If you want to know what SARMs are, how they work, how effective they are, and if they’re dangerous, then you want to read this article.
- SARM stands for selective androgen receptor modulator, and it’s a type of drug that’s chemically similar to anabolic steroids.
- SARMs can increase muscle growth and fat loss like steroids, but to a lesser degree.
- SARMs also come with many of the same risks, drawbacks, and side effects as steroids such as reduced natural testosterone production, increased hair loss, and possibly an increased risk of cancer.
You’re giving your workouts everything you’ve got.
You’re spending a small fortune on workout supplements.
And it’s all not enough. The needle just isn’t moving as quickly as you want.
Maybe you’ve thought about turning to steroids. You know they work, but you also know about the side effects and health risks, and you’re not ready to take that plunge (har har har).
And then you stumble upon SARMs, and you can’t help but wonder:
Are these the holy grail of bodybuilding supplements?
Can they really help you gain muscle and lose fat almost as effectively as steroids, but without any of the downsides?
And they’re cheap and legal!?
It beggars belief.
That’s why many people are claiming that SARMs are the ultimate supplements for health-conscious bodybuilders, and why many athletes are singing their praises for performance enhancement and muscle-building purposes.
It definitely sounds too good to be true, but is it? What does the science say?
Well, in this article, we’re going to get to the bottom of all of it.
We’re going to look at what SARMs are, how they work, what research says about how effective and safe they really are.
(And if you prefer a 9-minute video overview, just click below.)
Table of Contents
SARM stands for selective androgen receptor modulator, and it’s a type of drug that’s chemically similar to anabolic steroids.
There are quite a few SARMs on the market, and some are stronger and have a higher risk of side effects than others.
The more popular ones are . . .
- MK-2866 or GTx-024 (Ostarine)
- LGD-4033 (Ligandrol)
- GSX-007 or S-4 (Andarine)
- GW-501516 (Cardarine)
Why the strange alphanumeric names, you wonder?
Well, SARMs haven’t been approved for medical use, so pharmaceutical marketers haven’t bothered naming them yet. Currently, they’re only sold as “research chemicals” intended for scientific use, but more on that in a moment.
Now, to understand how these drugs work, we first need to look at the physiology of hormones.
Hormones are chemical messengers that your body uses to communicate with cells.
You can think of them as outgoing mail that contains important instructions, and when they reach the cells’ “mailboxes”—hormone receptors—the commands are carried out.
Androgens are hormones that produce masculinity (deeper voice, facial hair, more muscle and lower body fat levels, and so forth). The most well-known androgen is testosterone, but there are others as well.
Androgens exert their effects in the body in three primary ways:
- Binding to your cells’ androgen receptors.
- Converting to the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which then binds to androgen receptors.
- Converting to the hormone estradiol (estrogen), which binds to a different type of receptor on cells (estrogen receptor).
Under normal circumstances, your body carefully regulates androgen production, relying on sensitive feedback mechanisms to prevent imbalances.
When you introduce anabolic steroids into the body, though, your cells become flooded with androgens—so many that all available receptors become fully saturated.
This sends an extraordinarily powerful message to all cells that are listening, including muscle cells, which grow rapidly in response.
That sounds like good times to us weightlifters, but then there are the liabilities.
Research shows that some of the side effects of steroid use are reversible and some aren’t. Permanent damage is possible.
For example, reversible changes include testicular atrophy (shrinking), acne, cysts, oily hair and skin, elevated blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol levels, increased aggression, and lowered sperm count.
Another major downside to steroids is the risk of biological and psychological addiction.
One study conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School found that 30% of steroid users developed a dependence syndrome, and if you speak to enough honest drug users, you’ll hear all about their addictive properties.
Now, for years, scientists have been trying to develop steroids or steroid-like drugs that aren’t as detrimental to people’s health and well-being, and supplement marketers claim that SARMs are just that.
They’re non-steroidal drugs designed to stimulate the androgen receptors in just muscle and bone cells, having little effect on the other cells in the body, and thus the endocrine system as a whole.
In a sense, taking regular ol’ anabolic steroids is like carpet bombing your system with androgens. It gets the job done, but it’s sloppy and results in a lot of collateral damage.
Taking SARMs, though, is like drone striking just the asshole whistleblower journalists…er…I mean, bad guy terrorists.
In other words, SARMs can tell your muscle cells to grow without all the noise and mess caused by anabolic steroids.
Technically speaking, SARMs accomplish this in two ways:
- They have a special affinity for certain tissues like muscle and bone, but not for others, like the prostate, liver, and brain.
- They don’t break down into unwanted molecules that cause side effects, like DHT and estrogen, as easily.
This second point is rather significant.
One key characteristic of SARMs is they’re not easily converted into an enzyme called 5-a reductase, which converts testosterone into DHT, a driver of many unwanted side effects of steroid use.
SARMs are also resistant to the enzyme aromatase, which converts testosterone into estrogen.
Finally, because SARMs are less powerful than regular steroids, they don’t suppress natural testosterone production as heavily, making them easier to recover from.
SARMs are a synthetic drug that mimics many of the effects of testosterone in muscle and bone tissue, while (hopefully) having a minimal impact on other organs. Thus, the theory is that you can have the perks of steroids with none of the downsides.
SARMs were originally developed for people with diseases like muscle wasting, osteoporosis, anemia, and chronic fatigue.
They were intended to be a healthier alternative to testosterone replacement therapy. Whether they’re going to fulfill that vision is yet to be determined.
Now, bodybuilders usually take SARMs for one of two reasons:
- To “get their feet wet” with anabolic drug use before going into traditional steroid cycles.
- To increase the effectiveness of steroid cycles without exacerbating side effects or health risks.
Many bodybuilders also believe that SARMs are especially helpful for cutting because they help retain lean mass but don’t seem to increase water retention.
How well do these drugs work?
They’re also popular among athletes because they’re harder to detect in drug testing.
Now, if everything I’ve said so far has you wanting to run to Google, wallet in hand, not so fast . . . we’re not done yet.
Nonsteroidal SARMs have only been around for a couple of decades and, unfortunately, are lacking in human research.
We just don’t know enough about how they work and their potential long-term side effects, which is a very legitimate cause for concern.
Additionally, since all SARMs sold online are technically black-market products, they’re not subject to any oversight whatsoever and quality control is often an issue. Mislabeling, contamination, and other shenanigans are common occurrences.
Here’s what we do know, though . . .
One of the key selling points for many of these drugs is the claim that they don’t blunt your body’s production of testosterone.
This is a lie. They absolutely do.
For example, in one study conducted by scientists at the behest of GTx, Inc., a pharmaceutical company that specializes in making SARMs, male subjects taking 3 mg of the SARM ostarine per day for 86 days experienced a 23% drop in free testosterone and 43% drop in total testosterone levels (during the trial).
As GTx, Inc. produces and sells SARMs, they had no incentive to make the results look worse than they actually were. If anything, they were incentivized to do the opposite and underreport the negative side effects (there’s no evidence this was done, but I’m just making a point).
Similar effects were seen in another study conducted by scientists at Boston University with the SARM ligandrol. In this case, 76 men aged 21 to 50 experienced a massive 55% drop in total testosterone levels after taking 1 mg of ligandrol per day for just 3 weeks. Disturbingly, it also took 5 weeks for their natural testosterone production to recover.
In fact, SARMs are being investigated as a male contraceptive because they lower your levels of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which reduces your sperm count and testosterone levels.
All this isn’t surprising when you consider the basic physiology in play:
When you introduce androgens into the body, it recognizes the spike and responds by reducing its own production of its own similar hormones.
Despite what SARM hucksters claim, SARMs absolutely due depress your natural testosterone production, and the more you take, the more your natural testosterone levels will drop.
SARMs aren’t completely free from side effects—they just tend to be minimal at small doses.
Bodybuilders don’t generally take small doses, though, and that’s why they often experience many of the side effects associated with steroid use, including acne and hair loss.
This also applies to the suppression of testosterone you just learned about. The more exogenous (originating outside an organism) anabolic hormones you introduce into your body, whether from SARMs or plain ol’ testosterone, the more your natural production will fall.
And according to a study conducted by scientists at Copenhagen University, it’s possible that this decline in natural testosterone production may persist for years after you stop taking steroids (or SARMs).
On paper, SARMs appear to be easier on the body than traditional steroids, including testosterone. If you take enough to see significant benefits, though, then chances are good you’ll also encounter significant side effects.
We recall that they don’t convert into DHT or estrogen in the same way as steroids, which means they also don’t impact your system as negatively.
SARMs also aren’t as anabolic as pure testosterone, which means they probably don’t suppress natural testosterone as much, as well (although there isn’t enough research available to know for sure).
That said, if you take enough to experience significant benefits, you’re likely also taking enough to experience significant negative effects. That’s just the nature of drugs—they cut both ways and you always have to weigh the good and the bad.
Furthermore, if you take enough SARMs to cause some of the more serious side effects such as hair loss, gynecomastia, and so on, they may be permanent—just as with anabolic steroid use.
Anecdotally, many people do report bouncing back from SARM usage faster than traditional steroid cycles. You have to take such stories with a grain of salt, though, as many of these people have also used significantly lower doses of SARMs than they ever did of steroids, so it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison.
Plus, as you’ll learn about in a moment, it’s entirely possible the stuff these people were taking wasn’t even SARMs.
The negative effects of SARMs may be easier to recover from once you stop taking them than traditional steroids, although this idea is largely based on bodybuilder anecdotes rather than scientific research.
Several large trials on the SARM cardarine had to be canceled because it was causing cancerous growths in the intestines of mice.
You may have heard of this, and that the doses used were much higher than us fitness folk would ever ingest, but that’s not true.
Rodents eliminate some drugs from their bodies much faster than we do, so they have to receive higher doses to see the same effects.
In the case cited above, the mice were given 10 mg per kilogram of cardarine per day, which, when adjusted for a human metabolism, comes out to about 75 mg per day for a 200-pound man.
Poke around on bodybuilding forums and you’ll quickly learn that many bodybuilders take considerably more than that.
Granted, you can’t extrapolate rodent research to humans (despite sharing ~98% of their DNA, we aren’t big mice), so it’s not clear if that drug or other SARMs actually do increase our risk of developing cancer.
There’s also evidence that SARMs may actually inhibit certain kinds of cancer, so we just don’t know yet.
If you ask me, this is just another reason why I believe that SARMs are first and last a high-risk, low-reward proposition.
Although they’re billed as a less harmful alternative to traditional steroids like testosterone, they’re also much less studied and understood, which is why many experts believe SARMs are a riskier option. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
There’s evidence that SARMs could increase your risk of cancer and little understood about the safety of these drugs in general. When you take them, you’re playing guinea pig and only time will tell what the results will be.
We recall that SARMs can only be legally sold as “research chemicals.”
In other words, the only people who are supposed to buy SARMs are scientists looking to learn more about how they really work and whether or not they have worthwhile pharmaceutical uses.
Of course, the vast majority of SARMs you see for sale online never wind up in a lab. Instead, they find their way into bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness buffs who want to get more jacked.
This opens the doors to all kinds of skulduggery, including:
- Contaminating the drugs with toxic chemicals due to poor quality control or cutting corners during production.
- Mixing them with weaker and sometimes harmful substances to increase profits.
- Mislabeling them to increase profits.
Damning evidence of this can be found in a study conducted by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that involved buying 44 SARM products from 21 different online suppliers.
The researchers also took things a step further by asking all of the sellers to provide what’s known as a “chain-of-custody” of the products, which identifies whose hands the products passed through once they were produced (and thus who had the opportunity to tamper with them).
After analyzing the products, the scientists found that . . .
- Only 52% of the products contained any traces of SARMs at all.
- 25% of the products contained doses significantly lower than what was on the label.
- 25% of the products contained no or just trace amounts of the SARM on the label, and instead contained unlabeled substances such as other SARMs and the estrogen blockers androstenetrione and tamoxifen.
The bottom line is the SARM market is a lawless free-for-all and that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.
There’s currently no government agency forcing SARMs producers to toe the line, and as the study from USADA shows, many manufacturers are fully aware of this and are more interested in turning a profit than anything else.
Many of the products currently sold as SARMs either don’t contain any SARMs or contain other hidden chemicals and potentially toxic substances.
SARMs are drugs that deliver some of the benefits of anabolic steroids with fewer of the short-term side-effects.
They aren’t as effective as steroids, but they definitely do boost muscle growth more than any natural supplement on the market. They appear to be safer, too, but don’t think that means they’re safe to take.
Research clearly shows that they suppress natural testosterone production and negatively impact the endocrine system, and there’s evidence that they can increase the risk of cancer, too.
Furthermore, we have no idea if there are long-term health effects of SARM use, but given the nature of the drugs, there likely are.
Finally, there’s also good evidence that many of the products currently sold as SARMs don’t actually contain SARMs and may also contain other drugs, fillers, and harmful contaminants.
So, if you want a cut-and-dried recommendation from me, it’s this:
Stay away from SARMs.
In my opinion, the risks far outweigh the benefits, and they’re just not necessary to build a muscular, strong, and lean body that you can be proud of.