I started working as a nutritionist (initially as a student practitioner) back in the late 90’s. At the time I loved strength and ‘physical culture’ in all its forms…including bodybuilding. In fact I still think bodybuilding of the type epitomised by Bill Pearl, John Grimek and other ‘pre-steroid era’ bodybuilders is awesome. These guys were true physical culturists. They lived and breathed the pursuit of strength and health, and the way they looked was a consequence of this. Over time the aesthetic became pre-eminent, and as any athlete is tempted to do, means to improve more rapidly (primarily anabolic steroids) became more and more rampant.
The freakish nature of the physiques that came to emerge was one of the main things that turned me off bodybuilding, along with the lack of attention to function (as it relates to being able to move and perform). And as a result I spent the next 16 years doing all-round weightlifting, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and yes…from 2007 or so…the occasional CrossFit workout (along with of course working with many, many CF athletes as a health, nutrition and strength consultant).
There is a worrying trend that CF athletes are getting bigger, stronger, fitter and faster at an extremely rapid rate. (I alluded to this here: http://www.holisticperformancenutrition.com/1/post/2014/03/is-crossfit-making-you-fat.html) and almost daily I’m asked by one of my athletes and colleagues in CF “Are the top guys (and gals) on gear?”
The answer of course has to be “I don’t know…but….” Because I don’t know for sure who is on and who is simply a natural genetic super-freak. BUT I have worked with many elite athletes from many sports over the years and I’m fairly confident that in most of the major sporting competitions in the world the overwhelming majority of athletes are probably using some degree of banned substance. That not-withstanding it would be unfair of me to say definitively that athlete X is using steroids when I couldn’t be 100% sure.
The evidence does seem to indicate that top CF athletes are using though. John Romano (you may have seen him in the documentary “Bigger Stronger Faster”) wrote a great article “Steroids, Crossfit, and The Crossfit Games: Who & How” at his blog: http://romanoroberts.com.mx/steroids-crossfit-and-the-crossfit-games-who-how/ which does a great job of discussing steroids in sport, how prevalent they are and how one can get past the tests. I’m not going to rehash these as John and Anthony Roberts did a great job but what I found most interesting was the use of a paper which provided a metric by which to determine an anthropometric probability of someone’s steroid usage. This paper by Kouri and colleagues , published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine calculated fat-free mass index (FFMI) in a sample of 157 male athletes, comprising 83 users of anabolic-androgenic steroids and 74 nonusers.
The FFMI is defined by the formula (fat-free body mass in kg) x (height in meters)-2. The authors then added a slight correction of 6.3 x (1.80 m - height) to normalize these values to the height of a 1.8-m man.
The following results were noted:
- Normalised FFMI values of athletes who had not used steroids extended up to a limit of 25.0
- A sample estimate of 20 Mr. America (bodybuilding) winners from the presteroid era (1939-1959), had a mean FFMI of 25.4
- The FFMI of many of the steroid users in our sample easily exceeded 25.0, and that of some even exceeded 30
Romano and Roberts took this metric and applied it to the top male CrossFit athletes. They estimated body-fat at a standard 9% and adjusted the cut-off UP to 26 just in case. And this is what they came up with:
So according to the original measure we could conclude probable steroid use in 9 of the top 10 CF athletes in the world, or when adjusted up to 26, half of the top CF athletes are likely to be enhanced.
I would suggest that because of the nature of CF and it’s demands on the musculature it is more likely to result in hypertrophy and that genetic stand-outs are going to be more likely to be in the list above (as compared to an arbitrary list of bodybuilders) but there is still at least a precedent that what we are beginning to see in CF is well outside the norm and it appears to be becoming more prevalent over time. Worth considering too is that bodybuilders (and especially the Mr America winners mentioned earlier) train specifically for hypertrophy...which of course CFers don't.
Does this mean that the above guys are on gear? No. But it does mean that there is an indicator of potential probability of use. Does it warrant further investigation? I think so.
Back too why this is dangerous for CrossFit: CF has developed due to it’s community basis, and the fact that everyone competes to some degree, at some level. The top athletes have, like in many emerging sports, seemed just an arms-length away, but now they are beginning to become unattainable to Joe or Jane CrossFitter. A high prevalence of steroid use removes one of the inspirational drivers in sport. It removes an athlete from comparison because if for example I am doing a WoD and getting a certain score I have no idea what it would be if I were on gear, and so I can’t be sure of how competitive I am in relation to the top guys.
Finally one of the things that I liked about CF in the early days was something that harked back to the early days of physical culture that I love. A focus on health and holism. Many who attend boxes follow a clean eating regime of some sort. They are interested in active recovery, yoga, pilates and other things that speak to a more holistic approach to strength and life. Steroids do begin to stand in opposition to that, where it is about using an unnatural approach to development and one that is more concerned with rushing to the post rather than being present in a developmental process within ones natural talents and attributes.
I don’t have any answers, only questions. And I welcome your comments because I think this issue deserves frank discussion.
Kouri, E. M., Pope, H. G., Jr., Katz, D. L., & Oliva, P. (1995). Fat-free mass index in users and nonusers of anabolic-androgenic steroids. Clin J Sport Med, 5(4), 223-228.
Research and popular science articles by the members and faculty of the Holistic Performance Institute.