Natural bodybuilding has come a long way.
Twenty years ago it was considered the bastard stepchild to “real” bodybuilding, where the guys (and girls) show up onstage either ripped but kinda small, or big but not too lean.
As such, Natural competitions were considered “low end stepping stones,” receiving cursory coverage in the back of muscle magazines after ads for Hot Stuff and Zubaz pants.
Some headstrong drug-free competitors thumbed their noses at the low-end Natural shows and went toe-to-toe with the assisted guys, even the walking chemical experiments.
And a few did really well, showing once again that hard work and great genetics combined with consistency can have one hell of an impact.
Still, there’s a reason no one competing at the Arnold Classic or Mr. Olympia is just saying his prayers and taking his vitamins – the drugs work.
However, in the last few years the quality (and reputation) of Natural competitions has improved dramatically. Many of the physiques are, in a word, astounding – some wouldn’t look out of place in almost any “non-tested” contest.
So why the jump in quantity and quality drug-free competitors?
Perhaps it’s younger bodybuilders “coming of age” in an era when the best practices for Natural bodybuilding are easily accessible?
Or maybe it’s more experienced competitors deciding that taking a shopping list of anabolics just to win a tub of protein and some free tanning isn’t worth it?
One thing that hasn’t improved, unfortunately, is the “natural versus not natural” debate. It was a dead-end discussion 20 years ago, and still is. Here’s why.
What is Natural?
Whenever I’m tempted to join an online debate about “what is natural,” I grab a rubber mallet that I keep beside my desk and smash myself in the Adam’s apple. It’s always a far more pleasant experience.
Okay, here goes: so if you’re competing in a Natural show, and you go out and score a stack of anabolics from that Serbian guy at the gym with the really big backpack, that’s cheating, obviously.
What if you’re being prescribed the meds by your physician?
Certainly, a shady doc cranking up a healthy young patient’s T levels into the stratosphere is beyond the auspice of TRT therapy — so that’s cheating — but what about a responsible doc bringing an older bodybuilder from below normal to the upper end of normal?
The bodybuilder would certainly show a physical benefit (along with an enormous psychological one) and likely be “healthier” all around.
Now is that cheating? Most would say no.
However, it’s also unnatural.
Because the fact is, age-related decline in hormones is “natural” – and TRT isn’t. And if natural is your overarching metric, our older bodybuilder is, in fact, outside the boundaries.
But that means denying a man legal, healthy hormonal management and a higher quality of life just to satisfy an arbitrary definition of natural.
Natural, sure — but is that responsible?
Show me a sport where you combine competition with the chance to win fame, money, or even ego juice and I’ll show you a sport where some will go outside the rules to gain an edge.
Not to get all Bruce Hornsby on you, but that’s just the way it is and some things will never change.
In Natural bodybuilding, drug testing has come a long way and is getting more robust and sophisticated, and as a result guys are getting caught – which shows drug testing works.
However, the fact that guys are getting nabbed also shows that athletes still try to beat the tests – and some are likely squeaking through.
You Can’t Put the Toothpaste Back in the Tube
A friend of mine won the Masters class at a Natural show a few years back. He looked great, with incredible muscle maturity – it’s amazing what 30 years of weight training will do – and maintains he was completely clean for the show. I believe him.
However, 15 years earlier, he was mere points away from winning a Pro card at another contest – a “non-tested” show. As in, he was “gassed to the nuts.”
So while he wasn’t receiving an anabolic boost lately, he certainly had in the past. And that muscle is mostly still there. Would he have built that size without it?
It Messes With Guys Heads
As Natural champ and coach extraordinaire Eric Helms notes:
“A negative outcome to the normally harmless debate that occurs online as to who is natural and who is not, is that it makes it difficult for those new to lifting to determine what is possible to accomplish without drugs.”
In other words, newbies get locked into thinking that they must eventually use drugs in order to compete.
It also creates the forbidden fruit scenario.
Natural champ Skip LaCour once commented that in his experience, the guys who seem to talk the most about drugs are the drug-free competitors.
They know all the compounds and cycles, and post similar sounding stuff online: “I’m 100% clean, but if I ever was to do just one little steroid cycle, I would take X for 8 weeks stacked with Y and Z, then at week 10 switch to blah blah blah –”
It’s like listening to a bunch of diabetics talking about all the pastries they wish they could eat.
So if “who’s using versus who’s clean” was never a discussion and drugs never a practical option, maybe drug-free guys would accomplish more – or at least feel better about what they have?
Are Non-Tested Events More Fair?
I was in Vegas for the Olympia a few years ago and somehow wound up in a bar (drunk) sitting across from Shawn Ray, one of the top bodybuilders in the 90’s.
Shawn’s long retired but is still a bodybuilding insider, so I asked him straight out — at the Olympia level, where it’s basically “open season,” are there any secrets? Is somebody secretly using a drug or peptide or “phantom zone super anabolic” that the next guy isn’t?
His answer? No. There are no secrets. They’re all basically doing the same things — just some do it better.
So if the whole drug side becomes a level playing field, what’s left to make the difference?
- Hard work
Which sounds a lot like what natural bodybuilding should be about.
Perhaps when bodybuilding is 100% “unnatural” is when it becomes 100% fair?
I love Natural bodybuilding. The whole “marathon not a sprint” attitude it embodies is inspiring. And it’s no longer a “stepping stone” to “real” bodybuilding – guys are stoked to compete and train drug-free, which is awesome.
I also think – and you can quote me on this – that someone who enters a Natural show even “modestly” juiced — when there are dozens of non-tested shows to choose from — is the lowest form of douchebag and should be shipped off for ammunition testing.
But as for the natural versus unnatural debate? It’s a fool’s game.
Another quote from Eric Helms sums it up nicely:
“The witch hunt and warlike debate over who is natural and who is not will continue. The most disastrous casualties might not be the bodybuilders whose reputations are tarnished — but rather competitive natural bodybuilding as a whole and beginners who are convinced the choice to remain drug-free no longer exists.”
So whenever I’m asked if I think someone is “really natural,” my response is always:
“Does he/she claim to be drug-free?”
“Have they ever been caught using?”
If the answers are “yes and no” respectively then that’s good enough for me.
Not because that’s a foolproof system. Just that investing any more thought into the subject isn’t worth it.