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You’ve no doubt heard about how training can be a ‘healthy’ addiction. How a ‘positive’ obsession with the gym and an all-consuming desire to transform can bring you closer to achieving that perfect physique you’ve always wanted. While it’ s true that a strong commitment to the gym is crucially important when seeking impressive gains, equally true is the fact that there can most certainly be too much of a good thing when it comes to building and shaping your body.
The unfortunate fact remains that bodybuilding (and associated events such as physique, fitness, and figure competition) attract a large contingent of people obsessed with the way they look; people who take various practices associated with achieving a certain appearance to the extreme, and, in some cases, too far. Make no mistake. A hardcore attitude to training, where the competitor is obliged to do whatever it takes to fulfill their muscle-building mission, can be a great thing. But such an approach, the hallmark of the serious contender, must be tempered with a realistic assessment of how long it will take to achieve the outcomes we desire. Whether an outcome is possible in the first place should also be considered. After all, there is no point trying to become the next Ronnie Coleman when after six years of intensive training your bodyweight is 150lbs and your arms resemble those of a marathoner, not a full-fledged pro champion.
Also to be considered is whether the practices we are engaging in or the degree to which certain practices are executed are in our best interests from a health standpoint. To become a successful bodybuilder, both physical and mental health must also be well-balanced. Extreme and potentially unhealthy practices can be a barrier to achieving an adaptive balance between mind, body and health and must therefore be avoided. A balanced approach to building the physique can give you long-lasting, impressive gains. On the other hand, an obsessive mindset can change the healthy pursuit of physical excellence to a deviant and ultimately unwinnable battle for physical perfection. Stick with me on this. Before swapping bench presses for ballroom dancing, there are certain things you can do to achieve impressive muscular gains without going to extremes. You can become an accomplished bodybuilder while avoiding the perilous path that many have chosen to walk.
So what is this ‘perilous path’ and how might we avoid it? Below I will detail the risks inherent to the sport of physical expression (bodybuilding, figure, physique etc) and provide a framework for how to achieve the balance so necessary for bodybuilding longevity.
For obvious reasons we tend not to associate disordered eating with muscular men and women. After all, bodybuilding (in fact, any activity that involves building the physique) requires us to eat enough food to ensure adequate training energy and the raw materials for consequent tissue growth. But eating disorders, primarily bulimia (where food is eaten and purged repetitively), are becoming more and more common among what are, at first glance, healthy and well-nourished people – many of whom populate bodybuilding stages. To view a lineup of bikini or figure competitors, for example, is to witness a glorious example of feminine beauty and well-defined curves. However, it’ s no secret to most who are close to the action (many trainers and promoters and, of course, the athletes themselves) that such competitors are experiencing eating disorders in record numbers. The various toxic eating habits among these athletes have reached epidemic proportions and are showing no signs of abating.
Bulimia, as the most common of the fitness-associated eating disorders, may already be present in a competitor who has found in competition another outlet for controlling their food intake, or may be developed as a result of having to severely control calories in the countdown to an event. Because the latter may allow themselves to eat normally (or even excessively) in the offseason, by the time the contest season rolls around they are often forced to curtail considerably their food intake. As most competitors know, strict dieting can be excruciatingly difficult. So, in finding it hard to adjust to pre-contest eating, some competitors opt to have their cake and eat it too. The only difference is said cake is vomited into a toilet bowl in the interests of banishing definition-destroying calories. Some competitors may also use laxatives to achieve a similar effect. Most people would be surprised to learn just how common such practices are in fitness circles (especially among bikini and figure competitors). It’ s obviously not healthy and can create ongoing and permanent unhealthy relationships with food.
Another toxic pre-contest prep practice is to significantly lower one’ s calories in the hopes of becoming and staying lean. Most readers of this site will know that this dangerous practice is bound to backfire in the worst possible way: muscle catabolism, a resistance to fat burning and the depletion of essential nutrients all are likely to occur. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous coaches may prescribe a daily intake of a little over 1000 calories for their hard-training female clientele (some athletes may even be expected to live off a caloric balance in the triple digits). Lowering calories to unhealthy levels may only serve to impede progress while making life miserable for the athlete and those whom they associate with.
So what can be done to restore the balance? What steps must an athlete take to ensure that the foods they eat do not rule their life? The best way to prevent disordered eating is to maintain a well-balanced eating plan year-round. Instead eating everything that isn’t nailed down in the “offseason”it’ s best to strive to eat foods that will be of benefit to ensuring ongoing gains in lean muscle mass. Then, when it’ s time to shred, extreme dietary practices need not be employed. Place your health and wellbeing first. If for whatever reason you cannot achieve a certain look, perhaps it’ s because you are in fact doing too much cardio or eating too stringently. Begin your prep relatively lean, remain well-nourished and gradually reduce any remaining body fat. Take a full complement of valuable supplements to ensure your body is not lacking in critical micronutrients and high quality proteins and aminos. You’ ll feel better and, ultimately, you’ ll present the winning look. One that you can live with.
HOW BIG IS TOO BIG?
Then we have those who believe that no matter how big they become, it’ s still not enough. Such lifters (usually men) may develop an obsession with becoming massive that far exceeds any benefits to be attained from such a look (benefits such as self-esteem, pride, confidence and mental fortitude). Called Muscle Dysmorphia (MDM) in its extreme form, such disordered thinking is a subtype of the more broadly publicized Body Dysmorphic Disorder (itself a variant of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). People with MDM have effectively transformed a healthy activity into a deviant pursuit centered on more muscle at any cost. Family, friends and health are sacrificed in pursuit of a never-to-be-attained level of excessive muscularity. Ironically enough, such lifters seldom compete.
They are, however, constantly talking about the next big contest, but after the talk has died down, all they have to show is a lack of nerve and the confidence needed to commit. While it’ s healthy to remain hungry, to never be entirely satisfied with the ultimate physical product, such an attitude becomes a problem when the lifter feels they must resort to extreme measures to force growth beyond what would be considered sufficient for their body type and genetics. Social isolation, harmful substances such as synthol, and an ever-more potent array of anabolic drugs are sought to push such lifters “over the top”.
While clinical MDM is extremely difficult to diagnose and treat, due in large part to the afflicted person’ s unwillingness to acknowledge that they have a problem, there are ways to prevent it from occurring in the first place. First, it’ s important to see bodybuilding as one part of a complete lifestyle; one portion of a balanced whole. When training becomes one’ s primary reason for living, then problems such as MDM (and the eating disorders discussed above) are more likely to arise.
Again, a balanced approach where training, nutrition and competition are used to accentuate one’ s life, not comprise a person’ s whole identity, is to be adopted. Have family and friends provide an honest appraisal of how they see bodybuilding fitting into your life. When training begins to take over and you begin obsessing over every calorie eaten, every missed workout or every gram of muscle that has failed to materialize, then it’ s important to seek some form of intervention to ensure you do not develop full-blown MDM.
WORK TILL IT HURTS
Another class of trainee is obsessed with training to the point where illness or injury may occur. With consequent missed workouts to endure, depression invariably sets in. The only way for such folk to feel better and to regain any lost confidence is to again hit the gym, only to compound their already tenuous situation. Psychological addiction to training may or may not be associated with the aforementioned disordered eating or MDM. But regardless of its inherent cause there is no questioning its devastating impact.
As mentioned, a healthy addiction to training can be good. It’ s when we become blind to over-training and the need for rest that such a mindset can create problems. Outcomes can be as subtle as several unwarranted muscle-depleting cardio sessions per week where the only real harm is a retrogression of training progress. Or the effects of training obsession can be more insidious, to where legitimate injuries are “worked around” in the hopes that they will eventually go away.
As bodybuilders we are all susceptible to minor injuries and over-training (the former are often caused by the latter). However, no awards were ever presented for most number of workouts completed in a calendar year and there is nothing to be gained by “heroically” hitting the iron when we are feeling depleted and when “small” injuries are nagging. Again, it’ s important to periodically take a step back and reassess how we feel and how much progress we have made. Sometimes it’ s important to take a week away from the iron or reduce training intensity for a week or two. Of course we must all work our muscles hard for the most part, but we must also know when to ease off to ensure proper recovery, repair, and growth. The key to bodybuilding success, after all, is longevity. Sustained training success can be difficult to achieve when sidelined by injury or exhaustion brought about by over-training.
GAIN PERSPECTIVE TO GAIN BALANCE
Successful bodybuilders are those who have managed to achieve a good balance between developing their physique and focusing on other areas of equal importance to their lives. For these champions the best results are achieved when training is placed in its proper perspective. In other words, when it’ s time to train (or eat or whatever else is required to improve physique and performance), we should do so to the best of our abilities.
Then when it’ s time to relax, we should do so, unhindered by the pressing urgency to again blast muscle into oblivion. Business interests, time with friends and family, and everything else that makes us complete as humans should also be given it proper place in our lives. Switching off from bodybuilding and re-channeling our focus into other areas should come effortlessly. Above all else, realize that winning a bodybuilding (of figure, bikini, fitness or physique) contest or gaining an extra pound of muscle is not, in the great scheme of things, the most important task you’ ll ever accomplish.
It’ s often said that your health is your greatest wealth. It’ s best that we keep this expression in mind when training for improved fitness and muscular development.
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.