THE MK-677 HAD ar­rived on Daniel’s* doorstep in a plain brown box and was as dark as urine. Daniel stood in his bath­room, drawing the serum into an oral sy­ringe, in­ves­ti­gat­ing its color and con­sis­tency. Once it checked out, he let the liq­uid fall onto his tongue. It blud­geoned his taste buds with an acrid, si­nus-scorch­ing fla­vor. The next day, he went to the gym. DANIEL IS A 39-year-old sur­geon. In col­lege, he was an ath­lete—lean, mus­cled. But four years of med school left him 50 pounds heav­ier, and he had lit­tle time to sweat it off. Lift­ing brought him some so­lace, but the gains came slowly. Frus­trated, Daniel sought an edge. Steroids were out of the ques­tion: “I could lose my li­cense,” he says. But then, while comb­ing the Web for an al­ter­na­tive, he dis­cov­ered MK-677, a chem­i­cal orig­i­nally in­tended for Alzheimer’s pa­tients. In an ill-con­sid­ered health gam­ble that would rightly hor­rify most med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, he did a lit­tle “re­search” on anony­mous on­line fo­rums and started tak­ing MK677 along with an­other chem­i­cal. Five weeks into his trial run, he dead­lifted 335 pounds three times; a month ago he could barely bring that weight off the ground. It didn’t end there. He be­gan strap­ping 55 pounds to his waist for dips (up from 25) and bang­ing out three sets of 10. He tacked on 15 pounds to his over­head press, too.

“My wife was like, ‘Hey, your arms look big­ger,’” he says.

Daniel is part of a com­mu­nity of hor­monal hob­by­ists look­ing to get cut—and cut cor­ners do­ing it. Risk­ing their long-term health on a largely untested and pow­er­ful sub­stance in or­der to ob­tain what they con­sider an ideal mas­cu­line physique, they’re ex­per­i­ment­ing with se­lec­tive an­dro­gen re­cep­tor mod­u­la­tors, or SARMS. Orig­i­nally de­signed to strengthen can­cer pa­tients and to com­bat the wither­ing of old age, th­ese chem­i­cals in low doses seem to en­hance growth re­cep­tors with­out af­fect­ing testos­terone lev­els. On body­build­ing fo­rums and black­mar­ket sites, the drugs are be­ing po­si­tioned as a cut­ting-edge al­ter­na­tive to steroids: no strict regi- men of in­jec­tions; no man boobs, anger is­sues, or acne. Best of all, the mus­cle ap­pears to stick around af­ter the dos­ing stops.

But you won’t find them on the shelves at GNC; SARMS are chem­i­cals de­vel­oped for crit­i­cal med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions. None of the com­pounds have ever made it out of clin­i­cal tri­als or been stud­ied in the amounts taken by men like Daniel. Their long-term ef­fects are un­known. One study was aborted af­ter test mice be­gan bleed­ing from the rec­tum. But due to a loop­hole in fed­eral law, SARMS can be pur­chased from sec­ond­hand phar­ma­co­log­i­cal Web sites—that is, if buy­ers af­firm that the drugs are be­ing bought for “re­search pur­poses” for use on “lab­o­ra­tory an­i­mals.” One evening while driv­ing home from work, Daniel no­ticed his vi­sion had gone green—as though food col­or­ing had been dropped onto his pupils. His eyes were hazy, un­able to fo­cus un­der bright lights. De­spite the ob­vi­ous dan­gers to pa­tients he op­er­ated on, Daniel didn’t seem to worry. “It’s one of the ef­fects recorded in tri­als,” he rea­sons. “At least I know I’m get­ting the real deal.”

LIKE SO MANY PHAR­MA­CEU­TI­CAL break­throughs, SARMS were cre­ated accidentally. In 1997 doc­tors James Dal­ton and Duane Miller were search­ing for ways to block testos­terone from ag­gra­vat­ing re­cep­tors in the prostate. Along the way they in­ad­ver­tently cre­ated com­pounds that ac­ti­vated cer­tain mus­cle pathways while leav­ing oth­ers alone.

Known as the mother of all steroids, testos­terone in­creases pro­tein syn­the­sis. Take it in ex­cess and you’ll fill out your shirt un­til you can’t but­ton the col­lar. Same with oral an­abol­ics, which are liver toxic and fre­quently used with testos­terone to build mass. But both are non­s­e­lec­tive and car­pet bomb the body, trig­ger­ing re­cep­tors that prompt not only cel­lu­lar growth but also hair loss, skin prob­lems, and ex­cess es­tro­gen. When cas­trated mice were given an early SARM, how­ever, mus­cle en­large­ment was far more sig­nif­i­cant than any other mild ef­fect.

Dal­ton and Miller li­censed their com­pound to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany GTX, Inc. and be­gan de­vel­op­ing the drugs as a treat­ment for mus­cle loss. GTX moved ahead with MK-2866, dub­bing it Os­tarine. Lig­and Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals in­vested in an­other for­mu­la­tion, LGD-4033. Merck’s MK-677, a Sarm-like chem­i­cal, was de­signed to coun­ter­act growth de­fi­cien­cies; Glax­osmithk­line’s GW-501516 re­sulted in ex­treme en­durance, with test ro­dents run­ning 92 per­cent longer than av­er­age.

Dal­ton knew what would fol­low. Body­builders are al­ways first in line for any drug with the po­ten­tial to ac­cel­er­ate mus­cle growth, and it wasn’t long be­fore profit-hun­gry labs sup­ply­ing U.S. deal­ers be­gan copy­ing for­mu­las out of jour­nals. Drugs un­sanc­tioned by the FDA are il­le­gal to sell

for hu­man con­sump­tion, so most SARMS come in foul-tast­ing liq­uid form un­der the la­bel of “re­search chem­i­cals.” Sev­eral dozen Web sites ped­dle them. They ac­cept all ma­jor credit cards; a few even traf­fic in bit­coin.

Ac­cord­ing to Rick Collins, an at­tor­ney spe­cial­iz­ing in steroid-re­lated cases, both seller and buyer of­ten know there’s no an­i­mal re­search. “The only one in the dark is the agency that’s sup­posed to be su­per­vis­ing the sit­u­a­tion—the FDA,” he says. The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Most sites don’t list dos­ing in­struc­tions, so a thriv­ing com­mu­nity of self-ex­per­i­menters has emerged on on­line fo­rums to swap tips and hor­ror sto­ries. One user who started tak­ing SARMS at 17 claimed they wrecked his hor­mones. Oth­ers fret­ted about or­gan tox­i­c­ity and liver dam­age.

Ed, a 223-pound data an­a­lyst and part-time body­builder, isn’t wor­ried. “I’m ab­so­lutely a guinea pig,” he says.

For Ty, who has less than 10 per­cent body fat, tes­ti­monies on the fo­rums “tend to con­vince me I won’t be killing my­self,” he says. He guesses he’s used Os­tarine nine times. Each mul­ti­week cy­cle re­sulted in six pounds of mass and ad­di­tional def­i­ni­tion.

Ed added eight pounds dur­ing one cy­cle. Sure, an­abol­ics could tack on roughly 10 to 15 in the same pe­riod, but the sched­ule can be ex­haust­ing: twice-weekly or daily in­jec­tions, pills to avoid breast-tis­sue growth, and in­creased like­li­hood of a car­dio­vas­cu­lar event. What’s more, with an­abol­ics, “wet” gains—those that re­sult in wa­ter re­ten­tion—are of­ten uri­nated away af­ter cy­cles stop. SARM gains are said to be “dry,” with the mus­cle stay­ing in­tact. But to Dal­ton, there are still too many unan­swered ques­tions.

“Quite hon­estly,” he says, “it scares me to death.”

AS THEIR NAME SUG­GESTS, SARMS are quite se­lec­tive about what re­cep­tors they stim­u­late. But that’s only proved to be true in ther­a­peu­tic doses. Body­builders’ early hopes that large amounts of SARMS wouldn’t turn off nat­u­ral testos­terone pro­duc­tion were un­founded, and many have had to add other drugs to kick-start low-func­tion­ing tes­ti­cles. Some have also re­ported bleed­ing gums and mus­cle spasms.

Ed tried 50 mil­ligrams of Os­tarine be­cause he “wanted to see what would hap­pen.” It was no more ef­fec­tive than the 25 rec­om­mended by fo­rum ad­vis­ers, but his liver en­zymes shot up. One study found that at high amounts, GW-501516 in­duced tu­mors in mice. Both it and S-4 are no longer be­ing de­vel­oped but are still in use among gym rats.

It can be dif­fi­cult to tell when ad­verse ef­fects are due to the drug it­self or tainted batches. Black­mar­ket labs aren’t known for steril­ity. Af­ter scan­ning a sec­ond­hand Os­tarine bot­tle, Dal­ton no­ticed a miss­ing in­gre­di­ent. “The com­pound wouldn’t build mus­cle,” he says. “It could be safe or danger­ous. No­body knows.”

The lack of re­search has led many users to be­come am­a­teur bio­chemists. Ed rou­tinely pores over en­docrinol­ogy jour­nals; guys like Ty, who’s taken Os­tarine for up to 16 weeks in a cy­cle and also saw his vi­sion yel­low on S-4, get blood work done be­fore and af­ter dos­ing to make sure they haven’t loos­ened a cel­lu­lar bolt. “If I feel it


be­comes too much, I’ll stop,” he says.

On one fo­rum, a user sug­gested eat­ing more fiber to off­set “the squirts”; an­other the­o­rized the polyps risk would be re­duced with an anti-in­flam­ma­tory pill.

Some am­a­teur re­ports are so­phis­ti­cated, ad­mits Abra­ham Mor­gen­taler, M.D., a hor­monal-ther­apy spe­cial­ist. “But th­ese are med­i­ca­tions that change hor­mones, and they’ve never been stud­ied ad­e­quately in hu­mans. It’s hard to know the risks.”

For mus­cle chasers, risk is rarely an is­sue: An­abolic use surged in the 1970s, help­ing cre­ate the Gold’s Gym physiques. Testos­terone was the base; an­abol­ics were added to en­hance ef­fects. In the 1980s, lifters even be­gan spik­ing and crash­ing their blood sugar with in­sulin to aug­ment gains.

“Guys were go­ing into co­mas and flirt­ing with death,” says Randy Roach, au­thor of the his­tory Mus­cle, Smoke & Mir­rors. “In­sulin was hugely danger­ous, but they didn’t care.” Then came the growth hor­mone, and the car­toon­ish pro­por­tions it cre­ated.

To­day, lean is the new large. Com­pa­nies line shelves with sup­ple­ments that fol­low the trend. Some are spiked with an­abol­ics to en­sure re­sults. The oc­ca­sional scare emerges—one was pulled af­ter caus­ing liver fail­ure—but most users aren’t put off. The prob­lem is that lifters are of­ten more in­formed than those scold­ing them, hav­ing dis­cov­ered high­pro­tein, low-carb di­ets and other hacks be­fore they were rec­om­mended.

The pur­suit of mus­cle of­ten trumps com­mon sense. “In 10 years, I don’t know what this stuff will do,” says Ty. “But so far, it hasn’t hurt me.”

MAS­CULIN­ITY TAGGED WITH a UPS track­ing num­ber is be­com­ing harder to come by. This past win­ter, Congress qui­etly en­acted the Designer An­abolic Steroid Con­trol Act. It gives the DEA author­ity to tar­get sell­ers of designer drugs, the an­abol­ics-in-dis­guise that have long flown un­der its radar. Web sites im­me­di­ately of­fered sig­nif­i­cant mark­downs.

But SARMS are get­ting a pass—for now. “The way the statute is writ­ten, we have to be able to demon­strate a sub­stance is chem­i­cally and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cally sim­i­lar to testos­terone,” says DEA spokesman Joseph Moses. “That makes them in­ca­pable of be­ing con­trolled un­der the term an­abolic steroid.” Per­versely, then, the ban may make SARMS even more popular.

Ath­letic reg­u­la­tors are tak­ing ac­tion, how­ever. Both the World An­ti­Dop­ing Agency (WADA) and the U.S. Anti-dop­ing Agency (USADA) have banned SARMS from sport­ing events. Mean­while, Os­tarine is still be­ing de­vel­oped in hope of get­ting FDA ap­proval; newer SARMS are be­ing nursed by Glax­osmithk­line. If any come to mar­ket, they will be clas­si­fied as pre­scrip­tion drugs. For the un­der­ground, it’s bet­ter that SARMS re­main in de­vel­op­men­tal limbo, where the sell­ing of “re­search chem­i­cals” can con­tinue.

That legal fudge is open­ing up new pos­si­bil­i­ties. Ty has been in­ject­ing a new com­pound called ACE-083 into his calves and biceps. Af­ter three days, he claims, he mea­sured three quar­ters of an inch of mus­cle growth. “Fuck, if 1 mil­ligram did this,” he asks, “what will 50 do?” Good ques­tion. Maybe let the lab rats help an­swer it. ■

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