As an amateur bodybuilder who has been lifting weights since I was about 13, I find that I spend a lot of my time defending the activity. People have a lot of negative views when it comes to working out and are constantly telling me that it will strain my heart or 'all turn to flab' when I stop. Then there are those who inform me that the protein I eat is a waste, that the extra muscle is unattractive… and that generally I'm wasting my time and destroying my body. Nice!
Fortunately they're just dead wrong. This is a long way from the reality and actually bodybuilding when done correctly is very good for your overall health, can even increase your intelligence and lifespan, and makes you feel more powerful and vibrant than ever before.
But while all this is true, I would be lying if I claimed that there were no negative effects from working out to the extent that I and many others do. Actually bodybuilding can be unhealthy for you, but this just so happens to be true of nearly any activity. Running marathons for instance is actually really bad for you in a number of ways – but that doesn't mean that people who choose to run them are 'wrong' in any way. That's their choice. And any form of activity is going to be a hell of a lot healthier than not engaging in any kind of activity at all. Sitting in front of the TV all day is probably the most damaging thing you can do for your health of all.
But denying the health issues surrounding bodybuilding isn't going to help anyone either. So read on and let's take a look at some of the ways that bodybuilding can be bad for you so that you're best able to mitigate those effects.
Muscle Size Issues
Some of the problems that arise in bodybuilding are simply a result of athletes building themselves up too much to the point where they're too big. This can create a number of potential issues.
For instance if you build too much muscle mass around your traps then you'll find that your upper back can actually get so big that it's impossible for you to rest your head flat when you go to bed. This will negatively impact your sleep as well as your posture and potentially cause back problems.
Flexibility is also significantly decreased as the size of certain muscles gets too large. With huge lats for instance you won't be able to keep your arms down by your sides, while huge biceps, triceps and traps can make it difficult to reach behind your head. Some bodybuilders will get to such extreme proportions that they actually need help doing relatively normal things. With this loss of flexibility will also come an increased chance of injury and reduced agility and speed.
Muscle imbalances are a result of bodybuilders training incorrectly, but this is actually incredibly common throughout the sport. The issue here arises when bodybuilders put too much focus on building specific muscles over others resulting in uneven pressure on joints.
An example would be when a bodybuilder trains their pecs too much without focussing on the back muscles. This can result in a hunched over posture as well as creating back pain.
Likewise many bodybuilders will train their lug muscles a lot less than their upper bodies which can lead to issues. In other cases they may train certain parts of the leg more than others causing imbalances that act on the knee as well as the pelvis and spine.
Extreme muscle size can also lead to extreme weight, which in itself can result in a number of problems. For one, being very heavy can place extra strain on the knee, which in turn can lead to complications. This extra weight can also generally reduce mobility for athletes making it more difficult for them to get around and to complete basic movements such as climbing the stairs.
Injuries are relatively common when bodybuilding which occurs as a result of poor form, or pushing too hard, too fast when performing certain exercises. Difficult 'compound' exercises such as bench press, squat and deadlift can commonly cause injury particularly when performed with incorrect form. Either this can lead to joint issues, or tears in the muscle which subsequently hamper movement and lead to further complications. This can be protected against by using the correct form as well as certain tools such as weight belts. Warming up, practicing correct technique with lighter weights and using a spotter can all help. Nevertheless, for all the reasons discussed knee complaints remain relatively common among bodybuilders. Impact can also be an issue, particularly if athletes are prone to 'locking out' their joints.
Even when injury does not occur, bodybuilders will often find themselves in an almost constant state of fatigue and will regularly experience 'DOMS' or 'Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness' which can reduce reaction time and potentially lead indirectly to subsequent accidents. Again there are strategies one can use to minimise this problem however, and it's also worth noting that this is a problem in a number of other disciplines – many gymnasts state that their shoulders are almost constantly in pain for example.
A good bodybuilding diet should include large amounts of protein and they are likely to also eat large numbers of calories during their 'bulking phase'. While this is generally considered to be a positive thing, it does mean that you'll be increasing IGF1 to a large extent, and this process has been found by some studies to potentially shorten lifespan (1). Calorie restriction generally has also often been recommended as a means to extend lifespan, so in all the large amounts consumed by bodybuilders may actually reduce their lifespan. Tim Ferriss describes this as a 'Faustian bargain' where one must choose between either performance or longevity.
Overtraining occurs when an athlete bombards their body with too much exercise without giving themselves adequate time to recover. Again this is a problem that's common among many sports, but particularly with bodybuilding due to its intense nature.
Overtraining can lead to a number of problems if it is allowed to continue including slow healing of wounds, flu symptoms, lethargy, muscle soreness and more. Ironically it can also lead to weakness – remember that the harder you train, the longer you need to rest and recover.
Bodybuilding is potentially addictive for a number of reasons, owing to both the hormonal response we get when training as well as the satisfaction of training. Body dysmorphia is a condition for example in which a bodybuilder can lose objectivity in judging their own appearance and thus end up thinking that they are 'weak' or 'small' leading quickly to overtraining and some of the problems described above.
The best way to avoid addiction or the loss of objectivity is to train for specific goals. Aim towards these goals and you will be able to more accurately measure your progress.
While steroids are not a necessary part of bodybuilding, many will nevertheless find themselves under some pressure to use them, which can bring any number of other health complications.
Using anabolic steroids can, among other things, lead to heart problems, the development of various secondary sex characteristics, hair loss, mood disorders, acne, fertility issues and difficulty with producing testosterone naturally.
Again, steroids are not actually required in order to be successful in bodybuilding. And in fact all of the issues listed here can be avoided or controlled with the right approach. Unless you are a professional bodybuilder there's no need to cause yourself any harm through bodybuilding. Just be aware of the problems that can occur, and do your very best to make sure you avoid them.