What It Takes to Get to the Stage
I feel like most people assume bodybuilding is about lifting heavy weights. Slightly more informed folks understand that the diet is a massive undertaking. But, did you know that there are two other parts to competing in a bodybuilding competition? You can’t just be lean and jacked; you also have to have the right swimsuit and be able to pose in a way that best highlights your hard work. In the last article, you learned Bodybuilding 101. Now, let’s break down the four components.
First off, everyone starts this story on a different page. Some folks, like myself, start with a good base level of fitness and their primary goal is to work the nutrition and add a little mass to strategic areas to make their overall body composition balanced. Some folks have never lifted weights in their life and have a lot of muscle to build before they can lean out.
Because I was already fit, just fat, I was able to work on toning down my massive cycling quads, build my glutes, and maintain shoulders sculpted by hours in the pool. My coach and I had to play a very delicate game with my nutrition so that my muscle loss was minimal over the year I trained. Others need to shoot for more muscle mass than needed as they accept that some will be lost as fat is lost.
There are as many ways to tackle your weight training as there are body types. For me, I responded best to a five day a week regime with progressive overload. The first three days were my “bro split” days, designed to build muscle tissue: chest/triceps, back/bicep, and legs. After a one day break, I did two more days of lifting designed to build strength: upper and lower body. (My current workouts are a modified version of this five day split.) Judges are looking for a competitor that is balanced both left and side sides of the body as well as a general balance top and bottom. No chicken legs here! For more information about judging criteria in the different categories, you can find the NPC rules here.
There is just no getting around how much the diet sucks (unless you’re on gear and that’s a whole other article). Even on gear and every supplement you can buy, the diet sucks. You are tweaking your nutrition to effectively bring your body to the leanest point it can possibly be. Why? Because the judges want to see all that glorious muscles and the layer of fat that all human beings have and need to survive acts like a door, not a window. Bodybuilders must cut well below what is considered healthy in addition to dehydrating themselves to get that ultrathin skinned look.
And here is the real secret, they cannot maintain that look for longer than a day. They also rarely hold that level of body fat for greater than a few weeks. It’s why you see competitors go through several shows in a short period. They minimize the time spent at dangerously low levels of body fat then go into a reset period to allow their bodies to heal. I have done two seasons of two shows each and took over a year between seasons to rebuild lost muscle and allow my metabolism to come back to normal.
There are two main ways to alter your nutrition to achieve that stage look: crash dieting and slow dieting. Both are valid if you know the impact they will have on you. I have always done the slow method to preserve muscle, but I pay for it by being super restrictive for a long time, which has mental health impacts. Crash dieting will get you quicker results, but it has the greatest impact on health and the greatest muscle loss.
Regardless of your weight loss method, there are certain dangers associated with being at low body fat. The mildest impacts are being cold and tired constantly, more susceptible to illness, muscle loss, and sleep loss. The greater impacts are loss of sex drive, hair loss, changes to skin texture (that crepe look in the skin of older people), and organ failure if maintained for prolonged periods. Ladies, some of you may not consider this a negative impact, but low body fat can cause you to lose your period… but you’ll also lose your sex drive as your hormones go out of whack.
If you read my article on nutrition or balancing weight for racing, you know there are several ways to alter your nutrition to achieve weight loss. I use “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) during show prep because it works best for me: how I eat, how I think, and how I plan my meals. My coach sets my calorie intake with an approximately 250 calorie deficit. We then determine the appropriate protein intake to preserve muscle and fill in the rest of the calories with fats and carbs. My protein intake remains constant as we continue cutting calories while my carbs get cut. I appreciated the latitude it gave me to pick my own meals so I wasn’t eating chicken, broccoli, and sweet potatoes every meal.
Have you ever watched a bodybuilding show? Been curious why the men and women on stage move so oddly? Why don’t they just walk normally? And what’s with those ridiculous poses?
It’s all about the muscles, baby!
Each and every person on that stage has spent hours perfecting their walk, stop, flex, and turn to display their muscles to the greatest advantage. The posing side of bodybuilding competitions is the most transparent. When done well, it seems natural, fluid, and displays the competitors’ bodies to emphasize their best attributes while minimizing flaws. Done poorly, you look stiff, nervous, and an otherwise trim waist for which you worked months to achieve is thickened by the wrong shift of a hip.
I’ve worked with two posing coaches, one for each season and both were good for different reasons. I adored my first coach and the foundations she taught me set me up for success in both seasons. She talked about posing in terms of choreography, which I could understand with my moderate background in dance. Sadly, she isn’t a coach anymore and I wasn’t able to use her my second season. In my second season, I did both bikini and figure in the same competition (called a “cross-over”) and I hired someone through Instagram to help me build my figure posing. I felt very confident in my bikini style posing based on my excellent coach from the season before. My new coach was good, effective, but I never clicked with him, and unfortunately, I think it was reflected in my posing.
Stage Prep: On Your Body
I wish I could say that bodybuilding is 100% about the perfect balance of muscle and leanness that each competitor brings to the stage, but it is a subjective sport judged by humans and those humans can and are swayed by a broad range of other areas. Everything from the cut and color of your suit to the hue of your spray tan can impact the overall look you have on stage. Blonde? Sorry, most of the top female competitors are brunettes. And don’t get me started on the epic levels of makeup you wear… only some of it is really enhancing your facial features!
Each bodybuilding category has guidelines for the style and cut of suit required and each league has varying levels of modesty requirements. That said, even the more modest women’s suits are still bikinis. When you step on that stage, you will be wearing no more clothing than can fit in a sandwich bag. The most modest of all categories is the men’s physique, where they are allowed to wear surf trunks. And here’s the real rub: men can buy an off the rack pair of trunks and be fine; there are no off the rack bikinis in a bikini competition! Oh, and those competition suits? The cheap ones start at $100. Want bling? (Yes, trust me you do) It’s $200. Want a fully crystalized suit with crystal connections? $500 and up! Men’s suits are a fraction the price of women’s suits and not having the same bling as the other girls takes away from your “overall package.” (Which is a fancy way of saying, “honey, you need to pretty up a bit.”)
The suits generally vary but cut, coverage, and color. The cut will be determined by category. Bikini and wellness wear what is closest to a normal bikini, but the suit bottom is … shaped? Shrunk? To display your glute muscles appropriately. And if you think that means that you’re wearing a very skimpy bottom to show off your bottom, you would be right. For physique and bodybuilding, it’s a much more modified cut. Instead of a normal tie in the back, the two ties connect to the bikini bottom. This design enhanced the competitors’ V-shape (shoulders to waist).
Coverage is how much of your ass-ets you’re really covering. There is some variation in top coverage but it’s comparable to a normal bikini. The bottoms vary from semi-modest (about half the cheek covered) to the “pro” cut, which tends to be no wider than 3” at its widest point along the competitor’s bottom. Various shows state they won’t allow “pro” cut suits for amateur competitors and they say they inspect suits at check-in, but I have yet to have my suit checked and haven’t seen anyone told to change.
Color is the last factor in suits and while I’ve seen rowdy debate on how much it could impact your “overall package” based on tan color or hair color, I don’t buy it. Why? Because all of those debates seem to happen on suit retailer Facebook pages and messaging boards. Is it possible to pick an unflattering color? Sure. Are there colors that work better with some tan formulations than others? Yeah. But pick a color you love and feel confident wearing! That confidence will shine through more than a slightly less than optimal color detracts.
Next up are the heels, a mandatory item in three categories and forbidden I two. Bikini, wellness, and figure all require heels. There is no minimum or maximum height, but the average is 5”. I tried 5” heels and then bought 4,” so I’m an outlier. That said, I already compete in the tallest height category and I’m a graceless klutz in the 5” heels. My stage walk and posing smoothed out considerably as soon as I switched down. Like the swimwear, you can’t buy these off the rack and there are varying levels of bling involved. I chose unadorned heels as a cost saving measure. For the physique and bodybuilding categories, the mandatory poses preclude wearing heels. So, if my bulking season goes well, I hope to never have to compete in heels again! The last bit of “stage wear” is the jewelry. Don’t ask me why every girl is decked out in twenty pounds of fake crystals, but they do. Of all the aspects of what you wear, I think this impacts your look the least. I grabbed a three pack of stretchy, sparkly bracelets from Claire’s and slapped on a pair of CZ earrings and was fine.
Based on the stage photos alone, I initially thought bodybuilding was nothing more than beauty pageants for girls who like lifting heavy objects. There is so much makeup! However, I did learn there is a purpose to all that makeup, not just looking like a toned down drag queen.
Anyone who has done theater can tell you that stage lighting washes everyone out. No matter who you are or how good your physique, stage lights will blank out your face. And because it’s the “overall package” that drives women to slap on layers of makeup to bring back what stage lights wash out. We look garish off stage, but on stage I don’t think I look too much more made up than at work. The makeup also lets you match your face to your (very dark) spray tan. The chemicals in the tanning products are harsh and can lead to bad breakouts, so most ladies skip spray tanning their faces and use a darker foundation to match their tan.
Oh, that tan! For the same reason we do heavy makeup, we have to get a spray tan. Those stage lights will wash out every curve and shadow from muscle. The spray tan helps bring back and enhance those curves and striations, allowing the judges a chance to see your muscles. It also serves to even out any flaws or imperfections and puts almost every competitor on an even field. Even POC competitors get spray tanned because it can cover tan lines. It also has a side benefit of everyone walking on stage as almost the same color and shade.
In my case, I look like a walking brownie.
The tans are multi-layer too. The first coat, done the night before, is a base coat to darken your skin. The second coat is the deeply tan bronzer. Finally, just before competing, most competitors receive a final touch of and glaze to give them that slightly shiny look that makes muscles pop.
I hope this helps you build a better understanding of what it takes to get a competitor on stage. From lifting, to eating, to lights, camera, pose! It’s a more complicated sport than I ever realized, but I learned from the experience.
In the next article, I’ll walk you through a typical show weekend and you’ll learn what surprised me.
This is not be a post focused on weight loss because everything you need to know about nutrition can be found here. (Warning, this article has swear words; but if you’re on my blog, you’re probably ok with that.) Second, I don’t care about weight loss right now. I care about fueling my body.
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