updated 8/12/2011 2:19:11 PM ET 2011-08-12T18:19:11

Are you ready for some football?

The National Football League starts its exhibition season this weekend and players may soon join Olympic athletes, skiers and cyclists as "human pin cushions" that must submit blood samples for Human Growth Hormone (HGH), a drug that builds muscle and boosts recovery just like steroids.

The league wants to start HGH testing as part of its 10-year collective bargaining agreement with the players' union.  But critics say the test isn't good enough, that players will still find loopholes and that similar substances that mimic growth hormone have been left off the table.

HGH has been banned by the NCAA, the International Olympic Committee, the NFL and other sports for years, but it wasn't until 2004 that scientists figured out how to detect it. Since then, only a handful of athletes have tested positive, including a German cyclist, an Estonian cross-country skier, a British rugby player and Canadian college football player. No Olympic athletes or American pros have been caught.

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Still, some current football players think testing is a good idea. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez says HGH is common in the NFL.

"How many guys are on it, that's hard to say," Gonzalez told the Indianapolis Star. "It could be 10, it could be a hundred or more; either way, it's too much. But around the league, you see guys on Sunday, and things don't add up; they don't look right. I see guys I saw in college, now they're in the NFL and they look totally different."

Other NFL players have said publicly that HGH use ranges from 30 to 50 percent. Gonzalez said testing may help level the playing field, and even make life safer.  Juiced-up players tend to hit harder than those who feel pain the next day.

"If we can really get it out of the game, I think we'll see a slightly less violent game -- I hope," Gonzalez said. "I would hope we'd see fewer concussions over time."

So, what is HGH and how does it work?

HGH is a naturally-occurring substance produced in the pituitary gland. Doctors use a recombinant version to treat the muscle-wasting effects of AIDS and cancer, growth disorders in children, as well as a more controversial use in making short kids taller.

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Athletes discovered its properties as far back as the early 1980s when it was harvested from human cadavers and reportedly used by pro wrestlers. A study of recreational athletes in the Annals of Internal Medicine found HGH increased speed by four-tenths of a second over 100 meters.

International sports officials praised the NFL's decision to start testing, even though the league and the union haven't agreed on how exactly it will work.

"It's a significant step forward for the players because it shows they want to confront the issue," said David Howman, head of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency. "It's one of the few areas where players have the chance to voice their views. My initial response is good on them for doing it."

But some experts say the NFL's testing program won't make a dent in drug use. They say the current test is easy to cheat.

"The problem comes with the testing," said Charles Yesalis, a retired epidemiologist at Penn State University and authority in use of performance enhancing drugs.

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"(HGH) is released in the body in an episodic manner," Yesalis said. "I don't trust that test. It can only catch people in a small window of opportunity."

Yesalis said HGH works on every cell in the body, releasing insulin growth factor. It acts on muscle and bone and turns fat into muscle, according to Yesalis. It also impacts immune cells.

"It does many of the things that anabolic steroids do, such as increasing strength and helping recuperation from workouts," he said. "It has all the good stuff that athletes desire."

Yesalis also says the NFL doesn't have an incentive to catch the big-name stars who may be using HGH.

"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," Yesalis said. "There's not an independent group that is coming in to do the testing. The proof will be in the details and how it is implemented."

There are only two labs accredited that test for for HGH as per WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) guidelines, one at UCLA an another in Salt Lake City.

As drug testing in pro sports has increased, some athletes have found alternatives, such as an extract made from the velvet of deer antler that acts as an insulin growth factor. It's advertised on the Internet as a substitute for steroids, and some pro golfers have appeared in ads touting its properties. In a phone call with reporters earlier this week, NFL officials said they won't deal with the issue of deer antler velvet testing for now.

Matt Chaney, journalist and author of "Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football," said players have told him they use HGH because it allows them to get a more powerful result in combination with a lower dose of anabolic steroids. This cocktail can avoid detection by current urine tests for steroids.

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Chaney says HGH is also rampant in college sports. He said he's talked to NCAA athletes in football, baseball, wrestling and women's soccer about their HGH use, as well as current and former NFL players. The NCAA does not test for steroids or HGH.

After researching sports doping for two decades, Chaney is not optimistic that the NFL program will reduce drug use. He also criticized WADA for not allowing medical experts to examine the scientific validation of the agency's HGH test.

"I was an advocate for testing, but it became apparent  that urinalysis and antidoping tests are impractical, invalid and impossible," Chaney said. "There are no real solutions, that’s the catch here."

Chaney does have one interesting idea: he suggests limiting the size of pro athletes to a maximum weight that is more proportional to their height. Using the so-called "body mass index" – plus 25 to 35 percent - would eliminate the bulked-up bodies of artificially juiced-up players.

The NFL hasn't  considered that idea yet. But officials say they will have an HGH testing agreement in place by the time the regular season kicks off Sept. 8 when the Green Bay Packers take on the New Orleans Saints.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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