Supplement Marketing on Steroids by Alan Aragon

In January of this year I ran a guest article by Alan Aragon that was An Objective Comparison of Chocolate Milk and Surge Recovery.  If nothing else, that article may have been the most heavily commented and debated article on the site.  Well, last week Alan asked me if I’d run another guest piece by him and this is it.  Like the chocolate milk piece, I expect it to generate similar amounts of controversy.

On which note, to facilitate discussion, I’ve turned off comment moderation for this article.  Alan will be checking in on the comments regularly and this way folks won’t have to wait for me to get around to moderating them for their comments to appear.  I only ask that people keep it civil and no trolling.  I can and will still manually delete inappropriate comments after the fact if people get rambunctious.   I will not be responding to comments, this is Alan’s piece not mine.

And for those of you who aren’t swayed by the marketing hype and want more scientifically based information on changing body composition, I’d refer you to Alan’s monthly Research Review.  He examined both new and older studies of relevance in detail and you won’t be disappointed by the content.

Supplement Marketing on Steroids

by Alan Aragon


Bold claims vs. realistic expectations

A T-nation article was recently brought to my attention by a flood of emails. Folks expressed everything from awe to outrage, but the biggest sentiment was disbelief. “I, Bodybuilder” is in the form of a conversation between staff writer Nate Green and the owner of Biotest, Tim Patterson. It’s a prelude to the formal release of an upcoming supplement called Anaconda.

Is the article unintentionally humorous to discerning minds? Yes. Is any of it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek? Probably not. Does it read like one big, hairy advertisement? Yes. However, to the majority of the T-nation forum members, it probably reads like the Second Coming of the Lord.

To quote the video on the article’s opening page, the product/protocol was “developed out of a black-ops bodybuilding project” where the user can experience “muscle mass being built as fast as humanly possible.”

This hyped-up marketing script is business as usual. But, make no mistake about it; a lot of kids are going to be staking their entire sense of self-worth on the effectiveness of the magic bullet. Here are the claims made in the video on the article’s opening page as well as in print on the 3rd page:

  • Christian Thibaudeau gained 27 lbs of muscle in 6 weeks and increased seated overhead press to 375 pounds for 5 cluster reps.
  • Sebastien Cossette gained 20 lbs of muscle in 8 weeks and added 100 lbs to his front squat.

In contrast to the above, here’s a review of what I’ve observed as realistic rates of muscle gain according to training status. Keep in mind that these figures are based on what I’ve seen in the last 15 years in the field working with mostly drug-free athletes:

Realistic Rates of Lean Body Mass Gain Based on Training Status

Training Status Definition Monthly Gain (% of Total Body Weight)
Novice Less than 2 years consistent training 1.0-1.5% (1-5-2.0 lb. per month)
Intermediate 2-4 years consistent training 0.5-1.0% (0.8-1.5 lb. per month)
Advanced More than 4 years consistent training 0.25-0.5% (0.5-0.8 lb. per month)

*Women can expect to achieve the lower end of these ranges at best.

My note: The issue of realistic muscle gains was discussed in more detail in the article What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential.

The Cream of the Physique Crop

As you can see, the T-nation claims are infinitely more exciting than the expectations I’ve set for my clients and students. Some quick math reveals that they’re promising muscle gains averaging at roughly 3.5 lbs per week, or about 14 lbs per month. That’s over 4 times the typical rate I’ve observed in novices, and at least 15 times the rate I’ve observed in advanced trainees.

Let’s step back for a second and look at the big picture. It’s rare for a fully-grown, skeletally mature adult in his early twenties or older to put on more than 50 lbs of muscle during an entire training career.  Just imagine a college graduate weighing a relatively lean 185 transforming into a muscular 235-pounder by the time he’s in his mid to late 20’s. This is a very formidable feat.

Just how respectable is it? I’ll list the competition stats of all 12 Mr. Olympias (for those living in a cave, the Mr. Olympia is the most prestigious title in bodybuilding):

The Mr. Olympia Winners

Name Years Won Height Competition Weight
Dexter Jackson 2008 (Current) 5’6.5″ 230 lb.
Jay Cutler 2006,2007 5’9″ 255 lb.
Ronnie Coleman 1998-2005 5’10” 270 lb.
Dorian Yates 1992-1997 5’10” 255 lb.
Lee Haney 1984-1991 5’11” 235 lb.
Samir Bannout 1983 5’8″ 210 lb.
Chris Dickerson 1982 5’6″ 190 lb.
Franco Colombu 1976, 1981 5’4″ 185 lb.
Arnold 1970-1975, 1980 6’1″ 230 lb.
Frank Zane 1977-1979 5’9″ 185 lb.
Sergio Oliva 1967-1969 5’8″ 225 lb.
Larry Scott 1965-1966 5’7″ 205 lb

*These heights and weights are averages from various sources online.

For anyone who disagrees that our lean 235 lb example is impressive, consider the fact that only 3 of the 12 Mr. Olympias had a competition weight that significantly exceeded 235 lbs. Keep in mind that there’s a very good chance that NONE of the Olympia winners were drug-free. When you consider that these guys won the genetic lottery to begin with, then enhanced their supernormal potential with multiple drugs, the sobering limits of the drug-free, genetically mediocre majority become apparent.

So, looking back at the T-nation claims, it’s downright comical that they’re claiming about 2-3 year’s worth of gains in 2 months or less. If they didn’t flat-out fabricate, they definitely exaggerated while omitting a few important details. It’s possible for a scant handful of genetically blessed individuals to gain lean mass at the rates they listed, but the majority of these cases are rebound weight gains after prolonged dieting phases involving substantial weight loss.

The said rebound weight gain is typically accompanied by the honeymoon phase of creatine and/or drugs. However, one of the claims is that Kevin Norbert lost 14 lbs of fat while 24 net lbs was gained. So, we’re talking 38 lbs of new muscle in 8 weeks? Give me a frickin’ break, guys. Later on in the article, the exorbitant claims relent a little bit. I’ll quote Patterson directly:

Specifically, from using these methods, we expect the average lifter to gain about 20 pounds of muscle from his first 15-week program — hopefully more — and keep all of it.


I’m defining our average guy as an in-shape 175-pound lifter who’s accustomed to hard training, who’s totally committed to working hard, and who wants to build a lot of muscle mass as fast as humanly possible.


Research Shakes its Head

Now their attention-grabbing 14 lbs per month claim at the start of the article (illustrated by the results of the 3 ‘gifted’ bodybuilder dudes) is reduced to about 5.3 lbs per month on the last page. Still, this figure is about double the average I’ve observed in rank novices, and they’re setting this expectation for trainees “accustomed to hard lifting”. Fine, but how does this hold up against the research? Let’s compare these expectations with the results of athletes on anabolic/androgenic drugs. Let me quote a comprehensive review by Hartgens and Kuiper [1]:

Although many strength athletes frequently report increments of about 10–15kg of bodyweight due to AAS administration, such alterations have not been documented in well designed prospective studies. Most studies show that bodyweight may increase by 2–5kg as a result of short-term (<10 weeks) AAS use. The most pronounced average gain of bodyweight was reported by Casner and coworkers after 6 weeks of stanozolol administration [7 kg in 6 weeks]. However, in a case report, an increase of 12.7kg over a 2-year AAS administration period was registered.

The above quote is worth re-reading enough times until it sinks in. The key point is bolded. The greatest drug-enhanced gains seen in the scientific literature are 7 kg (15.4 lbs) in 6 weeks, or about 2.5 lbs per week. This is roughly a pound less per week than the claims made at the start of the article, and a pound more than the expectations set for the ‘regular guys’ at the end.

However, it’s not at all fair to use the highest recorded drug-enhanced rates of gain as a benchmark. Reiterating the above review, the norms for drug-enhanced gains in the short term (within 10 weeks) are 2-5 kg (4.4-11 lbs), and roughly 12.7 kg (27.9 lbs) over 2 years. The latter two figures collectively average out to a monthly gain of 0.9-1.1 lbs. Let me repeat, all of these figures were achieved with drugs.

To single out the population we’re discussing, I combed through Hartgens and Kuiper’s review for studies strictly on drug-enhanced bodybuilders, and the average rate of gain was 3.4 kg (7.5 lbs) in 8-10 weeks This amounts to 0.83 lb per week, or 3.3 lbs per month.

Assuming T-nation’s expectation of the ‘regular’ population’s gain of 5.3 lbs per month (1.3 lb per week), this rate is still about 38% faster than what’s been observed in drug-enhanced bodybuilders. Keep in mind, creatine supplementation for roughly 12 weeks has been demonstrated to cause an average gain of about 2 kg over non-supplemented conditions [2].

So even if we assumed an additive effect of creatine plus anabolics/androgenics, we’d be looking at a gain of roughly 3.7 lb per month. The gains T-nation promises are still roughly 30% faster than this.

Another research example of drug-assisted gains is a year-long case study by Alén and Häkkinen, who examined the stats and details of an elite bodybuilder [3]. During the course of a year, his fat-free mass increased from 83 to 90 kg (182.6 to 198 lb), which is a gain of 15.4 lb. He used anabolic/androgenic drugs throughout the study, with the exception of 4 weeks off in the middle of the 12 month period.

So, if 15.4 lbs of lean mass in a year is all this genetically gifted, drug-enhanced, international-level bodybuilder can muster, what makes the genetically average, drug-free, non-newbie, non-rebounding trainee think he can exceed that in less than 4 months? Only the Biotest staff knows the secret.


Back Down to Earth

Let’s bring things back to reality. If we’re figuring on a 5-year span with minimal lapses in program compliance with the goal of going from a mortal 185 to a Olympian 235, then the simple math is about 10 lbs of muscle gained per year on average. Can a novice gain double that rate in his first year? Yes.

However, heading toward the advanced stages, gains happen at half of this rate, and progressively less as your genetic potential draws closer. Speaking of which, perhaps the most exhaustive work on the topic of genetic potential for muscular gain in drug-free trainees has been done by Casey Butt.  You can read more at his website The WeighTrainer – Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements.

A similar topic was recently discussed by Lyle McDonald in an article titled What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?

Last but not least, here’s one of my favorite sections from the article that may or may not be a jab at my Objective Comparison of Chocolate Milk and Surge Recovery:

Nate Green: Nick ended up gaining 20 pounds of new muscle and increasing his bench press by 55 pounds, and that’s addictive.
Tim Patterson: After experiencing these kinds of results, from week to week, it’s impossible to be satisfied with anything else. These guys are hooked — we’re all totally hooked — and simply refuse to train any other way.
Nate Green: I can’t give you any failures, because there are none at this point.
Tim Patterson: Oh, I’m sure there will be a couple of dozen pus-filled Internet moron-trolls who can’t wait to prove how they ‘got nothing from loaded insulin surges and HTH, and all you really need is ‘chocolate milk and a banana.’

See, scientifically unsupported talk is cheap. On the other hand, buying into bold marketing claims can be expensive; it’s $80 bucks for a bottle of Anaconda. The name’s appropriate, since it sounds like a good way to put your wallet in a chokehold.

References Cited

1.Hartgens F, Kuipers H. Effects of androgenic-anabolic steroids in athletes. Sports Med. 2004;34(8):513-54.
2.Persky AM, Brazeau GA. Clinical pharmacology of the dietary supplement creatine monohydrate. Pharmacol Rev. 2001 Jun;53(2):161-76.
3.Alén M, Häkkinen K. Physical health and fitness of an elite bodybuilder during 1 year of self-administration of testosterone and anabolic steroids: a case study. Int J Sports Med. 1985 Feb;6(1):24-9.