A bodybuilder gets banned for testing positive to an illegal substance. So far, so ordinary. But when that person is a ‘natty’ competitor – someone who built his reputation on using only natural means to get bigger – the question becomes, where did the banned substance come from?
The bad news for unsuspecting gym goers is that many freely-available, imported gym stimulants may not list all of their ingredients, and some of the hidden ingredients can be dangerous. That’s how Aaron Curtis earned a two-year ban. His story carries a simple message for gym junkies: often, you’ve got no idea what you’re taking.
Mr Curtis stopped using the stimulants after being caught out by deceptive labelling. He was banned in 2011 from competition for testing positive to DMAA, a once-widely used ingredient.
He had no idea the powder he was using contained the banned substance, such was the inaccuracy of the labelling, which in some cases might list innocuous things like “geranium extract” for synthetic chemicals that have little or no resemblance to their organic counterparts. DMAA was outlawed in 2012.
“I was just taking a very commonly used pre-workout supplement,” says Curtis. “I was completely unaware it contained a [banned] stimulant.”
Tweaked recipes have brought ‘gym stims’ back within the boundaries of the law after controversies over potential side effects, abuse as a party drug, one confirmed fatality, and vague chemical similarities to amphetamine prompted the DMAA ban.
In fact, many regular gym goers are consuming these questionable supplements in large quantities.
Australia has seen “consistent growth” in the sale of these powders in the last 18 months a spokesman for the website eBay said, with the American brands Cellucore and Mesomorph selling “markedly more” than others.
The products, which are also freely available at gyms and gym supplies stores, form a multi-billion dollar industry, says Deakin University’s Dr Matthew Dunn, an expert in the health effects of performance enhancing substances.
“Supplements aren’t a regulated industry in Australia, so what it says on the label may not be in the product,” says Dr Dunn. “They just don’t know what they’re taking.”
A quirk of the US legal system, where most of these products originate, permits the use of ‘proprietary blends’. This allows manufacturers to omit the exact ratios and amounts of the dangerous additives they use, and to then decorate the label with impressive or natural-sounding ingredients that are present in only microscopic amounts. Dr Dunn says this is how these businesses have been able to bounce back from bans and bad press.
When asked about some of the ingredients commonly currently found in the imported products, Dr Dunn was unable to identify any studies into their safety or efficacy.
Users are in the dark
Brody Fishwick, an aspiring physical education teacher, is a long time user of pre-workout stimulants and a regular gym-goer. He admits he is unsure what gym stims contain.
“My knowledge of the official ingredients that goes into these stimulants is quite limited, which even scares me at times,” says Mr Fishwick.
But he and many other weightlifters swear by the stimulants and continue to use them heavily despite their mysterious ingredients.
“I certainly know that many guys, and girls for that matter, still use all sorts of gym stimulants before, during and after workouts,” he says. “For many people who work during the day, finding the motivation for the gym or exercise afterwards can be quite hard. I think it’s great that artificial, great tasting, energy boosts can help provide a much needed ‘kick’ when they feel the need for it.”
This “kick” comes in the form of the potent physical effects, similar to a big dose of caffeine, which is felt soon after drinking spoonfuls of the flavoured powder mixed with water.
“It may take 15-20 minutes to kick in, and I’ll feel a constant energy spike, as well as a slight raise in my heart rate,” says Fishwick. “This is a great feeling, and really helps to ensure that you’re getting the most out of every workout.”
The New Daily tested one of the most common of these stimulants and experienced similar results: increased heart rate, itchiness and tingling, edginess, altered perception, and a heightened desire to be physically active. The effects began within 10 minutes of ingestion and lasted for more than 90 minutes.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which issued the ban on DMAA, told The New Daily it was unaware of any serious safety concerns relating to stimulant powders, and was not investigating them. But the TGA warned consumers to “exercise extreme caution” when purchasing these products, especially over the internet.
‘More oversight needed’
General manager of Bulk Nutrients, Ben Crowley, a local stimulant maker, agreed the industry is not properly regulated.
“Largely, there is very little legislation,” says Crowley, who describes the current laws as “very out of date”.
Crowley acknowledges one of the dangers in these products lies in users taking larger and larger doses, which may exacerbate any side effects.
“Like all stimulants, there is desensitisation that often happens if you’re having them often enough, which means you’ll have to have them in higher doses, which can lead to other issues later on,” says Crowley.
“I think my positive test to DMAA definitely increased awareness throughout the natural bodybuilding community to the risks of testing positive to banned substances from over the counter sports supplements,” he says.
But for Curtis and many others, the desire to be big can outmuscle warnings about dangerous products.