Bodybuilding is often described as a positive way to improve your health and fitness, but the media often portrays it as a form of extremism. But what does science say? Can bodybuilding be dangerous? Or is it less dangerous than a sedentary lifestyle?
Professional Bodybuilders have higher mortality rates than the general population. Which indicates that bodybuilding is dangerous. This is almost certainly due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Natural bodybuilding should not be seen as dangerous, as any risks are outweighed by the rewards of improved health and fitness.
In this article, I will take a look at what makes professional bodybuilding dangerous, and whether you can apply that label to all forms of bodybuilding. I will also look at ways to minimise risk while competing.
I’ve written before about the dangers of using performance-enhancing drugs, the effect that it can have on your cardiovascular system, and the damage to your hormonal system. Of course, there is also the risk of getting pinned under a heavy barbell, or accidentally getting hit in the face by some jerk performing rear-delt flyes!
As always, it is important to distinguish between the sport of bodybuilding and professional bodybuilders.
If you were to pick up a Bodybuilding magazine, start lifting weights and clean up your diet you would unquestionably be making positive changes to your health and fitness. You would be getting more nutrients from the added vegetables. You’d be removing a lot of unhealthy junk food options from your diet, and the exercise would have a marked improvement on your metabolism, weight loss, and muscle gain.
It’s the more extreme end of bodybuilding where the danger is present. The use of anabolic steroids, the use of insulin, the dangers of constant cutting and bulking. These would only affect 10% of bodybuilders. But that 10% is often looked up to as the cream of the crop. Which is kind of the problem.
How can we say that bodybuilding is completely risk-free when studies are showing that professional bodybuilders have a mortality rate that is 34% higher than the general population?
This is a hard question to answer, sure there was a study performed in 2016 that found bodybuilders to have a higher mortality rate. But when you actually look at the study, you can see that it is pretty small scale. The study looked at 1,578 professional bodybuilders who competed between 1948 and 2014. In that time, the expected number of deaths would be 40, but among bodybuilders, that number was 58.
While it would be accurate to say that the mortality rate was 34% higher than expected, it would also be fair to say only 18 more people died. It would have been interesting to compare the bodybuilders to people who were obese or sedentary, to see how bodybuilding compared to the polar opposite.
Think about it. Most people would agree that serious anabolic steroid abuse really started in the very late 80s and early 90s. Dorian Yates pioneered the mass monster physiques, which in my opinion when drug abuse took a sharp turn into more dangerous territory (not that I blame Yates for this).
A bodybuilder competing in 1948 and a bodybuilder competing in 1998 would have had vastly different lifestyles and drug regimens. I wonder if the earlier bodybuilders actually improved the mortality rate? Perhaps a study that looked at bodybuilders from 1980 – 2020 would see an even higher mortality rate?
There is one more thing that the study highlighted which I think is important. At younger ages, bodybuilders had slightly better mortality rates, with only 2 deaths out of an expected 3. At older ages too, bodybuilders appeared to have better mortality rates. Only one dying at 75-79 rather than the expected 2. The issue was at age 45-49 where there was an expected mortality rate of 4.7 but there were 14 deaths. Almost 3 times the number of expected deaths!
Keep in mind that this study was just on professional bodybuilders. There are many bodybuilders who also take steroids and train just as aggressively. But for whatever reason never received their pro card. I wonder whether adding their numbers to this study would have altered the results much?
When you break bodybuilding down into its most simplistic definition, it is a form of training that focuses on increasing muscle size (hypertrophy) through diet and exercise. If you are currently underweight and embark on a bodybuilding program, you will see huge benefits to your health and fitness.
But eventually, there is a tipping point, where following a bodybuilding program turns you into a bodybuilder. Some people may never reach this point, some people may reach it within a couple of months. But there is a point where bodybuilding stops improving your health and begins to affect it.
While building muscle beyond what would be considered natural has many aesthetic benefits, at some point, it can actually begin to negatively affect you. Muscle requires a lot of energy, which can raise your metabolism. This is often mentioned as a good thing, but from a survival point of view, it is actually a negative.
Hell, even from a practical point of view it is unhelpful. You need to eat more food just to maintain that muscle. This means bigger grocery bills, more time spent eating and digesting, it’s perfectly possible to do these days. But for any period of time before the 1950s, it was ridiculously impractical.
A lot of muscle will mean a lot more blood is needed to be pumped around the body, this could lead to a strain on your heart. Steroids often take a lot of the blame for bodybuilders having heart problems, and that’s fair enough. Steroid abuse has been shown to weaken the heart. But even a natural bodybuilder would see a lot more pressure on their cardiovascular system. Which could lead to problems down the line.
There are also joint issues. Bodybuilding and obesity both lead to a body that is very heavy, though obviously density is very different. Even so, that extra weight means more weight being placed on the joints and ligaments, increasing the risk of injury. Bodybuilders are often less mobile (though not always), and may see long-term health issues in later life.
Bottom Line: Excessive muscle mass may place pressure on the heart, and may affect mobility in later life. But building a body that has decent muscle mass is absolutely fine. The act of building muscle in itself is not going to shorten your life.
Before answering this question, I need to clarify something. There are two forms of natural bodybuilding:
I may be coming off as cynical here, but it is well known that many (perhaps most) natural bodybuilders take steroids or PEDs. Check out this article by T-Nation to learn more. For the purposes of this article, I will be talking about people who bodybuild without any illegal drugs whatsoever.
There are three main issues with natural bodybuilding that could lead to it being labelled dangerous.
You are probably thinking that none of these sound particularly dangerous or likely. Which is a fair take on it. I would say that truly natural bodybuilding is mostly safe, though the impact of body dysmorphia on mental health really shouldn’t be overlooked.
Most natural bodybuilders try to keep extreme calorie deficits for very short periods of time, so there is unlikely to be much damage to your body or risk. The human body is pretty resilient and can deal with near-starvation if it had to. A couple of weeks of very low calories are unlikely to endanger you.
The risk of injury or disability is marginally higher than for sedentary people, but this could be fixed by training with better form and focusing more on recovery (rest, Epsom salt baths, protein, creatine, stretching). It would be fair to say that the benefits of natural bodybuilding far outweigh any risks, giving this a positive risk: reward ratio.
It is definitely possible to bodybuild safely, but staying safe could reduce your chances of becoming a Pro Bodybuilder. I am not saying that to encourage you to take risks, I just want it to be clear that most Pro Bodybuilders have endangered their health in the pursuit of success. They would view that as a calculated risk, and for many of them it will/has already paid off.
There are many jobs that are more dangerous and have fewer rewards. Off the top of my head, I can think of several. Joining the military in 2001 would have been more dangerous than bodybuilding. Sanitation jobs, lumberjacking, extreme eating competitor, boxer, MMA fighter, stuntman or woman, tiger-owner. Hundreds of jobs with varying degrees of risk.
When compared to them, Pro Bodybuilding seems much less risky. But it is still risky, and you should be aware of the dangers beforehand.
If you want to bodybuild safely, then following a natural bodybuilder program with no PEDs would make the most sense. Not only does it reduce risk to a minimum. It promotes behaviours that should extend your life and improve your health.
When discussing the relative risks of bodybuilding we are ignoring the (metaphorical) elephant in the room. The obesity crisis in the USA and Europe. Do steroids weaken your heart? Absolutely. Does obesity create even more risk? Of course.
I know that this isn’t an either-or situation. But if somebody told you that they were going to become a professional bodybuilder you would probably caution them. If they instead told you that they were planning on sitting down for 23 hours per day and overeating would you also point out the risk? Probably not.
Bodybuilding is dangerous unless done safely. Not exercising and not paying attention to your diet is even more dangerous. Not physically, if anything it’s pretty safe to not leave your house. But in terms of your long term health it is much deadlier.
I am aware that this argument smacks of whataboutery, but I do have a point. If somebody decided to take up bodybuilding and had previously been overweight and mostly sedentary. That move would be a positive one for their health. Which I hope puts things into perspective.
Here are some practical tips you can use to minimize your risk as a bodybuilder. Remember, this advice is not aimed at anyone looking to make a career out of professional bodybuilding. It is aimed at people who want to get into bodybuilding while improving their health.
This is the most obvious tip to follow. Most, if not all, of the risks associated with bodybuilding, are caused by steroid abuse, or other PEDs. If you can avoid using them, you should actually see improvements in your health and fitness.
Without the use of steroids, your rest and recovery become even more important. Sleep 8-10 hours each night, keep your protein intake high, supplement with creatine monohydrate. Consider supplements such as ZMA that can help with recovery and better sleep.
The tradition of dirty bulks and extreme cuts is slowly going out of fashion. Today, many bodybuilders realise that sensible bulks followed by sensible cuts is a more effective method. Severe cuts can affect testosterone, sleep, mood, and health. Keep your calorie deficits sensible and you will still see amazing results without damage to your health.
Training through the pain is so ingrained in bodybuilding that it’s actually fetishised. But experienced lifters will know that there are different kinds of pain. There is the “my muscles are screaming as I get that last rep in” pain. Which is perfectly acceptable. Then there is “my elbow feels like it’s going to snap” pain. Chronic injury has ended almost every successful bodybuilding career. Get your body looked at by a physiotherapist regularly to avoid serious injury down the line.
Eating disorders, depression, body dysmorphia, are all serious mental health issues that affect both men and women. But you rarely hear about male bodybuilders seeking to improve their mental health. Train your mind like you would your body, and pay attention to depressive thinking. Watch out for your training partners too. Bodybuilding is an extreme sport in a lot of ways, that places even more emphasis on your body than gymnastics! Body dysmorphia is a much bigger issue in gym culture than most men will admit.
Look after yourself. Treat your body and mind with respect. If you want to go down the route of steroids and PEDs, then you won’t get judgement from me. But do it properly. Talk to people who know what they are doing. Set realistic boundaries for yourself. The statistics of bodybuilders dying early are not made up, and should not be dismissed. It really happens.
Following a natural bodybuilding program is a great way to improve your mind, your physique, and your health. Provided you do it properly.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.