“Natty for life” is arguably the most popular catchphrase amongst fitness enthusiasts. Ironically, “natty for life” is often used as a hashtag by bodybuilders that are guilty of using gear. But why are so many bodybuilders keen on coming off as natural?
Many people consider steroid use as a form of cheating. It is believed that folks on juice have it much easier than their natural counterparts. Whether this assumption is true is out of the scope of this article. However, you can rest assured that you will gain much more praise and recognition if you have built a diced physique without using performance-enhancing drugs.
Furthermore, unlike the governing bodies of most sports, such as Olympic weightlifting, American football, or fencing, the leading bodybuilding organization, the IFBB Pro League, does not enforce drug testing. As pro bodybuilders are not required to take doping tests, they can take anything under the sun to build a blockbuster physique.
If you aspire to compete in bodybuilding shows, knowing that most famous folks in the sport are using gear puts you at a significant disadvantage. Drug use is not limited to professional bodybuilders; many people start their first steroid cycle in hopes of breaking through on social media.
In this article, we dive deep into natural bodybuilding, the difference between being a natty and a juiced-up bodybuilder, the scope of natural bodybuilders in the IFBB Pro League, and the best training and nutrition tips for building your dream physique. We also cover the 14 best natural bodybuilders that are excellent role models for aspiring natural bodybuilders.
Before we get to the meat of this article, we must clarify that this article is not about dissing bodybuilders who use gear. We are the first to admit using PEDs requires significant dedication and commitment.
What is Natural Bodybuilding?
Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Phil Heath, Kai Greene, and Flex Wheeler are some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. However, these legends share one thing in common — they are not natural bodybuilders.
So, what is natural bodybuilding?
Simply put, natural bodybuilding involves building a muscular, balanced, symmetrical, and diced physique without using drugs. Conversely, enhanced bodybuilders use synthetic hormones that imitate the male sex hormone, testosterone, to help with the growth and repair of muscle tissue.
The sport of natural bodybuilding has evolved tremendously over the last couple of decades. We now have multiple natural bodybuilding organizations that promote several natty bodybuilding shows throughout the year.
These natural bodybuilding organizations conduct several tests and have varying guidelines on what their athletes can and cannot take.
Natural bodybuilders are generally smaller than enhanced athletes who use PEDs, such as HGH (human growth hormone), testosterone, Trenbolone, and deca, which results in significant structural changes in the human body. The Open division bodybuilders of the untested bodybuilding leagues are substantially bigger and heavier than their drug-tested counterparts.
Owing to the popularity of the IFBB Pro Mr. Olympia contest, the International Natural Bodybuilding Association and Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association (INBA/PNBA) started the Natural Olympia contest in 1998, which aims to crown the best natural bodybuilder in the world. Since then, the Natural Olympia has become the premiere bodybuilding contest for the natties.
However, we will go as far as to say that the chances of a natural bodybuilder beating an enhanced athlete in a no-holds-barred contest are as bright as a black hole in outer space.
Natural Bodybuilding Federations
The following organizations are the most popular in the natural bodybuilding space:
- International Natural Bodybuilding Association and Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association (INBA/PNBA)
- World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF)
- American Natural Bodybuilding Federation (ANBF)
Most of these drug-free bodybuilding federations use the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) guidelines that include 10 years drug-free of prescription/pharmaceutical hormones on the WADA banned substance list and two years free of over-the-counter hormones, pro-hormones, or banned substances listed or their chemical counterparts.
A natural bodybuilding federation can use blood, urine, and polygraph tests to check its athletes for drug use. These tests are done randomly throughout the year. Plus, most federations conduct drug tests on random bodybuilders before a competition.
Interestingly, most of these federations have the same bodybuilding divisions as the IFBB Pro League, including the Open, Men’s Physique, Classic Physique for the men, and the Open, Bikini, Physique, Fitness, and Wellness categories for the ladies.
The PNBA Elite World Tour and the Natural Olympia are the biggest competitions for natural bodybuilders. Although the biggest, these are nowhere close to the biggest untested competition.
In 2021, the total prize pool for the Natural Olympia was $65,000, and most division winners pocketed $1,000. On the other hand, the IFBB Pro League Mr. Olympia in 2022 had a $1.6 million prize pool, and the Mr. Olympia champ Hadi Choopan took home $400,000.
Considering this, you could think of natural bodybuilding as a hobby, whereas you could make a decent living competing in untested bodybuilding competitions.
Can natural bodybuilders become IFBB Pro athletes?
The IFBB Pro League is the world’s numero uno pro bodybuilding organization. Only IFBB Pro League bodybuilders are allowed to compete in the coveted Mr. Olympia competition, which is the biggest bodybuilding contest in the world.
Many people believe that no athlete can turn pro in the IFBB Pro League without using gear. However, this isn’t true.
Your genetics play a massive role in how far you can take your physique without using PEDs. The eight-time Mr. Olympia champion, Ronnie Coleman, turned pro in 1991. The 1964-born bodybuilder claims to have competed natural until the age of 30. He had taken 15th at the 1994 Olympia, his second O appearance.
Although not everyone is born with Big Ron’s genetics and work ethic, he proves that you can reach the top of the sport while staying natural.
If this wasn’t enough, the three-time Bikini Olympia champ, Ashley Kaltwasser, is the winningest IFBB Pro competitor. At the time of writing, she has 37 pro show wins to her name, which is seven more than the 2008 Mr. Olympia champ Dexter Jackson, who leads the men with 29 pro show wins. Kaltwasser claims to be a life-long natural bodybuilder.
Testing Problems With Natural Bodybuilding Federations
Doping tests can be expensive, and the natural bodybuilding federations must pay for them to get all their athletes tested. However, here lies a big problem. Competitive bodybuilding is not a mainstream sport. Plus, natural bodybuilding is a niche within a niche, meaning the money is tight for most of these natural federations.
Some of these federations rely on cheap doping tests, which often return incorrect results. An athlete who wants to appeal his test results must pay for the doping tests, which increases his competition budget. Plus, most of these natural bodybuilding federations charge their members a yearly doping test fee.
On the other hand, untested organizations like the IFBB Pro League don’t have to deal with doping tests, saving their athletes a lot of money and headache. With that said, enhanced athletes usually spend more on their gear in a month than natty athletes spend on their tests in a couple of years.
Furthermore, doping tests face a perennial problem. Athletes find ways to cheat the system. Cheating on drug tests is not isolated to bodybuilding. Many elite weightlifters, golfers, cyclists, and footballers have never failed their drug tests despite being on juice for years. People who are willing to do anything to be number one at what they do find ways to cheat a doping test.
Natural bodybuilding federations take their doping tests very seriously. The INBA/PNBA has a “Hall of Shame” section on their website that features bodybuilders that claim to be natty but have failed a drug test.
Diet Tips For Natural Bodybuilding
Enhanced and natty bodybuilders start with similar diets, training, and recovery programs. The main difference in their physiques is caused by drug use. As an enhanced athlete starts using gear, he experiences an uptick in his body weight due to increased muscle mass and strength, which requires him to eat more and lift heavier to sustain his gains. This cycle keeps bodybuilders hooked to steroids.
Your calorie goals will depend on your current physique, gender, genetics, age, height, activity levels, and goal physique. Use our convenient calorie calculator to determine your daily caloric goals.
Folks looking to build muscle mass should enter a caloric surplus (eat more calories than they burn in a day), whereas bodybuilders trying to lose weight should be on a calorie-deficit diet (burn more calories than they consume).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adding 500-1,000 to your daily calorie intake can result in gaining 1-2 pounds weekly. Conversely, cutting the same amount from your daily diet can help you lose 1-2 pounds a week. 
After arriving at a daily calorie goal, you must break it down into an appropriate macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) split.
The macronutrient split for most natural bodybuilders lies in the following ranges:
- Carbohydrates: 35% to 60%
- Protein: 30% to 45%
- Fats: 10% to 30%
Bodybuilding consists of three phases — bulking, cutting, and maintenance. Your macronutrient split will change depending on the phase you are in. However, one thing remains consistent throughout the three phases for natural bodybuilders; they are always on a high-protein diet.
You must analyze your transformation progress weekly to ensure you are on the correct path. Add more calories to your diet if you’re unsatisfied with your bulking progress. On the flip side, cut more calories from your diet and do more cardio if you’re not shedding body weight fast enough. Arriving at the right daily calorie intake goal and macronutrient split can take some trial and error, and you must get comfortable trying new things.
Recovery is often overlooked in a bodybuilding regimen. Most anabolic steroids, also known as super supplements, speed up your recovery, which helps the enhanced athlete get ready for their next workout relatively quickly. However, natural bodybuilders must emphasize their diet and recovery program to ensure optimal recovery.
Supplements are an excellent tool for natural bodybuilders to fill the nutrition voids in their diet. Whey protein supplements can help repair and rebuild stronger muscles, whereas a mass gainer supp can make adding more size easier. Creatine, BCAAs, pre-workouts, and glutamine supplements can also help boost your results.
You must also ensure you meet your daily micronutrient needs for overall physical development and better health, well-being, and functionality. Add a multivitamin supp to your daily routine if you cannot meet your micronutrient goals through real food.
Although supplements are a great way to meet your macro and micronutrient needs, you shouldn’t be over-reliant on them. Focus on achieving your nutrition needs through nutrient-dense whole foods.
Natural bodybuilders with competitive aspirations must check the banned substance list of their chosen bodybuilding federation to ensure the ingredients in their favorite supplements will not get them banned for life.
Training Tips For Natural Bodybuilding
There is no one-fits-all training program for bodybuilders. What works for your training partner might not work for you. You should follow a personalized training regimen that focuses on bringing up your lagging muscle groups and polishing your strengths.
Your training program will depend on your starting and goal physique. Your trainer might also change your training volume, intensity, and frequency depending on how you respond to an exercise regimen.
Here are some of the best training tips to help natty bodybuilders get the best bang for their buck:
- Perform 3-5 sets and 8-12 reps of an exercise with 70-85% of your one-rep max to induce hypertrophy. 
- Train your lagging muscle groups up to twice a week.
- Limit your rest duration between sets to 60-120 seconds to maintain a high training intensity.
- The eccentric (lowering) motion is just as important as the concentric (lifting) movement. Plus, focus on squeezing the life out of your muscles at the static contraction at the top.
- Change your rep tempo to challenge your muscles.
- Use advanced training principles like super sets, drop sets, and intra-set stretching to progressively overload your muscles.
- Wait at least 48 hours before training the same muscle group again.
- Switch your hand grip when possible to train your muscles from different angles and ensure overall development.
- Avoid lifting too heavy close to a competition to limit your risk of injury.
- Find a training partner that can push you to do your best in the weight room.
Hiring a nutritionist and personal trainer can help speed up your transformation progress and save you significant time, energy, effort, and money. Seek a certified professional’s help if you can afford it; it will pay dividends in the long run. Plus, it can help you build a solid foundation and considerably reduce your risk of injury in the gym.
14 Best Natural Bodybuilders
Most bodybuilders are on the fence about revealing their enhanced status. This trend was arguably started by the legendary Joe Weider, who barred bodybuilders competing in the IFBB from disclosing their drug use. However, things are changing for the better, as more pro bodybuilders are taking to social media and podcasts and sharing their drug cycles.
In this article, we have included bodybuilders from the whole gamut of the sport — we have athletes that compete in drug-tested bodybuilding competitions, social media stars, and athletes that compete in untested leagues.
Remember, there is no sure way to tell if an athlete has been a lifelong natural bodybuilder. In this list, we have included bodybuilders that have never failed a doping test. However, it could mean two things; first, these athletes have some of the best genetics in the world and have never used gear, or these folks are really good at gaming a drug test; you be the judge.
Without further ado, here are the 14 best natural bodybuilders:
With 250 competition wins under his belt, Williams is the winningest natural bodybuilder of all time. His balanced, proportioned, and chiseled physique would make anyone question his natty status. However, Williams has never failed a drug test, making him one of the most genetically gifted natural bodybuilders ever.
Here are some of his achievements:
- 7-time Mr. Natural Olympia
- 7-time Mr. Natural Universe
- 7-time Natural World
- Hall of Fame Inductee (2008): International Natural Bodybuilding Association
If you think natural bodybuilders cannot have mountain-like biceps, Franklin is here to prove you wrong. The 6-foot natural bodybuilder manages to grow and improve his physique every year, making him one of the most consistent nattys in the business.
Franklin likes to train hard and heavy, qualities he attributes as the secret to his incredible physique.
Krueger is one of the most dominant natural bodybuilders. He won the coveted Natural Olympia title in 2021, only a few weeks after getting his pro card. Notably, Krueger competed as an amateur bodybuilder for 25 years before turning pro and disrupting the upper echelons of the natural bodybuilding circuit.
If you are a fan of the golden era aesthetics, you will love Lirio. He possesses excellent muscle mass, symmetry, balance, well-defined lines, and conditioning. Lirio is a three-time Natural Olympia champion and two-time Mr. Universe champion. He has also been inducted into the PNBA Pro Hall of Famer.
Joe won the Natural Olympia Men’s Classic Physique division in his freshman year at the contest. The Classic Physique Natural Olympia champ has high expectations from himself. He nearly quit competitive bodybuilding after placing second at his debut amateur bodybuilding show in 2020. If it weren’t for the encouragement from his friends and family, Joe would never have competed at the 2021 Natural Olympia.
Cook is one of the most famous fitness athletes and an OG bodybuilding YouTuber. He has appeared in numerous print and online publications and has a sizeable social media following. Cook claims to be a natural bodybuilder and has competed in the Men’s Physique division at the IFBB Mr. Olympia. His best placing was a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Mr. Olympia.
Thurston has an incredibly chiseled physique that would give his enhanced counterparts a run for their money. His washboard abs and perfectly-crafted pecs are the benchmarks for many natural bodybuilders.
Panda is one of the strongest and most popular bodybuilders on this list. The Brit was named one of the world’s top ten fitness influencers by Forbes and has over 8 million Instagram followers.
Ulisses Jr. is among the most famous Instagram fitness athletes. He is a must-follow on the photo and video-sharing app if you are always short on ab training ideas. The natural bodybuilder’s eight-pack abs are a symbol of his discipline, dedication, and commitment. Ulisses Jr. is among the few fitness social media celebs who have won multiple bodybuilding titles.
If you are a fitness enthusiast, you already know about Angelov. His trademark beard, chest tattoo, and chiseled physique appear on several posters on gym walls across the globe.
Seid’s wide shoulders, narrow waist, and picture-perfect V-taper made him the youngest IFBB Pro bodybuilder of all time. The natural bodybuilder started training at the age of 12 and was an All-American wrestling champion before switching to bodybuilding.
Riches has an incredibly shredded physique. The natural bodybuilder started lifting at the age of 15 after he fractured his shoulder in a mountain bike race; he has never looked back since. The British bodybuilder has competed in the BNBF, Musclemania, UKBFF, and NPA, all natty bodybuilding federations.
PED use is as widespread among female pro bodybuilders as men. Kaltwasser is the most successful natty female pro bodybuilder competing in the IFBB Pro League. She is famous for staying in incredible shape throughout the year.
We will get a lot of flak for this, as Mike O’Hearn is one of the most controversial nattys in the sport. However, The Titan has won the Mr. Natural Universe title four times and has never failed a drug test. Furthermore, O’Hearn was inducted into the INBA/PNBA Hall of Fame class of 2011, which is a solid endorsement of his natty status.
The American Gladiators star is also one of the strongest natural bodybuilders. He coined the term ‘powerbodybuilding’ for his unique training regimen that combines lifting super heavy weights while staying in a hypertrophy-inducing rep range.
10 Ways To Tell a Natty Bodyuilber From a Fake Natty
Every guy that is bigger than you is on the juice. No, I am just kidding. However, this is a great way to stroke your ego.
Before we get into the difference between natural bodybuilders and bodybuilders on gear, we must point out that although these things will apply to most people, there are some genetically gifted natty bodybuilder outliers who can give an average juiced-up bro a run for their money.
Here are a few tell-tale signs of a bodybuilder on steroids:
An extended gut is a dead giveaway of a steroid user. HGH is usually responsible for causing a bloated gut among steroid users. Contrary to what most people think, steroids cannot spot increase a particular muscle group, like your chest or arms. When you take a PED, it acts on all your muscles, including your stomach and heart.
Extended guts due to steroid abuse hamper a bodybuilder’s physique aesthetics. They are also why untested bodybuilding contests received significant backlash between 2010-2016, including from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pushed for rewarding more proportionate and aesthetically-appealing physiques.
Superhuman Muscle Mass
One of the first differences you’ll notice between a natty bodybuilder and a bodybuilder using gear is that the natural athlete has a much more achievable physique. On the other hand, enhanced bodybuilders have muscles you didn’t know existed. If a bodybuilder has a superhero physique with unexplainable proportions and conditioning, chances are he is on steroids.
Certain drugs, such as Tren and Dianabol, can make you super strong. If you notice a person lifting 1.5-2 times heavier than usual within a few weeks or has grown a crazy amount in a short period, he has probably started a cycle. Furthermore, social media influencers who lift crazy weights for an insane number of reps, for example, a 450-pound squat for 10 reps, are probably on juice.
Conditioning and Vascularity
Many enhanced pro bodybuilders use diuretics to achieve crisp conditioning. These PEDs drain water from your system, which helps improve your muscle definition and vascularity. If you encounter a bodybuilder with paper-thin skin, he is probably on steroids. Further, don’t let the jacked bro at your gym tell you that his roadmap-like forearm vascularity is because of their insane forearm training routine. The dude is probably on EQ.
Most pro bodybuilders are neither bald by choice nor is it a fashion statement. Many steroids cause hair loss. If a person with a full head of hair starts experiencing a receding hairline while building a significant amount of muscle mass, strength, and conditioning, it is a sign he has started a steroid cycle.
Many steroids can cause severe mood swings. Dianabol and Tren are especially infamous for causing short tempers. Bodybuilders on gear usually have a short fuse. The extent of anger usually depends on a person’s steroid tolerance and its dose.
Although steroids come in various forms, including oral and injectable, most pro bodybuilders prefer injecting their drugs as it delivers better and quicker results and minimizes wastage. Nonetheless, frequent injections can leave syringe marks on your body. Many bodybuilders like to use injections on body parts that are usually covered, like their glutes.
You are effectively altering your natural hormones by injecting steroids into your body. Many enhanced bodybuilders tend to experience acne, especially on their backs, while on a cycle. Notably, food allergies can also cause acne in natural athletes.
Gynecomastia, also known as gyno, is a breast tissue swelling in men that is mostly caused by excessive production of estrogen or prolactin as a result of anabolic drug use. Synthetic testosterone is the primary cause of gyno in men as it can cause a testosterone and estrogen imbalance. 
Next Read: Gyno in Bodybuilding: The Ultimate Guide
Competing in Tested Federations
This one is a no-brainer. Fake nattys do not come near a tested competition. People who use multiple steroids throughout the year have a hard time stopping drug use or using steroid masks without compromising their physique.
With that said, untested bodybuilding competitions are more popular among fans than tested ones. It is arguably because people love to witness the mass monsters pushing the limits of the human body. However, natural bodybuilding is slowly and steadily building a cult following.
Advantages and Drawbacks of Natural Bodybuilding
Here are the pros and cons of natural bodybuilding:
- Improve Physique Aesthetics and Strength: Most people start lifting weights to improve their physique aesthetics. Natural and enhanced bodybuilding can improve your strength and muscle mass and boost your self-image and confidence.
- Pride: If building muscle naturally wasn’t so appealing, the natty vs. fake natty debate would not exist. Natural bodybuilding is a testament to an individual’s grit, determination, consistency, and patience.
- Longevity: This is arguably the biggest and most important difference between natural and enhanced bodybuilding. Using PEDs can cause irreversible damage and lead to chronic health conditions, whereas natural bodybuilding improves your overall health and well-being.
- Boosts Testosterone Levels: Natural strength training can enhance testosterone production in men, boosting their strength, muscle mass, and overall health. Conversely, enhanced athletes inject synthetic test into their bodies, which can stop natural test production in their bodies. 
- Know Your Limits: This one is a blessing in disguise. Most people start their first cycle with a single drug. However, the desire to look better pushes them to do multiple drugs simultaneously. It doesn’t end here. Some people also inject oils such as synthol into their muscles to make them look bigger, which can cost them a limb and even their life!
- Bigorexia: Whether you are an enhanced or natural bodybuilder, you will likely struggle with bigorexia. Folks dealing with bigorexia believe they are small and skinny, despite being typically or even unusually muscular. Bigorexia is one of the biggest reasons why many natural bodybuilders jump ships and make peace with drugs. However, the irony is these folks still cannot get rid of bigorexia after beginning their cycles.
- Lack of Fame and Money: Natural bodybuilding is a cult within a cult sport. The prize money from winning some of the biggest natural bodybuilding shows is not enough to pay the monthly bills for most bodybuilders. Since it is such a small sport, even the best bodybuilders in the natural bodybuilding space have menial clout.
- Comparisons: Tell someone you are a natural bodybuilder, and they will instantly compare you to some of the best enhanced bodybuilders. You must be prepared to explain the difference between natty and enhanced bodybuilding every time you meet someone new.
With all said and done, if you do not aspire to compete at the biggest competition in the pro bodybuilding circuit or have no plans to make a living out of your bodybuilding career, staying natural is hands down the better approach. Don’t get us wrong; natural bodybuilders can make considerable gains and compete in bodybuilding shows. However, the fame and compensation aren’t close to what untested athletes enjoy.
Being consistent with your diet, training, and recovery program will put you in the top 1% of the world and help you achieve your dream physique. Plus, if you have the genetics and talent, there is nothing stopping you from becoming a social media sensation and building a fitness empire.
Natural bodybuilding involves building your best physique without using anabolic steroids. Although natty bodybuilders can not build as big or conditioned a physique as top-tier enhanced athletes, testing your natural limits before going down the dark path is always advised.
While it might not be possible to win the coveted Mr. Olympia title while staying natural, you can absolutely build a Greek god-like physique without using a syringe. This article gives you the best diet and training tips for building a jacked natural physique. We have also covered the 14 best natural bodybuilders that are the role models of natty and enhanced athletes alike. So, what are you waiting for? Eat your chicken breast, take your vitamins, train, and you will never go wrong, brother. Best of luck!
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“Perform 3-5 sets and 8-12 reps of an exercise with 70-85%”
This obviously would mean 8 reps with 85% right?
Is this common(ly doable)?
Who accomplishes 3-5 sets of 8 reps with 85% of his 1RepMax?
Dear author, did you ever try this?
It (Perform 3-5 sets and 8-12 reps of an exercise with 70-85%) is a recommendation from The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) for novice lifters. They have solid research backing this. Please feel free to read through the research paper.
Coming to me, my 1RM on the squat is 315 pounds (I’m weak, I know). I routinely do 225 for 8-10 reps, which is on the lower end of the recommended load and rep range.
I hope this answers your other comment as well.