Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 03/27/2007

Stupid Elite Athletes!

My first year at Men’s Health magazine was probably the roughest of my entire career. I’d had some success in my six years at Men’s Fitness magazine, which is why my new bosses at MH had hired me and spent the money to move my family across the country. But at MH, everything I wrote or edited was getting smacked around, and I couldn’t understand why.

In December of that year, one of the company’s legendary editors, Mark Bricklin, came in to give our staff a talk. Bricklin, longtime editor of Prevention, may have invented the type of service journalism we did at MH. Several of the magazine’s top editors had started out working for him at Prevention. The talk was a big hit, and did more to help me understand what I was supposed to be doing at MH than all the disparaging notes and comments I’d received from my fellow editors combined.

The biggest lesson was this: A service article is only as good as its converse. If the converse of your story can’t possibly be true, you have no story. There’s no point writing a story about why vegetables are good, because everybody knows vegetables are good, and nobody says they aren’t.

This was the opposite of the editorial mission at Weider, which owned Men’s Fitness. We did lots of earnest, straightforward stories about this and that, but we never quite got the hang of the style of service journalism practiced by MH. To make it worse, we were under constant pressure to be even more earnest and straightforward. I remember one meeting in which Joe Weider lectured my boss and me about the sorts of things we should be writing about. “Weight belts. There’s a story. Lifting straps. There’s another story.”

Since he was the owner of the company, we couldn’t ask him the obvious question: “What’s there to say about weight belts or lifting straps that we haven’t already said?” If someone came up with a new and improved weight belt or lifting strap, sure, we’d jump all over that. Otherwise, why would we write about those things? We understood what Weider wanted us to do. We also understood that you don’t provide service to readers by telling them what they already know.

Still, in my six years at MF, we never figured out the ideas that Bricklin had perfected and codified. We might stumble on the occasional counterintuitive story, but we didn’t understand that our mission was to seek those stories out. And we certainly didn’t understand the law of converses, or that our mission was to surprise readers, rather than merely keeping them informed. That’s why MH was selling almost five times as many magazines as MF by the time I decided to switch teams.

Bricklin and his editorial descendents at MH weren’t the only journalists who’d figured out the value of providing readers with counterintuitive information. Political journalists have been doing it for as long as that profession has existed. One of the modern masters is Michael Kinsley, who’s made a career of zigging when others zagged. He’s often the first to go against the conventional wisdom in his opinion columns, even if doing so rankles his most loyal readers.

Kinsley founded Slate, the online magazine, in 1996, and from the beginning its editorial mission has mirrored Kinsley’s instincts. It proudly challenges the conventional wisdom in many of its columns and features, even when the conventional wisdom is probably right.

And that brings me to the real subject of this post, which is Slate’s “Explainer” column on human growth hormone. The title, “The Growth Hormone Myth,” is a pretty good tip-off that the writer is going to tell us that we’re all misinformed about this performance-enhancing drug. Or should I say “alleged” performance-enhancing drug?

[I]t’s just plain wrong to put growth hormone in the same category as anabolic steroids. …

For starters, we know that a baseball player can beef up on steroids and improve his athletic performance. But most clinical studies suggest that HGH won’t help an athlete at all. The other key difference is that while steroids cause a bevy of nasty side effects — testicular shrinkage, an increased risk of stroke — taking HGH doesn’t seem to be that bad for you.

If growth hormone doesn’t help, why are athletes breaking league rules to get it? And if it doesn’t hurt, why are there league rules against it in the first place?

You see the problem here, which was noted by reader Rob B. when he sent me the link: “It struck me as a similar argument to the one that scientists used for years about steroids.” It strikes me that way as well. Medical doctors and exercise scientists were wrong about steroids, and remained militantly ignorant about the subject until the mid-1990s. That gave athletes, coaches, bodybuilders, and recreational gym rats a third of a century to get used to ignoring anything doctors had to say about anabolic drugs. They developed their own drug protocols, with thousands of athletes acting as self-selected lab rats, and found their own ways to share this information.

That’s why, until recently, the average powerlifter or professional wrestler knew far more about performance-enhancing drugs than the average doctor or exercise physiologist.

The cycle seems to be repeating itself with HGH. The Slate columnist, Daniel Engber, starts off with the assumption that clinical studies tell the entire story:

At the very least, treatment with HGH does seem to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass. Growth hormone may not lengthen your lifespan, but it can certainly improve your looks. …

That doesn’t mean very much for athletes: A chiseled physique won’t help you hit a baseball or throw a punch. So far, no one has been able to connect the increase in lean body tissue caused by HGH with enhancement of athletic performance. Unlike steroids, growth hormone hasn’t been shown to increase weight-lifting ability; in the lab, it has a greater effect on muscle definition than muscle strength.

From there, he speculates about why athletes continue to use HGH, even though it clearly doesn’t work the way they hope it will. First he suggests, reasonably, that athletes may get small improvements in performance that wouldn’t register as significant in a clinical study. He also says athletes may use it to recover faster from injuries, rather than enhance performance directly, which is another fair point. And, finally, he notes that HGH may have different effects when combined with other drugs than when used in isolation, and that’s something I’ve heard for years from my informed sources.

But then he goes off the rails with this:

The most likely reason that athletes use HGH, though, is superstition. … The fact that the major sports leagues have banned growth hormone only encourages the idea that the drug has tangible benefits. Why would they ban something unless it worked?

But he never asks the most obvious question: What if athletes are taking growth hormone in much higher doses than the ones used in clinical studies? And what if they’re doing this not because they think it works, but because it does work?

You can make fun of bodybuilders all you want — heaven knows I do at every opportunity — but you can’t say that they aren’t aggressive with their drug protocols. (Even if massive doses of growth hormone don’t always produce the best aesthetic effects, as evidenced by the profusion of bodybuilders with 40-inch waistlines.) That’s why generations of athletes have taken their doping cues from bodybuilders, who’re willing to try anything, in any amount and at any expense, to get bigger. By the time the protocols reach the athletes, they’ve been refined through years of trial and error.

And that explains why athletes use growth hormone. They aren’t stupid. They know the drug works. The fact doctors and scientists haven’t been able to figure out why or how in their labs doesn’t mean anything except that doctors and scientists aren’t as smart as they think they are. If they were, they’d have learned their lessons from more than three decades of being wrong about steroids, and realized that drug-using athletes are always ahead of drug-studying scientists.

Gut reversal

When I was trolling the web for pictures of GH guts, I came across this article on how to control a protruding abdomen.

It includes this exercise, which has a name I won’t even try to pronounce:

To practice Uddiyana Bandha, empty the lungs with a quick, forcible exhalation. As soon as the lungs are empty, the diaphragm rises naturally into the thoracic cavity. When there is no interference from the diaphragm, draw the intestines and other organs toward the back as far as you can. The stomach rests near the back of the body, in the thoracic cavity.

The technique can be practiced in either a sitting or standing position but standing is better. While standing, place your hands firmly on the thighs, keep the legs apart, and bend your trunk slightly forward. Don’t attempt to hold the abdomen in this position for very long at first. With practice, you’ll be able to keep the abdomen in this position as long as you can hold your breath outside your lungs. This technique can be repeated five to eight times with brief intervals to catch your breath.

I had no idea that exercise came from the yogic world. I’ve read that early bodybuilders did it, including Eugen Sandow. I wonder if they knew they were doing yoga?

  • ugluk2

    You just explained in a sentence or two exactly why I gave up reading Slate magazine over ten years ago–and also why I distrust Michael Kinsley. There’s no virtue in being counterintuitive for its own sake, or because it attracts readers. It’s only a virtue if you happen to be right and can make a strong case for your counterintuitive views. Kinsley and Slate always struck me as being too cute to be taken seriously.