Health

Is It Possible to Tell From a Photo if Someone Is Using Steroids?

When photos of a new, muscle-bound physique spark rumors, bodybuilding coaches and personal trainers say a few signs are more telling than any Instagram post.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
January 15, 2021, 7:55pm
a muscular man fastening a lifting belt in a gym
Photo by Ozimician via Getty Images

When actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani posted a few photos of himself eating dinner around Christmas time, he probably didn’t expect to trend on Twitter. But his vascular arms, broad shoulders and squared jaw reignited a type of debate so common it’s got a dedicated subreddit with 83,000 members: Had Nanjiani, formerly svelte, used steroids to get big and put on all that muscle? On one side of the conversation, people claimed that Nanjiani’s physique would be impossible without performance enhancers. Defenders swooped in, citing Nanjiani’s 2019 statements about how personal trainers and major dietary changes helped him achieve a new, bulky look in preparation for a role in a Marvel movie—and charging Nanjiani’s critics with racism. Were commentators as aghast at the bulk-ups done by white men, like Chris Pratt/Hemsworth/Evans, cast as superhumans? 

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The question as to whether or not a seemingly suddenly-muscular person is taking performance enhancing drugs endures; there’s even the aforementioned subreddit dedicated to dissecting the physiques of actors and Instagram fitness influencers, r/nattyorjuice. (The subreddit’s moderator declined a request for comment from VICE, sending this video of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actor Rob McElhenney in lieu of comment on Nanjiani’s physique.) Though people on both sides of the debate over Nanjiani’s body seemed assured in their opinion, to a few experts who transform the way bodies look—and work!—feel the answer is less clear. 

In fact, these experts told VICE that without drug test results, it’s impossible to make a definitive statement about whether or not someone is using steroids or other performance enhancing drugs—especially not based on photographic evidence alone. “Pictures are very hard to tell,” Cliff Wilson, a professional natural bodybuilder and coach, told VICE. “I don't know if you saw the pictures of myself on my Instagram, but I get so many drug accusations—and the one thing I always say is, if you saw me in person, you would never think I'm on drugs.”

According to Wilson, who coaches natural and “enhanced” clients to prepare them for bodybuilding competitions, that’s because of an overall misconception outside of the fitness world as to what steroids can accomplish. He said the people he believes use performance enhancers most often are more likely doing so to maintain permanent leanness, rather than to achieve greater muscle mass—though even he can’t always be sure who’s juicing and who isn’t. “Even doing this as my full-time job, I’ve seen people that upon first glance you would think were absolutely on drugs, and I’ve seen them pass 50 drugs tests in their career,” he said. “Meanwhile, there have been times where I'm like, ‘This person's physique is not really impressive,’ and then I see them fail a drug test the first time out.”

There are, however, a few tells—although they’d be more likely to emerge through in-person observation than Instagram stalking. Wilson pointed to rapid muscle growth as his number one sign that performance enhancers were involved in a body transformation—especially when it’s followed by swift muscle loss. “If somebody starts a cycle of performance enhancing drugs, they can't stay on forever,” he said. “When they go on, they’ll gain a lot of muscle in that period of time, but they have to come off at some point. In that case, they will lose muscle even if they're still training very hard—they will shrink in size.”

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Per Wilson, this contrasts with what a natural bodybuilder would see during a down period, because it’s much harder to lose muscle built over an extended period of time. “A lot of the research actually shows that you can reduce your training by about 50 percent If you're natural for around six to eight weeks and still retain everything that you have worked hard to build,” he said. 

Peter Fitschen, another full-time bodybuilding contest prep coach, said that proportionality tends to tip him off. “I know how big most of the top natural pro bodybuilders are,” Fitschen told VICE. “So, if someone’s drastically bigger than that, it’s a sign. I don’t know very many natural pros who are under six feet tall and weigh more than 180, 190 [pounds] onstage. I’ve had some clients around six feet tall who weigh in the low 200s. But once you start getting over that, into the 210s, 220s, there aren’t very many natural bodybuilders that size who are passing drug tests. If someone is 5”8 and 270 pounds—you don’t know for sure, but you can assume.”

ATHLEAN-X founder and celebrity trainer Jeff Cavaliere pointed to some basic, aesthetic signs of steroid use: acne, especially later in life; and the accumulation of breast tissue in men, known as gynecomastia—both side effects from the hormonal toll performance enhancing drugs take on the body. Jax Taylor, a cast member of Vanderpump Rules, underwent surgery for gynecomastia in 2016, though he maintained it was caused by using “steroid-adjacent” drugs, not actual steroids. 

Cavaliere said he also notes whether someone who’s suddenly ripped had a baseline of training before, or whether their muscles appeared seemingly out of the blue. “If the only job of the person who's making the transformation is to strip away body fat, and they have a good base of muscle underneath, those guys can make those transformations really quickly,” he said. “The guys that go from being skinny with no muscle on their body to having lots and lots of muscle on their body in a short period of time, that I think is the most suspicious of the transformations.”

To be famous in the 2020s is to be heavily scrutinized, when social media offers us both posted material from celebrities to dissect and the platforms to collectively dissect it on. One of the ugliest ways this manifests itself is when something big and transformative happens to a famous person’s body. Getting fatter, or thinner, or fitter, or more “out of shape” is all conversation fodder once you’ve got a verified Spotify profile or an IMdB page with a few recognizable roles. 

This entitlement leads to speculation that, again, isn’t particularly accurate or productive—instead, it exemplifies the lingering stigma about steroid usage that fuels all this guesswork in the first place. But per Wilson, that problem thrives more in the mainstream discourse than in the world of bodybuilding, where “tested” and “untested” competitions subtly draw the lines by requiring (or not requiring) clean results for a performance enhancer screening. “Really the only harm that I see from people claiming to be natural who aren’t is that it provides false perceptions of what is actually possible,” Wilson said. “As long as somebody is not cheating in their sports and is being honest, I personally don’t see it as a problem.”

Given the fact that so many silver screen physiques are CGI’ed into the stratosphere anyway and photo editing apps can enhance or add any number of features to a person’s body and face, it might save us all some time to drop the charade and just enjoy the show.