- Trainers who’ve worked with fitness influencers say at least half take steroids. Few disclose it.
- Some are making money on workout and diet plans, promising results they got from steroids.
- Experts say steroids can risk influencers’ health and promote body dysmorphia among their followers.
In 2013, the personal trainer and bodybuilder James Ellis noticed his social-media following was growing — just as his progress in the gym was starting to stall. Ellis, who was 32 at the time, had been training since he was a teen, and he was about to enter his first professional bodybuilding competition.
Despite having been staunchly anti-doping in his younger years, Ellis needed to bust through his workout plateau. So he turned to the “soft entry point” of an oral anabolic steroid, which felt less extreme than injecting.
“I went down the dark side, which was a very easy decision,” he said. “The more you get entrenched in your industry, the more your appearance counts, you start getting accolades and more followers, and those moral decisions just go out the window.”
Ellis saw improvements instantly, putting on about 6 to 9 pounds of muscle in three months. His Instagram following kept growing, too. (While he couldn’t share exact numbers from that period, he now has more than 245,000 followers, well above the 50,000 to 100,000 followers generally considered to mark “influencer” status.)
A year and two cycles of oral steroids later, “Pandora’s box had opened,” Ellis said. He won a bodybuilding competition, which shot him to fame in the industry, bringing followers, sponsors, appearances on magazine covers, and world travel.
Motivated by his success, Ellis began injecting testosterone, which is allowed in most bodybuilding competitions. But he never spoke about it on social media.
Everyone in Ellis’ social circle, both inside and outside fitness, was taking something, he said, so it seemed normal to him. Besides, it was healthier than taking recreational drugs.
Ellis knew taking steroids had health risks, including
, and possible liver damage. But the benefits outweighed them, he said. “It was easy to justify in my own head,” he said.
For fitness influencers, steroids are the norm, not the exception, experts say
In the world of fitness influencers, Ellis’ experience is the norm, not the exception, several people told Insider.
Based on his experience training athletes and bodybuilders, the personal trainer and nutritionist Harry Smith said he estimates about half of fitness influencers take some form of performance-enhancing drug, or PED, whether it’s steroids, human growth hormone, or even insulin (which can reduce body fat). Other trainers confirmed that estimate to Insider, and some said it was even a lowball number.
The personal trainer Tobias Holt, an open steroid user who has coached fitness influencers, says that nearly all of them are on some form of PED. “Anyone that tells you that they’re not, they’re a fucking liar,” he said.
The consequences of that secrecy go far beyond risks to influencers’ health. By presenting their steroid-induced muscle growth as the result of workout and diet plans that their followers can purchase, influencers are making money based on false claims, steroid researchers and industry experts told Insider. And in the process, they’re creating a body ideal that’s unattainable for even the most dedicated gymgoers, which could lead to body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
“This is going on all the time, and most people aren’t talking about it,” Ellis said.
How steroids help influencers reach the ‘dizzy heights’ of fame
Anabolic androgenic steroids are the most common performance-enhancing drugs, taken to boost muscle and strength, and speed up recovery. They tend to be human-made compounds that mimic the male sex hormone testosterone or other synthetic androgens that have similar effects.
While getting results requires training hard and eating well, steroids can help people progress faster in the gym and recover more quickly, the personal trainer Ben Carpenter said.
That makes them especially alluring for men, who are socialized to prefer large muscles, said Dr. Harrison Pope, a leading researcher in the field of steroid abuse. According to a 2020 study, Pope and his colleagues at Harvard and McLean Hospital estimated that 98% of steroid users are men and that about 3 million American men (just under 2% of the US’s male population) have tried anabolic steroids at one time in their life. Of that group, about a third go on to develop a dependence on them, they estimated.
Ellis said he noticed physique improvements “pretty much instantly” during his first 10-week steroid cycle. After a short break, he did another, longer cycle, which “sharpened up” his physique and helped him win the bodybuilding competition that established his reputation.
“I really reached the dizzy heights of what we would call fitness-model competitions,” he said. “I reached the very highest point of that and really enjoyed it.”
Steroids have quick benefits but long-term health risks
Ellis didn’t see any serious physical side effects from his steroid use, other than some temporary testicular atrophy. That’s typical, Pope said.
He told Insider that steroid users don’t tend to feel any immediate harm — only the quick benefits.
“Therefore, they are not deterred in the way that they might be if they have a bad experience with drinking too much alcohol or taking too much cocaine,” he said. “You could take any amount of steroids, and you’re almost certainly won’t go to the emergency room. And as a result, there’s nothing to sort of scare you off, so to speak.”
But the dangerous side effects of steroids can quietly build up over time, Pope said. When a steroid user takes testosterone, the hypothalamus in the brain tells the pituitary gland to stop secreting it. In turn, the testes stop manufacturing testosterone and sperm cells, causing infertility. For some men, when they stop taking steroids, this infertility can be permanent.
The most serious consequences, Pope said, are on the heart. In a 2017 study, Pope and his colleagues examined 140 experienced male weightlifters who were between 34 and 54 years old. They found that those who had used steroids had higher mean blood pressure and elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein — otherwise known as “bad” cholesterol. The study also found that steroid use can narrow and harden coronary arteries and make the heart inefficient at expelling and refilling with blood, known as cardiomyopathy. All of these factors increase the risk of a heart attack.
Three of the steroid users in the study had already suffered heart attacks, at ages 38, 43, and 46, respectively. (According to Harvard Medical School, the average age for a first heart attack in men is 65.) By contrast, none of the weightlifters who’d avoided steroids had had a heart attack.
While Pope’s study was small, he believes it is a starting point in research on how steroids affect the heart. ”This is a significant problem,” Pope said. “But if you’re an 18-year-old who wants to get big, fast, the possibility that you may have a heart attack at a premature age is not likely to have very much effect on you.”
Why influencers can’t quit steroids, despite the dangers
The model Jamie Goldie started taking steroids at 19, when he became obsessed with bodybuilding. Everyone in bodybuilding competitions is taking some kind of steroid, he said, and he learned early on that it was a necessity if he wanted to be a competitive pro at the top level. He knows the health risks, and he gets blood work done every six to eight weeks to “track” himself.
“A question I always ask is, ‘Would you do a math test if everyone had the answers apart from you? Would you want the answers?'” said Goldie, who is a microinfluencer with 13,000 Instagram followers who won first place in his first bodybuilding competition in 2021. “Everyone says, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, there you go, then.'”
After six years of taking steroids, Ellis ultimately decided to quit when he retired from bodybuilding in 2018. In all that time, he never disclosed on social media that he was taking steroids, which he said is the “standard approach” among influencers.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision not to talk about it; I think it’s human nature to not want to talk about your advantages,” he said. “People with money don’t say that their parents are wealthy or they had a lucky break. They say they worked for it.”
Of all the drug cultures Pope has witnessed in his research career, steroid users are by far the most secretive, he told Insider.
“People would come into my office and talk without hesitation to me about all the cocaine that they used or all the opiates that they took or all the marijuana they smoked,” he said. “But then I will have somebody who walks into the door of my office and it is immediately obvious upon even looking at him that he has used large doses of steroids. He’ll then deny to my face that he has ever used these drugs.”
While Ellis is now a bodybuilding coach who informs his clients about steroid options, he said he believes the “moral code slips” when influencers are selling workout programs or diet plans promising transformations that they largely owe to PEDs.
“Social-media accounts are essentially adverts if there is a financial incentive,” he said. “And we all know not necessarily to believe advertising.”
Top fitness influencers can earn thousands of dollars for a single post, according to research by Currys and the Influencer Marketing Hub. For those whose full-time job is creating social-media content, maintaining and growing a follower count is critical.
Influencers can often leverage their followings to build successful spin-off businesses, typically centered on workout classes or plans. In July, the leading fitness influencer Kayla Itsines sold her workout platform Sweat for a reported $400 million.
While the body-positivity movement has increased visibility for those who don’t fit the industry “norm,” aspirational physiques remain a major draw for growing follower counts. Many of the fitness influencers interviewed by Insider said they feel pressure to maintain a shredded physique year-round and that their number of followers and engagement increase when they’re in “better” shape.
That’s a challenge for even professional bodybuilders, who typically have an “offseason” in which they take a break from staying in competition shape. As a result, using PEDs to fill the gap can be tempting, influencers told Insider.
Other factors also contribute to secrecy. Some influencers hide their steroid use because it’s illegal in their location or because they know they’ll lose their brand deals.
The impact on followers: ‘I was hard on myself all the time’
When Harry Smith first got into training as a teenager, he hoped to achieve the muscular physique of a fitness influencer or A-list actor. Smith said he consistently worked out twice a day and tried to follow a “perfect” diet. But he couldn’t get the same results, and his self-esteem suffered.
“I thought it was because I had the wrong program, the wrong supplements, I didn’t work hard enough, or I didn’t eat clean enough,” he said. “I was hard on myself all the time.”
It wasn’t until Smith learned more about the industry — and the perspectives of “natural” bodybuilders who don’t use steroids — that he realized how his idols could build their physiques so quickly.
“If natural bodybuilders with decades of research, training, and optimization looked half as good as an actor suddenly did in a blockbuster, what’s going on there?” he said.
For social-media users who aren’t aware of the prevalence of steroid use, trying to live up to influencers can cause fitness disenchantment, said Noel Deyzel, a South African fitness influencer and an open steroid user. He told Insider he regularly sees people giving up on exercise because they don’t get the results their favorite influencer promised.
As men feel they can’t measure up to influencers, ‘bigorexia’ is on the rise
A 2014 paper by Pope and his Harvard colleagues shows steroid use has been on the rise since the 1980s and is likely to increase over future decades. Pope links this to the growing problem of muscle dysmorphia, or “bigorexia.” Men with muscle dysmorphia feel profound insecurity that they are not big or muscular enough, he said, in some cases refusing to be seen in public with their shirt off.
“We don’t even think about it, but we see images every day on television, in movies, in advertising, songs, and cartoons, in magazines of muscular male bodies. They appear everywhere,” Pope said.
Bigorexia causes gymgoers to overexercise, pushing their bodies to the absolute limit day after day. They often go on seriously restricted diets to reduce fat and gain muscle. When left untreated, bigorexia can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide, according to Healthline.
The problem has only been amplified by social media and the pressures to look perfectly chiseled like many influencers, said Amy Gooding, a psychologist with Eating Recovery Center. Those who struggle might hesitate to reach out for help, “due to shame, secrecy, or the normalization of the behaviors in the community,” she said.
Ellis said the hardest part of coming off PEDs was the impact on his mental health and body image. Taking steroids is “psychologically addictive,” he said, because people get hooked on the results.
“They decide they want to stop, but then they look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, I don’t look the same. I need to start taking it again,'” Ellis said.
‘It will take years off your life’
These days, Ellis is a bodybuilding coach. While he no longer takes steroids himself, he does coach his clients on how to use them “sensibly,” stressing the mental-health consequences as well as the physical ones.
When men come to Ellis to ask his opinion on using PEDs, they’ve usually already made up their minds, he said. But if someone is still in their 20s or hasn’t been training for very long, he advises against it because they haven’t even seen what their natural potential is yet.
If someone is adamant about taking steroids, Ellis said, he ensures they do so in modest doses and with off periods between cycles.
Goldie, on the other hand, wouldn’t recommend steroids to anyone who’s not hoping to become a top bodybuilder or elite athlete. He hopes more influencers will follow his lead by being transparent about their PED use and why it isn’t worth the risk for the vast majority of people.
“It will take years off your life,” he said. “It will damage you later on.”