THE BLOG

The Temptation of Testosterone

13/05/2014 15:03 BST | Updated 11/07/2014 10:59 BST

There's something peculiar happening in gyms these days; a new archetype of man flexing and posturing in increasing numbers. Problem is, he doesn't quite look natural, less so normal. It's almost a parody of masculinity - a male drag as it were, a more pronounced and inflated body (literally). To put it coarsely, he looks as though someone has stuck a bicycle pump where the sun don't shine, and pumped away like merry hell.

My observation was, I thought, on account of recently qualifying as a Personal Trainer. But now, a drugs and alcohol charity has confirmed it. CRI has seen a staggering 645% rise in steroid users visiting its 21 needle exchanges in the UK from 290 to 2,161 between 2010 and 2013.

Government figures estimate that around 60,000 people have used anabolic steroids in the last year, though the reality could be much more, with reports of teenagers as young as 15 injecting to build muscle.

As a result, NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) have updated their guidelines with a call for health providers to bring in specialist services for steroid users, including for the first time the provision of equipment for under 18s and clinics set up in gyms.

A friend of mine, not long out of his teens, recently started using Primobolan and testosterone cypionate in a quest to lose body fat and gain lean muscle. He described it as 'a miracle in a bottle', and laughs off the risks including heart and liver function problems, infertility, hair loss, increased risk of developing prostate cancer and exposure to HIV and Hepatitis.

I'd also observed the progress of others in my gym, including one lad whose average body rapidly transformed into one of supreme cathedral architecture - with a splattering of back acne to boot.

In the early days, I'd identified with his tedious final set; the pained facial expression and trembling limbs. Now, in the grip of a Nietzschean superiority complex, with his bulbous delts, washboard abs and finely calibrated serratus, he's a contender among those grotesque Neanderthals who only a few months back would knock him over to get to the bench press, as is the usual dynamics of the gym's invidious hierarchy.

I'm interested in the psychological motivations for young men across the land going to extreme lengths to obtain a bigger build while seriously risking their health. Are anabolic steroids a 'miracle in a bottle' alleviating a modern crisis of masculinity, or are they a slippery path to addiction and future ill-health in the pursuit of the 'ideal' body?

To understand it one has to forensically deconstruct the perhaps futile and destructive false promises of a booming fitness industry. In reality, men are now experiencing the same doubts and insecurities over their bodies that women have endured for years.

We're now bombarded with perfect specimens of manliness on magazines and in advertising; Beckham in his pants and pound signs in his eyes; a pneumatic Ben Cohen waltzing shirtless on Strictly; or the British rugby team, the physical manifestation of tensile strength emerging from Australia's effervescent waters, all six packs and bulging veins like spaghetti that's been thrown at a wall.

While some men are driven by dysmorphic perceptions of their own body, the residual symptoms of childhood bullying or feelings of inferiority, others simply see muscle mass as synonymous with masculinity and strength, which in turn leads to social and sexual power, and ultimately success. And what man doesn't want that?

The pressure is immense, and yet it's perpetuated by ourselves. You'll see men at the tills of WH Smith rapaciously clutching Men's Health magazine as if holding its glossy pages to ones chest will somehow initiate a superhuman ability to grow gargantuan pecs.

What they don't tell you is those images, no matter how effortless they look, are still airbrushed and cannot be replicated without a 24/7 hardcore commitment and customised nutrition and workout plan by a team of professionals for that model's somatotype.

In the interest of accurate reportage, let's just say I've been weight training on and off and to variable levels of success for ten years. I use success loosely since I've yet to sustain significant injury, and I'm no longer described as skinny, that horrid adjective with its concomitant feeble connotations which was the bane of my adolescence and twenties. In fact, recent descriptions I've heard have included 'buff' and 'well built'. But it's been a time-consuming hard slog and I'm still seldom satisfied with the results.

Last year, to beat the plateau, I decided to qualify as a personal trainer. It would probably be cheaper than hiring one, I conceded. A week later and I'm in a class above a gym in Fulham with a group of loquacious teens and Polish meat-heads with ADHD, learning my Rotator Cuffs from my Tere Majors.

It was an interesting journey, not only in witnessing such military solipsism among my fellow students, but also since I was offered a course of steroids in my first week. The reason? I'm just 'fat and bone' apparently. With peer pressure like this, is it any wonder younger more impressionable men are succumbing to the temptation of testosterone?

Now as a qualified fitness professional, I know now that genetics are paramount in achieving the body beautiful, no matter how many protein shakes you throw at it. And as someone who has always been more beanpole than beefcake, an ectormorph hard gainer in his late 30s, I know more than most that the toil of Sisyphus can seem futile and tiresome.

I'm loth to admit, but the offer of a legal Class C drug that lets you train harder and for longer, promising a significant increase in muscle mass, is a seductive proposition. Who wouldn't risk a spot of acne and a little shrinkage down below for the confidence that comes with a body many men would envy and women desire? But is such a body sustainable, unless you make steroids a constant part of your life? No, and therein lies the danger.

Although I'd happily discard the all-consuming weight-training 'lifestyle' in the bin of youthful folly, I've strangely come to enjoy it and the frustration and energy it allows me to expend. Not to mention the high fitness levels I'm able to maintain and the visible progress ie. the natural development of my body - sans drugs.

Regardless of any torment at seeing those so-called beefcakes lift exactly the same weight as me and not even break a sweat, while I look like I've been urinated on by the ladies Zumba class on the mezzanine level, it's a habit that will undoubtedly stick until my somnolent metabolism grinds to a halt.

And rather than reaching for that 'miracle in a bottle', I'll take solace in the words of the poet Max Ehrmann, who said: "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself." It was ever thus.