A Study into the Motivations of Natural Bodybuilders
by Dr Elesa Argent

This research study investigated the motivations for British bodybuilders to choose to compete as natural athletes. The rationale for this research is based on the concept that virtually all academic research into the sport of bodybuilding concentrates heavily on the use of steroids and rarely acknowledges the existence of a natural bodybuilding scene. This article aims to redress this imbalance by providing preliminary data into the motivations of bodybuilders to compete as natural athletes.

This article is an edited summary of research conducted by Fordham & Argent (2008). The data was recently presented at the 2008 Inaugural Conference of the British Psychological Society’s’ Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The authors are now developing further research into this area.

Background to the Study

Society has experienced a recent upsurge in the acceptance of, and desire to attain a muscular physique (Grogan, Shepheard, Evans, Wright & Hunter, 2006; Jankauskiene, Kestutis & Pajaujiene, 2007; Pickett, Lewis, Cash, 2005). This mirrors a more general increase in the interest in the concept of body image (Picket et al., 2005), attributable in part to an increased realisation of the significance of a healthy developed body (Stovkis, 2006), and the perceived desirability of a muscular physique to the opposite sex (Jankauskiene et al., 2007). This has subsequently resulted in an increase in the popularity of the sport of bodybuilding (Pickett et al., 2005). The sport of bodybuilding involves the pursuit of an extreme mesomorph physique through intense training and dieting regimes, with the ultimate aim of displaying the physique on stage in competitions (Jankauskiene et al., 2007; Peters, Copeland, Dillon & Beel 1997; Pickett et al., 2005; Ryckman, Dill, Dyer, Sanborn & Gold, 1991; Wright, Grogan & Hunter, 2000).

The activity of bodybuilding is difficult to categorise. It is viewed by some as a sport (Peters et al., 1997), by others as a process (Cafri et al., 2005; Stokvis, 2006), and as a combination of sport and entertainment (Jankauskiene et al., 2007). The aim of an individual who participates in bodybuilding is to develop an aesthetically pleasing muscular body of a larger, more defined nature than is traditionally seen in ‘fit’ individuals (Wright et al., 2000; Stokvis, 2006), with the emphasis on developing a physique exhibiting extreme levels of muscularity (Ryckman et al., 1991). Bodybuilders strive for the optimum balance of modifications to the symmetry, proportion and size of their muscles (Peters et al., 1997; Jankauskiene et al., 2007), as in competitions they are judged purely on the look of their muscles, not theoretically via any form of athletic competition (Peters et al., 1997; Fair, 2006).

  • Theorisations of Motivations to Compete as a Bodybuilder

    Peters et al. (1997) describe the sport of bodybuilding as providing the connection between the good-looking non-athletic physiques and the athletic, but not so good-looking physiques. As the emphasis on bodybuilding is on the development of one’s body for predominantly aesthetic reasons, associations with vanity and narcissism have often been levelled at bodybuilders (Ryckman et al., 1991; Andrews et al., 2005; Stokvis, 2006).

    Whilst society accepts that aspiring to the development of a muscular physique can be a healthy pastime, it considers developing a muscular physique for the purposes of bodybuilding as a negative pastime (Andrews et al., 2005). The popularity of bodybuilding and the desire to develop increasingly muscular physiques has led to an increased prevalence of the use of Anabolic Androgenic Steroids (AAS) and other performance enhancing substances (Wright et al., 2000; Irving, Wall, Newmark-Sztainer, & Story 2002; Sandel, 2004; Andrews et al., 2005; Parkinson & Evans, 2005; Grogan et al., 2006; Jankauskiene et al., 2007). AAS have been described as a drug that is perceived by bodybuilders to be attractive and effective (Schwerin & Corcoran, 2005), facilitating the increase of fat free mass and strength, and the reduction of body fat. As a result of these perceived benefits, its use has become prevalent in the bodybuilding community (Cafri et al., 2005). Studies have also attempted to link the pursuit of a muscular physique with body image disturbance and feelings of inferiority (Cafri, Thompson, Ricciardelli, McCabe, Smolak, Yesalis, 2000; Jankauskiene et al., 2007; Pickett et al., 2005; White & Gilbert, 1994). Literature reflects the existence of generally negative perceptions of bodybuilders, based on a perceived use of AAS; that bodybuilders are likely to be narcissistic, unhealthy, unattractive, and to possess fewer socially desirable traits than non-bodybuilders (Andrews et al., 2005; Freeman, 1998; Ryckman et al.,1991).

  • Natural Bodybuilding: An Absence of Research Data

    However, bodybuilding is arguably unique as a sport, in that athletes can choose to compete as natural (drug-free) athletes in a natural federation, or as athletes in a non-natural federation; thus, drug use amongst competitive bodybuilders can certainly not be assumed to be universal. Despite the existence of natural bodybuilding, however, most existing research concerning the subject of bodybuilding has focused on a reported link between bodybuilding and steroid use, and has attempted to define the motivations for use of steroids amongst bodybuilders (Andrews, Sudwell & Sparkes, 2000; Grogan et al., 2006; Wright et al., 2000).

  • Researching the Use of AAS in Bodybuilding

    Determining the motivations for an individual to take AAS has attracted many researchers to this area of study, with results mediated by whether the subjects studied were competitive or non-competitive bodybuilders (Peters et al., 1997; Bahrke & Yesalis, 2004). Grogan et al. (2006) stated that motivations for steroid use were generally person specific and complex, with Andrews et al. (2005) adding that motivations were formed from two main areas; performance enhancement in sport, or enhancement in appearance. The majority of research has found the most common reasons given for taking AAS are dissatisfaction with body size and the desire to increase muscle mass in order to experience enhanced feelings of confidence as a result of this increase in muscular size (Peters et al., 1997; Wright et al., 2000; Andrews et al., 2005; Cafri et al., 2005; Picket et al., 2005; Grogan et al., 2006; Jankauskiene et al., 2007). The influence of media imagery reflecting increasingly muscular male physiques (Wright et al., 2000; Grogan et al., 2006) were also cited as common reasons to begin taking steroids.

    The most apparent and reoccurring theme for motivation to use steroids appears to be the desire to compete in, or to continue to compete in, the sport of bodybuilding (Peters et al., 1997; Wright et al., 2000; Andrews et al., 2005; Grogan et al., 2006; Jankauskiene et al., 2007). Existing literature theorises that AAS use is necessary for an athlete entering a bodybuilding competition (Peters et al., 1997; Wright et al., 2000), attributable to the belief that AAS maximise the effects of training and are thus essential to achieve winning status. Jankauskiene et al. (2007) also observed that entering a bodybuilding competition made individuals more likely to practice behaviours that were harmful to their health.

    However, little research has been conducted into the existence of natural bodybuilding, and of the motivations for successful competitive bodybuilders to reject the use of AAS or other performance enhancing substances. It is possible that motivations for natural bodybuilders to compete might be significantly different to the motivations for non-natural bodybuilders to compete; this observation subsequently forms the basis of the research objectives of this study.


    Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five participants. Selection for participation in this study was conducted using criterion–based sampling (Thomas & Nelson, 2001).

    Participants were purposely selected for the study based on their ability to meet the following criteria: a history of competition as a natural athlete, status as either current or former National or World Champion, and achievement of a top three placing in a regional, national or World-level championship of a recognised natural federation during the last twelve months (March 2007-March 2008).

    The participants chosen for interview comprised of one female and four male bodybuilders, (mean age 36 years), who had been actively training for at least ten years (mean n = 19 years). All participants had competed in the sport of bodybuilding as natural athletes and had won at least one competition (mean n = 9.2). The group included two World Champions. One participant had previously competed as a natural athlete before making the decision to compete using AAS. The competitive history and natural status of these participants were confirmed via contact with appropriate natural bodybuilding federations under whose jurisdiction the participants competed.

    Results and Discussion

    The results of this study identify three primary motivational factors that influence the decision of the competitive bodybuilder to compete as a natural athlete. These factors are; the motivation to compete: “winning is a big thrill of course, that’s what it’s all about really”; the influence of role models and associated desire to be a positive role model; and the desire to lead a healthy lifestyle.

    Interestingly, all of the participants interviewed in this study did not initially begin lifting weights as a means to pursue a competitive bodybuilding career; instead, they began lifting weights in a gym environment for another initial purpose (for example, general health and fitness) and then began to consider bodybuilding after this initial exposure to the gym/bodybuilding culture. One participant reinforced findings of Pickett et al. (2005), stating they began working out as a result of being bullied at school for being skinny.

    “I definitely think that a lot of people train because they have a complex. Like for myself, this is what built my confidence up. Because I got bullied at school, it helped a lot. And I think that the guys that go on the gear – even more so.”

    The ego boost associated with being on stage and winning was also acknowledged by another participant: “Yes, for me, it's the nearest thing to being a rock star. You know, being on stage, people cheering.” This participant felt that the desire to compete was not their original reason for commencing recreational bodybuilding, but was something that became appealing to them after they had been involved on a recreational level for some time. Another participant commented that: “I don’t think anyone starts with the intention of competing. You start, get interested, then it follows from there.”

  • The Influence of Role Models

    Three of the five participants cited role models in the form of training partners and fellow competitors during the early stage of their careers as significant positive influences in their decision to compete as natural athletes. Other role models discussed were childhood heroes that exhibited a muscular physique, such as Batman and Superman, and former bodybuilding champions Serge Nubret and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The desire to be a positive role model also emerged. One participant expressed the desire to be a positive role model for their children and regarded the natural route as a means of achieving this goal, principally through demonstration that a healthy lifestyle, and the positive outlook it created in life, could be achieved without drug use.

    However, the same participant also identified the need to prioritise bodybuilding over everything, including family commitments: “It’s a selfish sport, but you have to think about family as well. Everyone thinks it’s such a great achievement, but at home it’s not so happy.” Nevertheless, the supportive role of family was clearly acknowledged: “I could not do it without my wife or the rest of my family, and the people I train with. It is a very lonely sport so the support we get is very much appreciated.”

  • The Allure of a Healthy Lifestyle

    Physical health and the moral choice associated with leading a healthy lifestyle was identified as a significant motivational factor: “I have never done anything like smoking or drugs”; “Every meal is balanced; I don’t follow a low carbohydrate diet or anything like that.” The use of bodybuilding to focus on a healthy diet was also cited by two participants:

    “It gives me a focus. What I find is that I'm a fat person in a thin body. I was overweight for a few years. I enjoy the training, but enjoy the food even more. So that's bodybuilding – having something to aim for which is quite personal. Standing on stage having people write things about you and picking faults with you. So if ever you want a chocolate bar, kebab or pizza, it's always in the back of your mind that they will be able to tell.”

    “If I had to sum it up – total belief that you can do anything. For a lot of people it’s about vanity. For me, it’s about setting myself the hardest challenge I could possibly do. If I could do this, I could do anything.”

    The motivational desire to engage in bodybuilding for health is an interesting concept, given the stereotypical image of bodybuilding as a steroid-fuelled sport; this suggests that the natural side of the sport can contribute much to a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, including the development and provision of positive role models. For example, one participant discussed how he wished to both follow a healthy lifestyle and provide a positive body image that his children would be proud of:

    “As well as building my physique, it was all about health. So if I was doing steroids it would be defeating the object, so that’s why I mainly kept natural. Plus the main reason – I want to look good when I am older. Like my father, my parents – they are both fat. At little school, people always made fun of them, so I didn’t want the same to happen to my kid!” Another participant also commented that by winning a world title without the use of AAS, he felt that he had achieved this objective of retaining a healthy lifestyle and acting as a positive role model.

  • Negative Misconceptions of Bodybuilding

    Natural bodybuilding was referred to as a ‘niche sport within a niche sport’ by two participants. Participants also commented that the apparently extreme nature of bodybuilding (i.e. involving the explicit use of steroids) hindered acceptance of the sport by mainstream society and that these negative perceptions might also detrimentally affect perceptions of, and subsequent participation in natural bodybuilding. For example, all participants recalled that they were often asked about steroids, and found it frustrating that people appeared to be far less interested in any other aspect of their training or lifestyle, or that stereotypical assumptions were meted out to them based on their status as a competitive bodybuilder. For example, one participant commented that he had been rejected for a position as a rugby strength and conditioning coach, with the hiring committee commenting that: ‘we have had enough bodybuilders in rugby; we don’t want any more of you guys on drugs’. The participant elaborated by commenting that:

    “They think bodybuilding is tarnished with drugs. Yet every sport is tarnished with drugs. Bodybuilders are a lot more honest. Most bodybuilders on drugs will tell you. Ask a rugby player and they will deny it, as it is illegal.”

  • Body Image

    When asked to comment on their attitude towards the prevalence of body dysmorphia in the sport, three of the five participants commented that they thought that athletes who take steroids were more likely to be associated with dysmorphic characteristic traits. “I think this might be true, [but] not true for naturals. But I think the non-naturals, most of them do suffer with muscle dysmorphia, or they have been bullied at school or humiliated at some point.”

    All participants further agreed that they paid close attention to their physiques and felt that they were critical of their physique, but they felt that this was due to their competitive nature and the necessity to improve their physique in order to excel at their sport. They commented that critiquing their physique was an essential component of their continued competitive success and was in no way related to the symptoms of muscle dysmorphia.

    These findings conflict with some existing research, which identify low self esteem and high levels of body image disturbance (body dysmorphia) (Cafri et al., 2005; Grogan et al., 2006; Jankauskiene et al., 2007; Pickett et al., 2005), and a preoccupation with increasing muscle size and retention of a constant negative opinion of one’s physique (Pickett et al., 2005) as primary motivating factors to compete. Whilst participants agreed that muscle dysmorphia existed in the sport, they felt strongly that this was limited to the assisted side of the sport, and that any self-criticism on the part of the bodybuilder could be attributed to the fundamental competitive desire to win a trophy via attainment of a ‘better’ physique than others: “90% of bodybuilders will never look at themselves in the mirror and be happy, and that’s a fact... you will always look at yourself in the negative, and that’s competitively wise.”

    Participants often discussed the positive effect that competing had on their self-image or confidence:

    “I was scared stiff before I went on stage because I was so shy. And you're getting on stage in a little pair of trunks in front of loads of people posing, and I couldn’t even get up in front of my family! So I said to myself, I can either go up on stage and look really shy and stupid, or I can go up there and put on an act. So I did that and absolutely loved it!”

    Whilst existing research (Andrews et al., 2005; Freeman, 1998; Rykman et al., 1991; Schwerin & Corcoran, 1996) identifies the negative personality traits that are assigned by society to bodybuilders, such as narcissism and vanity, it is unclear if these comments could be as readily attributable to a natural bodybuilder. Indeed, findings identified in this study suggest that natural bodybuilders appear to be motivated by significantly different factors than non-natural bodybuilders.

    One participant felt that status as a bodybuilder could lead to being unfairly judged as a steroid user: “Bodybuilders have already got this reputation and the stigma attached to them”. This was echoed by another participant:

    “Most people associate bodybuilding with drugs – that’s the first thing that comes into their minds. They look at me and say “you can’t be a bodybuilder, you're not big enough.”

    One participant similarly acknowledged potential lack of knowledge in the natural side of the sport: “I think most people just presume that there are no drug tests involved, whereas there are actually two organisations that drug test, the NPA being by IOC [International Olympic Committee] standard drug testing.” Another commented that the media might prefer to concentrate on sensationalist aspects of the sport as opposed to the positive aspects associated with natural bodybuilding:

    “...if they had a report in the paper about natural bodybuilding, you know ‘we're all pure, walking around like happy little bunnies’ it doesn’t appear as interesting. But it is interesting! You are showing what you can do naturally.”

    However, one participant echoed the theorisations of previously cited authors in his acknowledgement that members of the bodybuilding community encouraged him to try steroids in his early bodybuilding days: “When I was working at the gym I started at... it (steroids) was like Red Bull, you know, it was so easy to get it... The guys that knew what they were doing, the sellers, they gave me a book and let me read all about it, and tried to make out that it wasn’t as bad as people thought, and I was very tempted then because I was in that environment.” This suggests that the presence of natural role models and gyms that follow a natural ethos may positively influence natural bodybuilders in their desire to compete as a natural.

    Participants in this study did not generally object to the use of AAS in the assisted side of the sport: “If it is a level playing field, good luck to them. I hope they do well and hope they don’t suffer the effects later on in life.” However, participants were clearly disparaging of any athlete that attempted to compete in a natural federation whilst taking any banned substance (cheating).


    This study provides preliminary investigation into the motivations of bodybuilders to compete as natural athletes, and provides an empirical basis for the theorisation that natural bodybuilders possess significantly different motivations to compete than assisted bodybuilders. These motivations constitute the desire to compete, the effect of and the desire to be a role model, and the desire to follow a healthy lifestyle.

    Justification for further research appears to exist, in order to further understand why bodybuilders choose the natural or ‘non-natural’ competitive pathway. Comprehension of the factors underpinning this choice might assist in the identification of methods that effectively discourage AAS use in the bodybuilding and other sporting communities.

    It is further suggested that future bodybuilding research explicitly acknowledges the existence of natural and assisted bodybuilding as two distinct sub-groups. This would allow detailed investigation and comparison of the potentially different motivations, attitudes, behaviours and actions of both sub-groups, and as such, may contribute significantly to the knowledge base in the area.


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