Bodybuilding without supplements is entirely possible as long as you take care of your nutrition, recovery and training. Bodybuilders should focus on these cornerstones of training before relying on supplements.
The Challenge of Bodybuilding
The competitive aspect of bodybuilding is unique compared to most other sports. In a bodybuilding competition, athletes are judged on a number of factors. The National Physique Committee looks at presentation, size, muscularity and symmetry of the bodybuilders.
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Not only do bodybuilders need to have large muscles, but they also need to be symmetrical. For example, you shouldn't have one bicep larger than the other. Low body fat percentage is also important because it gives muscles more definition and shows more veins.
The challenge for bodybuilders comes from dropping body fat percentage while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. Generally, they break their training down into phases. In one phase they'll focus on building more muscle mass by lifting weights and increasing their calorie count.
In the next phase they'll cut down their body fat percentage by lowering their calorie intake and increasing their activity level. These athletes aren't simply burning fat to the point where they can see their abs; the sport takes fat loss to an almost extreme level and pushes the limits of the human body.
Supplements are a natural crutch for bodybuilders because the sport is so demanding on their bodies. However, supplements may not be as effective as they claim to be. There are products for muscle building, fat burning, energy for workouts and recovery. Research is fairly conclusive on some products, but the effects of many are unknown.
Bodybuilding Without Supplements
The lack of evidence for some supplements is enough to dissuade some. Others are turned off by the supplement industry itself. There's not as much regulation over supplements as there is for prescription drugs, for example. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for overseeing the supplement industry.
According to the FDA, supplement companies are responsible for testing their products before they hit the market. The FDA is responsible for regulating products once they're available. That means that the FDA isn't directly evaluating supplements when they're first introduced.
In a February 2015 article, the New York Times reported that the New York Attorney General's office was cracking down on supplement manufacturers. The article reported that an investigation revealed that many products didn't contain the herbs they advertised. This evidence is enough to cast doubt on the supplement industry.
Whatever reasoning you have for bodybuilding without supplements, you shouldn't be concerned. The most important factors for gaining muscle and burning fat are nutrition, training and recovery.
When you want to gain muscle, you need a stimulus. Something has to cause your muscle to shift into building mode. Training is the stimulus because it stresses your muscles. Bodybuilders opt for weight training because it's one of the most difficult forms of training for your muscles. Endurance training like jogging builds a small amount of muscle, but is nowhere near as effective as weight training.
Coffee Instead of Preworkout Supplements
Preworkout supplements are designed to help maximize your workout. The idea behind taking a preworkout product is to boost your energy and blood flow throughout the workout, plus give you an added boost of supplements like creatine.
The caffeine in preworkout supplements is a major energy booster. It can get you going after a long day at work or during a drowsy, rainy afternoon. According to a March 2018 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, caffeine can boost your upper body strength and power during the workout. Interestingly, the study found that lower body strength doesn't really change with caffeine intake.
If caffeine can make your workouts more intense, it can give you a slight edge. The harder you can push in the weight room, the more you can stimulate your muscles to grow. Going without caffeine can lower the intensity of your workout, but it's possible to conjure up your own motivation and intensity without the help of energy supplements.
If you're opposed to taking nutrition supplements but open to more common energy boosters like coffee, you can still get your caffeine in. The amount of caffeine in preworkout supplements ranges from less than a cup of coffee to two or three. Replacing the caffeine will make your preworkout supplements less of a necessity.
Replacing Creatine With Food
Another popular supplement, sometimes taken before the workout and sometimes afterwards, is creatine. Your body actually makes creatine as an energy source for the muscles to contract. The liver produces creatine and sends it to your muscles. The form of creatine that your body stores and uses is called creatine phosphate.
While the supplements you take are man-made, it's a naturally-occurring substance. A November 2017 article published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine showed that creatine helps you increase lean mass and improve strength more than if you didn't use it. This means that creatine is a helpful supplement for bodybuilders.
However, you can get creatine from food. A pound of raw red meat has about 2 grams of creatine while a pound of salmon has about 5 grams, which is roughly the dose you'd use when supplementing with creatine. However, when you cook meat it breaks down some of the creatine.
Eating a pound or more of salmon per day might be expensive, but it can help you match the amount of creatine you're missing from abstaining from supplements. While supplementing with creatine can help you build muscle and strength, food is a viable alternative.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
During your workout, branched-chain amino acids are a popular workout supplement. They're fairly easy to digest and usually mixed with delicious artificial flavoring and sweeteners.
When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. After digestion, amino acids go into your bloodstream where they can be pulled out and formed into new proteins, such as muscle tissue.
This process is extremely important for bodybuilders to build muscle. That's why it's appealing to drink branched-chain amino acid supplements during a workout. The goal is to bypass the digestion of protein, get amino acids right into the bloodstream and start rebuilding muscles sooner.
Branched-chain amino acids are a subset of amino acids that your body doesn't make on its own. You need to get them from food or supplements. There are three in total: l-leucine, l-valine and l-isoleucine. These amino acids are important, and some supplement companies claim that drinking them during your workout can help you build muscle faster.
Unfortunately, research doesn't support these claims. An August 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that branched-chain amino acid supplements don't help you build muscle. If you decide to try bodybuilding without supplements, you won't be missing out on anything without branched-chain amino acids.
Read more: Can I Start Bodybuilding in My 30s?
Need More Protein?
Protein supplements can be helpful, particularly if you're in a rush or on a high-calorie diet. You can easily mix the powder with milk or water, shake it and ingest 20 to 30 grams of protein. If you're eating a lot and feel full, it's easier to drink protein than eat more. Digesting liquids is easier on your stomach than digesting whole food.
A March 2018 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that people who supplemented their normal diet with extra protein from protein shakes gained more muscle. However, there's a caveat. If the subjects ate more than 1.62 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in a day, they didn't get a benefit from drinking extra protein.
This study shows that drinking protein shakes can help you if you need to reach your protein goals. However, beyond that, they're not very helpful. If you decide against taking protein shakes, make sure you're eating enough protein in your diet. If you are, then you're probably not missing out in terms of muscle building.
Taking a whole protein supplement can help you build more muscle. The most common protein supplement is whey protein, which is a derivative of dairy protein. There are also vegetarian sources like pea and soy protein, among others.
Fat Burners for Bodybuilders
Bodybuilders not only have to build muscle, they have to burn fat. There's a wide range of supplements that claim to be fat burners, and some are so extreme that they've been banned. There are many supplements on the FDA's banned substances list that contain either illegal appetite suppressants or stimulants.
Certainly not all supplement companies use dangerous ingredients in their fat burners. Of the companies that used dangerous ingredients, most have been banned or re-introduced with safe ingredients. However, most fat burners on the market don't appear to be very effective.
An article from the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements casts doubt over the fat burning supplement industry. The article reviews most active ingredients in fat burners on the market today. Some have only one ingredient, while others have a combination.
To summarize their findings, the authors explain that most of the ingredients have scant evidence. Some have very weak studies with few participants, while others fail to produce meaningful results. Overall, there doesn't seem to be a particularly impressive fat burning supplement. As a result, you shouldn't be too concerned about cutting fat burning supplements out of your bodybuilding routine.
Natural Bodybuilding Recommendations
A May 2014 article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition explains that the most commonly used and effective supplements used for natural bodybuilders are creatine, caffeine and beta-alanine. The researchers argue that other supplements are either ineffective or there is simply not enough evidence to support using them.
In the article, the researchers outline a useful diet plan for natural bodybuilders who are dieting to lose fat. The most important thing when dieting is to retain as much hard-earned muscle mass as possible. That's why they recommend losing only 0.5 to 1 percent of body weight per week. This slow weight loss will help bodybuilders retain more muscle mass.
Bodybuilders who are losing fat should eat 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain their muscle mass. Of their daily calorie intake, 15 to 30 percent should come from fat. After meeting fat and protein requirements, the rest of their daily calories should come from carbohydrates.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation"
- National Institutes of Health: "Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-Induced Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Healthy Adults"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?"
- Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology: "Branched-Chain Amino Acids."
- International Center for Sports Nutrition: "Answers to Your Top 10 Questions About Creatine"
- Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine: "Effect of Creatine Supplementation During Resistance Training on Lean Tissue Mass and Muscular Strength in Older Adults: A Meta-Analysis"
- University of Delaware: "Phosphocreatine"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Effects of Caffeine Intake on Muscle Strength and Power: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Sports Medicine: "Does Aerobic Training Promote the Same Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy as Resistance Training? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- New York Times: "New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Dietary Supplements"
- FDA: "Dietary Supplement Ingredient Advisory List"
- Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition: "ISSN Exercise & Sports Nutrition Review Update: Research & Recommendations"
- National Physique Committee: "NPC Bodybuilding Division Rules"