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.
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.)
What Are SARMs and How Do They Work?
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.
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 a 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 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.
Why Do People Supplement With SARMs?
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.
Are SARMs Safe?
Nonsteroidal SARMs have only been around for a couple of decades and, unfortunately, are lacking in human research.
Unfortunately, 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.
Here’s what we do know, though…
SARMs suppress your natural testosterone production.
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, male subjects taking 3 milligrams of the SARM ostarine per day for 86 days experienced a 23% drop in free testosterone and 43% drop in total testosterone levels.
Similar effects were seen in this study, as well, with the drug ligandrol.
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.
The more SARMs you take, the more side-effects you’ll experience.
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.
SARMs are probably easier to recover from than regular steroids.
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).
SARMs may raise your risk of cancer.
Several large trials on the SARM cardarine had to be cancelled 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 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.
Are SARMs Legal?
Yes, SARMs are legal to purchase online or over the counter. For now.
The reason for this is a legal loophole: they’re sold as “experimental chemicals” that aren’t meant for human consumption.
If you’re an athlete, you should know that SARMs aren’t permitted in most sports. The World Anti-Doping Agency has already banned them, and the International Olympic Committee is supposedly gearing up to test for them as well.
Given the history of steroid legislation, it’s probably only a matter of time before SARMs are banned altogether.
The Bottom Line on SARMs
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.
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.