Bodybuilding differs from most sports because the participant’s physique, rather than athletic performance, is judged.
Subjective judging criteria rewards a body that has a large amount of muscle mass, is defined, and is symmetrical.
To achieve this goal, bodybuilders often utilize a combination of resistance training, dieting, nutritional supplementation, and, for some, drugs. Often, training throughout the year is also divided into periods of “bulking” (purposely adding muscle mass) and “cutting” (decreasing body fat).
Unfortunately, many of the strategies used today are based on common sense, rather than scientific evidence. Many practices, sometimes dangerous to one’s health, often come to light due to reported cases of death or injury.
This study analyzed the practices adopted by six bodybuilders (two male bodybuilders, two men’s physique competitors, and two females) in order to offer a critical view and propose evidence-based alternatives for those desiring to be involved in the sport of bodybuilding.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
As an observational study, interventions were not controlled by the researchers. Data was provided by the participants and their coaches after competition including training, supplementation, diet, and pharmaceuticals.
All participants were amateur bodybuilders competing in the NPC (the amateur division of the International Federation of Bodybuilding Fitness, IFBB).
- MB1 – male bodybuilder, 26 y, 10 years training experience, second competition (1st in class, overall winner)
- MB2 – male bodybuilder, 28 y, 10 years training experience, first competition (2nd in class)
- MP1 – male physique, 22 y, 2 years training experience, first competition (5th in class)
- MP2 – male physique, 19 y, 2 years training experience, first competition (3rd in class)
- W1 – female, 24 y, 4 years training experience, first competition (2nd in class)
- W2 – female, 35 y, 11 years training experience, first competition (3rd in class)
During each participants’ bulking phase, participants generally increased fat-free mass without altering fat mass.
All participants lost large amounts of body fat during their cutting phase.
Participants trained each muscle group once per week with multiple sets of multi- and single-joint exercises performed to fatigue. Participants increased time spent doing fasted cardio during their cutting phases.
According to the reports, regarding pharmacological agents, the men used 500-750 mg/week anabolic steroids (various forms) while bulking and 720-1160 mg/week while cutting. The females used 400 mg/week while bulking and 740 mg/week while cutting. Participants also used ephedrine (15-45 mg/day) and hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic, 50-300 mg/day) during cutting. Supplements included whey protein concentrate, chromium picolinate, omega 3 fatty acids, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), vitamin C, multivitamin, glutamine, and caffeine. Males also used creatine monohydrate.
Normal (natural) testosterone production in men is 4-11 mg/day, meaning that the injected dosages were 9-41 times higher than natural male androgen production.
Women naturally produce 0.2-0.4 mg testosterone/day (yes, women have testosterone, too), meaning that their injected dosages were 142-528 times higher than natural female androgen production.
Most of the participants increased their hormone dosage during the cutting phase vs. the bulking phase, possibly due to the alleged effects of testosterone in promoting fat loss and to counteract muscle catabolism that usually accompanies extreme fat loss strategies. However, most of the subjects did lose fat free mass during the cutting phase.
It has been demonstrated that athletes typically use anabolic steroids in a “stacking” regimen in which different drugs are used simultaneously in order to theoretically increase the potency of each drug. Drug choice was based on the belief that some drugs would result in greater fat loss than others.
However, this practice is not supported by the scientific literature. Testosterone acts in the adipose (fat) tissue through androgen receptors – different drugs would not result in different effects in body fat or muscle accretion since they would act on the same receptors. Additionally, the use of large amounts of anabolic steroids may increase its conversion to estrogen which may have a negative impact on fat loss (also, one side effect of steroid use is gynecomastia – enlargement of breast tissue in men).
Misuse of androgens can cause myocardial infarctions (heart attacks), alterations in serum lipids (decreased HDL “good” cholesterol and increased LDL “bad” cholesterol), elevation in blood pressure, and increased risk of thrombosis (blood clots). Low HDL and high blood pressure are both associated with cardiovascular events.
Many studies confirm that the abuse of anabolic substance produces profound and partly irreversible changes in various organs and body systems related to the type, duration, and amount used. Major effects of concern are those on the liver, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems, as well as on the psychological status of users. Not all effects occur in all persons, nor are the effects necessarily obvious.
Bodybuilders usually rely on individual cases of steroid users that did not develop health problems to suggest that steroid use may be safe – however increased risk and certainty of an occurrence are not the same thing. The use of ephedrine and diuretics may improve a risk to the person’s health. Ephedrine has been associated with serious cardiovascular events and diuretics have been associated with health problems and even death if misused. Dehydration can have a negative impact on muscle metabolism without positively affecting fat metabolism – making their use counterproductive to a bodybuilder’s objectives.
While testosterone does increase muscle recovery, protein synthesis, and satellite cell activity, testosterone may also impair tendon adaptation to resistance training and anabolic steroid users show an increased risk of tendon ruptures, particularly in the upper body.
The participants reported performing fasted cardio, which is a common practice among bodybuilders, although previous studies have shown no benefit in terms of fat loss and can even negatively impact energy expenditure and fat metabolism . Although this may possibly be offset by the use of large doses of ephedrine and caffeine in the subjects, which have been shown to increase metabolism and fat oxidation. High intensity interval training on a cycle ergometer would be preferable to long duration and low-intensity running (like that favored by the participants) for both losing fat and preserving fat free mass.
In general, participant diets in the bulking phase were hypercaloric, high protein (2.5 g/kg body weight) and low fat. The major sources of carbohydrate were rice, potatoes, bread, and oatmeal. Dietary protein usually came from chicken, lean red meat, egg whites, and whey protein concentrate. As competition approached, protein intake increased to ~3 g/kg body weight and carbohydrate intake was reduced 10-20%. Fruit and vegetable intake was very low and vitamins and minerals seemed to come mainly from supplemental sources.
Supplements most frequently used were whey protein, chromium picolinate, omega 3 fatty acids, BCAAs, glutamine, caffeine, and a multivitamin. The males also used creatine monohydrate. Several studies suggest a positive effect of creatine supplementation on muscle strength, power, and lean body mass.
Previous studies suggest that the concomitant use of caffeine and creatine may counteract the beneficial effects of creatine in muscle performance (how many preworkouts do you know that contain both!?). BCAAs are commonly used to increase muscle anabolism, increase recovery, and prevent catabolism, although this seems to only be observed in the research when compared to fasting and would probably not benefit someone already consuming a high protein diet. Glutamine is another supplement of questionable applicability in bodybuilding other than a possible improvement in the perception of muscle weakness. Bodybuilders reported taking omega 3 fatty acids for cardiovascular protection.
Although the participants used large amounts of anabolic steroids and supplements in order to improve body composition, their fat free mass did not change substantially throughout the study period. Even in the presence of supra-physiological doses of testosterone, most of them lost fat free mass during the cutting phase which suggests a state of overtraining and/or undernutrition derived from mistakes in training, nutrition, and/or recovery.
Bodybuilders seem to risk their health in order to increase fat free mass and then again to lose fat, but end up losing most of the fat free mass acquired previously. It may be more reasonable to gain smaller amounts of muscle mass while minimizing fat gain and then adopt strategies to lose body fat while preserving lean mass. This would essentially get rid of traditional bulking and cutting cycles and promote less aggressive variations in body composition in addition to decreasing reliance on anabolic steroids and stimulants.
The participants analyzed relied on a monotonous diet low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and associated with a large use of supplements that do not have strong scientific evidence of benefit but may result in health problems and increased costs.
The authors of this paper recommend the adoption of an evidence-based approach with a more balanced and less artificial diet. Special focus should be given to decreasing training volume, revisiting exercise choice, and avoiding fasted cardio in order to decrease reliance on drugs.
While a small study sample, experience of the researchers as coaches and/or athletes along with reports of the participants involves leads the researchers to believe that many competitors, as well as the general public that view bodybuilders as role models, adopt many of the procedures described here.
Given everything presented here, one has to wonder if the participants results could have been just as good, if not better, if they had adopted a scientific-based approach, and with fewer health risks.