Bodybuilding Competition FAQ!

Even competitors who have been around the scene for a few years are still uncertain as to how things actually work. This FAQ is an attempt to help answer your questions.

I. Who is the author of this FAQ?

So, you want to know about the author huh? I'm Steve Kidwell. I've been involved with competitive bodybuilding now since 1987. I've been involved in almost all phases of the sport. I've been a competitor, judge, head judge, expediter, promoter, sponsor, trainer, coach, and photojournalist. During that time, I've come to learn several of the ins and outs of bodybuilding competitions. If you would like to know more about me, then go to the following homepage:

    A. Why a competition FAQ?

    Why is a FAQ needed on bodybuilding competition? Believe it or not, the sport of bodybuilding is very confusing. Even competitors who have been around the scene for a few years are still uncertain as to how things actually work. This FAQ is an attempt to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

    B. What exactly is the goal of this FAQ?

    This FAQ is not being written to serve as a rule book of any sorts. Each organization and sometimes even contests have their own rules. They all vary slightly but still hold the same general goal of selecting the best physique. Therefore, the FAQ will be written in generalities in reference to specific rules of organizations and contests. They are always subject to modification anyway, so listing them now would serve very little future purpose. If you have questions about specific rules from an organization or contest, you should contact them directly. This FAQ is not a “how to� instructional manual either. You will not find contest preparation secrets here. The goal of this FAQ is to serve as a guide to the basic understanding of how a bodybuilding contest works.

    C. Will the FAQ have revisions?

    I truly hope so. I am hoping that several people out there reading the FAQ will have worthwhile suggestions for additions. Any comments or additions I use from other people will be noted in the acknowledgment section.

II. What are the various sanctioning organizations?

Bodybuilding has become like boxing in the last couple of decades. There are several organizations and it can become alphabet soup sorting them out. However, just like in boxing, there are three main organizations with a fourth making a strong bid. In boxing, the three I am referring to are the WBA, WBC and the IBF with the WBO getting some recent notoriety. In bodybuilding, the top three are the AAU, NPC, and IFBB with the NABBA-USA starting to gain popularity.

    A. AAU. (*No longer holding competitions.)

    If you live in the United States, are into sports, and don't know what AAU stands for I have one question for you. What rock did you crawl out from underneath? The Amateur Athletic Union sanctions several different sports in the United States and was the first organization to sanction bodybuilding. The Mr. America was the first bodybuilding competition ever held. It was started in 1939 and was actually called, “America’s Best Built Man,� that year. Everyone referred to it as the Mr. America. In 1940 the AAU decided to change the name of the event to the Mr. America and has held it as their prized jewel ever since. You can walk up to any person on the street and ask them if they know what the Mr. America is and with near 100% accuracy, they'll know it has to do with muscles and bodybuilding. The AAU also uses the "Mr./Ms." titles to designate their champions. Mr. America, Mr. USA, Mr. Indiana, etc., etc. are all examples of AAU titles. The list of AAU Mr. Americas looks like a who’s who in legends of bodybuilding. John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl, Boyer Coe, Tony Pearson, and Chris Dickerson were all AAU Mr. Americas.

    Editor's Note - The AAU no longer holds bodybuilding competitions. This FAQ was written in 1998.

    B. NPC.

    The National Physique Committee is another one of the top three prominent sanctioning bodies in the United States. It was founded in 1982 by former committee members of the AAU National Physique Committee. The NPC's championships are designated the following way: National Championships, United States Championships, Indiana State Championships, etc., etc. The NPC does not use the "Mr./Ms." titles. Several people still use the Mr./Ms. titles when referring to NPC champs out of habit, but technically they are incorrect. The NPC is also the amateur qualifying grounds for the IFBB professional circuit. Lee Haney was the very first NPC National Champion.

    C. IFBB.

    The International Federation of Bodybuilders is the world wide organization started by Joe and Ben Weider. When most people think of the IFBB, they think of the Mr./Ms. Olympia. The Mr. Olympia is the top professional contest in the sport today and has produced several bodybuilding legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, and Lee Haney. The Mr. O is definitely the IFBB's flagship contest but they also sanction several amateur events like the IFBB World Championships and North American Championships. To become an IFBB professional, you must qualify through one of their designated amateur events or receive a special invitation. In the United States, the NPC is the official amateur wing of the IFBB.

    D. NABBA.

    NABBA stands for National Amateur Bodybuilding Association. It's an organization that is based out of England. They have been around since the 40's and have been sanctioning the Mr. Universe since then. Their Mr. Universe contest has been won by such greats as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Pearl, and Jeff King. A strange thing to note is that although NABBA has the word amateur in the title, it also has a professional division. Bob Gruskin, who had always hand picked the team from the USA to participate in the NABBA Mr. Universe in the last decade, decided to start a division of NABBA in the United States. He aptly named the organization NABBA-USA. In order to qualify for the NABBA Mr. Universe, you must win your class at the NABBA-USA National Championships or be invited by Mr. Gruskin.

    E. Various others.

    There are several other sanctioning organizations out there. Some of them have developed quite a following also like the USNBA (United States Natural Bodybuilding Association), the NGA (National Gym Association), the ABA (Amateur Bodybuilding Association), the WNBF (World Natural Bodybuilding Federation), the WABBA ( World Amateur Bodybuilding Association), and the list goes on to infinity as new organizations are sprouting up all of the time.

    For a full list of known bodybuilding organizations, along with links to their sites, contest schedules and more information, click here.

III. What are the different events that make up the contest?

    A. Contest Judging Rounds.

    Each contest has specific rounds in which the competitors are scored. They all have certain independent characteristics from one another. The judges are looking for specific things during these rounds. The rounds listed below do not always occur in this specific order.

      1. Standing Relaxed - Symmetry Round.

      The first round of the competition is the Symmetry Round. During this time, the judges are looking for overall body symmetry in the competitors. They are looking for relationships between the muscle groups. Are they all developed evenly? Within each specific group, does it flow nicely? Does the competitor have a symmetrical bone structure? The more evenly developed the competitor is, the higher he or she will be placed.

      There is no direct flexing in this round. Competitors are viewed in what is called the Standing Relaxed position. Typically, this consists of a competitors heels together, toes pointed out at a forty-five degree angle, and lats semi-flared. Every competitor has their own way of standing relaxed, but in reality it is semi-flexed. Every muscle should be tight on stage. The competitors are viewed from the front, both sides, and the rear.

      2. Comparison Round or Muscularity Round.

      This is where the real flexing begins! Competitors are called upon to hit the Mandatory poses in this round. The judges are comparing the level of muscular development and definition each competitor has acquired in relation to the other competitors. Section II.B. below has a list of the mandatory poses and a brief description of each one.

      3. Free Posing Round.

      The Free Posing Round is where each competitor gets to express their muscularity how they see fit. Usually, this round is accompanied by music, but in the NPC during prejudging, the free posing is considered “dry.� This means no music other than possibly background house music is allowed. All organizations allow music in the evening finals. It is often debated as to whether this round is actually even judged. It’s my feeling that this round in the NPC only serves to give an overall impression of the competitor. It could make a difference in an overall decision which is decided in the evening show after the free posing round, but doesn’t do much for prejudging. The AAU usually allows competitors to pose to music during the prejudging, so it actually can have an effect on class placings. The IFBB scores the round separately at the evening show, and therefore puts more direct weight on the round than anyone else. However, when looking at the scores given at IFBB events for this round, many experts feel that the scores don’t reflect the ability of the competitor to free pose. It’s a very controversial subject, but one thing is for sure, the Free Posing Round is most definitely appreciated by the fans in attendance.

    B. General Mandatory Poses.

    The following are the mandatory poses that are called out for competitors to hit. As I said in the beginning, this is not a “how to� manual. Therefore, the descriptions listed below will be only to ascertain what poses are being hit, not how to hit them. The following order is not always the order in which the poses are called either.

      1. Front Double Biceps.

      Arms are out to the sides with biceps flexed and the competitor is facing forward towards the judges and audience.

      2. Front Lat Spread.

      Hands are located somewhere near the competitors waistline and elbows are flared out showing the lats. The competitor is facing forward.

      3. Side Chest or Side Lifted Rib Cage.

      The competitor is turned so judges can see his profile. He has one calf flexed by raising his heel from the ground. Hands are clasped or wrist is grabbed with the back arm coming across the front of the torso somewhere below the pec line. The forward arm is pulled down and back toward the competitors rear. The chest is raised and flexed. The rib cage is usually expanded.

      4. Side Triceps or Triceps Pull.

      The competitor is in the same basic position as the side chest except his arms are clasped behind him. The forward arm is flexed straight down showing off the triceps. The back arm is stretched across the lower back and it’s hand is clasped with the forward arm’s hand.

      5. Back Double Biceps.

      The competitor is facing the rear of the stage away from the judges and audience. Arms are out to the sides and biceps are flexed. One leg is back and that calf is flexed. The back muscles are also flexed.

      6. Back Lat Spread.

      The competitor is in the same basic position as the Back Double Biceps except the hands are attached at the waist and the elbows are pulled out and the lats are flared outward.

      7. Overhead Abdominal and Thigh.

      The competitor is now facing forward. His arms are tucked behind his head and one leg is placed farther forward than the other and flexed. The competitor is also flexing his abdominal muscles.

      8. Most Muscular.

      Typically, judges will call for the competitor’s favorite most muscular pose. At this point, they have the option to hit which ever of the most muscular poses they feel make them look the best. They are all variations of the Hands on Hips, Crab, or Hands Behind Back Most Muscular poses which I will describe below.

    C. Optional Mandatory Poses.

    While the above poses are the standard ones in bodybuilding competitions, judges reserve the right to make competitors hit other poses. They are called the optional mandatory poses. I have been at shows where it literally looked like the head judge made up a pose for the competitors to hit. However, the following are the typical optional poses though.

      1. Front Victory.

      The competitor’s arms are raised overhead in a “V� fashion. He is facing forward.

      2. Rear Victory.

      The same as the front, except the competitor is facing away from the judges and audience.

      3. Serratus Intercostals Twisted Crunch.

      The competitor is showing his side like in the Side Chest pose. The forward arm is tucked behind the head, showing off the serratus and intercostals muscles. The rear arm is tucked behind the competitor’s back.

      4. Flexing calves from the rear.

      Competitors are facing away from judges and asked to go up on their toes to show off their calf development.

      5. Flex Thigh and Twist and Rotate.

      Facing forward, competitors extend one leg at a time and flex and rotate it.

      6. Crab Most Muscular.

      This is the Incredible Hulk pose. Lou Ferrigno always hit a crab in the TV show, “The Incredible Hulk,� right before he growled. The arms are forward and down, making an arch in front of the body. Fists are clenched and either touching or close and located somewhere over the stomach. The traps are pulled up and the chest is flexed. The competitor is facing forward.

      7. Hands on Hips Most Muscular.

      Facing forward, the competitor places his hands on his hip area with the thumbs forward and fingers pointed down or back. Everything in the front part of the body is flexed. Usually one leg is placed farther forward than the other.

      8. Hands Behind Back Most Muscular.

      Competitor is facing forward and both hands are placed behind the back at the waistline. Traps are pulled up and everything from the front is flexed much like the Hands on Hips pose.

      9. Flex Hamstrings.

      Competitors can be told to either face the side or the rear in this pose. One leg at a time, the competitor will raise a foot and bring it up by bending the knee and flexing the hamstring.

Posing Videos! - Click HERE for free online videos of how to do the most popular poses.

IV. How Are The Competitions Judged?

Contests are judged by a panel of people who are deemed worthy by the sponsoring organization of the contest. In large shows and national events there are usually nine judges including eight regular judges and one Head Judge. When there are nine judges on the panel it allows for each competitor’s two high and two low scores to be thrown out making for a more unbiased score. If seven judges are used, then one high and low score can be thrown out for each competitor. If only five judges are present, then all five must be used as scoring judges. Typically, shows are not judged by less than five people.

    A. Head Judge.

    The Head Judge is in charge at the prejudging. He serves to instruct the competitors on what to do. He calls out the different poses and changes of position. He will consult with the other judges to see if there are any special requests for comparisons or poses they may have in order to be sure of their decision. The Head Judge is usually the most qualified and experienced person on the judging panel.

    B. Regular Judges.

    These are the people who make up the rest of the judging panel. Although they don’t call out the poses during prejudging to the competitors, their scores are weighted as equally as the Head Judge. Their role in determining the outcome of the contest is just as important.

    C. How points are scored.

    This is extremely confusing to many people including experienced competitors. The standard system used by almost all organizations is to rank each competitor from one to whatever the last number may be per class by the order the in which each scoring judge feels they should place. For example, if there were ten middleweights, you would pick out who you thought deserved first and give them a one, pick out second and give them a two, and so on until you gave the person you felt deserved tenth a ten. Then for each competitor a score will be tabulated. This is done by throwing out the appropriate number of highs and lows, depending upon the number of judges, and arriving at five scores per competitor. These five scores are then added up and the competitor with the lowest score wins. For example, competitor #1 earned scores of 3, 1, 2, 2, 1, 3, 1, 2, 2. Competitor #2 earned scores of 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1. Competitor #1 would have his two highs (the two 3’s) and his two lows (two of his 1’s) thrown out and his score would total 9. Competitor #2 would have his two highs (two of his 2’s) and his two lows (two of his 1’s) thrown out for a total of 7. Competitor #2 would beat Competitor #1 by two points. A perfect score in bodybuilding is to receive all 1’s. The IFBB judges score individual rounds in this manner, whereas the amateur show judges only give one score per competitor as a composite score for all rounds. The class winners will then compete at the finals for an overall champion and be put through the symmetry and comparison rounds and scored again.

V. I've got lots of other questions about things I've seen.

Bodybuilding can be viewed as quite a strange endeavor. Countless questions crop up about the different oddities in bodybuilding competitions.

    A. Why do the competitors have a funny color to their skin?

    In order for bodybuilders to show off all of their hard work, certain things need to be done. First, the bodybuilder must have a deep, deep tan color. Contest lighting is usually very bright and tends to wash out a lot of the definition a bodybuilder may have achieved if he isn’t dark enough. Getting a suntan through natural means or with the help of a tanning bed is a great start, but it isn’t going to be enough. Tanning agents, skin dyes, or bronzers must also be applied in order to achieve the depth of darkness a competitor needs to be fully appreciated on stage. That funny coloring you see is more than likely one of these products. They are applied either right before the show, or sometimes days in advance of the show in order to attain the correct hue. Each product works a little differently.

    More Info - Click here for articles on how to get perfectly tanned for a contest.

    B. They always look shiny, is putting on oil required?

    Oiling is not required and sometimes not allowed. However, if not restricted, applying a light coat of oil to the physique helps bring out highlights and definition on the competitor. Some contestants overdo it and look slimy, but a good sheen can really benefit the competitor.

    C. Do the competitors work out right before coming on stage?

    No. There aren’t competitors backstage working out. Some competitors do desire to get a pump before going onstage though. This is done by doing very light repetitions with weights provided backstage and by flexing. Some competitors prefer not to pump at all and just allow themselves to pump up gradually by posing.

    D. Why do they shave their bodies?

    Contestants shave their bodies so they will look as absolutely hard and defined as possible. Body hair when viewed from a distance can obscure definition and hide those hard earned cuts. It can also appear to be a thin coating a fat or water. The hair just has to go.

    More Info - Click here for articles on how to remove body hair.

    E. Do tattoos hurt the competitor's placing?

    Anything that detracts from the physique will hurt the competitor’s placing. If the tattoos aren’t a distraction or don’t hide muscularity, then no, they won’t. However, distasteful or overly done tattoos most definitely will.

    F. How would I get involved in competing?

    The first step to getting involved with competing is to attend a contest. You need to experience one as a spectator to get a feel for how things are done. Next, you can talk to people at your gym who compete. Veterans are always a good source for pointers. Most health clubs regularly post upcoming events for members. If yours does not, then look through some magazines on the newsstands. They usually have contest calendars in them. You can contact the promoter for more information. has a page which list upcoming bodybuilding events here.

    G. Are all contests are tested for steroids like other sports?

    If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked this, I would be writing this FAQ from my vacation house in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The answer is no. There are certain organizations which are not willing to implement steroid testing on a full scale at the national level. Some organizations have dabbled in it in the past and bailed out before they gave the idea a chance. The AAU now drug tests all national events. The NPC and IFBB do have several contests which are steroid tested, but their flagship events are still not tested for anabolics. It’s a subject of great controversy to many people. There are pros and cons for both sides of the issue and this FAQ isn’t going to get into that debate.

    F. What is a “Natural� contest?

    Contests with the term “natural,� in them are used to designate shows that are to be free of banned drugs which aid in the bodybuilding process. Each contest has it’s own banned substances and time limits for being drug free. Once again, this FAQ isn’t a rule book or a how to so I won’t be going into this subject any further.

VI. Acknowledgments and Rights

As of now, I don’t have anyone to acknowledge other than the various people I have had the privilege to meet and learn from in the sport of bodybuilding. These people include, but are not limited to Ted Karnezis, AAU National Physique Chairman, Bob Gruskin, NABBA-USA President, Jim Marchand, former AAU National Judge, Joe Borgia, NPC Indiana State Chairman, and Tim Murphy, long time bodybuilding photographer and fan. If you have any worthwhile additions or subtractions (but please, no long division) for me to modify the FAQ with, please email me at Even if you just have any comments or questions drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

This FAQ is the sole property of it’s author. Absolutely no reproduction in part or whole may be used without consent of it’s author. You may link this FAQ from your web site or include it in any reference sources you have as long as credit is given to the author. All contents of this FAQ are correct as known by the author and do not represent the absolute truth. Any inaccuracies that are pointed out to the author and shown to be valid will be appropriately corrected.

Steve Kidwell
1998 AAU Mr. USA - Overall Champion

The Bodybuilding Competition FAQ can be found at the following web site:
Natural Physique Systems,

Reprinted with permission from Steve Kidwell.