Female Bodybuilding: How to Compete Safely
By Kathy Benn, AccSD and Peta Hood, AccSD.
Bodybuilding is a tough sport to compete in, regardless of gender. To reach a competitive level takes months (or years) of gruelling 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, and can present a number of 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 in the sport of bodybuilding face is the fear that a number of bodybuilders have about the consumption of particular foods and food groups. Mistakenly, bodybuilders often follow ‘food rules’ which exist based on internet or poorly planned and advised diets that are mostly centered around staples of chicken, egg, WPI, and broccoli.
There are typically three phases to preparing for bodybuilding competitions, each with its own purpose and nutrition needs. After assessing individual needs and body composition, a sports dietitian will provide a meal plan to appropriately match the bodybuilder’s training and physique goals for each phase. An individualised approach will also help the competitor to achieve appropriate dietary variety to prevent malnutrition/over-nutrition, and its associated health risks.
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 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 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 before competition has been shown in some athletes not to 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 be overwhelmed by the number and variety of products available, as well as the promises on the label. It’s no wonder the general public are confused!
“There is no point decorating until your foundations (your food habits) are in place.”
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 (see our comparison on protein shakes versus wholefoods). As for all supplements, plans should be individualised and focus on appropriate timing and dosing strategies to get 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 food habits) 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 bodybuilders. Most other supplements have no proven benefit or require further study.
Eating disorders, unhealthy eating behaviours and health risks 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.
Female bodybuilding is growing in popularity, however, 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 and safe outcomes for athletes competing in bodybuilding. They can guide and support competitors when choosing the competition category that best suits their individual physique and situation. They can help you navigate through all the incorrect nutrition information and supplements on offer, and translate the nutrition science into practical, individualised, and nutritionally complete meal plans for each stage of training.
Accredited Sports Dietitians also work closely with bodybuilding athletes to support them with strategies for long-term success and reduce health risks associated with bodybuilding. Together with mental health professionals, they can also help reduce the risk of unhealthy eating practices, negative relationships with food and body dysmorphia/dissatisfaction.
To learn more about safe and sustainable bodybuilding behaviours, and receive an optimised meal plan for your goals, contact your nearest Accredited Sports Dietitian.