There are several things that need to be addressed when you are trying to be a bodybuilder. Your training program, your nutrition, your recovery, and your supplements all need to be considered.
The same holds true for a natural bodybuilder, but these athletes need to pay special attention to their diet. A proper diet will allow for optimal muscle growth with a limited amount of body fat.
Muscle grows during recovery but during exercise, muscle is broken down. This broken-down muscle needs nutrients and rest to repair, grow, and build strength. A natural bodybuilder needs to focus on food quality, food quantity, and food timing to optimise results.
What is Natural Bodybuilding?
Natural bodybuilding was introduced around the mid-1990s with the main purpose of bodybuilding without the use of banned substances.
In practice there appears to be a fine line between bodybuilders and natural bodybuilders; thus differentiating the two maybe not as easy as one may think.
The term ‘natural bodybuilder’ is the catalyst for many a heated debate as many of the modern high tech supplements have blurred the differences between legal and illegal products.
The addition of numerous supplements into a natural bodybuilder’s arsenal e.g. hormonal drugs, creatine and L-Glutamine really does open up a can of worms. Therefore just because they are not banned supplements ‘would the individual naturally consume them if they weren’t competing?’
Probably not and can the natural bodybuilder achieve a monster physique without any supplementation? To level ‘yes’ and then genetics start to play a key role and this is the main rationale why people start to take steroids or illegal supplements to get to the next level.
However legal supplementation does increase the speed of your body’s transformation but this is deemed ‘natural’ because they are legal.
This is where the lines are blurred between the natural bodybuilder and the others; this is possibly why arguments still exist between the various disciplines.
The Modern-Day Bodybuilder
It is common knowledge that many bodybuilders have to follow a strict diet, a rigid supplementation and training plan to induce massive muscle growth.
Many competing bodybuilders have taken a course of illegal supplements to boost their aesthetics and this again is common knowledge.
Let’s remind you that not all competing bodybuilders have taken illegal supplements. However, with the ever-changing advancements in the supplement market, many are taking products which in the future could be banned outright.
Many of these ‘legal’ supplements do improve your muscle gains and help with a reduction in your % body fat – so should they be ‘banned’ or deemed as unnatural?
Maybe this additional classification of being ‘unnatural’ would clear up any confusion, creating a clearer line between the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ bodybuilding groups and sub-groups. This is just a thought and we are not here to put the world to rights!
The Official Stance On Natural Bodybuilding
Natural bodybuilding can be a competitive or non-competitive lifestyle option. In terms of the competitive pathway, the participants are judged for the quality of their body’s aesthetics.
For the competitor, the main objective is to increase the aesthetics of their physique without the use of banned performance drugs. However, prohibited substances can vary between countries and different bodybuilding federations.
Fundamentally bodybuilders have to pass through a variety of tests in order for them to compete. The most common tests to assess their status a natural bodybuilder are the urine, blood and polygraph tests.
It is a simple pass or fail structure and obviously, if you fail then you don’t compete. If you are caught doping then depending on the organisation you could be banned for up to 7 years.
Many organisations stipulate that you have to clean of any illegal supplements for 7 years before you can compete as a natural bodybuilder, but proving this timescale can prove to be extremely difficult for obvious reasons!
Ultimately there are thousands of people on the planet who want to improve their physiques without taking drugs and really don’t want to look like Mr Universe.
Many natural bodybuilders want to take their bodies to the next level again without illegal supplements. Instead, they prefer a pathway of eating clean with natural and healthy foods, legal supplements and sweating their butt off with some hard work at the gym.
This can have some impact on your muscle building and fat-burning hormones but not to the same degree as taking illegal supplements.
Therefore as a natural bodybuilder, you need to be very aware of your genetic limitations and that your physique goals need to be extremely realistic.
If your goals are to have the same physique as Mr Universe then maybe you need to tweak your supplementation plan!
Pros And Cons Of Natural Bodybuilding
Being a natural bodybuilder is by no means an easy pathway to follow and you will probably face the following challenges along the way:
- Patience is a virtue and you to have lots of them when training hard and trying to reach your goals
- You will always have to deal with the temptation of the quick fix that you would get from taking illegal supplements
- You may not get the same results as someone who is on illegal supplements
- If soon as you do get the results that you deserve, then people automatically assume that you are on illegal supplements
- You may not get the same results as somebody who is on illegal supplements
There are some very attractive benefits of being a natural bodybuilder:
- There is no reason to spend money on illegal supplements. And this will save you money in the long run
- You will not be susceptible to the side effects and health risks of taking illegal supplements
- You can be extremely proud of your achievements because they exist due to your own hard work and not from any illegal supplements
Food quality refers to how many nutrients a particular food has in comparison to how many calories it contains. Whereas food quality also refers to how the food was grown, how many chemicals were applied, and whether or not it has been processed.
Your body functions better when it is given high-quality foods. Instead of working to digest low quality food from which it takes little nutrients, your body can use high-quality foods for muscle growth.
When it comes to quality, a calorie is not just a calorie. A chocolate chip cookie may give you 100 calories while an apple will also contain the same amount of calories.
Choose minimally processed foods that contain as few ingredients as possible. Look for ingredients that you can pronounce. Limit food that comes in a package. If it is in a package, you should already be worried.
Before you buy an item, consider this test: Would your great-great-grandmother recognise it as food? If yes, then you get to buy the product. If not, put it back and search for a higher quality alternative.
The term organic was originally used to tell consumers that food was grown without chemicals or genetically modified strains. Food manufacturers have been able to water down this label yet there is a consensus that organic foods are typically better for your body, the environment, and for those who work in the fields around these foods.
Grass-fed and hormone-free labels have seen a decline in definition clarity as is the case with organic. Some studies show that grass-fed animals have higher amounts of healthy fat. Hormones given to animals can be found in the humans that consume them so it is best to decrease these hormone exposures.
Whenever possible grow your food. Shop at farmer's markets, and only buy seasonal foods. Get to know where your food comes from and how it was grown.
When it comes to food…quality matters, so shop wisely.
Food quantity refers to how much you are eating. As discussed previously, when eating foods of higher quality you find your body not wanting to eat as much.
Hunger can be a response to low blood sugar or lack of nutrients. Foods with higher quality keep these stories high without the need for excess caloric consumption.
A natural bodybuilder following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle needs to ensure they have a very well balanced diet consisting of a wide variety of food types.
Eating a range of lentils, pulses, grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts will help ensure adequate nutrient delivery.
Unlike their omnivore counterpart who may sustain on oatmeal, chicken, rice, and broccoli, a vegetarian or vegan athlete will need to have greater diversity. They will often need a greater number of calories, in each meal.
Food quantity is dependent on your goals, your activity level, and your current body fat composition.
Athletes looking to lose weight will need to burn 3500 excess calories in order to lose 1 pound (or .45 kg) of fat and consume roughly 2500 extra calories for a gain in muscle mass.
- Protein recommendations: 1.0-1.7 grams per kg for athletes and those looking to put on size. Veg athletes may increase this to 1.8-2.0 grams per kg.
- Carbohydrate requirements: Aim to make carbs between 45%-60% of your calories. While you are in the building phase, skew closer to 60% and then move down towards 45% as you begin the cutting phase.
- Fats: Fats will make up the remaining calories of your nutrition program. These fats are essential for muscle growth and recovery. Opt for healthy fats found in meat, fish, nuts, and sources such as avocado.
The most important meals of the day are breakfast, pre-workout, and post-workout.
Breakfast, as the name implies, breaks the fast your body endured without food while you slept. By consuming a meal within 20 minutes of waking up, you increase metabolism, replenish energy stores, and prime your body for the day to come.
Breakfast helps ensure mental acuity and provides your body with a base of nutrients for the rest of the day.
Your pre-workout meal needs to prepare you for your training effort. It should be consumed 20-50 minutes before your training session to allow your body to digest the food and begin releasing the nutrients into your working muscles.
Pre-work meals allow your body to have enough fuel to work hard. Think of the pre-work meal as stopping to fuel up before a road trip. Like a full tank, a filled belly creates a better experience.
After a workout session, your muscles are primed for recovery. They are in a state of dehydration and have had to release their stored sugars to assist getting you through the training program.
Within half an hour after completing your training, consume a meal with fast-acting carbohydrates (i.e. banana or white rice) and a source of protein.
Ideally, the post-workout meal is in liquid form since liquids are absorbed quickly by your body.
Follow this post-workout drink with a meal within 2-3 hours. Try to make this a meal with “real food” composed of protein, a slower acting carb, and a fat.
What Is Natural?
This question is tricky to answer because it depends on who you ask. For some, natural means only putting food in their body. For others, it may mean only consuming food but also allowing substances that naturally occur in the body (such as insulin) to be used.
Some athletes will avoid all supplements, while some will allow a few supplements in their diet. Usually, hormone boosters, growth enhancers, and steroids are avoided by natural athletes.
Below we will highlight 5 supplements that you may consider in your quest for natural bodybuilding:
May increase metabolism, heart rate, blood vessel dilation, and energy. Fat burners could be beneficial during a training session to help you push a little harder.
They may encourage cells to release fatty acids for your body to use as energy and have been shown to allow your body to maintain a higher metabolism post-workout.
One of the most well-researched supplements. This supplement helps your body replenish ATP stores that drive muscle activation thus allowing for harder/longer workouts.
Creatine has been shown to be beneficial for increasing strength, power and recovery.
Glutamine and Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Your body uses various amino acids as ingredients when it is building and repairing muscle.
Amino acids are used by the body for a wide range of actions ranging from dilating blood vessels, to releasing natural muscle gaining hormones.
These days, many companies sell protein powder with ‘clean’ ingredients. These products allow natural bodybuilders to attain the health benefits of protein in a convenient way without having to worry about putting unnatural substances in their body.
Protein powders are readily absorbed and are convenient to carry. They can be used as a snack during the day or they can be the main source of protein during one of your meals.
Soy was the primary veg-friendly protein powder for many years. Natural bodybuilders now have options that include rice, hemp, and cranberry protein powders.
Multi-vitamins can be thought of as an insurance policy against nutrient deficiency. Just because you have fire insurance for your home does not mean you can leave the stove on and candles lit.
In a similar fashion, a multivitamin cannot be taken to replace bad food choices. Multivitamins can help fill any gaps to help ensure increases in muscle function and size.
Other Tips For Natural Bodybuilders
If you want to become a natural bodybuilder there are other things you must consider, for example:
How To Naturally Boost Testosterone
Whilst you are never going to naturally reach the levels of testosterone that a steroid user gets, you can still look at ways to boost your testosterone without drugs.
Most of these techniques work best on people who have lower than required levels of testosterone (which a large proportion of men do). People with normal testosterone levels can still elevate them using the following techniques.
You can increase your sleep and improve the quality of it, a study by Luboshitzky et al (1999) found that REM sleep was when testosterone levels peaked in young men . So increasing your sleep quality should, therefore, lead to increased testosterone in the morning.
You can also increase testosterone by lifting free weights rather than machines (so long as the same amount of effort is used) . Increasing dietary fat or following a high-carb diet also seems to have a positive effect on testosterone levels.
Finally, there are supplements such as ZMA that have been shown to be effective at boosting testosterone .
Your first thought would be to train as your bodybuilding heroes did. However, this may not be a realistic goal for you.
So how should you train? Firstly you need to fill your workout will big compound lifts that work a lot of muscles. These should include deadlifts, squats, pull-ups etc.
Each of these exercises will produce a huge growth hormone and testosterone response.
You also want to limit your workouts to around 45-60 minutes to prevent Cortisol being released and attacking your muscle tissue.
Pick a few exercises (most natural lifters follow a push/pull protocol) and go for quality over quantity.
You should be following a hypertrophy protocol. So your rep ranges should be around 8-12 reps per set. But you can throw in a few lower rep sets (for deadlifts, squats, and similar exercises) and some very high rep sets too.
Don’t overdo it on the drop-sets etc. Too much volume will lead to excess muscle protein break down. This means your muscles will not grow, but will actually get smaller.
While this scenario may be unlikely, it does happen.
Ensure you rest adequately between sets and listen to your body.
Training at a high intensity is fine, but training like a non-natural lifter will only hinder progress.
Whether you are looking to build muscle or burn fat the food you eat is incredibly important. This is especially important if you wish to remain a natural bodybuilder.
Not only is the food quality important, but when you eat is important too.
Hopefully, the above article has given you a few ideas of what and when you can eat.