Everywhere I turn, I see thick thighs in nylon singlets tight enough to make me want to keep my eyes straight ahead. I feel miniature as I’m jostled about by the massive, ogre-like men around me. Sweaty hands are either wrapping their hands around a barbell, or preparing to. Breathing is laboured and round bellies stick out – you’d think that everyone ate McDonald's for breakfast if it wasn’t for the hundreds of kilograms loaded onto their backs.
I’m in the middle of the warm-up area of a British powerlifting competition. The athletes around me will soon walk out onto the platform and perform their best squat, bench and deadlift in an attempt to score the biggest total score of the day. For months they’ve been timing their nutrition, training, supplements – and in some cases steroids – perfectly to have a shot at lifting more weight than they ever have before.
In this competition, athletes are divided into "flights" or sections, depending on how much they lift. But there is another divide: those who compete under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) – mainly steroids – and those who don’t.
PEDs are used to help increase performance in sport by raising strength, accelerating muscle growth, and aiding recovery. They have a range of negative side effects including reduced sperm count and shrunken testicles in men and hair growth and loss of breasts for women.
Despite being legal to take – but illegal to distribute without prescription – steroids and other PEDs are outrightly banned in most sports. Apart from powerlifting.
Before they even start to train, powerlifting athletes in the UK will choose which federation they will compete under – the ABPU (Amateur British Powerlifting Union) or the BPU (British Powerlifting Union) – and that decision is based on whether they choose to take PEDs or not. In the ABPU powerlifting federation, drug tests are given out at random. In the BPU federation, they are not. Both federations are professionally approved, yet judged separately.
The difference between how much the tested and untested lifters can lift is phenomenal. It’s much more thrilling to watch the athletes who choose to remain untested. The tested record for largest male squat in the hundred kilo weight class is 332.5 kg. The same record in the untested category is held at 416 kg.
When I first heard of the “tested” and “untested” federation, I was skeptical. Despite having my fair share of festival weekends, steroids always sounded like a dirty word to me, one that was quickly followed by similarly nasty phrases like “cheater”. Other stereotypes like roid rage, cock shrink and red-faced thugs injecting themselves in the gym locker rooms came to mind. It was enough to discourage me completely from the topic.
It wasn’t until I began getting to know the community of untested lifters after taking up the sport that I tiptoed down from the absurdly high pedestal I found myself on.
The type of steroid, dose, frequency and its proximity to training varies greatly among BPU powerlifters. The side effects are diverse – a compound that skyrockets one lifter’s bench press number could send his training partner into an anxiety-riddled mess. The wealth of underground labs popping up across the dark web makes it nearly impossible to find trustworthy sources of education on the topic. Many resort to trial and error to understand what works for them, and what doesn’t.
Alexander Clarke is a personal trainer and editor of British Strength magazine. At 30 years old, he’s been a competing powerlifter for half of his life. His two-year old son Logan regularly joins him when he receives his medals, which include best European lifter in his category for 2019.
As he sits across from me, the coffee cup looks tiny compared to his big frame. Other than the Nike hoodie hanging off of his shoulders, Alexander could have walked straight out of an ancient Norse mythology book.
"The tested and untested categories are great,” he tells me, “because some people don’t want to take steroids. Some people do want to take steroids. Let's see how far we can take the human body with a bit of a chemical tweak. Let’s see how far we can take the body naturally. Let people have their options, don’t take it away from them."
Since beginning to take steroids fourteen years ago, he’s perfected the unique dosage that works for him. His eyes glint as he lists off his weekly steroid regime: 600 milligrams of testosterone and enanthate, 400 milligrams of deca and 400 milligrams of masteron.
“There are things that I can’t use, that don’t benefit me. Trenbolone [another steroid] makes me very anxious. Most people think of big guys having roid rage and smashing things up, but tren just makes me anxious,” Alexander says.
For many powerlifters like Alexander, mood changes are the biggest side effect to regulate when taking PEDs. For some, like Jack, regulating his mood and quality of life was the reason he began taking testosterone replacement therapy, or TRT.
Jack is a personal trainer and coach, and owns a gym in Richmond in south west London. At 38, he now competes as a BPU powerlifting competitor and holds multiple world records. After he retired from a cage fighting career, he noticed his quality of life had taken a deep dive
“I was actually diagnosed with depression, but the anti-depressants did nothing for me,” Jack says as he sits across from me in his Richmond flat. His cauliflower ears and charmingly cocky smile are the only remnants of his past fighting career. “Not only did they make me feel more like shit about myself, but they killed my sex drive. This had a massive effect on my confidence and how I felt about myself. It started affecting my relationship – my wife began thinking I had someone else on the side.”
“I decided the anti-depressants weren’t for me. I tried coming off of them on my own. I cut them in half for a while, then into quarters, and then finally was able to stop taking them. After switching to TRT, my mood swings stabilised, my sex drive returned and I could finally sleep regularly again.”
Jack isn’t the only powerlifter to begin taking testosterone for reasons separate to his training. Typically prescribed by doctors, TRT is often given to older men who struggle with depression and low sex drive.
Dave is a powerlifter from Widnes, a rainy town on the edges of Cheshire. I listen to his gruff voice as he highlights the delicate balance between PEDs and his emotional health. Dave suffers from a genetic disease that means his body produces low amounts of testosterone, and thus is more susceptible to clinical depression.
He’s been taking steroids for 20 years, and is a firm believer in its positive effects on his mental well-being. “People don’t understand the correlation between low testosterone, libido and general well-being. When you’re low testosterone, you’re not going to feel good about yourself. You’ve got no confidence.”
With the extra dose of hormone their body naturally produces, men often report an improvement in mood, energy, strength and confidence. As Jack puts it, “you feel like you’re in your twenties again.”
The switch to taking TRT meant Jack would never pass a drugs test again. Instead of finding ways to game the system, Jack chose instead to compete in powerlifting against other untested athletes.
Despite the prevalence of steroids in strength sports and beyond, the openness that I’m hearing from the powerlifters I interview is rare. “There’s not that many people out there willing to say what they’re on,” says Alex. “It’s out of the fear that someone will tell you that you’re not really that strong, it’s just the drugs.”
The separation of drug tested and untested federations seems to create a bubble of protection from that fear, a place where athletes can compete fairly without their achievements being dismissed. However, that creates an extra layer of separation between lifters and mainstream society – prompting even greater reliance on each other.
“The more I meet people from the powerlifting community, the more they have become my only source of information about gear,” says Jack. “No more trawling through the internet forums or asking bodybuilding bros at the gym for advice.” Jack now talks specifically only to powerlifters who have been in the game for long enough and pay close attention to their health.
“The community weeds out the shoddy stuff,” Alexander mentions. Although some federations turn a blind eye to their use, steroids are still illegal to sell. Domestic underground labs sell homemade product on the black market, using simple manufacturing procedures in their kitchen. Ingredients are bought in bulk from China, mixed with fillers in and microwaved. Some underground labs have more credibility than others, but there’s no way to know what you’re actually injecting into your muscle other than word of mouth.
PhD candidate Neha Ainsworth is conducting her thesis on the risks associated with PED use, and how athletes try to mitigate them while surrounded by doctors looking down from their “ivory towers”. She explains that the underground labs mean athletes don’t know what they’re getting sold, or if it’s the right amount.
“It’s due to the unsterile manufacturing process, or what’s added as fillers.” Compounds can be cut with heavy metal contaminants – causing real long term damage if taken over a long period of time. “They put themselves across as a lab, but really it’s some dude who buys powders and mixes it in his bathtub.”
Internet forums where labs can be rated are popping up. The labs themselves reply back to the reviews, organising orders that have gone missing. The community has taken it upon themselves to try and maintain accountability. Wedinos, a service that tests recreational drug samples for purity and content, had to close its services to performance-enhancing drugs because of the sheer volume of samples it was receiving. “This clearly shows there’s a demand for steroid users trying to access safe, accurate gear,” Neha says.
There’s a perception that the steroid-taking community doesn’t care about their health. On the contrary, untested powerlifters distance themselves from recreational drug users. They see themselves as responsible individuals who pay their taxes, go to the gym like its church, and dispose of their needles safely.
Many keep their use a secret because they expect to be judged. After having told his first doctor the truth, Alexander was later refused antibiotics because the doctor dismissed it as a problem associated with steroids – even though he had been off of them for a year by that point. He echoes the frustration that many untested athletes feel: the fear of being judged and their achievements being dismissed.
After our talk, Alexander invites me to his dusty, dimly lit garage gym in the suburbs of Blackburn to watch him pull three hundred kilograms off the floor without breaking a sweat. He finishes his set and snaps his weightlifting belt off.
"A lot of people are using [steroids] that just don't need to,” he says. “You don’t need to use gear to be 12 stone with a six-pack. Honestly, you just have to work harder. If you want to be a powerlifting freak, then you're probably going to have to use them. If you're a very competitive person, you're going to do what it takes."