We’ve seen it time and time again. Athletes who take performance enhancing drugs and claim to be "natural". While on the other side of the fence are athletes who actually are natural and have the numerous passed drug test results to prove it, but consistently get accused of using performance enhancing drugs. It begs the question; how do we know who is keeping it 100? Is there really a way to spot a "fake natty"?
At some point in our lifting career, we all go through that moment. The moment when you already know that you bust your ass in the gym, your nutrition is spot on and your methods are optimal in almost every way imaginable; yet, along comes someone who seems to do almost everything wrong and still dwarfs you. They are bigger, they are leaner, they are stronger and they have only been training for half the amount of time that you have. How can this be? There is only one logical explanation… they must getting some ‘extra help’.
The "Natty Witch-Hunt" seems to be in full effect when browsing the internet or social media apps these days. Everyone wants to know exactly who is or is not using steroids. As soon as a picture of an amazing physique is posted online, the keyboard warriors will be sure to interject with their thoughts. “This person is definitely on drugs”, cry the self-appointed jurors of "Natty Status", who speak with such certainty about whether or not someone is natural.
But is there actually a way of knowing decisively whether or not somebody is natural? Let’s find out.
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Three Common Arguments Given When Claiming Someone Isn’t Natural
1. The Worth of a Picture
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. However, when it comes to judging someone’s natural status, a picture is not worth much at all. Looking at a picture of someone we know absolutely nothing about gives us very little information; we don’t know their height, their weight, their training experience, their age… all we know from a picture is what they look like at that point in time. Despite this lack of information, a picture is usually all it takes for many of the internet trolls to come to a decision on natty status.
One of the biggest problems with a picture is that it is subject to extreme illusions. The angle the picture is taken on, the lighting, the conditioning of the person in the picture, and the filters or photo editing apps used before posting the picture can all greatly manipulate just how big and lean someone looks.
To illustrate this point, below is a comparison of Professional Natural Bodybuilder, Zach Roush. If you look at the picture of Zach on the left it would be easy for one to assume that he is on performance enhancing drugs. He looks absolutely massive, but actually only weighs 165 lbs (75kg) in this picture. However, in the picture on the right, while he still looks quite large, you would likely assume his physique is attainable naturally. This picture is actually what Zach looks like in the off-season weighing 195 lbs (88kg). That’s right, he is a full 30 lbs (13kg) BIGGER in the picture on the right.
A leaner person will almost always look larger in pictures when they are flexing. When you combine being lean, a tan, and favorable lighting together, it can add up to an extremely different, unnatural look. Pictures alone are clearly not an accurate measure of someone’s natty status.
2. Fat-Free Mass Index
Those that tend to make a habit of accusing others of being on drugs seem to love to quote the study by Kouri, et al. titled ‘Fat-free mass index in users and non-users of anabolic-androgenic steroids’. The study can be viewed here.
In this study, the authors measured the Fat-Free Mass Index (FFMI) of 74 natural athletes. The conclusion of the study showed that the natural FFMI extended to a well-defined limit of 25. They also took the body fat percentages of 20 former Mr. America winners from the pre-steroid era and found that they had a mean FFMI of 25.4. This study is often used as evidence of guilt for anyone with an FFMI exceeding 25. However, upon a closer look, this study is actually quite erroneous.
Many of the problems arising from this study come from the inaccuracies in body fat testing. The authors determined the body fat of the 74 natural lifters using skinfold measurements. A host of inaccuracies exist when taking skinfold measurements, which can actually be up to 15% inaccurate in either direction.
In fact, body fat testing in general is rife with inaccuracy. Check out the links at the end of this article in Appendix A for some great information from James Krieger.
So even if we were to just assume that all of the body fat tests done on the subjects in the study were 100% accurate, there is still no way to accurately know the body fat percentage of the person being accused of using steroids. Not only is the entire idea of a natural FFMI limit probably inaccurate, but then trying to determine where someone falls within the model is also inaccurate. So we end up with inaccuracies every step of the way with this supposed bullet proof model.
You might also be asking yourself how the body fat percentages of the 20 former Mr. America winners from the pre-steroid era were determined since these guys were competing between the years 1939-1959. Well, the body fat for these gentlemen was just estimated from photos to determine their FFMI. It doesn’t take a genius to know that looking at someone’s picture and estimating their body fat is going to be incredibly innacurate.
It’s also worth noting that the people who often cite this study as the be-all and end-all for determining the natural status of individual lifters tend to consider themselves scientifically inclined. What is interesting is that even if this study didn’t have its issues with accuracy, since when would a single study with only 74 subjects (in the natural group) presume a definitive scientific consensus on the matter?
So is it possible to be a natural lifter and have a FFMI over 25? Yes – it is entirely possible, but then again, how would we even know? And who really cares?
3. Dr Casey Butt’s Size Frame Model
If you have ever wondered what your maximum muscular potential might be, then Dr Casey Butt’s Size Frame Model can likely give you a good idea. Dr Casey Butt has compiled data from natural bodybuilders over the years and has developed a reasonably reliable model for determining what someone’s maximum natural body weight might be at a given body fat percentage. As discussed above, determining body fat percentage is a sticky subject, so this model will intrinsically be subject to all of the inaccuracies that come with testing body fat, but it still proves to be a good guide.
Dr Casey Butt’s Size Frame Model determines how much muscle someone can build relative to their wrist and ankle circumference. Dr Butt’s Muscle Mass Calculator was actually covered very well in a recent video by professional natural bodybuilder Nsima Inyang (aka The Natty Professor). You can watch the video here. In the video, Nsima does a great job of showing the variables that exist within Dr Butt’s calculations, using natural bodybuilder Josh Gilliam as an example. Josh is a 21 year old natural bodybuilder who falls on the extreme end of what is possible in the Size Frame Model. According to Dr Casey Butt’s Model, Josh has wrists that are 10% in circumference above the average for his height, and ankles 12% in circumference above the average for his height. This, combined with his long muscle bellies, lands him at the extreme end of Dr Casey Butt’s Model, which is why Josh has a stage weight of around 180 lbs at only 5’5 and 21 years old. After another decade of training, his size will be mindboggling.
Even when we set aside the trouble in determining body fat percentage and the variables that are already built into the Size Frame Model, this still doesn’t include the variables that can exist outside of this model. Muscle belly length, natural anabolic hormone levels, and genes (such as myostatin) can all be other contributing factors to someone’s overall muscle building potential. Josh is the perfect example of what sort of extreme genetic specimens exist in the world. When you combine his genetic potential, his scientific approach toward his training and nutrition and his unbelievable work ethic, it can lead to some drastic results far outside what any model can account for.
In the end, we need to realize that there are simply too many genetic variables and too many inaccuracies when it comes to measuring body composition to be able to come up with an accurate “rule” for when someone is too muscular to be natural. These tools can be a nice guideline, but cannot be used with any sort of certainty.
4 Truths Every Lifter Should Know
Truth 1: Extreme Outliers Do Exist
It’s important to understand that there are extreme genetic variations that exist naturally between individuals. In our daily lives, we are used to witnessing “average genetics” and people that fall within an average range. When we are confronted with someone at the high end of the genetic limit, it can be hard to comprehend.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at a genetic variation range that cannot be altered by drugs; height. The average height for males in the USA is about 5’10". It’s pretty safe to assume that most people encounter men within a range close to that on a daily basis. Let’s assume most men encountered on a daily basis are between 5’4" and 6’4". We know that taller and shorter men do exist, but if we personally meet someone who is 6’10", it is quite incredible how much taller than the average male they actually are.
However, 6’10" isn’t even near the tallest men that exist. When we watch basketball on TV, we see men that are 7 feet tall, and plenty of them at that! These men are outliers. They are different from the rest of the population and they are rare. Even still, they are not nearly the tallest men in the world. In fact, the tallest man in the world right now is 8 feet, 1 inch tall. Those that are near 8 feet tall are the absolute upper echelon when it comes to height.
Granted, for those that are on the extreme ends of the height spectrum, there are often maladies that can account for the extreme growth or lack thereof, such as dwarfism or gigantism, or genetic factors that have been passed on. And just as there can be genetic factors that lead to incredible height, there can be genetic factors that lead to incredible muscular growth.
The absolute upper echelon of genetic potential is the rare breed of individuals that have nearly every genetic variable working in their favor. They are the top 1% of the genetic pool, and while they aren’t common or normal, they do exist.
Truth 2: Experience Matters (And So Does Confidence)
Looking at a picture of someone, or just knowing their height and weight and making a declaration about whether or not they are natural is not only terribly inaccurate, but incredibly naïve. When someone is quick to jump in with accusations of drug use, you can almost always be guaranteed that the person:
Has only a few years of training experience under their belt, and/or;
Has never been to a top natural bodybuilding show before, let along multiple high-level shows, and/or;
Is still insecure about their place in the lifting world.
People that fall into one or more of these categories are usually the most concerned with who is and who is not on drugs. The reason for this is they simply have too little experience to draw from. In the previous example of genetic variance in height, people with little weight training experience are similar to someone living in a remote village with no access to the outside world, so they have no clue how tall someone could feasibly grow to be. How could they? They simply don’t have the world experience. They don’t know what they don’t know.
For those who are insecure about their place in the lifting world, assuming every big guy is on drugs is necessary for them to justify their place. They are simply insecure about not being bigger. They NEED to think that other guys are using drugs to feel comfortable about where they are currently at with their own physique. The thought that someone could be that much bigger and better without cheating is depressing and disheartening.
Trust 3: You Can Never Truly Know
Unless someone fails a drug test, you can never TRULY know whether someone is not natural. You don’t know what someone does in their own time. I coach a great number of natural athletes and I get to know them all quite well. However, I am not with them 24 hours a day and I don’t know what they do in their own time. Is it possible that a client of mine has used drugs without my knowledge? Yeah, it’s possible. Is it likely that every high-level client I have worked with is in on drugs? Probably not.
In that same line of thinking, are there people passing drug tests in the natural competitive ranks that are cheating the tests? I’m sure there are many. Do I think all of the top competitors are on drugs? No, I would say that is highly unlikely. There is simply not enough money or notoriety in natural bodybuilding for all of the competitors to be taking copious amount of drugs and cheating tests.
It’s not always reliable to just judge by how big someone is either. It is pretty safe to assume that all competitors in the men’s bodybuilding Olympia line-up are assisted, but when someone is simply pushing the natural limits, you just can’t know for certain. On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen 104 lbs bikini competitors fail drug tests. Just because someone is very big, doesn’t mean they are on drugs, and just because someone is small, doesn’t mean they are natural.
As we have already covered, the so-called “evidence” that gives away whether someone is using drugs is very sketchy at best. There are still times when I myself hear someone proclaim natural status and I have my doubts, but I have no way of knowing for sure. There is no evidence to show they are on drugs at all, and there is no evidence to show they are natural either. It is unknowable.
Truth 4: You’re Best Not to Worry About it
You have to ask yourself what is the benefit of worrying about who is and who is not using drugs. If you are competing in natural competitions, then you obviously want an equal playing field and hope the relevant tests are in place and accurate testing procedures are being used. Just know that it will never catch everyone. On the other side, if someone is not competing in natural competitions then why care about what they are doing? It doesn’t impact anyone else in any way, so why care?
Who Really Gets Hurt?
You can go around accusing everyone and their dog of not being natty but, at the end of the day, the only person this is going to hurt is yourself. Since you don’t truly know who is natural or and who is not, speaking as if you know with certainty makes you appear naïve and often petty. You may be wrong about the person you are accusing, which means you are accusing someone innocent who doesn’t deserve it. If you are right about them using drugs, I’m willing to bet they aren’t going to change anything they are doing on your account. So essentially nothing is being accomplished by going around accusing people.
Those that are constantly on the “Natty Witch-Hunt" don’t typically don’t reach their full potential. Someone that inherently believes that a natural athlete can’t accomplish much isn’t likely to work as hard or put in as much time as someone that truly believes they could build something special.
Focus on yourself, take your physique as far as it can possibly go, and maybe one day you will be big enough for someone to accuse you of being “not natty”.
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About The Author: Cliff Wilson
Cliff Wilson is a competitive natural bodybuilder and one of the top physique coaches in the industry. He has worked with some of the top natural bodybuilders in the world and has helped them earn dozens of pro cards and pro titles, as well as multiple world championships. His methods combine a scientific approach with real world experience.
Facebook: Cliff Wilson
Appendix A: Inaccuracies of Body Fat Testing Methods