The decision to compete in a bodybuilding competition started building about a year before I made the speedy decision to sign up. It had been on my radar for around two years after I was introduced to the world via Instagram. Before that, I was oblivious. When someone asked me in 2016 whether I ‘competed’, I genuinely thought they meant in powerlifting, which, considering my frame at the time, would have been highly unlikely. So, after much soul-searching and mirror-gazing, in 2019 I thought ‘f$%$ it, why not’.
If you’re sitting on the fence about competing in 2020, have a read of the unexpected lessons I learnt in the course of my year leading up to the stage. Let me know in the comments if there are any I’ve missed.
Most people know nothing about bodybuilding
As with any sport, you’ll find there is a social sub-culture in bodybuilding and it’s very easy to get completely immersed in it. You’ll soon discover the old hands who’ve been competing since the womb; the social media celebrities who post every meal, every workout and every check-in; and the coaches who have the greatest success getting their clients the all-important pro-cards. It’s very easy to forgot that bodybuilding, although on the rise, is a relatively small sport. Although it might feel like everyone is ‘prepping’ for some sort of show, this just isn’t true. Most people will be utterly bamboozled about the whole thing. To them, bodybuilding will mean big men, big women, steroids and LOTS of tan. The reality is (mostly) very different. Except the tan. There’s a lot of tan.
You’re not the best judge of how you look
You’ll hear a lot of people talking about ‘prep brain’. In part, they’re referring to the deluded thoughts you get as you approach your show. These thoughts are generally screaming ‘You’re not lean enough. You’re not big enough. You have sparrow legs. You look like a pancake’. Do not listen to these thoughts – your brain is (most likely) telling you lies!
Despite believing that you’re being completely logical, it can be hard to maintain perspective. Even when you’re pinching dry skin and using the smallest notch on your belt, you’ll still probably use the phrase ‘I’m holding on to water’. Just remember, when it’s 20 weeks into off season, you’ll look back on your show day photos and won’t recognise yourself.
You’ll find an inner performer
To some people, the stage is everything. These people are born performers who strut their stuff with confidence and ease. For others, though, stripping down to a pair of tiny undies if front of a panel of judges may feel slightly (very!!) unnatural. I mean, who doesn’t love having their body analysed and ranked in front of a room of people? What’s strange, however, is you’ll likely discover a part of yourself that loves it. A part of yourself that owns the stage, can’t wait to get naked and sashays with the same level of swagger as America’s next drag superstar. Your family won’t recognise you, your friends won’t recognise you, hell, you won’t recognise you!!
Post-competition can be a challenge
You want to progress – and you know what this means in practice – but there’s also a small (sometimes, admittedly, pretty big) part of you that may find putting on weight a challenge. Let’s face it, you’ve probably spent the last 10 to 20 weeks losing weight, so putting on weight can suddenly feel like a massive fail. Your body will change, and that can be uncomfortable. Your clothes will start getting tighter. You’ll lose the ‘ripped’ look you spent a very VERY long time working towards. As much as you attempt to be logical about the changes, it can be a challenge. You’ll worry that people won’t realise that, underneath the fat, you’re an adonis. You’ll worry that people may not even realise you go to the gym. Before you throw in the towel and start dieting again, just remember the gains!
You’ll learn new words
There’s a whole load of jargon and buzz words, which you’ll come to loath (and then eventually, let’s be honest, use frequently).
Gains = what you’re hoping for when you’re bulking.
Bulking = adding muscle during off-season by eating in a calorie surplus.
Off-season = any period of time when you’re not ‘in prep’ for a competition.
Reverse diet = gradually building up your calories after dieting so you don’t gain excess ‘fluff’.
Fluff = you’ll probably add some ‘fluff’ during off-season (aka fat).
Prep = a set period of time when you start cutting down for a competition.
Prep-brain = your illogical, irritable brain when you’ve been in a calorie deficit for a long time!
Cutting = cutting fat during prep by eating in a calorie deficit.
Meals = literally anything you eat – ‘some ice-cream’ will become ‘Meal 6’.
Shreds = what you’re hoping to achieve during prep – the ‘shredded’ look – aka veins, muscle and not much else.
Cardio = anything that isn’t weights.
Peak week = the week before your show when you attempt to look your best by manipulating food and water.
Dry out = reducing body water during peak week so the judges can see your gains!
Flat = what you do NOT want to look like on show day! Generally rectified by ‘carbing up’.
Carbing up = in simple terms, eating more carbohydrates during peak week to help fill out your muscles.
Check-in = what most people do with their coaches once a week to make sure everything is heading in the right direction.
Ticking the boxes = overused phrase on social media by people who are sticking to their plan.
Your shopping list will look stranger and stranger
- Cucumber and sweetener
- Baby rice
- Baby oats
- Turkey mince
- White fish
- Rice cakes and jam
- Rice cakes and peanut butter
- Rice cakes
- Jelly (sugar free, obviously)
- Protein power
- Protein bars
There’s a hashtag for most days of the week
Monday = #mondaymotivation = post a picture of you looking your best (“being my own #mondaymotivation”)!
Wednesday = #humpday = post a picture of your derriere.
Thursday = #TBT throwback Thursday = post comparison shots.
Friday = #flexfriday = post a picture of you flexing.
Sunday = #sundayfunday = post of picture of you enjoying the gym.
It’s a mental challenge as well as a physical one
On a more serious note, it’s important to know that competing can be a serious mental challenge (as well as a physical one). As with any sport, particularly endurance sports, you’ll have to exercise your mental strength as well.
- You will need to be able to motivate yourself to go to the gym at least four times a week, but sometimes as much as twice a day.
- You will need to be able to motivate yourself to train when you’re tired and hungry.
- You will need to get used to being hungry.
- You will need to have the strength to say ‘no’ to social occasions, or to go out with friends and drink diet coke.
- Your sleep and mood may get worse, but you’ll have to be able to deal with that without letting it affect your work or relationships.
- If you’re self-prepping, you may find it a challenge to navigating your calories or peak weak plan; it can feel quite lonely.
- You need to prepare yourself for not placing. The comments you receive can feel deeply personal.
- It can be hard to accept how subjective the sport is. You may not be what the judges are looking for on any given day. Then, you may end up winning the following week. It depends on the federation, who shows up to compete and who’s sitting in front of you on the day (your actual physique is just one element).
Above all else it’s important to remember that you have chosen to compete. No-one has forced this upon you. You are in the enviable position that you are physically and financially able to take part. So, as far as possible, you need to make sure that the decision doesn’t have a negative impact on you, your health, and those around you. If it does, it might be time to rethink your strategy or get a coach who will be able to help you navigate the challenges.
Above all else, have fun. What started as a hobby, may end up becoming a life-long passion or career. But, even if it doesn’t, make sure you’re relish the whole process (not only the show) and be proud of yourself that you decided to give it a go – even if the decision does take you a couple of years to make.