighed almost 20 stone. While some evidence suggested his death was down to genetics, stories of young steroid users’ heart problems are not uncommon.
“Testosterone reduces heart wall elasticity, leading to a thickening of the tissue,” Crosland explains. “This is when taking a stimulant becomes a problem.” According to McVeigh, the fact that steroids allow our bodies to surpass natural size limitations poses further complications for the heart: “The bigger you are, the more pressure you put on your most vital organ. Cardiomegaly (enlarging of the heart) is a common side effect as the body tries to support an increasingly heavier frame.”
Worryingly, such is the dedication to a perfect physique, many users continue to take steroids after a doctor has discovered developing heart complaints. In 2014, 20-year-old Oli Cooney collapsed and died while running for a taxi. He’d reportedly stopped taking steroids after previously suffering two heart attacks and three strokes. But by this point, the damage done to his heart was irreversible.
Despite the dangers, if you’re 18 stone and rippling with muscle, asking for advice can be an affront to the ego you’ve built up to go with your body. And, as Crosland points out, “Youngsters don’t want to admit their use to their GP because they think doctors with no expertise in the effects of testosterone will attribute their every ailment to steroid use.”
This lack of conversation ultimately results in an information deficit; new users are forced to construct their steroids programme on hearsay, the advice of blogs and other users lacking any sort of medical credentials. The moral argument frequently made is that we should all have the freedom to choose which drugs we want to take and in what quantities.
But as Kean says, very few people can take steroids in moderation. “No one goes out and has half a pint on the weekend. It’s the same with steroid users. People don’t take small, sensible amounts. They take more and more and more.”
Crucially, Crosland says, steroid use can create a chemically enhanced identity, and removing the drugs from the equation can be an unsettling experience. “If you’re using steroids to patch up a deep issue with your self-image, and create a physique and a personality that’s based on chemical enhancement, can you ever remove the chemicals? And if you do, what happens to your confidence?” As steroid use among the UK’s young men continues to swell, it’s likely we won’t have to wait long to find out.