November 30, 2022 - 10:44am

Over the course of the past year, an “ancestral fitness” personality named Brian “Liver King” Johnson has become a ubiquitous presence on the internet. Skyrocketing from relative obscurity to become an influencer with millions of followers, this short, thickly-bearded, heavily-tanned, and always-shirtless man cuts an impressive figure who belies his 45 years. 

He attributes his eye-catching physique to the consumption of raw organ meats and testicles in conjunction with an “ancestral lifestyle” built on nine tenets (“wins,” “primals,” “move,” “eat,” “cold,” and so on). Even as his fame grew and high-profile people in the sports and fitness world, like podcaster Joe Rogan, accused him of steroid use, the Liver King merely said he was glad famous people were talking about him. At the same time, he adamantly maintained that performance-enhancing drugs played no role in the development of his physique — which he claimed to have been building since he was a teenager.

It should come as little surprise, then, that emails written by Johnson himself, asking for advice about the steroids he was using, were eventually forwarded to the YouTube fitness channel More Plates, More Dates. Written prior to the launch of his assorted online accounts and fitness brands — at a time when he had almost no social media following whatsoever — the Liver King outlined his $11,000-a-month steroid regimen, explaining that he needed to lose his love handles and back fat in advance of launching the “ancestral lifestyle” content that would make him famous. 

Far from being the caveman-like “primal” who spent hours a day in the sun and ice-cold water before sleeping eight uninterrupted hours each night, the email correspondence depicted an individual who pinched his tummy in the mirror, watched Marvel movies, and struggled to sleep more than a handful of uninterrupted hours before waking up in a state of discomfort. He was, in other words, another middle-aged man desperately trying to turn back the clock — one of many such cases.

When I asked steroid expert Anthony Roberts about the Liver King’s drug regimen, the long-time fitness journalist explained that since the influencer’s branding is “almost entirely predicated on his physique resulting from a purported “ancestral lifestyle”, this was “money well spent, even if it turns the marketing into a somewhat dubious affair.” 

Roberts has spent his career uncovering fraud and deception in the fitness industry. Liver King’s method was a textbook hustle: as discussed by Malcom Kyeyune in a recent City Journal article covering such curious quasi-faiths and fitness cults, he had to sell the esoteric knowledge of his supposed lifestyle to today’s slovenly modern men, but since walking, outdoor exercise, and eating organ meat can only do so much for the typical testosterone-depleted couch potato, he needed his steroid-infused body as proof of concept. If you do as I say, the Liver King’s sales pitch goes, you might end up looking like I do — only you never actually will, because you’re not using the steroids I use, so you’ll have to keep coming to me for advice and fitness supplements that don’t do the job. 

As is the case with many exposed fitness hucksters and confidence men, the revelation of the Liver King’s real source of strength wasn’t enough to dissuade those who see merits in his methods or find spiritual solace in the message. The anonymous fitness influencer SolBrah — who promotes a similar lifestyle but, owing to the anonymity that cloaks him and related accounts like the liver jerky-peddling Carnivore Aurelius, can’t even be scrutinised the way the Liver King has — responded to criticism of Johnson by remarking that “you don’t know the possibilities when you do everything right in terms of training and eating for 35-plus years” (which the Liver King, by his own admission in those emails, had not). 

In fact, the Liver King is rarely seen doing anything but eating organ meats, posing for the cameras, and carrying kettlebells — hardly impressive from a functional perspective, his physique notwithstanding. When asked whether the Liver King’s level of muscular development could be obtained without steroids, Anthony Roberts was sceptical:

We do know about the limits on physical development as far as training and eating right goes, because plenty of people have started training as teenagers and we know how they look 35 years later. On the other hand, many steroid users look exactly like him — Occam’s Needle, you might call it.
- Anthony Roberts

Nevertheless, the Liver King and other popular fitness influencers like him have continued to achieve considerable fame through outright deception, a practice Roberts refers to as the “oldest and cheapest performance enhancer there is.” 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work