Last week, I happened across an article by Daniel Engber entitled “The Growth Hormone Myth,” and I was a bit shocked by its contents. According to Engber, Human Growth Hormone (HGH or GH) has little to no performance enhancing-benefits.
What’s the difference between steroids and HGH? For starters, we know that a baseball player can beef up on steroids and improve his athletic performance. But most clinical studies suggest that HGH won’t help an athlete at all….So far, no one has been able to connect the increase in lean body tissue caused by HGH with enhancement of athletic performance. Unlike steroids, growth hormone hasn’t been shown to increase weight-lifting ability; in the lab, it has a greater effect on muscle definition than muscle strength. And it doesn’t seem to help much with cardiovascular fitness, either.
I was intrigued. Engber is a credible source, and his documentation solid; however, I remained skeptical. I closely follow media coverage of performance-enhancing drugs yet I was not aware of the dubious benefits. Did I miss something? Then I realized that I didn’t have to take Engber’s word for it or go do a lit review in research out of my field. I have the benefit of working down the hall from several exercise physiologists.
I forwarded the article to my colleague, John McLester, with whom I have had numerous steroid discussions. He showed up at my office door a few minutes later, and our conversation went something like this.
Me: What do you think of this argument?
John: Oh yeah, I agree with him. This isn’t even controversial in exercise physiology.
Me: Why haven’t I heard about this in the media?
John: I guess no one has asked anyone in the profession to comment. People think andro works, and that is laughable.
Me: How does HGH work?
John: Unlike anabolic steroids, growth hormone doesn’t target muscle, everything grows. You will get bigger muscles, but you’ll also do things like enlarge your organs. In an adult who has finished growing, it’s going to result in acromegaly. Remember Andre the Giant’s gut? That wasn’t fat. That’s where his organs had to go because there wasn’t room in his chest cavity.
Me: But, doesn’t the subject benefit from bigger muscles.
John: There is no evidence of this. It seems that the muscle that is developed is abnormal and not mature. I’ll point you to some studies (see below).
Me: Wow. So you think there are no performance-enhancing benefits to using HGH?
John: Little to none, especially in baseball. An offensive lineman in football might benefit just from gaining mass, but there are probably easier and cheaper ways to gain mass—HGH is very expensive. If I were to use PEDs, I’d take steroids and there is no way I’d even touch HGH. If benefits to taking HGH exist they are tiny, and the health consequences are not pretty.
After several more conversations with John and following up on his leads I believe that there are no performance-enhancing benefits from using HGH in baseball. There is no documented evidence that HGH improves performance. While studies are sparse due to ethical limits, what studies have been done show that while growth hormone may promote muscle growth that it does not increase strength. This is quite different from anabolic steroids for which there exists evidence of improved strength. Of course, future research may change this, but right now I see little reason to contradict what is out there.
Here is some documentation.
A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 27 women and 34 men, 68 to 88 years of age, who were given growth hormone or placebo for 6.5 months confirmed the effects of growth hormone on body composition; there was no change in muscle strength or maximal oxygen uptake during exercise in either group. This study corroborated the findings of a study by Papadakis et al. involving 52 healthy men, 70 to 85 years of age, who were given placebo or growth hormone for six months. Not mentioned on the “antiaging” Web sites is a study of 18 healthy men, 65 to 82 years of age, who underwent progressive strength training for 14 weeks, followed by an additional 10 weeks of strength training plus either growth hormone or placebo. In that study, resistance exercise training increased muscle strength significantly; the addition of growth hormone did not result in any further improvement.
Karl E. Friedl, “Performance-Enhancing Substances,” in Baechle and Earle (eds.) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2e, p. 219, . (Textbook)
There is no evidence that supplemental growth hormone produces effects of the same magnitude [as growth hormone deficiency] (it may not even produce normal muscle) or enhance athletic performance in a normal man or woman….Apparently, few athletes are actually using this hormone, which suggests that they may well be aware that the substance probably does little to enhance performance, carries risks, and is very expensive.
With MLB’s adoption of mandatory testing for steroids, many thought that home run rates would drop dramatically. They didn’t, and many felt that the lack of a test for HGH could be part of the explanation. Well, it’s time for the scientists working on such a test to start something else more important. Even if players are taking HGH, the drug no more effective than ionized bracelets, magnets in your shoes, or jumping over the foul lines. The impact of HGH on home runs in today’s game is zero. If a player is dumb enough to take this stuff, let him go right ahead.
UPDATE: Links to other posts on HGH.
Rumors, Experts, and Human Growth Hormone
More Reasons Not to Worry about HGH in Baseball
My Solution to Rid MLB of HGH: Legalize It
Missing the Boat on HGH, Again