Heart problems, liver failure, hair loss – these are just a few of the side-effects that come with the use of anabolic steroids, the group of muscle-building drugs used by many bodybuilders who compete at the highest level in the ‘sport’.
Bodybuilding and steroids have always been very strongly linked; the sport is often associated with people who use the drugs to pump up their physiques.
Hollywood star and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former ‘Mr Universe’ and seven-time ‘Mr Olympia’, has admitted using steroids in the 1970s for “muscle maintenance”.
The use of steroids which are sometimes referred to as just ‘roids’ comes with clearly defined health risks. As well as the more serious dangers already mentioned, they can also cause acne and changes in a user’s voice.
Men’s bodies produce more of the testosterone hormone, while the female body contains more estrogen. Each sex produces both hormones which are naturally in the right balance.
With the intake of steroids, however, this natural balance is disrupted – hence some women using them find their voices get deeper and male users can develop breasts.
‘A failed drug test for all steroids, pro hormones, diuretics, growth hormones, peptides and other listed banned substances carries an obligatory seven-year ban’
– British Natural Bodybuilding Federation rules
Not all bodybuilders use steroids to enhance both their muscles and chances of success at the highest level.
The British Natural Bodybuilding Federation, for instance, states in its membership rules that: “Members must be seven years drug-free on date of application”. They must also be prepared to submit to random drug tests.
And yet, any bodybuilder wishing to make a name for his or herself will face the dilemma – to use steroids or not.
Michele Hadassa van Gelder, 24, who is based in Dubai, recently entered the world of professional bodybuilding and is only too aware of the pressures and the incentives that can lead someone to ‘roids’.
Van Gelder says she was never the type for typical ‘girl’ sports; she always had a thing for the more extreme activities and was introduced to fitness early as a teenager.
Ice hockey and pole dancing were a couple of sports she practiced at a younger age. Every member of her family is into bodybuilding, and Michele goes to the gym on a regular basis with her mum who, although nearly 60, is considering signing up for a bodybuilding competition as well.
Van Gelder made the decision several months ago to quit her job as a stewardess for the Emirates airline and focus solely on a career in bodybuilding.
“Being a bodybuilder is a full-time job. I have chosen a career in bodybuilding and that would have simply not been feasible with a job in the aviation industry alongside it… If I am not in the gym I am either cooking or planning my meals,” Van Gelder says.
The reason why food takes up so much of her time is because diet plays a big role in the life of a bodybuilder.
“I’m convinced that my diet can make up to 70-80% difference in the run up to a competition and therefore requires a lot attention and takes up a lot of time.
‘Going to the gym is one thing, but what people don’t seem to realise is how important a diet is,” Van Gelder explains.
When the day finally arrives for the athletes to go on stage, organisers always have a team of paramedics present in case someone faints. The diets these athletes follow in the build-up to an event expose them to serious levels of dehydration.
A term that often occurs in fitness jargon is ‘ripped’. It refers to people who have muscles, often the abdominals (abs), that are very clearly visible.
The first task for a bodybuilder to achieve is obviously to build muscle but also to lose as much body-fat as possible.
To get to the point where everything is clearly visible, the bodybuilder needs to get rid of as much water in the body as muscles to achieve the maximum ‘ripped’ look.
The general preparation, also known as ‘shredding’, for a competition is 12 weeks but as Van Gelder describes it, it all comes down to the final one.
“The week before competition is genuinely the week where you can make the difference and it’s make or break.
“I went from drinking about 10 litres of water per day to about one pint of water per day in the week before I went on stage. On top of that I would take in one teaspoon of salt before each meal to simply dry out my muscles.”
Other big parts of the final week are flexing, posing in front of the mirror and tanning. A bronze skin colour and bright shiny bikinis or underwear is the dress code for these competitions.
The cold hard truth about those people on stage is that they look very strong, very muscular but in reality they are at their weakest point.
They’ve spent the past few months on diets designed to emphasise muscle bulk and have completely dried themselves out – hence the team of paramedics present.
What kind of example would I be to people if I started taking steroids?
The sport has always been overshadowed by the use of steroids, and bodybuilders claim they have no choice but to take them if they want to compete at the very highest level.
Whereas in other sports, such as track and field, athletes are banned if drug tests detect steroid, in bodybuilding it is a given that people use them.
Van Gelder’s first competition was in the ‘bikini’ class which is entry level for female bodybuilders.
There are several categories to cater to varying levels of muscularity. Bikini class as Van Gelder describes it is still the most feminine one, but even in this category there are women using hormones.
They are tempting to use, admits Van Gelder: “I have looked into it and I was on this point that I thought: ‘I want to be super muscular as well. You see these other women on stage and you think, I want to be equally as muscular’.
“But I need to be honest to myself. It is very appealing and especially when you have friends or know people who use them. It is very easy to get them as well.
“But I have become a vegan, and what kind of example would I be to people if I started taking steroids?”
Van Gelder is currently in off-season and has decided to take a year out to build muscle and come back stronger next year.
Female bodybuilders have attracted mixed reactions from the public, with some men saying they find it very unattractive if a woman is too muscular.
But this doesn’t seem to put women off. The sport is flourishing and gaining in popularity, with more and more women wanting to take part.
Photos copyright of Michelle Hadassa van Gelder