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October 02, 2022 3 Comments
If we were to ask who are the best bodybuilders in the world, it is essential to realize that most, if not all, of the names that come to mind, would not make this list. If bodybuilding has taught us anything, it comes down to two things.
One: Discipline, consistency, and hard work can help us achieve incredible results, and it is too hard for most people to commit to this lifestyle. The second is to temper expectations as a natural lifter and accept that you will spend a lifetime chasing something you may not quite get to. But that is the beauty of the sport.
The best legit natural bodybuilders cannot compete with enhanced ones, but it’s crucial to remember they are still in the .1% percentile of the population as far as physiques go.
Like anything in today’s world, context is king when trying to decipher all the unlimited information at our disposal. This article will answer common questions regarding natty bodybuilders, fake natty bodybuilders, legit natty competitions, drug tests, and more.
This post will also discuss:
The definition has changed quite a bit over the years, but to keep it simple, natty bodybuilding is a competition for drug-free natural bodybuilders. Natural bodybuilding was created and gained popularity in the 90s to compete with the enhanced bodybuilding competitions that were growing in popularity.
It’s important to realize what a legit natty competition is and what it entails. It has nothing to do with one's strength, muscle mass, muscular endurance, or physique. It all comes down to the testing.
Testing can be as simple as checking the banned substance list, including anything from anabolic steroids to simple creatine monohydrate. Some competitions even go with the honor system (insert eye roll here), and some have stricter testing policies.
So what ensures the Natural Mr. Olympia is not a fake natty? The testing!
The Natural Mr. Olympia will never be able to beat the Mr. Olympia champion, which those on the natural side must just accept.
The Natty Mr. Olympia is the world's most significant natural bodybuilding competition. Every athlete is screened by the highest drug testing standards for the competition. The testing can include blood, urine, and even polygraph testing. The World Anti-Doping Agency is even the host of the event.
Now it’s also important to remember that all of this testing requires someone to pay for it. The top natural competitions have some prize money and clout, which is why they also have the leading testing. Still, unfortunately, most amateur natural bodybuilding competitions do not have the same funding as they are not nearly as popular as enhanced bodybuilding shows. Therefore, the testing may not be as high quality.
Bodybuilding fans want to see the best bodybuilders who have pushed the limits on what a person can achieve. We don’t want to be the rain cloud on any bodybuilder’s dreams and aspirations, but it’s vital to remember that there is not a ton of incentive to catch bodybuilders taking steroids at the highest level.
Some bodybuilders have also gotten pretty damn good at cheating the system, so sometimes the definition of natural bodybuilding simply means “not on drugs right now.”
For example, Mr. Natural Universe winner Mike O’Hearn is one of the most controversial figures in bodybuilding. Just because the title says natural doesn’t necessarily convince everyone that they are all, in fact, drug-free lifters. There are fake nattys all over the place leveraging their physique, competition wins, and status as a “natty” to make money and grow their following.
Let’s look at how you can spot a drug-free natty bodybuilder.
Most of the answers in this article will start with a disclaimer similar to reminding you that an R-rated movie may not be suitable for your kids. It’s important to remember that there are plenty of outlier cases, and there really isn't a 100% accurate way to confirm either way.
There are certainly some guidelines to give you a pretty good shot at telling who is natural and who isn’t. And don't let this discourage you into believing nothing is achievable without being an enhanced lifter, because it’s simply not the case. You just keep focusing on building muscle, honing in on your nutrition, and prioritizing the importance of sleep.
And with that, let's get into 8 guidelines that may indicate whether someone is truly a natty bodybuilder.
This may not be an on-site type of thing, but with an easy calculation, you can decide. This describes the amount of muscle mass compared to height and weight. This is a more precise calculation than BMI. BMI does not consider muscle mass, and very fit people can often be categorized as obese (for more information, this post discusses the differences between BMI vs body fat percentage).
Using height, weight, and body fat to calculate, a natural lifter will have an FFMI around or below 21-22. Being around 23-24 will start to raise some questions, but it does still give you some room for simply being a genetic freak. Being at 25 or over will signal that you are pushing past your genetic limits with some assistance.
This also touches on the body fat-to-bodyweight ratio. It’s pretty rare to see someone massive and shredded. So keep the FFMI in mind when making a decision about whether someone is natty.
The muscle receptors in the trapezius muscles show a dramatic response when using anabolic steroids. As most lifters know, an impressive pair of traps, even when you're dedicated to your trapezius exercises, is tough to come by unless you are one of the few genetically gifted or you’re enhanced.
Not to say you cannot grow an impressive pair, because you can, but generally, if someone has ridiculous comic book character traps, it’s a telltale sign. So keep an eye out for realistic-looking traps when wondering who is natty or not.
Almost anytime you see a dramatic increase in muscle size and someone who puts on too much weight too quickly, or you notice a super fast improvement in muscular strength gains, you can throw up a red flag. Natural bodybuilders are going to progress much slower than enhanced lifters.
This is one of the reasons being natty can be so rewarding (and sometimes frustrating). The ultimate sign of consistency, dedication, and discipline is chasing that goal daily, knowing it won’t come fast.
Especially if you have been lifting for years, you know the lean muscle mass gains come slower.
Everyone has seen the massive bodybuilder who seems to have a pinhead compared to the rest of his body. As always, there are outlier cases. But this piggybacks off the fat-free mass index again; natural bodybuilding is about aesthetics and proportions, including your head compared to the rest of your body.
Someone who is enhanced will look almost competition ready year-round. Natural lifters will have flatter muscles when trying to lose body fat during natural bodybuilding contest preparation.
This ties into the slower changes concept we discussed earlier. The process will be much slower, so precision with your diet and training is key to making the changes happen.
This also explains why natural lifters must put more extended periods into bulking vs. cutting and gaining muscle, as it does not come as easy as when you’re enhanced. They may have periods where they look fluffier during the bulking season, and then as they lean out, they will have to deal with looking flat at times.
It’s all a part of the process. And after all that hard work, it's also why the payoff as a natty can be so sweet and satisfying.
Commonly referred to as “gyno," this refers to an increase in breast tissue. And no, we are not talking chest fat here. During anabolic steroid use, elevated testosterone also leads to high estrogen. Depending on a person's genetics, they can be prone to developing this unfortunate side effect.
This comes up even in natty competitions where lifters are often accused of possibly being on a cycle and coming off months before the competition. It isn’t foolproof, but it will help you make your decision.
Steroid use often has the side effect of back acne, and for certain people, leads to earlier hair loss if it’s in your genes.
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but if the lifter in question doesn’t have these symptoms, it’s another sign he may be natty.
If you can take all of the above concepts and look at who competes in natural competitions, you have a reasonably good shot at seeing who is natural and who isn’t.
If they are stepping on stage in competitions that have strict drug testing policies, it’s only going to up their good faith standing that they are, in fact, a natty bodybuilder. But also keep this in mind: Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test.
It’s important to remember that natural and “not natural” bodybuilding are not different sports. We are not comparing baseball and cricket. The process will remain the same, and diet, training, and discipline are the pillars of success in this beautiful sport.
The most popular test we have for determining maximum muscle-building potential is the Casey Butt Formula. Using your wrist and ankle circumferences consider your bone structure and frame size to determine how much weight your ceiling is. The critical difference is going to be the concept of genetic limitations.
According to the formula, a 6-foot 3-inch person with a 9-inch ankle and 7-inch wrist at 10% body fat has a maximum lean body mass of 198 pounds. This means that as a natural lifter, that will be your ceiling.
Bodybuilding and performance-enhancing drugs are popular because we love to see what happens when the limits are pushed. That genetic limit of 198 pounds of lean mass is no longer the ceiling if you are enhanced.
So what are some things that enhance a lifter and turn them from natty to not?
The bodybuilding principles of how to lift and achieve muscle hypertrophy remain the same whether you are natural or not.
However, your strength ceiling will be much higher if you are not natural. This means you can lift more, train a muscle more frequently, and recover from it all as you grow into a massively shredded physique.
Natural lifters can still achieve incredible physiques. But they must be much more aware of slow, steady progress and be dialed in entirely with nutrition and workout programming to achieve lean muscle and their desired body composition. This means there is little room for error with everything ranging from the workout split they select, to muscle recovery, to what to eat after a workout.
Natural bodybuilding is a category that excludes the use of anabolic steroids, insulin, diuretics, and human growth hormone. It is up to the federation to determine its testing method. They can use blood tests, urinalysis, and polygraph tests. These tests can be performed randomly year-round or simply right before the competition.
It’s important to remember that each federation will have its own rules. Each contest will specify how long a participant will need to be drug-free. This can range from the day of the competition weeks or months, years before the competition, or a lifetime of being all-natural.
Unfortunately, in America, we specialize in the bigger, the better, and the almighty dollar. It often comes down to being clear about the rules to ensure you do whatever you can to get around these tests. Remember, there is little to no money in natural bodybuilding except for the most significant competitions.
The PNBA Elite World Tour and the Natural Olympia competition are the creams of the crop for natty bodybuilders, and they will have the most substantial testing for their events. It’s great to know that there are options for withholding the integrity of the natural bodybuilding label.
Since it is more popular, the non-natural competitions have a few more prestigious options. Mr. Olympia, Mr. Universe, and the Arnold Classic are huge events, to name a few.
For years, the mainstream answer to this would have been Arnold Schwarzenegger until the truth came out that he was not natural. But there have certainly been some tremendous natural bodybuilders who could win this award. Our top 2 picks, at the top of our current 12 best and biggest, are Ron Williams and Donte Franklin.
And with that, let's dig into the list!
Before we start, let's take a second to remember why these bodybuilders were chosen. These athletes tend to compete in federations with strict testing, have never failed a drug test, and for the most part, have displayed slow, steady attainable growth throughout their careers.
Their genetics are second to none, and their strategy and tactics seem to align with natural lifters. Having said that, there are many lifters competing within this division that have become really good at working the system. This means that while they weren't taking performance-enhancing drugs at the time of testing, it certainly doesn't mean they've never taken them.
So, who's natty and who's not? We may never have a 100% correct answer here, but take a look at our list of top 12, and we'll let you be the judge.
It’s also important to remember that in this day and age, it’s not only competing in competitions that makes you a competitive bodybuilder. In our social media-driven world, marketing yourself is a bodybuilding competition in and of itself, and some of these lifters, similar to the top male fitness models, have mastered it.
At 5 foot 11 and 190 pounds, Ron is the most decorated bodybuilder in natural bodybuilding history, having won over 250 competitions. Think about all of the training and discipline it takes to do one competition. This man has made this his life’s work and dominated at it.
He is a seven-time Mr. Natural Olympia, a seven-time Mr. Natural Universe, seven-time Mr. Natural World, and was inducted into the International Bodybuilding Association hall of fame in 2008.
At a more “normal” size, Donte is 6 feet and around 215 pounds. With one in a million muscle-building genetics, he has been roughly the same size his entire life - big.
Competing in the INBA and NANBF federations with strict drug testing, including multiple random tests throughout the year, he is at or near the top of any natural bodybuilding great list.
Simeon is one of the first social media bodybuilding stars and can be seen all over the internet and in fitness magazines. At 6'1 and 230 pounds, Simeon won the European championship to earn his pro card.
Since coming to the United States after leaving his war-torn home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he has become a four-time men's physique champion.
At 5’11 and 190 pounds, he is best known for his classic V taper, tiny waist, and shredded physique. We can't promise you'll get his same results, but you can check out Sadik's leg workout for some lifting inspiration.
Jeff came from an accomplished athletic background and was an all-American wrestler before becoming the youngest ever IFBB pro.
At 6 feet and around 205 pounds, he has competed in Mr. Olympia, written a book titled "Guide to Aesthetics", is an ISSA-certified online personal trainer, and has been featured on the cover of multiple magazines.
Mike is 6 feet, 210 pounds, and while he doesn’t necessarily have the same competition pedigree as some of the other lifters on this list, there's no denying he's made a name for himself.
In today’s bodybuilding world, it’s just as prestigious to leverage your physique to become a nationally recognized personal trainer and entrepreneur as Mike has done.
At 6’1 and 210 pounds, Steve is a pioneer and original fitness YouTuber. He also has competed at Mr. Olympia and won numerous men’s physique competitions. Steve has alluded to previously using steroids but not using them currently, so we'll let you decide whether this counts as natty or not.
The poster child for the Instagram fitness generation, at 5’11 and 200 pounds, Lazar is a bodybuilder, personal trainer, and fitness model. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, Lazar leverages his model looks and shredded physique to be one of the most popular fitness models and successful fitness entrepreneurs in the world.
Another fitness model phenomenon, at 5'10 and 210 pounds, Ulisses has had competition success as well, having won over 24 competitions throughout his career.
He is widely known to have the most impressive eight-pack (read up on why you may have 4 pack abs vs 6 pack vs 8 pack here) seen in natural bodybuilding competitions.
Competing in the extremely strict BNBF and Musclemania Natural shows, at 6 feet and 190 pounds, many of his fans believe he is a tried-and-true natty.
Jamie likely would have been caught if he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs, as the shows he participated in tested randomly and often. He is also the cover model for the famous Grenade supplement line.
Having a master's degree in physical education, at 6'1 and 215 pounds, Sergi has won numerous IFBB competitions and the Muscle and Fitness cover model search at Mr. Olympia weekend.
At 6’3 and 250 pounds, Mike is by far the most controversial on this list as his FFMI is higher than most naturals can achieve. Often accused of being a fake natty, Mike has been winning natural bodybuilding competitions for years.
Gifted with strength, he was squatting 600 and bench pressing 400 pounds at 17 years old. And, the former American Gladiator has never failed a drug test. Natty or not? You decide.
Whether you believe him or not, there's no denying he knows his thing around a gym. Check out the Mike O'Hearn biceps workout to train like the pro.
We just covered an impressive natural bodybuilder list, so now let's take a look at the pros and cons of building muscle naturally.
Remember that the essential part of your bodybuilding journey is about your intentions, acceptance of the hand you’ve been dealt, and working your butt off during your 6-day split (or whichever routine you're following!) every day to be the best you can be.
Being enhanced will undoubtedly allow you to even the playing field in top competitions, but the process and principles are what make someone a famous and successful bodybuilder. So unless you are trying to win the top bodybuilding competitions in the world, you can certainly make a life and career as a natural bodybuilder.
As we mentioned earlier, today's day and age present a different playing field. It’s not just competitions like it was back in the day. You can use social media platforms to have a following in the hundreds of thousands, even as a natural lifter. Check out these top female fitness models' Instagram accounts and you'll see their follower stats are no joke. It all comes down to who you want to be.
If you are trying to become famous, there is certainly an avenue. If you are trying to make money, you can leverage your physique and skills as a trainer by showing people how you did it and how they can. If you want to win natural competitions and wave that as a flag of pride in the faces of those who are enhanced, you can do that too.
As a caveat, it’s also key to remember that there are cases where therapeutic doses of testosterone replacement therapy are a great option to improve quality of life. Yes, some people will take away your lifetime natty card, but if you are doing it to improve your health and be the best person you can be for yourself and your family, it may be right for you.
To bring it all full circle: If you want to win the top bodybuilding competitions, you won’t be able to compete with those on performance-enhancing drugs. So just don't compare yourself to that group if enhancement drugs aren't your thing.
Even as a natural lifter aiming to make the best natural bodybuilder list, you are in the top .1% of the world if you train consistently, prioritizing building muscle, quality nutrition, staying lean, and moving well.
Naturally, you can still make gains, compete, and build a fitness empire.
Want to see more natural bodybuilding content? Check out the Alex Eubank Workout Plan!
All images courtesy of athletes’ Instagram accounts.
Kouri EM, Pope HG, Katz DL, Oliva P. Fat-Free Mass Index in Users and Nonusers of Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 1995;5(4):223-228. doi:10.1097/00042752-199510000-00003
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