Is natural bodybuilding is healthy or not? If you’ve clicked on this article, that’s the question you’re probably asking.
You could also simply be wondering if getting into fitness is a good idea. We often hear that enhanced bodybuilding is definitely unhealthy because of performance-enhancing drug use. Natural bodybuilding doesn’t use drugs.
It’s a form of bodybuilding that rejects the use of steroids and prizes what the human body can do without steroid use. Does that make it healthy? Is true, natural bodybuilding really healthy? Does bodybuilding without PEDs use make it a safe and healthy practice?
Today we’re going to look at these frequently asked questions about natural bodybuilding and hopefully provide you with the answers and information you need to take control of your own fitness and physique journey.
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What is YOUR definition of healthy?
By some definitions, being healthy means you’re not likely to become sick. Others will say that being healthy is having managed to increase your “normal state” to “a superior state” in terms of brain functions, physical performance, and resting body-state
In the case of natural bodybuilding, we could say that looking better will give you more confidence and a happier state of mind resulting in being healthier. We could also say that reducing your body-fat percentage and having a toned physique will help your organs function better and allow your body to move better, resulting in being healthier.
So before reading this article, you might want to think about what YOUR definition of being healthy is. It’s important to wonder what matters to you and keep that at the centre of your choices, whether it’s living pain-free, feeling more confident and in control of your own body, or just what it feels like to improve what you can do.
Natural bodybuilding is healthier than enhanced bodybuilding
There’s no doubt about it – whether natural bodybuilding is healthy or not, it’s certainly much healthier than the enhanced, steroid-centric form of bodybuilding most people think of.
The fact you are not using performance enhancing-drugs will protect your health in the long run. PEDs can have a very dangerous impact on your health such as damaging the liver, increasing blood pressure, enlarging the heart, etc. These make up the perception among normal people that bodybuilding is bad for health.
It is not a recent development that many bodybuilders who abuse steroids are then facing the consequences as they get older. Now, natural bodybuilding does not involve PEDs but the practice of eating and training remains the same. It is still important to ask ourselves whether the practice itself is healthy or not.
If natural bodybuilding is healthier than enhanced bodybuilding. Does it mean natural bodybuilding is healthy?
What is natural bodybuilding?
Natural bodybuilding is a movement within the bodybuilding world where we ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs to attain a desired shape. We focus on the achievements that the normal, natural human body can produce – and the physiques that represent hard, un-aided training over years at a time.
In practice, it is basically lifting weights and wanting to increase muscle mass overtime. It does stem from natural bodybuilding competition, however – of providing the biggest, best-conditioned, leanest and most proportionate physique possible.
Practicing natural bodybuilding will also lead you to follow the right nutrition plan to grow along with lifting weights. This is where we start to understand the fitness of natural bodybuilding: it promotes regular strength training and better diet, as well as regular cardio and endurance to reduce bodyfat and keep the cardio-respiratory system healthy.
There are a lot of questions that come up in response to natural bodybuilding and its effects on health:
- Is lifting weights over a long period of time healthy?
- Is it necessary for your body to carry that muscle mass?
- Is the food you eat while bulking and cutting healthy?
- Are the processes of bulking and cutting healthy?
But the first and most important thing to remember is that the core habits are exercise and nutrition. These are better than the vast majority of people’s normal habits, and they should be considered healthy – they promote better hormonal, metabolic, mental, cardiorespiratory, and skeletal health.
What we really want to ask are 2 questions:
- Is natural bodybuilding healthy for the average person? Which is obviously yes
- Is natural bodybuilding the healthiest type of activity to perform?
This second question is far less obvious – but it’s important to look at what comes with competitive, high-performance natural bodybuilding before we can say for sure…
Being honest, natural bodybuilding is not the healthiest of sports
Just because the word ‘natural’ is part of the term ‘natural bodybuilding’, it doesn’t mean it is a healthy practice.
While the core of the day-in, day-out experience is eating well and training hard, the competitive nature of bodybuilding does put some strain on our ideas of health and fitness.
We will consider many reasons why you might not consider natural bodybuilding as being healthy. For example, acknowledging the fact you are building a lot of muscle that just isn’t necessary for your body to survive, but often people do this at the expense of their tendon health.
Equally, the competitive condition many bodybuilders chase shows up some of the dangers and unhealthier aspects of natural bodybuilding.
You do not need muscles “extra” to survive
One of the main questions I am asked about natural bodybuilding is “why bother? You don’t need those extra muscles to live or survive”.
The truth is, if you look at bodybuilding or natural bodybuilding from a biological perspective, it isn’t necessary. While these “extra” muscles might help you prevent injuries and be tougher in many physical situations, you do not need them to continue living.
It’s true: you do not need big muscles to survive and thrive in life. But, as we will see, building an athletic shape can contribute to your overall wellbeing and offers more than one kind of health benefit…
While performance enhancing drugs make some bodybuilders over-muscular, as well as causing serious damage to the heart and liver, natural bodybuilding doesn’t do that. You build muscle proportionate to what your body and lifestyle can support.
Even though as a natural bodybuilder you will probably never get to the size of a pro enhanced athlete and should be in decent shape year-round. While you might not be enormous, you’ll be big enough that endurance will fall off during a massing phase, which can be less healthy.
That is when you carry the most muscle. Any natural bodybuilder that is lean will probably not carry enough muscle mass to feel these effects, but the swings between “bulking” and “cutting” phases can be quite significant and may involve losing some of your cardiorespiratory health and fitness.
Natural Bodybuilding can be tough for your joints
Bodybuilding or natural bodybuilding will also take a lot out of your joints. Sure, you can have an approach where you don’t try to go heavy all the time. But at some point, you’re still lifting quite heavy. Even if you can do 20 reps at 100kg on the bench press and it is pretty light for you, that’s still heavy in the grand scheme of things – and it’s easy to over-train joints without noticing it.
As with many other risks in natural bodybuilding, these are about how you train. Proper training improves the strength and health of joints, protecting them from injury, while poor technique and excessive loading produce worsening of the joints.
Humans are meant to be loaded – you were carrying your backpack as a school kid on a daily basis or sitting down at your desk all year around. Inactivity contributes to many more problems.
Joints may be at risk of short-term injuries with weight training, but they are far less at-risk from chronic, degenerative problems in stronger, better-muscled joints!
Most of the sports can be body-traumatising, not just natural bodybuilding
A lot of sports aren’t that healthy and often joints are traumatised.
If you take tennis, for example, there is a lot of stop and go in the movements. If you take rowing, this can definitely build you a good back, but your joints might also suffer.
It’s important to remember that the human body both loves and hates movement. It is the spur for growth and health, but it is also a finite machine that needs proper recovery and will likely see decline over time regardless.
Proper activity levels – across any sport and physical activity – threaten the body at one level or another. Natural bodybuilding doesn’t carry any significant risks that any other sport is completely safe from.
At the end of the day, it is all about trying to make the best out of it and following good practices to prevent these issues.
A lot of sports aren’t that healthy and often joints are traumatised. If you take tennis, for example, there is a lot of stop and go in the movements. If you take rowing, this can definitely build you a good back but your joints might also suffer. At the end of the day, it is all about trying to make the best out of it and following good practices to prevent these issues.
Natural bodybuilding can be extreme
If we also look at most natural bodybuilders, we all have to bulk. When we bulk and reach a certain level, it can be as much as 3500, 4000, 4500, or even more calories per day. It is sometimes hard to reach this amount of calories by only eating healthy.
A lot of young natural bodybuilders will eat junk food to reach the calories or drink some dirty but tasty shakes.
There is no issue with that and, to be honest, they do it because it works.
The question of what is healthy when it comes to eating lots and gaining weight is a sensitive one. Sure, it’d be better to reach 4500 calories with salad and fish, but that would be a painful process.
For the average natural bodybuilder, with the amount of calories they need to eat most of the time, it would be virtually impossible to fit enough calories in each day with “healthy” food so they resort to junk food.
This is one of the many reasons why it’s perceived as unhealthy – there are a lot of foods that don’t tend to arise in a normal, healthy, weight-loss diet. However, that’s not what these people are training for and we shouldn’t judge their weight gain diet by the standards of their weight loss diet.
There is a moderated position between living on chicken salads and eating nothing but junk food. A balanced diet in an athlete training regularly and intensely can offer everything they need without too much junk food – especially compared to someone eating junk who doesn’t exercise.
Natural bodybuilding is definitely a much healthier alternative than inactive life. Often, the important thing is just whatever gets someone up and active on a regular basis!
It’s important to have periods of maintaining or losing weight semi-regularly, too. These help the body refresh its cells and stay sensitive to insulin, reducing the risks of both cell death/damage and diabetes.
On the other end of the spectrum, cutting down to a competition level can also be unhealthy. When you approach 6 or 7 % body fat you put your body in a dangerous state. If you do many competitions in your life, you are then repeating this back and forth by losing and gaining weight which can definitely impact your health.
Natural bodybuilding can still lead to mental health issues
Steroids would multiply these issues we are about to talk about by 5 times. But it does not mean you can’t develop these issues without using PEDs. We are talking about body-dysmorphia, bigorexia, or an overall lack of confidence affecting your mental health.
Natural bodybuilding will be healthy mentally if you know why you are going to practice it. Once that is clear for you, it’s about remaining true to your goals with natural bodybuilding and being true to yourself, too.
Most people get into fitness and bodybuilding because they don’t like the way they look, and a lot of them will fall for the “never satisfied” obsession. That’s not a healthy place to start and it will lead to an unhealthy relationship with bodybuilding.
Make sure you know why you are doing into it – and that it’s sincere and you’re doing it for positive reasons. Guilt, shame, and self-criticism might get you started but look for the good and positive: improving strength, crushing goals, and working hard!Make sure you know why you are doing into it!
Your family and friends will most likely not understand
If you are a teenager, be prepared that your family and friends will question your bodybuilding activity.
Although bodybuilding and natural bodybuilding are becoming more and more popular, you will always have people around you telling you that you are not doing a real sport, that putting on too much muscle is a problem, or that you look fine the way you are.
Some of these comments are well-meaning, some of them less so.
Truth is, if you like it and know the reasons why you are there and it helps you with your personal development, just carry on.
Eventually people will stop bothering you with that! There will always be something that people will disagree with, whatever you do, so with that in mind just carry on lifting weights.
It’s also important to keep in mind the benefits of natural bodybuilding that we’ve not even mentioned yet…
Natural bodybuilding has a lot of benefits
Natural bodybuilding teaches you discipline
Natural bodybuilding is what you make of it – and some of the mental health benefits don’t care how you lift.
For example, determination and working hard to reach new heights.
People will often say bodybuilding isn’t a sport, but it is probably one of the hardest practices out there. You do not only have to lift a lot of weights. You also have to watch yourself in the kitchen and recover enough. It doesn’t need to be an Olympic, agreed-upon sport to build you into the kind of person you want to be!
Natural bodybuilding or bodybuilding in general makes you think. It’s all about looking good on a cut and choosing the right exercises for yourself. It’s all about understanding your body shape and knowing what to fix and how to fix it. It’s also an art. Posing requires more work than people would think, and it is quite exhausting.
This requires some crazy discipline which bodybuilders should be proud of.
In my opinion, we could also argue that natural bodybuilding is even harder than enhanced bodybuilding. Natural bodybuilding requires you to be more patient, to be better at programming etc. There is no aspect of luck about it or the genetic / chemical lottery that comes with steroid responsiveness!
The natural way simply looks good
Natural bodybuilding also gives you a great look. The natural way just has that thing that enhanced bodybuilding does not particularly have. No side effects, no acne, no redness of the skin, no 3D delts. It might not be as huge but it looks “wow” in its own way.
Natural bodybuilding will prevent you from having injuries
Yes, some people hurt their joints and pull muscles, but if you do things safely, because your muscles are getting stronger they usually protect all those areas.
It’s when you stop lifting that you realise your back starts hurting. Lifting weight with consistency will prevent injuries and feeling chronic pain. It will also protect you against significant long-term bone and joint injuries.
Equally, enhanced bodybuilding places extra strain on connective tissues as muscles get bigger and stronger but tendons are not as rapidly-strengthened. Natural bodybuilders don’t have this problem, due to a healthier development of both tissues together.
You’ll appreciate the extra strength as you age and the additional mass keeps you stronger, healthier, happier, and independent for longer.
Hormone release and other neurotransmitters
As with many sports, once you get going and start to see the results, you start enjoying it. More than that, after your workouts, your body rewards you with endorphins, like dopamine and serotonin. These change how you feel.
Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These hormones will usually be released as your body is under stress and helps you cope with the amount of pressure training gives, and provide a post-exercise “high”, telling your body that it did well.
Being in shape for the rest of your life
Muscle memory for natural bodybuilders is real.
If you have been training hard for a decade, you will never go back to being skinny again. You feed yourself with a few meals and you can already feel your muscles swelling up and your body asking you to go back to the gym!
Strength might not come back as quickly as your size, nonetheless it comes much quicker than when you are a complete newbie.
Natural bodybuilding or bodybuilding is both an individual and social sport
We can often think when starting natural bodybuilding/bodybuilding that it is a very individual sport, which in a way translates to asocial. In reality, going to the gym is one of the best ways to meet people and make great friends.
Unlike many social sports like handball, volleyball, football, where it’s often the same team, here you always go to the gym thinking that you might meet someone new, every single day.
The gym turns out to be one of the best places to socialise. While it is a very social place, you still are practicing an individual sport. Having both of these aspects in one sport is a great outcome! You get to bond with people who share your goal and – often – the values we mentioned above as part of the mental benefits of bodybuilding.
You gain a lot of strength practicing natural bodybuilding
You will gain a lot of strength if you train like a real natural bodybuilder, and this will have an impact on your life in general.
You won’t be the guy or girl getting tired from carrying their luggage in between two flights of stairs. You will be the guy in the family we ask to move stuff around! (I actually don’t know if that’s a good thing, it can get annoying).
This strength will have carry-over to other sports.
Just like Charlie mentioned in his interview, he has noticed that the strength he gained really helped him improve in other sports. Combat sports like judo or jiu-jitsu could highly benefit from your experience in natural bodybuilding, and many other forms of physical activity will become fun, easier, and safer than they are for inactive people just getting started.
You get what you’ll put in
There is no magic in natural bodybuilding.
While in enhanced bodybuilding, taking steroids can almost do all of the work if you are genetically responsive, natural bodybuilding won’t work that way. Yes, some people will have better genetics than you, but in the end, the results you get are proportional to the work you put in both in and outside the gym. The sport is hard and not many people are willing to get in shape as much as you are ;).
Should you get yourself into natural bodybuilding?
Yes, definitely! If you compare the pros and the cons, you can in my opinion outperform the cons. Let’s do a quick recap:
- Natural bodybuilding is very social
- Natural bodybuilding will allow you to be in great shape for the rest of your life
- Practicing the sport regularly makes you feel good and helps you cope with stress
- It teaches you discipline
- You will be more solid and avoid injuries
- The natural way looks good
- You will learn how to make diet plans
- Sometimes you have to help your loved ones move house
- Looking too good
- Having to buy new clothes because you got muscular
- Some people don’t understand why you’re so bothered
Does Rachel Mclish look unhealthy to you?
I made an article on Rachel Mclish and how great of a natural bodybuilder she is. In the article, we learn how to train to get a physique similar to hers (if you are a woman, I recommend you read it). Looking at her in her sixties, she still looks incredible and looks to be perfectly healthy – at least from the outside.
Her attention to good dieting has probably also helped her looking that good on the outside. If all of us can expect to look like that because we practice natural bodybuilding, we are setting ourselves up for a bright future!
Conclusion: is natural bodybuilding healthy?
In my opinion and following my definition of being healthy, I believe natural bodybuilding is usually healthy.
I think the personal balance is most important. The way you relate to natural bodybuilding, how well you regulate your training and nutrition, are what make bodybuilding healthy or unhealthy. If you do it well, it will make you healthier and keep you that way for longer!
The question is: will the practice of the sport benefit you for where you are, what you want to become, what your goals are and your approach to life?
If the benefits of natural bodybuilding like discipline, learning how to diet, surpass your current self and meeting good people outweigh the fact your family and friends might criticise your hobby, then natural bodybuilding will be a healthy practice for you.