Hang out on the internet long enough and you’re bound to come across eye-catching stories about synthol: men inflating their testicles, teens inflating their arms to Popeye dimensions and online personalities using the stuff to contour a body that resembles the Incredible Hulk. You first click on the links because you’re only human, but then you step back to ponder what the heck is going on.
“What they call synthol is oil that works almost like a temporary implant,” says Brian Mehling, a New York-based orthopedic surgeon with a practice that provides patients with testosterone and human-growth hormone treatments. (For the record, synthol is a generic term for a compound consisting mainly of, as Mehling says, oil mixed with a painkiller (often lidocain) and sterilizing agent (typically alcohol).) “It’s a quick fix for users because you get immediate enlargement, and you can target small muscle groups that don’t respond well to exercise. It’s also dangerous, doesn’t make you any stronger or fitter, can droop or sag because it’s not actually real muscle and can cause nerve damage, artery damage, infections — you name it. There’s no medical benefit from using it, only drawbacks and side effects.”
Be that as it may, the prevalence of synthol use among male bodybuilders is considerably higher than among the general population (and they’ve been using it since the 1980s). “It’s actually pretty common for bodybuilders, even mediocre ones,” says fitness journalist Anthony Roberts. “Especially the ones that talk and act like idiots. At this point, it’s just standard fare. Spotting and calling out synthol use is a typical pastime among bodybuilders. It’s something that’s talked about and understood by bodybuilders, as well as a part of competition prep.”
Aaron Singerman, the CEO of RedCon1, notes that the types of muscle-enlargement aids used by pro bodybuilders have evolved somewhat over time. “Nolitol, a painkiller, is what many pros take before shows, producing a ‘painless pump’ or enlargement when injected into a muscle group,” he says. “The benefit is that the enlargement goes away faster than a synthol injection, so if it doesn’t look right, they can readjust.”
It bears noting that female bodybuilders are largely on the sidelines when it comes to synthol. Few, if any, women number among the small-time users sculpting small muscle groups — most synthol users fall into this category — much less the heavy users whose unusual physiques have attracted widespread media attention. “There are a lot of things we don’t do, which is why you see grandmothers in bodybuilding but not grandfathers,” says long-time bodybuilder Vanessa Adams. “The crazy insulin protocols, synthol and so on.”
It’s the craziest synthol users whose stories stick with us, though, the ones whose pumped-up bodies defy simple description. Take Sajad Gharibi, a mountain of a man for whom actual exercise footage is scarce but glamour shots abound — a self-described “Persian Hercules” who trades trash talk with UFC stars and has been touting a future in mixed martial arts, a sport that’s always been notable for its many “freakshow fights.” In fact, before claiming he was set to debut against an “unnamed Brazilian fighter” in 2020, the 385-pound Gharibi was in talks with KSW, a Polish promotion that specializes in outré encounters, to fight English bodybuilder Martyn Ford. Prior to that, he claimed he was going to lose weight so he could enlist with the Iranian Armed Forces in the war against ISIS. “I will always be a soldier for my country,” he wrote in 2016.
But aside from goofy patriotism, what makes these men tick? What leads someone from bodybuilding to synthol overuse, or straight to synthol overuse by bypassing bodybuilding altogether? Director Vlad Yudin, whose films include the three Generation Iron documentaries, a late-life look at the declining physical state of bodybuilding champion Ronnie Coleman and an MMA documentary focusing on the travails of Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, has been delving deeper into this obscure subject.
“I cover bodybuilding as if it’s National Geographic,” Yudin tells me. “My interest in synthol started because synthol is a well-understood part of bodybuilding knowledge since the 1980s. Every major bodybuilding gym has a ‘coach’ or ‘guru’ who knows how to use this stuff to improve a physique that’s lagging in certain areas. But from there, I began to wonder about why people were going to extremes with it. What was causing these issues? And so, I started following and filming serious synthol abusers for the documentary I’m working on now, Bigorexia.”
One such person that Yudin followed was Kirill Tereshin, a ubiquitous internet personality who frequently headlines cautionary tales about synthol use. Tereshin, who claims to have the biggest biceps in Russia, has appeared in various stories touting his impressive dimensions — stories that often portray him as delusional — and most recently made the meme rounds in a video in which he was knocked out by a much larger man during a Russian slap-fighting event.
In that video, the host mocks Tereshin’s appearance, telling him his opponent “graced our show with your presence, so please be kind enough to take the blows.” After Tereshin weakly slaps his heavyset farm-boy opponent, he is knocked senseless with a single strike. “The haters who wished death to Kirill almost got their wish,” the host says.
The level of vitriol directed at Kirill, and the glee with which I’ve seen the video on social media, are fascinating. What about this particular person, who also experiments with gender presentation, is so upsetting to others? And why are oil injections, or the silicon implements Tereshin got in his calves, so deeply troubling?
“We look at these bodies and see something that isn’t just natural but is actually diseased and dysfunctional,” says orthopedic surgeon Mehling. “Performance-enhancing drugs take the body past its limitations and don’t trigger those reactions in us, but this is closer to body mutilation.”
“Muscles on bodybuilders are a combination of so many different things now,” says Yudin. “Synthol is possibly part of that combination. But what we’re trying to explore in Bigorexia is the mindset that results in the creation of these very distorted bodies. And for me, in filming all this, it was about capturing their experience on camera and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions.”
Roberts, who has covered the fitness industry since the mid-1990s, stresses that these outrageous outlier stories of inflated pseudo-musclemen are very rare. “Let’s take, say, the phenomenon of gay men inflating their genitals and pectoral muscles,” he says. “Synthol use in bodybuilding for competition prep is common, and not very exciting. Not as sensational as highlighting some rare event like this — i.e., scrotum inflation in the gay community — for curiosity-driven pageviews. I mean, how common are fetishes in general? They must be fairly uncommon to even qualify as a fetish. So the story we’re talking about is probably close to a one in a million kind of thing.”
Basically, Roberts explains, there are probably more stories about these extreme inflation situations than there are people actually inflating themselves with oils. “If you just go by these oddball fitness stories that make the rounds, you’re left thinking that everyone is drinking breast milk or whatever the latest weird rumor that became a trend piece says they’re doing,” he says.
More largely, the consequences of synthol use are almost uniformly negative. A strong professional competitor with weak areas, like legendary bodybuilder Flex Wheeler, might improve his contest placements and endorsement paychecks by allegedly injecting those troublesome calves and delts. Beyond that, however, people are trading off long-term health for extremely short-term aesthetic benefits.
“People can do what they want, within reason,” says Mehling. “Some people even have an irresistible psychological impulse to remove their limbs. If you must go down that road of inflating your muscles, plastic surgery, such as adding silicone implants, is a better medical solution than these oil injections. There are even experimental penile implants for people looking to go down that road. Meanwhile, you have these people ‘treating’ their body parts using coconut oil and cooking oil. That’s more like folk medicine, like some kind of potion you’d get from the town wise man or wizard.”
Yudin is a bit more philosophical. “This is a colorful sport — a sport that people don’t understand very well — and these are the things that happen out by the margins. These synthol abusers have their reasons, even if those reasons don’t make a lot of sense to many of us. But they certainly want to be seen, and using more and more synthol helps with that. We notice them.”
Poor Kirill Tereshin, slapped silly by some roadblock of a man, is an excellent case: He shakes the Russian television host’s hand and leaves, content with having been seen, even if what we saw was his humiliation. After all, we’re all still talking about him.