The sport of bodybuilding is a meat grinder with regard to the toll it can take on the competitor’s physical and mental health. A number of factors play into one’s ability to successfully navigate the competitive landscape, ranging from genetic predisposition to mental fortitude, but in this article, I intend to briefly touch upon several mental considerations. Having competed in the sport for nearly 25 years, I’ve seen and experienced a lot. Perhaps this experience is why I’ve fielded hundreds of emails and engaged in numerous conversations with people wrestling with the mental aspects of competing.


When most people pause to consider the mental side of bodybuilding, they typically think of the mental toughness required to grind through brutal workouts or intensely restrictive diets to achieve a stage ready physique. The taboo subject that most avoid discussing is related to mental issues, clinical or otherwise, and personality disorders. Men, in particular, seem to be more inclined to be transparent while discussing a personal struggle with pornography than while discussing their battles with depression and anxiety.

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Let’s face it: the attraction of lifting weights and building muscle is often fueled by a deep-seated childhood wound. For men, this is often the result of nonexistent fathers in their youth. When I filmed LEGACY, the absence of a healthy, biological father-son relationship marked the stories of Branch Warren, Kai Greene, Victor Martinez, and Phil Heath. Per his own admission, the late Dallas McCarver shared a similar narrative with me months before his passing. Demons attempted to be subdued with sweat, iron, and muscle.



A baggage-filled past may fuel the bodybuilding fire, but it remains vastly inferior to professional psychiatric help designed to get to the root of the angst and to help the competitor to walk through the process of reconciling a hurtful past in a healthy manner. Bodybuilding is an awful foundation on which to build your hope. The risk-reward imbalance is significantly skewed to the risk end of the scale. Nothing clouds these realities more than steroids do because they mask insecurities with a false sense of confidence and bravado.

Hear me on this one. If you’re running from your past or managing it in secrecy, bodybuilding isn’t the answer. Steroids represent an ill-prescribed remedy for the deep wounds of those entrenched in clinical depression. The initial euphoria of power will prove short-lived and unsustainable, and it will culminate in deeper heartache. The end result of steroids is the amplification of the pain you’re seeking to avoid. There is no shame in requiring psychiatric medication. Its stigma needs to die a quick death. However, based on my personal experience of engaging in countless conversations with people who were fighting conflicted pasts, mental issues or personality disorders and steroids simply do not mix.


I’m no expert on sport psychology, but I feel that the root of a person’s mental toughness or lack thereof from a non-clinical standpoint stems from his or her identity. I would define a person’s identity as the place from which he or she finds meaning and purpose, not necessarily his or her background or upbringing. To that end, and for those who know me, the Bible informs my worldview. It is the lens through which I navigate life, and it tells me that God made each of us in His image and likeness. That very fact means we have dignity, value, and a purpose.

For me, the one solid, unchanging place from which I draw strength to keep going at times of immense pressure is not my mental prowess, the positive opinion of a judging panel, the number of followers I have on social media, or my performance in the gym. It is the person and work of Jesus, and the words he says to those whom he adopts into his family out of love.

I persevere not out of begrudging submission but because I know that he loves me and I don’t want to squander my God-given gifts. Win or lose, I'm good enough according to Jesus. There's a cool calmness that knowledge brings in the midst of competition. The purpose He’s called me into is bigger than a stage. In fact, I strongly advise against the competitive bodybuilding stage for many. If that’s you, don’t be discouraged or dismayed. That stage is small in relation to God’s infinitely bigger plan for your life.


Authentic, honest dialogue with a trusted friend or mentor is a good start. You’ll never overcome or successfully manage past hurts by keeping them in the closet. I can’t promise that anxiety, depression, or any other mental battles you face will go away in the presence of a healthy community, but you’ll at least gain people who will listen and walk with you through the dark days. You won’t be alone.

Finally, I’m not here to demonize bodybuilding. Science has vetted and proved the benefits of physical exercise on our mental health. Weight training is no different. It’s a good tool, but it’s not the answer. If you put your hope, identity, and purpose in a competitive record, you are destined for disappointment. There’s a much deeper well of joy and contentment available to you that’s not tied to a bodybuilding stage.

Header image credit: MIKHAIL GRACHIKOV ©