Evan is a 29-year-old financial advisor from Dallas, Texas, who is 6’1, weighs 212 lbs and has 14.5% bodyfat. His interests include bodybuilding, cowboys, trucks, guns, and video games such as Skyrim and Runescape (the 2007 version). He owns a “meat rabbit” called Butters that he bought for $10 seven years ago. Sometimes, Evan uploads cute pictures of Butters posing next to his guns to Reddit.
Evan spends a lot of time on Reddit. He browses men’s fitness forums and other parts of the manosphere – the casual name given to men’s online spaces. He sometimes posts in Gentlemanboners, which is a place where people upload pictures of “elegant, graceful, timeless” women. Its top three posts of all time are Stargate actor Morena Baccarin looking cute in a low-cut dress, X‑Men actor Olivia Munn eating cookies in a low-cut dress, and Laina Morris – face of the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme – splashing water in a low-cut dress.
Sometimes Evan posts about modafinil – a drug which comes up curiously frequently in the manosphere. Some describe it as a “miracle” drug that gives them the self-discipline and motivation they need to work for 18 hours straight. Others insist that it makes them feel like a “psychopath” becoming more antisocial and goal-orientated.
And for a subset of users, it’s the perfect drug for massive gains.
“I absolutely would recommend modafinil in the gym,” says Evan over email. “I don’t think you can overdo it.”
Modafinil is not a substance that is usually associated with the kind of people who drink their protein. A wakefulness-promoting agent usually prescribed to narcoleptics (it is illegal to buy without a prescription), it is nevertheless widely used off-licence as a ‘smart drug’. Students in particular are known for co-opting it as a potent study aid, helping them to work harder for longer, and improving their planning and focus.
Evan uses it to work and to work out. He takes 50mg of modafinil every morning, five or six days a week. At work, he benefits from the improved focus modafinil gives him. At the gym, he feels less tired and says he can achieve a state of zen-like concentration – one that can really help him lean into the dull repetition of bicep curls and squats.
“On modafinil, it can get easy to get lost in a particular exercise,” says Evan.
“Every single rep is maximised and focused. It is a much better workout.”
If drugs like LSD subjectively improve users’ ability to think laterally and creatively, modafinil seems to endow its users with a profound capacity to think procedurally. Thoughts coalesce rapidly like beads of mercury skittering across a surface. You might talk until you run out of air; you will probably not run out of ideas.
A systematic review of research into modafinil’s cognitive benefits in 2015 found that modafinil improved decision making and performance in complex tasks.
The physical advantages are less well-documented. But a scandal 15 years ago led to its inclusion in The Prohibited List of universally banned substances for professional athletes. In 2003 US sprinter Kelli White clinched a rare double victory in the 100m and 200m sprint at the Paris World Championships. Afterwards she tested positive for modafinil. At the time modafinil was not specifically listed as a banned substance, but the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) felt that it fell under the umbrella phrase of “related substances” for stimulants. White was stripped of her medals.
Since then, the World Anti-Doping Agency has listed modafinil as a stimulant that can provide enough of an advantage in competition for it to warrant inclusion on its prohibited list. For amateur athletes, however, the advantages are less clear. One small study of 15 cyclists from 2004 concluded that modafinil increased the time it took for them to feel exhausted, hypothesising that the drug dampened the sensation of fatigue.
Rollo* is a teacher in his early 20s from Central Europe who uses modafinil about three times a month. Although he uses it mainly for its cognitive benefits, he enjoys cycling on the drug.
“Bicycling on (and off) modafinil is meditative. You just keep going without thinking about much,” he says in an email.
“When I’m that focused I can push a bit harder,” he says. “[But] the difference in physical performance is so small that taking modafinil for exercise specifically would be a waste for me.”
Even so, Rollo looks forward to the days when he exercises on modafinil. He sees the physical benefits as a useful addition to the cognitive benefits. By combining it with a cup of coffee or two, he is able to work productively for hours at a time.
“With the combo of modafinil plus caffeine I’m just in the zone,” he says. “I don’t feel the typical effects of tiredness while working.”
“My focus is insane. It makes me incredibly productive. And it makes working a lot more fun.”
Rollo’s current performance-enhancing regime also includes microdosing LSD three times a month, and taking amphetamines twice a month. To so-called “biohackers” like him, drugs are simply tools on the road to reaching peak mental and physical performance – not much different to reaching for a multivitamin or a protein shake.
The experts aren’t so sure, though. Just as wellness trends like ‘clean eating’ have been accused of incubating eating disorders by stealth, in the manosphere the drug-assisted pursuit of perfection could be providing cover for body dysmorphia and mental illness.
“My line as a doctor is you shouldn’t be taking anything that’s not prescribed,” says Dr Louise Theodosiou of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “So why are these individuals getting into these patterns of behaviour? Are they using this as a way of distracting themselves from other stressors in their lives? What’s happening in their lives that they feel the need to be enhancing their performance in this way?”
Indeed in 2018, NHS figures revealed that the number of boys receiving treatment for eating disorders had doubled in recent years. The blame for the spike has been laid at everything from the pressures of social media to TV shows such a Love Island. In 2015, Rob Willson, chair of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, argued that around 10% of men in the gym suffered from muscle dysmorphia – more commonly known as ‘bigorexia’.
An anxiety disorder which causes men to see themselves as small despite being muscular, bigorexia is characterised by (amongst other things) overexertion at the gym and compulsive working out. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch to assume that a drug which allows a user to feel laser-focused could be easily abused by anyone suffering from the condition.
And the physical impact may be just as negative as the psychological: “Generally speaking people exercise to improve their physical health,” says Dr Theodosiou. “But these drugs may be putting a strain on the cardiovascular system.”
Modafinil’s most enthusiastic advocates seem unphased by the potential risks. Jake discovered modafinil five years ago – “right before I quit my job in Corporate America and started trying to make money online,” he says in an email. The drug was the perfect companion to setting up an online marketing business that allowed him to work long hours, travel the world and be his own boss. At one point Jake was taking modafinil three times a week.
Jake was so taken with the “miracle” drug that he started building blog posts around it. Before long his travel blog Nomadic Hustle was populated with more than 100 blog posts mentioning modafinil. He explains on his blog how to buy modafinil in countries including the Philippines, Russia and South Korea. He has written more than 100 tweets that mention modafinil. He has written about sex on modafinil. He has written a book on modafinil. And he has written about going to the gym on modafinil.
Jake works out “generally 3 – 4 days a week with weights and another couple yoga sessions each week, although I don’t move big weights around these days after multiple surgeries.” For a while, he was an evangelist of modafinil in the gym – until one day things didn’t go to plan.
“I usually skip the gym on my modafinil days,” he says. “But on this day I was in the mood. I wanted to pump some iron. The modafinil high was still going strong.”
Jake headed for the gym in his compression sweats – and found he was more focused than usual.
“Energy was raging through my body. Disturbed was flowing through my headphones. I was focused,” he says.
The session started well. Jake was going hard.
“I was focused. The form was ideal. Going deep and all that good shit,” he says.
But as Jake hit his fourth set of squats, his hamstrings went tight. He knew something was wrong.
“I started cramping up,” he says. “Luckily, I got the weight racked before anything too rough happened. [But] I hadn’t cramped up in a year or so.”
Jake realised he had barely eaten or drunk anything all day. Modafinil is an appetite-suppressant, and he suspected this had enabled him to work beyond his natural limits without food or drink.
“You feel an intense connection to the muscles you’re training. However, you don’t feel a burn or pain,” he says. “This can be amazing, but worrisome at the same damn time.”
For Jake, the benefit of being able to push through his normal limits is not justified by the risk of injury.
“I wouldn’t recommend it.” He says. “Modafinil is not going to put on muscle mass or improve physique like steroids or testosterone would. It’s not going to change your hormonal profile in a positive manner to ensure you get more gains from every gym session. So I’d say it’s better to avoid taking Modafinil as a “pre-workout” type substance.”