Everything you need to know about training and dieting for natural bodybuilding
Bodybuilding is a sport where athletes lift weights and eat the food necessary to build the utmost physique of a human–for the most aesthetically appealing body possible to shine under the bright lights of a stage. Bodybuilders aim to develop the most proportionally muscular and lean body they can to catch the judge’s eye for a chance to win gold medals.
However, bodybuilding leagues, such as the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Pro, allow drugs such as anabolic steroids. But natural organizations like the International Natural Bodybuilding Association (INBA)/Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association (PNBA) forbid drug use.
Is it possible to build an extraordinary physique without doping? The finest INBA PNBA athletes prove that naturally building a muscular and shredded body is more than achievable if you follow an efficient nutrition and workout plan. This article will dive deeply into how top-tier natural bodybuilders eat and train.
What Is Natural Bodybuilding?
As the name suggests, natural bodybuilding is bodybuilding without doping. Using drugs such as anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is prohibited in the sport of natural bodybuilding. And the most prominent natural bodybuilding organization, INBA PNBA, screens its athletes through the most strenuous drug testing standards–the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Any athlete who fails a drug test during season or off-season will be stripped of their title and prize money and placed in the Hall of Shame.
Below is a clip from Generation Iron: Natty 4 Life detailing more of the WADA protocols in the INBA PNBA.
The goal of natural bodybuilders is the same as a bodybuilder–build the most aesthetically pleasing body with a lot of muscle, and low body fat, except natural bodybuilders, do so naturally without drugs. Of course, PEDs make achieving this feat much easier. However, the proper nutrition and training regimens make sculpting a top-tier physique naturally possible.
Nutrition for Natural Bodybuilders
Both enhanced lifters and natural bodybuilders follow a similar dieting protocol–they must closely monitor their calories and macros (protein, fats, carbs). However, natural athletes must be more strict and go through a longer bulking and cutting phase since they can’t rely on steroids for fast results. It’s not uncommon for natural athletes to take years off from competing to focus solely on building muscle before entering a show again. Also, natural bodybuilders must be warier in preserving their muscle mass when contest prepping/cutting since PEDs help with that.
Calorie Guidelines for Natural Bodybuilders
Your nutrition starts with your calories as a natural bodybuilder. Although your macronutrient intake is imperative, counting calories is the most critical aspect of gaining and losing weight. To build muscle, you’ll want to go through a bulking phase. And it’s important to cut to lose weight.
A bulking phase is when bodybuilders eat at a caloric surplus for some time to gain mass and muscle. Bulking is typically where natural bodybuilders spend most of their time in the off-season. However, as competition approaches and natural athletes are in-season or contest prepping a few weeks from the show, they’re in a caloric deficit to shred as much body fat as possible.
Generally, you’ll want to eat about 300-500 calories above or below your maintenance. But it depends on if you’re bulking or cutting. Eating 300-500 calories above maintenance calories (calories needed to stay the same weight) will help you build lean muscle while limiting unwanted fat mass. And consuming 300-500 calories below your maintenance calories will cut body fat while preserving lean muscle mass. Gaining or losing about 1-2 pounds a week is a good rule of thumb. Studies show that this is ideal for losing/ gaining weight healthily while preserving muscle/preventing fat gain (1).
Although, during the off-season, natural bodybuilders may eat more than 300-500 calories above maintenance and gain extra fat to put on as much muscle mass as possible. And natural bodybuilders may cut their calories a good bit below maintenance calories when a show is around the corner.
It’s important to mention that the number of calories you consume will vary depending on your goal, weight, body fat, etc. Various calorie calculators on the internet will help you determine your calorie intake requirements.
Macronutrient Requirements for Natural Bodybuilders
After you have your calories dialed in, next, you’ll be splitting your calories across three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Typically, bodybuilders will follow a high-protein diet with either low or moderate carb levels, depending on if they’re bulking or cutting.
When natural bodybuilders are bulking, they’ll consume more carbs. That’s because carbs are your primary source of energy and muscle glycogen (energy for your muscles). But it’s customary for bodybuilders to cut carbs out when they’re cutting, especially before a show.
Low-carb diets such as keto make athletes appear leaner (which is essential for competition) since carbs retain water. And keto is effective for fast weight and fat loss.
The amount of protein you consume is the second most important aspect of nutrition behind calories. Adequate protein intake is imperative for building muscle mass. In addition, protein can help satiate you, making cutting weight easier.
Some good protein food sources include pork, beef, protein shakes, tilapia, and eggs.
As aforementioned, carbohydrates are essential for supplying your body and muscles with energy. And cutting them out can also be beneficial for bodybuilders before a show. So the timing of when you consume more carbs and cut out carbs is essential. You don’t want to reduce carbs while bulking since that could impede your workout performance. And it may be best to consume fewer carbs when you’re cutting to help with fat loss.
The carbs you eat depend on how many calories and protein you consume. But it’s best to get about 40-60% of your calories from carbs, especially when you’re bulking or in a maintenance phase.
It’s best to consume complex carbohydrates (potatoes, whole grain bread, vegetables) compared to simple carbohydrates (pastries, white pasta, candy) since they’re more nutrient dense. Fruits are also a good source of carbs since they’re packed with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
The remainder of your calories will come from fats (20-30% of calories) after you’ve dialed in on how many calories, protein, and carbs you’ll be eating. The exact amount of grams of fat and carbohydrates won’t be as substantial as nailing your protein target. However, consuming proper amounts of fat is still important.
Fats keep your testosterone and hormones in check, which is essential since many bodybuilders have mentioned a hormone drop during an intense cut. Although, you must be wary of the number of fats you consume when cutting because fats contain the most calories per gram (9 calories/g) compared to protein and carbs (4 calories/g).
It’s best to consume fats from healthy food instead of processed foods. Healthy unsaturated fats include olive oil, almond nuts, and avocadoes. High-protein meat foods like pork have fat as well.
Micronutrients for Natural Bodybuilders
Regarding fitness goals such as building muscle and losing body fat, calories and macros are the most critical aspect of your nutrition. However, for your general health, consuming proper micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) will optimize your health and give you energy, which can help you with your workouts and physique.
There are many beneficial micronutrients that you can get from eating healthy foods, especially fruits, since they’re filled with micronutrients. However, some beneficial vitamins and minerals for natural bodybuilders are vitamin D, iron, zinc, and ashwagandha.
- Vitamin D: Many people are vitamin D deficient from not getting enough sun exposure. But vitamin D is vital for a robust immune system, energy, and testosterone (3).
- Iron: Iron is a crucial micronutrient since it helps transport oxygen throughout your body via red blood cells, which is vital for workout performance.
- Zinc and ashwagandha: Zinc and ashwagandha are two nutrients that can aid testosterone production naturally (3).
Taking a multivitamin can be a beneficial way to get imperative nutrients since it can be challenging to get them from food sources alone.
Supplements in Natural Bodybuilding
Some substances are allowed in natural bodybuilding. However, natural athletes, especially in the INBA PNBA league, need to be cautious of their supplements since WADA has a list of banned substances from the competition. Some of these substances can be included in protein powders, fat burners, creatine, and pre-workouts, so it’s critical for any INBA PNBA athlete to thoroughly check their supplements for any ingredients that may get them banned from competing.
Training in Natural Bodybuilding
As the adage goes, you can’t out-train a bad diet. That said, a quality training program is critical for any competitive athlete. We’ve gotten some insight from INBA PNBA natural bodybuilders’ training regimens. And these athletes train hard with ample volume and intensity. Although natural bodybuilders won’t be able to train with as much volume as steroid users since PEDs allow your body to handle more load than it would otherwise.
And depending on the bodybuilding division, some athletes focus on other muscle groups heavier than others. For example, 3x Men’s Physique Natural Olympia champ William Long says that legs aren’t as crucial in the Men’s Physique category since contenders wear board shorts.
Also, each natural bodybuilder follows their unique workout structure. However, there are some general guidelines and principles the top contenders adhere to. These include:
- Lift in the six to 12 rep range most of the time.
- Lift heavy weights.
- Perform a split routine 4-6 days a week.
- Have rest days.
- Perform 3-5 sets per exercise.
- Perform 5-7 exercises per workout.
- Include barbell compound movements (barbell bench press, squat, row, deadlift) and put them at the beginning of your workout.
*Note: Top natural bodybuilders’ volume and training frequency are high. If you’re a beginner, we suggest starting with a lower volume.
Natural bodybuilding leagues like the INBA PNBA are similar to bodybuilding leagues like the IFBB Pro, except drugs are prohibited in natural bodybuilding. Natural bodybuilders eat a diet filled with whole foods emphasizing calories and protein.
And they go through periods of bulking and cutting phases to progress their physique year after year and prep for shows. Elite natural athletes lift heavy weights with high volume, except not relatively as high as enhanced bodybuilders since drugs such as steroids enable lifters to do more volume.
Natural athletes in the INBA PNBA league prove how well you can build your physique naturally without steroids and other potentially harmful PEDs.
- Mero, A. A., Huovinen, H., Matintupa, O., Hulmi, J. J., Puurtinen, R., Hohtari, H., & Karila, T. A. (2010). Moderate energy restriction with high protein diet results in healthier outcome in women. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 4. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-7-4
- Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients, 10(2), 180. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020180
- Maktabi, M., Jamilian, M., & Asemi, Z. (2018). Magnesium-Zinc-Calcium-Vitamin D Co-supplementation Improves Hormonal Profiles, Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress in Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Biological trace element research, 182(1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12011-017-1085-0