Beyond Myth: When Steroids Are Just a Fact of Life

For powerlifter Mark Bell, using anabolic steroids to bench-press 600 pounds isn’t right, or wrong; it’s simply the way things work.
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“Let’s see what happens when I run into 600 heavy-ass pounds,” says a glowering Mark “Smelly” Bell, currently one of the strongest humans on the planet.

Bell’s plan, which he has spent the better part of two decades attempting to complete, is to bench press 600 pounds. His sport, powerlifting, takes place mostly outside of the public spotlight, and it is anything but a fast-twitch sprint. Muscles and lifts are honed incrementally, workout by workout, to achieve minor improvements in the amount of weight lifted.

And, unlike more mainstream sports like Major League Baseball that tout elaborate drug-testing protocols and highlight the allegedly “natural” performances of ostensibly “drug-free” athletes, no world powerlifting record can ever fall without the aid of steroids. As in the highest ranks of professional bodybuilding, great powerlifters must use steroids or else fail to maximize their potential.

“The Russians tend to succeed at this sport because they use the best principles,” Bell says. “When you get right down to it, the Russians are patient, and powerlifting is all about patience: planning, technique, the right mindset. And of course, when it came to anabolics and supplementation, the Russians were the first and best there too — and still among the leaders in this stuff, if that Olympic doping scandal is any indication.”

He has already completed bench presses of 535 pounds and 578 pounds at this meet. Only 600 pounds, a figure that would place him among the greatest powerlifters of all time, remains.

Over the past year, Bell has gotten superhumanly huge to accomplish this goal, his weight swelling from 240 pounds to well over 280, but he assures me the extra padding is necessary. The bench press has a technique component, like any other lift, but it is also extremely unforgiving. Anyone who has ever tried to unrack 405 pounds understands the pressure immediately exerted on the wrists, shoulders, and chest.

Take away the steroids, observes Westside Barbell owner Louie Simmons, and “there would be no more Smelly.”

Before a cheering crowd, a sizable throng by the modest standards of the close-knit powerlifting community, Bell lowers the ponderous weight to his chest. His form, as always, is impeccable, and the bar rockets up from the paused position.

Then the bar stops, inches from its zenith. Unable to lock out his elbows, Bell lowers it again, and the competition spotters must re-rack it. He has failed to complete the lift and torn his pectoral muscle in the process.

But this is only the end of the beginning. Bell has torn pectoral muscles before, coming back stronger each time. Six hundred pounds remains off in the distance, and, after a period of rehabilitation, his slow-speed pursuit of that goal will continue.

Bell will use steroids to achieve that personal best, and, unlike the legions of alarmist sportswriters all too eager to demonize athletes who avail themselves of performance-enhancing drugs, his colleagues in the powerlifting community have no problem with that.

For many of us, including an International Olympic Committee seeking to bar dozens of Russian track and field athletes from participating in the 2016 Summer Olympics, steroids raise a host of ethical concerns.

For Mark Bell, who wants to set one last record, steroids are a fact of life.

People in the wider world, should they recognize Mark Bell at all, likely do so because of his brother Chris Bell’s 2008 documentary Bigger Stronger Faster*. In it, Chris grapples with the possibility of taking steroids, while his brothers Mike (an ex-college football star turned struggling pro wrestler) and Mark (formerly a pro wrestler, but at this point a high school football coach) discuss their own experiences using performance-enhancing drugs to improve their work on the gridiron and in the gym.

In that film, Mark Bell is a hulking, thick-bodied presence. He is not as visibly troubled as his brother Mike, whose death from unknown causes in a drug rehabilitation facility would serve as the starting point for Chris Bell’s third documentary, the opioid-themed cautionary tale Prescription Thugs. Nevertheless, throughout the course of Bigger Stronger Faster*, various figures remark on Mark’s copious steroid use. His status as an elite powerlifter, now forever assured after he set several record lifts in the super-heavyweight class from 2008 to 2010, is attributed, in part, to steroids. Take away the steroids, observes Westside Barbell owner Louie Simmons, and “there would be no more Smelly.”

That remark from Simmons warrants closer scrutiny, since it calls to mind all sorts of misconceptions about performance-enhancing drugs and their impact on athletic activities. Simmons, a veteran powerlifting coach with a keen knowledge of anabolics, didn’t mean to suggest that Bell would wither away without the chemical assistance; only that he would witness a decline in strength sufficient to prevent him from approaching world records. But the general public, its attitudes shaped by a series of doping scandals in sports including baseball and cycling, appears sometimes to have an almost magical understanding of the drugs: Steroids are, many assume, so potent that anything done while using them is instantly tainted.

This represents a quintessentially modern understanding of doping and artificial enhancement, which only began in earnest after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s failed drug test at the 1988 Summer Olympics and the subsequent Congressional re-classification of anabolic steroids as controlled substances. With the onset of testing, new conceptual categories entered the discourse: clean and dirty, real and artificial, natural and enhanced.

The use of anabolic steroids by United States athletes began with the introduction of the Dianabol tablet to the American market in 1959, and passed without serious scrutiny for nearly two decades thereafter. Testing in professional sports and at the Olympics was non-existent, with the result that many records, particularly in weightlifting, were set during the 1960s and ’70s; the Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera allegedly joked before a competition that the winner would likely be the athlete “whose steroids are better.” The use of steroids in sports such as football, where the San Diego Chargers once maintained a bowl of Dianabol tablets at the training table, was widespread, and teams alleged to feature high numbers of steroid users, such as the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, ran roughshod over the competition. Countries with systematic state-supervised doping programs, such as East Germany and the Soviet Union, more or less minted gold medals at the Olympics.

The U.S., a land of rugged individualists, never had a true top-down approach to doping. State doctors didn’t keep meticulous records of athletes’ reaction to certain chemicals; instead, athletes were left to experiment on a case-by-case basis, learning by word of mouth or through the supervision of competent coaches and private physicians. It was in the strength training and bodybuilding communities that steroid use became most widespread; and it was in these communities, even after official opprobrium began to be directed at suspected users in other sports, that the folk science of performance enhancement would continue to develop.

Mark Bell referred to this deeper context when explaining his own use of anabolic steroids. “Among people who are powerlifters and bodybuilders, it’s just never been something that went away,” he says. “So when I did my first cycle at age 26, I had been involved in the powerlifting world for many years, and I had some knowledge of what I was getting into. I wasn’t a proponent of steroids then and I’m not a proponent of steroids now, but I use steroids. Powerlifters have always used steroids.”

He was already an accomplished lifter by this point, a natural athlete with a prodigious gift for the bench press. “I recognized what every experienced powerlifter understands: that strength is a factor of weight and muscle mass,” he says. “Steroids don’t make you instantly stronger; you don’t get an injection or take a tablet and suddenly run out and hit personal records at your lifts. This, I think, is one of the most popular misconceptions, that they’re some kind of ‘magic pill’ that transforms men into supermen.”

Instead, Bell emphasizes that the true value of anabolic steroids is their ability to make the user gain weight rapidly, with a higher-than-normal percentage of that weight being added as muscle mass. “To get stronger, you have to get bigger. And steroids, used properly, are a means to that end,” he says. “They aren’t the only means, because everything else, from nutrition to sleep, has to be perfect. Quite honestly, a magic pill that made you do everything in your training regimen perfectly, getting all of that right, would be more valuable than any steroid.”

“When I did my first cycle at age 26, I had been involved in the powerlifting world for many years, and I had some knowledge of what I was getting into. I wasn’t a proponent of steroids then and I’m not a proponent of steroids now, but I use steroids. Powerlifters have always used steroids.”

Bell’s first steroid cycle was typical for powerlifters and characteristic of a regimen he has followed, with periodic modifications, ever since: injectable testosterone and Nandrolone, complemented by Dianabol tablets. “Back when I was a pro wrestler, we used to joke that anybody who wasn’t on three things was a natural. Of course, I’m not a chemist, but you learn over time what to take and what not to take, when to begin a cycle, these sorts of things. They’re no different than the other aspects of training in that all of it requires precision and preparation: This is a sport where you are thinking months out, years out, in terms of where you need to be to reach certain goals.”

Although certain alleged side effects, such as penile shrinkage or “‘roid rage,” are popular but mythical, the drugs are not without very real risks — especially psychological ones. “I’m not someone who supports steroid use across the board, like Jose Canseco does in his book [Juiced],” Bell says. “You will experience acne and bloating, and certain extremely effective steroids, such as Dianabol, may make you feel very lethargic. But, more importantly, once a strength athlete starts using, it’s mentally so very, very hard to go back. It’s not because you’re addicted, because there’s no process of physical addiction, but instead because you see the increase in performance and can’t bear to see a decline. This is actually what you hear me talking about in my brother Chris’ first movie: I keep going back and forth about whether I should get off steroids, and just lead a normal life, or if I want to keep progressing in the powerlifting world, which means continuing to take steroids.”

Mark Bell approaches life with a singular purpose: he must move forward as a strength athlete, never backward. Steroids, which have helped him gain the weight and muscle mass to travel along this path, are necessary if he wishes to continue in that direction. “I don’t think most people should use them, or need to use them, but obviously there are going to be people who want to be as strong as they can be. If that’s the case, they need to educate themselves as much as possible about what they’re getting into — and they need to recognize what it will feel like when you stop, and your numbers start to drop, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “That’s a terrible feeling. I’ve taken steroids because I have certain objectives that I wanted to reach, and steroids are part of the process of reaching them.”

By any metric, Mark “Smelly” Bell has achieved a great deal. Nearly bankrupt several years ago, he is now filthy rich. He is, to cite his own voluminous marketing literature, “jacked and tan”; he is the “meathead millionaire.” That sudden turn of fortune isn’t a direct result of exceptional powerlifts or steroid usage, but it is certainly related.

Over the course of his powerlifting career, Bell has suffered many injuries, including repeated pectoral tears. While the most recent merely delayed his quest to bench-press 600 pounds, a prior tear prompted him to start tinkering with plans for a sling that would enable him to continue training for a powerlifting competition where he expected to post good deadlifting and back squat numbers (these two exercises, along with the bench press, give the lifter his or her all-important “total” for a competition).

“I just got this idea in mind for something — maybe with velcro, maybe with a thick lining of some kind — that would be like a bench shirt, which relieved pain and provided assistance on the lift, but was much easier to use,” he says. “And after I was trying different things with my dad, I realized what I wanted and I went to see my wife’s friend, who designed swimsuits, and asked her to make the prototype.”

The prototype worked as planned, enabling Bell to bench-press without pain. He borrowed money from a friend and ordered 4,000 more of a product he was now calling the “Sling Shot.” The number, he concedes, was a bit of a gamble, but thanks to savvy social media marketing, he quickly sold out. From there, Bell began designing other assistance products for strength training, incorporating them in his YouTube videos, and discussing them on this podcast. In short order, he became rich.

This is another important part of Mark Bell’s story: Although most people know him from Bigger Stronger Faster*, he is also arguably the most visible and successful figure within the powerlifting subculture. Everyone who is anyone in that world knows Mark Bell and his brother Chris; they are inexhaustible self-promoters and, owing to Chris’ skill as a videographer, producers of some of the sharpest-looking and most informative weight training videos on the Internet. Mark’s Instagram account has a massive following, and his videos have received tens of millions of views. In the fragmented pop culture world of 2016, he is simultaneously wealthy, legendary, and largely unknown. Your lifter friends will instantly recognize his name, while others who saw Bigger Stronger Faster* while it was on Netflix might struggle to fix a name to a face.

All of this, oddly enough, is irrelevant to Mark Bell. He lives to train, and everything is subsumed under this training mentality. “You develop a mindset from decades of powerlifting that makes you think about the long haul and how everything, whether it’s your business or your body, can only advance gradually. You get a sense of where every part of your body is at any given moment, how much energy you can exert in a specific workout, and it’s all part of a process. You focus entirely on the process and the constructive criticism of it that partners and advisors are giving you, and most of the time you make it … unless maybe you tear your pec. But usually you arrive, wherever you’re headed.”

Although Bell acknowledges the competitive pressures that athletes such as Lance Armstrong and Peyton Manning might have faced in their own sports, he takes no stand on the drug policies of particular sports. “I obviously have a personal opinion on these things, but various federations and sports have their own rules. There are even drug-tested bodybuilding and powerlifting events,” he says. “In all of those cases, if you’re competing, you have to be aware of the policies and practices in place in your sport. But of course it occurs to me, and it surely occurs to the athletes themselves, that if you can take X drug and secure another good contract — there will be that temptation, because some of these banned drugs can improve your performance.”

Again, for Bell, it comes back to the mental game: “The temptation is going to be psychological: you get this edge once, you want it again, how do you give it up, if you’re Barry Bonds and you hit all those home runs? You are competitive. You want more.”

“Quite honestly, a magic pill that made you do everything in your training regimen perfectly, getting all of that right, would be more valuable than any steroid.”

Bell does, however, object to self-righteous people in the fitness community who pass themselves off as “natural” specimens in defiance of all reason. “These days, everybody wants people to think they have the absolute best genetics,” he says, “so there’s a lot of deception and confusion about what a ‘natural’ body is, because that word is very loaded. There’s a whole side of this strength business that is based on ignorance — ignorance of how to use drugs, or ignorance about how drugs work — and it’s this lack of education that is the real nightmare for people who are just getting started and absorbing that bullshit. Look, if someone is over 220 pounds and under 10 percent body fat, and they’re not at least six feet tall, you have to wonder; and if their lifts at a certain weight are in excess of certain numbers, you have to wonder. This kind of deceit is really problematic, more problematic than simply admitting what you’re taking, because pretending to be some ‘natural’ can also confuse people, it can make them think something is possible or even easy when it’s not, their own frames of reference will be so screwed up.”

“I mean, words like ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ are beyond confusing for people who haven’t seriously studied the science, the training, how everything fits together,” Bell continues. “Hell, even if the so-called ‘natural’ bodybuilders you admire aren’t on some specific banned drug, there are things like insulin those dudes can take which can greatly aid recovery and get them where they’re going. ”

Where the 39-year-old Bell is going, at least for now, is toward a 600-pound bench press. “Actually 611,” he said, “because I’m trying to get a little ways past a friend of mine.” But after that, his personal quest is over; he is going to lose some of the weight he has gained and focus on running his equipment business and the Super Training Gym, a private facility in Sacramento that admits and trains competitive powerlifters at no cost.

Bell has a deep personal interest in subsidizing the performance of the next generation of lifters. “There are still ceilings left to reach on the powerlifts, like the deadlift record that Eddie Hall just obliterated,” he says. “And on the bench, it won’t be me doing it, but we can get past what Scott Mendelson and Eric Spoto, two of the best bench pressers of all time, have done on that lift. We can get the bench to 800 pounds if someone like Kirill Sarychev, who I think has the body frame for it, by which I mean the height and the bone density, is willing to gain the weight he needs to gain, by whatever means necessary. That’s always the problem, though, because nobody wants to gain that much weight; we’re talking huge amounts of weight, and that means huge amount of fat, and both the lifters and their significant others might not be too fond of that in the long term.”

More than just numerical records, Bell awaits the evolution of the next generation of biofeedback science, which might take the lifting community beyond the current limitations established by nutrition, training, and performance enhancers. “You’re seeing the arrival of rate of perceived exertion training protocols in powerlifting, as in other sports, where you’re getting athletes to respond on a one-to-10 scale in terms of what they’re doing, with the aim of placing their repetitions for a day between seven and eight,” he says. “It’s amazing to me at this point what a mystery the human body still is, that using a scale like this, which is like that primitive pain scale doctors use, is an advance in our sport, but somehow it is.”

And all advances, of course, feed Bell’s obsessive and quintessentially American desire for self-improvement through scientific management, discipline, and chemistry. “You see people getting botox, butt implants, breast augmentation, tanning, using steroids,” he says. “Why would anyone hold any one of those things out for criticism? Who wouldn’t want to be better today than they were yesterday, better tomorrow than they were today, better next year than last? It’s all about progression. I think we should get past the point where we’re talking about the ‘ethics’ of botox, or steroids, or anything like that, if there’s not some drug-testing protocol you’re absolutely required to meet. The question every elite powerlifter is asking ultimately amounts to: How do I get more? We want more, and more is better, and there are means to that end — and I’ll reiterate that steroids are not the primary means to that end, but they’re part of the process. In fact, when I say more, I really mean more knowledge; everybody who wants to get stronger needs to increase his knowledge base first and foremost and keep increasing it … and they shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask questions, shouldn’t feel like they have to sneak around in the shadows and get one over on everybody else as they try to go it alone. That’s the example I want to set in everything I do: Here’s Mark Bell, here’s a guy I can talk to, here’s a guy whose training videos I can watch, here’s a lifter who has experienced the sport’s ups and downs, here’s someone who will always tell me the truth.”

For Bell, like all the other great strength pioneers before him, the work in the weight room goes on, the belief in human progress endures, and the dream of lifting hundreds of additional pounds will never die.

And they will take whatever they can to make those dreams come true, because they must.

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