Forgotten Bodybuilding Supplements: Desiccated Liver

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At a time when anabolic steroids were in their infancy, bodybuilders were turning to an altogether different sort of wonder substance. Said to increase one’s energy, muscle mass and overall wellbeing, this product was cheap, easy to take and used by some of the top bodybuilders of the time.

I am of course referring to Desiccated Liver, a supplement form of liver, popularised from the 1950s onwards by a series of bodybuilding gurus. In today’s post we’re going to examine what exactly Desiccated Liver was, who used it and finally what benefits they believed it provided. We’ll then finish up with a brief discussion about whether or not it should form part of your own supplement stack.

What is Desiccated Liver?

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Perhaps as alluring as it sounds, Desiccated Liver comes primarily from dried forms of beef liver. Generally coming in either pill or powder form, this supplement seeks to provide all the benefits of liver without you know, actually eating liver. A point which leads to one of my favourite anecdotes about the lengths we go to for muscle gain.

A number of years ago myself and a friend went on something of a supplement binge. In our late teens, we were certain that the right combination of supplements, as opposed to a strict diet and training regime, would provide the muscled physique we sought. We tried everything. Protein powders, BCAAs, pre workout supplements, creatine… You name it, we tried it. At one point I was taking Maca shots, followed by glasses of Brewer’s Yeast. Not a fun time.

Now in any case, my friend had been directed towards Desiccated Liver by a friend of his versed in the ways of ‘old school’ bodybuilding. Convinced that muscledom was only one step away he bought 500g of liver powder and away he went. Sadly my friend struggled to put the ghastly drink to his lips for fear of gagging. The taste was too much. Cue several weeks of mixing it with orange juice, protein supplements, milk, even soda in an attempt to mask its taste. By the end of his supply, my poor friend had to psyche himself up to take shots of the stuff in quick succession. Not the happiest of times but I’ll always remember the personalisation of disgust he had after each drink.

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A re-enactment of my Friend’s reaction.

Apologies for that small aside, but Desiccated Liver will always have several meanings for me! Returning to our previously scheduled viewing…

Who Used It and Why?

Surveying the ‘Golden Age’ of bodybuilding at the mid-century mark, the question should really be, who didn’t use it? Beginning with Eugene Schiff’s ‘Bio-Food‘ supplements in the 1930s and 40s, the idea of desiccated liver became more and more widespread in bodybuilding as the years progressed. A popularity spurred on by scientific advancements.

In 1951, Benjamin K. Ershoff published an article in the Proceedings for the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. Like many scientists, his study revolved around the murder of lab mice, which incidentally seems to be the start of many of my scientific friends’ descent into madness. In any case, Ershoff divided his mice into three distinct groups. The first ate a plain diet, fortified with 11 separate vitamins. The second ate the same but with the inclusion of a Vitamin B complex. The third as you may have guessed, ate the same as the first group but with the inclusion of powdered liver… Oh the intrigue!

When the time for mouse murder came, Ershoff dumped each group in a vat of water to determine which group would swim the longest before perishing… Science!

Of the three groups, the cohort receiving liver swam the longest, which for many, proved liver’s endurance capacities.

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Soon men like Vince Gironda, Rheo H. Blair and a number of their proteges were taking Liver tablets by the fistful. Literally… by the fistful. Gironda recommend six liver tablets per meal for intermediates and over a hundred for advanced trainees. Arnold used to take about 150 a day for a point of reference.

All of which leads to the question…

What benefits did it provide?

Well in the first instance, Liver was said to increase one’s training endurance and energy. So far so good right?

Well as time progressed, the idea soon came about that copious amounts of Liver would boost muscle growth. Indeed, Gironda even claimed that he could add inches onto a trainee’s arm through liver and systematic training.

Was this valid? Probably not.

In a rather fascinating breakdown, James Heathers from Medium.com broke down the original Ershoff study. The study that launched a thousand supplements as it were. Detailing the study in its entirety he explains that the mice in the study were likely anaemic owing to their plain fare diets. The reason the third group, fed on liver, did so well was likely because they were not deficient in several vitamins and minerals. Hence their endurance.

Personal Anecdote Time

Discussed previously, I did go through a phase of using Desiccated Liver tablets simply because they were a bodybuilding mainstay for the likes of Arnold, Zane and Draper. Did they help? Yes to an extent. I certainly had more energy using them but this was likely a reflection of a poor teenage diet!

Nowadays I bit the bullet and simply eat liver one or two times a week. Taking the lead from Armand Tanny, I find eating it raw to be the most palatable, if not the most aesthetic. Certainly for those interested in using the supplement form, several friends have reported good results using Desiccated Liver during times of stress or high training volume.

At the end of the day, it’s relatively cheap and harmless provided the sources are good. Why not try it out and see how you get on? Similarly if you have used it, please let us know about your experiences in the comment’s section!

As always… Happy Lifting.

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