Aerobic exercise was performed by 85.0% of respondents during the PRE phase, with 59.2% performing ≥5 sessions per week (31.7% of respondents competing in natural competitions) and 37.9% performing 2–4 sessions per week (21.4% of respondents competing in natural competitions). There was a significant difference in the reported aerobic exercise volume between the OFF and PRE phases (p < 0.001, Figure 4). There was an increase in the number of respondents who reported undertaking 120 to 150+ minutes per week in the PRE phase. The intensity reported for aerobic exercise was most commonly perceived as low to moderate. Types of aerobic exercises used were jogging/running (74.6%), cross-trainer (elliptical trainer) (64.5%), walking (53.2%), and cycling (38.2%).
During the first half of the PRE phase, the elite bodybuilders used the same resistance training practices as in the OFF phase; however, during the last 2 weeks of the PRE phase, less sets and slightly more repetitions (lighter loads) per exercise were reported. Aerobic exercise totaling 120 to 150+ minutes per week at a perceived intensity of low-moderate was performed throughout the PRE phase by the elite bodybuilders, with similar types of exercise to the competitive bodybuilders.The competitive bodybuilders reported losing 8.3 ± 3.3 kg (9.1 ± 2.8% of body mass) within the PRE phase in preparation for competition (9.2 ± 2.2% of body mass reportedly lost by respondents competing in natural competitions), which was similar to the 8.0 ± 0.0 kg (9.3 ± 1.2% of body mass) reportedly lost by the elite bodybuilders.
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) were used by 76.7% of respondents who compete in amateur bodybuilding competitions (56 of 73 respondents), with no use reported among the respondents that compete in natural bodybuilding and among the elite bodybuilders. During the OFF phase, a mean of 3.6 ± 1.3 AAS agents were reportedly used, with the most common being nandrolone (48.1%), sustanon 250 (46.4%), boldenone (42.8%), and testosterone (36.5%). During the PRE phase, a mean of 3.3 ± 1.6 agents (a combination of AAS and nonsteroidal ergogenic agents) were reportedly used. The AAS agents most commonly used in the PRE phase were stanozolol (52.2%), boldenone (31.2%), and oxandrolone (18.2%). Nonsteroidal agents commonly used in the PRE phase were clenbuterol (54.9%), Liothyronine (45.7%), and Clomifene (33.5%).
Dietary supplements were used by all respondents of the survey. A mean of 3.4 ± 0.9 supplements were reportedly used during the OFF phase, with protein shakes (86.4%), creatine (68.3%), branch chain amino acids (66.9%), glutamine (42.3%), vitamins (39.8%), and fish oil (37.2%) the most popular. During the PRE phase, a mean of 3.7 ± 1.2 supplements were reportedly used with protein shakes (73.6%), branch chain amino acids (68.5%), glutamine (51.3%), vitamins (44.4%), fish oil (42.7%), and ephedrine-containing/caffeine-containing products (24.3%) the most popular. The elite bodybuilders reported using protein, creatine, glutamine, branch chain amino acids, and vitamins during the OFF phase with the exclusion of creatine during the PRE phase.
The aim of this study was to investigate the training practices of competitive male bodybuilders. We used a survey to examine whether training practices were in agreement with the ACSM recommendations for muscular hypertrophy and whether there was a major shift in the self-reported training practices between the OFF and PRE phases. Of the 127 male bodybuilders (73 amateur and 54 natural bodybuilders) who completed the survey and 2 elite bodybuilders (natural bodybuilding world champions), the group results showed that self-reported training practices were in general agreement with the ACSM recommendations for muscular hypertrophy during the OFF phase, confirming our original hypothesis. However, training practices significantly changed during the PRE phase, where there was an increase in the number of respondents who reported: undertaking 3–4 sets per exercise at the expense of 5–6 sets per exercise, an increase in the number reporting 10–15RM per set from 7 to 9RM per set, and an increase in the number reporting 30–60 seconds vs. >61 seconds recovery between sets and exercises. Before competition, there was a tendency for respondents to reduce training volume and intensity away from that which would maximize hypertrophy. Furthermore, aerobic exercise volume increased in the PRE vs. OFF phase with the majority of respondents undertaking 120–150+ minutes per week at this time, confirming our original hypothesis. During the OFF phase, the majority of respondents reported undertaking 30–59 minutes of aerobic exercise. Training practices reported during the OFF and PRE phases were generally similar between competitive bodybuilders and our subgroup of elite bodybuilders. Steroid use was high among the amateur bodybuilders, whereas dietary supplementation was used by all respondents (protein, creatine, and branch chain amino acids the most popular) in agreement with our original hypotheses.
Increases in muscle mass following a resistance training program are apparently accounted for by myofibrillar hypertrophy (i.e., increase of sarcomeres and myofibrils added in parallel) (22,31). Additionally, some researchers have suggested that increases in muscle mass may partly be the result of an increase in fiber number (1), although evidence in human subjects is lacking (17,19). Muscular hypertrophy is dependent on numerous hormones (e.g., testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, and cortisol) and cytokines (e.g., hepatocyte growth factor, interleukin (IL)-5, IL-6, fibroblast growth factor, and leukemia inhibitory factor) responses (30). The greatest acute elevations of anabolic hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor tend to be produced following resistance exercise protocols high in volume and moderate to high in intensity (13,21), which is similar to the training practices reported from our survey.
The majority of respondents in our survey used training practices consisting of high volume (4–5 exercises per muscle group) and multiple sets (3–6 sets). The exercise volume needed for optimal gains in muscular hypertrophy is suggested to increase with training status, so that competitive bodybuilders may have to perform ≥10 sets per muscle group compared with novices (4–5 sets per muscle group) (25). From our data, the respondents performed 12–30 sets per muscle group which gives an indication of their high training status. Moderate to heavy loads (6–12RM) with periodic lifting of heavy loads (1–5RM) were used by the majority of respondents, which is in agreement with ACSM recommendations (27). Whether low RM (1–5RM) or moderate RM (6–12RM) is more effective for increasing muscle mass has been a matter of debate, although the consensus is that 6–12RM seems to optimize the muscular hypertrophic response (27). However, limiting resistance exercise prescription to load magnitude (i.e., RM), number of repetitions and sets, recovery between sets, and frequency of sessions per week may be insufficient to determine the resistance exercise stimulus. It has been suggested that the inclusion of other information such as time under tension, range of motion, and rest between repetitions should be identified when prescribing resistance exercise (32).
The majority of respondents self-reported using moderate (61–120 seconds) recovery between sets and exercises that complies with current recommendations for muscular hypertrophy (27). Recovery of this duration has been shown to induce greater hypoxia, which may lead to increased muscle growth (32). Additionally, moderate recovery between sets of resistance exercise is also associated with greater metabolic build-up resulting in large acute spikes in anabolic hormone concentration (4,13). However, Buresh et al. (5) found that short recoveries (60 seconds) between sets of resistance exercises elicited a greater anabolic growth hormone response compared with longer recoveries (150 seconds) within the first 5 weeks, but this difference disappeared following 10 weeks of training. This suggests that there may be a post-adaptive response by the muscles to the shorter recoveries, and therefore, variation of training may be required to elicit elevations in anabolic hormones over a longer period. This may be achieved through varying the types and/or order of resistance exercises during a training session (28).
There is currently little published information on the types of split routines used by bodybuilders. Evidence from our sample population showed that split routines involving training muscle groups either once (5-day split) or twice (3-day split) per week were commonly used. It is currently unknown which split routine is more effective for maximizing muscular hypertrophy, although it is interesting to note that the 2 elite bodybuilders reported using 5-day splits. Despite studies showing that training a muscle group once per week is effective for muscular hypertrophy (20,21), Vikne et al. (34) and Wirth et al. (37) found that muscle groups trained 2 and 3 times per week yielded twice the increase in muscle cross-sectional area compared with once per week in strength-trained subjects and power athletes. These findings were supported by the data of McLester et al. (20) who showed superior muscular hypertrophy within strength-trained subjects from training muscle groups 3 times per week vs. once, despite equal weekly training volume. This suggests that stimulating a muscle group once per week may not be enough to maximize muscular hypertrophy; however, further research on training frequency in trained subjects is warranted.
Pyramids and supersets were the most commonly used advanced overload techniques, although it is not possible, with the current data, to know how often they were used within training sessions. Advanced overload techniques are thought to enhance the hypertrophic response to resistance exercise via targeting the 3 basic factors (i.e., mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress) implicated in promoting exercise-induced muscle hypertrophy (29). Depending on the type of overload technique, these factors may work in tandem to produce a synergistic effect on the muscle.
In contrast to the OFF phase, an increased number of respondents in our sample population reported performing 10–15RM per set per exercise and 30–60 seconds recovery between sets and exercises. Higher repetitions and short recovery between sets and exercises are thought to improve muscle definition and increase the rate of metabolism to aid fat loss (3). In addition, higher repetitions are also used to deplete muscle glycogen stores, which when combined with manipulation of dietary carbohydrate intake for subsequent glycogen supercompensation may increase the “fullness” of a muscle (7,23). The major goal of the PRE phase is to reduce body fat while retaining muscle mass. This is more challenging for natural bodybuilders compared with amateur bodybuilders who reported using drugs known to preserve muscle mass (e.g., stanozolol, boldenone, oxandrolone) (24). Natural bodybuilders risk losing significant muscle mass if training is performed using lighter loads (>12RM) with short recovery between sets and exercises (30–60 seconds) for the duration of the PRE phase (15,27). This risk may be reduced in the elite natural bodybuilders who reportedly use lighter loads only during the last 2 weeks before a competition.
A notable training feature during the PRE phase among the respondents and the elite bodybuilders in our study was the increased volume of aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise together with dietary restriction is commonly used by bodybuilders during the weeks leading up to a competition to improve muscular definition, with the amateur bodybuilders also using a combination of drugs to increase the rate of body fat loss (e.g., Clenbuterol and Liothyronine). Respondents reportedly lost approximately 9% (similar for natural and amateur bodybuilders) of body mass during the PRE phase, which was similar to the 9–16% of body mass loss reported in bodybuilders preparing for competition in other studies (33,38). Despite a similar loss of body mass for the natural and amateur bodybuilders during the PRE phase, it is speculated that greater muscle mass loss may occur in the natural bodybuilders performing high volumes of aerobic exercise. Studies have shown that concurrent resistance and high-volume aerobic exercise attenuate muscular hypertrophy and suppress muscular strength development (2,11,14). However, significant muscle mass and strength losses in amateur bodybuilders with concurrent training are unlikely because of the muscle-preserving drugs reportedly used in this phase.
Dietary supplementation and drug use among bodybuilders is well known and was confirmed by the results of our survey. Because of the extensive research showing performance and body composition improvements from training when supplementing with protein, branch chain amino acids, and creatine (6,35,36), it was unsurprising that these were the most reportedly used. Dietary supplements pose less of a threat to the health of a bodybuilder compared with AAS (26). Some associated health risks of AAS abuse include irreversible organ damage, hypertension and atherosclerosis, blood clotting, jaundice, hepatic neoplasms and carcinomas, tendon damage, and psychiatric and behavioral disorders. Anabolic-androgenic steroids use will likely result in greater increases in muscle strength and mass compared with dietary supplements (9), and it is unrealistic to expect amateur and professional athletes to cease AAS usage (especially if the drug testing policy is not stringent). Therefore, a greater emphasis should be placed on AAS education and encouraging the users to have regular medical check-ups to reduce these risks.
In conclusion, the results of this study provide evidence documenting the training practices and ergogenic aids currently used by competitive male bodybuilders. The data show that competitive male bodybuilders use numerous training practices and ergogenic aids when preparing for a competition. Competitive bodybuilders comply with current ACSM recommendations for muscular hypertrophy in the off-season; however, training practices changed before competition during which resistance exercise volume and intensity are reduced and aerobic exercise volume increases.
The results of this study show the rigorous training practices used by bodybuilders preparing for competition. Despite the reported resistance training practices generally in agreement with the ACSM recommendations for increasing muscular hypertrophy, there is a lack of research evidence to support the use of advanced overload techniques. These techniques may be effective for enhancing muscular hypertrophy; however, confirmation is needed to create specific guidelines for their use. Another common resistance training practice unfounded is the use of higher repetitions with short recovery between sets for increasing muscular definition. Considering that muscle definition is a combination of muscle size and subcutaneous adipose tissue in that area, using lower loads to enable a greater amount of repetitions may result in muscle mass loss, which would inevitably reduce muscular definition. However, this may not be applicable in the case of professional and amateur bodybuilders who reportedly use drugs in the pre-competition phase to reduce body fat and preserve muscle mass. Future research is needed to identify the most effective training strategies for natural bodybuilders during this phase. In the meantime, natural bodybuilders should follow similar resistance training practices to the elite natural bodybuilders (i.e., higher repetitions and shorter recovery between sets and exercises only during the final 2 weeks of the pre-competition phase). Additionally, natural bodybuilders should mainly rely on dietary manipulation strategies (e.g., reduced caloric intake) to lose body fat as opposed to high volumes of aerobic exercise because of the risk of losing muscle. However, if aerobic exercise is required to help accelerate the rate of fat loss, the increase in volume should be gradual with regular periodic anthropometry assessments used to monitor changes in body composition.
The authors are grateful for help with statistics from Dr. Rob Heard. No funding was received for the study and there was no conflict of interest from the results of this study among the authors.
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Keywords:Copyright © 2013 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
muscular hypertrophy; resistance training; concurrent training; strength training