Excessive drug use by strength athletes at the competitive level is widespread. Hardcore bodybuilders today are using sophisticated arrays of anabolic steroids along with human growth hormone, insulin, thyroid preparations, and intravenous diuretics, often in staggering dosages. The obvious health dangers associated with such practices have spawned a backlash movement called “natural bodybuilding.” But while avoiding these potentially hazardous drug practices is a sensible idea, and one that we strongly recommend, the concept of hardcore “natural bodybuilding” today is virtually an oxymoron and seriously flawed.
Modern Bodybuilding as a Concept
Physical enhancement through exercise probably began as a means toward better strength and fitness in prehistoric times. Strengthening the skeletal muscles meant increasing one’s physical abilities and chances of survival. At some point, however, the notion arose that improved physical appearance could be achieved through such efforts. In conjunction with proper diet, these exercises – performed against vigorous resistance – could improve the size and shape of the muscles. The overall physical form could be enhanced by engaging in specific exercises targeting the various muscles of the body. A so-called “physical culture” developed in dedication to these pursuits, with goals largely unrelated to traditional athletic goals. The object of the efforts: bigger muscles simply for the sake of having them … and showing them. As simply explained by Charles Gaines in his book Pumping Iron (page 105), “the nature of bodybuilding competition is aesthetic rather than athletic.”
Around the turn of the last century, contests comparing the physiques of the competitors were being staged in America. The era of modern competitive bodybuilding formally began in 1939, when the American Athletic Union assumed the regulation of physique contests by sponsoring state and regional competitions and eventually a national one: the Mr. America contest. Today, the Mr. Olympia contest is the top professional competition for elite level bodybuilders.
Through the years, with the development of more sophisticated training methods and equipment and more scientific dietary and supplementation practices, there has been a gradual progression of professional bodybuilding standards of muscle size and conditioning. Even at the amateur competition level, the mass and definition of today’s high-placing athletes would have been incomprehensible just two decades ago. In gyms across the country now, it is not uncommon to see numerous hardcore noncompetitive bodybuilders weighing in excess of 230 pounds – a situation that did not exist a few years ago. It is highly likely that the standards of success in bodybuilding will continue to rise.
While successful bodybuilding involves the use of proper exercise and nutrition, it also relies on genetic factors generally beyond human control. Individuals born with favorable muscle shapes and strong propensities for the acquisition of muscle mass are more likely to excel in the sport. But whatever one’s natural aptitude, the ultimate goal of bodybuilding training is to overrule nature by sheer force of human will. The typical hardgainer engages in daily combat against the genetic limitations of the body, forcing it to abort its natural directives, abandoning, for example, the fourteen-inch arm that nature intended and adopting the eighteen-inch arm that the human desires. The female lifter sheds the bodyfat with which her body prefers to envelop itself and adopts instead an aesthetic based on hardness and power.
Modern Bodybuilding in Practice
The mechanics of modern bodybuilding involve the repetition (“reps”) of contrived resistance-based movements over and over. Rep after rep, set and set, the hardcore bodybuilder subjects the muscles to sustained levels of stress non-existent anywhere else. Cams, pulleys and other complex machinery, invented to attack muscle kinetics from unique and unusual angles, are commonplace in gyms across the world. In some gyms, a backlash against the more “high tech” machines has resulted in a “back-to-basics” movement. Now personal trainers use free weights and Olympic-lifting-derived moves in aerobics classes, and encourage people in spinning classes to pretend they are actually sweating over real hills (the irony of jaded urbanites getting back to nature on their spinning bikes or on the “hill option” of their treadmills is inescapable). Yet despite claims of what is “natural” at present, the fact remains that bodybuilding involves a systematized manipulation of the physical body with a desire to transform it from its “raw” state.
The systematized manipulation of the body is further achieved through dietary methods. The typical bodybuilder’s diet is a highly regulated mix of ingredients, including far more protein and calories than are advisable for the general public. Most dietitians recommend less than 70 grams of protein per day. Hardcore bodybuilders consume at least one to one and a half grams per pound of body weight per day, with ordinary intakes of 200 or 300 grams per day or more. In fact, many bodybuilders actually count their grams of protein and otherwise carefully manipulate their daily food intake, rendering the entire concept of eating more one of function than of enjoyment. Many bodybuilders space their meals not according to natural hunger, but in order to achieve maximal protein absorption and assimilation.
Another component of the physical manipulation of the bodybuilder’s body is the ingestion of supplements. Most serious bodybuilders ingest large dosages (“megadoses”) of many vitamins and minerals. These quantities vastly exceed the amounts that could be ingested by normal eating. Additionally, it is common practice to consume a variety of herbs and over-the-counter products designed for enhanced sports performance, such as creatine monohydrate. Many of these items would be found in greatly diminished amounts — or not at all — in the normal contemporary diet.
What is “Natural”?
The word natural is derived from the Latin word “naturalis,” meaning “by birth.” In other words, it connotes the state or condition that nature originally intended, as when one was born. (Interestingly, today we refer to delivering a baby without technological/pharmaceutical assistance by the linguistic redundancy of “natural child birth.”) In this sense, none of us can ever be in a natural state. From the moment that we are fed, clothed and taught to use language, we become implicated in “culture.”
From an anthropological perspective, the word “natural” today conjures up nostalgia-tinted images of a bucolic and pre-civilized state of humanity in which people lived according to the whims of instinct rather than the sterner dictates of rational consciousness. The image of the “noble savage,” primitive and unsullied by cultural corruption, leaps to mind. We think of Tarzan of the Apes, the Native American warrior, or Conan the Barbarian. “Nature,” in this context, is conceived of as part of a binary (two-part combination of mutually exclusive opposites) with “culture.” But it must be noted that historically, “natural” has invoked either positive or negative connotations depending upon the existing philosophical thoughts. For example, the anthropologist Levi-Strauss’ famous study of “the raw” (nature) and “the cooked” (culture) positioned nature and culture firmly in binary opposition. As culture suppresses nature, so-called civilization (itself a heavily weighted notion) suppresses the baser desires of human beings. Thus, “nature” stands for everything that is chaotic, unformed, and uncontrolled. In this early twentieth-century context, culture was given preference and seen as a positive attribute.
Many people have argued that culture and civilization exist precisely for the purpose of containing humans’ potentially uncontrolled natural impulses, and that as history progresses, cultural and social institutions become increasingly effective at regulating people’s bodies and intellects. Michel Foucault, for example, argued in Discipline and Punish that the criminal justice system evolved as a way of producing docile citizens who would respond to regimented systems of discipline, both within the penal institutions and as workers in the industrial revolution. Others have suggested that the way in which “culture” and “nature” are construed in relation to one another enabled the promotion of particular political ideologies such as European expansionism and colonialism. The successful spread of Western civilization was founded upon the conquering and/or annihilation of more primitive societies. The nature-culture argument was also used to deny women a role in political and economic affairs: the male-dominated public sphere of the marketplace and government was likened to a jungle in which nature, red in tooth and claw, threatened to consume the delicate sensibilities of the more refined “fairer sex,” who should direct their attentions more appropriately to civilizing their children and husbands. Thus the distinction between what is natural and what is cultural has long been under dispute, and has long been implicated, in diverse ways, in a variety of social practices and ideologies.
The notion of “natural” has been taken up recently in a variety of forms, and unlike in the model of Levi-Strauss, has been assigned a positive status. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which first emerged in the 1970s and was heavily critiqued, is enjoying a resurgence of popular interest with its theories that use animal behavior and genetics to explain human behavior. New Age movements promote recapturing one’s “natural element” and “natural magic.” When “natural” is used to describe scenery, for example, it denotes that the beauty of the landscape is untouched by human design. When it is used to describe food, it connotes that the item is wholesome and pure, devoid of chemicals or additives. Advocates of healthy eating have recently espoused “eat like a caveman” theories in books such as NeanderThin and various other “Paleolithic diet” publications (my personal favorite is Starch Madness, apparently written with the same breathless technological-civilization-has-gone-mad tone as 1950s B-movies), as well as supplementation of phytonutrients and nutraceuticals touted as “natural” preventive cures for the rigors of the modern world. Increasingly, the civilized technological world, once seen as humankind’s salvation (remember all those fantasies about flying cars?) is viewed as a source of stress, disease, and discontent (see, for example, the manifesto of the Unabomber). In this context, “natural” forms a binary with “artificial,” “fake,” or “technological.” Implicit in this highly positive paradigm is the absence of any human-constructed changes or improvements, which are deemed bad.
When we talk about the idea of “natural” as applied to the human body, we tend to mean the absence of artificial or synthetic alterations. As an extreme example, a woman with breast implants would not be regarded as having a natural chest (although conversely, female bodybuilders are often criticized as “unnatural” if they don’t get implants, even frankly fake ones). However, body practices which go against cultural norms are also seen as “unnatural”. One example of this is decorative scarification; a scar is a very natural physiological formation, but when done in Western culture for the purposes of decoration, is seen as abnormal. What is “natural,” then, does not exist independently of culture but rather depends on it for its definition. “Natural” these days is often synonymous with “normal,” so we must be cautious about which social norms we are promoting when we laud the ideal of naturalness.
But the principles underlying the binary are not nearly so simple. A fertile area for examination can be found on the shelves of our local health food stores. For starters, the idea that so-called “natural” foods are devoid of chemicals is totally fallacious. All foods, “health foods” included, are composed entirely of chemicals, and often many different ones at that. So is the human body! Moreover, just because a food is free of artificial additives doesn’t necessarily make it healthy for us to eat. Many “natural” food substances, such as palm and coconut oils and even good ol’ sugar, have been linked to health dangers.
As can be seen, the concept of “natural” is quite complex, and becomes even more perplexing when abutted against the concept of “bodybuilding.”
Natural and Bodybuilding – Concepts in Conflict
The many health supplements sold by health food stores raise other interesting issues, further complicating the evaluation of what is “natural.” Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is sold as a natural food supplement. But is it “natural” to ingest Vitamin C not by the ingestion of various fruits and foods, but by swallowing it whole in processed tablet form? Further, how can anyone argue that it’s “natural” to take two, four or even more grams of Vitamin C daily – so-called “megadoses” – when nobody could possibly consume such quantities by eating food? Another example is creatine monohydrate, a substance that has recently been widely marketed as a supplement for building muscle. Red meat contains small quantities of creatine. But is it “natural” to consume five, ten or (during so-called “loading phases”) up to a whopping thirty grams of creatine daily, when such amounts could only be consumed through artificially manufactured products? And yet, these wildly “un-natural” quantities are routinely consumed by many so-called “natural” athletes.
These “natural” athletes have convinced themselves that such extreme dietary supplement practices are perfectly natural, but for years have drawn a bright line to distinguish the difference between natural and non-natural athletes: the use of supplemental androgens. All supplemental androgens, including anabolic steroids, are derivatives of testosterone, a naturally-occurring hormone in both men and women. But unlike the athlete taking Vitamin C capsules or creatine powder to enhance his performance, one taking supplemental testosterone tablets is no longer considered “natural” and one taking supplemental testosterone injections is even less natural. (Ironically, the more hazardous anabolic steroids are orally ingested.)
Of course, the increased popularity of recently hyped products has further complicated the picture. Herbs, such as yohimbe and tribulus terrestris, can reputedly increase natural testosterone levels. The desired effect — increased serum levels of male hormone — is the same as with anabolic steroids. Yet the so-called natural athletes using these products seem oblivious to the hypocrisy. Even more troubling is the whole new class of supplements known as prohormones, such as androstenedione (andro), promoted as a natural alternative to steroids. While these substances are but one tiny molecular step away from testosterone, they can be readily converted into testosterone by the human body. Again, the effect — increased serum levels of male hormone — is the same as with anabolic steroids. Some have tried to argue that the difference is that these substances are legal, while steroids are not. Of course, that is not entirely true, as steroids are legal if prescribed for a legitimate medical condition. Further, we must recognize the arbitrariness of the laws – in some countries, steroids are legally available over-the-counter, while in others even creatine is banned! Most significant of all, President Clinton’s top drug policy adviser has recently renewed his vow to have andro classified as an anabolic steroid as quickly as possible. If he’s right — that andro is and has always been an anabolic steroid — haven’t all athletes who’ve ever tried it forfeited their “natural” status? Or do they exist in some gray area in between?
Some natural athletes cite the amounts of supplemental administration as relevant to the issue. Of course, this raises a lot of issues, such as whether an athlete with low or low-normal range testosterone levels who brings his levels up to high-normal range (or even to just mid-normal range), but not beyond, is “unnatural.” To further complicate the picture, what if testosterone supplementation is lawfully and medically prescribed, such as in the case of the aging athlete whose endogenous levels have declined and who is restored to normal levels by hormonal supplementation? Can such an athlete still call himself natural? If so, what if the lawful dose administered restores higher serum testosterone levels than would be normal for a man his age — i.e., a fifty-year-old athlete who now has a twenty-year-old’s testosterone levels?
Bodybuilding is, in its method and ideals, a contradictory practice. Bodybuilding both enhances and diminishes health – it increases bodyweight, the wear and tear on joints, and the risk of both chronic and acute injuries. It relies on a highly regimented nutritional intake in terms of food choice and caloric allowance. In terms of psychic health, it rewards its practitioners with increased self-esteem, self-discipline, and self-empowerment, but can also be driven by insecurity, shame over weakness, and for men, a desire to live up to a particular masculine ideal. The famous “muscle dysmorphia” study in Psychosomatics (1997) produced media hysteria over men obsessively scrutinizing their bodies (and subsequent mockery by many serious lifters who argued that there was no such thing as too big and people who said so were just jealous pencilnecks), but after hacking through the hype on both sides, it seems evident that some mental and emotional ambivalence is frequently at work when people strive to improve their physiques. The argument to be made here is that bodybuilding is not one thing or the other, but that it blurs facile categories of healthy/unhealthy, weakness/strength, and so forth, so that to label it one thing or the other is to miss the point. Bodybuilding is all of these things at once, in constant tension with itself. It is both natural and cultural. In the case of hardcore competitive bodybuilding, however, it is difficult to argue that anything about the sport is natural. It is, almost by definition, unnatural. While the safety risks of chemical enhancement rampant at today’s elite level is regrettable, the line between hardcore natural and unnatural bodybuilders is quite fuzzy.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan). New York: Vintage, 1979.
Levi-Strauss, “The Culinary Triangle”. In Counihan, Carole and Penny van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.
“Muscle Dysmorphia: An Underrecognized Form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder.” Psychosomatics. Vol.38, No.6 (Nov-Dec 1997):548-57.
Rick Collins, JD, is a New York criminal defense lawyer, partner in the firm of Collins, McDonald & Gann, and former competitive bodybuilder and certified personal trainer. He has written extensively on issues related to bodybuilding and anabolic steroids, has represented or advised numerous athletes investigated or charged in such cases, and maintains an educational web site at www.SteroidLaw.com.
Krista Scott-Dixon, M.A., is a Ph.D. candidate at York University in Toronto. She maintains a website devoted to women’s weight training at http://www.stumptuous.com/weights.html and has written on gender and training for Mesomorphosis. When not slaving over her dissertation she is reading labels in health food stores or making her gym trainees beg for mercy.