I Don’t Worry about HGH in Baseball, and Neither Should You

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.

Mary Lee Vance, New England Journal of Medicine, 2/27/2003.

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

36 Responses “I Don’t Worry about HGH in Baseball, and Neither Should You”

  1. Steve says:

    You make a great point. I can’t wait for baseball to start testing for magnets in shoes, so that our long national nightmare can finally be over.

  2. Redsauce says:

    I’ve heard that HGH does increase hand-eye coordination (although I don’t know where). Any truth to that?

  3. JC says:

    I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect it’s an unsubstantiated rumor—I’ve heard this, too. I saw nothing of this in any of the studies I read. I’ll ask John if he know of any effects on eyesight.

    UPDATE: John says that he is not aware of any such study, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

  4. JC says:

    The eyesight rumor is mentioned in Game of Shadows, p. 75.

    There was an added benefit to the new drug regimen [which included HGH]: Bonds stopped complaining about his eyes. Although medical experts say there’s no scientific basis to the claim, some growth hormone users have reported improved vision.

    Sounds like a placebo effect to me.

  5. Marc Schneider says:

    I really don’t care whether HGH or steroid affect performance or not as much as whether they are physically harmful. I don’t really worry about what an adult decides to do with his or her body, but to the extent that any of these substances lead to long-term health problems and their presence creates pressure on kids to use them, then it’s bad. Is there any documentation as to whether HGH causes such health problems regardless of its effect on performance?

  6. Speaking of eyesight, my local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury, published a small note from an interview they did with a local eye doctor affiliated with Stanford, where he stated that the use of steroids would lead to glaucoma, which struck a chord with me since Kirby Puckett mysteriously had that at a young age.

    Any of your professor buddies can confirm this?

    I would not rely much on any “eyewitness” information from Bonds mistress, at least until more of her “info” is confirmed. She was dumped unceremoniously by Bonds and felt that he owed her money since she quit her job for him. So her plan was to write a book on him, then suddenly she’s a major source for these two book on Bonds. And from what I’ve read in excerpts, she’s a major source.

    From reading about what she has said, I’m suspicious because she accused Bonds of cheating on baseball card income. The reason that set off my BS meter is because Bonds is good friends with Willie McCovey and Willie was caught by the IRS for doing that, so I would bet that Barry heard an earful about that from Stretch, multiple times. In addition, from reports I’ve read about Bonds he is business savvy, so he’s no dumb athlete when it comes to money. And if you’ve ever heard him in a good interview, he’s very articulate and smart. Also, I was impressed by how fast he got a lawyer specifically for Balco, that’s what someone with a good set of advisors would have done.

    That counters the image of the dumb baseball player trying to cheat on his baseball income. Hubris knows no income level, so there is always that, but given the millions that Bonds was already making at the time his mistress claims he cheated, cheating on maybe $100,000 (which only saves maybe $40-45,000), it does not make sense to me since he most probably know the consequences of that nearly first hand, and fairly recently, I think Stretch got caught early in Barry’s career.

    Reading through all the excerpts about her, it struck me that the story she laid out just looked too perfect in the details listed, like she had researched all this and threw the kitchen sink at him. That’s when it struck me that she is in the computer industry and thus comfortable using the computer. How hard would it be to decide to get back at your ex-boyfriend by researching things that baseball players have been accused of doing illegally in the past, including Bonds, and just say that Bonds did them? Particularly if there is no way to prove you wrong?

  7. JC says:

    Is there any documentation as to whether HGH causes such health problems regardless of its effect on performance?

    Follow the above link to acromegaly. Not good.

    Given the price of high price of HGH I think use among young athletes would be extremely rare even if it did work.

  8. dwezilwoffa says:

    One question I had was that the studies only involved volunteers 68 yrs old and up. Has there been any studies involving people in their mid to late 20’s and early 30’s.

  9. Paul Todd says:

    So studies of 97 men and women aged 65-88 prove that 25-35 yo athletes taking HGH do not get any beneficial results. Not very convincing. There is no evidence to support the effect of HGH amaong athletes because no one has studied the HGH effects on athletes. It may well be their are no benefits, but GMJ seems to prove otherwise.

  10. JC says:

    On studies of the elderly: It’s more informative than gym rat hearsay. More importantly, the experts I’ve consulted don’t feel the age of the subjects means these studies are irrelevant to athletes. These studies are not just empirical tests uninformed by theory.

    On GMJ: The stats don’t convict.

    It might be that HGH does have an impact, but why has the media failed to report the professional skepticism? I have yet to have a single physiologist write to complain about what I have put forth. If you are a journalist, pick up the phone and call several exercise physiologists at your local university and see what they have to say on the subject. That is all I’m asking.

  11. Hugo says:

    Paul Todd:

    I think you should watch your use of the word ‘prove’ in this context. Those studies do not prove anything – they show trends which allow us to come to conclusions. Leave the word ‘prove’ to the realm of mathematics.

    It’s too bad that most sports writers will not even begin to entertain this study (or similar ones) because it’s too easy for them to write ‘controversial’ stories that get readers attention rather than actually writing the truth. The majority of sports writers out there now are horribly ill-informed and are no better than a writer for the National Enquirer. I’m getting sick of reading about nothing more than accusations (steroids) and drama (a-rod).

  12. Jeff says:

    I feel that one of the greatest benefits of PED’s is confidence. For example, on steroids you may be stronger, but strength alone doesn’t hit a baseball. However, there is aid that comes in the security blanket of being on steroids. Hitters are more confident and relaxed – two things conducive to success as a hitter – and thus they perform better. I am not saying the steroids don’t add distance to balls, but the biggest edge is from knowing they are on steroids. I say this because the placebo effect of being on HGH may be enough for some guys.

    It is similar to the corked bat issue. There is debate over whether or not corking your bat actually helps the ball travel farther. It makes it lighter, i.e., more bat speed, but it also makes it less dense. Yet, some hitters still, on occasion, use corked bats. Why? Because they think it gives them an edge. For some athletes, thinking you have an edge may be as good as actually having one.

    Just don’t look down Coyote!

  13. Chili says:

    In the short term, steroids offer two tremendous benefits:

    1. while one does need nearly preternatural hand-eye co-ordination to hit major league pitching, it’s certainly an advantage to take that gift and be able to hit the ball much farther and throw it faster.

    2. baseball is a grind, and steroids decrease the time that the body needs to recover.

    I’m not worried about HGH. The problem is that there will always be more money put into finding new drugs/new masking agents than there will be into policing for these substances. The danger is that there is a new kind of PED/masking agent that can’t be tested for. It’s a perpetually imperfect system.

  14. Dallas says:

    I understand the study’s implication that if HGH would improve anything physically, it would enhance an elderly individual’s body composition. If these athletes are taking HGH, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the studies show the majority of the athletes taking HGH in high school and college to aid in physique development. In other words, do certain athletes have these natural body structures, or have they used HGH to establish the frame/groundwork which allowed greater plateaus for muscle growth.

    Does the average person’s growth maximization peak at one point while an athlete who used HGH during the growth phase (presumably into their early 20’s) peak at a much higher point? I would be very interested to see research done on anyone that used HGH during their growth phase coupled with non-performance enhancing supplements afterwards.

    These athletes might not be on any substances now, but if they used earlier on, they might have increased their max potential for later in life. Would certain MLB sluggers still look like middle linebackers, or would they look more like Roger Maris?

  15. Ron says:

    Yeah, Chilli points out the real issue with HGH even if it isn’t itself an effective PED. It is, however, banned by baseball but not tested for. So what happens when chemists come up with a new PED that is also not tested for but actually is effective? Most likely baseball will once again stick its head in the sand and ignore the new drug’s existence, preferring instead to believe that they have fixed the PED problem for all time since they now test for anabolic steroids.

  16. Tom Maguire says:

    As I recall the SI excerpts from Game of Shadows, Bonds started on a steroids-only program; that season resulted in an injury (elbow?). probable reason – his muscles were disproportionately strong relative to the connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, etc. – yeah, like I’m a doctor…)

    Next season the trainer added HGH to the mix so that his body could support the strength, and voilia – Barry!

    So no, using it by itself was not the Bonds program, but it was a useful complement to a muscle building program. That does not seem to have been addressed by your articles.

  17. Brian says:

    I believe I had read in the past that one of the primary benefits of HGH was that it helped your body recover from injuries, and general wear and tear faster, and may even prevent injuries by increasing flexability, etc. Are there any studies that go either way on that question ? Also, it would seem to me that a study conducted on younger athletic people rather than over 60 people could have very different outcomes.

  18. JC says:

    There is no scientific evidence to back up the claim reported in GOS. HGH does not increase strength. In fact, it’s more plausible to suggest steroids are needed to support the useless immature muscle added by HGH. Maybe Barry believed it, but many people also think Steve Bartman is responsible for the Cubs’ woes.

  19. D. Johnston says:

    obsessivegiantscompulsive…

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that the only thing that Kirby Puckett was juiced up on was Arby’s.

    Also…I work in sports rehab and nutrition, and it’s depressing at times to see how most of the media covers the steroid issue. The only contrarian angle I’ve ever witnessed was done by HBO’s Real Sports. It’s no wonder little is actually known about HGH at the big papers and networks. They don’t really do their homework. They sell sizzle.

  20. Erik says:

    Brian brings up the most important point, in my opinion. I have no doubt in the medical studies that claim HGH doesn’t build significant muscle mass, but this misses the point.

    In order to break a career record in baseball, one needs to produce at a high level for the whole season, every season, for many years. Its difficult to do this because the human body breaks down over the course of a season, and the older one is, the more likely one is to break down.

    Therefore, something like HGH that artificially boosts the body’s ability to grow, at an age when regenerative powers usually are declining, can have a profound affect on a player’s performance late in the season (and late in life).

    Perhaps I’m confused about what exactly HGH does. I assume that anything that boosts “growth” will also boost regeneration and recovery from injury.

  21. davis says:

    What about the use of HGH with IGF (insulin growth factor, which is supposed to increase it’s effectiveness? Or the use of GHRP (growth hormone releasing peptide), which is said to build strength?

  22. Greg C. says:

    As far as HGH and eyesight, does it really matter? Is baseball going to ban eyeglasses, contacts, and LASIK?

    The thing is nothing in life is fair, and in baseball there are a lot of people with advantages and a lot of things “natural” or not that give advantages or “level the field.” Baseball ( and Congress especially) really should have no interest or role in trying to make everything “even.” Such a thing doesn’t exist. Some people are born with higher test levels, some faster, some stronger,etc. Others train, workout, take supplements. The line that defines what is fair or natural is laughable.

    As far as Roids and glaucoma at an “early age.” My dad ( who am sure never “juiced”- though he was very impressive in workouts and had a decent body) has glaucoma. He developed it in his 30s. He is also Ccaucasian- so I think his case is more unusual than Puckett. Plus does anyone really think Kirby used?

  23. gfh says:

    To the person who quoted game of shadows – Atually, they don’t argue that Bonds eyesight gets better, only that it goes back to Normal after getting worse when using steroids.

  24. James says:

    Most people are experts on everything.
    We rank last in science education in the western world yet every guy with an internet account thinks he is an expert on human physiology and developmental biology.
    There are guys in my department who have PhDs and are members of the National Academy of Sciences and they will tell you HGH, as well as steroids are useless in enhancing sports physiology in most folks. They will also admit because they know what they are talking about that in some selected folks it might have some benefits and others it might kill them in a month. There is no such thing as typical human metabolism or physiology. Everyone is different. The impact is more psychological than anything else. You build muscle mass by working out, simply popping a pill and sitting on your rear for 16 hours a day probably will not do you much good. Steroids allow you to work muscle groups harder and also get a greater award for working those muscle groups. The fact that you see the rewards of your work sooner than later makes you work even harder and etc…etc…etc…

  25. Halfdan says:

    Physicians prescribed hormones to menopausal women for over half a century–until they discovered it led to an increase in heart attack, stroke, cancer and dementia. So no, we can’t assume that hGH–especially taken over a period of 25 years, say–is just another lucky rabbit’s foot.

  26. Halfdan says:

    Oh, and for a long time, clinical studies suggested that the anabolic steroid effect on performance was also a placebo effect. Until they realized that clinical levels of steroids were much, much smaller than those used by athletes.

  27. Baltimoron says:

    I’m no scientist, but I’ll present my understanding of why these studies have little credibility in the community where HGH use/abuse is prevalent (the bodybuilding/power lifting community). JC sorta addressed this in #18.

    I don’t suggest these studies are wrong or flawed, but they appear irrelevant (I hope I am mistaken), or at least a large segment of the community of people using HGH regards them as such.

    And that’s the rub: if HGH is ineffective, IMO the scientific community has an obligation to communicate this information to those who can benefit the most from this information (those using/abusing HGH) it in a fashion that resonates credibility.

    The problem is this community knows HGH does not provide hypertrophy (growth in cellular size). That is not why they are using it. Its common knowledge you’d be a moron to just use HGH.

    HGH is almost always stacked with a steroid and/or testosterone. The theory behind the use of HGH as a PED (I dunno if its valid or not) is that the HGH provides the hyperplasia (or increase in the number of cells), while the steroid and or testosterone cycle that is stacked with HGH provides the hypertrophy (or growth in cellular size and perhaps increases in cellular maturity).

    In simple terms, the theory behind stacking is that HGH creates new, immature cells (hyperplasia), while the steroids/testosterone provides the growth of the cells (hypertrophy). In essence, HGH creates more cells for the steroids/testosterone to “inflate” than there would be absent HGH.

    I have no idea if this is scientifically credible, but its what you hear from any HGH proponent in regards to refuting this information.

    I hope my understanding of the scientific studies is mistaken, but it appears these studies are irrelevant to the question at hand, which is HGH’s efficacy as a PED. To answer this question, don’t you have to study how HGH is actually being used/abused?

    Even if I am mistaken and the synergistic effects of HGH when stacked with steroids/testosterone have been found to be non-existent in studies, the scientific community has done an exceptionally poor job of presenting this information in a meaningful fashion.

    As far as I can tell, the “scientific proof” you have presented will continue to resonate as silly to those with knowledge of how HGH is actually used.

    I hope my tone is not too harsh, I only wish to call attention to this (ostensibly) egregiously glaring hole in your article.

    I only hope someone can point me to scientific evidence that can be used to refute the stacking theory, as there seems to be little dispute that HGH is bad for people, but the way to get them to stop using it is not to point out the downside risk (often minimized and ignored by user/abusers), but to make clear the pointlessness of the endeavor.

  28. byy says:

    balt – but it’s widely assumed that HGH is used alone, and judging by the evidence presented, it doesn’t work alone.

  29. Baltimoron says:

    “but it’s widely assumed that HGH is used alone”

    That assumption is patently ridiculous, and indicative of the white-tower mentality that has hampered educational efforts in this area. Why assume, why not get out into reality and find out how out of touch with reality these assumptions really are?

    The conclusion many are left with is that HGH does have synergistic effects with testosterone/ steroids, and the absence of research is indicative of the fact that researchers don’t want to document this fact and risk being viewed as proponents of drug abuse.

  30. Diamondback says:

    I’m late to the party, but I find interesting Baltimoron’s first-hand description of how HGH is actually used. I’ve got to ask, though, if HGH is *not* used alone (if users believe that HGH is beneficial only when stacked with artificial testosterone), then why bother developing a test for HGH? And why whine about the absence of one?

    The testosterone is detectable by tests. If there’s no benefit without the steroids, then testing for steroids should be adequate to ensure the “integrity” of sports. At least, to as great a degree as practical — there will always be ways to escape detection if one is dedicated to doing so.

    There seems to be some reason to believe that HGH cannot improve athletic performance on its own. Catch the steroid users, and you’ve caught everyone who might benefit from HGH. Therefore, HGH need not be a concern to the testing agencies.

    Thanks for the post, JC.

  31. REMOVED says:

    EDIT: COMMENT REMOVED AT AUTHOR’S REQUEST.

  32. Joe says:

    Wade … try again.

    First: what does tobacco have to do with baseball? The days of players with big wads of “chaw” bulging from their cheeks are 20+ years gone. And even if chewing tobacco is your issue, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that well over 75% of those who die from tobacco are smokers, not chewers.

    Second: 170,000 people die from alcohol per year, out of how many that drink alcohol? Hundreds of millions, I’ll guess? Do hundreds of millions of people take steroids? Maybe if you came up with solid PERCENTAGES of the user:death ratio it would be a stronger case.

    Third: Alcohol is legal to drink for those 21 and older. Taking steroids without a prescription is illegal.

    One of the reasons alcohol is legal is because when consumed in moderation, it will not do damage to a healthy human body (the other reason is to collect taxes). However, with steroids there is a risk of damage when taken in any capacity.

    Oh, and last I checked, drinking a glass of wine with dinner doesn’t increase muscle mass or help you hit homeruns. But then, I guess cheating, breaking the law, and ethical standards are not issues to consider when raising children.

  33. Bobcat says:

    Could someone please tell me what PED stands for. TYIA.

  34. JC says:

    PED = Performance Enhancing Drug

  35. freedog says:

    Hello All,

    Here’s the deal, anyone who spends any amount of time in a gym will very quickly learn that the culture is extremely clever in finding ways to stack different drugs in an effort to improve performance. There are a lot of “gym culture” trials going on, supported by the local doctor who also happens to lift at the gym.

    Bottom line..HGH DOES work, for many people when combined with testosterone and or other steroids and the guys in the gym have figured out the formula and passed it on to the trainers and the trainers to the athletes.

    All these formal studies are flawed because no one in the gym uses only one product..it’s all about stacking, cycling, new workout routines, etc.

    Your best source is not the intellectual in the sterile setting but the people in the gym..just look at them.

  36. Mr. Baseball says:

    To Baltimoron in #27, first of all there is little to no evidence that muscle hyperplasia can occur in humans,
    secondly don’t hold your breath for any scientific studies looking at the additive effects of stacking steroids and GH, IGF 1, Insulin, etc. There is the problem of IRB’s which means the ‘gym’ science, while dangerous and not peer reviewed is most likely the cutting egde on the subject.
    Lastly anyone wondering about the pervasiveness of steroids in baseball need only to turn on ESPN classic, even early 90’s players look like teenagers compared to today.