In my two previous posts “Performance enhancing drugs in rowing?” and “How to spot a drug cheat on a rowing machine!” I prevaricated, I hinted, I suggested, but I did not name names. That was sensible, but at the same time that was cowardly. But as Lester Bangs probably never said in real life, “Be honest, and unmerciful.”
The problem is I am probably about to be unmerciful to some people who may be very nice people just trying to push the limits of what they are capable of, and I may about to try to be honest about people I consider corrupt cheats, liars and braggarts. Have you ever tried being honest and objective about a corrupt, cheat, liar and braggart. Its bloody difficult.
So I have created a list with the associated justification of why I am skeptical of the achievements of these people on the ergo, and why I am as skeptical of them as I am.
This is divided into three categories Extreme Skepticism, Moderate Skepticism, and Some Skepticism. This list is not compiled from any evidence not in the public domain, it is based on a degree of subjective analysis of photographs and results and it is not complete. So treat it with a pinch of salt, this post is the paranoid ranting of an anonymous, broken failure of a rower with a powerful Littlefinger complex.
Extreme Skepticism –
Sam Loch –
I am gobsmacked that I am the first person to bring this up publicly, that I aware of, but – Sam Loch. Now as I have said above I have difficulty being purely objective about him, I find him to be a braggart and a posing he-man, but I will try try to point out the flaws in my own arguments.
Sam Loch is a three time world record holder on the ergo (1 min, 1k and 24hr tandem), second place in the Men’s Open at the CRASH-B in 2014, he is twice a bronze medalist in the World Rowing Championship and a double Olympian in the Autralian VIII. He is married to Francis Abbot, an Australian fitness model and daughter of the former Australian Prime Minister.
So firstly it is necessary to point out why I am including him on this list in first place. And the reason is that he is selling stuff off the back of his success on the ergo. This reminds me of the stories I have read about, in “Muscle and Fitness” and “Flex” magazine where the readers were told about this or that “Massive Pec Workout” and “Extreme Shoulder Blast” that will make them look like the cover stars of the magazine, without mentioning the 30mg of Stanazol that these guys were taking every training day. Not that I can say for certain that anyone on this list is taking that much Stanazol
So lets run down the list –
Being Fast – He is massively fast over shorter distance and pretty bloody good over the longer ones. Sam Loch holds the second fastest recorded 500m time (1’11.4″), the fastest ever 1000m time (2’39.6″) and fastest ever 1 minute distance (425m or a 1’10.5″ split) in the world. Sam Loch’s 500m and 1000m scores were set recently, and were competing against records possessed by exceptional human beings that had not been challenged over the distance in a decade or more. Loch “took a break” from his international career in 2012 and spent the next two years coaching rowing and lifting very heavy weights and then set an 2k PB of 5’49.5″ in the 2014 CRASH-B’s which is 1st boat territory for most rowing nations. Objectively Sam Loch is exceptionally fast and pushing the limits of human potential on the ergo.
Being Jacked/Buff – Sam Loch is very, very muscular. He has visible abdominal muscles. His trapezoid muscles are huge! His pectoral muscles seem to extend upwards to stand proud of collar bones, and his anterior deltoid muscles do seem to be very “full” and “large”. This photo was taken n the 12th of Dec 2017
As of Dec 2nd 2017 shortly before engaging in a powerlifting competition (yes, powerlifting, the one where they are hardly even bothering to pretend anymore,) he weighted 119.7kg (roughly 5kg more than he did one month previously, seriously try gaining 5kg in a month just by eating lots of pancakes, its really bloody hard!) and clocks in at 6’1″ tall, which if we assume** a body fat ratio of 15% (quite high for a man with a six pack) this gives an FFMI* of 29.8 . This puts Sam Loch well above the supposed “natural” limit of 25.0, albeit a more accurate way of looking at this is that this makes him close to the muscle building ability of a 1 in 100,000 individual who does not take anabolic steroids or other exogenous androgens (a likelihood correlated with an FFMI of around 29.9). That should not be read as a 1 in 100,000 member of the population as a whole but a 1 in 100,000 athlete among a studied population of individuals who partook of weightlifting for fun and in some cases, profit. So realistically we are talking about a sample of the male population that represents a maximum of 10% of the population as a whole.
This suggests that Sam Loch’s current muscularity is obtainable by between 1 in 100,000 and 1 in 1,000,000 of the population of the western world as a whole. It is not that he could not have achieved this build naturally over the past 5 years, whilst holding down a job, and looking after a dog, and maintaining busy and successful YouTube and Instagram accounts, and starting and maintaining a relationship to the point of marriage, but, that it is the least likely way that he could have done it.
*Now the whole FFMI business is a complex and highly debatable one and in my previous missive on this subject I took at face value the cut off figure of 25 for FFMI as the limit of muscularity, and in truth I should not have done so. The two previous links on this subject are to one article in a series by a guy called Greg Nuckols who runs the “Stronger By Science” website, which is highly recommended to anyone interested in this kind of stuff. Greg Nuckols is highly critical of the original article that posited a “natural limit” of 25 for and FFMI. In his article that I have already linked to, he reanalyses the data, adds data from other studies (essentially a very small meta analysis) to produce frequency distribution curves of FFMI for natural and “enhanced” lifters. The figure of 1/100,000 individuals being able to achieve an FFMI of 29.9 is derived, as this is the 4th standard deviation from the mean. In other words a very, very unlikely event, equivalent to to a 7’2″ tall man, in a population with an average height of 5’10”. To further put this into context there have been less than 25 basketball players of 7’2″ in height or greater in the history of the NBA, and most of them have been overseas imports.
**I recognize how risky this “assuming” business is so lets give a range of numbers to play with. Assuming the man in the photograph above has a body-fat percentage of 15% or less, his FFMI is suspiciously high. So how far do we have to increase this figure to reduce our suspicions about the amount of muscle that Sam Loch is carrying. At 20% body-fat, the adjusted (for bodybuilders) FFMI figure is 28.3, which puts Mr. Loch at the very top end of what was studied from the so called “pre-Steroid” era.
Now if we return to my current golden source on this subject, Greg Nuckols’ “How Much More Muscle Can You Build With Steroids?“, this suggests that 28.3 is a figure that 1-2 per 1000 lifters in training could develop without using performance enhancing drugs. This, should start to suggest that Sam Loch may just be an exceptional individual who is doing it all on his tod. A man who can pull 1’11.5” for 500m is pretty exceptional. However it comes back to what is most likely. Could a middling Australian national squad rower, with something of a height deficit, build himself up by roughly 15-25kg to be a world beating strength/endurance athlete in his mid thirties, via hard work, very idiosyncratic training and latent genetics, or did he have help?
If we go as far as to say that Sam Loch, look at the photograph again, is carrying 25% body fat, then his FFMI is 26.2. Whilst this is high it is well within the realms of probability for a genuinely naturally gifted athlete, with an exceptional degree of discipline, and a tendency to build and keep muscle. That being said, if we nudge things just a touch in the other direction, lets say a body fat percentage of 12%, then we are looking at an FFMI of 30.9 which suggests a profound genetic alteration (a fabled moystatin knockout mutant) for Mr Loch to have a realistic likelihood of achieving such a physique in an unassisted manner.
The entire validity of the use of FFMI in this circumstance rests on the estimation of Sam Loch’s body fat. I leave right of reply to Mr Loch and trained sports physiologist with a set of calipers.
Being Wrong/Being a Dilettante – in the Instagram post below Sam Loch reveals his lifetime best score for the 2k test. As he admits in the post this score is faster than he achieved as a professional rower in the Australian national squad.
As he admits and has documented on his Instagram page he did no UT2 training and very little UT1 training in the two years prior to this 2k test. His longest training sessions were 60 minutes on an Assault Air Bike. He also did a lot of very heavy squats, deadlifts, bench presses and bent over rows. He found time to set the world record for 1000m on the Ski Erg. In short, he moved out of full time national squad training, as overseen by the highly successful AIS, followed an unrecognized training modality, and one that would be regarded a counterproductive by any rowing coach or sports physiologist I have yet read, and still improved to an objectively world class score for the definitive rowing stamina test of 2000m. As he himself states, his aim was to “create performance via non-traditional means.” I am extremely skeptical of the nature, fairness and legality of these means.
Having a history – Sam Loch’s sporting history is in the Australian rowing culture, and in the Australian rowing team. He left this culture, and so he left the world of the Athlete Biological Passport, the Whereabouts rule, and the random, out-of-competition, drug test. Then he started to get bigger, and pull harder than he ever had before.
Even back in the Aussie squad he had very well developed Trapezoid muscles and upper pectoral muscles.
Right now, if I had ever lost to this guy in an important race, I would be thinking one of two things. Firstly I might be thinking “Sheesh, what a man, look at those traps! So much bigger than all the other guys in his crew doing the same training. He looks like he’s posing for a swimwear shoot.” Or possibly, I would thinking of writing to WADA and or FISA to request a retest of his samples from any race between 2008 and 2012. Not because I am saying that Sam Loch ever took steroids for certain, but that there are many factors that make me skeptical that his performances were entirely natural.
Why you should be skeptical – Sam Loch is selling access to his training plan, and to online coaching via a website called The Watt Farm (genuinely catchy name, I wish I had thought of it). If you are thinking of purchasing advice from Sam Loch, please do so with your eyes open, and be aware of the potential consequences of combining power-lifting training and maximally intense ergo pieces, without the improvements in recovery and adaptation that can be purchased via “non-traditional training means”.
The next on the list of Extreme Skepticism is Sam Briggs, 2013 Crossfit Games Champion, joint owner of CrossFit affiliate chain Train Manchester, current holder of the women’s lwt 500m world record (1’33.4″, apparently 3 seconds faster than the next best score, and she (in case you were in any doubt from the photograph above) has an unofficial PB that is a second faster), former holder of the women’s lwt 1000m world record (3’23.9″ and as far as I know the second fastest score recorded) and former holder of the British women’s lwt 30-39 2000m record (7’05.1″. Her P.B. set outside competition is apparently 7’03.7″). Now I personally will remain forever grateful to the heathen barbarians of CrossFitaria for the intense interest that the discipline has created in indoor rowing and their psychotic desire for more intensity, but, most objective observers would look at the top end of the sport of CrossFit and say that, well, they have their own special way of achieving results.
So without further ado, lets run down the list of reasons for skepticism.
Being Fast – Sam Briggs, decent northern lass that she is, (and she does come over as genuinely nice and hardworking) is very very quick on a rowing machine. Yes, she is more focused towards the Sprint distances but she has recorded a 1hr27min half marathon, where there were points for sprinting the first 2000m faster than anyone else (7’17” was the score she managed for the first part of this infamous Row 1 & Row 2 workout for the 2013 CrossFit Games,) both these scores, by themselves, are solid for the top level of any international ergo competition. 7’17” would have placed Ms Briggs fourth (rarely) or higher, in either the lwt women’s open or lwt women’s 30-39 category at the Crash-B’s between 2013 and 2018. Her PB of 7’03.7″ (unverified) would have been beaten once in that time.
Oh, and she has a PM code verified 18’21” for her 5k score which is about 1sec/500m off the lwt women’s 5000m world record, and is a world age group record.
Sam Briggs is very fast on the ergo for a woman of roughly 61kg. And in truth I would like to leave it there, because being fast and winning stuff is never a reliable sign of the need for skepticism. It is equally likely to be a sign of a talented disciplined athlete, training hard and training right. But…..
Being Jacked, Buff, Ripped and Cut – Oh my god, is she ever, the next photograph ended up causing a real stir in the CrossFit community with an accusation being made against Ms Briggs, and denial being issued (“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs, my build and my successful performances are down to hard work, eating right, having a pump on after an event, getting lots of sleep…. etc.”) , followed by threats of physical violence toward the accuser from Sam Brigg’s many admirers.
Her upper body musculature is literally, incredible. Again the telltale triumvirate is present. The upper pectorals stand proud of the collar bone, the enlarged and squared off upper trapezoid muscles, and particularly her anterior (front) deltoid muscles. These are enlarged in a way that is realistically only found in female bodybuilders, and female body builders are, like male body builders, almost exclusively using anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, SARM’s and IGF-1. Sam Briggs’ build would indicate steroid use in a male athlete. In a female athlete the only other explanation I can come up with is a form of DSD such as some form of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, specific to all tissue types but muscle and bone marrow coupled with constitutive over production of testosterone or hyperandrogenism. This, I think, is the least likely explanation, not least because it has only been obvious in Ms. Briggs since after 2006.
Now thanks to the standard sports science data gap between men and women (sports scientists don’t study women very much, there are some justifiable reasons for this but largely, its just a bunch of sports freaks in lab coats muttering about menstruation,) there is no equivalent FFMI analysis that has ever been done or even looking at female lifters, athletes or bodybuilders. However as an instructive comparison, it is worth Google-ing “63kg women’s weightlifting“. The women you will see in what is a profoundly druggy sport, are less “hypermasculine” (traps, upper pecs, delts, etc.) in their build, and they have apparently higher body fat percentages during competition, despite being in a weight class sport.
Next take a look at women’s lightweight rowers, very much a lithe, slim and muscley bunch of women, but their builds simply do not compare, with the single exception of Katherine Copeland at the very end of her winning Olympic row* in 2012. Even then, her build is a shadow of Sam Briggs’ physique. It may well be that a woman possessed of such a build could become a brilliant lwt erger, it may well be that a brilliant women’s lwt erger could develop a build like Sam Briggs. But, both take time, both take huge amounts of work and sacrifice, work and sacrifice that is often exclusive to one goal or another, and it becomes vanishingly unlikely that the work and time for both could be done by one person at the same time.
I cannot say that Sam Briggs’ competition build was sculpted from anything other than hard work and exceptional genetics, however I am prepared to say that this is the least likely way she achieved this.
It should be noted that Ms. Briggs does not possess the gravelly voice, 5 o’clock shadow, and even male pattern hair loss of the determined female anabolic steroid user. Times have changed and PED’s have evolved. Growth Hormone Releasing Peptides, and Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators are claimed to not have these effects, so a well advised user of PED’s might not suffer such effects.
*File this under “things I lose sleep over”
Being Wrong/Being a Dilettante –
If you, like I have, deep stalked Sam Briggs’ Instagram account, the first thing you realize is that she doesn’t claim to row that much. She does row, and her technique is really pretty solid for a heathen barbarian, but the fact remains that for a woman churning out international standard ergo times over recognized distances (2k and 5k) she is not rowing long or often enough to earn those scores by any well understood training paradigm. Yes, she is doing lots of pistol squats, and box jumps, and dead lifts, and cleans and snatch complexes and all those other things that are, at best, a weak predictor of erging ability. Even by the standard of others on this list, she simply does not sit on the rowing machine that much, at least as far as her Instagram account goes, and even then the distance she achieves on a given day are limited to say the least.
As far as rowing training is concerned, what Sam Briggs does would be considered an ineffective and counterproductive training modality, that would hamper exceptional stamina performances and would likely lead to injury and burn out. But on the basis of this Ms. Briggs is churning out top end times in comparison to GB and World rowing standards, seemingly without any tapering or sharpening, at the age of 36, whilst maintaining lightweight body fat levels (yes I am eyeballing this off her Instagram account, but still) all year round. The overwhelming majority of international squad lightweight rowers cannot and do not do this, They cycle both weight, fat percentage and performance levels to peak only for the summer championships. Genetics and hard, smart work may be the reason for this, but again it is the least likely option.
Having a history – Errr, CrossFit*. Before that, a few triathlons, a half marathon, here and there, a bit of amateur football, and absolutely no sign that Sam Briggs could be a world class power endurance athlete. It is also worth remembering that CrossFit competitors are pre-scheduled for out of competition drug tests, random drug tests only take place in competition, there is no Whereabouts rule, and no Athlete Biological Passport. Even if Ms Briggs is an entirely natural athlete she is operating and training with fewer constraints than her rival lwt rowers in national squad set ups.
Why you should be skeptical – On the back of her success Ms. Briggs, runs a a couple of gyms, and sells training programs and online coaching. Should you be looking to follow the advice she sells, please be aware that the results that she demonstrates may not be achievable via the information that she is prepared to release publicly.
*(Ducks, covers, calls lawyer)
For numerous reasons too childish to mention I don’t like him. He’s Polish, and as a result information on him is limited. His Instagram page is here but is not nearly as carefully structured as others I have looked at. It does reveal that Mr Maciejewski is an occasional social smoker though, with a 5’40.5″ 2km score. He is listed (verified by the RowPro online rowing app) as pulling a 5’40.5″ 2k, which is the 7th fastest recorded time in history, and a sterling 2’44.6″ for a 1k last year. He is part of the whole Inowrocław Indoor Rowing scene in Poland, which has had at least one gym that has been involved in the European indoor rowing scene for at least as long as I have been aware of such a thing. Mr Maciejewski probably owns said RowZonePL gym, but given that I don’t speak Polish I am not sure.
As you can see from the picture above, he has the hyper masculine delts, pecs and traps that are extremely difficult to achieve by any known natural means. As you can see from this video his technique does not show any evidence of long hours of practice or even one or two hours of instruction; and he has an exceptionally short drive length for a good rower. Checking out the first video on this rather crudely made Facebook page, he also seems to suffer the muscular, defined, but distended stomach known colloquially as Palumboism.
As a Gym owner he is not subject to any form of Anti Doping Control
I am extremely skeptical of how the 5’40.5″ score linked to above was achieved. And that is really all I have to say about this guy, because he looks like a gangster. And I don’t want my last view of this world to be filtered through clear plastic sheeting and my own blood.