The History of Anabolic Steroids – Pre 1800s To Today

Eugen Sandow

Do you use anabolic steroids, used in the past or plan to do in the future? If that is the case, then you should educate and inform yourself about them. Just like everything, to understand how something came to be and the reason for use, knowing its history is essential. In this article, we will look at the history of anabolic steroids, and the questions surrounding it.

When it comes to the progression of weight lifting and physical culture, the use of steroids is essential for professionals. We will look at:

  • When lifters started using anabolic steroids.
  • The reasons they initially did it.
  • How scientists first managed to synthesize them.
  • And more.

The History of Anabolic Steroids – Pre-Steroids

One century ago, people, almost exclusively men, were lifting weights and training their bodies to improve their strength and maintain a healthy body. The absence of the internet and social media at the time meant that aesthetics were way less relevant than they are today. Since looking big and muscular was not a big thing, there were way fewer people engaged in lifting. Therefore, the concept of bodybuilding was only just emerging.

Although steroids didn’t exist back then, some people achieved physiques equivalent to those that steroid users make today. Genetics was the absolute most crucial factor which allowed people to grow past certain limits. To compete with dominant genetics, people started looking for ways to enhance their growth and performance.

Emergence of Bodybuilding

Westernized popularity of lifting began in the 1800s with the vaudeville-style strongman shows. There weren’t gymnasiums in the way we think of a gym today, but there was still athletics training. However, proper resistance training was a thing that was so rare at the time that people considered it as a circus act.

It was in the 1800s that bodybuilding acts became popularized. People would travel around and put on bodybuilding-esque kind of shows. One of the first, if not the first man who started doing these shows, was Eugene Sandow in the early 1900s in the United Kingdom.

Eugen Sandow

Back then, bodybuilding was a lot different. It wasn’t who could be the biggest and leanest. It mostly had to with balance, symmetry, and trying to look like the statues of ancient Greece.
Sandow measured the proportions of statues from ancient Greece. That was what they would judge back then in the early 1900s. He had a sculptor with him as part of the judging panel. That is very different from today, where the judges are professional bodybuilders. They were looking for something with a lot more balance and symmetry. However, today’s bodybuilders never sacrifice size for something else.

The Cultural Background of Bodybuilding

Concepts of strongmen and wrestlers existed even earlier than the 1800s and also outside of western-centric culture. There are claims of enormous strongmen in India and Africa before the 1800s. Obviously, though, the Olympics is something humans inherited from Greek culture. The Greeks did a lot of manual resistance training and wrestling.

Greek Bodybuilder

In the stable society of ancient Greece, where aqueducts existed, water and food were consistently available. Therefore, public demand for athletic competitions was significant, and making a living off being an athlete was possible for the genetically privileged. Gladiator style fights and Greco-Roman wrestling were some of the ways people competed with each other in terms of strength. The people competing in these contests, along with the famous warriors of that period were those who inspired sculptors who made the famous Greek statues. That is what, later on, formed a benchmark for early bodybuilders during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Muscularity Display on Early Competitions

During the era of Eugene Sandow and other early bodybuilders, people had a very different kind of mentality about bodybuilding. In addition to health and athleticism, bodybuilding was a big conglomerate concept, known at the time as the physical culture. This culture was the predecessor of modern bodybuilding, which focuses purely on the development of muscles.

The traditional definition of bodybuilding as we know it emerged from all of this physical culture during the early 1900s. To be precise in the 1910 and 1920s, people started focusing more on the aesthetic component and maybe a little bit less on the feats of strength.

Eugene Sandow and a few others were the first bodybuilders whose vaudeville acts would not just be lifting and would also include muscular displays and their rope. During the 1930s, there was a gentleman named Bernard McFadden who started the first competitions in the United States. Those competitions eventually became Mr. America competitions. During McFadden’s games, you would both display your strength and your muscularity.

The History of Anabolic Steroids – Concept

Anabolic steroid use began with the use of Testosterone. Every anabolic steroid used today includes Testosterone or some other synthetic androgen in its place, which mimics testosterone effects. Testosterone theorization began in the 1890s. However, production and distribution of them were not until the early 1930s.

However, people had already started looking for ways to enhance their performance and increase muscle growth and strength way before Testosterone synthesis. This phenomenon is quite usual for people as soon as they start competing. When they compete with each other, people develop a specific psychology and are willing to try things that even go against the rules to gain an edge versus their competitors.

Early Attempts – Animal Part Consumption – Implants

When people began to pay more attention to physical culture and started to get more involved, as it goes with anything competitive, people always tend to try and find any sort of advantage.

People have always, since the times of ancient Rome, sought the advantage in terms of physical performance. Since Roman times and even back in time existed the concept of consuming animal testicles. Bull testicles to be precise; since the bull is an animal species known for its strength and aggression to promote strength and muscle growth. The practice of consuming animal testicles and animal genitalia, in general, is the progenitor of anabolic steroid use.

The reason the consumption method emerged was the understanding of what people were seeing in nature, which is that males tended to be more muscular than females on average. The reason for that strength difference was though to be the difference between the sexes; thus, the consumption of animal testicles as a means for strength gains begun.

Crazily enough, from the late 1890s through the early 1920s, there were actual experiments where scientists would try to implant animal or human testicles into other people. Most of the time, more than 90 percent, the implant would result in infection and potentially dangerous problems. Implanting an actual animal organ on a human body will produce tissue rejection, which is the case for any implant that comes from a different species entirely.

First Time Synthesized

Before scientists synthesized it, Testosterone was thought to be a virility drug that promotes health. Furthermore, it would be of medical use after production in the lab, and this is partly true. Even though Testosterone synthesis began in history in the mid-1930s, the belief that it promoted health existed until the mid-1940s. Today Testosterone is used in specific health cases, but in general, it is an injectable performance-enhancing drug.

There’s a lot of clinical research about uses of Testosterone for treatment to hypogonadal men. Hypogonadism is a condition in which the body doesn’t produce Testosterone at appropriate levels. Testosterone is used up to this day to treat hypogonadism.

During the 1920s, the potential clinical applications of Testosterone became pretty apparent. That led to a race to try to isolate and synthetically produce Testosterone for use in a medical setting.

Finally, in the early 1930s, three separate labs were racing to produce and isolate Testosterone: Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands.

In 1935 all of this research culminated, and the Netherlands managed, for the first time, the successful isolation and production of Testosterone.

Production and Scalability Issues

As we previously mentioned, Testosterone, in its just pure form, has a half-life of 10 minutes. That means it’s out of the picture as fast as it gets in. Thus it is not sufficient for treatment or performance enhancement or anything else. So, if you were to inject pure Testosterone in your body or take it without it being chemically modified, it wouldn’t do anything. Since then, all the research on Testosterone and its production was all done on a tiny scale. For the decade that followed the only way they could produce Testosterone was by either:

  • Animal testicles. – This process involved gathering testicles and putting them through a process of breaking it down to synthesize Testosterone. Almost a hundred kilograms of bull testicles needed to produce 10 milligrams.
  • Urine collection. – The researchers had to get 15,000 liters of urine from Berlin police officers to then chemically cook that down to get a minimal amount to run trials.

Methyl Testosterone-Testosterone Propionate

The year 1936 saw the production of two new types of Testosterone; Methyltestosterone and Testosterone propionate.

Methyltestosterone came as an oral tablet. However, it was quickly apparent that it was liver toxic. The medical community dropped it out favor because it was causing all kinds of problems, which were way more than the help Methyltestosterone was providing.

On the other scientists produced what’s called Testosterone Propionate, which is injectable with a 19-hour half-life, which is still really problematic. The 19-hour half-life meant you’ve got to do daily injections to see the drug’s effect.

The way scientists got around this was through subdermal tablet injections. Subdermal tablets are put under the skin and would slowly dissolve into the bloodstream; that way, Testosterone got a more consistent half-life.

Although the two newly developed drugs were undoubtedly considered progress, these were still far from being ready to be mass-produced and regularly used to help people. Being a hypogonadal man in the 30s and 40s was always a big problem even though solutions existed. That is because you were either dealing with:

  • Pills that were toxic for your liver, which you had to take regularly, even daily.
  • Daily injections with a risk of all sorts of potential health issues
  • Getting subdermal implants

Despite the health risks, the above solutions came by with they were incredibly expensive, and a lot of time was required if someone wanted to get them in bulk.

Initial Use Of Test As A Performance Enhancer

Now, even though Testosterone was being produced, it was still being tested and used only for treatment on specific health issues. It wasn’t until the 1940s that athletes and bodybuilders considered and started testing testosterone derived drugs thinking it will promote health and benefit their performance.

Strength Health October 1938

Isolated incidents were reaching back in 1938, someone wrote back then, in Strength & Health magazine, saying Testosterone might help build a muscular body. For the next 15-20 years, there wasn’t any other documentation suggesting the use of Testosterone.

There was one book in 1944-1945, called “The Male Hormone” by Paul de Kruif. The book contains only one line, speculating that Testosterone could be used as an injectable agent to boost the physical performance of the human body.

Although speculation, Testosterone has thought to work in the same manner as vitamins. Until that point in history, thoughts put muscularity and physical performance hand to hand with the health. So logically, people thought that if Testosterone boosted performance, it would probably be good for health.

There wasn’t another mention hinting steroid use and Testosterone derived drugs until they were readily available. Easy to use, orally safe synthetic testosterone derivatives eventually came out.  Nilevar in 1956 and Dianabol in 1958, and they were the first anabolic steroids on the market.

Soon after, there was a report of a high school football player taking steroids in 1960. The big-time cultural shift happened in history then, from the 1960s and onwards. However, some people were skeptical at first as time went by more and more people in the competitive scene started using anabolic steroids.

Misconceptions And World War Two

There has been a lot of false information circulating the internet about Nazi Germany and the use of anabolic steroids during World War Two. These rumors seem to be completely unsupported, noting that German soldiers were using Testosterone in World War two, something that has never happened in reality.

It is just one of those things that people repeat culturally without confirmation. Conversely, World War two put a stopper on all the pharmaceutical research because scientists had to flee the country and hide to maintain safety. Some researchers said that Nazi Germany would kill them, so they went to South America, that’s how the Mexican steroid industry started.

The History of Anabolic Steroids – Commercial Use And The Gray Period

Until the very first reports came out in the early 1950s, there is a period starting from 1946 to 1951/52. During the period, anabolic steroids were kind of available for people interested, but there were no official regulations. There are no records of people using them, but it is possible people began using steroids in these years.

First Records Of Usage

To narrow down the period lifters actually first started using Testosterone, we need to look at three different things:

  • Statistical analyses.
  • Historical records.
  • And patent fillings.

Firstly, there are statistical analyses that show when there was an abnormal jump in the weightlifting performances. The reports found that sometime between 1952 and 1956, the Russian weightlifting team had a massive increase in performance. Nobody had seen anything like that in the history of lifting until that point. Therefore, the use of steroids, in this case, is obvious.

Then there are also the actual historical records of the time. Lifters started to talk about seeing anabolic steroid usage for the first time, getting exposed to the substances, and begin to use them. Separate lines of evidence point at the same time, around 1950-1952 in Europe and around 1953-1954 in the United States.

Historical records show the doctor of the US team suspecting the Russians were using anabolic steroids in the 1952 Olympics. Then, at the 1954 World Championships, the doctor for the Russian team confirms that indeed the team was using steroids back in 1952.

Finally, if you look at the patent filing, the first genuinely long-term ester of Testosterone was in 1951 in Germany. Around 1951-1952 was when there was access to the ester. That’s perhaps when the Russians and maybe some other Eastern Europeans started using anabolic steroids.

Then in the States, retired lifters held the first records of anyone experimenting with steroids. A few of the competitors of Mr. America from the early 1950s and late 1940s after their careers were sort of over started experimenting.

Mainstream Steroid Usage In The Modern Day

Nilevar and Dianabol had lower side effects than the previous Testosterone derived anabolic steroids. Therefore, people began engaging a lot more with the concept of steroids.

Nowadays, almost every athlete and bodybuilder has access to anabolic steroids, and a high percentage of people use them in competition. Although there are exceptions. That is not a surprise, though, since science is still doing progress, the side effects are less harsh, and the improvements in performance and muscle growth are way more prevalent.


Another point about the current situation in regards to the anabolic steroids is that they are way more accessible today, even to amateurs. The internet is a part of every aspect of our life right now. Therefore, ordering anabolic steroids and have them delivered to your door is only a clicks away.

For that reason, you have to be extremely careful and educate yourself before using steroids. Remember, there are legitimate places to buy steroids, but there are also bad sites, too. You don’t want to risk your life.

Another thing you shouldn’t forget is that trainers and doctors always supervise professional athletes and bodybuilders. Before you use anabolic steroids, you should always talk with your doctor. That is to make sure that the drug will not intervene with any other medication you are taking.


For those of you who are still curious about the history of anabolic steroids:

  • If you see a physique resembling bodybuilders from 1953 and earlier, there is a 99% chance that they are anabolic steroid free.
  • If you see it before 1945 or earlier, it is a 100% percent natural body.

On the other hand, considering the level of competition in today’s bodybuilding scene and the progress that has been made on the manufacture of anabolic steroids with fewer side effects, explicitly designed to promote muscle growth and improve performance, a competitive bodybuilder is 99% sure to use anabolic steroids in cycles during his training.


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