Muscle Mutants and Sports Nutrition Supplements

A satirical piece comparing hardcore bodybuilders to the “X-Men” mutants, and examining the effect on the sports and fitness nutrition market.

Mutants. In the movie sequel, “X2: X-Men United” (2003), they have extraordinary powers, such as reading minds, controlling the weather, walking through walls, or shooting ray beams out of their eyes. In response to increasing public alarm, the film’s fictional senators cry out for congressional hearings to contain the situation and restrict the liberties of the mutant population. Overall, the mutants are about as popular as Osama bin Laden at a Ground Zero redevelopment meeting.

Hardcore bodybuilders are the mutants of the real world. Like the genetically gifted characters in “X2”, the muscularly gifted invoke fear and rejection from the majority of society. To the public at large, most elite bodybuilders look a lot more like mutants than the X-Men’s Wolverine or Rogue. The typical soccer mom might be no more nervous and confused around the mutant Cyclops than around the monstrously massive Markus Ruhl. Brute strength and big muscles are just plain scary to many folks. It’s probably wired into them. Look back down along the evolutionary ladder and you’ll see why. The biggest and most aggressive member of most animal communities is the dominating alpha male. He spends much of his time reproducing and bullying the smaller and weaker males. They spend much of their time not reproducing, grumbling, and hating the alpha male. We’ve come a long way from the forest primeval. Politicians and corporate executives run the contemporary world. But echoes of our feral past still lurk in the recesses of our collective subconscious. While many guys would love to tool around town with a nineteen-inch arm hanging out of their car window, few have the drive or dedication necessary to accomplish it. In a sedentary society filled with pencil-necked geeks and flabby tub-of-lards, inspired individuals who strive hard for heightened muscularity are viewed with jealousy and suspicion. Those who actually achieve significant size and strength are viewed with alarm and resentment. And those privileged few who attain the highest levels of thick, striated, vascular mass are viewed with slack-jawed, white-eyed, abject terror.

The Institutional Bias Against Muscularity
Having judged musclemen (and musclewomen) to be mutants, social institutions have taken steps to bring the process of further mutation to a screeching halt. The freakiest, scariest physiques started with modest initial muscular increases. Therefore, those committed to preventing tomorrow’s mutants deem it necessary to discourage anything but the most modest progress. Is it a coincidence that government dieticians and the supportive media have tried for decades to convince the public that nobody needs more than the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein (around 65 grams daily for adult males)? Is it a coincidence that the high-carbohydrate Food Pyramid pushed upon us is a virtual road map to physical mediocrity at best and morbid obesity at worst? Or that we’re told that high-protein diets will make us sick? Or that many mainstream physicians continue to plug aerobic exercise over progressive resistance training? Take a look at televised “Who’s Hot?” contests. The male winners’ circle is crowded with swimmers’ builds; tight abs, flat chests and spindly arms and legs. Perfect symmetry, apparently, is having wrists and biceps of exactly the same circumference.

Steroids: Mutation in a Bottle
While the public has been conditioned to be disgusted by extreme muscularity, even worse is extreme muscularity that has been “artificially” enhanced by pills or potions of any kind. The view of muscle-building drugs as inherently evil is rooted in sports ethics. If using an oral, topical or injectable substance gives one athlete a competitive strength advantage over another, the practice will be considered doping and the substance will be banned in sports. Competitive athletes who break the rules are cheaters deserving of punishment by their governing sports body. They reap what they sow. If they get caught, and we hope they will, good riddance to them! But the rules originally intended to keep competitive athletics fair have been foisted upon the public at large. At the urging of the powerful sports anti-doping lobby, some muscle-building substances have been not only banned in sports, but criminalized for non-athletes as well. The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 (ASCA) is a perfect example. After various sports scandals and media exposés, Congress held hearings (somewhat comparable to the congressional Mutant Hearings of “X2”) and passed a law that added anabolic steroids to the federal list of controlled substances. Controlled substances are dangerous drugs with a potential for abuse and physical or psychological dependency. The unsupervised use of black market steroids can be dangerous, no doubt. But upon reviewing the reams of congressional steroid hearing transcripts from the late 1980s, concerns about the public health and safety appear to have taken a backseat in legislative priorities. In drafting the law, Congress identified anabolic steroids by their chemical and pharmacological relationship to testosterone, and by just one other incriminating characteristic: the capacity to promote muscle growth. The law that defines and criminalizes anabolic steroids says absolutely nothing about any health risks, adverse side effects, or potential for abuse or dependency. Not one word. But promoting muscle growth was apparently of such alarming concern that it is mentioned in the law not once, but twice. A questionable steroid variation of a chemical on the list can be declared an anabolic steroid, and therefore a dangerous controlled substance, merely if it meets that nasty requirement of promoting muscle growth. The biggest concern to Capitol Hill was bigger muscles, and the unjust advantage that hormonally enhanced strength and size can provide in competitive sports.

Prohormones and Pro-steroids
In light of the institutional bias against anything that promotes muscle growth, the sports nutritional supplement industry is an obvious target for attack. After ephedra, next on the target list were steroidal compounds. The term “steroidal compounds” isn’t necessarily related to anabolic steroids. It broadly refers to substances, including cholesterol, vitamin D1, bile salts, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, with a chemical structure that contains four rings of carbon atoms. An increasing number of these compounds have been sold as dietary supplements in the United States. Prohormones are steroidal compounds derived from the food supply that the body may use as nutrients. Certain prohormones, consumed as supplements, have documented beneficial effects on human health, particularly with respect to the aging process. Millions of active, aging baby boomers love compounds like DHEA, for example. Most recently, “pro-steroids” were introduced into the dietary supplement market. These were steroidal compounds with strong chemical and pharmacological similarities to testosterone. Unlike many other prohormones, pro-steroids were marketed almost exclusively for the purpose of promoting muscle growth. Needless to say, pro-steroids attracted the attention of sports bodies, government agencies, the media, and members of Congress. Some lawmakers believed that these products only became available because of a “legal loophole” in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) or in the ASCA. They believed that pro-steroids should be treated in the same way as anabolic steroids, and proposed changes to the ASCA to accomplish this. (Ironically, the existing provisions of the DSHEA provided all the authority needed to remove pro-steroids from the market. Foot-dragging by the FDA is the main reason these products were still being marketed and sold as dietary supplements.) A recently enacted U.S. law, effective as of January 20, 2005, has criminalized a long list of prohormone and pro-steroid products. The new law amended the Anabolic Steroid Control Act to add a long list of prohormones into the definition. Significantly, it tells the U.S. Sentencing Commission to consider upping the punishments for steroid offenses (a boost for the decreasingly popular War on Drugs).  Such offenses would now include mere possession of prohormones by adult Americans, who would face arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment in a crusade to “save us” from ourselves. While prison time is unlikely in practice for possession of small amounts, it’s a sobering thought that punishment for a first offense of personal use prohormone possession is up to a maximum of one year in a federal prison.

The Future of Sports Supplements

Ideologically, the anti-dopers are opposed to the very concept of a “sports nutrition supplement”. Any product that might possibly give one person a competitive edge over another is deemed inherently evil. Sadly, this mindset has tainted folks in Washington. Frankly, one way or another, it was unlikely that prohormones or pro-steroids would have remained on the market. Congress had particularly targeted androstenedione, largely because of the publicity generated by the Mark McGwire media frenzy. But in recent meetings on Capitol Hill, congressional staffers expressed concern for still other products associated with building muscle. One staffer asked if creatine monohydrate was a steroid, and if not, then on what alternative basis it too could be banned. Thankfully, she hadn’t heard about glutamine or whey protein. Clearly, the negative perception of these products seems to have much less to do with any possible adverse health risks than with the apparently terrible possibility that they might help build muscle. As one congressional aide pointedly put it, “If they work, we’ll ban them.” With a bizarrely skewed system of values like this, effective sports supplements could soon become extinct. The only ones left on the market might be the ones that do nothing at all.

Rick Collins, JD, CSCS is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation.

 [© Rick Collins. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice. ]