Female competitors combine strict dieting with intense training to get ready for a show. Now science has looked at the consequences.
This is different. Researchers have actually studied the effects of extreme dieting on fit, normal weight females. In this case, it was IFBB amateur competitors getting ready for shows, mainly in the bikini class.
Researchers wanted to find out what happens to them health-wise during the four month pre-competition period, along with how well they recover from the strict dieting and increased training.
This is unique, because most studies involve fat people trying to lose weight and then maintain that healthier weight. Fitness competitors are different. They're already in good shape; their goal is to get in stage shape – very lean and still displaying a good amount of muscle. And they don't try to maintain that extreme condition. After the show, the smart ones try to return to their baseline or normal fitness level, which is usually pretty darn good.
Twenty-seven females dieted for a show while 23 acted as weight-stable controls. They did what most "adult beauty pageant" contestants do: reduced overall calories, lowered carbs, kept protein intake high, lifted weights, and increased cardio and/or HIIT.
Most saw a 35 to 50 percent decrease of fat mass. Yeah, they got ripped. Muscle size was either maintained or only slightly decreased. Weight training plus a higher protein diet allowed them to keep all or most of their muscle, the researchers concluded.
That's all good, but their hormonal systems were wrecked. "Serum concentrations of leptin, T3, testosterone, and estradiol decreased," researchers noted. Menstrual irregularities were also common.
After their shows, the bedazzled-bikini subjects decreased their level of aerobic training and brought their overall calories and carbs back up to normal. In 3-4 months, hormone concentrations returned to baseline. Well, most of them. "T3 and testosterone were still slightly decreased compared to pre-diet, but not markedly in comparison to the controls," researchers said.
What We Can Learn
The researchers looked at this positively since muscle was mostly maintained and hormone levels returned to normal, or close to it, in the 4 months after the show.
But 4 months is a long-ass time to go hormonally hamstrung, especially when it comes to thyroid and testosterone. And many competitors do more than one show in a season. What happens when you end one competition prep and jump into a new one soon after? Longer recovery time? Permanent metabolic damage?
The scientists here also didn't talk much about drug use, only noting that the IFBB doesn't allow performance enhancing drugs. (Ha! See also: wink wink.) Now, these were amateur IFBB competitors in the bikini or fitness classes, so we can probably (maybe) assume that any drug use was minimal. But it could have affected the study results, like the ability to maintain muscle mass.
These same researchers are going look into the psychological aspects next.
To learn more about the effects of low testosterone in women, read The Female Low-Testosterone Epidemic.
For thyroid info, check out What You Don't Know About Your Thyroid.
Step onto the competition stage with caution... and not too often.
- Juha J. Hulmi, Ville Isola, Marianna Suonpää, Neea J. Järvinen, Marja Kokkonen, Annika Wennerström, Kai Nyman, Markus Perola, Juha P. Ahtiainen, Keijo Häkkinen. The Effects of Intensive Weight Reduction on Body Composition and Serum Hormones in Female Fitness Competitors. Frontiers in Physiology, 2017