Is there really a way to spot a fake natural?
At some point in our lifting career we’ve all been there. 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 that 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 half the amount of time that you have. How can this be? There is only one logical explanation…they must be on drugs.
The Self Appointed Jury
The natty witch-hunt seems to be in full effect on the internet these days. Everyone wants to know exactly who is or is not on drugs. Post a picture of an amazing physique and the internet will be sure to interject its thoughts. “This person is definitely on drugs”, cry the self-appointed jurors of natty status.
The problem is that many of these people speak with such certainty about whether or not someone is natural. They have their minds made up and cannot be convinced otherwise because they believe they have the “proof”. Let’s take a look at some of the problems with trying to determine someone’s natural status based on some common arguments shall we?
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. Looking at a picture of someone we know absolutely nothing about them. We don’t know their height, their weight, their training experience, or any details whatsoever. Despite this lack of information, a picture is usually all it takes for many of the internet trolls to make up their minds.
One of the biggest problems with a picture is that it is completely subject to extreme illusions. The angle the picture is taken, the lighting, and the conditioning of the person can all greatly manipulate just how big and lean someone looks.
To illustrate my point I want to use a client of mine as an example. Below is a comparison of professional natural bodybuilder, Zach Roush. If you look at the picture of Zach on the left it would be really easy for one to assume that he is on drugs. He looks absolutely MASSIVE! In the picture on the left Zach actually only weigh 165 lbs. However, in the picture on the right, while he still looks like a big guy, you wouldn’t really think his physique is unattainable by a natural athlete. This picture is actually what Zach looks like in the offseason weighing 195 lbs. That’s right, he is a full 30 lbs. 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 leaner, a tan, and favorable lighting it can add up to an extremely different look. Pictures alone are clearly not an accurate measure of someone’s “natty status”.
Fat Free Mass Index?
Those that tend to make a habit of accusing others of being on drugs just love to quote the study by Kouri, et al. titled, Fat-free mass index in users and nonusers of anabolic-androgenic steroids. The study can be viewed here.
In this study the authors measured the Fat Free Mass Index (FFMI) of 74, presumably 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 they had a mean FFMI of 25.4. This study is often used as evidence of guilt for anyone with an FFMI exceeding 25. Upon a closer look, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick skewer anyone over this study.
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. There are a host of inaccuracies that come with skinfold measurements. Skinfolds can actually be inaccurate up to 10-15% in either direction. That’s almost scary how inaccurate it is.
Body fat testing in general is actually pretty rife with inaccuracy. If you want to know the drawbacks of various body fat testing methods, check out the links below to some great information from James Krieger:
Underwater Weighing- http://weightology.net/weightologyweekly/?page_id=162
Bod Pod- http://weightology.net/weightologyweekly/index.php/free-content/free-content/volume-1-issue-4-the-pitfalls-of-body-fat-measurement-parts-3-and-4-bod-pod-and-bioelectrical-impedance-bia/the-pitfalls-of-body-fat-measurement-part-3-bod-pod/
So as you can see, even if we were to just assume that all of these body fat tests done on these subject were 100% accurate, there is still no way to accurately know the body fat of the person we were trying to accuse 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 be asking yourself how the body fat percentage for the former Mr. Americas were determined since these guys were competing between the years 1939-1959. Well, the body fat for these gentlemen was just estimated 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 have significant inaccuracies as well.
So is it possible to be a natural lifter and have an FFMI over 25 or possibly even significantly over 25? I’d say it is entirely possible, but then again, how would we even know?
On a side note, the people that often cite this study as the end-all-be-all for determining the natural status of individual lifters tend to consider themselves scientifically inclined. What I find 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?
Dr. Casey Butt’s Size Frame Model
If you have ever wondered what your maximum muscular potential “might” be, then Casey Butt’s size frame model can likely give you a good idea. Dr. Casey Butt has actually compiled data from natural bodybuilders over the years and has developed a pretty reliable model for determining what someone’s body weight might be at a given body fat percentage. As I just discussed above, determining body fat percentage is a sticky subject, so this model will be subject to all of the inaccuracies that come with testing body fat.
In this model, it determines how much muscle someone could build based on 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). I highly suggest you watch the video here:
In the video, Nsima does a great job of showing the variables that exist within Dr. Butt’s calculations. In the video, he actually discusses one of my clients, Josh Gilliam (pictured below). Josh is a 21 year old natural bodybuilder that falls on the extreme end of what is possible in the size frame model. According to Casey Butt’s model, Josh has wrists that are 10% above the average for his height, and ankles 12% above the average for his height. This, combined with his long muscle bellies points to him being at the extreme end of what is capable which is why Josh has a show weight of around 180 lbs. at only 5’5 and ONLY 21 years old! After another decade of training his size will be mindboggling.
Josh is the perfect example of what sort of extreme genetic specimens can exist in this world. When you combine his genetic potential, with the fact that he takes a very scientific approach with his training and nutrition, and has an unbelievable work ethic, it can lead to some drastic results.
Even when we set aside the trouble in determining body fat, 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.
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 can be used with any sort of certainty.
Knowing all of this, there are 4 truths that every lifter needs to realize:
Truth #1- Extreme Outliers Do Exist
It’s important to understand is 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 fathom.
We can make a comparison to a genetic variation range that cannot be altered by drugs by looking at height. The average height for males in the US 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. For example, let’s assume most men encountered on a daily basis are between 5’4 and 6’4. However, we know that taller and shorter men exist. We may rarely encounter someone that is 6’10. When we see them it is pretty shocking how tall they are.
However, 6’10 isn’t even near the tallest that exists. When we watch basketball on TV we see men that are 7 feet tall, and plenty of them. These men are outliers. They are different from the rest of the population and they are rare. Even still, those are not 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 8ft tall are the absolute upper echelon.
Granted, 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. However, these can often be genetic factors passed on. Just as there can be genetic factors that incline someone to incredible height, there can be genetic factors that incline someone to incredible muscular growth.
The absolute upper echelon of genetic potential is those 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 I would be willing to bet that this person:
- Has only a few years of training experience under their belt
- Has never been to a top natural show before, let along multiple high level shows
- 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 my previous example of the 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 that are insecure about their place in the lifting world, assuming every big guy is on drugs is necessary for them to cope. They are simply insecure about not being bigger. They NEED to know that other guys are using drugs to feel comfortable where they are at currently. The thought that someone could be that much bigger and better without cheating is depressing. It’s a hard pill to swallow that some guys will be better on their worst day of their lifting career than you will ever be at your best.
I know all of this from personal experience as well. When I was only about 2 years into training, I remember the first time I saw someone easily deadlift 405 lbs. at my gym. While I was struggling with 225 lbs. I thought that person had to be on drugs. It made me feel better to believe that he was.
Now that 10 years has passed, my own deadlift has long since exceeded 405 lbs., I coach some of the top natural athletes in the world, and my perception has totally changed about what the standard is for someone that is truly “elite”. I am also more comfortable with my place in the bodybuilding world. Experience and confidence have made all the difference.
Trust #3- You Can Never Truly Know
Unless someone fails a drug test you can never TRULY know if someone is natural. You don’t know what someone does in their own time. I coach a great number of natural clients and I get to know them 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? 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 actually. 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 shows 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 in worrying about who is and who is not using. If you are competing in natural competitions, then you obviously want an equal playing field. In which case you have to hope the tests do their job, and continue to push for better testing procedures. Just know that it will never catch everyone though. 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 grandmother 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 not, speaking as if you know with certainty that someone is on drugs makes you appear naïve, and often petty. You may be wrong about the person you are accusing in which case it means you are accusing someone innocent that 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 accomplished.
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 will 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 of being “not natty”.
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