When the question becomes “what are the strongest supplements on the market”, there can be only one answer: Prohormones. Since they were introduced in 1996, prohormones have been the subject of considerable controversy and numerous FDA crackdowns. Controversy because many bodybuilders and potential users question how safe and “natural” they really are, and FDA crackdowns because, well, in the eyes of the FDA (and the media) all supplements are “evil”. That seems to be especially true about the ones that work the best.
Prohormones were first introduced to the supplement market in 1996 by chemist and ErgoPharm founder Patrick Arnold, who developed the original androstenedione. I can still remember the original product and the attention it received; it took the bodybuilding world by storm! At that time, there was nothing else even close to Andro. By 1998, Andro made it to mainstream headlines when baseball great Mark McGwire’s admitted use of the supplement unleashed a storm of negative media attention (those evil supplements again!) while he was attempting to break the home run record.
The success of Andro opened the door for other prohormones such as androstenediol, norandrostenediol, 1-4-androstadienedione, and 5 alpha androstenediol. In time, ErgoPharm introduced 1-AD, which converted into a hormone known as 1-testosterone. This was really the first prohormone that was considered comparable to real steroids such as Winstrol or Primobolan. In fact, at the time it was really a milder version of Trenbolone Acetate. The introduction of 1-AD brought prohormones to a new level of effectiveness and popularity. In fact, many supplement companies followed the lead of ErgoPharm and began to market products such as 1-testosterone (the hormone which 1-AD would convert to) and, eventually, the famous methyl-1-testosterone (M1T), which was a methylated hormone. This meant that the liver could not break it down, but it produced rapid muscle and strength gains. This made it the strongest prohormone on the market at the time. However, it also had the potential of causing such negative side effects as high blood pressure and liver toxicity.
It was at this time that many people in the supplement industry, including Patrick Arnold, argued that the increase of products as powerful as M1T would eventually lead to significant negative publicity for the supplement industry. These products were considered borderline steroids and therefore, should not be sold as supplements. Of course, Congress got involved and passed into law the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004 which effectively classed all prohormones on the market at that time as illegal drugs on virtually the same level as anabolic steroids. By early 2005 they were gone from the shelves of every supplement retailer in the United States. In fact, I worked in retail at the time, managing a supplement chain store and I can remember the push to try and get petitions signed, hoping to block the ban. I also remember having to pull all these products off the shelf. If you were hardcore and a fan of prohormones, this was a sad time. This began a cycle of supplement companies finding loopholes so they could get a form of prohormones back on the market until the government caught on and closed the loophole. This went on until 2014 when the Designer Anabolic Control Act was passed. What is left on the market here in 2020 is primarily derivatives of DHEA. These products offer comparatively mild results and are generally considered to be safe with minimal to no liver toxicity or estrogen conversion. Even so, it makes sense to invest the time to research what you are using and the best way to use it.
Definition and Mechanism of Action
A prohormone can be defined as “a precursor of a hormone, such as a polypeptide that is split to form a shorter polypeptide hormone or a steroid that is converted to an active hormone by peripheral metabolism” (1). Or, put another way, a prohormone is a compound that undergoes an enzymatic process that allows it to convert into an anabolic hormone in the human body. They will promote an effect that’s similar to but milder than anabolic steroids. These effects include rapid muscle gains, rapid strength gains, and with some products, accelerated fat loss. The effects are milder because of a rate-limiting effect that’s caused by the enzyme conversion, this limits how many you can effectively take each day because the body has to replenish its levels of natural enzymes before the conversion process can take place. It needs to be understood that prohormones are much weaker than steroids. You will not see anywhere near the same effects as you would if you took steroids. It should also be understood that here in 2020, most prohormones are non-methylated. This means you’ll experience mild to no side effects. Still, prohormones should not be taken lightly. You should do your research and understand how to run a cycle properly if you want to get the best results.
Benefits and Side Effects of Prohormones
- Rapid Increases In Lean Muscle
- Rapid Increases In Strength
- Faster Recovery
- Accelerated Fat Loss
- Improved Sex Drive
Possible side effects may include:
- Liver Stress
- Hair Loss
- Gynecomastia (Or “Gyno”)
- Swollen Prostate Gland
- Higher Blood Pressure Levels
- Sore Joints
- Gastric Discomfort
It should be noted that most of these side effects can be controlled with proper post cycle support. This approach gives you the best results with prohormones, and it’s important to have these safeguards in place before you begin your prohormone cycle.
Cycling with Prohormones
Be sure you follow the recommended doses when using prohormones. This approach ensures you’ll get the best results with the least side effects. In other words, more is not better. A typical prohormone cycle lasts about 6-8 weeks. Beginners should use one prohormone for their first cycle. Advanced users often stack several prohormones as well as an on-cycle support product. This is usually followed by a 4-6-week Post Cycle Therapy phase. There are two basic types of cycles, a bulking cycle, and a cutting cycle. What’s the difference? Your choice of a prohormone – you’ll want one that targets your goals. Of course, if you are on a cutting cycle, you’ll be eating and training for that goal. If you are doing a clean bulk, the same will be true.
How does a PCT program look? When you end the prohormone cycle, your own natural hormonal balance is out of line. This hormonal imbalance happens because the body thinks that it doesn’t have to produce and release testosterone. After all, the levels of this hormone basically surge during a prohormone cycle. When you’ve finished your cycle, your testosterone levels tend to be low while the estrogen in your body is high. Your goal is to control the excess water retention and fat gain of excess estrogen and bring levels back in line. Also, you’ll need to control the catabolic effects of cortisol and keep your gains by stimulating your own natural testosterone production. This is why a PCT program must be run immediately when you end your cycle.
The Available Prohormones in 2020
Let me start off this section by saying that I would not expect anything currently on the market and labeled as a “prohormone” to be safe from our trusty government, so it’s possible that by the time you read this, the list of available products may have changed. Let me also say that it is not my intention to present an in-depth technical explanation of what everything is, rather, I want this to be clear and easy to understand as I would like this section to be a great resource for those new to bodybuilding who are trying to understand how it all works, something I wish I had when I started way back in 1980.
1-Andro – Also known as 1-DHEA or 1-Androsterone. This a legal prohormone that undergoes a two-step conversion process in the body. This process converts 1-Andro into 1-Testosterone. Also, 1-Andro is non-methylated which means it doesn’t convert into estrogen or DHT. Therefore, you won’t experience any unwanted side effects such as bloating or gyno. Additionally, there’s little to no liver toxicity.
4-Andro – Also known as 4-DHEA or 4-Androstene. Like 1-Andro, 4-Andro undergoes a two-step conversion process to become the target hormone, in this case, testosterone. 4-Andro is considered a “wet” prohormone. This means there is a chance of estrogen conversion and excess water retention. There are also excellent muscle mass and strength gains. Due to water retention, 4-Andro is a good choice for bulking.
19-NorAndro – Also known as 19-Nor-DHEA and NorAndrost-4-ene-3b-ol, 17-one. 19-NorAndro is more of a prohormone precursor. Through a two-step conversion, 19-NorAndro will ultimately convert to Nandrolone (Deca). Nandrolone isn’t as strong as testosterone. That means that advanced prohormone users may not want to use this compound. Still, users claim to see strength and lean mass gains. 19-Nor-DHEA is a good choice for increased muscle growth and strength, while also accelerating fat loss.
Like the other prohormones we’ve talked about, 1,4-Andro will go through a two-step conversion to convert to Boldenone.
One of the effects of Boldenone is that it increases your appetite. This makes it great for bulking. Additionally, you can expect an increase in mass and strength. 1, 4 Andro is an ideal option for those looking to increase mass with little to no water retention.
Epi-Andro is a metabolite of DHEA that’s a popular cutting prohormone. You can expect dry, lean gains. Epi-Andro is milder than the other prohormones in the guide.
What About Training and Nutrition?
As far as training, I suggest using a good mass program that emphasizes progressive overload and heavy, basic exercises. You can include some intensity techniques as well. I would suggest techniques such as rest-pause and partial reps.
As far as nutrition, eat a clean, higher calorie, higher protein diet if mass is your goal. However, if you are on a cutting cycle, I advocate a carb cycling approach, with carbs ingested in the hours around your workouts. I also advocate a high protein intake, at least 1 gram per pound of protein, no matter what.
Who Should Use Prohormones
Whether or not you choose to take prohormones is entirely up to you. It’s a choice you should make based on your goals, your progress, and your research of these products. I will say, if you are under 21, a beginner, or have less than 1 year of training experience, I would not even think about using prohormones. Beginners tend to rush everything and almost always jump way too quickly into the super-advanced routines typically used by steroid-using Pro Bodybuilders – and then wonder why they aren’t progressing or are getting burnt out. While I understand the excitement and desire of the beginner, most of them rush headlong into advanced techniques and never really gain the foundational knowledge and experience they should have before they take the next step and use prohormones (or even steroids for that matter). Having said that, the choice is yours and yours alone to make.
Glossary – Some Terms to Know! (3)
Anabolic – This is the positive or building stage of metabolism. You want to be in an anabolic state as much as possible if you want to build muscle mass. As it refers to prohormones, it means the growth of muscle tissue with little or no masculinization (deepening of the voice, facial hair, etc.).
Androgenic – Pertains to the development of male aging sex hormones and is responsible for things such as body hair and muscle mass.
Aromatase – Aromatase is an enzyme that converts an androgen into an estrogen. When the body has an excessive level of testosterone in the body, it can also raise its estrogen to balance out its high hormone levels. This can sometimes lead to the development of gynecomastia. Please note that not all prohormones convert to estrogen(1-andro) and some can reduce estrogen(epi-andro), so don’t let the fear of side effects scare you away from a cycle. Just do your research and understand what would be best for you as an individual. There are also supplements known as AI or aromatase inhibitors which will reduce the amount of estrogen in your body.
Bulk – The process of being in a caloric surplus to gain as much quality mass as possible. This process includes intense weight lifting sessions. Any bulking program should be a “clean” bulk. That is, eat high-quality foods, don’t just pig out on everything you see.
Catabolic – This is tearing down or destructive phase of metabolism. You do not want to be in a catabolic state if you want to build muscle.
Cut – The process of being in a caloric deficit to lose as much body fat as possible while also holding on to as much muscle tissue as possible. Burning calories through cardio and weight training, as well as strict dieting, will be the focus through this period.
Cycle – The length of time you plan to use a prohormone
Cycle Support – A combination of ingredients taken during the cycle to counteract potential negative effects of and protect bodily organs.
Dry – A compound which typically results in lean gains, causes very little to no water retention/bloat and has a minimal conversion to estrogen. Typically, these are more anabolic than androgenic.
PCT, or Post Cycle Therapy – This is a protocol that is used to bring your hormones back into balance and normal production after a cycle of prohormones.
Recomp- Body recomposition is the process of burning fat and building muscle at the same time.
Stacking – The use of two or more compounds taken within a cycle.
Wet – A compound that has some conversion to estrogen and can cause some water retention. Typically, these are more androgenic than anabolic and usually serve as a base compound within a stack.
Prohormones have changed a lot since they first stormed the market back in the day. They’re not what they used to be and they’re definitely nowhere near steroids. Still, they can be helpful in your quest for size and strength. The choice to use them is yours. I hope this guide helps you make an informed choice.
Updated For 2020 by Jim Brewster
- Prohormone. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/prohormone
- DHEA. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/dhea/background/HRB-20059173
- Prohormone Guide. (2017, January 02). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://leavingweakness.com/prohormone-guide/