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You can’t be a bodybuilder with one kidney... can you?

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

The answer is... YES.

Coach Anna posing on stage at the 2022 NFF Texas Classic
Coach Anna on stage at the 2022 NFF Texas Classic | Photo Credit: Richard Martinez

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was diagnosed with kidney cancer in late 2020, my dreams of being an amateur Muay Thai fighter would later shatter. My urologist hoped to perform a partial nephrectomy, but after cutting into my body and seeing the tumor’s location on my left kidney, he decided the whole organ had to go. Now, I only have my right kidney to spare—and I can’t spare it at all.

Which meant I couldn’t fight in any ring. After all, I doubt an opponent would take it easy on me and not kick my right side because I asked nicely. So, I traded my gloves for weights and dove headfirst into the world of natural bodybuilding, competing in my first show back in November 2021. (I would go on to compete in two more shows this past fall.)

I have been very open and honest about my story on social media, and over the last 2.5 years, I’ve had several kidney cancer survivors, as well as people with kidney health issues, reach out to me to learn more about my story—my programming, my health, my protein intake. They tell me that they would “love to be a bodybuilder,” but now they “can’t” because they’ve lost a kidney. They recount stories of coaches and doctors who tell them they could never compete again because they can’t eat all the protein in the world. And with every conversation, my response is always the same:

I didn’t become a bodybuilder until after I lost my left kidney—and until after my protein intake was cut considerably.

Real talk: being the one-kidney bodybuilder is not easy. Bodybuilding is a humbling sport in-and-of itself, but when you’ve had a kidney removed, it can feel completely intimidating. Bulking is even slower, nutrition is even harder, and you long for protein something fierce. Where other natural bodybuilders may knock out 5 shows in a year, you may only be able to compete in two, because you need to be cognizant of putting too much strain on your remaining kidney. Not to mention, all the mindset work you need to do to heal, both from the trauma of cancer and how that cancer has altered your body and entire life. Dealing with scanixety in the middle of prep magnifies the stress of the experience.

But, even with the added challenges, it is possible to be a bodybuilder with one kidney. It takes honesty, diligence, resilience, time, and intention. To start the journey, you have to:

1. Be honest with yourself. Building muscle naturally takes time as is, but when you need to cut down on your protein intake, you may see the growth happening at an even slower pace. To be a natural bodybuilder, you have to have patience for the process, knowing results will take longer to show, but you are willing to wait because you are doing the work.

2. Be diligent with your health. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to building muscle. Everybody—and every body—is different, which means you have to follow the protocol that is right for you. But there will be a lot of starts and stops when landing on the right protocol. This means you have to be committed to failing and learning, tinkering with variables to get it right for your body.

3. Be intentional about your work. Bodybuilding is not just about lifting heavy weights. You won’t see the results you want if you go into the gym without a solid plan, playing around with a thousand different exercises, but never progressing. Find yourself a coach who understands your situation and work closely with them to come up with a lifting program that will hit all your body goals.

4. Be strategic about your protein. When your protein intake’s limited, it could feel almost impossible to chase meaningful gains. But it’s not impossible. You can eat less than your bodyweight in protein and still build muscle by focusing on two variables: timing and distribution. For optimal muscle growth, eat at least 20 grams of protein within two hours after a workout, and spread the rest of your protein intake throughout the day.

5. Be willing to face your shadows. As a I mentioned, bodybuilding is humbling. You don’t know who you are until you try to deadline 215 pounds and can’t lift it an inch off the ground. But you need to be determined to prove yourself wrong, understanding self-doubt will try to entice you to quit, but refusing to listen.

Being a one-kidney bodybuilder takes focus, dedication, consistency, and an understanding of the right programming and strategies for your body. It will be hard work, it will be uncomfortable work, and you may not always be motivated to see it through. But if you know your end goal is greater than what you feel in any given moment, your determination to see what you could do will drive you.

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