Sleek curves. Rippling muscles. Bright lights, cheering fans, and shimmering tans.
There's no denying it: Bodybuilding and physique competitions are seriously alluring. What gym rat wouldn't want to be ranked among the most exquisite specimens of the human form, showing off their prowess at the squat rack through their massive quad sweeps and bulging hams?
Yet for every athlete who finds competing to be a positive and transformative experience—as it was for me—there is at least one who tells a story of regret, obsession, and suffering. And that's just the prep! Add to that the fact that your body is being nakedly judged and critiqued every moment onstage, and you'll quickly understand the harsh and unforgiving nature of this glamorous sport.
Scared? Not to worry. It is possible to know on the front end if you have what it takes to compete—and thrive while doing it. The first step is to ask yourself these three simple questions, and take the answers deadly seriously.
Question 1: Why do you want to do this?
This is the all-important question—and it's not the "why?" you'll have to constantly answer to your co-workers, your grandma, or your friends. It's the one you'll have to answer to yourself, at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, when you still have to prep meals, finish laundry, and head back to the gym to finish a leg workout you left unfinished earlier in the day. At that moment, you need to know the answer.
Don't be fooled into thinking your love of workouts will make it easy; training for a competition will wear through that love quickly enough. Some competitors enjoy the challenge and process of pushing their bodies to the limits of perfection and trying to outdo their personal best.
Others compete for the glory of standing onstage with a trophy in hand proving they are the best. Still others compete for the thrill of doing something completely daring that they've never done before, thus proving to the world, and themselves, they have what it takes to step on stage.
Whatever your reason, make sure it resonates. The last thing you want to do is enter into the competitive world of bodybuilding simply because your trainer thought you'd be good at it, or you're trying to impress someone. Mediocre motivation produces lackluster results. There is nothing wrong with pushing yourself, chasing a dream, or daring to try—as long as you are doing it for yourself.
Question 2: Can you go all-in?
Preparing for a competition is a full-time commitment that will devour your resources. All of them. Before you commit to training for a show, ask yourself if you have the necessary amount of these:
- Mental fortitude
- Emotional stability
Not having enough of any one of those can cause one, or several, of the others to unravel. Don't have a babysitter for your kids? You'll probably need one. Are you already stretched thin financially? Maybe stick to lifting casually until you're not.
Keep in mind that this is a question for your partner as well. Many a spouse has found themselves a "gym widow" from the hours and hours of training it takes their loved one to prepare for competition. Initial support may run high, but family and friends will quickly tire of your long workouts, constant meal prep, and increasing irritability. You may even find yourself buckling under the mental and emotional strain that this kind of competitive sport imposes on you. I've even seen athletes lose their hair under the strain of competition.
Know that there is no substitute for experience when it comes to contest prep. Judges can spot poor posing, improper diet, and lousy homemade suits a mile away. If you can't properly and thoroughly prepare for a competition, this probably isn't the sport for you.
Question 3: Are you prepared to lose?
If you're like the vast majority of people who compete, you're not there to finish in the middle of the pack—you're there to win. Failing to do so can destroy your ego. And that's precisely why you need to answer this question. Too many novice competitors walk away frustrated and angry because they simply did not have a firm grasp on the realities of the sport.
That reality can be summed up in four words: You will probably lose.
Bodybuilding is a tough business. Most competitors who step onstage do not win. You might show up the day of competition absolutely on point, with every vein, striation and pose dialed in, and yet the person next to you is just a bit more shredded, more vascular, and more dominating. Even seasoned bodybuilders with years of experience preparing their physiques rarely walk away triumphant. So ask yourself, are you prepared to sacrifice months, in some cases years, toiling away at the weight stack, slaving over the food scale, and pounding out monotonous miles on the treadmill to go home empty-handed?
Just like any other competitive sport, bodybuilding has winners and losers. Failing to comprehend this basic truth is a mistake many first-time competitors make.
It's Not All Bad News
It takes years of training to reach peak performance in any sport, and bodybuilding is no exception. 12 weeks won't get you from couch to trophy. Just because you have the mindset, physique, and resources to train for a competition does not mean you will win. But to be clear, that also doesn't mean you shouldn't compete.
If you have answers to these questions, competition can be a transcendent, triumphant, and downright life-changing experience, even if you come in dead last in your class. If you can treat every improvement you make and tiny goal you meet as a personal victory, then you are likely to go home with a smile on your face, regardless of the final outcome.