Bodybuilding is a popular sport that intrigues those who want to improve their body composition and test their limits with demanding exercise routines, diets and supplements, whether it’s recreationally or competitively.
Although there is no conclusive evidence of increased health risks or rates of premature death among bodybuilders, compared to the general population, there have been concerning cases that give us reason to be cautious in ensuring safety and proper planning during bodybuilding training. For example, one study of the autopsies of bodybuilders who died prematurely, showed that 100% of the cases had changes in cardiac structure.
Potential Safety Concerns Associated with Common Bodybuilding Strategies
There are many strategies commonly employed by bodybuilders that could potentially increase health risks. We will review a few of the common areas to be mindful of, however this is not an exhaustive list. All of these factors can contribute to stress on the body and when combined could cause an even higher risk to health.
Although there are no accurate numbers on how many recreational or professional bodybuilders utilize banned substances, there are estimates.
For example, androgenic anabolic steroids (AAS) usage is more common in bodybuilders than the general population. Lifetime usage for all men is estimated to be around 6%, while one study showed AAS usage was in >75% of bodybuilders who participated in amateur competitions.
AAS usage is associated with increased health risks, including 3 times higher mortality in users versus nonusers, as well as increased hospitalizations and other health risks.
Other substances that may be abused include testosterone, insulin, human growth hormones and recreational drugs, which could all have harmful effects on health.
Overall, the benefits of exercise outweigh the negatives. However, effects of excessive cardio and resistance training should be explored, as it can have a stressful impact on the body.
Excessive exercise training may be associated with cardiac abnormalities, including cardiac hypertrophy and, in rare cases, premature death. Enlargement of the left ventricle has even been found in athletes who do not use performance enhancing drugs.
A common eating issue associated with bodybuilders is the negative cycle of fasting, cutting or extremely low calorie diets to lose weight and then rebounding with binges. This process can contribute to wide fluctuations in body weight, which may have negative health implications.
Another dietary factor that may be manipulated is hydration status, using fluid restriction or diuretics to help make the body appear more lean. Dehydration can lead to electrolyte abnormalities and poorer health outcomes.
According to one study, most (95.7%) bodybuilders admitted to using dietary supplements, with creatine monohydrate (80.4%) and whey protein (65.8%) being the most widely utilized supplements.
Some dietary supplements may contain substances that can be harmful, including heavy metals or banned substances. Also, even safer dietary supplements can affect some individuals negatively. This is why it is very important to research before using and monitor how it affects you.
5 Health Protecting Strategies to Try
- Focus on natural bodybuilding principles.
Although some ‘natural’ bodybuilders still admit to using some performance enhancing substances, it is much safer to avoid all banned substances, especially AAS. You will be doing your long-term health a favor.
Although the allure of quick gains can be attractive, they are not worth the health risks. There are many amazing natural bodybuilders, which shows that you can still be successful when all natural.
2. Research the safety of all the supplements you want to utilize and be aware that individual reactions may vary.
You should not just go off of what someone recommended that you take. Everyone can potentially react to supplements differently. For example, although creatine monohydrate is extremely safe overall, there have been negative reactions in certain individuals, especially those with kidney dysfunction and when using excessive amounts.
Try to research the supplement from legitimate resources, take the recommended dosage, avoiding super dosages and monitor how it affects you.
Also, make sure any supplements you use are legitimate, actually contain what it says and are free of impurities. For example, there are third-party testers such as NSF, USP, ConsumerLab and an athlete specific one is NSF Certified for Sport that you can use to find a brand that works for you.
3. Focus on heart healthy foods and limit dieting extremes, especially fasting/binge cycles.
A good way to avoid dieting extremes is to focus on keeping your weight stable all year. A rule of thumb is to try to keep your weight within a maximum of 10% variation.
For example, if your goal weight is 150 pounds, you would try to stay under a maximum weight of 165 pounds, to decrease the stress associated with large weight fluctuations and extreme dieting. The more weight you gain, the more likely you are to go to dieting extremes to lose it.
Also, try to ensure the quality of your diet is good. Focus on whole foods and limit ultra-processed foods, if possible. Check out these heart healthy Mediterranean and DASH diet principles that you can incorporate into your diet to promote heart health and longevity.
4. Avoid excessive exercise.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules of what is too much exercise. Signs of excessive exercise may manifest differently for everyone.
However, listen to your body. If you notice that you are more tired, have low energy, fatigue earlier, are plateauing or declining in performance or having increases in heart rate or blood pressure, you may be overtraining.
5. Make sure you have regular health check-ups to ensure you are healthy and catch any problems early.
A health check-up should include assessment of your blood pressure and labs. Important labs include assessment of your complete blood count (CBC), basic metabolic panel (BMP) with eGFR to assess kidney functioning, lipids, liver functioning and hormones.
Try to have an annual check-up to assess your baseline and to be able to quickly identify any significant changes in your health over time. This is a great way to stay on top of your health and treat issues quickly.
Sometimes in the pursuit of meeting certain physique goals, individuals are more likely to put their health on the backburner. Although these health concerns are rare, it’s still important to make sure that you think about how training can be improved and make your health a priority.
However, putting your health at risk is just not worth it! Besides, you can still be a successful bodybuilder and keep your health a priority. Try to think about any areas in your bodybuilding routine that can be improved upon.
If you need help with meal planning and improving your heart health, be sure to grab my free guide.