Anyone following professional bodybuilding will have noticed the recent trend of stomach distension in bodybuilders, particularly over the last two decades. This trend has become even more pronounced over the last 5 years, with images of Mr. Olympia contestants such as Kai Greene or current champion Phil Heath, and even previous champions like Ronnie Coleman, showing signs of excessive stomach distension despite extremely low body fat. This has led to many spectators or fans wondering what is causing the appearance of a ‘gut’ on these athletes and why it has increased in recent years. The stomach distension is known in bodybuilding circles as “HGH Gut” or “Insulin Gut”, or more popularly, “Bodybuilder Belly” or “Muscle Gut”. As the above name suggests, the stomach distension seen in these bodybuilders is believed to be caused by insulin and human growth hormone (HGH) abuse.
Why does it happen in the first place?
There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the appearance of Muscle Gut in recent years, from the increased use of insulin to the introduction of HGH use in the nineties. There is no one factor that has been proven to cause the emergence of the bodybuilder belly. However, the most realistic explanation is a combination of factors. These include:
Human growth hormone abuse
The extremely high doses of HGH used by bodybuilders, estimated at around 5 milligrams per day, can cause side effects such as the excessive growth of some tissues, like the intestines. With larger intestines, the abdomen can bulge to up to twice its natural size, particularly after food consumption.
Many bodybuilders also combine HGH, and many other substances, with insulin use; a practice known as “stacking”. This insulin use can then cause increased fat storage behind the stomach, known as visceral fat, which can lead to a larger abdomen.
Increased Abdominal Muscle Mass
Through the use of insulin and Human Growth Hormone drugs and the addition of multiple supplements and a diet that is extremely high in protein, muscle mass increases considerably. This causes not only an increase in mass in the Rectus Abdominis, or “the six pack”, itself, but also in the muscles that lie underneath it, such as the Transverse Abdominus and the Internal Obliques. This causes the entire midsection to grow and protrude, giving a ‘blocky’ appearance and contributing to stomach distension.
High carbohydrate diets
High carbohydrate foods cause an increase in glycogen to be stored in the muscles which causes increased water retention, as glycogen attracts water. Both this and the large volume of carbohydrate rich foods further contribute to Muscle Gut by providing a 'bloated' look.
High calorie diets
Irrespective of protein, carbohydrates or supplements, all bodybuilders follow an extremely high calorie diet, with some consuming over 10,000 calories per day. This high calorie food intake also means a high volume of food which can stay in the stomach for prolonged periods causing gut distension.
Carbohydrate loading and water manipulation techniques
Many bodybuilders and fitness models use a technique known as 'carb' or 'glyco' loading, where a bodybuilder dehydrates and lowers carbohydrate intake and, in many cases, ingests diuretics to help flush water out of the body. They then ingest large amounts of carbohydrates and water to cause a supercompensation of water content in the muscles, allowing greater definition and muscle volume. However, if mistimed, this loss of water, along with the problems of high carbohydrate intake, can cause slower digestion and stomach emptying, meaning more food stays in the gut for longer, promoting distension.
A Multi-Faceted Problem
Any combination of the above factors can lead to gut distension and explains the names given to this condition by the bodybuilding community. While no studies have proven these theories directly, there is scientific evidence that all of the above mechanisms behind HGH gut are possible (1, 2).
How to prevent an HGH belly
Due to recent studies showing a lack of effectiveness in human growth hormone promoting strength or muscle mass (3, 4), and the dangers of insulin abuse compared to similar benefits elicited from safer supplements (5, 6), abstinence would seem like a natural solution. However, the reason most of these bodybuilders take high levels of these drugs is due both to the perceived benefit they possess for aiding muscle growth, and because they can aid tendon recovery and growth and prevent injury (7). As such, there is little point in recommending completely halting their use. However, there may be methods to reduce stomach distension without stopping or even reducing HGH or insulin use. There are a number of methods that could be used to help prevent the Insulin or HGH Gut from occurring in new bodybuilder as well as help reduce its appearance in veteran athletes.
Taper HGH and insulin dose close to competition
From examining bodybuilders who were known to have used HGH throughout their careers (i.e. Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman), it’s clear that stomach distension isn’t permanent and is reversible by lowering the dose or eliminating use. Insulin is also primarily “bulking substance” and can actually hinder the cutting process by increasing fat storage (8). So, reducing the amount of HGH and Insulin taken when cutting and approaching contests will allow a bodybuilder to reap all the benefits of the two drugs while reducing gut distension on stage.
Use Intermittent Fasting when Cutting
Intermittent Fasting has been shown to be just as effective as conventional calorie cutting for helping weight and fat loss while maintaining muscle (9, 10). When timed correctly, this can ensure that the amount of food in the digestive system is low and help reduce any stomach distension while allowing a high quality physique to be maintained during a contest.
Reduce Carbohydrate Intake Throughout Contest Preparation
Many bodybuilders are tempted to increase their carbohydrate intake when cutting to maintain muscle mass. However, as insulin use has been reduced or eliminated, their is no additional benefit to maintaining high carbohydrate intake. In fact, cutting carbohydrates and maintaining fats can cause higher levels of testosterone when dieting (11), while the decreased food volume will help keep Muscle Gut under control. During these periods, protein intake can be kept high without high carbohydrate dairy products by using meat, eggs and supplements like Grenade Carb Killa Protein BarsTM for high protein and fibre or low carbohydrate whey isolate shakes like Isotean TM protein. It should also be noted that increasing protein further during these diets could help improve visceral fat loss that was caused by the previous insulin use. Also, eating out at certain restaurants or meals can be challenging when looking to maintain a low-carb diet. For this, consider consulting this guide on low-carb meals and restaurants that are available.
When Carb-Loading, Ensure Correct Timing and Nutrient Intake
When using water manipulation techniques, ensure that sodium and electrolyte intake is increased through supplementing with electrolyte solutions such as Xtend TM, and that fibre and digestive enzyme intake is high to aid digestion. This can be done by supplementing with digestive aids like IMSOALPHA: Cleanse TM capsules. Also make sure that timing is correct, giving approximately 24 hours to allow full glycogen supercompensation before contest time. All of these strategies can be effective in reducing Bodybuilder Belly and improving physique on stage. However, it is important to consider individual differences and experiment with these steps carefully, as responses to them may differ between individuals. Also, it can be difficult to maintain strict dietary protocols when travelling for competition. So, check out this guide on dieting while on the road to help consider different foods and diets while on the road can help a lot.
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