Testosterone vs performance-enhancing steroids: Their differences and uses

Natural testosterone produced in the body is an anabolic steroid because it helps to boost muscle growth and athletic abilities. However, it is different from the synthetic anabolic steroids that people take to primarily to enhance performance. In this article, you’ll learn the difference between natural testosterone and synthetic performance-enhancing steroids and the potential risks of the commonly abused synthetic steroids.

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Key Takeaways

  • Testosterone and performance-enhancing steroids can both act on muscle growth and strength. However, testosterone is a natural hormone essential for health and development, while performance-enhancing steroids are synthetic and can cause harm to health.
  • Misusing performance-enhancing steroids can lead to serious health problems, including liver damage, heart issues, and hormonal problems.
  • It's crucial to prioritize safe and natural muscle growth and development methods, such as proper nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate rest, or getting testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) from a medical professional if they recommend it.
  • Seeking guidance from a healthcare professional is important for making informed decisions about muscle development goals and preventing health risks associated with steroid misuse.

Testosterone and performance-enhancing steroids can help build muscles, boost strength, improve athletic abilities, and speed up recovery after exercise. They can also affect mood and energy. But it's important to know that the testosterone made by the body naturally is not exactly the same as the potentially harmful synthetic steroids that users often abuse.

What is testosterone?

Testosterone is an important male hormone that defines their physical characteristics and reproductive functions. It is involved in the development of male sexual organs, promotes sperm production, and fuels sexual desire.

Additionally, testosterone plays a vital role in the growth of muscles and bones, contributing to male strength and stature. It also stimulates secondary sexual characteristics like facial hair growth, voice deepening, and body hair patterns.

Women also have some testosterone, but not as much as men. It's made in different parts of their bodies and helps with muscle strength, bones, and sex drive. But if there's too little or too much, it can cause health issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or symptoms like too much hair (hirsutism).

What is a steroid?

Steroids are organic compounds that exist naturally in plants, animals, and fungi and can also be made in labs for medical reasons.

In the body, steroids act as hormones that control processes like metabolism, reproduction, and fighting infections. Examples of natural steroids include cholesterol, estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and testosterone.

Steroids, particularly in the realm of performance enhancement, usually imply synthetic compounds that resemble and act like the male hormone testosterone. 

Anabolic steroids, typically available only with a prescription, are used by some people (like athletes) without a doctor’s guidance to boost muscle size, strength, and athletic capabilities. This is what is referred to as performance-enhancing anabolic steroids. However, misusing these anabolic steroids or taking them without advice from healthcare professionals can lead to significant adverse effects on health.

Testosterone vs performance-enhancing steroids: How they differ

Testosterone and performance-enhancing steroids help muscles grow and boost athletic abilities. Despite this shared goal, there are significant differences between the two substances in terms of their sources, legality, and potential side effects. The table below shows the significant differences between testosterone and performance-enhancing steroids:

A table showing the difference between testosterone and performance-enhancing steroids


Performance-Enhancing Steroids


Naturally produced in the body

Chemically synthesized


Produced in the testes in males and ovaries in females

Produced in laboratories


Regulates sexual characteristics, reproductive functions, and muscle size in both genders

Mainly used by bodybuilders and athletes to increase muscle mass and athletic abilities


Legal when suggested by a doctor for medical reasons, such as testosterone replacement therapy (TRT)

Illegal for non-medical use in many countries

Side effects

Can produce side effects when used improperly, but generally safer than synthetic steroids

Can cause severe side effects, including liver damage, heart problems, and hormonal issues

How testosterone increases muscle mass

Testosterone could technically be described as an anabolic steroid because it helps muscles grow. It does this by attaching to special receptors on muscle cells, which kick-starts a process that makes more proteins. These proteins are important for fixing and building muscles, leading to bigger and stronger muscles. 

Additionally, testosterone can also direct the body to make other things, such as growth factors, such as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and growth hormone (GH). These substances work in conjunction with testosterone to promote muscle growth and repair. 

Why do doctors prescribe testosterone replacement therapy (TRT)?

For some individuals experiencing low testosterone levels—particularly those with an associated medical condition—their doctors might prescribe testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) as a remedy. This treatment involves administering artificial testosterone to supplement the body's own production, resulting in alleviating symptoms associated with low testosterone.

However, close monitoring by healthcare professionals is essential to ensuring the therapy is safe and efficient. 

How performance-enhancing steroids differ from prescribed synthetic steroids

Performance-enhancing steroids and synthetic steroids (TRT) are not the same. While both compounds are made in a lab, they’re often used for different reasons. Typically, performance-enhancing steroids are used by athletes and bodybuilders to boost muscle growth and performance, while TRT is used to boost hormone levels in those who are deficient. 

Unlike synthetic steroids prescribed by doctors for medical reasons, performance-enhancing steroids may be acquired illegally and often misused without proper guidance. They're not taken with a controlled dosage and sometimes contain harmful substances, posing serious health risks.

How performance-enhancing anabolic steroids are misused

Performance-enhancing anabolic steroid users administer it through the oral route, intramuscular injection, subcutaneous injection, or by using transdermal patches. But oral and injection are the most common routes. Anabolic steroid misuse can lead to dependence, especially when individuals abuse these substances through various methods, such as stacking, cycling, plateauing, and pyramiding.


Stacking means using various anabolic steroids together or with other substances like growth hormones. While it may boost muscle growth, it raises risks and can lead to increased steroid use, which can lead to substance use issues.


Cycling means using anabolic steroids in cycles, alternating between periods of use and breaks. It's done to avoid tolerance and side effects.

However, it can lead to dependency, with people feeling the need to keep using steroids to maintain muscle gains and facing withdrawal symptoms during breaks.


Pyramiding means slowly raising steroid doses to a peak and then lowering them. This is to reduce side effects and withdrawal symptoms while maximizing gains. But it can lead to more steroid use and dependence, as people find it hard to cut back or keep their gains without steroids.


Plateauing happens when muscle growth slows down despite using steroids. To overcome this, people might change the dosage or type of steroids they use. But relying on steroids too often can create a dependency on them to achieve desired results.

Potential health risks of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids

The health risks associated with the use of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids include the following:

1. Liver damage

Continued usage of anabolic steroids may lead to liver injury, which can manifest as the formation of tumors and cysts.

2. Cardiovascular problems

Taking anabolic steroids alters cholesterol levels and blood pressure, potentially resulting in heart disease and other heart-related issues. Therefore, people on these drugs are more likely to experience heart attacks and strokes.

3. Hormonal imbalances

Performance-enhancing anabolic steroid use disturbs the natural hormone equilibrium in the body, specifically reducing testosterone levels.  This imbalance can cause reproductive problems like infertility and sexual dysfunction.

4. Tendon injuries

The rapid muscle growth and strength enhancement linked to steroid usage can put excessive pressure on the tendons. Consequently, individuals who use these hormones may have an increased likelihood of tendon injuries, including ruptures.

5. Impaired growth (in adolescents)

The use of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids during adolescence can have negative effects on bone development by accelerating maturation and prematurely halting growth. This leads to stunted growth and possible long-term effects.

How to build muscle mass without using anabolic steroids

You can build bigger and stronger muscles without relying on performance-enhancing steroids. Here are some tips to help you gain strength and muscle mass the natural way:

  • Eat high-protein meals. Protein-rich foods like lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and tofu promote muscle repair and growth. Taking protein-rich meals daily helps support your muscles' development and recovery.
  • Engage in strength training exercises.  Activities like weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, and using resistance bands are excellent for strength building. Focus on workout exercises that engage multiple muscles simultaneously, such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and rows.
  • Try progressive overload. Keep making your workouts tougher to keep your muscles growing. This means lifting heavier weights, doing more reps, or making bodyweight exercises harder as you get stronger. Remember to pace yourself and not go too fast so that you don't get hurt.
  • Pay attention to rest and recovery. Give your muscles a break to rest and repair by scheduling rest days in your workout plan. Make sure to get enough sleep each night to help your muscles recover and regulate hormones.
  • Opt for balanced nutrition. Eat a well-rounded diet of nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, and carbs. Keep your body hydrated by drinking lots of water to help your muscles work well and recover.
  • Be consistent. Stick to your diet and exercise plan for lasting results. Set achievable goals and monitor your progress to stay motivated and dedicated to building muscle gradually.
  • Consult a healthcare professional. It's essential to seek guidance from a healthcare provider to ensure informed decision-making regarding muscle development goals and to avoid the potential health risks that may arise from the misuse of steroids.

Final words

Testosterone and performance-enhancing steroids both offer potential benefits for muscle growth and athletic performance.  Although testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone within the body, synthetic forms may be given under medical supervision to people who don't make enough.

In contrast, performance-enhancing steroids are synthetic substances often misused by athletes and bodybuilders to achieve rapid gains. However, abusing these compounds come with significant risks and health concerns.

To increase muscle mass and athletic performance, prioritize safe and natural methods that won't compromise your long-term health, such as proper nutrition, consistent exercise, and adequate rest.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can steroids cause blood clots?

Yes, using steroids, especially anabolic ones, can increase the chance of blood clotting. This occurs because steroids can affect how blood clots form and how the heart and blood vessels work. If you're taking steroids, it's important to know about this risk and talk to a doctor if you're worried.

Is testosterone a controlled substance?

Testosterone is a controlled substance in many countries because people might misuse it for things like improving sports performance or building muscle. In the United States, it's classified as a Schedule III substance, which means it's regulated because it could be addictive or harmful if misused. Generally, it's only used for medical reasons under a healthcare professional's supervision.


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