Good Health or Good Bodybuilding?
Posted on 05 January 2014
- Created on Friday, 03 January 2014 23:02
- Written by Corey Young
“I predict that bodybuilding will become the chief form of systematic exercise and physical activity, and that it will come to be looked upon as one of the greatest forces in the field of preventative medicine.” — Joe Weider, 1950
When Joe Weider famously wrote those words over six decades ago the United States economic engine was running full speed ahead as a result of the boost it received from World War II, the general health of the American public was a relative non-issue, and the outside world’s view of the bodybuilder was one of respect and admiration as they saw men who were the personification of what dedication to training, nutrition, and hard work could achieve.
Fast forward to present day and what we find is a world that’s vastly different. The American economy is in recovery from a financial collapse of the magnitude that hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression, the health of the population has precipitously declined as some form of chronic disease affects over half of the population, and the worldview of the bodybuilder has gone from admired to ostracized. But perhaps the thing that Joe would find most troubling is how the health of the modern bodybuilder has declined in the pursuit of taking their physiques to heights that defy logic. In today’s world, and in today’s current landscape of bodybuilding, is it possible to be in good health and still be a good bodybuilder?
If we’re trying to analyze what changed, and where things began to shift we can’t do it without addressing what’s going to be the first thing everyone wants to scream out. “It’s the drugs!” And there’s no denying that there is a great deal of truth in that statement. With each passing decade it seems that competitors are required to up the ante in the freak factor department which seems to go hand-in-hand with the “up the dosage” mentality.
If we look back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, during the Pumping Iron era, if you used steroids year round you were considered the exception, not the rule. Most competitors, including Arnold who was the reigning Mr. Olympia, only used drugs precontest, and even that was still probably less than or equal to what most local and regional level competitors use today.
Now, in the era of Get Big or Die Trying, in order to be competitive at the Junior and National level competitions it’s not uncommon for a competitor to use four or more compounds all in the hope of potentially cracking the top ten. I’m not saying that we should abandon anabolics, but maybe we should start to reevaluate the approach so that future generations don’t think putting in all of their chips is the only option for getting a seat at the table.
It’s a lazy and unfair argument to cast all of the blame on anabolics. I believe that a great deal of the blame for why we’ve seen so many tragic and untimely deaths, many of them due to heart disease, is due to the bodybuilding diet. In order to build the tremendous size we see from today’s competitors it requires an enormous amount of food to meet nutritional needs and fuel growth. Building a championship physique – or even a decent gym physique, for that matter – requires substantial amounts of protein, plenty of healthy (ideally) fats, and a surplus of carbohydrates, and therein lies the problem.
Carbohydrates in any form – simple or complex – cause blood sugar to rise. That means that the standard bodybuilding diet of six meals per day causes a near constant elevation in blood glucose levels. When blood glucose levels are constantly elevated something called glycation occurs in the body.
Glycation occurs when excess blood sugars bind with protein or lipid molecules causing what are known as advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) to form. Once AGEs are formed they become Weapons of Mass Deterioration in the body. AGEs deposit themselves in tissues throughout the body and once they reach their destination there is no way to remove them. Buildup of AGEs leads to deterioration of joints, eyes, the brain, and most importantly to the bodybuilder, the heart.
AGEs don’t damage the heart directly. They do their work much more discretely, by glycating LDL cholesterol particles. In the body we have two forms of LDL cholesterol particles; we have normal large particles, and small damaging particles. Under normal circumstances large LDL particles transport cholesterol through the blood delivering it to cells in need before being taken up and disposed of by the liver.
However, once an LDL particle becomes glycated it changes in size from large to small. Because they’re no longer normal size, the liver is unable to properly dispose of small LDL particles and they remain in the blood before ultimately becoming deposited in our arterial walls. Now, imagine the amount of damaging glycation that occurs in a 250 plus pound bodybuilder eating six meals per day and consuming thousands of grams of carbohydrates – day after day, week after week, year after year. We are literally creating the perfect environment for the development of heart disease, and most of us are doing it for decades.
Is it possible for us to simultaneously maximize our health and our physiques? Or is this just the price we owe to the Iron Goddess for her allowing us to set foot in her domain?
There’s a scene in the movie Gladiator where Russell Crowe is standing in the arena and he screams out to the crowd, “Are you not entertained?” It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the movie as he challenges the morality of a blood thirsty crowd enthusiastically anticipating death. He’s essentially asking them, at what point does enough become enough? I believe we need to ask ourselves the same question. Bodybuilders are our own form of modern day gladiators battling it out onstage in front of cheering crowds for their entertainment, and far too many of us are still paying the ultimate price. Is this just the nature of the beast or is it time to change for our sake and the sake of future generations?