Q: I have several questions:
1) What are some of the differences in the physical composition of natural bodybuilders vs. unrestricted bodybuilders?
2) What are some of the differences in the training methods of natural bodybuilders vs. unrestricted bodybuilders?
3) Are there any differences in the diets of natural bodybuilders compared to unrestricted ones?
4) What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the two kinds of bodybuilding?
5) How can I tell which is for me?
A: I’ve never heard of the term unrestricted bodybuilding when referring to a bodybuilder who takes anabolic steroids or other growth-enhancing drugs, but I guess it fits. Unfortunately, the present-day competitive scene usually means that everything and anything goes with regard to drug use in nontested shows. Even some natural competitions are often believed to have competitors who are using drugs. As one fitness industry insider recently told me, ‘It takes a lot of drugs to compete as a natural bodybuilder.’
Now, on to your questions. The differences in physical composition between a natural bodybuilder and a non-natural bodybuilder are usually immediately evident. Steroids, growth hormone, insulin and diuretics all combine to create a bigger, harder, stronger and more ripped physique. Natural bodybuilders, although they can be very big and defined, will not be able to develop the incredible size and hardness that drugs enable. Although there may be some freaky genetic exceptions, a natural bodybuilder will not weigh a ripped 265 pounds at a height of 5’10’ and look as hard as granite with snakelike vascularity covering his body.
Some natural bodybuilders argue that it’s self-defeating for drug-free bodybuilders to believe that there are limitations to what they can achieve without drugs. In other words, believing that you cannot achieve a certain size or a new level of definition will limit you from ever making it happen. There’s definitely something to that: The mind is a very powerful tool that can be used to work for or against you. If you believe that you can only get so big or so ripped without drugs, then that is the reality you will create for yourself; however, like it or not, there are limitations to what the body can develop naturally. Extreme size, freaky hardness and transparent skin are drug-induced effects.
That doesn’t mean that you cannot develop an incredible physique without ever taking drugs. All you have to do is look at competitors at some of the bigger natural bodybuilding shows, such as the NPC Team Universe or the MuscleMania, to see what’s possible. Natural bodybuilders are getting bigger and more ripped every year.
As a matter of fact, quite a few natural bodybuilders have entered nontested competitions and beat out competitors who were using steroids and other drugs. Tito Raymond recently placed first runner-up in the Middleweight class at the NPC USA Championships, and Mike O’Hearn won his class at the Los Angeles Bodybuilding Championships. An uninformed observer would probably be hard pressed to tell the difference between a natural bodybuilder like Mike or Tito and a competitor who was using drugs.
As for differences in training methods, there can be many. I’ve seen many drug-using bodybuilders who didn’t have to train very heavy or hard but had incredible physiques. It’s hard to believe that someone could develop huge muscle mass with what is basically a pump workout, but some bodybuilders respond more dramatically to drugs than others so they really don’t need to push themselves hard in the gym to obtain awesome physiques.
If bodybuilders using drugs decide to train heavy and hard, however, they will be able to recuperate much more quickly than natural bodybuilders. Bodybuilders using steroids would be able to train heavy six days a week and still grow from that routine. If natural bodybuilders worked out that often, they’d quickly end up overtrained.
Natural bodybuilders cannot get away with performing pump workouts and avoiding the heavy, basic exercises. They have to push themselves by using the most effective exercises and train in a way that provides maximum stress on the muscles without overtraining. There’s little room for making mistakes if you want to develop an impressive physique without using drugs.
The nutrition habits of natural bodybuilders and unrestricted bodybuilders can also vary. A bodybuilder taking steroids can use a lot more protein than a natural bodybuilder can handle. Steroids enable greater nitrogen retention than the human body is designed to handle. As a result, a bodybuilder using steroids will often consume up to 500 grams of protein a day. If natural bodybuilders did that, they’d undoubtedly end up with gastrointestinal problems.
Bodybuilders using drugs also have an easier time getting ripped while following a diet. They could eat a small number of calories and carbs and still retain all their muscle tissue. If drug-free bodybuilders did that, they’d quickly lose muscle mass. The drugs help in retaining muscle mass and strength, even on a low-calorie diet. Natural bodybuilders have to lose their bodyfat very, very slowly to preserve as much muscle tissue as possible. As with the training, there’s little room for error for bodybuilders who choose to go the natural route.
You asked about the advantages and disadvantages of both kinds of bodybuilding. Well, the obvious advantages of using steroids and other drugs are more size, strength and hardness and better recuperation. You can potentially develop your body much further than you ever could naturally. That’s what attracts so many bodybuilders to these drugs in the first place.
On the downside, you have the side effects and possible health problems that arise from using steroids, growth hormone, insulin and diuretics. Those are very powerful drugs, and not everyone responds to them in the same way. I’ve seen bodybuilders use heavy cycles for more than a decade who experience few or no side effects, while others use a minimal cycle and end up extremely ill. The use of insulin and diuretics can be especially deadly. There are many instances of bodybuilders dying quickly because they didn’t know what they were doing when experimenting with those drugs.
I’ve also seen bodybuilders blow up while using steroids and others show little to no progress. Every body is different, and it’s too simplistic to say that everyone would be huge if he took drugs or anyone who is natural will not be able to develop a great physique. Genetics plays a big role, but the individual physical response to the drugs is also a factor.
In addition to possible side effects, such as kidney failure, heart disease and high blood pressure, taking large amounts of physique-enhancing drugs can lead to some unwanted physical characteristics. We have all seen the ‘roid gut that has become so prevalent among pro bodybuilders in the past 15 years or so. The combination of anabolic steroids, growth hormone and insulin has enabled bodybuilders to get bigger than ever, but it’s also given many of them a gut that makes them look eight months pregnant. In fact, only a small minority of professional bodybuilders are not currently afflicted with the dreaded ‘roid gut.
Other side effects include gynecomastia (enlargement of the breast tissue), severe acne, male-pattern baldness and carpal tunnel syndrome (from excessive use of growth hormone). Taking large amounts of those drugs doesn’t always produce a pretty picture.
Another downside to taking drugs that’s rarely talked about is the inevitability of muscle loss. The growth effects produced by steroids, growth hormone and insulin last only as long as you’re taking the drugs. All the muscle and strength you develop during your cycle will diminish once you stop taking them. It’s naive to believe that you’ll get to keep all that new muscle once you clean out. If you don’t believe me, just take a good look at someone who used drugs to build his physique after he gets off the drugs (which, eventually, he will). As John Balik has often said, ‘There is no free lunch.’ You don’t get to keep it.
It takes longer to develop size and strength, and you may not be able to achieve the same gains you would if you were using drugs, but what you have is all yours. It doesn’t come from a bottle or syringe, and it will not go away so easily if you decide to lay off or decrease your time in the gym. A bodybuilder who does it naturally is also developing his health. Look at some of the older champions like Reg Park, Bill Pearl, Jack LaLanne and George Turner. All those gentlemen are still in fantastic condition decades after hanging up their posing trunks. They are shining examples of the positive effects that sensible bodybuilding can bring.
You asked which method of bodybuilding is for you. I think my answer is obvious. In my opinion, there’s no reason to take growth-enhancing drugs to build your physique. Professional bodybuilders and other professional athletes must engage in that practice in order to stay competitive; however, the chance that the average bodybuilder will make it to the pro ranks is slim to none. Only a handful achieve professional status each year, and only a smaller percentage of those happy few ever make it to the upper echelon of the sport. The risk hardly seems worth the reward.
Stay natural and enjoy the journey of building your body without drugs. You will become bigger, stronger and healthier, both mentally and physically, and you will discover your true self along the way.
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.naturalolympia.com. You can write to him at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM