Ever wonder if bodybuilding is bad for the heart?

Some people believe that bodybuilding, or getting “too much” muscle, is bad for the heart.

But next time you see a man or woman with muscles big enough to make you stare…you must first wonder if it’s really possible that all that muscle mass could — for instance — cause plaque buildup in their coronary arteries.

If they have a lot of FAT with that muscle, then the problem is the fat, not the muscle. This is common in the world of competitive powerlifting.

Nevertheless, there are those who believe that the heart can be harmed by large amounts of muscle alone.

For purposes of this article, “bodybuilding” refers to lifting weights to add muscle mass, NOT the extreme preparations for cutting up for contest form (which involve severe dehydration and caloric restriction).

This article also EXCLUDES bodybuilders who take performance enhancing drugs.

This is about “natural” bodybuilders and other athletes who, via only natural means, have built significant muscle mass.

Are there studies that show that lifting weights is beneficial to the heart? Yes!

A report in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association says that lifting weights improves heart health. The study’s lead author, Barry Franklin, PhD, states in the paper:

“We now have increasing evidence that weight training can favorably modify several risk factors for heart disease including lipids and cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body fat levels and glucose metabolism.”

You might be thinking, Okay, this refers to merely lifting weights. But what about bodybuilding? What about getting huge muscles?

The American Heart Association Science Advisory’s protocol for weightlifting is as follows: one set of 8-15 reps, involving 8-10 different routines, 2-3 times per week.

A devoted bodybuilder will work out a lot more than this, especially in terms of number of sets.

However, if the AHA protocol is followed at a very intense level, a person (if genetically endowed and on a supportive diet) can become quite muscular.

If a person chooses a weight load that makes 8-15 reps moderately difficult, he’s not going to develop the muscle that he would if he chose a resistance that makes 8-15 reps almost impossible.

Furthermore, rest time between sets, which has not been established in this AHA report, plays a key role in muscle development.

But no matter how intense someone adheres to this protocol, he will not become freakishly huge, though he may become quite muscular, enough to make a skeptic think that all that muscle is bad for his heart.

Another study shows that weight workouts lower resting blood pressure (Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association).

Lead author George A. Kelly, DA, says in the paper, “Even though these reductions in resting blood pressure are small, they still can decrease an individual’s risk for heart disease and stroke.”

Though these studies did not analyze bona fide bodybuilding regimens, one can deduce that taking strength training a few steps further into the bodybuilding realm will not cause damage to the heart.

This assumes that the individual does not have a congenital structural or electrical problem with their heart, or some pre-existing condition for which straining with heavy weight could cause a serious complication. 

Shutterstock/Artem Furman

Smoking After a Workout

The idea by skeptics is that the substantial muscle mass adds so much weight to the body that these extra pounds will eventually strain the heart.

But remember, with the weight of lean muscle tissue from hardcore workouts also comes strong bones and joints and a sturdy back — to help support this weight.

A morbidly obese and sedentary person doesn’t have this advantage.

Body composition must be considered, not just absolute body weight. Shutterstock/Aleksei Zakirov

And just a reminder: The degree of muscle mass in question is that which can be attained via natural means, rather than with anabolic steroids.

Furthermore, what about the heart damage from smoking?

No joke, I have seen men smoking right outside the gym after a workout.

There’s death by smoking and death by obesity, but death by bodybuilding is unheard of — unless someone loses their grip on a 400 pound bench press…

Remember, excess body fat, a junk food diet, an inactive lifestyle and smoking are all major risk factors for heart disease. Any pamphlet in a doctor’s office will tell you this.

If you research risk factors or causative agents for coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure, you won’t find “bodybuilding” or “large amounts of skeletal muscle mass” in the lists.

Dr. Franklin says in the paper, “The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate and the more calories you will burn each day.”

When low body fat is combined with muscle, it creates the illusion of more muscle than what’s actually there.

This makes details of their muscle more visible, creating the illusion in even milder bodybuilders that they have “too much” muscle.

Low body fat (in the “athletic” range) will not cause cardiac problems.

Who should avoid conventional weightlifting?

If you’ve been diagnosed with unstable angina, uncontrolled arrhythmias and uncontrolled high blood pressure, you’ll need to discuss strength training guidelines with your cardiologist.

People who’ve been diagnosed with spinal pathology, as well, should discuss weightlifting restrictions with their physician.

According to the American Heart Association, here are the risk factors for heart disease:

• Obesity

• Smoking

• Hypertension

• High “bad” cholesterol

• Hyperlipidemia (excess fat in the blood)

• Diabetes

• Chronic mental stress

• High fat diet

• Family history

• Lack of exercise

Additional Risk Factors

• High sodium (salt) diet

• Regular consumption of trans fats

• Untreated sleep apnea

• Insulin resistance

• Insomnia

• Sleeping under six hours a night

Where does bodybuilding, or having “too much” muscle, fit in here?

A lot of muscle does not lead to any of these risk conditions.

Men and women who work hard to get a lot of muscle are very conscious of healthy eating.

Though they’ll plan “cheat” meals, the bulk of their diet tends to be clean, that is, whole foods rather than refined, with substantial restrictions on white sugar, white-flour-based foods, saturated fats, trans fats and other junk ingredients.

If you’re still worried that bodybuilding is bad for your heart, even if your cardiologist has told you that your heart is in perfect shape, and everything else also checks out great — it would be wise to present details of your weightlifting regimen and goals to your doctor for a discussion.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 
Top image: Shutterstock/ALL best fitness is HERE
Source: my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/exercise/strengthtraining.aspx