Are the extreme dehydration techniques practiced by competitive bodybuilders healthy — or even necessary?
In his memoir I’m Here to Win, two-time Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack includes a section titled “How Bodybuilders Helped Me Win Kona.”
In the section, McCormack describes his battle with cramping, overheating and severely hampered performances at triathlon’s main event on the Big Island. Even though McCormack won the Championship in 2007, he was unable to repeat in both 2008 and 2009. Frustrated with his lack of progress, he turned to sources outside of triathlon for nutrition advice, settling on bodybuilding because “pro bodybuilders become like pharmacists — experts when it comes to nutrition, muscle size and health.”
Hydration is one of the biggest issues bodybuilders manage when competing. Muscle size is dependent partly on water content, so a hydrated muscle is a big muscle. However, competitors also want to avoid retaining any extra water, which will prevent their skin from appearing “tight” onstage. Too much water and the bodybuilder will look bloated and soft; too little water and the bodybuilder could cramp and struggle to induce a pump in his muscles.
McCormack learns all of this from a chance encounter with a former Mr. France who told him about the difference in hydrating at the muscular-cellular level and hydrating at the blood-plasma level. “What tends to happen [in the rush to hydrate a day or two before a big race or competition] is that the blood gets full of water, which is good because you feel like you’re hydrated, and you pee a lot,” McCormack writes. “But the osmosis across the cell wall doesn’t happen as quickly without the high intake of electrolytes, because your muscles protect themselves. They are very careful of what they take in.”
The bodybuilder tells McCormack about a complex hydration strategy, which specifies timelines and electrolyte supplements to hydrate McCormack’s muscles, but not his blood plasma. McCormack tried an adapted version of the routine and won the 2010 Ironman World Championship, without a single cramp. In his memoir, he attributes his success in part to the bodybuilder’s advice.
This blog post, inspired by SaltStick retailer Sand & Steel Fitness, is not about McCormack’s journey to recapturing the World Championship title. If you want to learn more about that, you can read his memoir. Instead, it is about the advice coming from McCormack’s bodybuilding acquaintance. Bodybuilders are well-known for manipulating both body fat and water content in preparation for a competition. Yet as the research and historical evidence shows, the traditional approach is both unhealthy and — unless an athlete is using unnatural methods to prepare for competition such as anabolic steroids — not even useful.
The traditional approach
Bodybuilding.com provides a timeline for bodybuilders looking to compete as lean as possible, including strategies ranging from sodium loading/deloading to red wine-induced urination. Other resources offer similar tactics for reducing weight prior to competition, but all look fairly similar in that they incorporate extreme steps toward dehydrating the athlete.
Some bodybuilders have become so obsessed with removing excess water that they move beyond red wine and saunas to turn to chemical means. An article titled “Diuretics in Bodybuilding: The Good, the Bad, the Tragic” describes the great lengths some athletes will go before a competition. “While athletes appear to be at the highest level of physical fitness and health while on stage, they are actually often on the brink of very serious health issues due to lack of hydration and electrolyte imbalances caused by the lack of bodily fluids,” the article describes.
Many of these hydration imbalances are the result of an athlete consuming diuretics, which induce urination. But extreme dehydration can cause equally extreme problems inside the body, and several bodybuilders have either died or been hospitalized due to cardiac arrest or liver failure resulting from electrolyte imbalances. Famous examples include Mohammed Benaziza, who died in 1992 and Albert Beckles, who died but was resuscitated by paramedics in 1988. Physicians found out afterwards that both had taken diuretics before their shows.
Death may be the most serious consequence, but other side effects of bodybuilding’s dehydration methods include a drop in blood pressure, thickening of the blood (due to lack of fluids), fainting, renal failure and cramping due to electrolyte imbalances.
Endurance sports, of course, have their own share of horror stories relating to dehydration (or more commonly, overhydration resulting in hyponatremia). The takeaway from both sports is the same: Do not play with the body’s need for appropriate levels of water and electrolytes.
Athletes in either sport will counter-argue and agree that completing an Ironman or getting lean enough to compete onstage is not ideal for the body (physically, mentally, hormonally), which is why competitions only happen a few times each year. It is true that some level of physical stress must be accepted in order to achieve world-class results. For instance, extreme low body-fat levels results in dramatically low testosterone levels (International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2013), which return to normal after a bodybuilding competition ends and competitors return to a healthier body fat percentage.
However, when an athlete must be carried offstage because of cramping or ends up hospitalized due to cardiac arrest, something has gone wrong. This has caused some members of the bodybuilding community to question whether the traditional methods of preparation are still appropriate for the sport.
Is dehydration worth it?
In Ironman Magazine, columnist Dave Goodin addresses dehydration practices in a 2011 article. His conclusion is that for a drug-free athlete, dehydration is not necessary, and in fact, could achieve a negative outcome: “Dehydration is very unhealthful and because it makes drug-free people look worse instead of better.”
Goodin provides two reasons why dehydration has been overhyped in the industry.
The first reason is that dehydration practices arose in an era before anabolic steroids were deemed illegal. Before the late 1980s, steroids were common practice among bodybuilders because their use had not been restricted by either federal or state law. A side effect of steroid use is water accumulation outside of muscle cells, and to counteract this, bodybuilders before the 1990s commonly practiced dehydration methods to remove this extra water before a competition. After steroid use was banned within the industry, the practice continued, simply due to momentum. “If you are not taking any bodybuilding drugs, there’s no reason to dehydrate your body for a competition, photo shoot or any other event at which you want to look lean and muscular,” Goodin writes.
The second reason is that among fitness circles, the phrase “you’re just holding water” is often used as an excuse for excess body fat. “Water retention is temporary,” Goodin writes. “Unless you have kidney issues, the [excess water weight] will be gone in no more than 24 to 36 hours. If the softness that is being considered ‘holding water’ is there every day, it’s not water but fat that you still need to lose.”
The proper approach to competition, as described by Goodin, is to cut body fat to as little as possible and avoid foods that cause water retention, such as high sodium foods or foods that contain allergens in the final days before the competition. Nothing more. “On contest day I always have water with me and drink anytime I’m thirsty,” Goodin writes. “My advice is to be well hydrated and healthy.”
As a reference, Goodin has won nine international titles in natural bodybuilding.
Additional research has found similar conclusions to Goodin’s anecdotal evidence. A 2015 study tracked a 21 year-old amateur bodybuilding competitor in his efforts to improve body composition without using any of the traditional measures of dehydration, periods of prolonged fasting, severe caloric restriction, excessive cardiovascular exercise and inappropriate use of diuretics and anabolic steroids. For 14 weeks, the athlete was instructed to follow a program that looks surprisingly normal. The elements included:
- Consuming a variety of foods;
- Not neglecting any macronutrient groups;
- Exercising regularly but not excessively; and
- Incorporating rest days into his conditioning regime.
This resulted in a loss of nearly 26 pounds and a 13 pound loss of pure body fat. The study does not list more specific results (or competition outcomes), but it does remark that the athlete’s mood was stable throughout the process. “This intervention shows that a structured and scientifically supported nutrition strategy can be implemented to improve parameters relevant to bodybuilding competition and importantly the health of competitors, therefore questioning the conventional practices of bodybuilding preparation,” the study’s authors conclude.
Another study from 2014 concluded that “alterations in nutrient timing and frequency appear to have little effect on fat loss or lean mass retention,” and “the practice of dehydration and electrolyte manipulation in the final days and hours prior to competition can be dangerous, and may not improve appearance.”
It is worth noting that the two studies just mentioned deal exclusively in the realm of natural bodybuilding, or bodybuilding without the assistance of anabolic steroids. This more or less restates Goodin’s original point that dehydration before a competition is only useful when the athlete has been using non-natural methods in training.
Note: We do not condone the usage of any illegal substance in any sport, at any time. Our SaltStick products are proudly free of banned substances and independently tested, and they do not contain trace or questionable components.
In the end, what is useful?
Compared to the environment twenty years ago, professional triathletes use fewer extreme techniques in training and racing, such as obtaining dangerously-low body fat levels or “getting to the finish line at all costs.” Modern exercise science has confirmed the risks of forcing the body through such high levels of stress. Today’s athletes are willing to take the risk only if success is likely, and while it is not as spectator-friendly, it is much safer.
Bodybuilding has also moved in a more natural direction; “natural bodybuilding” has even become a stand-alone competitive category. As the studies above indicate, cutting body fat to low levels can be achieved through diet and exercise. During competition, there is no need for radical dehydration techniques, and athletes can follow normal hydration protocol:
- Consuming adequate amounts of all key electrolytes: The body needs sodium for a variety of physiological processes, but also potassium, calcium and magnesium. A majority of U.S adults do not consume the recommended daily amount of magnesium, which is likely why bodybuilders are often advised to take magnesium supplements leading up to competition. Low magnesium levels, in particular, have been correlated with increased cramping, which is a bodybuilder’s enemy onstage.
- Ensuring a proper balance among key electrolytes: Bodybuilders are often told to cut sodium in the days before a competition to avoid water retention. However, as we have discussed many times on our blog, the ratio of electrolytes is more important than the absolute amount consumed. A diet high in potassium obtained from fruits and vegetables will help reduce bloating due to water retention, and extreme reductions of sodium are not necessary.
Extremes are seldom healthy or even useful, and success onstage (or in a race) is much safer to achieve through discipline, consistency and hard work. Last-minute adjustments may work in the short-term, but are quite detrimental to the athlete’s health. As Goodin writes, “Don’t fall victim to confusing body fat with ‘holding water,’ and don’t become a casualty of dehydration.”
Important Note: The above should not be construed as medical advice. Contact your physician before starting any exercise program or if you are taking any medication. Individuals with high blood pressure should also consult their physician prior to taking an electrolyte supplement. Overdose of electrolytes is possible, with symptoms such as vomiting and feeling ill, and care should be taken not to overdose on any electrolyte supplement.