Saturday, April 21, 2012

Brocebo? Add 10kg to Your Bench in Days with Sugar-Based "Anabolic Steroids". Old Study Shows, Many "Natural Anabolics" Could Work Solely via Placebo Effects

Image 1: If you start thinking about whether or not the product you just bought at your local supplement store works, it is - for a non-negligible amount of supplements - unlikely that you will see any results (photo Scientific American)
I guess, I don't have to tell you what the term "placebo effect" stands for, right? It is the occurrence of an effect that - assuming the effect could speak - would say of itself "placebo", i.e. "I am pleasing" (1st person singular, presence active from lat. "placere", i.e."to please" ). And while the medical establishment is still arguing, whether it was feasible, and, in view of the fact that this must obviously happen unbeknown to the patient, even ethical, to deliberately exploit the placebo as a "medical" treatment strategy, there are certain supplement companies that generate up to 90% of their revenue from an allegedly muscle-packed cousin of the placebo effect, the brocebo effect. And while public statements in "logs" (mostly in form of customer diaries on bulletin boards) like "I felt f*** great on product XYZ" are usually subject to a healthy amount of skepticism, it is quite amazing how willingly people make buying decisions on non-verifiable strength and size gains (the latter are rarely supported by diagnostically convincing photos) from men and women, they have never met before.

Your test booster works, but mainly on your brain

About 12 years ago, Constantinos N. Maganaris, Dave Collins and Martin Sharp from the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh tried to elucidate how potent these pla- or brocebo effects (whatever you want to call them) really are (Constantinos. 2000). In a well-controlled, yet relatively small-scale trial, the supplied a group of 11 national level powerlifters, who had been training in a team that was coached by the lead author of the study for two years. The latter may initially sound insignificant, the level of trust the previously non-using athletes had in their coaches must yet be considered one of the determinants of the strength of the placebo effect - specifically in view of the fact that the lifters who were selected for the trial had previously "approached the coach as a group and asked him for advice on effective use of AS", which, by the way, had instigated the whole investigation.
How to Spot a Nutraceutical Rip-Off - I want to use this chance for a shout-out, not just because I owe it to my friend Sean Casey from CasePerformance that I originally took notice of this study, but also because Sean has a nice compilation of tips on how to spot a neutraceutical rip-off on his website... a compilation, by the way, you should better not read too carefully, if you like to use test-boosters, pump-supplements and the like. After all, this could totally compromise their brocebo-powered muscle building, fat burning effects ;-)
To test the hypothesis that the mere belief in taking an anabolic steroid would already elicit profound effects on the performance of the lifters, Constantinos, and his colleagues came up with a two-part testing + supplementation regimen that looked as follows:
  • Trial 1: Bench press, deadlift, squat and 1-RM test after the ingestion of a capsule of which all participants were told that it contained a powerful anabolic steroid
  • Two training weeks: In the subsequent two training weeks the subjects were instructed to take the rest of the steroids they had been given at the first trial.
  • Trial 2: Half of the subjects were informed that the tablets they had taken contained nothing but sugar, while the others performed the 2nd trial in the belief that they had been taking steroids for two weeks now.
Before the second trial, the subjects had been questioned about their past training experiences and what they would expect from the second trial. At this point all subjects still believed that they had been ingesting anabolic steroids over the past two weeks and reported that they had experienced an "increased vigor during training" and had been able to lift "either heavier weights or complete more repetitions than their previous bests" (What? That sounds like the bro on "Brobolic 2000" from your favorite bulletin board?). Only afterwards were 5 of the 11 subjects told that the "anabolic steroids" they had been taking were nothing but sugar pills - it's probably not astonishing that the majority thusly refused to take their last pill right before the test and, ...
Figure 1: Increase in bench press, deadlift and squat 1-RM (in kg) in trial I and trial I of the study; lifters who still believed they were taking steroids on the left, lifters who were informed about the placebo nature of their "steroids" before the second trial on the right (data adapted from Constantinos. 2000)
... as the data in figure 1 clearly indicates, lost all their "steroid induced" strength gains. The six participants who still believed they were juicing, on the other hand, maintained, and in the case of the bench press, even upped their strength gains in the second session. With a 2x3 (Group x Trial) ANOVA test revealing "significant main effects for Trial: Bench Press (p<.001); Dead Lift (p<.001) and a significant interaction between Group and Trial [for] Bench press, Deadlift and Squat (p<.001)".

Increase your bench, deadlift, and squat by 5% within days!

With baseline bench press, deadlift, and squat 1-RMs, of 205kg, 260kg and 240kg, the relative placebo-induced increases amounted to ~5% - pretty impressive for an "all-natural" anabolic like sugar, right?
Image 2: Those pills don't look legit. They must be red and labeled *-bol or *-drol if they are supposed to work.
So what? Now, if we, obviously purely hypothetically, assume that the aforementioned likewise hypothetical product "Brobolic 2000" contained nothing but sugar, and if we further assume that the bro was not lying, when he posted on your favorite board that his strength "[...]went through the roof within the first days already! +10kg on my bench!" Wouldn't it be fair to say that the supp-company that produces "Brobolic 2000" did not lie, when they promised "immediate results"? I guess it would, right? And wouldn't it also be fair to say that not only the production of sugar pills but more importantly the marketing, which is the fundamental determinant of the products effectiveness, did cost money?

I will leave it to you to complete this train of thought, and rather remind you that you as an educated reader of the SuppVersity are at a definite disadvantage compared to people like the bro on your board - you simply know too much, to take "advantage" of the bulk of effectively useless supplements on the market.