Stimulant Abuse in Bodybuilding
Today we’re going to talk about stimulant abuse in bodybuilding. But really, this has to do with stimulant abuse prevalent in any physique competitions or crash dieting endeavors.
What was so interesting about this to me, before shooting this video and then again before writing up this blog post, was just how little there is out there on this. That surprised me, because I know my experiences with this are not entirely unique. I’ve spoken to, and heard privately from, countless others who’ve talked about their own struggles with stimulant abuse during bodybuilding contest preparation.
Part of the reason for this unexpected vacancy in information and storytelling is the “moral”/“cheating” component of this discussion. Competitive bodybuilders, especially natural ones, don’t like to admit to practices that could be seen as unethical or unfair. And, of course, nobody likes to admit to engaging in any behavior that could be seen as weird or “addiction-like.”
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However, in line with my willingness to talk about my mental health experiences in hopes that others can relate and see that they are not alone, I will be talking today about this widespread yet strangely quiet phenomenon. But first, let me give two important prefaces.
If you have not already read about my history with competitive bodybuilding, my eating disorder, and my thoughts on bodybuilding as a whole, please try to familiarize yourself with those first. These are all pretty central to my main messages, and some of what I say next will make more sense with that context in mind. For relevant reading/watching to catch yourself up on all of that, check these out:
READ: My Story
And, for a simple yet comprehensive guide to recovery from your own eating disorder…
And, finally, I want to leave you with this trigger warning…
TW: I will be talking briefly about stimulant drugs I’ve used. I will not be getting into dosage discussions or providing any “dieting advice” or encouragement. Proceed with caution.
Stimulants in bodybuilding
So, why am I even talking about stimulants in bodybuilding in the first place?
Well, stimulants have multiple effects that are considered conducive to a “positive” competitive bodybuilding experience. They increase basal metabolic rate, lead to more fat burning (by virtue of being thermogenic agents), give you more energy, stave off some of the negative hormonal consequences of caloric restriction (leaving you feeling somewhat more “normal”), and stunt hunger pretty heavily.
For all those reasons and more, stimulants are a fan-favorite in the competitive bodybuilding world. But, as you can imagine, this also poses some big risks. This is something I have a good amount of experience with, especially from my second contest prep.
Stimulant abuse was a big part of my contest preparation, in large part because of my naturally high stimulant tolerance but also because of my extreme and addictive personality.
I first stumbled upon stimulants, and learned to enjoy using them, with my first bodybuilding contest prep. I was fairly constantly in a “zombie mode” state, so stimulants became my means of boosting energy and creativity, on top of all the fat loss effects they had.
READ: 43 Reasons Not to Diet…
I would use tons of caffeine, ephedrine, Adderall, yohimbine, and other various stimulants. Their effects became addicting very quickly. You see, when you’re on them, it’s hard not to fall in love with the feelings of euphoria, productivity (something a large caloric deficit will usually zap), continuous fat loss that would otherwise stall early on, and the general sensation of “normalcy.” However, as you can imagine, this was a dangerous game to play.
At some point, when your caloric intake is down in the dumps and your stimulant dosages are climbing higher, your moods become entirely dependent on the drugs you’re taking. Near the end of prep, I felt less like a functioning human and more like a cocktail of stimulants going up and down (more stimulants = happy; fewer stimulants = depressed).
Not to mention, you start to build a dependency to these drugs. This was most apparent with my caffeine-ephedrine stack, but it was felt with anything I took. There’s a point where you’re taking enough of the substance(s) on a regular enough basis that, when you finally go without it, your body has normalized at that level and now thinks you’re crashing.
And if, like me, you have any predisposition to anxiety, this stuff will amplify that like you wouldn’t believe. And then there are the potential heart health interactions. Since there’s a tendency/temptation to use these energy-enhancing drugs before especially intense exercise (such as HIIT), there is the dangerous potential to combine heart-stressing drugs with heart-stressing physical exertion.
And those are only the effects of the drugs when you’re on them. What about how you feel when you get off?
For starters, it can be painfully depressing. You’ve grown accustomed to that “normalizing” effect they offer, and so when you aren’t taking them, you realize how dependent your moods were on having those drugs in you, inappropriately stimulating dopamine release and enhancing neural connections the body doesn’t actually have the energy substrate to fuel (or, more accurately, prioritize).
And then there’s the hunger. When you’re constantly relying on stimulants to suppress or push off your hunger, once you’re off, you feel it ten times stronger. I had this happen on my high-carb and “cheat” days, where I’d purposefully drop the stimulants for the purposes of strategically preventing insulin resistance, and it would almost feel like a “restricted binge.”
Hunger cravings would spike, and it would feel like I’m starting to binge, since I’d be eating considerably more than normal. But since there was still some limit on how much I could eat on those days, the “binge allowance” would cut off at some point, leaving me depressed and anxious. I distinctly remember going through multiple 4-cup packs of sugar-free Jello in one sitting after I ran through all my allotted cheat day calories by 2pm.
One of the greatest dangers in all of this is that you constantly need, and want, more. You think “If this does this, I wonder what this will do.” The reason this is so dangerous is because those negative hormonal and metabolic responses we’re trying to suppress are all normal processes our bodies send out to protect us. By ignoring and avoiding them, we’re pushing off some deep-seated survival mechanisms and falling markedly out of sync with our body’s normal cues. It becomes harder to know when you’re full, harder to regulate mood and energy, and then all sorts of downstream hormonal consequences pop up. Sex drive is destroyed; temperature regulation is wonky; even pain sensation can start to screw up.
What do you do next?
The moral of the story is that, if you’re going through something similar, you are not alone at all. These drugs are strong and addictive, and they will suck you in for the long run. The best way to handle this is to move away from the bodybuilding/competitive physique show world entirely. As long as you have a tangible, objective reason for why you need to lose tons of weight, it will be incredibly difficult to break free of this habit. So, dropping out of your show(s) and ultimately deciding to leave this world behind - as hard of a decision as it might be to make - is going to be your best bet. If that sounds impossible, and you haven’t read my blog post on the world of bodybuilding, definitely read that now.
I hope this resonated with some of you or that, at the very least, you learned something new. If you have had similar experiences, or you have personal/conceptual questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me and I’d be happy to hear from you and discuss this!