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Natural Bodybuilding: What Makes It Different?

Natural bodybuilding is bodybuilding without anabolic steroid use or other performance-enhancement drugs to change your physique. Learn everything about it here.
Natural Bodybuilding: What Makes It Different?
Photo by Alora Griffiths / Unsplash

If you're looking to build muscle mass, you've likely looked into the different types of bodybuilding to see which version is best for you. One of the types that's growing in popularity is natural bodybuilding. If you're looking for natural muscle growth and realistic approaches, natural bodybuilding may be for you.

What is natural bodybuilding?

Natural bodybuilding is a form of bodybuilding competition that judges participants by their aesthetic appearance and natural physiques. As with other versions of bodybuilding competitions, natural bodybuilding focuses on reducing body fat and improving muscle mass. However, natural bodybuilding makes these efforts without the use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs.

Natural bodybuilding means you don't have to worry about drug tests because there's no use of anabolic steroids or other banned substances that are popular in other sectors of the bodybuilding world. Instead, goals are reached through hard work, proper eating habits, and strenuous workouts.

There are five main parts of natural bodybuilding to perfect for the best results:

  • Diet: Natural bodybuilders need to eat the proper amount of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients to provide adequate nutrition and achieve their desired physique.
  • Training: Proper training focuses on compound movements that build muscle effectively.
  • Recovery: Give your body time to rest and recover for optimal results.
  • Supplements: The use of natural supplements is acceptable for natural bodybuilders. Popular options include protein powder, creatine, and BCAAs.
  • Consistency: The biggest key to success is dedication and consistency to both diet and training.

Are natural bodybuilders actually natural?

A common question surrounding natural bodybuilding is whether the competitors are truly natural like they say they are. When natural bodybuilding first became a subsection of bodybuilding competition, there was no grey area about what was considered "natural." However, as time progressed, more high-tech supplements hit the market and made onlookers question the authenticity of the name "natural bodybuilding."

Those against the term "natural" argue that supplements like taraxatone and whey protein don't naturally exist. Others mention that ingesting larger amounts of natural supplements like creatine and L-glutamine isn't a natural practice. So, what's the answer?

In competitive bodybuilding, natural bodybuilding is considered anything that doesn't include banned substances for performance. Each competition may have a unique list of banned performance-enhancing drugs, so that can blur the line even further. However, the general rule of thumb is that bodybuilding is considered natural if there are no banned substances (like anabolic steroids) being used. In natural bodybuilding competitions, a drug test must prove the absence of these substances.

While the term "natural" is often debated, the general consensus is clear. Natty bodybuilders respect their genetic limits and keep their long-term overall health in mind when working on muscle gains. As a rule, natural bodybuilding won't get you results that look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or similar incredible physiques. Incredible size isn't the goal for a natty bodybuilder, but they use weight training to promote drug-free muscle growth.


The best natural bodybuilder diet is similar to the diet for other versions of bodybuilding. The most significant difference is that you'll allow yourself more time to lose body fat while preserving your muscle mass because you aren't using substances to speed up the process.

The first step to creating your diet is figuring out how many calories you need to maintain, lose, and gain weight in a healthy way. Many calorie calculators available online will determine how many calories you need based on your height, weight, and exercise frequency. It's a good idea to meet with a nutritionist or dietitian to confirm the right amount of calories you should be eating for your bulking and cutting phases to ensure you don't gain too much fat or lose too much muscle.

Once you know how many calories you need, you'll need to split them between the three macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fats. To maintain your muscle mass and have enough energy at the gym, strive for high-protein, high-carb, and low-fat foods. As you go through different phases of your bodybuilding journey, your calorie needs will change, which will also change your macronutrients. Many bodybuilders will lower their carbohydrates over time but keep their protein high to promote muscle growth and retention.

Here's a quick rundown of the three macros:

  • Protein: Protein is essential for all bodybuilders because it promotes muscle growth in calorie deficits. While cutting, aim for no less than 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
  • Carbohydrates: Carbs are controversial but are your body's preferred energy source. Carbs are necessary for having energy for your workouts, but make sure you rely on complex carbs, not simple ones. As you work into a calorie deficit, your carb intake will decrease.
  • Fats: Fats are calorie-dense, but they're essential for natural bodybuilders. Fats help regulate your hormone levels, which is helpful. Natural bodybuilders rely on their natural testosterone levels, so keeping them where they should be is important, and healthy fats can help. Get your fats through foods that are also high in protein and carbs, like grains and meats.

Best Supplements for Natural Bodybuilders

The modern bodybuilding community has become focused on using natural supplements to boost energy, improve performance, and shorten recovery. While old-school natural bodybuilders didn't use supplements, they are seen as acceptable in the natural world today since the World Anti-Doping Agency doesn't ban them.

So, what supplements should you use as a natural bodybuilder? Here are the top three to consider.

Whey Protein

Whey is a complete protein. Complete proteins have all nine essential amino acids, which your body isn't able to produce on its own. Whey protein is also easy to digest and easily absorbed, providing support for muscle protein synthesis.

Whey protein is one of the most proven supplements on the market and it is highly effective for building muscle and preserving lean mass when losing fat. Plus, whey protein is able to stimulate muscle growth better than other protein powders like soy or pea.


Creatine is a substance found in many of your body's cells, and it's one of the best supplements for muscle growth and athletic performance in general. Creatine supplements help improve your exercise performance, build muscle mass, and reduce fatigue while training.

Creatine is also touted as one of the safest supplements on the market for natural bodybuilding. Not only is it safe, but research suggests it may also reduce your risk of exercise injuries. It's important to consume a lot of water while using creatine powders, like these, to stay hydrated.

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs are a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are found in protein-rich foods like dairy, meat, and eggs, but supplements are also available to make sure you're getting enough of them in your body.

BCAA supplementation can help build muscle mass through muscle protein synthesis, which creates new muscle tissue. Another benefit of these supplements is a reduction in soreness after intense training sessions, which can keep you motivated to stay on track during your stringent natural weight training.

Training Tips for Natural Bodybuilders

Training is an essential part of natural bodybuilding because the only source of muscle growth is using those muscles when no steroid use is involved. For the best results, you should work with a personal trainer who can tailor workouts to your body and goals, but there are some tips and guidelines that can help all-natural bodybuilders.

Here are some of the most critical steps to keep in mind for natural athletes, including bodybuilders:

  • Muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week, every week.
  • Reps should be kept between six and 12 per set.
  • Rest for one to three minutes between sets to allow enough recovery.
  • Keep concentric movements to one to two seconds (tension on your muscle).
  • Keep eccentric movements to two to three seconds (lengthening the muscle).
  • Avoid intermittent fasting to prevent excessive weight loss.

Natural Bodybuilding Competition Requirements

If you're looking to get into the world of natural bodybuilding competitions, a lot of prep needs to be done. These competitions are about more than just your shredded physique, and perfecting your mind-muscle connection before you enter a competition is important

One of the best things about the natural universe is that essentially anyone can compete. Various factors may play into how well you place in natural bodybuilding contests, but if you have perfected your poses and physique, you're well on your way to competitions. First, let's explore the elements of success in a natural bodybuilding show.


Your age is one of the elements that you can't change but can definitely play a role in your success as a natural bodybuilder. Once you turn 18, you have years of strenuous training and diligence ahead of you to be able to enter the world of natural bodybuilding competitions. Those between the ages of 20 and 30 often make the best natural bodybuilders because they will have quicker success in muscle gain. However, older competitors can still do well; it just may require more work.


The truth of the matter is that when you aren't relying on steroid use, you have to rely on your genetics. The ultimate goal in these competitions is to get your body to look as close to the look of an anatomy chart as possible. However, genetics affect your height and the amount of muscle you can grow, limiting how close you can get to the goal physique.

Heigh affects how much muscle you can grow because the longer a muscle is, the more potential it has for growth. Taller individuals have a genetic advantage compared to shorter competitors in natural bodybuilding.

Body weight can only go so high when you're aiming for a body fat percentage of three to five percent. This means that shorter natural bodybuilders will need to have a lower weight than taller competitors to reach the same body fat percentage. The amount of muscle mass your body can build is determined by your training and your genetics.

Tips for Your First Bodybuilding Competition

Preparing for your first natural bodybuilding competition? Elements of natural competitions differ from other bodybuilding competitions because of the stringent effort made by those not using performance-enhancing drugs. To be as prepared as possible for your first competition, follow these tips.

Learn the Four Relaxed Poses

As mentioned previously, the poses are one of the most essential parts of natural bodybuilding competitions. If you don't have the poses perfected, you're not ready for a competition. Your first step of preparation should include learning these four poses:

  • Front relaxed
  • Left-side relaxed
  • Right-side relaxed
  • Back relaxed

Learn the Eight Compulsory Poses

With the relaxed poses mastered, it's time for the compulsory poses. Practice all of these poses until you can do them without thinking about them. Expect it to take you months to fully master every pose you need to succeed in a natural bodybuilding competition. The eight compulsory poses are:

  • Front double biceps
  • Front lat spread
  • Right/left side chest
  • Right/left side triceps
  • Rear lat spread
  • Rear back double biceps
  • Most abdominal
  • Most muscular

Train with Strength Gains as Your Focus

Your strength training should include training with heavy weights to promote muscle size and density increases, then training with high volume to stimulate the muscle shape and form. Heavy training uses major muscle groups through movements like squats, leg presses, bench presses, pull-ups, and deadlifts. Don't focus on the weight other competitors can use in this area of training, just focus on improving your strength and muscle control.

High-volume training continues to use the major muscle groups but also incorporates minor muscles for definition. As the name suggests, you will increase your number of reps and decrease your rest period lengths at this point in training.

For example, if your heavy training included deadlifts in eight rep sets with two minutes between each set, your high-volume deadlifts will be 12 rep sets with 45 seconds between each set. Including both of these forms of training is essential to building and defining your muscles in the way natural bodybuilding competitions are looking for.

Don't Neglect Other Areas of Your Workout

While weight training is your biggest focus, be sure to include cardio and flexibility training in your plan. Cardio will strengthen your heart, burn fat, and let your muscles rest if they're sore after high-intensity weight training. Flexibility is also important because the more flexible you are, the less likely you are to get injured during your weight training sessions. The best natural bodybuilders are the ones who improve all areas of their fitness, not just their muscle mass.

Don't Forget the Wardrobe

While this may not seem like it's as big of a piece of the puzzle as other elements, you need to make sure you have the supplies you need for the competition itself. Most natural bodybuilders will tell you you need posing trunks and tanning oils at the top of your natural bodybuilder list of supplies. Check the guidelines of the bodybuilding competition you're entering to see what special requirements they have for clothing and appearance.

All About Natural Olympia: The Biggest Natural Bodybuilding Competition

The ultimate natural bodybuilder competition is Natural Olympia. The Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association was created in 1990 and is the pro league for natural bodybuilders to aim to qualify for. Natural Olympia follows the testing protocols of the World Anti-Doping Agency. In 1990, all competitors had to pass a drug test to enter the running for the Natural Olympia title. Now, the requirements aren't as clear, though it's known that random drug tests are part of the protocol.

Natural Olympia has taken place every year since 1998 and it's the ultimate natural bodybuilder competition. It usually takes place in November in Las Vegas, around the same time that IFBB's Olympia takes place.

Part of the draw of this competition is the prize money. In 2021, the prize pool was $65,000 and one competitor won a motorcycle. While the prize money is less than IFBB's Olympia, it's still a major sum that has natural bodybuilders working hard to compete in this top competition.


For anyone who wants to develop impressive physiques without steroid use, natural bodybuilding is the perfect way to do it. Avoiding performance-enhancing drugs means natural bodybuilders rely on their body's strengths and limitations and put in a lot of time and effort to achieve the results they hope for. Natural bodybuilding is a smaller part of the bodybuilding world, but it's competitive and growing year after year.

Natural lifters have their own rules about what is considered "natural," including the use of certain supplements. As time has passed, more supplements have become acceptable to use as natty bodybuilders. However, one thing they do agree on is using their body's natural abilities to improve strength, build muscles, and compete for the titles of best natural bodybuilders.