Steroids And CrossFit?

There’s a fascinating article written by performance enhancement drugs (PEDs) gurus John Romano and Anthony Roberts titled, “Steroids, CrossFit, and The CrossFit Games: Who & How“. The TL;DR is a) these guys are experts on PEDs, b) drug tests are very easy to beat, c) testing agencies are mediocre at best, purposely negligent at worse, d) every major sport (including the Olympics) has steroid users, e) given some formulas (that are backed by research) that look at musculature on a man’s frame, CrossFit competitors fit the mold of steroid use. I suggest reading the article as it expands on each of these points significantly.

I’ve written various steroid articles in the past, but as much as I’ve studied anatomy, physiology (including endocrinology), I still don’t understand the mechanism of PEDs well. The most recent article I wrote on it is, “Lance Armstrong, PEDs, and Naivety” (a very good article to compliment Romano and Robert’s above). I’ve accepted this statement as fact: “Most athletes in high level sports are using PEDs. The ones who aren’t are probably losing or are the minority.” The Romano/Roberts article above even points to studies that show specific time periods of increased performance in a given sport and how it correlated precisely with a new PED on the market. To think of this as merely a correlation without causation is, as I say in my own article above, naive.

Why would CrossFit be any different? The winner of the CrossFit Games wins at least a quarter million dollars, and that doesn’t even include follow-up endorsement deals or CrossFitters throwing money at them to attend shitty seminars and “learn their secrets”. I’m not saying they bullshit their way into victory with PEDs, but pointing out that CrossFit fame has significant rewards. (I’m also saying that successful CrossFit competitors are typically bad coaches, but that’s neither here nor there).

My personal opinion of PED use is that it’s none of my fucking business. I believe that the swift movement towards social liberalism will lead to the legality of PED use in the same way that marijuana is legal in some states. This poses a variety of additional questions, like the government inevitably wanting to regulate them (they can’t and won’t), and how it could increase the overall safety of PED use among lay-people. (Remember that scene in Minority Report when Tom Cruise gets a back-alley-abortion-style eye surgery because it was illegal?)

To continue my opinion, if most athletes are using PEDs and the tests suck, then what’s the point? When I wrote the Lance Armstrong article above, my friend Eva Twardokens, a two-time winter Olympian, called me immediately expressing her displeasure. She has a disdain for cheaters in sport, and I completely understand the argument, especially from the perspective of a non-using competitor. Unfortunately for non-using competitors, the rest of everyone else will be using. And they’ll probably be the winners.

Eva at least made me think about my stance. She lambasted Armstrong while I called him a hero in the article (for other things in life like fundraising). I’ve seen my friends lose in national competitions to guys who were quite clearly using. But I also have friends who save lives or kill the enemy while use testable or non-testable PEDs to increase their performance at work. I see both sides, and I’m not sure I really care.

Fairness is an illusion anyway. Forget all of the tangible elements that make a person who they are and look at intangibles. For example, not everyone has the same will to succeed, so why treat them all like they do and make futile attempts at putting them on the same level? That question has more than one meaning.

The truth is…life ain’t fair. No matter what regulation you put on it, folks will not follow it. I’m not making a case for anarchy, no rules, and no government, but I’m making a case against the naive mindset that sport preparation is, or should be, fair. The internetz have talked for years about PED use in CrossFit. It’s likely some of those guys were or are using. And I don’t blame them.

Let’s go back to the Romano/Roberts article. I thought that the linked study was really neat. It basically looked at non-using bodybuilders from the pre-steroid era and compared them to PED-using bodybuilders in the early steroid era and applied a formula based on their lean body mass and height to gauge whether they were likely using steroids or not. (Something like this should be used instead of the bullshit BMI). It found that at least half of the top ten male finishers at the CrossFit Games would fit a classification of PED use. After all, the non-using bodybuilders from the linked study were the most muscular men in the world.

The FFMI formula for reference, taken directly from the Romano/Roberts article.

The FFMI formula for reference, taken directly from the Romano/Roberts article.

I thought this was interesting, so I plugged my own information into it. The cutoff, according to the study, was anything over a 25 was flagged for steroid use. They increased the cutoff to 26 for the sake of an argument that benefits the CrossFitters (read their article if you don’t know what I’m talking about). In any case, I estimated my body fat at a conservative 10% (it’s usually more like 9%) and used a 210 lbs (this is my lowest). So that puts me at 85.905kg for lean mass (note that I converted to kilos) and my height is 1.8288m (6 ft tall), and my value was 25.69. Without adjusting for a 1.8m man (which I am close to), and according to the study, I am flagged for potential PED use, and I have never used.

Aside from feeling really cool about having a comparable muscle-to-frame ratio as former Mr. Americas, I found this is interesting. I am much more conditioned than a normal lifter, but I am not nearly as conditioned or adapted to high volumes as the guys finishing in the CrossFit games. However, most of the top ten finishers from the CF Games have a higher value than I do (Jason Khalipa has a whopping 28.5).

Romano and Roberts did not directly suggest that these guys were using PEDs; their goal was to point out that the conditions exist where it is likely they are, whether you’re talking about widespread drug use in sports or the fact these guys fit the mold for PEDs users.

All I’m saying is that it’s naive to not make the assumption.

21 thoughts on “Steroids And CrossFit?

  1. I get that people lie because it is illegal, I think that it is everyone’s business because folks who are using are held up as if they simply worked hard enough and if everyone else was not such a bunch of lazy bastards they’d get the similar results.

    The same goes for genetics and luck when people are held up as success stories.

    I WANT professionals to be genetic freaks on steroids. It’s no fun watching what normal people can do, but I am sick of the BS that pretends like there’s a level playing field.

  2. That was a really interesting article. I had made always made assumptions about which CFers were using based on progress, like how Rich Froning put 40# on his clean and jerk in one year, and then another 40# the following year, not to mention the training volume he is handling with pretty minimal caloric intake. Ben Smith, on the other hand, has had much slower and harder-fought progress, so I always believed him to be clean. But still, who knows. I have my suspicions, but I’m not going to say anyone is for sure a cheater until they test positive, and I appreciate that the article did the same.

    Unfortunately for the sport of CrossFit, the athletes themselves are becoming more and more aware of steroid use among their competitors, which is causing some tension among the competitors. For example, Dan Bailey’s comments about people using, along with Elizabeth Akinwale’s recent snub about how “IF Danielle Sidell passes the drug testing, she’ll win the Games” (Sidell is larger than some of the male competitors, so I understand her suspicion). The suspicion will undoubtedly lead to even more drug use, not to mention possible bitter in-fighting that could be detrimental to CrossFit’s growth. It will be interesting to see how CFHQ handles all this…

    • Does Rich Froning have a minimal caloric intake? I don’t worship him or read articles about him like the rest of the world, but I thought he ate peanut butter sandwiches and shit?

  3. Most of the dudes I hear bitching about PED’s are not competitive athletes so I can’t figure why they even give a shit about it. In fact most of them never get their pulse above 100bpm other than when playing Call of Duty or trying to beat some other mouth breather to the closest parking spot. As a powerlifter I would not personally be able to justify showing up to a tested fed having used when there are at least 40 untested feds to choose from. For those who’s livelihoods depend on their ability to physically perform its a whole different argument. If someone told me that I was going to have to sit behind a desk and I thought PEDs could keep me on the truck…well I hope I am never faced with that decision.

  4. I didn’t read the whole (linked) article but my one comment is to propose the possibility that the manner in which the top TOP crossfit athletes exe rich froning, jason khalipa, train, could be superior to that of the old school bodybuilders. (keep in mind im not talking about “doing crossfit”, im talking about what the top athletes actually do) Theories such as Chad Waterbury’s High frequency training (lots of high rep 60% training sessions as frequent as 7 days a week on a bodypart) would at lend to a reasonable hypothesis that these athletes style of training could result in stats that would be outside of such has been studied thus (via standard bodybuilding).

    Also, its important to remember the vast genetic variance across individuals, most likely the top athletes are simply extremely gifted genetically, naturally high test levels, It also is obvious they have good lever arms, you don’t see any long femurs in the top athletes.

    Overall my doubts stem from the fact that A) similar to the idea that the Bush administration orchestrated 9-11, crossfit people are too dumb to lie and keep their story straight. B) I train at a bodybuilding gym with close to a dozen openly “geared” lifters, and their strength blows the crossfit athletes out of the water. I have one friend (follower of this site) who started taking gear (modest amounts), and his numbers went through the roof. If crossfit athletes are taking test, they are fucking pathetic to be only as strong as they are.

    Very good article! I love the moral discussion and agree completely!

  5. It raises an interesting philosophical argument that admittedly meanders a bit from the main point. What’s the difference between Viagra and PEDs? Boob jobs? Lasik? I’m sure some of you have read Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick (the basis for Blade Runner). In that book, the characters use a mood stimulator device to instantly change their moods from crappy to blissful and anywhere in between. While the book is about much more than that, these characters are enhancing themselves mentally via technology and are able to essentially avoid how they would naturally react to their reality. (There is a similar device in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. In that book, the devil tries to buy the rights to market the device. Both great books if you haven’t read them). It seems like PEDs (or viagra or cosmetic plastic surgery etc.) would be the physical extension of this same drive to enhance ourselves past the point that “nature” would allow. This long drive toward self-actualization is only going to pick up speed with advances in technology such that self-actualization will need to be redefined to mean our desire to blow past our genetic potential. Or we will just increase that potential in vitro. I agree with Justin that at some point anabolics in some form or another will be widespread. You already see a market being legitimized with the “Low T” commercials – “Raise your hand if your 45, feel tired, flabby and have no sex drive? Well, here’s a pill that will turn you into a sexual tyrannosaurus.” 3 million prescriptions written for AndroGel last year (I’m not posting this link in support of its argument,but just to give a source for the numbers It’s already happening.

    Really enjoy this site by the way.

  6. Good article, Justin.
    Pete posted a link to JR/AR’s original article a few days ago, and I had a read. Separate from any moral arguments, it’s definitely naive to think that some percentage of the CF Games competitors aren’t on PEDs. I personally know one guy who went to the Games who’s on steroids pretty much nine months of the year.
    Now, whether it’s 1% or 99% I have no idea, but it’s certainly happening.

    My opinion on this is much the same as Justin’s: I could not possibly give less fucks. A large number of SOF dudes are on it, and it’s never bothered me.

  7. So, let me follow the logic here:
    Everyone is on steroids, because look at how modern athletes compare to old time athletes. There are some that modestly beat old time athletes in an arbitrary lean muscle calculation.
    By the way, the Author has never done steroids and also beats old time bodybuilders, but this doesnt count because he doesnt do endurance work every day. But lets ignore that neither do crossfitters.

    The rest of the article is gold, of course there are crossfit competitors on drugs: it’s a sport, and anyone who wants to win sports will take drugs eventually.

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  9. “if most athletes are using PEDs and the tests suck, then what’s the point?”

    A fitting question, the answer to which is “there isn’t one”.

    “Most of the dudes I hear bitching about PED’s are not competitive athletes so I can’t figure why they even give a shit about it.”

    This, x 1,000,000.

    “If crossfit athletes are taking test, they are fucking pathetic to be only as strong as they are.”

    CF is not, and never was, about strength. Endurance athletes take PEDs as well (cyclists, soccer players, etc.).

    The comparison to pre-steroid era bodybuilders is perhaps a bit misguided, gyms today are full of recreational trainees who don’t even compete in BBing but are bigger and more muscular than the Mr. Americas of the 1940s. 70+ years of accumulated training knowledge, better overall nutrition and vastly improved and available supplementation make a difference.

  10. I think it’s safe to say that PEDs are common in any sport with money or notoriety on the line. Athletes want to be as competitive as possible and the leagues don’t really want to catch them (if the leagues know what’s good for them).

    Personally, I don’t care if people use PEDs. I just don’t like it when they lie and pretend they’re natural.

  11. I agree with the post and the reasoning and arguments behind it.

    However, a more valid, useful measure would account for bone structure. Obviously, a man with a broad, thick bone structure will be significantly heavier than a man of the same height but of slighter build. Bone mass alone could easily account for 20#. Then you have guys like William Perry, whose Superbowl ring was 3-4 standard deviations above the mean. So a larger-built man, regardless of muscle mass, will have a high-skewed FFMI value, as the measure is not accounting for the fact that much of that mass is not muscle. I believe this is considerable enough to warrant inclusion into any body mass measure aiming to be definitive.

    Using wrist circumference as a proxy for bone structure size, this can be easily integrated into the FFMI equation. The circumference value would have to be in the denominator, so that a larger circumference lowers the resulting FFMI value. Then to make the value spread easier to compare, you multiply everything by 20, which is a good average male wrist size (8″) in centimeters, bringing the final values back into the 20’s, rather than the range.

    The final equation would look like this:

    (20)kg/(m^2)(cm) = FFMI, adjusted for bone structure

    So I stand at 5’11 (1.8m), with what I would call thin wrists at 7.5 inches (19cm). I weigh 175 (~79kg)
    (20)(79)/(1.8^2)(19) = 25.6

    If I had thick wrists and therefore a much more stout bone structure, at say 8.5 inches, the value would be 22.6, which would reflect the fact that my weight owes less to muscle and more to bone.

    Anyway, I’m just demonstrating how easy it would be to integrate bone structure, a valid contribution to body mass, into a proper measurement system. Obviously this wouldn’t allow the prospective measurement of other people’s FFMI, as it’s harder to tell what Khalipa’s wrist circumference is than it is to check his official stats of But I clearly am making a valid point.

  12. I don’t really care what people put in their bodies as long as I don’t have to pay for it. As a sports fan, I’d be interested in seeing what would happen in a completely untested league. Embrace the fusion of science and the human body, let it evolve until we actually have those humanoid robots playing football that Fox shows as they come back from commercial breaks.

    • But honestly though, I was watching football one fateful Sunday afternoon and I saw one of those robots, which I had seen hundreds of times prior without giving it a second thought, when suddenly I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. Why the fuck was a robot pretending to play football on my tv? And who’s idea was it? And who at Fox OK’d it and said “Yes, we will use robots!” And then real football happened, so I stopped caring. But the question stands.

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  15. Hey Justin, thanks for all your training help. Might be too old to respond but I read your Lance Armstrong article linked here and it shows some uniformed or naive opinions.

    In regards to most athletes doping, I agree with everything in the article. But Armstrong is a different case altogether. Skipping the possibility that his steroid use could have very well led to his cancer, Lance wasn’t just doping with everyone else and still winning. He worked with UCI in eliminating anyone who challenged him. He had competitors threatened to be disqualified by a governing body if they didn’t slow their pace. Some he had kicked out of racing all together. This is far different than taking PEDs and beating other PED users. That would be fine.

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