Bodybuilding is a form of body modification, involving intensive muscle hypertrophy. An individual who engages in this activity is referred to as a bodybuilder. In competitive and professional bodybuilding, bodybuilders display their physiques to a panel of judges, who assign points based on their appearance. Bodybuilders prepare for competition through a combination of fat loss, oils, and tanning (or tanning lotions) which combined with lighting make the definition of the muscle group more distinct.
Some well-known bodybuilders include Charles Atlas, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Lou Ferrigno. Currently, IFBB professional bodybuilder Jay Cutler from the United States holds the title of Mr. Olympia. The winner of the annual Mr. Olympia contest is generally recognized as the world’s top professional bodybuilder.
In the modern bodybuilding industry, “professional” generally means a bodybuilder who has won qualifying competitions as an amateur and has earned a “pro card” from the IFBB. Professionals earn the right to compete in sanctioned competitions including the Arnold Classic and the New York Pro (formerly the Night of Champions). Placings at such competitions in turn earn them the right to compete at the Mr. Olympia; the title is considered to be the highest accolade in the professional bodybuilding field. Steroid testing in these competitions is generally never done.
In natural contests bodybuilders are routinely tested for illegal substances and are banned for any violations from future contests. Testing can be done on urine samples, but in many cases a less expensive polygraph (lie detector) test is performed instead. What qualifies as an “illegal” substance, in the sense that it is prohibited by regulatory bodies, varies between natural federations, and does not necessarily include only substances that are illegal under the laws of the relevant jurisdiction. Illegal Anabolic steroids, Prohormone and Diuretics, under widespread use by professional bodybuilders, are generally banned by natural organizations. Natural bodybuilding organizations include NANBF (North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation), and the NPA (Natural Physique Association). Natural bodybuilders assert that their method is more focused on competition and a healthier lifestyle than other forms of bodybuilding.
A bodybuilder posing on stage during a competition. The pose is a variation of the “most muscular”.
In competitive bodybuilding, bodybuilders aspire to develop and maintain an aesthetically pleasing body and balanced physique. In prejudging, competitors do a series of mandatory poses – the front lat spread, the rear lat spread, the front double biceps, the back double biceps, the side chest, the side triceps, the most muscular (men only), and the thigh-abdominal pose. Each competitor also performs a routine to display the physique. A posedown is usually held at the end of a posing round, while judges are finishing their scoring. Bodybuilders spend time practicing their posing, since they are judged on it.
In contrast to strongman or powerlifting competitions where physical strength is important, or to Olympic weightlifting, where the main point is equally split between strength and technique, bodybuilding competitions typically emphasize condition, size and symmetry. Different organizations emphasize particular aspects of competition, and sometimes have different categories in which to compete.
Cutting and bulking
The general strategy adopted by most present-day competitive bodybuilders is to make muscle gains for most of the year (known as the “off-season”) and approximately 12–14 weeks from competition attempt to lose body fat (referred to as “cutting”) while minimizing the loss of muscle mass. Generally this involves reducing calorie intake and increasing aerobic exercise while monitoring body fat percentage.
The precise effectiveness of the cutting and bulking strategy is unknown, with only limited observational case studies on the subject. No studies involving precise hypercaloric feeding combined with resistance exercise have been conducted.
Many non-competitive bodybuilders choose not to adopt the conventional strategy, as it often results in significant unwanted fat gain during the “bulking” phase. The attempt to increase muscle mass in one’s body without any gain in fat is called clean bulking. This is the preferred by non-competitive bodybuilders. While competitive bodybuilders focus their efforts to achieve a peak appearance during a brief “competition season”, most people prefer to maintain an attractive physique year-round. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a proper weight training and cardio program combined with a modestly hypercaloric diet with proper macronutrient balance can produce steady gains in size and strength, while avoiding significant increases in body fat.
In the week leading up to a contest, bodybuilders may decrease their consumption of water, sodium and carbohydrates, the former two to alter how water is retained by the body and the latter to reduce glycogen in the muscle. The day before the show, water is removed from the diet, and diuretics may be introduced, while carbohydrate loading to increase the size of the muscles through replenishment of their glycogen. The goal is to maximize leanness and increase the visibility of veins. The appearance of veins is further enhanced immediately before appearing on stage by darkening the skin through tanning products, applying oils to the skin to increase shine. Some competitors will eat sugar-rich foods to increase the visibility of their veins. A final step is the use of weights to fill the muscles with blood and further increase their size.
Bodybuilders use three main strategies to maximize muscle hypertrophy:
- Strength training through weights or elastic/hydraulic resistance
- Specialized nutrition, incorporating extra protein and supplements where necessary
- Adequate rest, including sleep and recuperation between workouts
Weight training causes micro-tears to the muscles being trained; this is generally known as microtrauma. These micro-tears in the muscle contribute to the soreness felt after exercise, called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is the repair to these micro-trauma that result in muscle growth. Normally, this soreness becomes most apparent a day or two after a workout. However, as muscles become adapted to the exercises, soreness tends to decrease.
Weight training aims to build muscle by prompting two different types of hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy leads to larger muscles so is favored by bodybuilders more than myofibrillar hypertrophy which builds athletic strength. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is triggered by increasing repetitions, whereas myofibrillar hypertrophy is triggered by lifting heavier weight. In either case, there is an increase in size and strength of the muscles (compared to if that same individual does not lift weights at all). However, the emphasis is different.
Many trainees like to cycle between the two methods in order to prevent the body from adapting (maintaining a progressive overload), possibly emphasizing whichever method more suits their goals. I.e, a bodybuilder will use sarcoplasmic hypertrophy most of the time, but may change to myofibrillar hypertrophy temporarily in order to move past a plateau.
The high levels of muscle growth and repair achieved by bodybuilders require a specialized diet. Generally speaking, bodybuilders require more calories than the average person of the same weight to provide the protein and energy requirements needed to support their training and increase muscle mass. A sub-maintenance level of food energy is combined with cardiovascular exercise to lose body fat in preparation for a contest. The ratios of food energy from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats vary depending on the goals of the bodybuilder.
Carbohydrates play an important role for bodybuilders. Carbohydrates give the body energy to deal with the rigors of training and recovery. Carbohydrates also promote secretion of insulin, a hormone enabling cells to get the glucose they need. Insulin also carries amino acids into cells and promotes protein synthesis. Insulin has steroid-like effects in terms of muscle gains. It is impossible to promote protein synthesis without the existence of insulin, and which means without carbohydrates, it is impossible to add muscle mass. Bodybuilders seek out low-glycemic polysaccharides and other slowly digesting carbohydrates, which release energy in a more stable fashion than high-glycemic sugars and starches. This is important as high-glycemic carbohydrates cause a sharp insulin response, which places the body in a state where it is likely to store additional food energy as fat. However, bodybuilders frequently do ingest some quickly digesting sugars (often in form of pure dextrose or maltodextrin) after a workout. This may help to replenish glycogen stores within the muscle, and to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Protein milkshakes, made from protein powder (center) and milk (left), are a common bodybuilding supplement.
The motor proteins actin and myosin generate the forces exerted by contracting muscles. Current advice says that bodybuilders should consume 25-30% of protein per total calorie intake to further their goal of maintaining and improving their body composition. This is a widely debated topic, with many arguing that 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is ideal, some suggesting that less is sufficient, while others recommending 1.5, 2, or more. It is believed that protein needs to be consumed frequently throughout the day, especially during/after a workout, and before sleep. There is also some debate concerning the best type of protein to take. Chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish, eggs and dairy foods are high in protein, as are some nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. Casein or whey are often used to supplement the diet with additional protein. Whey protein is the type of protein contained in many popular brands of protein supplements, and is preferred by many bodybuilders because of its high Biological Value (BV) and quick absorption rates. Bodybuilders are usually thought to require protein with a higher BV than that of soy, which is additionally avoided due to its claimed estrogenic properties. Still, some nutrition experts believe that soy, flax seeds and many other plants that contain the weak estrogen-like compounds or phytoestrogens can be used beneficially, as phytoestrogens compete with estrogens for receptor sites in the male body and can block its actions. This can also include some inhibition of pituitary functions while stimulating the P450 system (the system that eliminates chemicals, hormones, drugs and metabolic waste product from the body) in the liver to more actively process and excrete excess estrogen. Cortisol decreases amino acid uptake by muscle, and inhibits protein synthesis.
Bodybuilders usually split their food intake for the day into 5 to 7 meals of roughly equal nutritional content and attempt to eat at regular intervals (normally between 2 and 3 hours). This method can serve purposes: to limit overindulging in the cutting phase, to physically allow for the consumption of large volumes of food during the bulking phase as well to increase basal metabolic rate when compared to the traditional 3 meals a day. However, research using whole-body calorimetry and doubly labeled water has found no metabolic advantage to eating more frequently.
The important role of nutrition in building muscle and losing fat means bodybuilders may consume a wide variety of dietary supplements. Various products are used in an attempt to augment muscle size, increase the rate of fat loss, improve joint health, increase natural testosterone production, enhance training performance and prevent potential nutrient deficiencies.
Performance enhancing substances
Some bodybuilders use drugs such as anabolic steroids and precursor substances such as prohormones to increase muscle hypertrophy. Anabolic steroids cause muscle hypertrophy of both types (I and II) of muscle fibers caused likely by an increased synthesis of muscle proteins and are accompanied with undesired side effects including hepatotoxicity, gynecomastia, acne, male pattern baldness and a decline in the body’s own testosterone production, which can cause testicular atrophy. Other performance enhancing substances used by competitive bodybuilders include human growth hormone (HGH), which can cause acromegaly.
Although muscle stimulation occurs in the gym lifting weights, muscle growth occurs afterward during rest. Without adequate rest and sleep, muscles do not have an opportunity to recover and build. About eight hours of sleep a night is desirable for the bodybuilder to be refreshed, although this varies from person to person. Additionally, many athletes find a daytime nap further increases their body’s ability to build muscle. Some bodybuilders take several naps per day, during peak anabolic phases and during catabolic phases.
Overtraining occurs when a bodybuilder has trained to the point where his workload exceeds his recovery capacity. There are many reasons that overtraining occurs, including lack of adequate nutrition, lack of recovery time between workouts, insufficient sleep, and training at a high intensity for too long (a lack of splitting apart workouts). Training at a high intensity too frequently also stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) and can result in a hyper-adrenergic state that interferes with sleep patterns. To avoid overtraining, intense frequent training must be met with at least an equal amount of purposeful recovery. Timely provision of carbohydrates, proteins, and various micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, even nutritional supplements are acutely critical.
It has been argued that overtraining can be beneficial. One article published by Muscle & Fitness magazine stated that you can “Overtrain for Big Gains”. It suggested that if one is planning a restful holiday and they do not wish to inhibit their bodybuilding lifestyle too much, they should overtrain before taking the holiday, so the body can rest easily and recuperate and grow. Overtraining can be used advantageously, as when a bodybuilder is purposely overtrained for a brief period of time to super compensate during a regeneration phase. These are known as “shock micro-cycles” and were a key training technique used by Soviet athletes. However, the vast majority of overtraining that occurs in average bodybuilders is generally unplanned and completely unnecessary.
Non muscle-developing methods
Some bodybuilders, particularly at professional level, use substances such as “site enhancement oil”, commonly known as synthol, to mimic the appearance of developed muscle where it may otherwise be disproportionate or lagging. This is known as “fluffing”.Synthol is 85% oil, 7.5% lidocain, and 7.5% alcohol. It is not restricted, as it is intended for topical use only, and many brands are available on the internet. The use of injected oil to enhance muscle appearance had previously been used in the late 19th century before being abandoned due to health risks such as sclerosing lipogranuloma. Its use was revived more recently by bodybuilders. Use can cause pulmonary embolisms, nerve damage, infections, stroke, and the formation of oil-filled oleomas, cysts or ulcers in the muscle. Sesame oil is often used, which can cause allergic reactions such as vasculitis. An aesthetic issue is drooping of muscle under gravity. Surgical methods are also often employed to remove steroid-related gynecomastia in male bodybuilders, and breast implants in female bodybuilders who wish to retain a feminine physique, which can be compromised in terms of breast reduction by intense dieting.