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Natural Bodybuilding – What Is It and Why Is It Controversial?

natural bodybuilding

What does the word natural mean to you? There is a great deal of debate around the art of natural bodybuilding and what it is in its most real sense. In bodybuilding, the word can change in definition depending on who you speak to.

Some consider natural bodybuilding to be building your body with no external assistance. In contrast, others believe it more of a state that you embody only at the time of competition. What you do and how you get there before then is irrelevant.

New supplements on the market today have made it difficult to draw a clear line under what is a legal substance and what is a banned steroid. Must you exclude all supplements to be a real natural bodybuilder?

So what is natural bodybuilding, and how did it become so controversial?

This article will look at what state the competitive sport is in and define what natural and why it upsets so many people.

What is Natural Bodybuilding?

Natural bodybuilding has changed its meaning over the years, and there is still some debate over its real significance.

For some, it means engaging in the art of bodybuilding without taking performance-enhancing drugs. These can include anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), diuretics, and insulin.

For many, the avoidance of steroids is enough for a bodybuilder to compete in a natural bodybuilding competition.

A natural bodybuilder must master their body through training, a good diet, and the use of certain supplements. The debate about which supplements are acceptable, however, rages on today.

The World Natual Bodybuilding Federation requires competitors to be free of using banned hormone substances, such as Androsterone, for a minimum of 10 years. Everyone must submit to stringent drug tests before the competition.

They also require any newcomers to have abstained from over-the-counter prohormone supplements for at least two years. Prohormones, seen as legal steroids, are a contentious substance that has stirred up some major controversy in the community.

What are Legal Steroids?

The term is used to describe any muscle-building supplement that is not categorized as illegal by the government. They are often referred to as prohormone over-the-counter nutritional supplements.

Andro is a group of prohormone supplements including androstenedione, androstenediol, and DHEA, which occurs in the adrenal gland.

It is a popular legal steroid that mimics actual anabolic steroids’ properties so well it is almost indistinguishable. In chemical terms, andro is only one hydrogen atom different in structure from testosterone.

Andro promises to build muscle strength during your weight training sessions and increase athletic performance in general.

It first came to the world’s attention via Mark McGwire’s use of the substance in the 1990s, which allowed Mark to bulk his body to a considerable size. This led to him hitting a 70 home run year in 1998. However, he was later vilified for his steroid abuse.

That said, andro has not yet been scientifically proven to stimulate muscle growth and can not be labeled a trustworthy anabolic steroid by the FDA.

It should be noted that currently, it is banned by the Olympic Games as a doping drug despite its official legal status.

Adverse effects of taking the drug can include an increase in the female hormone estrogen in the body. This is a very similar effect to anabolic steroid use. Too much female hormone in the male body can cause various cancers and heart disease.

Medical professionals advise against taking andro to increase your muscle mass as the risks still outweigh the benefits. Many bodybuilders disagree and even take prohormones regularly to enhance their performance.

As the World-Anti Doping Agency has also banned andro, its usage is very much frowned upon by natural bodybuilders.

Does Drug-Free Bodybuilding Exist?

In competition, a natural bodybuilder must have good body conditioning above all else, and they must have achieved this through biological processes.

Your conditioning, body symmetry, muscularity, and proportions will all be assessed at a competitive level. If you have approached this naturally, it is expected that you will have the correct proportions. Steroid users often do not.

It is possible to achieve all of the above through hard work, dedication, a good diet, and the right bodybuilding workouts. Genetics will, of course, play a part too, and there is little you can do to change this without resorting to substance abuse.

However, there is much debate over whether the term natural should be extended to exclude all supplements and performance-enhancing substances. The ban should not just include steroids and prohormones like Andro but all muscle-building supplements.

This would prevent competitors from using sports supplements such as creatine or glutamine. In scientific terms, these are natural substances absorbed by the body through eating a standard diet.

Should eating eggs, meat, tofu, and rice, all glutamine-rich foods, be considered the same as taking bodybuilding supplements that work like steroids? Most natural bodybuilders say, of course not.

The debate rolls on, but it seems that, in general, most natural-style bodybuilders do agree on what they can and cannot take. Performance-enhancing drugs are out of the question. But, supplements that are approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency are considered fair game.

If you are participating in a competition, you should always check with the organizing committee to understand which supplements are acceptable.

The Problem with Natural Bodybuilding Competitions

There remains a lot of controversy around natural bodybuilding competitions. Natural bodybuilders are seen as a joke by serious competitors. Aside from smaller arguments such as creatine supplements, there are other much bigger contention areas.

The controversy focuses on three central debates: That nothing is genuinely natural, that the drug tests are easy to beat, and that certain drugs are not banned right now but should be.

As we have already discussed what constitutes the term “natural,” let us now focus on the drug testing processes.

The World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) competitors must clean anabolic steroids for at least ten years. Competitors are subjected to a range of drug tests before and during the competition.

However, other natural bodybuilding competitions are nowhere near as stringent.

Dodgy Drugs Testing

One often raised point is how long does it take for anabolic steroids to leave the human system? Most steroids become undetectable to testing after a month. There is a lot of evidence to show that tests have failed to pick up heavy steroid usage in the past.

Lance Armstrong is famous for duping the anti-dopers at the Tour de France for years with his steroid abuse. The Tour has some of the best and most rigorous testing procedures in the world. It shows us that it can be done.

Many natural bodybuilding competitions have much less money and time to provide the same level of gold-standard testing. So there is continued controversy about whether steroid abusers are slipping through the net.

Will an athlete lose all of their enhanced gains in the time between stopping performance-enhancing drugs and the competition? Evidence has shown it not to be the case. So there is still much debate about whether this 10-year stipulation is adequate or is just for show.

Many competitors know when is the best time to stop taking certain drugs to not show up in screening. They are not taking them during the competition, so by definition, they are ‘natural.’

People also point to Dennis Wolf as an example of a bodybuilder who, some suggest, is too large to have achieved it through natural means. Dennis is an idol who has competed and won countless competitions.

To be clear, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest anything other than he is clean, but the naysayers still rumor on, and so the controversy continues.

Undetectable Drugs

We talked about Andro and how that crosses a line into doping. But there are other drugs that some ‘drug-free’ athletes consider to be acceptable, which are almost undetectable.

Most screening processes do not pick up HGH, for example. Insulin is a natural chemical from the body that can be abused and more challenging to identify.

Competitors are known to take in hidden urine samples, and some even claim bribery is rife in the industry.

It is heartbreaking to see the community split in such a divisive way over something that, at its core, seeks to be natural.

Take some comfort that the majority of natural bodybuilders want to be clean and work hard. It is possible to do it without resorting to taking steroids. Let’s take a quick look at how.

Natural Bodybuilding Supplements

If you are preparing to start bodybuilding naturally and compete in a competition, you should consider the following supplements as safe to take as part of your everyday diet.


Though some consider creatine to be as addictive as some class-A drugs, there is no doubting it is one of the best supplements around. Scientists well-researched creatine, and they know the side effects of the supplement.

Creatine already occurs organically in food and within our bodies, so you must take it in high doses to see the best effects.

Studies show twice the beneficial effects of strength workouts when taking creatine than merely working out on its own. Reviewers have named creatine the most effective supplement for increasing muscle mass.

If you have kidney problems, do not take creatine. The supplement can add extra strain on these organs.

Whey Proteins

Eating protein to build muscle mass is essential. Whey protein also contains amino acids that you cannot produce in your body.

Double-blind studies have shown that whey protein will help your body metabolize proteins and recover more quickly from tough workouts.

Glutamine & BCAA

These are another group of amino acids that you can take in supplement form and will help naturally increase your muscle mass. BCAAs, in particular, help with a reduction in muscle soreness after a workout.

Many protein-rich foods include Glutamine, so you can get even more of this by adding these to your diet. However, you would need to eat large amounts, so it may prove easier to supplement your eating regime.

Natural Ways to Build Muscle

The natural bodybuilder knows that they have to respect their genetics at the end of the day and work with what they have if they don’t want to turn to steroids.

It is possible to build a natural, well-conditioned bodybuilder shape without the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Improve Your Workouts

Study your form and see if there are areas you need to improve. Make sure you are working toward symmetry and good overall conditioning. Work with a trainer who is an advocate of natural training.

They can advise you on the best natural supplements and training programs to get you the best results for your body.

Eat Big

Eating is an anabolic process, and sometimes you have to eat big to build mass. You can follow the anabolic diet to make sure you are bulking and cutting at the right times.

Bodybuilding nutrition books and websites can guide you in the right direction to find the diet that works for you.

The Controversy of Natural Bodybuilding

Natural bodybuilding will always be a contentious subject. As we have seen, there are many avenues for abuse and an equal number of grey areas that make it difficult for athletes to find common ground.

The term natural will always be under scrutiny. The best you can do at the moment is to make sure that as a competitive bodybuilder, you check the banned substance list with the organizers long before the competition. You should always know what you are putting in your body and what the experts say about it.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check some of the others on our blog.

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