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Is Bodybuilding Dangerous and Unhealthy?

On 6th November 2021, Shawn Rhoden, a professional bodybuilder and 2018 Mr Olympia winner, died from a heart attack. Kali Muscle, a YouTube bodybuilder with 3.7 million subscribers, revealed that he’d suffered from a heart attack as he recovered in his hospital bed. And in June 2023, Jo Linder, a fitness influencer known as Joesthetics, passed away from an aneurysm.

Bodybuilding is increasingly being looked upon as a pursuit that’s harmful – not healthy – due to the widespread use of anabolic steroids among competitors and hobbyists. It’s felt that the sport has been at a very dangerous level for quite some time, and something urgently needs to be done before more bodybuilders pass away. The 1970s is seen as the Classic Era or the Golden Era of bodybuilding. Competitors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane and Franco Columbo had amazing physiques that people admired and could aspire to. They were muscular but also aesthetic. Over the years bodybuilders grew in size with Dorian Yates (The Shadow) initiating the Mass Monster Era. Yates had a competition weight of 260lbs, earning him the Mr Olympia title 6 times from 1992-1997. The Mass Monster Era ushered in huge bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman (Yeah buddy!!), Nasser El Sonbaty, Markus Ruhl and Big Ramy.

Ronnie Coleman on Flex Magazine cover, 2003
Ronnie Coleman is an 8-time Mr Olympia winner and was a ‘mass monster’.

We’ve seen a metamorphosis of physiques from the Golden Era to the Mass Monster Era. There’s been a price to pay for this in the form of higher doses of anabolic steroids. A cost that can be deadly, but a cost that bodybuilders are willing to take. It’s generally understood that while bodybuilders in the 1970s took steroids, the amount bodybuilders are taking today is staggering. Dallas McCarver was a 26 year old bodybuilder who tragically passed away in August 2017. Prior to his death he was taking 2,500mg of trenbolone a week. To put things in perspective, trenbolone is designed for use on farm animals to increase their muscle size and an average cycle that men take is around 300mg per week.

Among fans of bodybuilding, the problem lies with what ‘type’ of physique is rewarded in competition. Instead of those with aesthetic physiques, the winners of the Mr. Olympia and other contests are the biggest and freakiest bodybuilders; the ones who bring the most mass and conditioning. This puts tremendous pressure on a bodybuilder’s physical and psychological health. It encourages them to push themselves to the limit and beyond.

What will it take for people to slow down? Instant gratification is the name of the game. We want results and we want it now. Among the many problems of social media fitness is the need to stand out. Influencers up their drug dosages and keep trying to get bigger. Some weigh over 300 pounds and are noticeably out of breath when going for a short walk. Commenters express concern, telling the influencer to slow down and look after their health, only to be rebuffed by the influencer who says they know what they’re doing. Social media pressure falls within a complex web of interwoven issues that include ‘bigorexia’ and body dysmorphia, whereby one is never quite muscular enough. Rich Piana was a popular YouTube bodybuilder who was open about his issues with bigorexia despite weighing 290 pounds; “we look in the mirror and we look small”. Several commentators pointed out he was on a dangerous path before his death in August 2017.

Woman fitness model.
It’s generally understood that many fitness models and bodybuilders use a wide variety of steroids.

Bodybuilding and the associated drug use is becoming a bigger problem for women as well. As far back as the 1980s, female bodybuilders were using Deca Durabolin, Anavar, Testosterone, Dianabol, Equipoise, and Winstrol. Fitness and bodybuilding is much more mainstream now and it’s generally understood that not all FITfluencers are honest when it comes to their #BodyGoals. Aside from posing in the correct lighting and benefitting from the best angles, steroids play a part. It’s a murky reality of today’s fitness scene – those who claim to want to help spread fitness knowledge but are holding back a key component; the drugs they take.

There is an important distinction to make. The argument goes like this. Bodybuilding is healthy. It’s professional and contest bodybuilding that is harmful. For the average person training with weights, increasing muscle mass and lowering body fat is a very healthy pursuit. People who take up weight training and clean up their diet regularly see a drastic change in their health markers. They feel more energetic and it has a positive impact on their mood. It’s remarkable what small and consistent changes can make such as going for a regular walk and not eating junk food every night.

However when we enter the realm of contest bodybuilding, competition takes priority over health. This is the same for any sport. In powerlifting and strongman, competitors want to lift the heaviest weights possible. These competitors openly admin they are far from being healthy. Cheick Sanou, also known as Iron Biby, is a strongman from Burkina Faso who holds the Log Lift world record. He is a phenomenal, elite competitor. He also weighs 396 pounds; not a healthy weight by any means. The Mountain Hafþór Björnsson won the World’s Strongest Man competition in 2018 and broke the Deadlift world record in 2020, lifting 501kg. In order to do this he bumped his weight up to 205kg, a weight that he himself admitted wasn’t sustainable.

At the elite level of professional bodybuilding, health takes a back seat. Professional bodybuilders are aware of this and are taking a gamble. The cocktail of drugs required to compete at the world level can be exhaustive as well as expensive. Steroids, growth hormone, insulin and diuretics comprise what is referred to as a ‘stack’. And come contest time, not only are you required to have abnormally large amounts of muscle, but you’re also expected to be very lean and in a water-depleted state. It goes without saying that the shredded, vascular, paper-thin skin look is certainly not healthy.

And so it comes to a point in which people wonder what’s more important for success in bodybuilding. Is it how hard you work, which professional bodybuilders undeniably do? Or is it about how much drugs your body can tolerate? If progress stalls, can you just up the dose? Given how drugs and professional bodybuilding are inseparable, it’s bordering on comical to know that the governing body of the sport of bodybuilding, the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation (IFBB), is a signatory to WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code. Unsurprisingly, the IFBB is listed as non-compliant with the Code.

Given the proliferation of drug use in bodybuilding, there’s a growing movement to make bodybuilding safe and healthy again. Out with the drugs. It’s all about natural training. Claims of the supplement industry are debunked. Training programs that promise spectacular gains in minimal time are downplayed in favour of consistent hard work over a number of years. Admiration is growing for the old-time strongmen of the 1800s and early 1900s, before steroids entered the equation and took bodybuilding in a whole new trajectory.

Back then it was called Physical Culture and the focus was on health and longevity, not just size. People like George Hackenschmidt, Charles Atlas, Eugen Sandow and Arthur Saxon showed that you could be big and strong without steroids. Ironically the IFBB Mr. Olympia trophy handed to winners is called the ‘Sandow’, named after Eugen Sandow who many people credit as the founding father of modern bodybuilding. In reality Sandow is perhaps not a good representative of today’s bodybuilding culture. His focus was on health and feats of strength, producing his Magazine of Physical Culture, which was part of a cultural affront at the time against the ‘disease of sedentary affluence’.

Eugen Sandow
Eugen Sandow, a proponent of physical culture in the early 1900s. Eugen Sandow: Life of the Author as told in Photographs is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Training was about enhancing your life, not taking away from it. The word ‘enhanced’ takes on a whole new meaning now in bodybuilding terms. While you cannot get as big as today’s bodybuilders without steroids, old-time strongmen and physical culture adherents
showed that you could achieve impressive feats of strength with good training, quality food and persistence. Charles Atlas was known for ripping a phonebook in half, bending a 6-foot steel bar and pulling a 70-ton locomotive. The steroid-induced deaths and scares of bodybuilders today, although tragic, are opening people’s eyes to the nature of the sport. Many would-be competitors have been put off and have decided that it’s not for them. For many people the risks just aren’t worth it. Bodybuilding fans are making a stand too. While some people tune in to see a ‘freak show’, others are more vocal about how the mass monster physiques aren’t relatable nor visually appealing. Newer divisions such as the Classic Physique and 212 division are gaining more exposure and winners such as Chris Bumstead have garnered popularity beyond traditional Mr Olympia open division winners. For many people, enough is enough. Bodybuilding is at a precipice and it’s time for a change.

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