Athletes Can Get Ripped Without Drastic Methods

A Case for Healthier Natural Bodybuilding

Athletes and bodybuilders are under extreme pressure to achieve low levels of body fat and high levels of muscularity. The demands of their sport lead many competitors to use unsafe methods to achieve this goal. Extreme caloric restriction, dehydration, excessive exercise, inappropriate use of anabolic steroids and diuretics are common among competitive athletes.

Unsafe Methods

Hard as a rock
Unsafe Methods are Common for Athletes. vuk8691 / Getty Images

Research has shown unsafe contest preparation methods to have adverse health consequences on athletes and bodybuilders. These may include metabolic dysfunction, heart issues, decreased bone density, hormone imbalance and increased psychological problems. It’s not uncommon for athletes to suffer from anxiety, anger, mood swings and emotional eating disorders. Studies also indicate reduced muscular strength and athletic performance because physique goals take priority over health and fitness.

According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, severe caloric restriction negatively affected anabolic pathways. Anabolic functioning is directly related to the body’s ability to build muscle tissue. Also indicated was the importance of implementing nutritional strategies to prevent muscle wasting during competition preparation. 

Research

The UAE National Bodybuilding Championships 2008
Research Shows Healthier Contest Prep Methods. Duncan Chard / Getty Images

A case report published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined a structured nutritional and conditioning intervention on a young bodybuilder. The purpose of the study was to demonstrate a healthier approach to achieve a stage-ready physique. The athlete was able to increase in muscle size, strength and improve body composition without using unsafe or drastic contest preparation methods.

The study participant was a healthy 21-year old male preparing for his first bodybuilding competition under the UK Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (UKBFF). The athlete received two years of bodybuilding training but no formal nutrition guidance except internet sources and fitness magazines. His diet consisted of four meals and two snacks high in protein, carbohydrate and low in fat prior to the intervention. He also incorporated a cheat meal every two weeks consuming a large pizza and serving of ice cream. His workout routine consisted of approximately seven days of weight training. Each session focused on individual muscle groups and totaling nine hours per week.

The Goal

gym female in gym
Case Studies for Female Athletes are Also Ongoing. Tim Tadder / Getty Images

Case study approaches to better prepare athletes for their sport have been ongoing. Women’s international football, professional jockeys, and boxers also require constant manipulation of body composition to compete at optimal levels. These reports have stimulated the need for detailed nutrition and conditioning strategies for competitive bodybuilders.

Prior to participating in the above-cited case study, the 21-year old athlete used a self-made diet implementing nutrient timing. He consumed typical bodybuilding foods: oatmeal, scrambled eggs, whey protein, chicken breast, broccoli and white rice. He ingested 2128 calories per day broken down into 257g protein, 212g carbohydrates, and 28g of fat.

The goal of the intervention was achieving the best aesthetic appearance, improving fat oxidation (burning), preserving muscle and strength, and maintaining a positive outlook for the athlete. The bodybuilder participated in the study as part of his contest preparation and for 14 weeks. He was required to undergo clinical examination and accurate records were kept during the intervention. Measurements were taken for body weight, body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, maximal oxygen uptake and rate of fat oxidation prior to and concluding the trial period. 

Better Nutrition Strategies

Smoked haddock with poached egg on a bed of spinach
Poached Eggs are Great Muscle Food. Joff Lee / Getty Images

During the study, certified sports nutritionists put together a set meal plan comprised of two menus to maximize fat loss and maintain lean mass. Specific menus were split between conditioning and rest days. The athlete was closely monitored and menu adjustments made during the 14-week period according to body composition changes.

The nutrition plan was accepted favorably by the athlete. Carbohydrate sources were low to medium glycemic index (GI) loading to promote satiety while stimulating fat oxidation (burning). Also consumed were higher GI carbs to restore muscle glycogen and enhance meal enjoyment. Quality proteins like eggs and chicken were also consumed throughout the day to promote fat-free mass (muscle). Studies indicate eating protein all day stimulates muscle protein synthesis (MPS) or growth. Drinking plenty of water was recommended and primary fluid intake. 

Supplements were limited to whey protein and a high protein (casein) carbohydrate snack. Creatine monohydrate was also loaded at 20g daily for the first five days and continued at 5g daily for ninety-three days.

The intervention meal plans contained more variety and calories for the athlete. Essential nutrients were balanced to achieve stage-ready results. The following meal plans published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition were followed specific to either a training or rest day:

Training Day Meals:

  • Meal 1: venison burger (150g), poached egg (150g), spinach (50g)
  • Meal 2: whey protein powder (60g), creatine (5g), Brazil nuts (20g)
  • Meal 3: mackerel (150g), brown rice (100g), salad leaves (50g), avocado (50g), apple cider vinegar (12g)
  • Meal 4: turkey breast (155g), white Basmati rice (100g dry), mushrooms (100g), coconut oil (12g)
  • Snack: full-fat cottage cheese (225g)

Rest Day Meals:

  • Meal 1: poached eggs (150g), oats (150g), whey protein powder (50g)
  • Meal 2: tuna (60g), asparagus (5g), macadamia nuts (20g)
  • Meal 3: chicken breast (150g), sweet potato (100g), almonds (50g)
  • Meal 4: salmon fillet (155g), white Basmati rice (100g dry), broccoli (100g)
  • Snack: high protein chocolate flavored mousse, coconut oil (225g)

Total daily caloric intake: 2413 k/cal

Improved Workouts

Bodybuild
Train Smarter Not Harder. Matthew Leete / Getty Images

Sports specialists prepared a structured workout routine for the athlete over a 14-week period specific to contest preparation. His program included four weight training sessions targeting major muscle groups two times weekly. He also completed high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and low-intensity exercise in a fasted state which was the athlete’s preference. 

Superior Results

Male body builder posing, portrait
Healthier Methods Achieve Stage Ready Results. Alexander Nicholson / Getty Images

The athlete lost weight in accordance with evidence-based bodybuilding recommendations of .5 to 1.0 percent weekly. Total weight loss over the 14-week intervention was 11.7 kg or approximately 25 lbs. His body fat percentage was reduced by 6.8 percent which included fat and fat-free mass (FFM). Losing some FFM is typical for all athletes in negative energy balance.

Other results included an improved resting heart rate and increased VO₂ (volume of oxygen an athlete can use). The fat oxidation (burning) rate was also shown to improve. Other findings indicated strength and power did not suffer from reduced fat and fat-free mass. The athlete reported no severe hunger or thirst issues during the intervention. Previous studies show restrictive diets prone to overeating and binging. The participant expressed he had none of these urges.

Overall, the nutritional and conditioning intervention was favorable for the athlete. The positive outcomes are contrary to popular myth for bodybuilding contest preparation. The case report indicates it’s not necessary to skip meals, remove essential macronutrient groups, dehydrate or use large volumes of supplements to achieve a stage-ready physique. Finally, the athlete placed 7th out of 19 competitors considered excellent placement for a first-time physique competitor.

Sources:

International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism,  An Alternative Dietary Strategy to Make Weight While Improving Mood, Decreasing Body Fat, and Not Dehydrating: A Case Study of a Professional Jockey, George Wilson et al., 2012

Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, A nutrition and conditioning intervention for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: case study, Scott Lloyd Robinson et al., 2015

Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Abstract, Anabolic and Catabolic Hormones and Energy Balance of the Male Bodybuilders During the Preparation for the Competition, Mäestu, Jarek et al., 2010

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