One question I get often is this one:
What kind of physique is achievable naturally, without taking performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids?
This is a question that I asked myself in my earlier days of training as well, simply because I thought it was nice to have some realistic expectations set up from the get go.
So, what kind of physique is achievable naturally?
On average, the kind of physique that is achievable naturally follows this formula:
- (Height in centimeters – 100) = Body weight in kilo (“shredded” @ 5-6% body fat).
For example: If you’re 178 cm (5’10), subtract 100 and you get 78.
78 kg (172 lbs) is your maximum muscular potential if you’re 178 cm when you’re in peak condition; with shredded abs, visible veins on your entire body, striated arms and delts, and so forth. I’ll give you some examples of the look of this physique later.
The kind of physique that someone can achieve naturally is probably smaller and less muscular than what you might have believed. And I don’t blame you, most of us have been brainwashed by the mainstream muscle media (magazines, movies, YouTube, books etc.) that anyone can be 200 lbs and shredded.
In this post we’ll look closer at two maximum drug-free genetic muscular potential models, talk some bodybuilding history, and finally look at a few famous modern guys physiques and do our best to label them as natural or not (gonna be fun!)
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Table of Contents
Maximum Drug-free Genetic Muscular Potential Models
I like to start this post of with some numbers, simply because I believe that numbers don’t lie. The two models in question are these:
- Martin Berkhan’s Maximum Muscular Potential of Drug-Free Athletes.
- The Fat Free Max Index calculation.
Let’s look at these one by one:
Model 1: Martin Berkhan’s Maximum Muscular Potential of Drug-Free Athletes
This is the model that I showed you in the intro of this post. I highly recommend that you read Martin’s article here. And again the maximum weight that a drug-free trainee will achieve when in “stage-shredded” condition (5-6% body fat) is as follows:
(Height in centimetres – 98-102) = Body weight in kilos.
To give you a few examples, this means that if you’re:
- 173cm tall (5’8), your stage-shredded maximum will be ~75kg (165lbs).
- 178cm tall (5’10) your stage-shredded maximum will be ~80kg (176lbs).
- 183cm tall (6’0) your stage-shredded maximum will be ~85kg (187lbs).
- 188cm tall (6’2) your stage-shredded maximum will be ~90kg (198lbs).
This is what stage shredded at 5% body fat looks like by the way:
Now, the Berkhan formula is not a bad rule of thumb for estimating what a hard-working and serious trainee will achieve over a lifetime. However, it doesn’t take into account the genetically blessed exceptions. So, let’s look at these exceptions now.
Model 2: The Fat Free Mass Index
The Fat Free Mass Index (FFMI) is probably the most well-researched of the models. It’s also relatively simple to calculate:
Fat Free Mass in kg ÷ (height in meters)²
Famous research from 1995 looked at the fat-free mass index (FFMI) of steroid using and non-steroid using bodybuilders.
In the research 83 steroid users and 74 non-steroid users FFMI were calculated and then compared. The average FFMI of the steroid users was around 25, and of non-users it was around 22.
To put this into more meaningful figures, the average height of the men in both groups was around 180cm (5’11), with an average body-fat percentage of around 13%. The average weight of the steroid users was 92kg (202.5lbs), and the non-users was 82kg (180.5lbs).
Now, the maximum FFMI of the outliers in the non-user group was 25. And the maximum FFMI of outliers in the steroid-using group was 32.
From this research, it has then been suggested that the genetic ceiling for a natural trainee is a FFMI of around 25.
With that said though, this research was done on 74 non-steroid users, which is a good size of people for a study, but there certainly exists genetically blessed outliers that exceeds an FFMI of 25 naturally. However, they’re likely few and on average I wouldn’t bet my money that people who far exceeds an FFMI of 25 are natural.
Comparison With Berkhans’ Model
Now here’s how Berkhans’ model look when his predicted figures are converted to FFMI:
- 173cm (5’8), 75kg (165lbs) @5% = 71.25kg lean mass = 23.8 FFMI
- 178cm (5’10), 80kg (176lbs) @5% = 76kg lean mass = 24.0 FFMI
- 183cm (6’0), 85kg (187lbs) @5% = 80.75kg lean mass = 24.1 FFMI
- 188cm (6’2), ~90kg (198lbs) @5% = 85.5kg lean mass = 24.2 FFMI
As you can see, the figures from berkhans’ model ends up being on average 7 lbs (3.25 kg) lower than a FFMI of 25.
What We Can Learn From Bodybuilding History
One way to see what kind of physique that’s attainable naturally, is by looking at the earlier bodybuilding eras.
The first attempts to synthetically reproduce testosterone was undertaken by three groups in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands in the early 1930’s. In late 1935 they were able to produce both injectable testosterone propionate and oral methyl-testosterone.
Now, this does not mean that people who lifted during the 30s and 40s were likely to use steroids. This was before the internet, globalization and any widespread notion that steroids was a muscle building or performance enhancing drug (PED). You could not look up studies online. You could not translate them from foreign languages with the push of a button.
In fact, to even know that a topic was being studied you had to be in contact with someone in the scientific community where the research was conducted. Without a contact, you would simply have to wait years until the discovery reached the public.
When Did Steroids Go Public?
Public awareness of the performance enhancing capacities of testosterone in the US didn’t happen until 1945, and it did so from a book called “The Male Hormone”.
So, it’s safe to assume that any bodybuilder before 1930 couldn’t possibly be using steroids, because they didn’t exist yet. While it’s highly unlikely that any bodybuilder before 1945 was using steroids, simply because they were not known to the public.
In this publication, Dr. Eric Helms outlines a table of FFMI data on the Mr America winners from 1939-1959, spanning a period where steroids were almost certainly not used (pre 1945), to a time when they were (post 1945).
Here’s the table:
- The green box (1939-1944) displays the era where the athletes was almost certainly drug-free.
- The orange box (1939-1953) displays a longer era where it’s unlikely, but plausable, that the athletes used drugs, at least during the later years.
If we accept the 1939-1944 winners as natural, the average FFMI is 24.9, with the highest reported at 27.3. If we apply moderate skepticism and accepting the 1939-1953 winners as natural, the average FFMI is 25.6, with the highest reported at 28.0.
So, before 1930 steroids hadn’t been invented yet. Between 1939-1944 steroids was almost certainly not used by bodybuilders. From 1944-1953 it’s unlikely, but plausable that bodybuilders used steroids.
Here are a few visuals of bodybuilders from these eras:
1953 and earlier: Unlikely but plausable use of steroids
1944 and earlier: Almost certainly no use of steroids
1930 and earlier: No use of steroids
The Natural or Not Battle
Now, I don’t like throwing shit on people, and I think that the images of the gentlemen above already give you an idea of what kind of physique that’s achievable naturally.
With that said though, I still want to do a comparison between famous modern bodybuilders and “physique developers”, mostly to help shift your idea of what’s truly achievable naturally in our modern age. The reason why I do this is because a lot of people claim “natty” when in fact it’s very unlikely that their physique can be achieved naturally.
When someone claim natural, while actually not being natural, it can really screw with people’s minds. So, I want to clear out some confusion.
*Disclaimer: The following information is not meant to explicitly imply that any specific individual is on or not on steroids/other performance-enhancing substances (except for people who’ve openly admitted so). It simply presents data and designates anyone above the “natural range” to be a significant statistical anomaly.
Most Definitely Not Natural
Many of these guys have either explicatively admitted to drug use, or their FFMI is so high that no research made on natural guys can support that they’re natural.
Larry Wheels has openly explained in a YouTube video that he’s taking steroids. He has a very impressive physique and is a great powerlifter, however he’s not natural.
Calum Von Moger
Calum Von Moger 6’2″ and 249 lbs at ~9% body fat has a whopping FFMI of 29.1, which is far above what’s been deemed natural in historical research. Remember that the highest FFMI measured from an era where steroids were likely not used was 27.3.
Bradley Martyn claims to be 6′3, 260 lbs and around 5% bodyfat (honestly I think he’s closer to 10% body fat at that body weight). At 5% body fat he would have a FFMI of just over 31, even at 10% bodyfat he would have a FFMI of 29. Impressive physique but not natural.
No comparison content would be whole without the legend Arnie himself, right? Arnold discussed his steroid use on TV etc, and compared it to women taking the pill. The drug of choice was Dianabol, the dosages were theraputic with doctors supervision.
Possibly Natural/Possibly on Gear
This is the “grey area”. Either these guys are extremely genetically blessed or they’re on gear. It’s very hard to say for sure. To truly know they must explicatively go out and say so themselves.
With that said though, this is likely the biggest physique you can believe to achieve naturally if you have extremely good genetics.
Jeff Seid 6’0″ and weigh 203 lbs at 7% body fat has an FFMI of 25.5. He has an amazing physique , that’s achievable naturally, assuming world class 99th percentile genetics. One thing to take into consideration is that Jeff Seid has incredibly good genetic advantages when it comes to his muscle bellies, muscle insertions and bone structure. This causes the illusion that he looks bigger than what he is.
Jeff Nippard 5’5″ and weigh 164 lbs at 8% body fat has an FFMI of 26. He has an amazing physique , that’s achievable naturally, assuming world class 99th percentile genetics. It’s likely he reached a FFMI of 26 since he has good genetics, both his parents have competed in bodybuilding. He’s also undergone a TON of drug tests and polygraphs (lie detector test) as he competes in WNBF Pro Natural bodybuilding.
Steve Cook at 6’1″, 220lbs, 7% BF he got a FFMI of 26.65. This incredible looking physique is achievable naturally, assuming world class 99th percentile genetics.
Chris Jones at 5’7″, 180lbs, 7% BF got a FFMI of 26.7. Even though he never gets crazy lean, he still sits on quite a high FFMI. Now it’s very likely that he got incredible genetics for muscle growth. He have said that he always grew well, but have a hard time getting lean.
These guys have an FFMI that most people with decent to good genetics can achieve naturally.
Matt Ogus at 5’5″, 155lbs, 5% BF got a FFMI of 24.5. Looking at the historical research a FFMI of 24.5 is totally achievable naturally with above average genetics. Sure, Ogus achieves a crazy dry and hard look that can look a bit suspicious, but that could come down to genetics.
Looking at the historical research a FFMI of 23 is totally achievable naturally with average genetics. Greg has an incredible physique that he’s been building over the last 15+ years.
Looking at the historical research a FFMI of 21.3. You can tell that Guzman is most likely natural by the scale. Also, for his size and stature he is very cut but has a reasonable amount of muscle at this bodyfat.
Scott Herman is 5’10” tall, and weigh 178lbs at 10% bodyfat which gives him a FFMI of 23.03. This is definitely achievable naturally with good genetics.
The Point of This Post
The reason behind this post is to give you a fair point of view of what’s achievable without taking performance enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids.
The Berkhan model calculation are probably best described as a rough average of what’s attainable for most reasonably “blessed” people.
A FFMI of 25 is the number commonly thrown around as the upper limit, even for someone with awesome genetics. But as we’ve seen, there are people who go beyond that number.
We know that a FFMI of at least 27.3 is attainable naturally, and in all likelihood, a FFMI of 28.0 as well. Add in some minor advancements in training, nutrition, and supplementation, along with some scepticism about whether the most elite of the elite genetically were competing in bodybuilding in the ’40s, and I think it’s pretty likely that some people can attain a FFMI in the 28s naturally.
Can a lot of people? Absolutely not. But can most people reach the more conservative limit of 25? Nope.
Your genetics are your genetics, and some people simply “picked” better parents than others. But an FFMI over 25 doesn’t automatically mean someone’s using drugs. And if you have rocketed your way up to the genetic limits calculated by the Berkhan model in your first few years of training, then there’s every reason to believe you are one of the few that has the potential to exceed it.
So, don’t limit yourself based on these formulas. If you believe in yourself and have the mindset that you can reach further than most, then perhaps you will!
Are you at the beginning of your journey towards building your physique and are unsure of what to do? Then make sure you read the guide: How to build an aesthetic physique next! In the guide I cover everything you need to do with both your training and your diet to reach your goal physique depending on your starting point. You can read it by clicking here.