Psychology of Bodybuilding

There is no denying the fact that competitive bodybuilding is not healthy.  The body is not designed to carry such a low body fat.  And it was never intended to be flooded with grams of gear.  Because of this people often think this extreme contest preparation requires somewhat of a masochist type personality.  The process requires a lot of pain and suffering to get to those levels of body fat.  Overall bodybuilding requires someone willing to take perfectionism to its furthest levels.  To want and achieve the physique of your dream you have to control virtually every aspect of your life.  For some people this can become addictive if not unhealthy.  The entire process for men is also more accepted by the general population.  For women the general population sees women bodybuilders as “freaks”.  I am not here to judge, nor is this article intended to side with psychologists, the general public, or hardcore bodybuilders who can appreciate a female bodybuilder’s tenacity.  Rather this article presents the view psychologist beleive they see in female bodybuilders based on their most recent analysis published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions [Ref 1].

Muscle Dysmorphia

Muscle dysmorphia is the belief that you are small, weak, and lacking in muscle size depsite the fact that you are much larger than the average population.  Does that sound like every prohormone user, bodybuilder, physique enthusiast you know?  It does to me.  Psychologists think that this is a potentially unhealthy mindset.

To study muscle dysmorphia in female bodybuilders researchers at Penn State University categorized 74 female weight lifters into the following groups:

  • 26 Expert Bodybuilders (10+ Competitions)
  • 29 Novice Bodybuilders (3 or less Competitions)
  • 19 Fitness Lifters (6+ months Lifting)

Some of these participants were even recruited at the 2009 Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, OH.  They were all required to complete the below Exercise Dependence Scale:


They also completed a Bodybuilding Dependence Scale, which is a 9 question, 7 point Likert scale questionnaire similar to the Exercise Dependence Scale.  And (as if the first two weren’t enough) they also completed a Muscle Dysmorphia Inventory (below), and a Drive For Thinness Scale:

female bodybuilder

Without giving you all the scores, and with you reading these questions, I’m guessing you can figure out that the psychologists believe these women have some mental problems.  Whether you are a man or woman reading this you probably have  a strong desire to take your physique to the next level.  And like the female bodybuilders in this study you probably score closer to the “mental problems” side of these scores than you do the other end.

Their findings are quit easy to summarize.  Both the expert and novice female bodybuilders were believed to suffer from muscle dysmorphia, and exercise dependence (most likely just like you and I).  The gym rats, or fitness lifters did not suffer from the ailments.

Whether or not these women truly have problems I don’t know.  But if they do, then I suppose you and I both do as well.  Rather than complete a Likert questionnaire to find out if you truly have mental problems, a better way may be to assess your overall life decisions.  If you are skipping a loved ones funeral, or spending your kids college tuition on gear, then you might have a problem.  But if you just love the gym, eating to your goals, and pushing your physique hard, then you might just be a mentally healthy bodybuilder.  Nonetheless, I’ll leave you with their conclusion:


“In conclusion, the overall findings of this study support the hypothesis that female bodybuilders, whether new or experienced competitors, show the same high risks for ED and MD that male bodybuilders have shown.”


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