Natural bodybuilding is supposed to be a drug-free version of bodybuilding. But as I have explained in the past, natural bodybuilding can often involve steroid use, insulin use, and HGH use. But let’s assume that you wanted to be completely drug-free. How far can natural bodybuilding go?
Everyone has a genetic potential, a certain amount of muscle mass that they can grow over several years. Once that potential has been hit, progress will effectively stall. 200lbs or 90kg of lean body mass is the upper limit that most men can achieve according to experts.
In this article, I will talk about the physical limitations of natural bodybuilding, and why they can’t be changed. I will also discuss lifestyle limitations, and why natural bodybuilding is a smart move for most men.
For most men who are of average height (5 foot 10), the realistic amount of lean body mass they can build is around 80kg. However, their maximum amount of lean body mass is around 90kg. If you have a tape measure, then check out this calculator by Legion Athletics and you can find your own realistic and maximal potential.
It is possible to build more muscle mass than your maximal potential, but not while maintaining low body fat percentages. A 5 foot 10 powerlifter who is 20-30% body fat can have more muscle mass than a 5 foot 10 bodybuilder with 10% body fat. But if they dropped that body fat through diet, they would also lose some of that extra muscle mass.
Now, everybody is different, and some people will have more potential muscle mass than others. Even if they are the same height, and follow the same diet and exercise programs. But the truth is, that without steroids, the genetic limit is going to be similar.
Reaching your genetic potential does not signal the end of your natural bodybuilding career though, because it can take years of experience to make the most out of it. Getting your body fat down low enough to win a competition could take years. Then there is the challenge of maintaining your muscle mass over the years. Learning how to pose better can also take a long time.
Think about it like this. Most premiership footballers reach their physical peak around the age of 28, but they may mature as footballers and play their best football at 32. The extra experience can help them, even after their speed and power begin to dip. Natural bodybuilding can be the same. You may reach your genetic potential, but that is not the same thing as your natural bodybuilding potential.
When it comes to natural bodybuilding, Lyle McDonald is certainly seen as an authority. He estimates that the maximum amount of muscle you can add during your lifetime is around 18-22kg (40-50lbs).
He states that it would take around 4 years of perfect training and diet to reach this potential. You could expect to gain half of that in your first year of proper training, with diminishing results over the subsequent three years.
After that, muscle gains will increase at a negligible rate and you should instead begin to focus on maintaining your muscle mass. Of course, most people don’t tend to train perfectly for 4 years solid. This is aimed at natural bodybuilders.
The funny thing is, most of the people who think that they have reached their genetic potential are often nowhere near. Guys who claim to have reached their genetic potential tend to have either a very high opinion of their current physique or a very low opinion of their potential.
Remember, that four-year target is designed for natural bodybuilders who are going to train perfectly. Does “perfect” describe your current training, diet, and recovery? Probably not, if so, you may need to increase that timeline.
You may be reading this article and feeling a little down. “Once I have reached my genetic potential, I might as well give up”. Well, there are two issues with this statement:
The first point will probably hit hard with a lot of people, but perhaps it is for the best. Worrying about hitting your genetic potential is a bit like worrying that you will break the 100m world record when you decide to go for a run. I guess that it’s possible, but that’s no reason NOT to run.
Hitting your genetic potential is a GOOD thing and something that few lifters ever achieve. Those that do, 0ften find that they have a little more potential than they assumed. You most likely won’t realise that you hit your genetic potential until long after you hit it.
Maintenance is going to be a challenge, but you have also got to look at getting better at strategically lowering your body fat as much as possible for competitions. You can also work at making your body more symmetrical. Christian Thibaudeau wrote about muscle migration in an article for T-Nation:
Each body has the potential to carry X amount of muscle. My theory is that when we reach that point, the only way to keep building in certain places is to lose an equivalent amount elsewhere. I call this the “muscle migration phenomenon.”
The idea here is that if your calves are too small but you’ve hit your genetic potential, you can still build muscle in them, but it may lead to a decrease in muscle mass elsewhere. It’s not that the muscle mass is literally migrating. Just that, to focus more on calves, you will have to focus a little bit less on other areas of your physique, which may decrease in size as a result.
Remember, this is just a theory. But I’ve got a lot of time for Thibaudeau’s theories, they often come from a combination of good science and his own observations after decades of training.
In my opinion, too much focus is spent on genetic muscle potential. It is very important for natural bodybuilders to consider this. But most of us are never going to be natural bodybuilders. Not at competitive levels at any rate.
For most people, it is not our genetics that limits us, it is our lifestyle. How long are we realistically going to be able to train perfectly for? Four years of 4-5 days per week in the gym is certainly possible, but not if you have a young family, a job, and an active social/family life.
Even if you can get to the gym 5 times per week, will your nutrition be perfect for 4 years straight? Will your sleep quality also be perfect? Even with a newborn child? Or neighbours whose alarm goes off at 5:30am and isn’t turned off until 7am? Every fucking morning! (yes, this is getting personal for me).
Will your ability to manage your stress be perfect too?
Remember, to hit your genetic potential, every aspect of your life needs to be in line, and for many of us this is either not possible, or not desirable. Maybe 5 hours in the gym each week (plus another 5hours in getting changed, and travelling) is a little much for you to deal with? Maybe not in the first year, but perhaps in the second or third.
I am fully aware that it is possible to have a great diet, to workout 5x per week, and to sleep well each night, all while raising a family and doing well at work. If you can manage that then excellent.
What I am saying is that for many people, this is not realistic, nor is it bad to decide that this isn’t what you want out of life. Factor in your lifestyle potential when considering how long it will take you to reach your genetic potential.
There are three options when it comes to your genetic potential:
If you have read other articles on my website, then you will be aware that I am pretty neutral about steroid use. On the one hand, I will do everything I can to highlight the dangers of steroid abuse. On the other hand, I am aware that it is possible to take steroids sensibly, and that doing so does not automatically lead to bad health and death.
When I talk about natural bodybuilders taking steroids after reaching their genetic potential. I do not mean that taking the levels that Pro bodybuilders take is necessary. I’m talking about a few cycles and sensible usage. There is a massive difference.
Though, I can understand why some natural bodybuilders who feel like they’ve done all that they can naturally would be interested in going all-in. I just don’t think that it is a good idea.
Bottom Line: Anabolic steroid use is the only way to continue to build muscle past your genetic potential, but it comes with some serious side effects and can increase your risk of heart complications.
Most natural bodybuilders who perform really well will inevitably come to a crossroads in their career. Do they continue as a natural bodybuilder, knowing that their chances of growing more muscle are minimal? Or do they make the switch to Pro bodybuilding? Where there are no limits, in earning potential or muscle mass gains.
There are a lot of advantages to switching to Pro Bodybuilding
But there are several disadvantages too.
I can see benefits to staying a natural bodybuilder, and I can understand why many natural bodybuilders would have their heads turned by Pro cards and the opportunities that they represent. The problem with Pro bodybuilding is that there is no middle ground. You have to go all in.
The only middle-ground would be taking enough steroids to win natural bodybuilding contests, but not enough to damage your health and get into Pro bodybuilding. But of course, that comes with a lot of moral baggage around the fairness of competing while injecting.
There are many reasons why people take up natural bodybuilding. The love of bodybuilding is probably the biggest, but without all the risks associated with Pro bodybuilding. If I was ever to get into bodybuilding (which is unlikely), it would be natural bodybuilding. Because while I like and respect many bodybuilders, I don’t want to go down the road of taking steroids. It’s a personal choice.
Having a “natural” physique is very appealing to a lot of men, and most women say that they prefer that look. So there will be a lot of guys who are perfectly happy to stay natural indefinitely, even if it does have some limitations.
Then there are the natural bodybuilders who want to compete and win titles. This is often assumed to be the case for the majority of natural bodybuilders, but realistically, only a sub-section of people who bodybuild naturally have any desire to compete.
Natural bodybuilding competitions have increased in popularity recently, but that’s not guaranteed to always be the case. I’ve written before about how Pro bodybuilding competitions could be in danger of losing relevance, and this could have a trickle-down effect on natural bodybuilding. Alternatively, it could have the opposite effect, and lead to a surge in popularity. Who knows?
But natural bodybuilding competition winners may have other ways to earn money, as I talked about in my article on realistic career prospects for bodybuilders. There is a lot of money to be made from building a social media following as a bodybuilder. Natural bodybuilders who succeed could definitely do well from this.
The main goal for natural bodybuilding would be to build an amazing physique, then make some money from competitions, sponsorship, or social media. There will be some natural bodybuilders who then look to turn Pro.
As I touched on in the last segment, there are other ways to succeed in natural bodybuilding than competing. It’s almost taboo to say, but Instagram and YouTube are a great way for someone with a good body to earn an income.
That may or may not be a good thing, but it is certainly true. If you have a physique that has been crafted in the gym for 4-5 years, there will be people who want to hear what you have to say. How do you train? What do you eat? What supplements do you take? Hell, there are people who will happily sit down and spend 20 minutes of their day watching you eat a large Pizza.
YouTube is great for connecting with an audience, and showcasing your body and your training regime. Instagram is great for uploading workout and posing photos/videos. You then have several options for making money.
These are five examples of natural bodybuilders who have found success outside of competing. Whether they are truly natural or not is a debate for another article (one that I will never bother to write). So for this section, it really doesn’t matter if they are truly natural or “fake-natty”.
Jeff has 4 million followers on Instagram, and a further 1.4 million YouTube subscribers. This contributes a lot to his income. He has sponsorship deals with My Protein, and many other companies, and has written a book on aesthetics. He also sells coaching packages on his website. The guy is a perfect endorsement for earning money as a natural bodybuilder.
Rob has a much smaller (relatively speaking) following than Seid, but I’ve included him because he also earns an income from fitness modelling. He has one of the worst websites I’ve seen in a long time, but clearly offers workout programs, and has an eShop. I imagine he also does some coaching.
Simeon has an amazing website, which offers many different income streams. Products, programs, and online coaching are all available from it. He also earns an income from fitness modelling, and he is a legitimate influencer with 2 million Instagram followers.
Sadik has a very simple income stream. He has a huge following on Instagram, and he uses his profile to promote his online coaching. I’m sure he has other income streams, but he keeps things very simple. This is a great model to follow if you are getting into natural bodybuilding.
I’ll be honest, the other 4 natural bodybuilders are not massively on my radar. I’ve heard of them before, thanks to my numerous ghost-writer jobs where I’ve had to profile them. But Jamie Alderton has been on my radar for years. I’ve read one of his books, I follow him on Facebook, I know a lot about the guy.
He’s a great example for any natural bodybuilder who wants to earn an income. This is because he has diversified his income. He started off with natural bodybuilding, then moved into mindset coaching, now he also teaches people how to edit videos for social media.
He learns something to help his business, masters it, and then teaches others for profit. That’s a genius system, and one that I have sort of accidentally followed myself. In fact, now that I think about it, most self-employed people probably have a similar story.
His body got him an audience, but his mind has found different ways to earn an income from that audience, and to pivot (yes, I hate that word, but it fits) constantly.
Physically, there is a genetic limit to how much muscle you can build naturally. But that genetic limit does not apply to your success in natural bodybuilding. Nor does it apply to how much money you can earn by going down that career path.
Of course, just having a good body is not enough to guarantee an income, and the examples I have mentioned represent a tiny fraction of natural bodybuilders who have found success. But the point of this article is to highlight how successful it is possible to be while remaining natural.
Pro bodybuilding will always have a certain pull and represents a strong temptation to many natural bodybuilders. But going down that road has serious health consequences, and the potential income gained from it is not guaranteed to be higher.
Most of the most successful names in the fitness industry are in average or very good shape. While the great physiques in Pro and Natural bodybuilding will always attract large audiences, it’s what you do with that audience that influences how much money you make.
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.