Competitive bodybuilding in breeding muscle dysmorphia

The free weights area of the gym holds secrets, and many of these secrets are a result of a mental health condition plaguing the most aesthetic men in society – muscle dysmorphia. With the overwhelming fear that they are too small, some men are turning to steroids, seeing it as the only way to satisfy their desire for size.

Bodybuilding is a sport that inherently leads men to analyse their body, critiquing themselves to severe degrees, in order to be competitive in their sport. Bodybuilders who step onto the stage must adopt this mindset, but it seems that men who will never to be judged on their body competitively, are slipping into the same critical analysis of their own physiques. Like some competitive bodybuilders, these men are turning to steroids, with disregard for the consequences.

John Hodgson, 49, is a retired IFBB professional bodybuilder who has won an inordinate amount of contests and competed in Mr. Olympia. He took anabolic steroids for a number years, but never in excess, and maintained his usage at sensible levels.

“I ended up competing at the very highest level so I could justify my usage, but even then I was still careful,” he said.


Remember all of you out there embarking on the competitive Bodybuilding journey, if you ain't got staying power you will never fulfil your true potential. The pic on right was me in Aug 1989 (weight 147lbs) & other 1 wk after my last ever show the IFBB British Grand Prix in March 2011 (weight 202lbs). I first competed in 1993 winning all my shows and the UKBFF overall intermediate title and went on to become an IFBB Pro after winning the British middleweight title in 1999. It was then another ten years in 2009 that I then made it to the Mr Olympia stage, a dream I just couldn't let go of until I made it a reality. I had many highs and lows but would never give in, just more determined to come back better. Bodybuilding will find you out whoever you are and only the ruthlessly determined with a desire so strong will become the best they can.

A post shared by IFBB Pro John Hodgson (@johnhodgsonifbbpro) on


“Unfortunately a lot of the gym goers will never get on stage, and so there is an issue with people wanting to achieve something. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build muscle, but there’s a way to go about it.”

John says it’s a wider issue of body image in today’s society that has lead to a growth in muscle dysmorphia.

“I thinks it’s an issue for a lot of people, if you look at the industry there’s more people now training. One of the guys that I know, he’s never happy in himself, and I feel that a lot of the time that’s a common theme.

“I think the word gratitude and being grateful for what you have is something that a lot of people don’t really focus on. People look at themselves and don’t love themselves, and I don’t mean that in a conceited way, there’s a lot of self hate I would say.”

John continues by saying: “That’s what happens, they self-loath, and then they’ll try to improve, but will they ever be happy, I do see ‘I’m never big enough’ a lot.”

John doesn’t have muscle dysmorphia and, now retired, understands that he can’t maintain the highs he had in his illusterous 18 year career.

Despite this, John’s experience of bodybuilding is not too dissimilar to a sufferer of muscle dysmorphia. The difference being that John was dedicating himself to compete in a sport, whereas this element doesn’t exist for dysmorphia sufferers. Their reason for dedicating themselves to gaining muscle is that they experience a compulsion to train, due to misconstrued reflections of their body image.

“When I was competing I was always striving to improve, but that was nothing to do with I wasn’t big enough, it was a case of I was a competitive athlete so I was having to make changes and improve based on where I wanted to be on the stage.

“Obviously you think I want more of this, I need to be bigger, but it’s not that I wasn’t happy in being me, I wasn’t trying to impress Joe Public, I didn’t do it for women, I didn’t do it for anybody else, I did it because it was something I had a passion for and I wanted to be this bodybuilder that could compete on stage to be the best he could be.

“Even though I’m only 5ft 4″ it wasn’t short man syndrome. There was no physiological issues that made me go down that path.”

John acknowledges that being dedicated to a bodybuilding endeavour has its drawbacks.

“I can say that I was married and my lifestyle being a bodybuilder, being very focussed, may have been detrimental in the long-term, but that was just purely down to the fact that I was so focussed in what I was doing, and it was more a case of my goal setting and not balancing that right.

“My reason for what I wanted to achieve was taking an endeavour seriously, it was a project where there was a validation.”

Building muscle to the extent John did, takes full-time dedication. It’s not just intensive hours in the  performing the exercises illustrated below, but for someone striving for a physique anywhere close to John’s, controls on daily life have to be strict. Nutrition, sleep and muscle recovery dictate life.



John can justify his choices, after all his life has been dedicated to becoming the best in his field.

Impressive physiques can be acquired with this level of dedication. However, with a lot of muscle dysmorphia sufferers they need more. This leads to only one option – steroids.

When steroids are then incorporated the stakes heighten. Men are then risking their lives in the pursuit of perfection.

When someone is thinking about taking anabolic steroids John says: “You’ve got to decide for yourself ultimately, but there are pitfalls you’ve got to take into account and unless you’re competing is it really worth it, just to look big in a t-shirt for a bit?

“You can’t be flippant about such a subject, if someone says they just want to do it for myself, well I think is it really worth messing about with quite powerful hormones that can actually be detrimental, it’s alright having the high, but it’s understanding that when you come off your own natural testosterone levels will be altered, and you’ll experience a crash where your levels are lower than they were when you went on.

“You go from very high to very low, so then they’ll get lethargic and feel slightly down, sex drives gone, so for me there’s no point unless you’re going to be competing.”

Possible effects of steroid abuse (NHS)

John says: “A lot of the time, and they’re looking for this quick fix answer and I say to people it’s not.”

John believes it’s a cycle of a greater number of people building larger muscles, with onlookers wanting to replicate what they see.

“Unfortunately they’re looking at these bodies all the time, and there’s more people with more muscle and they’re thinking well I want to get like that and the only way I’m going to get it is by taking steroids and it’s not the case.

“Rather than, adopt the lifestyle, train properly, eat right and build muscle without having these fluctuations in your hormones, and knowing that you’re on an even keel throughout.

“Then the muscle that you do gain you’re more likely to keep, albeit it might not be massive gains. You can still acquire a good physique as long as you train hard, eat right, and understand it takes time.”

John notices muscle dysmorphia in people who retire from professional bodybuilding.

“It’s the identity of who they are, if they’ve competed or if they’ve been associated with muscle. They find it hard to let go.”

This mentality is exacerbated by the sudden drop in testosterone once a competitor stops taking anabolic steroids, as muscle tissue reduces significantly. John says that’s when dysmorphia really rears it’s head.

Muscle growth is slightly different when taking steroids: “Any gains that they make they’re going to be an increase in glychogen, blood thickness and water storage as opposed to building muscle tissue,” says John and adds, “so when they come off they don’t look big in a t-shirt, they loose a lot of weight that they’ve gained because it’s not quality tissue, and I think that plays a part in it as well.

“Then they end up in this vicious loop, not having sufficient breaks and allowing the body to recover and because they’re not doing it properly in the first place, they’re getting a false high because they’re not training hard enough, they’re not eating the right food, they’re wanting things quick.”

Testosterone can be boosted naturally by controlling sleep patterns, nutrition and further lifestyle factors. John has plenty of advice on his website.

In his retirement, John has managed to learn to let go of his impressive muscularity.

“When I see people who’ve not seen me for a while they say ‘oh god haven’t you lost a lot of weight,’ and I say yeah because I’m no longer competing, I’m no longer looking to maintain that, it’s not the be all and end all for me anymore.”



John does still take steroids from time to time, but remarks that they were never as rife in the industry as they are now.

“It was quiet within the inner circles, people didn’t discuss it openly, and the magazines never used to openly discuss anabolics, when I first came on the scene no one spoke about it.

“It was a taboo subject and you had to be in the inner sanctum and been training for a long time before you even got a sniff of what was going on. It was more closed doors. You’d been protected and it was if to say no one’s going to get hold of anything unless we know you’re serious abut what you’re doing.

“Now today it’s the opposite, you’ve got Muscular Development that’s been out for a while, just putting information out on drugs. You could say education is one thing, but based on what I’m seeing and the stories I’m hearing all over and not just in this country, it’s everywhere.

“People are just doing their first show and it’s even with people who are not competing.”

John says that the genie was let out of the bottle in an episode of the Cook Report in 1988. Roger Cook revealed that the gladiators from the popular TV series had been taking anabolic steroids.

“He [Cook] was boosting audience figures and getting himself up there, but what he did was vile beyond belief, because all of a sudden the young kids who looked upon the gladiators were then asking what’s anabolic steroids, and sometimes some secrets that are kept that way.”

Muscular figures in the media, like the gladiators, hold great influence over aspiring bodybuilders.


Sylvester Stallone in Rambo

John said: “I remember as a teenager seeing Stalone in Rambo and thinking, wow how do these guys look like that, that would look awesome, and then reading the magazines and pictures and thinking maybe one day I could be like that.” John laughs as he says: “And I ended up competing against some of the guys as the years went on.”

Many non-competitive bodybuilders are wanting to replicate their heroes, many of which are larger than the heroes back in John’s day. When these figures are using steroids, the positivity of their influence is questionable.


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