Bodybuilding is a sport that’s all about aestheticism. That is to say, that the athletes aren’t judged on their ability to perform particular activities but rather on their appearance. They are scored based on factors such as the size of their muscles, the definition and the symmetry and essentially this means that they are being scored directly for their training rather than for their ability to use that training (which in some ways could be argued to make it a very ‘pure’ sport).
But despite appearance being the main focus of bodybuilding – and despite these guys training to achieve incredibly low body fat – many of the very top competitors actually have large stomachs. In fact, some of the biggest bodybuilders on the planet today look almost as though they have beer bellies with fully distended stomachs.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently been speaking out against this:
“[Modern bodybuilders] have their stomachs sticking out. It used to be that you should have a V-shaped body… It doesn’t look right any more… This is unacceptable, the way bodybuilding is going.”
But how can they be so lean and have ‘fat’ stomachs at the same time? How can they have such round bellies despite training precisely for the purpose of looking slim and powerful?
What Is Roid Gut?
What you’re looking at here is something that is often referred to as ‘roid gut’. In reality though, this is actually something of a misnomer and in truth, roid gut has very little to do with ‘roids’ (steroids) at all.
Instead, it’s due to a condition technically known as ‘palumboism’ and is a form of ‘visceral growth’.
And while steroids aren’t responsible for palumboism, other ‘PEDs’ (performance enhancing drugs) actually are.
Specifically, palumboism is the result of growth hormone and insulin. Steroids can also exacerbate the condition but it is these two drugs primarily that are most responsible.
The Role of HGH
HGH stands for ‘human growth hormone’. This is the hormone that we produce in large quantities when we’re asleep and is largely responsible for our growth when we’re younger. When we’re older, our ‘growth plates’ close over and this prevents us from growing any larger. However, growth hormone is still used in order to stimulate the healing of wounds as well as to encourage muscles to grow after they’ve been damaged.
Growth hormone is actually particularly popular among older celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone. That’s because it can help to repair damaged cells and help us to look younger as a result – almost turning back the clock to some extent.
Of course the reason bodybuilders take HGH is to increase their anabolism and to rebuild their muscle while they’re sleeping.
But the problem is that HGH is indiscriminate. Increasing this hormone doesn’t just increase the size of your muscles, it also increases the size of anything else that doesn’t have a closed growth plate – and that includes everything from your hands and feet, to your face and to your organs.
Here’s a fun and depressing fact: as you get older, your nose and your ears actually don’t stop getting bigger. That’s because you still produce growth hormone and they still respond to it. But when you take extra HGH that effect is compounded and eventually your organs and other tissues begin to grow as well.
Growths inside your abdomen then cause your stomach to get larger and at the same time, your skin and muscle walls grow to accommodate that increase in size. This then leads to the appearance of a distended stomach.
The Role of Insulin
Most of us know about insulin due to its relationship with diabetes. Insulin is the hormone that our body produces when we eat and that is used to tell us absorb sugar and nutrients from the bloodstream. People with diabetes don’t produce enough insulin, or they’re resistant to it, and this means that they end up not absorbing that sugar. The sugar then causes damage inside the body leading to organ problems and nerve damage while the patients feel lethargic and low on energy due to the lack of usable glucose. Thus diabetics need to inject themselves with extra insulin while being very careful to monitor their blood sugar.
On the contrary, people who want to try and lose weight will often try and avoid an insulin spike. They keep their blood sugar low by eating less in a bid to try and prevent the sugar from being absorbed into the body where it can be used as fat.
And finally, bodybuilders use insulin for its highly anabolic effects. To a bodybuilder, a shot of insulin is an opportunity for them to absorb more sugar from their blood and more protein. This leads to increased protein synthesis and more energy for building muscle and size. For bulking, insulin is a very useful drug.
BUT insulin also leads to heavy water retention. And when you combine that heavy water retention with a now massive colon, you end up with a stomach that looks even more swollen.
Is it Dangerous?
Steroid gut actually looks faintly ridiculous – especially when combined with an otherwise muscular and ripped frame. It almost looks as though the bodybuilders are pregnant and that’s highly living up to the ‘male ideal’.
But is it dangerous?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. For starters, using insulin and HGH is dangerous in itself. HGH can lead to cardiac hypertrophy – the unnaturally enlarging of the heart which can result in heart attack and death. Meanwhile, it can also lead to all kinds of other types of heart failure. Insulin meanwhile can be dangerous and even lead to diabetes. An overdose in the short term can lead to glycemic shock and coma.
At the same time though, steroid gut is also directly dangerous in itself. This is because there is also similar growth in the lungs. The lungs get bigger and bigger but the rib cage cannot grow to accommodate them.
Why Is it Allowed to Carry On?
Bodybuilding judges and the IFBB try to dissuade bodybuilders from taking large and dangerous cocktails of drugs by awarding more points to those athletes who can show off a power and slim frame. A bodybuilder who can pack on lots of muscle mass while simultaneously retaining their V-taper will inevitably score higher than others.
But at the same time, they are also very aware that a lot of bodybuilding fans go because they want to see competitors with freaky, almost ‘inhuman’ amounts of muscle mass. Huge bodybuilders with even huger amounts of muscle gain media attention, they stand out and they get people talking. And there is a constant need to try and ‘one up’ bodybuilders from the year before. The fear is that if bodybuilders stop getting bigger, then the sport will lose its following.
And thus, more marks are given to the bodybuilders who have the most muscle mass regardless of the way that muscle mass is presented. While they might lose marks for their lack of V-taper, the marks they gain for looking bigger make up for it. The only way to get to this kind of size is to use steroids though and so, unfortunately, the only way for bodybuilders to remain competitive today is for them to use those steroids and risk the ‘steroid gut’.
Now you might be wondering how this can be allowed to continue seeing as steroids are illegal… Well, the official line from governing bodies and the IFBB is that steroids are banned and any athletes caught using them will be disqualified. However, because the organization knows that steroids make the sport more popular, they make it very easy for bodybuilders to avoid being caught and that way turn a ‘blind eye’ to their use. For instance, competitors are given more than enough warning when they’re going to be subjected to a blood test, which allows them to ensure their blood is clean ready for that to happen.
Unfortunately, this practice makes bodybuilding very dangerous for the athletes and prevents a lot of people from getting involved in the sport who otherwise might find it appealing. The irony is that there might be a much bigger mass appeal for bodybuilder if steroids were eliminated entirely.