We go through the safety and risks of a standard female bodybuilding and fitness competition prep with regards to diet and supplements.
I’ll be totally transparent – the whole bodybuilding and fitness competition world for women has always kinda made me anxious. Not because I think its inherently unhealthy necessarily, but rather that there are a lot of coaches who promote behaviours that are inherently unhealthy. Having said that, there are a lot of reputable sports dietitian’s who are able to make evidence based recommendations and assess a potential competitor for their ability to follow their recommendations safely. So in today’s post (and part one of my series), I wanted to give an introduction to some of the most common recommendations in the female bodybuilding and fitness competition world from a neutral perspective and then in part two we will really dive into some of the major concerns.
What is Female Bodybuilding?
Bodybuilding is defined as the “use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one’s musculature for aesthetic purposes”. Not all bodybuilders compete, but if they do, they are judged on their muscularity and leanness rather than their athletic performance. A bodybuilder’s goal is to achieve fat loss, while also maintaining lean muscle mass.
Female Bodybuilding vs Weight Lifting
Weightlifting has been an Olympic sport since 1896 while bodybuilding is not (it was petitioned to the IOC to make it an Olympic sport, but it was since denied). Weightlifting is the act of lifting a significant amount of weight in the form of barbell loaded with weight plates. While bodybuilders do weightlifting to increase muscle size, the sport focuses on aesthetics and appearance and they are judged based on specific levels of their muscularity.
Female Bodybuilding Divisions
There are a few different categories or bodybuilding classes for female fitness competitions.
Bikini is the most popular, with women aspiring to a more hourglass physique (small waist, larger breasts and glutes). The body fat percentage is usually 10-14% with less muscle mass than other divisions.
Figure competitors have more muscle and are judged on muscle separation and development. They usually rate in body fat from 8-12%.
Physique competitors have even more muscle mass with a more athletic build and a fat percentage of between 8-10%. While pretty lean, women in this category should not technically look “shredded”.
Bodybuilding is for women who are very muscular and must perform a ride range of bodybuilding poses. Their body fat mass is also significantly lower, always in the single digits below 10%.
Diet Phases of Female Bodybuilding Competition Prep
Let’s discuss the two important phases of bodybuilding that are typically followed to prepare for a competition.
The bulking phase can last anywhere between a few months to a year. During the bulking phase, the goal is to build as much muscle as possible through intense weightlifting and a high calorie, protein rich diet. During the bulking phase, caloric intake is typically increased by around 15%.
As an example, if you’re normally eating a 2,000 calories a day, you should eat 2,300 calories a day during the bulking phase.
Most “coaches” would aim for their clients not to gain more than 0.5-1% of their body weight per week.
The cutting phase happens after the bulking phase and can last anywhere between three to six months. This phase prepares you for competitions. The goal is to lose as much fat as possible while also maintaining muscle mass (from the bulking phase). This phase is done through specific changes in diet and exercise with caloric intake being reduced by approximately 15% (on average).
As an example, if you’re eating a 2,000 calories a day, a competitor may eat 1,700 calories a day during the cutting phase.
Most “coaches” would aim for their clients not to lose more than 0.5-1% of their body weight per week. This is recommended because weight loss rates that are more gradual may help preserve lean body mass.
female bodybuilding Macronutrient Distribution
This is roughly what a common macronutrient distribution of a female bodybuilder will look like (based on a 2,000 calories/day diet). Keep in mind that a good coach will adjust these macros to fit the individual, but these are just average common baseline recommendations we’ve seen.
It is recommended that a female bodybuilder or fitness competitor aim to get 30-35% of their energy from protein which is approximately 150-175 grams per day. Protein requirements are higher than the traditional recommendations of a non-bodybuilder because of the excessive resistance training exercises. Researchers have found that protein intake of 2-2.2g/kg of protein may be optimal for bodybuilders to prepare for competition before nitrogen losses occur. To give you a comparison, it is recommended that a healthy active non-bodybuilding individual get 0.8g/kg of protein. Common “ideal” protein sources include: lean cuts of poultry, meat, fish, Greek yogurt, protein powder, and cottage cheese.
It is recommended that a female bodybuilder or fitness competitor get 55-60% of their energy from carbohydrates. Common “ideal” carbohydrate sources include: quinoa, rice, crackers, oatmeal, and sweet potatoes.
It is recommended that a female bodybuilder or fitness competitor get 15-20% of their energy from fat. A bodybuilder’s fat needs are on the lower end because the goal is to achieve optimal fat loss, and fat is not recommended before a workout (it can cause bloating) or after a workout (it can slow down glucose and protein utilization). Common “ideal” fat sources include: nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado, avocado oil and flaxseed.
The main pre and post workout nutrients of concern are getting enough protein for muscle repair and synthesis and enough carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores and trigger an insulin response for building muscle.
Foods to Limit on Fitness competition prep
In order to achieve their desired physique goals and promote quick fat loss, some female bodybuilders and fitness competitors will be told to completely eliminate certain high sugar, high fat foods from their diet. Some of these foods include alcohol, added sugars like candy, cookies, donuts, sugar sweetened beverages and deep fried foods. Other coaches allow “cheat days” to help promote diet adherence and metabolic preservation. Again, the recommendations around diets and meal plans are typically very specific between client and coach.
Common Female Bodybuilding Supplements Risks vs Benefits
Whey protein is one of the most popular and safest protein supplements for muscle building. One study found that 21 weeks of supplementing with whey protein before and after resistance training increased the muscle size. The study also found that whey protein supplementation altered gene expression to favour muscle anabolism specifically in the vastus lateralis (largest muscle in the thigh).
Risks with Whey Protein Bodybuilding Supplements
In some people, whey protein may be difficult to digest and may cause unpleasant symptoms like bloating, gas, stomach cramps and diarrhea. There is some evidence that a high protein diet may put pressure on the kidneys, so for people that already have an existing kidney condition, whey protein may not be recommended. There is also the concern that some whey protein products on the market are not always regulated and may be contaminated with toxic substances like arsenic and lead, according to this Consumer Report.
If you’re worried about some of these concerns or have experienced bloating from whey protein, there are a ton of other great protein supplements for bodybuilding like hemp protein, pea protein, brown rice protein and plant protein blends.
Creatine is also considered another generally safe supplement that is legally available. Studies have shown that it can significantly increase muscle size and strength with one study suggesting creatine resulted in 1-2 kg increases in total body mass.
Risks with Creatine Bodybuilding Supplements
Creatine has been associated with some side effects like kidney damage, kidney stones, bloating, dehydration, muscle cramps and digestive problems. The research still considers creatinine one of the safest supplements out there but if creatinine is used incorrectly (not following the recommended dosages), then there is higher risk that these side effects may occur. It is also recommended to avoid creatine if you’re also taking medications that affect the liver or kidney.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that is produced naturally in the body, but is commonly offered in supplement form to aid in muscle endurance in high intensity exercise. BA works by entering the blood stream, where it is taken up by the skeletal muscle and used to synthesize carnosine. Carnosine is a pH buffer in the muscle that is especially important during anaerobic exercise like weightlifting or sprinting.
One study found that consuming 6.4g of BA daily for four weeks increased muscle carnosine levels by 64.2%., while another study found that BA supplementation for 4-10 weeks increased knee extension torque by up to 6%, improved muscle resistance to fatigue during strength training and increased lean mass by 1 kg.
Concerns with Beta-Alanine Bodybuilding Supplements
Some research has found that taking high dosages of beta-alanine supplementation can cause paresthesia (skin tingling) on the face, abdomen, chest and extremities. However, this can be prevented by taking a smaller dose. In one study on rats, a high intake of beta-alanine led to a taurine deficiency (because taurine and beta-alanine share the same transporter) which potentially could cause alcohol-induced liver fat buildup.
Also known as HMB, beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate is a metabolite of one of the nine essential amino acids: leucine. One study found that 0.125g/kg of HMB decreased muscle protein breakdown and increased muscle protein synthesis. Meanwhile, in a review on popular bodybuilding supplements, researchers cautioned the use and efficacy of HMB on maintaining lean mass in dieting athletes because we don’t have any evidence on the long term effects.
Concerns with HMB Bodybuilding Supplements
According to the most recent research, HMB supplementation at up to 3g daily has been demonstrated to be very well tolerated and that even higher dosages are equally safe. There doesn’t seem to be any safety concerns in the general healthy population with HMB supplementation.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Also known as BCAA, these amino acids make up 14-18% of amino acids in skeletal muscle proteins and are one of the most widely used supplements among natural bodybuilders and fitness competitors. Leucine is one of the BCAA that is of particular interest because of its promising research with one study suggesting that leucine may stimulate protein synthesis when in combination with other amino acids.
Concerns with BCAAs supplements
BCAAs are considered safe and there doesn’t seem to be any major side effects in young healthy individuals. The tolerable upper intake of leucine is set at 500mg/kg bodyweight but consumption greater than that may increase levels of serum ammonia above the tolerated safety limit.
Citrulline Malate (aka CitM) is a new supplement that has become quite popular among bodybuilders hypothesized to improve performance through ammonia clearance, reduce lactic acid accumulation and arginine conversion, however very little scientific research supports its use in healthy humans. While its proposed that arginine is effective for muscle growth, some research to date actually has found the opposite.
While the findings of one study suggested that CitM supplementation for 15 days increased ATP production by 34% during exercise and reduced perception of fatigue, another study found that arginine did not have any ergogenic effects in young healthy athletes.
Concerns with CitM Bodybuilding Supplements
Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid in the muscle and is another common nutritional supplement fitness competitors and bodybuilders often take. There is, however, very little scientific evidence to support its use in healthy athletes. While a long term study looking at various types of supplements found that glutamine in combination with creatine, whey protein, BCAA and CitM increased lean mass by 1.5-2kg, it’s unclear whether glutamine was responsible for that increase, or the combination of other more effective protein synthesis supplements. In contrast, another study found that glutamine supplementation did not significantly improve exercise performance.
Concerns with Glutamine Bodybuilding Supplements
Some doses of glutamine (0.75g/kg bodyweight) have been associated with increasing plasma ammonia above the tolerated safety limit. That being said, it is recommended that 14g/d of glutamine is the highest amount one can take without any side effects.
Hands down, caffeine is one of the most readily available pre-workout stimulants consumed by bodybuilders and fitness competitors. While most research has found that caffeine may be an effective preworkout supplement to boost energy and performance, taking large amounts of caffeine is also not without its risks.
Concerns with Caffeine Bodybuilding Supplements
Excess caffeine intake has been associated with an increase in blood pressure, anxiety, infertility, diarrhea, and insomnia, while also contributing withdrawal symptoms including headache, fatigue, drowsiness, and difficulty concentrating. A toxic dose of caffeine is in the range of 20-40mg/kg body weight, which is much easier to reach through pills and supplements compared with a drink. Furthermore, since a lot of these caffeine pills are unregulated, you can’t always be 100% sure of the dosage amounts and the quality of the ingredients.
Dangerous female Bodybuilding Supplements
Anytime there are legal supplements, you’re bound to come across illegal supplements. There are a ton of “fat burning” bodybuilding supplements illegally sold on the market that are specifically targeted to the bodybuilding and fitness competitor community because of their desire to meet goal weights and physique goals, typically in a dangerously short period of time. That’s why these products are labelled with claims like: “cut fat fast”, “burn fat” or “get shred NOW”. However, whether these products work, or are safe is often unclear and a lot of the time, these products are unregulated and typically aren’t FDA approved. Which means, half the time, you might not know what you’re buying and putting into your body.
Anabolic Steroid Use
Some elite bodybuilders may not be meeting their goal weight or physique expectations and eventually turn to steroids to get faster results. While anabolic steroids are effective, they are illegal without a prescription and the long term side effects definitely are worrying. Long term steroid use has been linked to an increase in heart disease, decrease in fertility, and psychiatric and behavioral disorders like depression. Although illegal, many of these supplements are sold in stores and in the past people been responsible for death, kidney failure, seizures and heart issues. In female bodybuilders, the use of steroids is particularly worrying because they can have a significant impact on hormone balance which may impact long term fertility and hormonal health. Research has shown that high rates of testosterone from anabolic steroids may have a negative effect on the female reproduction system and fertility.
DNP is an industrial chemical traditionally used as a pesticide, dye and wood preserver that is highly toxic and has significant side effects. While it was never designed for human consumption, it’s become very popular among female bodybuilders and fitness competitors because it accelerates a person’s basal metabolic rate, leading to quick weight loss. Some short term health risks of DNP include: lethargy, nausea, vomiting and increased pulse rate, while some of the long term health risks include: cataracts, liver damage and even death. Sadly, there have been several cases of DNP killing young people.
Bottom Line on the Safety and Risks of Female Bodybuilding and Fitness Competition Prep Diet & Supplements
I hope you now have a better understanding of how a bodybuilder prepares for a competition through diet, exercise and supplements. Stay tuned for part two of this post where we explore the psychological, physical and metabolic effects of bodybuilding before and after a competition.
Sofia Tsalamlal, RD
Updated on August 10th, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.