Sunday, April 3, 2011

Steroids in BJJ

"I came here today to prove technique can beat steroids. They should start tests now." ~ Caio Terra over the P.A. during his interview after winning his Black Belt Division at the 2011 Pan-Ams

Caio Terra is awesome. You've seen some of his technique videos on here before. Getting on the mic and calling out the IBJJF and competitors on steroid use at this years Pan-Ams took some “man parts” you just can't get pharmacologically.

It has set off an interesting debate that has revealed a huge lack of basic knowledge (on both the pro and con side) about steroids and other PEDs. This post is an attempt at some basic education on the science of steroids and a brief discussion of the ethical issue.

The Science and the Upside

A steroid is a type of organic compound with a specific molecular arrangement. Hundreds of distinct steroids are found in plants, animals, and fungi. Naturally occurring steroids include estrogen, cortisol, progesterone, and testosterone.

When we are talking about steroids in sports we are really talking about anabolic steroids - drugs which mimic the effects of the male sex hormones testosterone and dihydrotestosterone. Anabolic steroids are by far the most "detected" banned Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in sports that conduct testing.

With proper training and nutrition they increase muscle mass via increased protein synthesis from amino acids, increased appetite, increased bone growth, and stimulation of bone marrow (increasing blood cell production). All these mechanisms stimulate the formation of muscle leading to increased size and strength.

They also significantly aid in exercise recovery by blocking the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on muscle tissue, so that catabolism (break-down) of muscle is greatly reduced. This allows an athlete to train longer and harder (and reap the benefits of that additional training) regardless of muscle gain.

The Science and the Downside

Most athletes are aware that steroids can have some negative side effects such as acne and unwanted hair growth. Many think the worst that can happen is male gynecomastia ("bitch tits"). However there are more severe health risks that can be produced by long-term use or excessive doses of anabolic steroids. These effects include harmful changes in cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, liver damage (mainly with oral steroids), increased risk of cardiovascular disease or coronary artery disease, and dangerous changes in the structure of the left ventricle of the heart (leading to hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, heart attacks, and sudden cardiac death). Paradoxically, steroids can increase libido (sex drive) while at the same time reducing sexual function, suppressing natural sex hormones and sperm production.

Women and children are highly sensitive to testosterone and can suffer unintended masculinization and health effects, even from small doses. Adolescents can have their natural maturation process stunted or overly accelerated and otherwise disrupted.

Psychological side-effects can include agitation/anxiety and mood disorders, increased aggression and violence, mania, and (far) less frequently psychosis and suicide. Long-term steroid use can cause deep psychological dependence and withdrawal issues (while physical withdrawal is similar to substances such as caffeine).

It should be noted that many of the physical side-effects and downsides are drug and dose/duration dependent. This leads us to the final scientific downside in that recreational/sportive use of steroids is rarely under medical supervision. Most users do not know the proper drug/dose/duration cycles for safe use (more is better is not the way to go), they are not being monitored by a physician (and often hide their use from their doctors), and since most steroids (being illegal) are acquired on the black market there are no safeguards that the drug is even what the seller purports it to be.

The Ethics

There are many BJJ athletes who argue that since everybody does it (or can do it if they want) then it should be OK. To these athletes I would like to point out that anabolic steroids are illegal in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Brazil (just off the top of my head) and many more have specific legislation banning “doping” in sports. If it is illegal “under law” to use these substances in the country in which you compete it should be a de facto understanding that they're use in a sports setting is also proscribed. Let me put it another way, they shouldn't have to make a rule that I can't assault you with a knife during our match at a tournament – it is illegal (even though we could all do it). Where do we draw the line? Do we want Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to be a sport that laughs in the face of the rest of the sports world?

There are BJJ athletes who say it is a personal choice and therefore doesn't concern anyone but the individual. That might be fine if that individual never competes, but if he does – it no longer just affects him it affects everyone he has a match against. What a “personal choice” means to our sport when our champions use illegal substances by choice remains to be seen.

There are BJJ athletes who say it is safe and doesn't hurt anybody. If everyone was to be medically supervised the risks are greatly reduced. Unfortunately, the majority of recreational steroid users are getting their information from questionable sources (I doubt “Mr. Biceps” at the gym has an M.D. - in fairness to “Mr. Biceps” he may actually know more than the average M.D. about steroids but do you seriously want to bet your health on it?). The fact that adolescents who want to be like their heroes are in a risk group that can suffer irreversible harm from the misuse of steroids is a serious concern. Another interesting point is that very few people have any understanding of the psychological dependence steroids and other PEDs can cause. You go from being “jacked” and able to train for days – thinking you are "like unto a god" to watching all those gains slowly slip away during your off cycle and only being able to train like a mere mortal. Psychology is a huge factor in long-term abuse and over dosage with steroids.

There are BJJ athletes who say that it is too expensive to test and we can't stop it therefore we should just allow it. It may be too expensive to test every individual in every tournament, but there are plenty of testing protocols that could be put in place that would greatly reduce steroid use in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu without significantly increasing a promoter's overhead or a competitor's entry fee.


There is a lot at stake both in image and money with the title of Pan-Am or Mundial/Worlds champion (not in championship purses but in drawing students to academies and seminars). As long as that is true there will be issues about “what it takes to win.” At some point someone has to draw a line in the sand and say enough - Caio Terra just drew a line. Which side are you going to stand on? Where do steroids fit into a healthy BJJ lifestyle?


  1. This post is an attempt at some basic education on the science of steroids and a brief discussion of the ethical issue.

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