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Female Bodybuilding/Body Sculpting

Kathy Benn & Peta Hood, Accredited Sports Dietitians - 8/9/2014


The benefits of having an Accredited Sports Dietitian on your team 


Some background on the sport…

Prior to 1977, bodybuilding was considered a strictly male-dominated sport; however by the 1980s it had grown in popularity amongst female competitors, with several female events being held in the USA, most notably Ms Olympia.  Closer to home, the Australasian Natural Body building Federation (ANBF) was formed in 1983 and by 1991 was the country’s largest bodybuilding organisation. In 1999 ANBF joined forces with 20 other countries from around the globe, to form the International Natural Body building Association (INBA). 

The growing popularity of the sport of bodybuilding among women saw changes in physique traits. The desirable appearance moved further away from its beauty pageant feminine form, to a more muscular physique. This saw more females heading to the weights room, and the introduction of categories such as ‘lightweight’ and ‘heavy weight’ in competitions.  With this transition came controversy, and much discussion about the appropriateness and healthfulness of excess muscle mass on the female form.  With the growth of the sport, and refinement of training and diet regimes to support competitors, a variety of other categories have since been introduced within the INBA, including figure, bikini and fitness categories.  Having a mixture of categories allows the competitor to choose the category that is most suited to their physique, and training ambitions. In addition to physique elements, competitors are now also judged on ‘femininity’, stage presence and confidence, posing, walk, appearance and beauty, bikini selection, and overall presentation.

Nutrition goals, Accredited Sports Dietitians and Bodybuilding

From a personal view, my (Kathy) background as an Accredited Sports Dietitian includes interest areas in both sports dietetics and eating disorders.  My passion towards understanding human behaviour has led me to return to university to study psychology, which I now incorporate into my dietetic role.  (Recently I started working with a 40 year old woman with some disordered eating habits and deliberating on whether to compete, making this article timely.  I couldn’t have written this without the enormous help received from Peta Hood).

Bodybuilding is a tough sport to compete in, regardless of gender. To reach a competitive level, takes months (or years) of grueling preparation and dedication.  Because women typically possess less muscle mass and a higher proportion of body fat than men, the level of difficulty in achieving muscle definition to be ‘stage ready’, particularly in the figure category, is high. This may make it an unattainable goal for certain physique types or genetic makeups; or a goal associated with health risks.  Most competitive bodybuilders follow diet plans in 2-6 months phases, each periodised according to training and physique goals.

A challenge that sports dietitians working with the sport of body building face is the fear a number of bodybuilders hold about the consumption of particular foods and food groups. There are common ‘food rules’ which exist based on internet or poorly-planned trainer-delivered diets predominantly centered around staples of chicken, egg, WPI and broccoli.  In addition to prescribing a meal plan appropriately matched to training and physique goals for each phase, it is the role of the sports dietitian to work with the individual to negotiate appropriate dietary variety to prevent malnutrition/over-nutrition, and it’s associated health risks.

Phase 1

Phase one typically involves ‘bulking up’ although this depends on the category selected e.g. bikini has far less emphasis on muscularity. This phase of preparation aims to build muscle mass through consumption of additional, appropriately timed calories/kilojoules (ideally from carbohydrate and protein to minimise fat gains), combined with sufficient training (usually heavy lifting).   

Phase 2

Phase two is known as ‘cutting’, which involves reducing energy intake to reduce body fat, while retaining as much muscle as possible. In general, total energy and carbohydrate intake are reduced, but protein intake remains high; coupled with increasing energy expenditure through continued strength training and an increase in cardiovascular exercise. The outcome is increased leanness and definition. A sports dietitian plays an important role in this stage, as energy intake needs to be low enough to promote fat loss, but high enough to minimise lean muscle loss and maintain strength, as well as avoid negative health consequences or unhealthy restrictive practices – quite a balancing act! Bodyweight losses of approximately 0.5kg/week over a longer period, rather than a rapid loss, are recommended. This is where body composition monitoring via skinfolds or Duel X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA) becomes very beneficial for determining the composition of losses.

Phase 3

Phase three is ‘pre-competition’ where the competitor will try to increase the definition and fullness of the muscles – this is also known as ‘peaking’ or ‘peak week’, in order to become “stage-ready”.  Dehydrating in the last 48 hours is often used in order to achieve a “shrink-wrapped” appearance for optimal display however; there is no safe, evidence-based advice to support this practice; and approaches do vary. Interestingly the practice of dehydration and electrolyte manipulation in the final days and hours prior to competition has been shown in some athletes to not improve appearance as desired.  Working with a sports dietitian during this period in particular is vital.  Nutritional strategies around electrolytes, bowel health and maintaining alertness and strength (for posing) on stage can be implemented to maximise final preparations and performance outcomes.


What about supplements?

Walk into any supplement store these days and you may well be overwhelmed by the number and variety of products available as well as the promises on the label.  It’s no wonder that the general public are confused! Many people use supplements with the incorrect belief ‘more is better’, or use supplements such as [protein powders to replace a balanced diet, missing out on other vital nutrients for performance and health.  As for all supplements, plans should be individualised and focus on appropriate timing and dosing strategies that will provide the greatest benefit.  The analogy of building a house, and then decorating it works well for supplement use – a variety of food is the house and supplements are the decorations.  There is no point decorating until your foundations (your house) are in place. 

Protein powders, creatine monohydrate, green tea extract, and caffeine are supplements that have been shown to provide a performance benefit in bodybuilding athletes.  Beta-alanine has some preliminary data, but no substantial evidence that it benefits this group of athletes.  Most other supplements have no proven benefit or require further study.


Eating disorders and unhealthy eating behaviours in bodybuilding

Unhealthy eating behaviours are unfortunately common among aesthetic sports that require low body fat or low body weight for enhanced performance. It’s unclear whether women with disordered eating behaviours gravitate toward bodybuilding, or whether the sport fosters body dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviours. Accredited Sports Dietitians can work closely with bodybuilding athletes to guide and support them when choosing the competition category to best suit to their individual physique, and situation, as well as supporting them with strategies for long-term success and minimisation of health risks.  Accredited Sports Dietitians (together with mental health professionals) can also to help reduce the risk of unhealthy eating practices, negative relationships with food and body dysmorphia/dissatisfaction. 

 Final thoughts…

 Female bodybuilding is a sport growing in popularity with over 200 amateur natural bodybuilding contests being  held in the US alone each year.  More women are finding the sport empowering and rewarding since lifting  weights and building muscle has been reported to enhance self-esteem.  Accredited Sports Dietitians can play a  pivotal role in creating positive outcomes for athletes competing in bodybuilding; and it can be done safely.  They  can guide competitors through the myriad of incorrect nutritional information and supplements on offer and  translating scientific evidence into practical, individualised, nutritionally complete meal plans for each stage of  training as well as encourage sustainable and healthy eating behaviours to promote positive relationships with  food. Why wouldn’t you book an appointment with one today!


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