Can drugs give you superpowers?
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
My current novel is about everyday people who get superpowers from amazing future technology that I totally made up. The tech simply doesn’t exist, and probably won’t in my lifetime—or ever. But I want superpowers NOW. Fortunately, there are a myriad of for-real superpower technologies out there. Sure, they’re rudimentary and rife with life-threatening side effects, but they exist. So keep reading if you want to be faster, stronger, better NOW.
Don’t do any of these things. Seriously. They can mess you up something awful. BIG ASS DISCLAIMER
Magic potions go way back. Drink this vile slime and you’ll be blessed with fertility, strength, and a charming smile. Check out this clear, rose-scented tonic. It’ll give you a silver tongue and the ability to woo any noblewoman. None of them actually worked—and some actively harmed. We didn’t get real performance-enhancing drugs until the late 1890s. Today there are dozens of them and they actually work.
In the futuristic role-playing-game Rifts, you can play a class called the “Juicer.” Juicers are rigged with elaborate performance-enhancing drug delivery systems. They’re pumped full of all kinds of chemicals that effectively make them superhuman. Of course the drugs also shorten their lifespans—sometimes to just eight years. I always thought Juicers represented the most realistic way to get superpowers. I had asthma growing up and I took a bunch of different drugs that kept me from having a potentially deadly asthma attack. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine a regimen of drugs that could give me super strength, super endurance, or super intelligence. But there isn’t such a regimen and performancing-enhancing drugs mostly just make you a little bit better.
Most of us know what steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs do, so I’ll try to stick to little-known facts. Most of this comes from the Mayo Clinic, which has compiled a detailed list of all the drugs you can take to make you awesome at sports.
Captain America got his super strength from a tube of Stark Labs goo. According to canon, Cap can bench 1,500 pounds and press 800 pounds over his head. That’s bonkers. For comparison, powerlifter Blaine Sumner holds the world record for bench press at 885 pounds. Olympic weightlifter Lasha Talakhadze currently holds the official world record for the clean and jerk—picking up a barbell up off the ground and pressing it over your head—at 582 pounds.
Nothing will make you as strong as Cap, but steroids can definitely make you stronger and more ripped. Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of the hormone Testosterone that were first synthesized in Germany in the 1930s. Testosterone, or synthetic versions of it, bind to androgen receptors in muscles, encouraging protein synthesis and muscle growth.
But you can’t just inject steroids and expect to wake up buff. You gotta work out like crazy and eat a ton of food to fuel all that muscle growth. Most people will get noticeably stronger and more muscular on steroids—if they exercise. Some people, however, will gain a lot more muscle on steroids. It all depends on how many androgen receptors your muscles have. The more receptors, the better your muscles respond to steroids. Ironically, it seems that naturally strong people respond better to steroids.
Most people need a tremendous amount of steroids to gain muscle. We’re talking hundreds of times more than you’d naturally have. You will get totally swole, but that much synthetic T will throw your delicate hormone balance out of whack. It can cause all kinds of problems, including liver abnormalities, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, acne, irregular periods, baldness, depression, aggression, increased body hair, etc.
So how strong can steroids make you? Strong enough to lift a car off someone? Maybe if you started off crazy big and crazy strong. World strong man champion and Game of Thrones star Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson recently deadlifted (picked up a barbell off the ground) more than 1100 pounds. That’s a world record. He’s been lifting for years, is 6’9”, and weighs around 400 pounds. He’s a beast of a man, and he could definitely rescue someone from a car wreck like a superhero. He also recently admitted to using some steroids during his strong man training. So if you’re born big and strong, work out for a living, and take steroids, you might become as strong as Björnsson. The guy is probably the closest thing we have to Captain America, except he’s from Iceland.
Quick aside: It seems most strong man champions have used steroids at some point during their careers. That doesn’t make their accomplishments any less spectacular. You need to put in a ton of work to get that strong and steroids can only do so much. Plus, competition is fierce. If the other people are using steroids, wouldn’t you? I would. Also Hafþór please don’t hurt me.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
The name pretty much says it all—it’s a growth hormone. It fuels childhood growth and helps keep your organs and other tissues healthy throughout life. If you suffer from an HGH deficiency, taking HGH can improve exercise capacity, bone density, and muscle mass. It can also decrease body fat. But if you’re just a normal person with normal levels of HGH to begin with, it probably won’t help. From the good old Mayonnaise Clinic:
“Studies of healthy adults taking human growth hormone are limited and contradictory. Although it appears that human growth hormone can increase muscle mass and reduce the amount of body fat in healthy older adults, the increase in muscle doesn't translate into increased strength. It isn't clear if human growth hormone provides other benefits to healthy adults.”
So HGH might make you look stronger, but it probably doesn’t make you any stronger. Oh well.
Want to run or ride your bike forever? Well erythropoietin might just be for you! Many competitive cyclists used the synthetic version—epoetin alpha—in the ‘90s to help improve their endurance. It can increase the number of red blood cells in your blood. Red blood cells carry oxygen to your muscles, where it’s used to break down glucose into fuel. If you have more red blood cells, you can theoretically use glucose more efficiently and exercise for a longer period of time.
Unfortunately epoetin can increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and pulmonary embolisms. It allegedly contributed to 18 deaths in competitive cycling. So not sure getting those extra few miles is worth it.
Stimulants do what it says on the tin: They stimulate. Specifically drugs like amphetamines stimulate the central nervous system, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. They can also improve reaction time, cognitive function, endurance, and trigger feelings of alertness and euphoria. A puff of meth could give you a few-millisecond edge over the competition, which could be the difference between gold and silver or life and death if you’re Batman. Seems pretty useful when sporting or superheroing.
It’s no secret that stimulants have side effects. Even a big cup of coffee can make you jittery, irritable, and scattered. They can keep you up at night, which will really wreck your body. It’s also easy to build up a tolerance to them, meaning you’ll need more and more to get the same rush. At high doses, stimulants can cause brain damage and even strokes.
And it’s not like stimulants will give you the Flash’s reaction time. They may provide a slight advantage on the field or in the ring, but the side effects would quickly negate them. So for now it looks like there really isn’t a drug you can take to slow or stop time.
In the next piece I’ll explore the best and most effective way to get superpowers: Machinery. Stay tuned.