Are You Ready for Competitive Bodybuilding? Here's How to Find Out.
Okay, let's get the cat out of the bag: Prepping for a bodybuilding contest is not for the faint of heart. Many people that decide to compete see the physiques of their favorite pro bodybuilders, like Mr. Olympia Classic Physique champion Chris Bumstead, and think, “I want to look like that.” The problem is that few of them stop to ask themselves what it actually takes to get that lean and muscular.
There is a distinct difference between getting on a bodybuilding stage and bringing your absolute best physique to the stage. Far too many men and women don’t take the time to build the physical and mental foundation necessary to succeed as a competitive bodybuilder. So before start looking for local bodybuilding shows to enter, let’s take a look at what it takes to be truly “ready to compete.”
Things to Consider Before Entering a Bodybuilding Competition
It’s not uncommon for people to discover weight training and almost instantaneously decide that they would like to compete in a bodybuilding contest. With no more than a few months of training, they announce to the world that they are prepping for their first bodybuilding competition on social media.
Exciting, right? Well, it is until reality hits show day, and they are disillusioned after placing poorly. They can't help but wonder what went wrong? Did they not work hard enough? Could they have dieted harder? Maybe they're not cut out for competitive bodybuilding?
The answer to those questions is that bodybuilding is a sport largely based around muscularity; they should have given themselves more time to build the muscle required to be a formidable competitor on stage.
Building the amount of lean muscle mass you see on seasoned bodybuilders takes considerable time and consistency — as in multiple years of dedicated training and eating plenty of protein in a caloric surplus. A couple of months of lifting will not cut it if you're new to the world of competitive bodybuilding years; at minimum, you should have a few years of training under your belt, again while following a proper muscle-building diet, before even entertaining the idea of entering a bodybuilding competition.
That may seem disheartening to newbies, but bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint. It's one thing to get on stage and "compete," but it's a whole other animal to get up there and place well. And there is no better way than to crush your spirits as a competitive bodybuilder than not placing well in your first few shows. Give yourself plenty of time to train, eat, and build new muscle tissue. You won't regret having a solid foundation once contest prep rolls around.
Building a Foundation Before Contest Prep
The amount of time needed to build appreciable muscle mass is dictated by numerous factors, notably genetics, nutrition, training consistency, age, and injuries/setbacks. However, the category you intend to compete in will also determine how much muscle you should plan on building. Those competing in bikini and figure will need far less time than those competing in bodybuilding and classic physique.
While there is no strict rule, it's generally wise to have at least 3-5 years of diligent training experience for first-time bodybuilding competitors; 2-4 years for figure and men’s physique; and 1-2 years for bikini. Keep in mind that this time is a prerequisite to beginning contest prep, and it should mostly be spent in a caloric surplus to facilitate muscle growth.
Depending on how high your body fat percentage is, contest prep may tack on another 20+ weeks to the aforementioned recommended timeframes.
How Many Bodybuilding Shows Should You Compete in Per Year?
Rushing into contest prep is arguably the most common pitfall of newcomers to competitive bodybuilding. In fact, this is a problem that plagues inveterate competitors just as it does newbies.
After someone finishes a show, they typically experience one of two reactions:
- They place well and experience a high from the sense of accomplishment; they can't wait to get back on stage to get that feeling again.
- They place poorly and want to get back on stage as soon as possible to redeem themselves.
Both of these reactions lead to people getting competing in shows far too frequently than they should.
But why is it important to give yourself ample time between bodybuilding contests? Well, muscle growth takes time — especially for natural bodybuilding competitors. If your goal is to get better from one show to the next (which it should be), you will need to spend significant time eating in a caloric surplus and growing.
Keep in mind that after a competition, you must first recover from your previous prep before you can even begin to make new progress on your physique. Research has shown that full endocrine and metabolic recovery from bodybuilding show prep can take anywhere from 2-6 months .
The idea that you can do a show, grow for a 2-month “offseason,” and then turn around and prep again while bringing significant improvements to the stage is nonsense. Your body needs plenty of rest, calories, and (a lot of) time after a bodybuilding competition.
The rate at which people can progress and improve will vary significantly. Genetics, age, and training experience will play a significant role in the rate of progression. Here are a few things to consider for how much time you should take between shows:
- Genetics — Some people build muscle quicker than others. It’s a fact of life; it's not fair, but it's biology. Those that pack on muscle quickly can generally take less time between shows and still make significant progress. If you’re a "slow gainer," you’ll want to take more time between shows so you can make significant improvements to your physique.
- Age — Anabolic hormones like testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) typically peak in our teens and early adult years. These are prime years for building muscle and cutting body fat (since metabolism wanes as we grow older). Consequently, younger individuals will need less time between shows to show significant progress. However, just because you might be able to make progress with less time between shows doesn’t mean that's necessarily the smart thing to do. If you're a younger individual looking to compete in bodybuilding, you will hinder your long-term potential by spending a lot of time dieting for contest prep. Once you get older, there's no turning back the biological clock. Don't squander the prime growth years by overextending yourself.
- Training Experience — For most people, the first five years of bodybuilding-style training are when the most dramatic changes occur. During this time, it’s not uncommon to see people lose fat and build muscle seemingly simultaneously, even without proper nutrition; and when they do clean up their diet, they grow like a weed. But this doesn't mean it's wise to compete as frequently as possible during your first few years of training. Again, you should be spending a good chunk of your initial training years trying to build a solid foundation, not in a calorie deficit. Likewise, the longer you have been training for bodybuilding competitions, the longer you will need between shows to make improvements.
- Life — Let's be real: most people who compete in bodybuilding will not get paid for their efforts. It is a completely voluntary hobby for the average Joe/Jane. As such, it's not always practical to put bodybuilding contest prep ahead of other priorities in life. If you have a family to take care of, bills to pay, and a full-time job, chances are your free time is minimal. Not to say that you can't compete in bodybuilding while leading a busy/stressful lifestyle, but be prepared for some bumps along the road that may throw off your plans.
There is no definitive timeline to follow, but a good range for most competitors is to take 15 months to three years between shows. You can certainly take even longer if you feel that's best for your body and health.
Metabolic Capacity: The Key to Cutting Body Fat Without Sacrificing Muscle
It doesn’t matter if you are a first-time competitor or you’ve been a competitive bodybuilder for 20 years, you need to make sure your metabolic rate is "primed" before beginning contest prep. So, how do you optimize metabolic capacity? It's simple: you need to spend time getting calorie intake as high as possible and cardio as low as possible while maintaining a reasonable body fat percentage.
As an analogy, think of your metabolic capacity like it's the gas tank of a vehicle. Everything you can do to facilitate fat loss is placed in this “metabolic tank” of yours. This means any amount of cardio that you can add, any calories that you can cut, and even fat burner supplements should be accounted for.
Now, if someone is eating plenty of food, doing zero cardio, and using very few thermogenic supplements, their tank is metaphorically "full." They have plenty of ways they can create "new" fat loss at their disposal.
However, if someone is only eating 1000 calories per day, already doing an hour of fasted cardio daily, and popping pills of every fat burner they can get their hands on, then their metabolic tank is essentially "tapped out." How are they supposed to cut more body fat?
Beginning a contest prep with an empty metabolic tank is like trying to take your v8 diesel truck on a long road trip with only a gallon of gas in it. You don't get far before it stalls.
Obviously, you can always create more fat loss by cutting more calories and adding more cardio. However, there comes a certain point where going to such extremes will be detrimental to your physique. Fat loss will not be sustainable, you will sacrifice muscle mass, and recovery will be at an all-time low. Your body will likely rebel against you, that is, if you don’t give in to the mental anguish first. (In extreme cases, this can lead to eating disorders or other health consequences.)
Make sure you give yourself time to fuel your body with proper food intake, reduce cardio as much as possible, and limit the use of thermogenics before beginning prep for a bodybuilding competition. Fill up your metabolic tank so you don't burn out quickly.
Do You Have Injuries that Prevent you From Training Optimally?
If you are a serious lifter, odds are that you are dealing with at least one minor injury at any given time. Injuries are part of the iron game, especially when lifting heavy day in and day out for years on end. However, battling little nagging injuries, muscle strains, joint aches, or minor “tweaks” that happen from time to time is much different than the more serious injuries that can derail your training for weeks, months, or even years.
If you're not able to lift at (near) peak capacity, then it's probably not the ideal time to be entering a bodybuilding competition. Give your body the rest it needs, and come back when you can train at high intensity again. Let any significant injuries heal before you worry about what show to compete in next. Training capacity and muscle mass should both be at an all-time high near the start of your prep, not the other way around.
Can You Stick to a Plan Despite Unforeseen Obstacles?
A successful contest prep should be so consistent that it's almost boring. The monotony can be tough to handle for some people.
Be honest with yourself. Can you stick to a strict nutrition plan, train hard, and rest enough day in and day out for weeks, if not months, at a time? If you're not mentally ready to do this, or simply can't do it due to life circumstances, you shouldn’t start prepping for a show.
It's astonishing how many people intend on competing in the near future even though they have their brother’s wedding in five weeks, an international work trip in seven weeks, a vacation for their anniversary in ten weeks, are several other events planned between all that. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to prep for bodybuilding competitions through the obstacles that life throws our way, but it’s usually not a recipe for success on stage.
It is possible to go through all of those types of circumstances and bring your best physique and conditioning come show day. Still, you need to honestly ask yourself whether or not you are prepared for the mental and physical challenges that come with that much extracurricular obligation.
There is never a perfect time to compete, but there are definitely better times than others.
The Psychological Impact of Bodybuilding Competitions
Maybe the most important factor to consider before embarking on your journey to the stage is the psychological impact of competing in bodybuilding shows. Make no mistake; contest prep is just as much a mental challenge as it is physical. Some bodybuilders that served in the military have even said prepping for a show is more demanding than basic training.
Yet, most competitive bodybuilders never talk about the psychological side of prep, nor what happens after the high of being on stage wears off. Once you have gone through contest prep, you will never look at your body or food the same way again. You’ll no longer be able to have a meal without considering the impact that it will have on your physique.
Even if you aren’t actively preparing for a show, or if you have long since stopped competing in bodybuilding, it will always be in the back of your mind. How many grams of carbs, fats, and protein does this piece of pizza have? Did I gain body fat this week, or am I just holding onto excess water? These are the types of questions many bodybuilders start to ask themselves after stepping on stage.
You’ll also become more keenly aware of the flaws in your physique. While most people are critical of their own bodies, you will always hold yourself to a higher standard because you have seen yourself in “stage conditioning.”
Some competitors can balance the scrutiny with a more sensible mindset. For others, it can absolutely break them. You need to ask yourself whether or not the tradeoffs are worth it to you.
Finally, many people foray into bodybuilding because they want to improve their physique (and hopefully, health). However, if you hate your body or have negative relationships with food, entering bodybuilding competitions will not fix the problem. In fact, it will likely exacerbate the issue.
Bodybuilders will go to extremes even in the face of health consequences. Contest prep is extreme and restrictive in nature. You push your mind and body to the limit for weeks at a time, and then after the show, you have to regain some level of normalcy (at least a bodybuilder’s sense of normalcy). The transition is difficult, even for those with a completely healthy body image and relationship with food.
Before beginning contest prep, it’s important to resolve issues you may have with food, with your body image, and make sure you are in a healthy spot mentally. It behooves you to consider the long-term impact that competing will have on your life and sense of balance.
Patience Pays Off for Competitive Bodybuilders
Consider the above sections a checklist for whether or not you are ready to stand toe-to-toe with other competitive bodybuilders. Anybody can get on a bodybuilding stage and take home a participation medal; it's not all that hard. But stepping under the spotlights and presenting your best physique takes consistency, dedication, and patience.
Not everyone has the willpower to wait until they are ready to be a true competitor. After all, to compete, you have to be competitive. Being on stage doesn't automatically make you competitive. If you want to set yourself apart from the pack of other bodybuilders up there, you need to be the one that puts in the necessary time and effort.
Should you decide to compete in bodybuilding, be sure to check out our Guide to Contest Peak Week so you can dial-in your physique on show day.