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Nandrolone: Tyson Fury's alleged failed test and MMA's favorite steroid

Following heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury’s failed drug test for, allegedly, nandrolone, Bloody Elbow’s Iain Kidd explains what it is, how it works, and it’s storied history in MMA.

Robert Cianflone

It was recently revealed that world heavyweight boxing champion, Tyson Fury, failed a drug test administered by the UK Anti-Doping agency, UKAD. The failure was allegedly for one of the more notorious performance enhancing drugs; nandrolone.

The anabolic steroid, Nandrolone -- sometimes referred to by the trade name Deca Durabolin -- has shown up in failed tests from a wide range of athletes and sports. Famed US track & field star, Marion Jones; current Manchester City manager and former professional soccer player, Pep Guardiola; the first European to run 100m in under 10 seconds, Linford Christie; and baseball superstar, Roger Clemens, have all tested positive for nandrolone metabolites in the past.

There is also a long history of mixed martial artists failing drug tests for nandrolone metabolites. The list includes well known fighters like Josh Barnett, Royce Gracie, Nate Marquardt, Sean Sherk, Dennis Hallman, Joey Beltran, and even female fighter Carina Damm among others. It might be the single most commonly detected PED among mixed martial artists.

Nandrolone is an anabolic steroid which is chemically very similar to testosterone. Testosterone is the body’s natural anabolic steroid, and it would be reasonably accurate to say it is the primary hormone in determining a person’s muscle mass. Nandrolone has a significant effect on muscle mass, and like most anabolic steroids, also aids in protein synthesis, allowing for faster recovery from workouts.

The slight difference in chemical structure between testosterone and nandrolone -- nandrolone contains one less carbon atom -- means that nandrolone has an anabolic:androgenic ratio of 10:1, while testosterone has a ratio of 1:1. To (over) simplify, a greater anabolic ratio will result in more significant changes to muscle mass, via the promotion of cell growth.

What is most interesting to me is that for all of its history being used by athletes, nandrolone is not an ideal PED for performance. Studies have shown that nandrolone is far more adept at increasing muscle mass than increasing actual functional strength -- the difference in strength gains between a group exercising while on nandrolone, and a control group exercising without nandrolone, is minimal, despite nandrolone increasing muscle mass significantly.

Nandrolone excels at building lean muscle mass. The above study shows that users taking nandrolone without exercising gained around 3.3kg of lean body mass on average -- roughly 7 lbs. This was roughly identical to the gain from taking nandrolone and exercising, meaning nandrolone increases muscle mass by roughly the same amount with or without exercise, at least in individuals undergoing hemodialysis. The increased muscle mass nandrolone provides only translates into significantly increased strength if resistance training is undertaken.

It must be emphasised that studies of nandrolone tend not to involve elite athletes. Participants are usually HIV positive, receiving hemodialysis, or are otherwise suffering from muscle wasting. As a result, the conclusions of those studies may not apply perfectly to elite athletes.

Something which must be considered is that nandrolone, as well as other anabolic steroids, allow humans to achieve supraphysiological muscle mass. A person’s genes and hormone levels dictate the maximum amount of muscle they can build, and as a result the maximum strength or power they can generate. Anabolic steroids allow a person to gain more muscle than would otherwise be possible. Even if nandrolone does not allow a person to increase their strength significantly faster than normal, the increased maximal muscle mass it undoubtedly provides would likely lead to an increase in maximal strength.

Nandrolone pops up frequently in drug tests not only because of its popularity, but also because its metabolites are detectable for months, sometimes over a year, depending on dosage and the sensitivity of the test; nandrolone metabolites are among the longest lasting of all anabolic steroid metabolites. Nandrolone appears to be less popular among athletes today for this reason.

In a previous article on GHRP-6, I mentioned something of a "scale" of PEDs, with things banned purely because their metabolites can be confused with the metabolites of actual PEDs at 1, and hardcore anabolic steroids at the other end of the scale at 100. Nandrolone would be somewhere in the high 80’s to 90’s. It’s by no means the most potent anabolic steroid, but it provides a significant advantage, potentially giving levels of muscle mass which could not be obtained naturally.