There are some facts we have to come to grips with as we get older: WWE matches are pre-determined, sumo deadlifts aren’t cheating, and many top-tier bodybuilders have taken or do take steroids. Don’t take our word for it, though — both eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman and six-time Mr. O Dorian Yates have spoken openly about their PED use.
But you don’t need drugs to build a tremendous physique, and many bodybuilders compete in natural bodybuilding shows. Below, we’ll give you everything you need to know to build your body naturally. Warning: it will take a lot of patience, hard work, and sacrifice to get to where you want (but that’s true for any strength sport).
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
What is Natural Bodybuilding?
Natural bodybuilding is bodybuilding without using anabolic steroids, hormones, testosterone, and, in some cases, drugs such as cannabinoids and CBD. Many leagues sponsor natural bodybuilding shows, and some have different banned substances lists than others. Certain prescription medications are also prohibited in some leagues. In extreme cases, contestants may have to undergo a polygraph test to ensure they’re not lying about taking any banned substances. So, if you’re looking to compete make sure to do your research.
And that’s about where the differences end.
Both natural bodybuilding and enhanced bodybuilding are all about minimizing body fat while holding onto as much muscle as possible and having a symmetrical, striated physique. Steroids can make achieving this much easier, but it’s definitely possible to achieve a top-tier physique without them.
And just like professional bodybuilding, you can enter leagues from Open, Men’s Physique, and all the way to Bikini.
But because it’s not as popular as non-drug tested bodybuilding, and thus has fewer big-name sponsors, the prizes for natural bodybuilding shows are usually much less — some leagues don’t award cash prizes and instead give out trophies and medals.
Still, it’s a great way to see how much you can challenge your body without any external assistance. If you’re looking to compete, there are many natural bodybuilding federations, which you can find here. A few popular federations are:
- World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF)
- International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (INBF)
- American Natural Bodybuilding Federation (ANBF)
Calorie Guidelines for Natural Bodybuilders
Dieting for a bodybuilding show is essentially the same, whether you’re enhanced or not. The main difference is you’ll want to allow yourself more time to lose body fat while preserving muscle, as certain drugs may speed up the cutting down phase.
On that note, you’ll have to start at the very beginning: calories. You must figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight and lose and gain weight at a responsible rate (more on that below).
Figuring out how many calories you need for maintenance is easy — just plug your information into our calorie calculator below.
You’ll want to nail your caloric surplus (the “bulking” phase) and caloric deficit (the “cut”) so that you’re not gaining too much weight (read: fat) or losing too much either (read: losing muscle mass). Generally, you want to eat 200-400 calories above or below your maintenance calories, depending on your goal. (1)
Your exact caloric needs should probably be determined by a nutritionist or dietitian, or coach. Even the slightest margin of error may be the difference between a natural bodybuilder receiving silver or gold on the podium. Additionally, your metabolism will shift during competition prep and, as a result, your caloric needs may shift from week to week. (2)
Ideally, you want to lose/gain half a kilogram, or about 1.1 pounds, per week. This number may sound low, but multiple studies have shown it’s the most sustainable way to change your body weight while retaining lean muscle and not losing strength. (3)(4) Each week, weigh yourself and adjust you calories accordingly. If you’re losing or gaining too quickly, scale the calories back by 100 to 200. If you’re losing or gaining too slowly, increase them by the 100 to 200.
Even more important for natural bodybuilders, slow and steady weight changes reduce the amount of testosterone you lose — especially while dieting. When you lose weight, you also lose some testosterone as one sheds some lean muscle mass. The object of bodybuilding is to reduce this effect, which is usually accomplished with the help of protein supplementation or taking testosterone boosters. (The latter aren’t allowed in natural bodybuilding competitions.) (5)
This vital hormone helps support strength, increases muscle retention, and controls fat distribution. (It also helps men perform in a room that’s not the gym.) That’s why making sure you’re not losing too much test while competing is important.
Macronutrient Requirements for Natural Bodybuilders
Once you know how many calories you need, you’ll split them between the three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats. The general rule of thumb is to follow a high-protein, high-carbohydrate, and low-fat diet to help maintain muscle mass, provide energy for the gym, and keep total calories at a minimum. (6)
As your caloric needs shift, your macronutrient splits will change to accommodate how much food you’re taking in compared to the amount of energy you’re putting out. Most natural bodybuilders usually decrease their carbohydrate intake over time, while keeping protein as high as possible to support muscle retention. (7)
Protein is absolutely vital for the natural bodybuilder because it helps promote muscle while eating in a caloric deficit. When you lose weight, some of it comes from fat and some comes from lean muscle mass. Studies have shown that people cutting their total calories can reduce muscle mass lost by eating more than 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. (8)
Protein is also the most satiating macronutrient, which is vital for people cutting calories and trying to avoid ingesting a midnight snack. (9)
One other note: It’s time to stop believing in “protein timing,” most commonly referred to as the “anabolic window.” This is the age-old myth that you need to eat some protein within an hour of resistance training so your muscles can more easily absorb the nutrients. Studies have busted this urban legend and found that, as long as you hit your daily protein targets, when you eat has little-to-no drastic effects on muscle size or strength. (10)
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, but they’ve also become a divisive macronutrient. The controversy, though, stems from the fact that many people consume simple carbohydrates (pastries, candies, and white wheat pasta and bread), which are void of nutritional value compared to complex carbohydrates (whole grains and vegetables). In other words, it’s quality over quantity. (11)
Since you’ll want protein to remain as high as possible, a decrease in calories will most likely come from carbohydrates and fats. But at the beginning of your natural bodybuilding prep, you’ll want to keep your carb intake high, too. Studies on drug-tested bodybuilders indicate this strategy makes it easier to hit your caloric goals throughout prep, possibly due to carbs’ impacts on your blood sugar. (12)
Reducing carbohydrates, though, could lead to decreased performance in the gym. There’s, unfortunately, little you can do to avoid this. Your body requires carbohydrates during extended training periods, and without them, you just can’t perform as many bench press reps as you could when downing bowls of pasta. (13)
Dietary fat is often demonized because it’s more calorically dense — one gram of the stuff contains nine calories, compared to just four in carbohydrates and fat. But its importance in bodybuilding can’t be understated. To start, fat helps hormonal function. Remember all the important things testosterone does? It can’t do any of that without fat. (14)
It’s best to eat fats through other foods — such as grains and meats — instead of eating foods that contain just fat. You’ll find that you hit your fat goal quickly just from eating foods such as meats, eggs, and lentils.
Micronutrients for Natural Bodybuilders
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals in food that help support bodily functions, from hand-eye coordination to decreasing muscle fatigue. As important as these are, bodybuilders may be deficient in a few key ones — namely, iron and Vitamin D, which help improve performance in the gym — while dieting because they tend to start cutting foods from their diet to shed fat in time for show day. (15)
Multivitamins may be a great way to plug any nutritional gaps in your diet, but you should do some shopping around and find one that fits your need best. (For example, you might need more Vitamin A compared to another person who might be lacking Vitamin C.) There’s some mixed evidence on whether multivitamins work, but most of the evidence suggests you should get most of the vitamins from your diet. That said, if you’re eliminating food from what you eat every day, multivitamins are a great strategy. (16)
There are way too many micronutrients for us to go in-depth on all of them, but we’ll call out three in particular.
- The first is iron. Iron supports athletic performance, but it’s also the nutrient you need to create new red blood cells. And a lack of iron could also lead to nutrient-deficiency anemia, which, along with decreased performance, can lead to heart issues, shortness of breath, and pale/yellow skin. And athletes are already at an increased risk of anemia because working out uses up much of our iron stores. Men should aim for at least 8.7mg of iron per day, and women 14.8mg. (17)
- The other two are Vitamin D and Zinc, as these two nutrients are the ones your body needs to promote testosterone production. Iyou’re deficient in these two nutrients, your body can’t make the amount of testosterone it needs to lift weights and perform other “tasks.” (18)
A Quick Word on Supplements
Because many natural bodybuilding leagues have different banned substances lists, you should make sure any supplements you might be taking — from protein powders to fat burners to creatine, t0 pre-workouts — don’t contain anything that might get you disqualified.
On that note, much of the supplement advice for professional bodybuilders remains the same for those who choose the natural route. Read our guide to the best types of supplements for performance, weight loss, and health.
Training Tips for Natural Bodybuilders
This section won’t necessarily cover what exercises to do — you’ll want to work with a certified personal trainer or coach to figure that out — but to give you an idea of how many reps you should do, how much you should rest in between sets, and more. Take these recommendations with a grain of salt as your trainer or coach may have you do something different than what we’ve laid out here.
The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness released a paper outlining some of the best resistance training recommendations for athletes. Here’s some of them: (19)
- Muscle groups should be trained twice or more every week.
- Most reps should be kept in the six to 12 range.
- Rest for one to three minutes in between sets.
- Keep concentric movements (putting tension on muscles) to one to two seconds.
- Keep eccentric movements (lengthening the muscle) to two to three seconds.
- Avoid any intermittent fasting to minimize excessive weight loss.
[Related: The Ultimate Guide to Building Your Own Bodybuilding Workout Plan]
Psychological Dangers of Natural Bodybuilding
Gaining and losing weight is very hard — physically and mentally. You’re spending weeks perfecting a physique and anyone would be excused for feeling a little blue if something got in the way of that goal. And it’s more than just disappointment — professional bodybuilders have higher rates of binge eating, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. (20)
Part of this is caused by a key component of bodybuilding — losing weight. Your body wants to remain in a state of homeostasis or being about the same. When it starts changing, your hormones start getting out of whack, which causes some undesirable side effects. Oddly, this seems to subside as you gain more experience in the bodybuilding industry. (21)
Communicate any negative feelings you might be having with your coach, personal trainer, or a certified therapist who can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to get over these feelings and keep control of your mental health.
The Final Word
Bodybuilding is made easier by taking certain steroids, hormones, and other substances. At the end of the day, anyone can get an award-winning physique with just their determination and a lot of time spent at the gym. Here are the main takeaways for anyone considering natural bodybuilding.
- Make sure you hit your total caloric goals.
- Always keep protein high.
- Communicate any mental health issues you might experience.
- Keep an eye for any nutritional deficiencies.
- Hall KD. What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss? Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Mar;32(3):573-6. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803720. Epub 2007 Sep 11. PMID: 17848938; PMCID: PMC2376744.
- Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 Feb 27;11(1):7. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7. PMID: 24571926; PMCID: PMC3943438.
- Mero AA, Huovinen H, Matintupa O, Hulmi JJ, Puurtinen R, Hohtari H, Karila TA. Moderate energy restriction with high protein diet results in healthier outcome in women. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010 Jan 25;7(1):4. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-7-4. PMID: 20205751; PMCID: PMC2822830.
- Hall KD. Body fat and fat-free mass inter-relationships: Forbes’s theory revisited. Br J Nutr. 2007 Jun;97(6):1059-63. doi: 10.1017/S0007114507691946. Epub 2007 Mar 19. PMID: 17367567; PMCID: PMC2376748.
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Featured Image: @betteraestheticbb on Instagram/Photo by Nick Colvill