SuppVersity Olympia Special: Maniac or Focused, Freakish or Extraordinary - What's the True Nature of a Bodybuilder? Plus: Cortisol & Immune Response to AM vs. PM Training

If we discard the common horror stories (scientists call them "case reports" ;-) about drug abuse, the stage of the Olympia is mostly "uncharted territory" - at least from a scientific perspective.
It's the Olympia Weekend and thus time for a special... at least that's what I thought, when I just sat down in front of the computer a couple of minutes ago. The only problem is that boydbuilding is "scientific no-man's-land". If we forget about the formidable paper by Dr. Lindy Rossow that was finally officially published a couple of weeks ago (you can read my write-up of the ahead of print version here). In an interview I recently did with her (not to be published here at the SuppVersity, sorry), Lindy told me that she feels that the lack of reliable information was a problem especially in view of the "vast world of 'bro-science' on the Internet" that generates a "world of misinformation and rumors" while the "vast majority" of the scientific articles you would find on PubMed and the pertinent databases "focuse[s] on negative, freak events that generally occurred in bodybuilders who were injecting things or on large amounts of drugs" (Rossow, hitherto unpublished interview).

Bodydbuilders & scientists

The "average" scientists (whoever he or she may be) probably holds a lot of the common prejudices the "average" bodybuilder (another of these dubious creatures) is facing on an almost daily basis.
Figure 1: Body weight development during the 6 months pre- and post-contest phase of Dr. Chris Fahs, subject and co-author of Dr. Rossow's study on natural bodybuilding (learn more)
What's quite ironic, though, is that the same is true vice versa. I would even go so far as to say that the average scientist may have a better idea of what a bodybuilder does than vice versa. I mean let's face it: Can you tell me what the purportedly smart guys and girls in the University are doing all-day? Trust me, I am one of them and I can tell you it is by no means what I see in people's eyes, when I tell them I am working at the University ;-)

Ok, I am getting off the topic, which was ... ah yes, the Olympia Special!

Despite the fact that what I have written before is spot on and many scientists think of bodybuilding as crazy freakshow, there is some interesting research out there. Unfortunately, I have covered many of these studies already, so that it was not exactly easy to find a recent study that would not simply reiterate the myth of the drug abusing maniac of whom the scientists obviously believe that he deserved the trip to the ER that made him the subject of a scientific case report.

After some digging, I was still able to spot two (or actually three) extraordinary (in the literal sense of not belonging to the "horror story" category) studies for today' SuppVersity Olympia Special:
  1. SuppVersity Suggested read: "Old School Supplements - Choline: Stronger, Faster, Leaner & More Muscular, or Just Another Dumb-and-Barbell Story?" | read more
    Study #1 is dealing with bodybuilding specific exercise science and the question whether there are any relevant differences between AM and PM training. Certainly not a new question, but one that has (imho) not been addressed in a bodybuilding specific context with non obese, non-elderly, non-diabetic and non-sedentary subjects who are still the study object #1 for the previously mentioned "average scientist".
  2. Study #2, on the other hand, deals with the distorted picture of the competitive bodybuilder. The approach the scientists took is yet very different from the usual "here is a questionnaire, make sure answer both the question about drug abuse and negative side-effects with 'Yes', ok" protocols... ah, I don't want to give away too much ;-)
I know that most of you are probably rather drawn to article #1, but I highly suggest you give #2 a chance, it's worth it - in the spritit of the Olympia ;-)

Bodybuilding Science: AM or PM Training? What is Best?

In a two-article series Majid Mousavizadeh and his colleagues from the Azad University and the Razi University in Borujerd and Kermansha, Iran, have observed that. Bodybuilders who with to minimize their cortisol levels before, during and after a workout are better advised to train in the PM (4pm).
Figure 1: It's easy to see that both the pre and post cortisol levels as well as the relative increase in cortisol were much lower, when the 10 "bodybuilding ahtletes" performed their workout at 4PM vs. 8AM (Mousavizadeh. 2012)
I guess it does not take a rocket scientist to be able to tell that after glancing at the data in figure 1. More than 3x higher baseline cortisol levels in the morning and a 10 higher increase of cortisol during the workout.

Figure 3: Correlations (blue) and p-values (red) between serum hormone levels and increases in lean body mass in the West & Phillips 12-week resistance training study w/ young athletic guys (West. 2011)
In view of the results of the results of an imho classic (or at least classy ;-) study by West et al. from 2011 it is however questionable if this decrease in cortsiol response, with is in accordance with results Bird et al. presented in 2004, already, is actually beneficial. After all, figure 2 which is based on the results of the West study and was originally published in "Strength, Cardio or both?" (read full article) indicates that the increases in cortisol, not those of testosterone, IGF-1 or growth hormone (GH) are the best (and only) valid predictors of lean mass gains. If you take the time to (re?-)read the pertinent Science Round-Up on cortisol (read it), it may thus be that you will soon start to work out in the AM on purpose ;-)

From an immune perspective, at least, it would not make a difference, anyway: In 2013 colleagues of Mousavizadeh et al. conducted a 12-week study in the course of which half of the thirty male subjects (aged 18 to 25 years), who lifted weights in the AM or PM, ended up with identical levels of monocytes, lymphocytes and eosinophils in their blood (Sani. 2012).

Bodybuilders are stigmatized and science can prove it!

Now the fact that people who train actually think about whether it may make a difference when they train in the AM instead of the PM should actually bring up the question how someone who cares about these complex physiological processes can be a dumb freak, right? Still, most of you did probably simply believe what I wrote in the introductory remarks, right? I mean "everybody knows" that bodybuilders are stigmatized in this society. They are suspect to the "normal" people due to their distinctive appearance and - of course - their careless abuse of performance enhancing drugs.

Now these prejudices are the actual topic of a paper by Jone Bjørnestad, Øyvind Kandal and Norman Anderssen that was published a couple of weeks ago in the online version of the Journal of Health Psychology. Its title is "Vulnerable discipline: Experiences of male competitive bodybuilders" and it is (surprise!) not one of those simple "We asked the visitors of a Norwegian gym..." studies, but a pretty detailed analysis that's based on lengthy and time-consuming interviews with competitive bodybuilders who told the scientists things like this:
For Adelfo bodybuilding provided him with a new purpose | learn more
"What is important with bodybuilding, for those who train correctly, you need to work hard, you have to be disciplined, you have to be regular. This has transfer value to others aspects of life because you learn to give priority, you learn to focus, you get things done, you are able to shut out everything else.

This is a very, very positive effect. When you do bodybuilding, you learn to set up ambitions, to focus and to achieve them. (Blade)" (my emphasis in a quote from Bjørnestad. 2013)
I believe Blade, one of the subjects in this study from the University of Bergen, makes a very good point. I mean compare the demands of becoming a competitive bodybuilder to those of playing video games, smoking pod with your "friends" or being addicted to Facebook? I think every parent would rather want his / her child to "work hard", be "disciplined" and "focused" than be lazy, lost, stoned and anxious that he or she could miss an important Facebook post of one of his / her fake online friends.

The social costs of being a bodybuilder

Suggested read: "Growing Beyond Physiological Limits." | read more
The researchers do yet also highlight the social costs of the life of a passionate bodybuilder. "Thor" as of they call another study participants, for example said:
"Diet, [sic!] actually egoistic, the last time I was on diet  I sat eating rice and chicken at my son’s birthday party while all the others ate cake.

My family tells me, not my own, but my wife’s, that they feel a little bit put off." (Thor)
And here we have it: Another part of the stigma: The asocial bodybuilder and bad father.

A bad father? I would not be so sure about that. After all he is more concerned about his health than the average "storybook-daddy" and that not despite but because he is using. In fact, one of the important findings of the study was that "[t]he participants who described using drugs [...]managed their drug use", appropriately - just like Olaf who said being asked about the risks that are involved in using steroids (note: not a single subject claimed you could keep up without them):
"I did one [a health check] just now, just before a  competition, and then I received a message to  come soon to see if a drug that affects the kidneys had been lowered. So, you have a little control. So I don’t really have any negative things to say about it." (Olav)
These statements and other observations in the Bjørnestad stand juxtaposed to the initially mentioned image of a "freak show" that emerges when you read other scientific papers on bodybuilding.

Is being "extraordinary" the real problem?

For the professional bodybuilder it may not be the ideal strategy, for you, someone who "just wants to look good naked" and "finally see his abs", it may yet be a practical solution to the Tuppaware problem: Intermittent fasting... and no, it does not necessarily lead to reduced metabolic rate (learn more)
With respect to the situation in Europe, study participant Henry says that he believes that the real problem people have with him is that he is not "average":
"It is quite weird, in a way, when you are above average here in Norway, people: who the fuck does he think he is? I have been over in the US a few times, and it is like, fuck, people are impressed, and come up to you wanting to take pictures and say hello. But here … they believe that you are like this to show off." (Henry)
I guess most of you who are now at the Olympia will have had or witnessed others having similar experiences. Here you are either taking photos with the big guys or being asked for photos at thy Olympia both and next week, back in the office you have the colleagues whisper secretly about your "weird Tupperware" - am I right?

And when you ignore that talk and sit with them what happens? Probably something like Xavier is describing here:
"[...] when you go out, or wherever I go, or whoever I meet, it inevitably ends up with body talk within 5–10 minutes. I can see this becomes like tiresome sometimes, one thinks about the body all the time. Everything centres on the body,
nothing on how you are as a person." (Xavier)
Right? Of course, that's right. After all, Bjørnestad et al. found that several of their "informants" (that's how they call them) shared this experience and felt that it was "very tiresome" and even annoying how others focus on their bodies, only to complain afterwards how they were the ones who were talking about physical culture all the time. 

"So, it's all not worth it?"

I guess the question "whether it's worth it" (whatever that may even mean) is not a question I can answer for you. It's a question you will have to answer yourself and that's also why it's not part of the bottom line.

If you look closer you may also realize that it's actually a set of question that stretches from whether you want to trust common bodybuilding wisdom and go to the overcrowded gym in the PM, although you could just as well train in the AM, to the previously mentioned birthday cake of your kids you cannot eat, because you are "one week out" (meaning you have only one week before the next contest).

And while the former may sound profane the latter is something that will make everyone rething, whether the minutes in the limelight are really worth it. It's possible, I mean, if you feel just like Blade, who says,
"You feel on top of the world, it is something very unique, maybe it is the same people feel when they become an Olympic champion in a sprint. You feel it, you see it on yourself, you feel so wired. It feels so very good if you are in good shape. No other feelings can compare with it, it feels so good." (Blade)
it's very possible that you decide that it's worth it. And though I personally thing it is not, I respect Blade's decision.
SuppVersity Suggested Read: "Adelfo Cerame - Road to Wheelchair Nationals '12: The Final Countdown! Plus: The "No-Bro" Approach to Peak Form" | read this and all the other guest posts of Wheelchair Pro Bodybuilder Adelfo Cerame Jr. here at the SuppVersity (view them all)
You have my deepest respect. I understand what it takes to make it to the stage and - even more so - to stay there and that's why I want to end this post on an advice that may be relevant for both competitors and regular gymrats: Don't make the same mistake "Blade" made - never subscribe to a statement like this: "The body is who I am, the body cannot lie." (Blade). This is exactly what others believe you are: A muscular body and nothing else. What may be even more important is that this attitude is going to leave you hopeless and lost, when this body will one day no longer comply with your own high standards

Apropos standards and expectations: If you decide against aligning your whole life with this one goal, don't fool yourself to believe that it were the wrong macros, the wrong supplements or training in the AM instead of the PM that was holding you back from looking like Mr. Olympia. What you lack is not a new supplement, nutrition plan or training regimen. It's a decade worth of hard work and hardships, years of more or less successful attempts to bring your weak body parts up, months of disciplined dieting and training, and weeks where your every thought is directed to this one goal: to be in the shape of your life, when you step on stage.

  • Bird SP, Tarpenning KM. Influence of circadian time structure on acute hormonal responses to a single bout of heavy-resistance exercise in weight-trained men. Chronobiol Int. 2004 Jan;21(1):131-46.
  • Mousavizadeh M. et al. Influence of a single bout of circuit weight training on cortisol in the morning and evening. Pelagia Research Library. European Journal of Experimental Biology, 2013, 3(2):367-370
  • Sani SMT, et al. The Effect of Morning and Evening Weight Training in the Humeral Immunity of Bodybuilders. International Journal of Sport Studies. Vol., 3 (6), 611-616, 2013.
  • West DW, Phillips SM. Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;112(7):2693-702.
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