When a glistening, bronzed bodybuilder poses on stage, they might look like they’re in pretty good shape. But that’s not always the reality.
Beneath the bedazzled briefs or bikini is a body that is possibly dehydrated and exhausted from months of restrictive dieting and training.
For some competitors, bodybuilding is empowering and hugely rewarding, but for others it can take a severe toll on the body and mind.
Use of illegal drugs and supplements in competitive bodybuilding has received considerable attention in recent years. But what are the health effects of the dieting and intense training that bodybuilding athletes put themselves through?
What is competitive bodybuilding?
Competitive bodybuilding combines specific dieting, weight training and cardio with posing and presentation on stage in front of judges, according to exercise scientist Kristina Kendall from Edith Cowan University, who is also a former science editor at bodybuilding.com.
“Training like a bodybuilder is more about presenting your physique to have more symmetry, or a better overall shape, rather than going out onto the field and doing something with it,” Dr Kendall said.
If your goal is to compete on stage, the preparation process usually starts between 12 and 24 weeks out from the competition date.
The first stage of the preparation process is bulking — consuming more energy than you’re burning.
This primarily involves eating energy-dense carbohydrates and protein, and regular weights training, said Deakin University sports and performance dietician Dominique Condo.
“It’s a phase to lay down good muscles mass, and you’ll be increasing some fat as well,” she said.
Next is the leaning down phase, two or three months before the competition, where the aim is to reduce fat while maintaining as much of the muscle as possible. At this point athletes might introduce some cardio into their exercise regime to help burn fat.
“You have to eat less than what you’re burning because being lean is the key to competing,” Dr Condo said.
“It all comes down to muscle definition.”
Being too lean is mean to your hormones
Competitive bodybuilders aim to be on stage close to their absolute leanest. And it’s the leaning down phase that can be the unhealthiest.
As an athlete approaches their competition date, they eat less food, starting with fewer carbohydrates.
Elite female athletes are not recommended to have a body fat percentage below 12 to 14 per cent, but it’s not uncommon for professional female bodybuilders to have a body fat percentage below 10 per cent, according to Dr Kendall.
“When you go lower [than recommended body fat percentage] the menstrual cycle becomes irregular and the body will start to produce less oestrogen, which is so important for our reproductive system and bone health.”
Kylene Anderson was drawn to bodybuilding to be a better version of herself, and she said that’s what drove to keep going with it after her first competition.
But she found that competing disrupted her menstrual cycle and decided to take a break from competing because she wanted to start a family.
“With my preparation for my second and third competitions I lost my period for about three months, and I knew it would take about a year for my body to get back to normal again,” Ms Anderson said.
“In the end, it took about six months before my period was regular again.”
But if you have competed regularly for years, or as a professional bodybuilder, it might take a lot longer.
“If low body fat percentage is done for a long period of time or repeated regularly, it can have significant implications for female reproductive health, and it’s often hard to reverse,” Dr Kendall said.
With a drop in body fat also comes a reduction in the hormone leptin, which is vital in appetite regulation, Dr Condo said.
“Leptin tells us when we’re full, and if it’s low it can make you fatigued and irritable, but it can also dysregulate your appetite — you can’t tell whether you’re hungry or full.”
Male competitors are also at risk of hormone disruption, including testosterone — which can drop in the leaning phase leading to fatigue and low sex drive.
Lifting weights for bodybuilding has obvious benefits too, says Dr Condo.
“It’s getting people active, it’s getting people building muscles and reducing fat, which we know benefits cardiovascular health, bone health,” she said.
“I think it may not have to be as extreme as what some people do. I question whether you have to be that restrictive on carbohydrates, especially from a female perspective.”