Unpacking the Science in Bodybuilding: A Study on Coaching Strategies

Bodybuilders commit years to improving their physiques, powered by strict and rigid training and dietary protocols, and strategic supplementation, aiming for the best balance of muscle mass, minimal body fat, and overall symmetry. Guided by expert bodybuilding coaches, they strive for perfection.

While we have substantial research on bodybuilders' practices, a recently published study shines a spotlight on the tactics that coaches use in their craft for the very first time, conducted by Rukstela and colleagues. It included 33 bodybuilding coaches, each with significant field experience and achievements. Coaching athletes to victories at regional National Physique Committee (NPC) competitions and top-level contests in the International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) Professional League, including prestigious events such as the Olympia and Arnold Classic.

This exploration provides invaluable insights, not just to coaches and athletes seeking to optimize their strategies, but also to researchers interested in the techniques used in bodybuilding. Furthermore, the study covers an often overlooked area: the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in 'enhanced' bodybuilding versus 'natural', drug-tested athletes. The findings can significantly boost our understanding of PEDs' role in bodybuilding and could help develop evidence-based guidelines.

The study delved into protein intake, cardio routines, supplementation, and drug use. This article will discuss each area's findings to broader evidence-based recommendations for the sport.

A frequently debated subject in bodybuilding, protein intake was a key focus of this study. The research revealed that coaches typically suggest protein intakes between 2-3.3 g/kg for natural athletes and 2-4.84 g/kg for those using PEDs during the off-season. These recommendations exceed the evidence-based optimal protein intake of 1.4-2.0 g/kg/day for active individuals. However, studies show that intakes around 1.6 g/kg/day or higher maximize lean mass gains.

However, these guidelines do not consider extremes of body-fat levels or PED use. It's worth noting that while the subjects in these studies may not be as muscular, this should theoretically be offset by basing the guidelines on body weight, which scales with muscle mass.

During competition preparation, protein intake varies, with coaches reporting an increase of up to 25% for enhanced athletes and a fluctuation of +10% to -25% for natural athletes. It's unclear whether increased protein intake is necessary during fat loss or contest prep specifically. However, in these conditions, erring on the side of caution with increased protein intake may be wise.

For protein-feeding frequency, coaches recommend between 3-7 meals per day. This aligns with evidence-based guidelines of distributed protein feedings of 0.40 g/kg/meal, and 0.60 g/kg/meal for older individuals.

A noteworthy 67% of coaches advocate fasted cardiovascular exercise for their athletes. Interestingly, the intention behind this is often to combine with fat-burning supplements, rather than burning additional calories in isolation. Cardiovascular exercise parameters typically include session duration, step count, heart rate, and calories expended, with popular modalities being the treadmill, stair-master, elliptical, and stationary bike.

Exercise intensity varies, but low-intensity steady-state (LISS) and moderate-intensity steady-state (MISS) workouts are commonly adopted. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is effective but less commonly mentioned except for enhanced male competitors. The weekly duration of cardiovascular exercise tends to be higher for female competitors, with durations ranging from 40 to 740 minutes per week.

Fasted cardio is widespread, often paired with fat-burning supplements like yohimbine, growth hormone, and clenbuterol. Research indicates that fasted cardio isn't inherently more effective than fed exercise, but its effectiveness with specific substances is yet fully understood.

For HIIT, research shows to be comparable to MISS for fat-burning. Still, due to its high recovery demands, it's not advisable to overuse it, especially during natural bodybuilding contest preparation.

Lastly, there's a significant difference in the recommended duration of cardiovascular exercise for female and male athletes. Coaches suggest up to 740 minutes per week for females and 480 minutes for males during contest preparation. However, to minimize the negative impact of cardio on resistance training due to the interference effect and overall added fatigue, employing the least amount of cardio necessary to achieve the desired results is recommended.

Across all categories, creatine is the most recommended supplement, mirroring previous research where 84% of natural competitors and 52% of enhanced competitors reported using creatine monohydrate. Given its well-documented ability to boost strength and lean mass gains, this widespread recommendation aligns with scientific evidence.

Next on the list is fish oils/omega-3 fatty acids. While omega-3 supplementation can improve endurance and recovery, existing evidence doesn't robustly support its significant contribution to muscle growth or fat loss. Thus, its recommendation likely relates more to general health benefits than specific bodybuilding performance. It is particularly beneficial for enhanced athletes due to the triglyceride-lowering effects of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, components of omega-3 fatty acids.

Protein is unsurprisingly a top recommended supplement for all categories. And caffeine is another frequent recommendation during the preparatory phases across all categories. Caffeine's proven ability to increase performance and exercise energy expenditure aligns with current scientific evidence.

Supplements like yohimbine and ashwagandha were popular for fat loss and performance, and the evidence for either isn’t robust. Bergamot and N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) were favored by enhanced athletes, likely due to their protective effects on liver function and blood lipid changes associated with PED use.

PED usage
In performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), testosterone is the most recommended among male and female bodybuilders. However, the suggested doses significantly exceed those used in testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), and the implications of such high doses in healthy, physically active athletes are unclear due to limited research.

Other popular PEDs include primobolan and growth hormone. While most drugs were used by both genders, some were disproportionately favored by each. Men often used insulin and trenbolone, while women tended to use clenbuterol, anavar, and metformin.

Summing Up
Bodybuilding is a fiercely competitive sport that requires athletes to push the boundaries of their physical capabilities. Assisted by coaches, athletes meticulously sculpt their bodies through strategic nutrition, training, and supplementation strategies. The recently conducted study illuminates the varied tactics these bodybuilding coaches employ, providing intriguing insights that broaden our understanding of this sport.

The study's findings expose intriguing aspects of bodybuilding coaching. Protein intake, for example, frequently surpasses the established guidelines for active individuals. Cardiovascular exercise is likewise peculiar, often used in synergy with specific supplements and drugs for an enhanced effect.

As for the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), substances such as testosterone, primobolan, and growth hormone are commonly recommended. Yet, the health implications and efficacy of such practices remain uncertain due to a lack of comprehensive research.

The insights gained from this study reveal a landscape where bodybuilding coaches' strategies both align and diverge from established scientific evidence. However, the documentation of these strategies, shaped by hands-on experience and individualized coaching approaches, is invaluable to the sport. Coaching is a unique and personalized craft, as evidenced by the varied answers provided by the coaches in the study. No two coaches responded identically, illustrating the highly individualized nature of coaching within the studied bodybuilding divisions.

Future Directions
While the study provides important insights, it also piques curiosity for further exploration. How do coaches manage an athlete’s caloric deficits, carbohydrate and fat intake, food choices, and psychological factors influencing athletes' diets? Why do coaches favor specific supplements? What are their strategies for handling health risks and medical supervision related to PED usage?

When coaches' recommendations differ from existing scientific evidence, what underpins this discrepancy? Could it be a lack of awareness or value placed on scientific evidence or a belief that such evidence does not apply to their athletes? These questions hint at untapped areas for future research, promising a more comprehensive understanding of bodybuilding coaching.

A coach is highly recommended if you're ready to maximize your bodybuilding potential or step on stage. At RP, we have an Elite Physique Coaching package, offering coaching with a perfect blend of scientific knowledge and extensive competition experience. Our coaches focus on bodybuilding and competition, having competed themselves countless times, prepping hundreds of athletes and helping countless ones get their pro card. You'll receive tailor-made guidance, meticulous training log reviews, prompt responses to your queries, and regular check-ins. Reach your peak physique with the right guidance.


Rukstela A, Lafontant K, Helms E, Escalante G, Phillips K, Campbell BI. Bodybuilding Coaching Strategies Meet Evidence-Based Recommendations: A Qualitative Approach. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2023; 8(2):84. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk8020084

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