To get a grip on the whole bodybuilding issue, Life Links spoke to Eric Helms - researcher and bodybuilder himself - on what can be achieved naturally and why some might choose to dope.
Bulked up more than the average it is hard to tell for laymen and beginners, where the natural body limits are.
Enormous muscles - that’s what we associate with bodybuilding. Wondering where our natural limits are in building up muscles, Life Links spoke to Eric Helms, who works with drug free - or natural - bodybuilders and strength athletes. He has a masters degree in exercise science and is a doctoral candidate at the Auckland University of Technology studying Strength and Conditioning. His research focuses specifically on supporting bodybuilding and strength sport.
But Helms also knows the scene from an insider’s perspective: He has been competing in natural bodybuilding and strength sport since 2006.
How much muscle mass can be achieved naturally?
It is difficult to differentiate between fat-free mass, and muscle mass. Fat-free mass includes all tissue that is not fat: organs, bones, and also including muscle mass. However, muscle mass would only include skeletal muscle. A 10-year-old child and Mr Olympia in the off-season can both have 15% bodyfat and thus the remaining 85% is fat-free mass for example.
In 1995 Kouri et al. did a study of resistance-trained males using anabolic steroids, and compared their FFMI [editorial remark: FFMI is the “Fat free Mass Index” and is calculated by your weight minus your fat-mass and that in relation to your heights] to a sample of resistance trained males who were drug free. They found that roughly a FFMI of approximately 25 was the highest found in the sample of drug-free lifters, while around 25 was the average for the anabolic steroid users, and the highest value was into the low 30s.
How long do you need to work out until you see reasonable results - are we talking about weeks, month, years?
Certainly for years. It takes time to build muscle, and there are diminishing returns the closer you get to your genetic ceiling. You have to work harder, and work longer, to gain a smaller amount of muscle the bigger you get. There is a reason that the typical age of world champions in drug-free events is in the range of the mid-30s to late-40s or even older. That said, one can certainly build an impressive physique drug-free in a matter of years, but to build a world champion physique it likely will take a decade or longer for all but the most genetically talented.
How much of that depends on genetics and how much can be achieved by training?
I don't think I could provide a precise answer to this, but I can say with confidence a great deal is attributed to genetics. Most people can certainly improve their physique and get bigger from wherever they start, but some people who train for 10 years naturally won't be as big as someone who trains for six months naturally. That's just the way it is. But that's true of all human performance, whether it's physical, intellectual, a technical skill, a language, music etc. If one is just more genetically gifted than the other, more fruit will come from the same labor.
Believe it or not, there is such a great genetic diversity in humans that some people are actually non-responders to weight training, or so limited in their response that no matter how hard, how effectively or how long they train, they simply won't gain much muscle mass. Of course, this is rare genetically, and even more rare to find in the real world because people who stick with weight training are by at least low responders, or they likely wouldn't have stuck with lifting. I think people don't appreciate the amount of genetic variation in our species. For example, Shaquille O'neil and Danny Devito are both humans. However, if we saw two animals that looked as different from one another as Shaq and Devito, we'd probably assume they were of different species.
What about nutritional supplements like protein shakes? Are they allowed according to the philosophy of natural bodybuilding?
Philosophy will vary depending on the individual, so I can't answer that question. However, the actual banned substance lists in natural bodybuilding vary by organization. That said, 90% of organizations allow all nutritional based supplements that don't have hormonal action, while banning any supplements or drugs that are illegal, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned, International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned (depending on the country and federation), and specifically any supplements or drugs that are exogenous hormones or hormone precursors or prescription drugs for bodybuilding purposes.
Where’s the line between natural and non-natural bodybuilding? Is it the use of anabolic steroids?
Yes, typically that is where the line is drawn but more than steroids are banned. Prohormones, and any drugs with hormonal action or any illegal or prescription drugs that would be used for bodybuilding purposes are also banned, such as prescription or FDA or IOC banned fat-loss agents, growth hormones and their analogues, insulin etc.
How big is the temptation to take drugs and thereby improve the output?
It's different for everyone. Not everyone is tempted, some people are not interested in the size associated with steroid use, or are not comfortable with the idea of taking drugs because of the legality (depending on what country they live in) or the potential side effects. There are plenty of people who value being a law abiding citizen who get into bodybuilding for health and are just not the type of person to ever take drugs. This is a large percentage of the natural bodybuilding community. That said, people aren't born with their values, they develop as one matures. So perhaps they had that temptation during their formative years? Truly, I can't speak for anyone except myself. I also can't speak for the untested bodybuilding community and if, at what point, and why a competitor in an untested federation would decide to take drugs.
Have you yourself ever been tempted?
As a natural competitor and coach for natural competitors I have a decent perspective in my community, and there are certainly natural bodybuilders with varied reasons for being natural. Personally, I value integrity and thus I follow the law of the land, and also the rules of whatever sporting body I compete with. I also value balance, so these are the reasons I am a natural bodybuilder.
Saying that, I'm a competitive person, more so with myself than others, but if I was to choose to compete in untested bodybuilding, I could see myself overdoing it to push myself further. Long term, I could see this endangering my health, so that's another reason I am natural.
Many bodybuilders who stay natural are tempted at one time or another. While I was never tempted to cheat per se, for a short period I took legal over the counter prohormones that you could buy at a supplement store. In my ignorance, I figured since they were available in a supplement store it was probably not too unhealthy to take them, they weren't illegal and since I wasn't competing the issue of them being banned didn't enter my mind.
If you are interested in competing, you may not even know that drug-tested natural bodybuilding federations and events exist. In some countries, these competitions are simply not available. Fortunately, I was exposed to natural bodybuilding competitions shortly after I started lifting, and it was a natural competition that I attended that inspired me to compete. I gained new physiques to look up to and perspective on what an achievable drug free physique looks like.
I had to wait a certain amount of time before I was allowed to compete in the federations that I wanted to compete in because of my prior prohormone usage, but I appreciated this.
But really what I guess you are asking is if I've ever been tempted to cheat, rather than just take something on a banned list that I wasn't accountable to since I was not yet competing. Personally, cheating has never been rewarding to me. As a child, like most (I assume) I experimented with cheating in games, using cheat codes on video games, and cheating on school tests. However, it never felt worth it to me even the times I got away with it. Victories felt hollow, I felt guilt and shame, it removed all the fun and it removed the rewards of the activity.
I know not everyone feels this way, or maybe they don't feel this way at the time in their life when they decide to cheat. But for me, since developing my own sense of morality and ethics there has been no temptation to actually break any rules or betray my own code. If I ever decided to use drugs, which I don't see happening, I would just stop competing in natural bodybuilding.
Is it easy for bodybuilders to tell whether a colleague is cheating?
Which are the indicators or hints to tell whether someone is not a natural bodybuilder?
Well first of all, I don't personally categorize using drugs in an untested competition as cheating. Some might consider this cheating if they are morally opposed to the use of drugs in general, but I personally think at the highest levels in untested competition it is an even playing field as everyone is using.
However, in natural bodybuilding it is a different story. Serious organizations do polygraph testing before you are allowed to get on stage, urine test winners, and occasionally do out-of-contest testing. However, preventing cheating or catching cheaters isn't foolproof, and never will be.
How prevalent is cheating in this sports?
I can't honestly say how ubiquitous cheating is in sports other than bodybuilding or powerlifting as I'm not involved in them, but I can say that unlike most sports, bodybuilding and powerlifting (in most countries) have organizations that both test for drug use and organizations that don't. Essentially these sports give you the option of choosing a drug tested or non-drug tested federation. This removes a huge amount of pressure to take drugs and to cheat, that exists in other sports. I would say with confidence that among natural bodybuilding organizations that consistently drug test to the best of their ability and are committed to natural competition, the amount of cheating is quite low compared to other sports.
I know some people think of bodybuilders as selfish and narcissistic, but I've experienced most to be very hard working and intrinsically motivated. Thus, I doubt many would enjoy cheating, and therefore would stick with the organization in which they were qualified to compete. However, I could be projecting my own beliefs and biases onto the sport as a whole.
Now that said, if a "natural" bodybuilding organization does not consistently test and develops a reputation for the testing to be a farce to appease the public, cheating can become more common. If testing isn't serious, if the organization isn't serious about being natural, than those who would choose to "cheat" will do so. The reason being is that they actually don't see it as "cheating". Most people in their own minds are doing what they see as morally acceptable, so in order to cheat they have to convince themselves it's okay to do so.
What is the sense behind not-tested events where drug use is allowed?
I imagine it's just a different type of person and audience who are more interested in more extreme performance. I can understand that some people like the appeal of superhero-like levels of muscle mass, and for them they want to see how far they can take it. I know some natural bodybuilders actively don't like that look, others respect it but just know it's not for them.
I personally have respect for those who compete in non-tested events. In the end, we're both bodybuilders, they just have made the personal choice to use drugs. That's not a choice I'm comfortable with personally, but that's okay because they are them and I am me.
In a perfect world both natural and enhanced bodybuilders can look across the fence and be respectful or even supportive of one another, and many bodybuilders on both sides see it this way, but not everyone. I'm a big fan of respecting each person's individual choices so long as they compete where they are allowed.