Bodybuilding Without Steroids: How Big Can You Get

how big can you get without steroids

How much muscle can you build without the use of anabolic steroids? And in general, is it possible to get an answer to this question? The Lion Health will try to find out more about bodybuilding without steroids with the help of science.

Physiological Limits in Bodybuilding

We live in an era in which people do not like restrictions; in the era where most even “natural” bodybuilders do not want to hear the bitter truth. And although encouraging phrases are constantly heard from different sides in the spirit of “You need to believe that you will become big, all you need to do is just train as hard as possible”, everyone has their own limit, or as it is also called the “genetic ceiling” in muscle mass growth. Let’s see what science has to say about this.

Important! To begin with, we note that you can only reach your genetic ceiling if you have adequate nutrition and a strength training program that is right for you.

Bodybuilding Without Steroids Model by Alan Aragon

Calculating your limits according to the Alan Aragon model is based on your current weight and the amount of muscle mass that you already have. The specialist offers a simple model in which a beginner can count on an increase in muscle mass in the region of 1-1.5% per month of their weight, an average athlete – 0.5-1% increase per month, and an advanced athlete – only 0.25-0.5% of your weight per month.

For example, a beginner weighing 65 kg can count on an increase in quality mass in the region from 650 grams to 1 kg per month in the first year of training.

Experience levelEstimated muscle growth
Beginner+ 1-1.5% of one’s body weight per month
Intermediate+ 0.5-1% of one’s body weight per month
Advanced+ 0.25% -0.5% of one’s body weight per month

Bodybuilding Without Steroids Model by Lyle McDonald

In his article on the maximum genetic potential for muscle growth called What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential, the specialist notes:

I strongly believe that athletes should train intelligently and not dilute their attention to what they can or cannot achieve. I also believe that everyone has their own limit, which is determined at the biological level. This is a simple reality that many will save themselves from unnecessary psychological anguish about what they should have achieved (as they think) or could have achieved if they had worked hard enough.

According to McDonald, in the first year of training it is realistic to increase 10-11 kg of quality mass (0.9 kg per month), in the second year – 4.5-5.5 kg (450 grams per month), in the third – about 2.5 kg (230 grams per month), and in all subsequent years – a little more than 1 kg of muscle per year.

Years of appropriate trainingPotential annual muscle growth
120-25lbs (~9-12kg)
210-12lbs (~4-5kg)
35-6lbs (~2,5kg)
4+2-3lbs (~1kg)

Lyle also notes that these figures are for men, women are able to grow about 2 times less muscle.

Bodybuilding Without Steroids Model by Martin Berkhan

Martin Berkhan’s model, instead of estimating the amount of muscle that can be built in a year, estimates the maximum amount of muscle achievable relative to its growth. The data was derived from his observations of high-level natural bodybuilding athletes. The formula below shows the maximum weight achieved at competition level bf% (body fat percentage), or about 4-5%: Height in cm – 100 = maximum weight in kg at competition level bf. Some example values are shown in the table below:

Height (cm)Weight at 5% of BF (kg)Weight at 10% BF (kg)

Martin Berkhan’s model is based on observations of high-level bodybuilding athletes, this assumes good genetics and 10+ years of experience in the gym.

Bodybuilding Without Steroids Model by Dr. Casey Butt

As Lyle McDonald points out, his and Alan Aragon’s models for calculating maximum muscle growth are oversimplified, because they do not take into account some factors that can be decisive. One of the main factors affecting the genetic ceiling is the size of the skeleton, which is determined by the width of the wrist, ankle, and other areas of the skeletal system.

“Natural bodybuilder and big brain” (as McDonald called him) Casey Butt conducted an exhaustive study during which he analyzed the anthropometric data of 300 top-level natural bodybuilders who performed from 1947 to 2010. The scientist has developed a calculator that predicts the maximum potential for muscle growth, using data such as a person’s height, percentage of lean muscle mass, and ankle and wrist girths.

By collecting all the data, Dr. Butt was able to develop a very accurate formula that can predict the genetic ceiling for athletes who do not use anabolic drugs. In addition, the formula also includes a target percentage of body fat at which it is possible to reach the genetic ceiling. What is more valuable than the formula is the fact that on its basis everyone can set not abstract, but achievable goals.

The formula itself looks like this:

bodybuilding without steroids

The formula shows the maximum lean body mass, that is, bodyweight without taking into account fat (the percentage of fat can be different and changes much more easily).

Formula Variables:

  1. H – height in inches;
  2. A – ankle girth in its thinnest section;
  3. W – girth of the wrist at the level of the styloid process (bump on the outside of the wrist);
  4. %bf is the percentage of body fat at which you want to predict your genetic maximum.

Important Notes

As the author of the formula notes, very thin men with an ectomorph physique will be able to achieve only 95% of the figure obtained as a result of the calculation. On the other hand, mesomorphs-endomorphs with very wide hips, shoulders wider than average, and large abdominal muscles are able to exceed the predicted figures by 5%.

McDonald backs up his colleague’s point by mentioning a study that showed lighter, leaner athletes gained less muscle mass than athletes with wider bone architecture. Both groups at the same time trained on an identical power program. The specialist notes that one of the factors that determine the width of the bones is the level of testosterone and highlights the possible biological relationship between the size of the skeletal system and hormone levels.

Criticism of the Casey Butt Formula

After developing the formula, Butt had a lot of opponents who claimed that even science was not able to predict the genetic ceiling for natural bodybuilders. However, when this formula is used to calculate the maximum possible muscle growth for the champions of and the top athletes of today, it has been incredibly accurate over and over again.

To prove the accuracy of the formula, Casey Butt presents a table:

BodybuilderActual Weight (lbs)Predicted Weight (lbs)Max Bulked Weight (lbs)Predicted Body Fat (%)
Clarence Ross198198.1206.09.2
John Farbotnik195194.9202.79.5
George Eiferman195194.9202.710.5
Reg Park214214.0222.97.9
John Grimek208208.0216.311.3
Jack Delinger195194.9202.712.0
Steve Reeves214214.0222.69.0
Current World Champ. “A” (pre-contest)170170.0176.84.5
Current World Champ. “B” (off-season, not bulked)168168.0174.78.3
Current Nat. 1st Place “A” (off-season, bulking)233224.0233.014.1

Pay attention to the 2nd and 3rd columns. The second shows the current weight of the athlete, and the third shows the weight that the program predicted. The data is truly amazing.

All the same Lyle MacDonald focuses on the fact that although Dr. Butt’s formula is more conservative than his calculations with Alan Aragon, in general, they are all within reach of each other.

Why Does Genetics Reward Some and Deprive Others?

For a stronger understanding of the genetic differences between those who are able to grow muscle at the upper limits, and those who, at best, will only reach 95% of their “ceiling”, let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at what causes muscle tissue hypertrophy at the biochemical level.

NSCA-certified specialist Bret Contreras, in his The Truth About Bodybuilding Genetics, cited the results of a study that showed that while some people respond very well to strength training, others do not respond to training at all. The researchers even came up with a special term for such people – “non-responders” to power loads. Below are the 2 studies Bret mentions.

In 1985, experts from the University of Alabama conducted an experiment in which 66 subjects received power loads for 16 weeks. As a result, scientists found that in 26% of the subjects, a noticeable increase in muscle was not observed.

In a more recent 2005 study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, data showed a surprisingly wide range of gains in muscle mass and strength. As a result of an experiment in which men trained with weights, scientists identified a group of people who not only did not gain muscle but also lost 2% of its amount, while not increasing strength.

The group of exercisers who showed an increase in muscle cross-sectional area (scientists analyzed changes in the biceps of the shoulder muscle of the weaker arm based on MRI) achieved an incredible 59% growth compared to the first group, and an increase in strength indicators – even + 250%. Note that both groups were engaged in the same training program.

Why This Happens

The answer lies in the number of satellite cells that surround our muscles. Here is the position of British experts, taken from The Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology:

On the outer surface of the muscle fibers are satellite cells that are in a stationary state. Satellites act as a reserve for the population of muscle cells and are able to multiply rapidly in response to an injury (microtrauma that muscles receive after strength training of sufficient intensity). The main function of satellite cells is the regeneration of skeletal muscles.

Research by Petrella and colleagues has shown that the difference between athletes who respond well to strength training and those who do not see results lies precisely in the degree of activation of satellite cells. The authors of the study suggest that individuals with a high initial number of satellite cells have a greater potential for muscle growth even before the start of training.

What Is it – Bodybuilding Without Steroids?

Here’s where the answer lies – muscle growth depends on the number of satellite cells that surround the muscle fibers. The more of these same satellite cells that surround our muscles, the higher the likelihood that they will be able to merge/grow together with the nucleus of the muscle cell, as a result of which we will get the desired hypertrophy. In other words, by having a large number of satellite cells, the muscles will be able to receive enough genetic material to signal their cells to grow.

In his article on the issue, we are considering, NSCA-certified specialist Anoop Balachandran notes that athletes who grow by leaps and bounds from any training program are genetic freaks (according to him, these guys activate a large number of these same satellite cells). This is exactly what Anoop explains why you should not blindly copy the training programs of champions but look for something that is suitable for each person individually.

Well, as Bret Contreras says, some of us hit a real genetic jackpot, while others got much more modest opportunities.

Summing Up on Bodybuilding Without Steroids

Should I even focus on my genetic potential in muscle growth? According to scientists, it is much wiser to take the advice of Lyle McDonald and direct all your efforts in the right direction – train hard and pay due attention to nutrition. Instead of worrying ahead of time about what you may or may not achieve, focus on what you can influence here and now.

Let the numbers you get become your goal and motivation not to stop until at least as long as you still see that you can grow quality, not quantitative mass.

Sources about bodybuilding without steroids:

  1. Petrella J.K., Kim J.S., Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: a cluster analysis, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, The University of Alabama.
  2. Morgan J.E., Partridge T.A., Muscle satellite cells, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, Imperial College of Science.
  3. Natural Muscle Building: A Look At Potential, Genetics & Arm Size,
  4. Why Some Grow Muscle Easily While Some Don’t,
  5. The Truth About Bodybuilding Genetics,
  6. What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential,

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