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The first question that needs to be addressed is why would you choose to be a natural lifter in the first place? A lot of people would say that it is a hard road to go down, and that the results are nowhere near as impressive as they would be for a artificially enhanced lifter.
Well first off, any form of bodybuilding is going to take all of your effort. It is more like a second job than a hobby. A hobby is something that you do in your free time that ideally doesn’t impact on your job or social life.
Bodybuilding requires you to completely change your diet, spend up to 10 hours per week in a gym, and will affect your job (even if that’s just irritating your colleagues by filling the office fridge with Tupperware).
There are benefits to following either route, a drug-taking bodybuilder will get more impressive results and won’t struggle with diet to the same degree. They will also have the satisfaction of being able to lift more weight and using higher volume.
The downsides are that they will have to get a masters degree in biology just to understand what they are taking, and will have to juggle hundreds of different products to stay ahead of their bodies desire for homeostasis.
They also have to accept the fact that they are in danger of compromising their health, and endangering their life.
Another issue is the cost, with many steroid users spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the many different drugs needed to compete. Then there is the issue of jail time for anyone caught selling or purchasing the drugs.
So the benefits of being a natural lifter are pretty obvious now right? No early death due to a cocktail of drugs affecting your heart, no visits from the authorities, no credit card debts. The downside is that you will never look like your heroes.
Let’s assume that you’ve decided to make the correct decision and want to become a natural (or ‘natty’) bodybuilder. What strategy should you follow to look your best? This article will help guide you through this process.
Ignore your heroes
Bodybuilding magazines are full of advice from IFBB pros, telling you which program to follow what diet to follow and what supplements to take.
But as mentioned before a lot of their programming and diet is affected by their drug use.
You cannot follow this advice expecting the same results, in fact following the program of a pro bodybuilder could actually leave you worse off.
Due to the increased levels of testosterone in their body, pro bodybuilders are able to use an amount of volume that you would not. This is because testosterone can massively increase muscle protein synthesis, which is the process where protein repairs damaged muscle fibres and rebuilds them stronger and bigger.
Having muscle protein synthesis outweigh muscle protein breakdown is the only way to increase muscle size.
This means that due to having more muscle protein synthesis available to them, a pro bodybuilder can safely increase the amount of muscle damage (i.e. increase the amount of exercise that they perform).
If a natural lifter did this then muscle protein breakdown would soon outstrip protein synthesis, which leads to muscles being catabolised for fuel.
In other words, without the extra testosterone in your system you cannot train biceps with 30+ sets of bicep exercises in one session.
Instead you can only hit them with 12 sets (or less). This means that you have to train them more often, so two or three times within ten days. Rather than just once every ten days like a pro bodybuilder would.
So design a program that involves multiple muscles being worked per session, for example a push/pull program could be very effective. This would allow you to train biceps (for example) for 3-5 sets then rest and then train them again two days later.
Sleep like a pro
You’re doing this unassisted so your recovery rates after intense exercise are not going to be the same as our chemically enhanced fellow lifters.
This means that sleep now becomes more of a priority than ever. If you are exercising regularly you should be getting your 8 hours (even more sleep has been proven to be beneficial).
This point is actually the same for non-natural and natural bodybuilders, but it is worth saying anyway.
You need to track calories, if you are looking to bulk you will want to do so without gaining too much additional body fat. If you are looking to cut you will want to do so in a timely and efficient manner. For this to work you need to track.
Another benefit of tracking calories is the ability to hit your macro targets correctly.
Helms, Aragon, and Fitschen (2013) identified the perfect macro combinations for a natural lifter . In their paper they stated that 2.3-3.1g/kg (lean bodyweight) was optimal for protein, that 15-30% of calories should come from fat, and that the rest should come from carbohydrates.
As you can see there is a fair bit of wiggle room here, and you can obviously change your macros quite a bit by using 30% fat rather than 15. Or use 2.3g per kg rather than 3.1g for protein. So test it out on yourself and see what works best for you.
 Helms, E., Aragon, A., Fitschen, P. 2013. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 11(20)