The Dangers of Bodybuilding

bodybuildingYesterday I was in a park with a friend of mine soaking up some sun. As we were lying there restocking our vitamin D supplies, we got to talking about bodybuilding. When we were younger, both of us were obsessed with strength training. We were in the gym lifting heavy many times every week, we ate a bucketload of food, we drank protein shakes, and we timed our meals. In other words, we did what most iron junkies do.

As we sat there talking, it became clear that my friend’s fitness philosophy and my own had evolved in a similar direction over the past decade. Both of us have abandoned bodybuilding-type training in favor of a more balanced training regime that is better matched with the human genetic make-up. These days, my friend, which is fairly muscular, still does resistance training; however, he mostly sticks with bodyweight exercises. He also does some work under the barbell, but he doesn’t operate like a bodybuilder: he doesn’t blast one or two muscle groups each training session, stuff himself with obscene amounts of food, or try to get as big as possible. Neither do I.

As we sat there in the park talking about these things, we got to laughing about the many myths that circulate in the fitness community and the stupidity of many of the conventional ideas that people who enter into the world of fitness are exposed to. When we first started lifting weight many years ago, me and my friend were both exposed to a similar set of bodybuilding principles. We learned that the best type of strength training program is one in which each muscle group is destroyed once or twice a week; that we should ingest fast-absorbing protein directly after our workouts in order to take advantage of “the anabolic window”; that we should eat breakfast early in the morning regardless of whether we were hungry or not; that we should eat every three hours; and that even small amounts of aerobic exercise could hinder muscular development.

At the time, we swallowed all of this information. We didn’t really digest it though, we just acted on it. Basically, we did exactly what most people who enter into the world of bodybuilding do. Many of the above doctrines were so ingrained into the gym communities we became a part of that we didn’t really question them. In retrospect though, both of us have come to the now seemingly obvious conclusion that none of the above ideas make any sense. They have absolutely no evolutionary support.

The human body is perfectly able to go without food for some time: its muscles don’t start to break down during a short bout of running or after a couple of hours without an influx of protein and carbs. Moreover, evolved mechanisms are in place that helps it appropriately regulate food intake. Finally, the approach of destroying each muscle group with a variety of different exercises once or twice a week has no evolutionary precedent. It is raised beyond any doubt that the human body is not well adapted for such a training regime.

The evolutionary health model predicts that intensive bodybuilding-style training results in suboptimal gene expression

In retrospect, I’ve not only realised that many of the things I did back in the day fitness wise were stupid, but that they actually harmed my body. I got inflamed and tired from all the training and the eating regime I was adhering to.

At the time, I didn’t know this. I thought, like most strength training junkies do, that what I was doing was healthy. After all, I was training a lot, which is generally considered to be a good thing, and I was eating almost exclusively whole foods. According to fitness blogs and magazines, I was the stereotype of health. I wasn’t though. I may have looked fit on the outside; however, on the inside, I was definitely not in good shape. Perhaps needless to say, today, I understand why this was the case.

Chronic, heavy, high-volume bodybuilding-type training does not agree well with the evolved human biology. It has absolutely nothing in common with the physical activity routines that conditioned the human genome over millions of years of evolution.

Here’s what a review paper on Organic Fitness had to say about this matter:

The pattern of exercise for which we are genetically adapted involves a diversity of activities performed intermittently, at moderate intensities, and moderate durations. (1)

Our ancestors obviously didn’t do 20 heavy sets for chest every Monday, drink beverages containing fast-absorbing protein derived from the milk of another mammal, or time their meals so that they got some protein and carbohydrate into their bodies every 3 hours (excluding the hours that are spent sleeping). Rather, they performed a variety of different physical activities, including a lot of walking; often went many hours without eating; and consumed exclusively real, unprocessed food.

By itself, this doesn’t immediately tell us that it’s harmful to carry out bodybuilding-type training and other physical activities that were unknown to the primal man; however, it should cause us to think twice before we go into the gym and do 15 sets to failure on shoulders or run many miles at a high intensity on a regular basis. The evolutionary health model predicts that the conduction of these types of activities results in suboptimal gene expression.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the evolutionary health model is rarely, if ever, wrong. This isn’t surprising, seeing as it’s built on the “laws” of evolutionary biology. Two of the main principles that are ingrained into the evolutionary health model are: 1) The human genome is a product of billions of years of evolution. 2) It is genetically determined what type of conditions organisms, including humans, are adapted for.

Excessive strength training is equally as bad as excessive endurance training, if not worse

The human body is very adaptable in the sense that phenotypic plasticity allows it to adjust to the conditions in which it finds itself. For example, if it’s exposed to a lot of stimuli conferred by resistance training, it adapts by growing bigger and stronger muscles, so that it’s better able to carry out the activities in question at a later time.

With that said, there’s a limit to the human body’s adaptability. I would argue that heavy, high volume strength training performed on a regular basis can easily bring the body over that limit, particularly if it’s coupled with bodybuilding-style eating. Bodybuilding-style training and eating stimulates the human musculoskeletal and digestive systems in evolutionarily novel ways and can cause gastrointestinal problems, immune disturbances, low libido, and a number of other problems.

I’m perfectly aware of the fact that there at present isn’t a lot of hard data to support these statements. The reason for that is not that the statements have been refuted by modern science, but rather that very few studies have looked into the dangers of extreme bodybuilding-type training. Virtually all studies in this area have looked into the beneficial effects that strength training has on the human body. With that said, we do have a general understanding of how “excessive” exercise affects the human body.

There is solid evidence to suggest that chronic high-intensity, high-volume exercise, regardless of whether it’s anerobic or aerobic, can have a variety of different adverse health effects, many of which are linked with immunity and cardiovascular health (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). In the ancestral health community, most of the focus in this regard has been on prolonged, high-intensity aerobic exercise (“chronic cardio”). I would argue that it’s long past time that we divert some of our attention towards strength training. Excessive strength training is equally as bad as excessive endurance training. Actually, it may in some respects be even worse.

eirik-gym-mirror

Me back in the day when I did a lot of bodybuilding-type training. I was quite big and muscular, but I was not healthy.

The problem with intensive bodybuilding doesn’t just lie with the training itself, but also with many of the other things that tend to go hand in hand with bodybuilding, such as the use of whey protein powders and other dietary supplements and the consumption of evolutionarily novel foodstuffs. One of the biggest issues with bodybuilding is that it dramatically raises one’s caloric needs. The amount of food one has to eat in order to fuel heavy, bodybuilding-style training probably seems obscene to those people who have never been under the squat bar or prepped bodybuilding-style meals.

The ancestral diets that contributed to sculpting the human genome had a fairly low energy density; hence, they are not well-suited for bodybuilders. It’s virtually impossible for a bodybuilder to get the energy he needs simply from eating fruits, veggies, and meat. He has to also include some higher calorie foods into his diet, such as grains and fatty foodstuffs, at least if he’s in the process of gaining mass, or else, the bulk of the food he’ll have to consume in order to meet his energy demands will be so large that he will have trouble getting all of it in.

What all of this is to say is that it’s virtually impossible to both a truly healthy diet and follow an intensive bodybuilding-type training program. You’ll likely have to make some compromises with regards to the healthfulness of your diet if you’re going to partake in bodybuilding. Bodybuilding-type training is particularly harmful if it’s coupled with an eating regimen that consists of periods of extreme cutting and bulking (Whoever came up with the idea that the best way to add muscle is to eat a lot more calories than one actually needs to build muscle was clearly not a wise person).

Another often overlooked danger with bodybuilding has to do with its psychological impacts. I speak from experience when I say that it’s mentally unhealthy to be obsessed with getting as big and strong as possible. It can undermine one’s quality of life.

More isn’t necessarily better when it comes to strength training

At this point, you may be thinking that I hate bodybuilding. I don’t. The reason I’m writing this article is not that I hate bodybulding, but rather that I think it’s long past time that people become aware of the potential dangers of bodybuilding. Unlike what some people seem to think, it’s not healthy to completely destroy every major muscle group in one’s body once or twice a week, consume large quantities of protein shakes, creatine supplements, and the like, or make one’s life about getting big and strong. Also, perhaps needless to say, it’s unwise to use anabolic steroids.

With that said, strength training, when performed as part of a balanced training regime, is highly beneficial. It can make you stronger, healthier, and better looking. The key is not to avoid strength training, but rather to not do too much of it. Moreover, it’s important to adhere to a healthy eating regimen and use good form when training, so as to get the most out of the training and avoid injuries and disease. Unfortunately, many bodybuilders don’t do this. They neglect their form in favor of using more weight and stuff themselves with food – both healthy and unhealthy – in order to get as many calories as possible into their system, with the result that their health suffers.

There’s little doubt in my mind that many bodybuilders and gym junkies are in poor health. They may look fit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are healthy. Many bodybuilders probably harbor a dysbiotic microbiota, are chronically inflamed, and have poor heart health, among other things. It is certainly possible to build muscle without harming one’s health; however, it’s not possible to get really big without making some health-related compromises.

To this day, some of the damage that I inflicted upon my body via the bodybulding-style training regime I followed back in the day is still with me. I hope this post can help others avoid making the same mistakes as I did. Instead of following a bodybuilding-style training program, my advise to anyone who’s looking to get fit would be to follow a training program that is composed of a variety of different activities, including some high-intensity sprinting, bodyweight strength exercises, multi-joint barbell movements, and a lot of low-intensity aerobic exercise. That type of program will probably not make you as big as a typical bodybuilding-type program, but it will certainly make you a lot healthier.

Picture: Creative commons picture by stephane ceco. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Hi! Good article! Which long-term damages are you talking about? Thank you.

    • Hi Noa,

      I’m particularly concerned about the effects bodybuilding, which often includes the consumption of large quantities of evolutionarily novel foodstuffs in addition to heavy strength training, can have on immune functions and gastrointestinal health.

  2. Eric Serrano says:

    Erik my name is Eric Serrano, I am sure impressed
    This was an excellent article

  3. As a woman who is definitely not a bodybuilder, I would agree with this article. I’ve read that too much of this sort of thing can over-develop some muscle groups (such as the abs) and leave others weak, which can eventually result in imbalance and chronic pain. I don’t know how true that is. From the standpoint of the opposite sex, some male muscularity is both attractive and functional. Like anything that’s overdone, however (as in the overly muscular, overly veiny, overly tanned model in the top picture), it just looks bizarre and ridiculous to most of the rest of us.

  4. Alessio says:

    I myself have a very similar story.
    I was obsessed with being big and I did anything to achieve it.
    I’ve been eating more than 300 g of proteins/day and took anything possible.
    I knew very big men with very poor health that came out before or later in their life.
    There are studies that show that high intensity training, i.e. a large use of the lactacid metabolism leads to leaky gut.
    This nasty metabolic patway provoke suffering that is highly avoided in nature.
    We “can” use it rarely to achieve a “big” reward, but when you abuse of it issues are nearby.
    Now I’m a fan of multidisciplinar training that involves strenght (alactacid metabolism) without overdoing with sets, with the powerlifting and weightlifting exercises with some variants, calistenics exercises, martial arts and good walks.
    Everything without overtraining.
    Besides, while I think that the crossfit exercises are good, I think that the methods are crazy. The so called WODS involves plenty of exercises with a hubris of reps, meaning a huge stress on our body.
    It’s even far worse than bodybuilding…
    Not to criticize crossfitter, having some friends who do it, but just to say that together with bodybuilding and marathones,
    It’s a farcry from what evolution selected for us as “healthy”.

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