WHEN you look at a bodybuilder in the gym, what do you see?

A fitness fanatic? An athlete? A ‘meathead?’ Bodybuilding has long been a divisive subject among health experts, particularly when it comes to the ways and means of getting the human body to look the most defined and ‘pumped-up’ it can be.

There is a huge debate among bodybuilders on how you can get there.

Some argue it should only be done naturally, yet some argue there is nothing wrong with taking dietary supplements or even steroids.

Either way, it takes a lot of hard hours in the gym and discipline to become a bodybuilder.

Michael Hargreaves, a plumber from Astley Bridge, had been ordinary gym-goer from the age of 16 until he got into bodybuilding as a hobby two years later.

Michael, aged 22, has since been placed fourth out of 23 other juniors in the UK Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (UKBFF) championships, and is hoping to do even better in the future.

Even though he has transformed his body in the past four years, he says the reaction about the way he looks is not always positive.

Mr Hargreaves said: “It all started as a hobby to keep active. I got introduced to another body builder and that’s when I wanted to get in shape and build up from there.

“Since then I have ended up getting into body building competitively and am one of the only juniors in Bolton.

“But I have had a lot of criticism along the way for the way I look. When people think about bodybuilding they assume it’s related to steroids. People say it’s cheating but it’s not about that. It’s about being the best you can be.

“It’s not about what you take it’s about hard work. If you’re in the gym seven days a week, you cannot say anything bad about that.

“On the other hand, I get a lot of people coming up to me and saying they’re inspired by me.”

In the run-up to a competition, Mr Hargreaves will go on a strict 20-week diet and fitness regime known as ‘show prep’ to get in tip-top in condition.

He is reluctant to share his diet secrets, but says eating lots of protein is the key.

“It’s really expensive in the run-up to a competition because you spend so much on food. My weekly shop will cost about £80 just for myself.”

Emily Parkinson is a personal trainer at Total Fitness in Bolton and is also making waves in competitive bodybuilding.

The 30-year-old first got into bodybuilding when she became a fitness model.

Ms Parkinson, from Wigan, said: “I have to admit I always thought female bodybuilding would be these women with huge muscles. I’ve always been quite petite so I wasn’t sure how I would look but they have a bikini fitness category, which is much more feminine.

“It’s about getting a nice round shape and creating that symmetry. I think people are surprised when I say I’m a body builder because they think it’s this freakish competition, but it’s not.

“I love my new shape and it’s given my confidence a real boost.”

There is no doubt bodybuilders put in the hours at the gym.

Yet health experts say it is important for bodybuilders and gym-goers to build their muscle mass up through a good diet, rather than a ‘quick fix’ supplement.

Rin Cobb is a sports dietician from the British Dietic Association (BDA) and advises body builders to try upping their protein intake through their diet first before hitting the supplements.

Ms Cobb said: “As with any sort of training, it is important for the individual to assess what their body will need in terms of nutrition for they want to achieve.

“If someone is trying to build their muscle mass, we would always advise people to look to their diet to optimise their protein intake, rather than take supplements. If someone is thinking of taking supplements it’s important to ask what the benefits will be and look into the evidence on the supple-ment and the ethics behind it.”

The UK drug regulator the Medicines and Health-care products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) warn people to be wary of buying illegal sports supplements due to the unapproved ingredients.

An MHRA spokesperson said: “Buying illegal sports supplements can seriously damage your health. The products may claim to boost your energy or muscle, but they could contain unapproved ingredients that can cause kidney failure, heart problems or seizures.”