These days, it appears that the term “natural bodybuilding” is an oxymoron. The public concept of bodybuilders, which is most often based on the appearance of professional bodybuilders, is that all are “juiced up” monstrosities, none of whom have any compunction against shooting up any kind of drug that will enhance their muscle size and definition. While it’s true that attempting to find a completely drug-free competitor in the pro ranks can be likened to searching for a Tyrannosaurs Rex walking in Times Square, there is nonetheless a segment of competitive bodybuilders who eschew all anabolic drug usage. In addition, there is a much larger population of people that want to look muscular and fit, but also avoid drug usage, even though they may not be interested in actual competition. In science studies, such people are referred to as “recreational trainees.”
There is little doubt that using anabolic drugs, such as anabolic steroids, growth hormone, and insulin, can provide some significant benefits to those engaged in bodybuilding. For one, they speed the process of muscle protein synthesis, which is the underlying basis of muscular hypertrophy or growth. They also dramatically increase recovery time after training, thus permitting a greater volume and intensity of exercise while still avoiding the negative effects of overtraining. You might say that using an extensive array of anabolic drugs takes the thinking out of bodybuilding, since their use allows a number of errors to occur that would otherwise hamper muscle gains. These include the aforementioned overtraining, as well as certain dietary mistakes.
What this suggests is that to be natural means you must also be far more analytical. You need to carefully consider the factors that will produce maximal muscle progress, while avoiding aspects that might impede muscle gains. While a steroid-using bodybuilder can get away with overtraining and even dietary indiscretions prior to a contest, these mistake could easily derail the contest preparations of a natural bodybuilder.
In recent years, scientists have taken a closer look at bodybuilding practices, and from this have emerged guidelines as to the most efficient way to spare muscle and lose fat prior to a contest appearance. While much of this pertains to natural competitors, the same principles also apply to recreational and even those who do use anabolic drugs. Still, these must be considered general guidelines because of individual response. An example of this is using low carbohydrate diets. This type of diet is the most popular for purposes of losing excess body fat. But it actually works best for those who are insulin insensitive, which is marked by a sensitivity of carb intake that often results in higher insulin secretion. Insulin is controversial because it functions as both an anabolic hormone, and a lipogenic hormone. The latter term refers to the fact that insulin tends to promote body fat synthesis, mainly in the presence of excess calorie intake. There are those who say that insulin alone cannot make you fat unless accompanied by excess caloric intake, but more recent studies suggest that elevated insulin blood levels alone can indeed set up a metabolic cascade that does result in body fat synthesis.
Regardless of the type of diet followed to get in top shape, you cannot escape the fact that weight-loss does result from fewer calories consumed combined with increased activity. But there are also some intervening factors to consider, such as the elevated resting insulin levels often seen in those with higher body fat levels. Such elevated resting insulin levels will tend to hamper fat loss, since insulin maintains existing body fat stores. The entire underlying principle of low carb diets is insulin control. There are some who doubt this. They claim that the emphasis on insulin is overplayed, and that insulin is more of an innocent bystander, rather than a major player in the obesity process. But this doesn’t explain the plethora of cases where people have tried many diets, but failed to lose significant amounts of body fat until they began a low carb diet. Speaking for myself, I am one of those people. Every diet that I tried failed,either because of excessive hunger that precluded long-term compliance, or simply because of lack of motivation due to glacially slow fat loss. Low carb diets tend to produce higher levels of metabolic byproducts of fat metabolism called ketones. Among the functions of these ketones is to provide an alternative source of energy, as well as to stave off hunger. But a key reason why low carb diets reduce hunger pangs is their higher protein intake. Numerous studies show that a higher protein intake promotes feelings of satiety.
Still, you do need to watch total caloric intake if you want efficient fat losses. The usual recommendation is that by reducing daily caloric intake by 500 calories, you will lose about a pound of fat a week. In actuality, particularly with low carb diets, the weight loss as reflected on the scales is far more than that due to loss of water. But the actual loss of fat itself will be closer to a pound. Some people want to lose weight faster than that. This is evident on television shows such as The Biggest Loser. On that show, obese contestants engage in severe low calorie dieting, along with gross overtraining with a goal of losing weight as fast as possible. The problem with losing weight too rapidly is that you don’t allow your metabolism to adjust to the lost weight, and this practically assures a regain of the lost fat when the diet ends. This is precisely what has occurred with the majority of Biggest Loser contestants. From a bodybuilding point of view, several studies have affirmed that the faster you lose weight, the greater the loss of muscle mass. That loss of muscle mass also contributes to a lower resting metabolism that promotes body fat gain.
One study of women engaged in weight-training found that in those who lost one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of weight per week in comparison to other women who lost only a half-kilogram of weight, negative strength changes occurred. The women who lost the greater amount of weight showed a 5% drop in bench press strength, along with a 30% drop in testosterone levels. Study after study shows that a more gradual weight loss tends to preserve both muscle mass and anabolic hormone levels, both of primary importance to natural bodybuilders. Another study of male bodybuilders (drug-free) who were preparing for a contest found that the largest caloric reduction occured near the end of their contest prep, and this coincided with the largest loss of lean mass, or muscle.
Another factor to consider in considering caloric intake is how lean you are are the contest draws closer. The leaner you are, in terms of lower body fat levels, the greater the chance of muscle loss. The fat acts as a buffer, since the body will tap into it during periods of lower caloric intake. But once the majority of fat is gone, the body then tends to use protein stores from muscle as an energy source, resulting in a loss of muscle. Low carb advocates note that the higher ketone production that occurs with low carb diets provides an anti-catabolic effect, since the ketones can be used as an energy source, thus preventing catabolic muscle effects. But this is only true when there is sufficient body fat left to act as a buffer. What this adds up to is that slower weight-loss is the key to preventing excess muscle loss in dieting bodybuilders, and crash diets featuring very low calorie intake should be avoided.
As far as protein intake, this has been a controversial topic for years. Some suggest that bodybuilders need to ingest no more protein than the average couch potato. But recent studies have confirmed the long-standing notion that bodybuilders indeed require a higher protein intake. This is especially true under dieting conditions, since the higher protein intake will serve to help spare vital lean mass. The leaner you are, the higher the protein intake should be, since again, those with less body fat are at increased risk of losing muscle when calorie intake is curtailed. The general suggested protein intake for bodybuilders is a range of 1.2 to 2.2 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bodyweight. But the combination of intense weight-training and aerobic training that typically constitutes a pre-contest training regime does demand a higher protein intake than is suggested.
Studies of bodybuilders preparing for contests do suggest that a higher protein intake does tend to spare muscle when dieting. But when a bodybuilder gets very lean, or is at a low body fat level, consuming a high protein diet at the expense of fat and carbohydrate may actually promote the use of body protein as fuel, leading to a loss of muscle. One study that followed natural bodybuilders for 11 weeks while they prepared for a contest, found that the latter stages of a reduced calorie diet led to low levels of three anabolic hormones: IGF-1, insulin, and testosterone. The study authors suggest that rather than boost protein intake in the later stages of a diet, it would be better to slowly add back carbohydrates. This would have the effect of raising the anabolic hormones that work to spare muscle (especially insulin). For most bodybuilders preparing for competition, an appropriate range of protein intake should be 2.3 to 3.1 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, with leaner individuals consuming the higher amount.
No less controversial than protein intake is carbohydrate intake for a pre-contest bodybuilder. As noted, the most popular pre-contest diet is the low carb diet. Bodybuilders have used this diet for years, long before it became popular. On the other hand, typical bodybuilding workouts are anaerobic, and are thus powered by glycogen stores in muscle and liver. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrate in the body, and its supplies are limited. Just avoiding all carb intake for a day can completely deplete liver glycogen stores. Without sufficient glycogen in muscle, recovery after training is blunted, and certain anabolic processes that involve intramuscular IGF-1 are also short-circuited, adding to the slower recovery effect. The usual suggested range of carb intake for bodybuilders if 4-7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.This range is far above what a low carb diet would supply. If both a higher intake of protein and adequate carbs are consumed, the chances of losing muscle mass while dieting is greatly decreased. One way around this is that bodybuilders who do choose to follow low carb regimes can gradually add back carbs into the diet as they become leaner closer to the contest. This will spare muscle by maintaining anabolic hormones, and even promote fat loss through more efficient thyroid hormone production, which is a key to resting metabolic rate.
A major mistake made by natural bodybuilders in their zeal to lose fat fast is to reduce dietary fat levels too low. For one, there are two essential fatty acids that must be supplied in the diet: linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid, more commonly known as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids respectively. Among the effects of a too low fat intake are dry, itchy skin. In addition, studies show that you need to ingest at least 20% of your total caloric intake as fat in order to maintain testosterone levels. Again, this is vital for natural bodybuilders who don’t resort to using anabolic drugs. The two types of fat that maintain testosterone levels are saturated and monounsaturated fat. The latter type of fat is represented by olive oil and other fat sources. Fat intake is not often a problem for those on low carb diets. Again, studies show that the faster you lose weight, the greater the impact on your testosterone levels, most likely due to a stress effect of extreme dieting. In practice, the optimal fat intake range for a contest bodybuilder is 15-20% of total caloric intake. One other thing to consider is that intramuscular fat, or the fat stored within muscle, not only is an important energy source during training, but also tends to produce a “fuller” appearing muscle. One of the tricks of looking great on stage is to maximize intramuscular fat through judicious consumption of dietary fat, along with full muscle glycogen stores.
Another controversial issue in bodybuilding nutrition is the concept of nutrient timing. This concept suggests that if you ingest protein and carbs within proximity of training, you will promote increased muscle recovery and even boost anabolic effects in muscle. The technique was first applied to endurance athletes, then later suggested as being effective for strength athletes, including bodybuilders. The subsequent research on nutrient timing has been equivocal, with some studies showing definite benefits, and others not so much. One problem with nutrient timing was the finding that muscle protein synthesis peaks at the 24-48 hour mark following exercise. This suggests that the necessity of ingesting protein as soon as possible after a workout isn’t as vital as previously believed. The key is to ensure that you consume sufficient protein in the one or two days after the workout. As for carbs, bodybuilding training doesn’t exhaust existing glycogen reserves, as does extended endurance training. In fact, studies show that doing an average of 6 to 9 sets per muscle group results in a reduction of muscle glycogen by 36 to 39%. Consuming carbs soon after training is more critical for those who are training more than once a day. Another thing to consider is that nearly all of the carbs you ingest following training are used primarily to replenish depleted muscle glycogen stores. What this means in practice is that if you ingest carbs soon after training, they will not have any negative effects on fat loss, but will provide the considerable benefits of carb ingestion. Ingesting carbs with protein immediately after a workout was suggested because the carbs added to the protein was thought to boost insulin levels more than protein alone. While this is true, it’s now known that you don’t need a lot of insulin to promote anabolic effects in muscle provided that a larger amount of amino acids is present. The normal secretion of insulin provided by a typical protein meal is enough. This changes with age, as many older people don’t produce enough insulin after meals, and do profit by increased insulin as a means of preserving lean mass.
Supplements for the natural bodybuilder also remain controversial. Unfortunately, the sports supplement industry is rife with products produced under low quality control to the extent that content of nutrients often doesn’t match what’s on the label. Then there are the “proprietary” products, which feature dozens of often esoteric and exotic ingredients, but doesn’t list the precise amounts of such ingredients. Ostensibly, this is done to protect formulas from being duplicated by competitors, and you can’t blame them for that. Unlike drugs, supplement companies cannot patent their ingredients, although some individual nutrients often have “use patents,” that allows companies to legally control the distribution of such nutrients in commercial supplements. But it’s a bad deal for the consumer, since you are often paying a lot of money for very few active nutrients.
Another problem with supplements is that many have little or no scientific evidence to back up their efficacy. Some supplements are based on one or two animal studies that may or may not have human relevance. Just because an exotic herb from Africa boosts testosterone in a rat doesn’t guarantee that it will produce duplicate results in a human. In fact, when such products are independently tested with human subjects, they usually fail to produce any results, and even produce more side effects than benefits. This raises the question: are there any food supplements that are of value to natural bodybuilders?
Food supplements roughly fall into two categories: health support and ergogenic, or those with the ability to boost muscle gains and training performance. In relation to health support, the preferred supplements are those that supply nutrients that are missing from the diet. For general health insurance, it’s prudent to include a well-balanced vitamin and mineral supplement. The B-complex vitamins in such supplements act as coenzymes in the digestion and uptake of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, so the importance of ingesting it is obvious. Antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins C, E and others, are lately controversial. The reason for this is the recent recognition that reactive oxygen species, also known as “free radicals” can have some beneficial effects.ROS are produced when oxygen is metabolized, especially in a portion of the cell called the mitochondria. They are thought to attack cellular membranes, leading to various diseases. While this is true, it’s also true that ROS act as signalling substances that among other things boost the formation of new mitochondria in cells. Since the mitochondria are the portion of cells where energy (ATP) is produced, and where fat is oxidized, the importance of mitochondria is evident. The best way to deal with this is to hedge your bets and not consume antioxidant nutrients in proximity to a workout, or just afterward.
Of all supplements geared towards bodybuilders, the most effective, as judged by existing research, is creatine. Creatine produces many effects, but its main benefit is through acting as a backup for ATP production. ATP is the immediate source of energy for muscular contraction, but lasts only 3-6 seconds. If enough creatine is stored in muscle, the creatine will donate phosphate to regenerate ATP. The usual technique for ingesting creatine involves a “loading” technique that features 6 servings a day of 5 grams (about a teaspoon) of creatine for 5-6 days, However, more recent research shows that this loading is of benefit more for athletic purposes. For bodybuilding, it’s easier to just ingest 5 grams a day for 30 days, which will top off creatine in muscle. Creatine works for 80% of those of use it, although habitual meat eaters (the richest natural source of creatine) will usually experience less benefit from creatine compared to those who don’t eat meat too often. Contrary to advertising hype, there is no “super creatine” that is better than the original form, creatine monohydrate.
Beta alanine (BA) works by boosting levels of an amino acid called carnosine in muscle. Carnosine is a dipeptide, consisting of the amino acids histidine and beta alanine bonded together. They do sell carnosine supplements, but most of it is degraded in the blood through the activity of the enzyme, carnosinase. But beta alanine is the rate-limiting substance to boost carnosine in muscle, where there is no carnosinase. In muscle, carnosine acts as an intramuscular buffer, lowering the metabolic acid that results from, and limits exercise performance under high intensity training conditions. Studies show that ingesting 6.4 grams of beta alanine a day for a month leads to a 64.2% increase in muscle carnosine content. The primary side effect associated with BA is a tingling in the skin caused by stimulation of sensory neurons in the skin. It’s harmless and transitory, but can be avoided by ingested no more than 800 milligrams of BA at a time.
HMB is a metabolite of the branched-chain amino acid, leucine. When it was initially introduced onto the supplement market hyperbolic ads compared its effects to anabolic steroids. When these effects didn’t transpire, HMB was relegated to the supplement trash bin by most bodybuilders. It didn’t help that most studies published about HMB also showed little or no effect in anyone with more than a year of training experience. Other studies suggest that HMB is useful for beginners; older people at risk of losing muscle; and for those training either very intensely, or who change their workouts frequently. In short, for anyone prone to excessive muscle damage. For anyone not in these categories, HMB is useless. A new form, “acid-free HMB” was recently introduced to the market. As with the initial introduction of HMB, this new form quickly elicited hype, with one study sponsored by a company that sells the new form claiming an average 17-pound gain of muscle mass. This is more than anabolic steroids are capable or producing! Theoretically, HMB may be useful for a natural bodybuilder in training for a contest since it may spare muscle under intense training conditions. This, however, remains a theory that awaits human controlled testing. If you want to experiment with HMB to see if it works for you, the dose is three grams a day, taken in divided doses.
Branched-chain amino acids make up 14 to 18% of the amino acids existing in muscle. Since, unlike other amino acids, they are metabolized directly in muscle, they are often called “the muscle aminos.” The specific BCAA are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine is of particular interest, since it is the single most anabolic amino acid.Studies have shown that leucine alone is capable of stimulating the muscle protein synthesis process, although it works better when other essential amino acids are present.Leucine works by promoting the activity of a protein called mTOR that is pivotal in the muscle protein synthesis process. As you age, your body develops an Anabolic resistance where processes related to amino acid uptake and muscle protein synthesis (MPS) are blunted. But when you supply additional amounts of leucine, this anabolic resistance effect is abated. Amino acid use for MPS usually peaks in about two hours, regardless of how many amino acids are in the blood. But if you supply a small dose of leucine, you can keep the MPS process going on a bit longer. Leucine is also of use for those who cannot or won’t ingest larger amounts of protein, since taking extra leucine is the metabolic equivalent of consuming more protein. Still, the use of BCAA supplements is questionable if you consume the amounts of protein discussed earlier. Also, common protein supplements, such as whey, are particular rich in BCAA, including leucine.If you do want to ingest separate doses of leucine, the suggested dose is 2-3 grams per meal or between meals to deal with the refractory effect of amino acids on MPS.
Many natural bodybuilders wonder about “testosterone boosting” and “Growth hormone” boosting supplements. Most such supplements don’t work, and are a total waste of money. One possible exception to this rule is an herb called Longjack or Tonghat Ali that comes from Malaysia. This may produce a mild elevation in testosterone, but usually works best in men who are already low in testosterone. Since hard training alone may temporarily lower testosterone levels, it may be useful for some natural bodybuilders to consider short-term use of Longjack as a minor testosterone boost. All other supplements that claim to boost testosterone are just junk and should be avoided. As for growth hormone promoting supplements, most are based on the amino acid, arginine. But recent studies show that ingesting arginine prior to weight workouts actually produces the paradoxical effect of blunting growth hormone release during exercise.Don’t waste money on useless “GH-boosters.”
Another popular bodybuilding supplement is Nitric oxide boosters. Such supplements are alleged to boost levels of nitric oxide, a substance involved among other effects, in dilating blood vessels. The thought is that taking such supplements will not only produce a more pronounced muscle pump, but also deliver more nutrients and oxygen to muscle during exercise. As with the GH boosters, the main ingredient in NO supplements is arginine. This makes sense, since arginine is the direct precursor for NO synthesis in the body. However, the production of NO isn’t based on arginine, but rather the activity of enzymes that synthesize NO from arginine. In addition, the usual amount of arginine in NO supplements is not enough to significantly promote NO synthesis. The amount is kept low because larger doses of arginine can cause gastrointestinal upset. While NO supplements average about 4 grams of arginine per suggested dose, studies show it takes 18 grams of intravenous arginine to significantly boost NO synthesis. But many of the NO supplements also contain simple carbs. Simple carbs rapidly promote an insulin release, and guess what: insulin itself boosts NO release! So it’s not the arginine in the supplements that is working, but the carbs. You can save a lot of money by avoiding NO supplements, and instead opting for methods that actually do boost NO release. Such methods include ingesting about 8 grams of the amino acid, citrulline, prior to workouts (citrulline is converted in the kidneys into arginine, providing a more reliable way of getting arginine into the blood). Also consuming about eight ounces of beet juice prior to training will lead to higher plasma levels of NO. Beet juice contains Nitrates, which are converted by enzymes in oral bacteria into nitrite, which is converted in the body into NO. You can also eat watermelon, the richest natural source of citrulline.
Glutamine started out as a popular supplement for bodybuilders, but fell into disrepute after a few studies found no effects in bodybuilders. However, some studies show that it may help blunt the effects of myostatin, a protein that blocks muscle growth. It also appears to partially blunt the catabolic effects of cortisol in muscle. As such, it may be useful for lean bodybuilders as a means of sparing muscle towards the end of a pre-contest diet. But its use is certainly not obligatory. BTW, so-called “myostatin blocker” supplements are also complete junk–don’t waste your money on them. Glutamine is normally synthesized in the body from other amino acids, and thus isn’t considered “essential.” However, the requirements for glutamine are increased under certain stress conditions and diseases. One example of this was recently published in the journal, Nutrition. That study featured 64 type-2 diabetics, ages 18 to 65, who were randomly divided into two groups, with one group ingesting a placebo, and the other group ingesting 30 grams of glutamine, three times a day. That’s a massive amount of glutamine, but it led to a blunting of muscle loss, as well as a prevention of fat gains, especially in the trunk or central portion of the body. While this study focused on subjects with a metabolic disease, it does suggest that larger doses of glutamine compared to what’s normally ingested by bodybuilders may help prevent muscle loss under severe dieting conditions, as occurs pre-contest, and may even help with some fat loss. That, however, remains to be tested in a population of young, healthy natural bodybuilders.
The other suggested supplements include a multi-mineral to help prevent muscle cramps and ensure intake of vital minerals that may be missing from a pre-contest restricted diet. As noted earlier, a large loss or lack of potassium can lead to fatigue and muscle weakness, as well as muscle cramps. Vitamin D is another nutrient often lacking, unless you get at least 20 minutes a day of sun exposure. I suggest at least 2,000 units of D each day.
Finally, should you consider carb loading the final week prior to a contest? Most dieting bodybuilders do tend to be dehydrated. This is actually considered beneficial, since less water means less of a bloated appearance and more muscle definition. While a minor degree of dehydration isn’t harmful, it’s also important to remember that muscle tissue is 72% water, and if you go overboard with the water loss, you will look flat and undefined on stage. The object of carb loading is to get as much water loaded intramuscularly, while avoiding extracellular water retention. The usual technique involves first depleting carbs for about 3 days, then loading carbs for another 3 days. If all goes well, you wind up looking fuller and bigger. If not, you look bloated with nary a vein showing anywhere. Studies that looked at the effects of carb loading in bodybuilders found that it was mostly illusory; you merely replaced the water lost during the initial three days of carb depletion. You look bigger simply because you put back the water into the muscles, but your size hasn’t actually changed.However, one observational study of a bodybuilder who did use the carb loading technique showed a 4.9% increase in biceps size the day prior to his contest appearance compared to six weeks previously. But if you gradually increase carb intake during the final two weeks prior to a contest, you will most likely have sufficient muscle glycogen storage that would make carb loading not only superfluous, but possibly problematic, since you would have a far greater chance of water “spillover” into the skin that would produce a smooth appearance.