Bodybuilding and its risks – Le Lawrentien

Last week the bodybuilding community was struck by a devastating loss with the passing of world class bodybuilder Cedric McMillan. Cedric was a military man and a family man and an inspiration to many in the fitness world, inspiring everyone to be their best self. Cedric McMillan brought one of the most comprehensive bodybuilding packages to the stage, blending pure mass with classic aesthetic lines. His performance at the 2017 Arnold Classic was one of the finest physiques to ever grace the bodybuilding scene and his victory speech will speak to all who hear it afterwards. With all of his great attributes, it’s hard not to find a Cedric McMillan fan.

Unfortunately, Cédric suffered a heart attack on April 12 at the age of 44. His death is one of many that have torn the fitness community apart over the past two years. In particular, heart failure appears to be the most common cause of death among professional bodybuilders. There are many factors to consider that make the bodybuilding lifestyle inherently dangerous, but also recent factors surrounding COVID-19 may explain the abnormal spike in high-level competitors.

A major contributing factor to the unhealthiness of the professional bodybuilding lifestyle is the sheer weight on most bodybuilders’ frames. Having large amounts of body mass can put excessive strain on various organ systems over time. While overly muscular bodies may be ideal for professional bodybuilding, it’s not ideal when it comes to health and longevity. The organ systems most damaged by weight training tend to be the heart, liver, and kidneys, but with recent episodes of cardiac arrest, the focus will be on the cardiovascular system. The heart can become overloaded with the task of pumping blood through over 240 pounds. of a body on frames that were never designed to hold such size.

Considering that anabolic steroids and human growth hormone that are used in bodybuilding can also enlarge the cardiac muscles of the heart, the heart can become very susceptible to failure. Dallas McCarver, a promising young bodybuilder who died in 2017 at just 27, was found to have a heart weighing over 800 grams, nearly three times the mass of the average human heart. Individual genetic response to steroids and training can affect overall heart rate and growth, but rack up over 250 pounds. of stage weight at even 300 lbs. and more out of season greatly increases the burden on the heart.

A more recent cardiac burden that has arisen in recent years is the emergence of COVID-19 and related dangers. We have all heard of the risk of myocarditis in those who have suffered from the virus. The effects of infection can affect the general population, even trained athletes. Considering that bodybuilders spend a lot of time in the gym, experiencing muscular and cardiovascular stress almost daily, it’s safe to think of them as athletes in some sense. There have been many cases of the virus causing long term effects to the many top bodybuilders who have contracted COVID.

Cedric McMillan himself was hospitalized after his encounter with the virus. The risk of myocarditis is likely increased by the strain already placed on the heart as well as stress on all organ systems, which can reduce overall immune system function. There is also the risk of myocarditis due to vaccination which cannot be ignored if all the factors of the recent surge in deaths are taken into account. No one is certain about the long-term effects of COVID or vaccination against the virus, so it’s important to keep an open mind as the bodybuilding community tries to keep its athletes safe.

The final factor and one of the most important strictly associated with bodybuilding are anabolic steroids, performance enhancing drugs and diuretics. Obviously, the average human body is not meant to build and maintain the muscle mass levels of a professional bodybuilder on his frame. The average person has nowhere near endogenous hormonal support to support muscle development and maintenance on this scale. That’s not to say that people can’t naturally build large and impressive amounts of muscle, but it’s clear that assistance is needed to achieve the size and conditioning needed to step onto the Olympia stage. Anabolic steroids can disrupt the endocrine system with the introduction of exogenous hormones and long term use can severely hamper the ability of the body’s natural processes to recover, hence why many retired bodybuilders follow a form of testosterone replacement therapy.

Anabolic steroids themselves and their action on the body are generally not the most dangerous practice in bodybuilding, but mismanagement of steroid cycles can cause quite serious kidney damage in the case of oral steroids. Other drugs like insulin or diuretics are extremely dangerous. Insulin use is a high-risk practice used due to the inherent anabolic properties of insulin to prevent cell breakdown and aid in protein synthesis, but its use can cause severe and even fatal hypoglycemia ( low blood sugar) in bodybuilders who already tend to be very insulin sensitive people. The use of diuretics is common to achieve the desired shrink-wrapped graininess on stage. They are generally not used until the last weeks of preparation for a competition.

Diuretics strip individuals of much water from their bodies, allowing the skin to press against the muscles, showing stretching and conditioning beyond what can be achieved by diet alone. With this immense dehydration and severe electrolyte imbalance, bodybuilders can die suddenly like the late great Mohammed Benaziza did in 1992 right after competition. The most conditioned bodybuilder Andreas Munzer died in 1996 after total liver and kidney failure due to chronic use of diuretics from which he got his iconic look.

The recent tragic losses have opened the eyes of many bodybuilding fans and especially the athletes themselves. Many have advocated for more regular blood tests, which check people for proper metabolic and hormonal functioning, as often as possible. Some have advocated changing the emphasis on conditioning in the scoring criteria to prevent the use of diuretics, opting for a greater focus on size and shape. Some athletes have changed divisions, opting to drop down to lower weight classes, such as Keone Pearson, who moved from the 212 division to a classic physique after the death last year of former Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden, 46-year-old, and Keone’s former classic physique mate. and 212 contestant, 37-year-old George Peterson.

Many have also advocated downsizing competitors when they are not competing and or are already retired, to ease the stress on their bodies. The bodybuilding and fitness community has taken advantage of these tragedies to advocate for healthier practices that will allow everyone to benefit long term from the sport and lifestyle that is bodybuilding.

In memory of Cedric McMillan.

Teresa E. Burton