When we say steroids, we normally refer to anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), the kind which is commonly used by athletes and bodybuilders to grow muscles faster or enhance performance. The other type of steroid which is commonly prescribed by physicians to treat certain diseases is called corticosteroid. They are also known as cortisones but they are vastly different from anabolic steroids. (Some physicians may also prescribe anabolic steroids for patients whose bodies produce abnormally low level of natural testosterone hormone.)
Now, when it comes to anabolic steroids, the commonly known facts include: they help us grow muscles faster; reduce body fat; supplement our efforts to build a top-tier physique; and also that most of them are illegal to obtain without prescription, come with negative side-effects and are banned in most professional sports leagues.
But How do Steroids Work?
Anabolic steroids are synthetically derived varieties (produced in labs) of naturally occurring hormone testosterone in our body. Just as natural testosterone does, steroids promote muscle growth, strength, fast recovery and leanness (the anabolic effect) as well as typical male characteristics (the androgenic effect).
The muscle growth is normally achieved by either greatly increasing the protein synthesis rates or reducing the protein degradation rates, or both. As for the mechanisms which contribute towards fat loss, those normally vary from one type of steroid to another.
Now, as to ‘how do steroids work’, it is simply that when we lift heavier weights than we are commonly used to do, our muscle-fibers develop a lot of tiny micro-tears. But the natural repair process of the body, aided chiefly by the hormone testosterone, heals the tears and in the process actually adds bigger cells which result in building stronger fibers. This whole process is known as muscular hypertrophy. Over a period of time, this process of muscular hypertrophy, when repeated enough number of times, results in muscle growth.
Now, what an AAS does is to speed up this process. So, for example, when anabolic steroids are introduced in our system they travel through our blood stream to the androgen receptors, which are the receiving docks of a muscle cell. Once the steroids enter the muscle cells, they interact with the DNA of the cells and promote cell growth by stimulating the protein synthesis process as well as by reducing the protein degradation process.
At the same time, steroids also aid fast recovery from sore, fatigued, or overused muscles. When we perform intense exercise (no matter of what kind) and when one or more muscles of the body get overworked, the muscles cells therein release the stress hormone cortisol that produce sore muscles by breaking down the muscle tissues.
But anabolic steroids can block cortisol from attaching itself to the receptor sites of a muscle cell, thereby reducing the breakdown process. And since less teardown means less muscle fatigue, this enables an athlete or a bodybuilder to recover fast.
But one must keep this in mind that there are different variants of steroids available and most of them come with their own unique profile–in terms of potency, synergism, side effects, and toxicity. Also, how the steroids will actually work will also depend on the amounts, regimens (such as ‘pyramiding’), and combinations (such as ‘stacking’) you will be using. Some people may concentrate more on bulk whereas others may primarily want to achieve a more toned-down physique.
Subsequently, their use of steroids will vary according to the goals they have set for themselves.