In high school I was friends with many athletes. The soccer, track and wrestling teams were filled with people I called friends. Most of them have really benefited from their time in the sport. But unfortunately I can’t say the same for those who took part in competitive bodybuilding.
After months of hardcore preparation, dozens of students, mostly minors, took the stage in front of hundreds of their peers, covered in more spray tan than clothing. Adult teachers and school coaches then rated their bodies based on aesthetics and definition.
The effort many young people make to achieve their physique is often extreme and dangerous to their health. Bodybuilding can also negatively impact their mental health and lead them into misleading, hateful communities.
For these and more reasons, young people should avoid getting into the competitive bodybuilding scene.
The potential body-busting effects of bodybuilding
While weightlifting is extremely beneficial to health, bodybuilding takes it to another level. Competitive bodybuilders strive for abnormally aesthetic and large bodies, with less focus on fitness and overall health.
The practice of pursuing such a deviation can lead to many health problems. In addition to the exercise injuries common in most strength training disciplines, excessive lifting puts you at risk for aortic rupture, which can be fatal. Exorbitant and poorly managed diets can also deprive bodybuilders of essential vitamins and nutrients.
Many supplements, both legal and controlled, have harmful effects on the body when consumed in excess. For example, pre-workout supplements are often filled with caffeine and other performance-enhancing additives. In addition to the risk of overindulging in caffeine, pre-workout in large doses can become toxic and cause adverse side effects in most users. Dry scooping, a TikTok trend that promotes the use of pre-workout powder without water, can greatly hinder one’s overall health.
“Bigorexia” and other mental health effects
While exercise can improve self-esteem and provide some relief from body dysmorphia, bodybuilding causes just the opposite. Bigorexia is a term borrowed from anorexia nervosa and is used to describe muscular dysmorphism that occurs mainly in male bodybuilders. Athletes suffering from this condition often see themselves as smaller or weaker than they are, regardless of their physical progress. Other symptoms of this condition range from depression and overcompulsivity to irritability. While research on the condition is currently limited, participating in competitive bodybuilding increases the chance of developing bigorexia.
In addition, bodybuilding can lead to the development of eating disorders. Bryan Calderon, a young athlete who went to great lengths to get a better physique, expressed his struggle with eating disorders at the time. During cutting — a period of time when one is in a calorie deficit in addition to strength training — Bryan said, “My average net worth of calories per day for four straight months was 400 calories per day.” For context, this amount is less than half the safe minimum for a calorie deficit. He would also “run about five miles each day wearing two layers of sweatpants, a singlet, a shirt, long sleeves over the shirt, and a hoodie” to burn the most calories.
This behavior began to take a toll on Bryan’s health. One morning he explained that he “couldn’t stand for half an hour” after his leg gave way from under him. Before competitions, this kind of behavior was common among young bodybuilders. By limiting their calorie intake to the equivalent of “a cheese stick and yogurt”, they would lose fat quickly while running every day. However, it didn’t stop there. Bryan witnessed some bodybuilders fasting for days before a show to keep them from getting bloated. Near the end of the discussion, Bryan framed the cause of this fanatical devotion to the body as a “form of self-harm” and encouraged others to instead help themselves through therapy.
Competitive bodybuilding and its horrible culture
With politicsWhile extremism and misinformation are on the rise, young people need to be careful where they get their information or find a community. The competitive bodybuilding scene is one of these dangerous communities.
While not unique to bodybuilding, a right-wing pipeline exists within the extreme strength training community. In many Western countries, far-right groups campaigning for white supremacy, fascism and neo-Nazism have surged in popularity through online fitness groups and forums during the pandemic. Such groups, such as the American white supremacist Rise Above Movement, often used the guise of weightlifting self-improvement as a recruiting strategy. This group was associated with the infamous Unite the Right rally and other European nationalists.
Outside of politics, some bodybuilding figures and influencers have forged their careers through the spread of misinformation and bad advice. In addition to the dry-scooping trend mentioned earlier, creators like those of the Liver King show the disastrous state of this community. Lying about his steroid use, Liver King promoted eating raw organs, such as testicles and liver, which can cause serious illness.
Exercise is great, but when the pursuit of a perfect physique starts to degrade every other aspect of your life, it’s gone too far. Competitive bodybuilding can take an extreme toll on your confidence and health. This sport has also become dangerously intertwined with some of the most unsavory ideologies of our time, warranting those interested in participating to remain vigilant and aloof.
Joining and committing to such a community has more negative consequences than benefits. It’s wise to stand firm among those who approach weight training responsibly and encourage safety and non-hateful ideas.