December 9th, 2013

Is Bodybuilding Unhealthy?

Many people look at bodybuilders with their chiseled physiques, low body fat, six pack abs and glowing tans and immediately think they are the picture of health. I certainly believe that bodybuilding is a healthy endeavor, in fact, I know it is, at least the way I practice and teach it.  But lately, a shocking allegation has been made on the internet more and more often: Some writers are saying, “Don’t be fooled by outside appearances! Bodybuilders are not healthy and bodybuilding competition is not healthy.” I’m here to set the record straight on this claim, for the bodybuilding community and for the entire health and fitness world.


Is bodybuilding really healthy?

This has always been an important subject, but it’s especially important to me now  as I’m re-releasing my book – Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle – in a new hardcover edition that will be available on bookstores worldwide. Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle is a book based on the “secrets of the leanest and most muscular people in the world.”  Those people of course, are bodybuilders and fitness models.

I explain in my book that it’s not about becoming a bodybuilder or getting ripped (unless you want to), it’s about how regular men and women  of every age can copy some of the techniques from these physique athletes to be more successful at achieving their own goals, and to get leaner, stronger, fitter and healthier.

I think that if myths and stereotypes about bodybuilders or about the true essence of what bodybuilding really is continue to spread, that will do a massive injustice to millions of people who could reap the enormous benefits of this lifestyle. Yes, bodybuilding is a lifestyle.

I do understand why people believe in these myths and stereotypes, but the truth is, bodybuilding is the healthiest lifestyle in the world, if you do it the natural way. By natural, I mean drug-free, steroid-free, and hormone-free. And I mean sensibly, without extremes or the “win at all costs” attitude.

I think it’s also important to point out that many people define body building far too narrowly. Bodybuilding is far more than a competition. Contest-level bodybuilding is pursued by such a small fraction of the fitness universe that it’s almost a moot point to even bring that up. More relevant to the average guy and girl is body building as a healthy discipline and a lifestyle.

Bodybuilding is a lifestyle where you combine good nutrition with training for muscle and strength. That’s it! I always believed that anyone who is eating nutritious food, and who is in the gym or at home doing resistance training, could call themselves a bodybuilder.

If that label doesn’t resonate with you, you could use a different term. You could say, “I’m body sculpting.” That makes some people feel more comfortable. But we’re talking about the same thing. We’re talking about nutrition and training together to improve your body and your health. Using a label  like this makes the activity become part of your identity. When it becomes part of your identity, your behavior starts to change, effortlessly. It becomes part of who you are.

Why then, would anyone believe bodybuilding is unhealthy?

Beyond the misconceptions and stereotypes, one reason is that there is an unhealthy dark side of bodybuilding, but it’s a side that I’m not a part of and I don’t condone.

It’s not a secret that a lot of bodybuilders take steroids. Obviously, steroid and performance enhancing drug abuse can be unhealthy. Some other drugs, like diuretics, which are used for competition, are actually more dangerous than the steroids.

Unfortunately, many people have generalized this into believing that all bodybuilders use steroids, or creating a stereotype like, “All bodybuilders are unhealthy.” But that’s kind of like saying that “All baseball players are unhealthy.”  The truth, is steroids are in almost every sport to a greater degree than  most people realize.. It’s just that bodybuilders display it in a conspicuous way.

Bodybuilding is not inherently unhealthy. Some people just make a poor choice and they do it in an unhealthy way. That’s true of everything in life and it’s not even limited to drug abuse. Anything can be taken to an extreme – any sport, any activity, any behavior.

That’s the great thing about “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.” There are no extremes in this program. “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle” is the sensible middle. It’s sensible. It’s flexible, and it’s one hundred percent natural. I don’t even recommend over the counter diet pills, let alone drugs!

I always competed steroid-free, I always urged my readers to stay away from drugs and I’ve always encouraged everyone that you can build a great body naturally, with training and nutrition. And I still do. That message – stay natural and stay healthy – is woven throughout my book.

The nutrition? It’s incredibly healthy. Look at how most bodybuilders eat. They’re well-known for eating super-healthy foods because they know that nutrition is so important for the results they get. It’s not just in a gym. It’s in the kitchen, too.

The bodybuilder, fitness model, and physique athlete nutrition style is actually more flexible than any others. Sometimes you might reduce the carbs, but you don’t have to. That’s optional. Every food group is represented. You’ve got vegetables. You’ve got fruits. You’ve got the natural starches, you’ve even got the whole grains. But look at how the poor whole grain gets beat up so much on all the other diet programs.

No food is totally banished from my program. It’s well-balanced. Balance = health. For lean proteins, you can have fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, even lean red meat. If you want to, you can include dairy products too. Some people can’t eat dairy products because they have lactose intolerance, so that is a health issue for them. But if you don’t you can eat them if you choose. Cheat meals? Of course. They’re part of the plan, you just have to find the right level of moderation to balance your results with your health and happiness.

Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle really isn’t a diet at all.

I don’t even like the word “diet.” I’d rather call it a “nutrition program,” because it’s all about nutrients and it’s about nourishing your body. It’s about feeding your muscle and not starving it.

That’s the best part – it’s a nutrition program – and it’s healthy, it’s balanced, it’s flexible and it’s a lifestyle.  I’m proof of that, because I haven’t competed in eight years, but I still call myself a bodybuilder and I still eat almost the exact same way as when I was competing. When I did compete, I didn’t go on an unhealthy crash diet. All I did was I increase the focus and the intensity of my training, add a little more cardio and reduce my calories, so I had the energy deficit I needed to burn fat. We all have to do it, if we want to burn fat.

If you really think about it, a lot of the most popular fad diets in the weight loss market today, those are really the unhealthy ones. Look at all the diets that just banish and eliminate and demonize entire food groups, or they starve you with 1000, or 800 or 600 calories a day, or they restrict you to nothing but lemon water or vegetable juice. That kind of dieting is unhealthy.

Even when you’re cutting fat, a bodybuilding-style nutrition program like Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle it’s really not about dieting your body down. It’s really about building your body up.

burnthefatTOM VENUTO is a fat-loss expert, natural bodybuilder and bestselling author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. He has worked in the fitness industry since 1989, including 14 years as a personal trainer. He’s been training non stop for 30 years.  Learn more about the new hardcover edition of Tom’s book at

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9 Responses to “Is Bodybuilding Unhealthy?”

  • Well said, Tom.
    The way we do bodybuilding is the modern day Physical Culture.
    Good food, hard work, proper rest- there’s nothing unhealthy about that.

  • Tom Venuto

    And you’re living proof Carlos. Thanks!

    • Richard Arnold

      Tom you couldn’t of explained it more perfectly than the way you did. I’m 42yr old male and I’ve been body building since I was 13yrs old. I’m a career firefighter, have been for 22 years now and I’m still in better shape than the younger firefighters that come on. I really don’t use any of my sick days due to illness nor do I rally get colds. My blood normally is 116/60. Every year our firefighters on our dept. have to get medical physicals done and the Dr.’s always say that I have body and heart like if I was in my twenties. So is body building good for you and healthy. Id like to say I’m living proof. Oh just a note to add, I’m also a MMA fighter and still can keep up with the young kids…

  • I competed in an amateur bodybuilding tournament where I learned that there is a stereotype that bodybuilders are low intelligence and poorly educated. When I was introduced I gave them my occupation as a mathematics professor (I admit not a high ranking professor) with a PhD in mathematical physics and applied mathematics. The lady pointed this out as a counterexample of the stereotype. I took second place in the men over 60 class.
    By the way, they have discovered that excess belly fat causes the brain to shrink and cognitive capacity to diminish.Debette, S., et. al. Visceral fat is associated with lower brain volume in healthy middle-aged adults. Ann. Neuro. 68(2): 136-144, (August, 2010).
    I wonder if the claim that bodybuilding is unhealthy sells because it is what those who do not like the effort and discipline of the lifestyle want to hear, like fat acceptance.

  • Thom


    You’re an inspiration for good health. The rest is B.S. THE reason I bought your e-book and subscribe to your newsletter is to get healthier. I’m 61 years old – I don’t expect to become a competitive body builder, but I can expect to stay strong, support balance and improve my health and I agree 100% that resistance training and good nutrition are better than all the doctors, health stores and wacky gurus out there. Thanks for your consistently accurate messaging!


  • Nicoll

    People especially reporters are always look at the extreme cases to find a angle in which to bolster their career unfortunately they are a lot like script writers these days, they fill in the blanks between cursory research. They use examples of , people that obvious take steroid, that spend several hours in the gym overworking, not working out properly or dangerously.

  • Jane Elliot

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with body building. My husband is really in to those kind of things. I support him fully, becuase it is something he enjoys and it does help him maintain healthy.

    Me personally, eventhough I’m not into body building. I still try to exercise and maintain weight. I use a program from workoutbuddyx. It focus more on lossing weight and not building muscle.

  • Yes, I totally agree with you Tom. I believe in the principle of YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT! This is good stuff man!

  • Bodybuilding is healthy as long as you keep the crap out of your body. Nowadays the sport however is more focused on “mass” instead of “class”…bring the 70’s back when Zane and Arnie ruled.

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