Have you cruised through the pages of Iron Man Magazine, saw the photographs of the fitness competitors, and imagined yourself on that stage? The music is playing, the warm lights are shining down on your tanned body, and the audience applauds when you hit that pose just right. Thousands of men and women at all levels of fitness do compete each year to challenge themselves and motivate others. There is something about having a definitive date and knowing that you will be on stage showing off what you got in front of experienced judges that enables one to push their physical limits. Competing is not for everyone. It requires extreme discipline, high work ethic, consistency, and pain tolerance. Now, I’m not try to scare you off, but it’s not easy. Hats off to anyone who does step on that stage. It’s quite the accomplishment. This is a guide for those who are thinking about competing, but have no idea where to start.
Don’t Wait Forever: Yes, to be in a fitness competition you have to be fit. But the term ‘fit’ is relative. Nobody who competes is never perfect. Don’t hold off competing until you feel you have the perfect physique because you never will. Our bodies will always be a work in progress. If you are far from being in shape it might take a year or two to get stage ready, but go for it. Don’t be a talker be a doer.
Choose An Organization: You should be aware that there are two separate paths to take when it comes to fitness competitions. You can choose to compete naturally at tested events or non-tested free-for-all events. This is a choice you have to make as an individual. I am proud to be a natural pro athlete myself. I do all this to be healthy and around for my family as long as possible. I personally won’t compromise my long term health for a few extra inches on my biceps. Some of you may have needed hormone replacement therapy or testosterone for medical reasons. In these cases you would need to take the non-tested route even though the purpose of your treatment was not muscle gain.
If you plan to compete at non-tested events the NPC and their pro division IFBB is an option. If you want to take the natural route and compete on a level playing field where WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) testing is administered then the INBA and their pro division PNBA is a great option. https://naturalbodybuilding.com/
All organizations will require you to be a member. You may want to wait and apply for membership once you have a competition date in mind. Depending on the organization memberships might expire at the end of the year or one year from when you signed up.
Select A Category: There are a lot of different body types and levels of fitness out in the world so you will want to compete in a category that best suits your degree of development. The organization you choose should have the classes offered along with photographs on their respective websites. The class types and names differ slightly between organizations, but some of the more popular are listed below.
Men: Bodybuilding, Classic Physique, Men’s Physique
Women: Figure, Bikini, Physique, Bodybuilding, Sport Model
There are also classes offered for novice, masters, mixed pairs, teen, and others. Because contest preparation takes many months of work, dedication, and sacrifice I suggest competing in as many classes that make sense. For example, if you are a teen competing for the first time in Men’s Physique register for Teen, Novice, and Open Men’s Physique. You’ve put all the hard work in at this point so give yourself the most opportunity to gain experience. In most organizations, if you win first place in the ‘Open’ classes you are awarded a ‘Pro Card’ if there are enough competitors. Then your off to battle some of the best in the world. A ‘Pro Card’ is a real tangible thing representing ELITE Professional Status.
Pick A Competition: I heard a quote from one of the top natural coaches that really stuck with me. He said, “Pick a competition not by the date, but based on your condition”. What I notice about a lot of young competitors is that they are not conditioned enough. They needed a little bit longer to cut down a few more pounds. When will you be stage ready? That answer is different for everyone depending on their current body fat percentage and what class they are competing. When cutting for a competition it is ideal to try and lose around one pound of fat a week while retaining as much muscle as possible during the process. If you try to lose much faster than that you risk losing hard earned muscle. So if you think you have 20lbs to lose plan on taking at least 20 weeks. A lot of the top men’s competitors will have body fat levels in the 3-5% range. Women’s ranges would of course be higher and change drastically depending on class (Women’s Physique would be much leaner than Bikini for example). It would be good to get your body fat levels tested to see where you are at present. This all leads into my next point of getting help. Once you have a set date to compete be sure to join the organization and register for the show. I also recommend staying at the host hotel and pre-paying for tanning services and photography. Tanning appointments can fill up and you don’t want to get stuck with a 11pm appointment the night before the show.
Hire A Coach: Prepping for a fitness contest is a completely different game than just working out with your buddies at the gym. There are time earned methods to getting ready for a competition and staying healthy that is only learned through experience. I would highly recommend hiring a contest prep coach if you are considering competing. Choose somebody who has a lot of experience and a great track record with competitors who compete in the organization and class you are choosing. Since your health could be on the line get someone with many positive references. A good coach can help you plan your prep based on how much body fat you need to drop and what methods works best for your metabolism. They may even need to help you decide which class to compete in based on your physique. In addition to dialing in your body for the stage your coach would help you learn how to pose for your specific class as well.
Hold That Pose: Posing plays a big part of fitness competitions regardless the class. Study the mandatory poses for your class and practice them daily. You will want another set of eyes giving you guidance so work with your coach and other competitors who are known for great posing. Get in the habit of filming posing practices so you can watch the playback and critique yourself. Concentrate mostly on the mandatory poses, but learning smooth transitions between poses will help you look more polished. Other things to keep in mind when posing is to always smile as if you are on stage, learning to control breathing patterns while keeping abs tight, and eventually practice away from a mirror because there are no mirrors on stage. Confidence shines on stage and that can only earned through repetitive practice over a long period of time.
Peak Week: The final days leading up to a fitness competition is referred to as ‘peak week’. You will hear this term a lot. The concept is to hit your physical peak for the period you are on stage being judged. This is no one way to handle ‘peak week’ and each coach will have his own techniques. What works well for one champion competitor may not work for you. My best advice when it comes to peak week is to plan ahead, get ready early, and do some testing weeks before hand. Don’t try new protocol days before a competition. If you hire a competent coach just listen to them and ‘trust the process’ as they say. Most ‘peak weeks’ involve a carb load up which competitors look forward to having. Some coaches will have you manipulate water, sodium, and other nutrients. I suggest making detailed notes of your ‘peak week’ procedure to use as a guide for future competitions.
In addition to the workouts, cardio, and nutrition aspect of ‘peak week’ there are a few other things you have to get done before the upcoming competition such as shaving, packing, planning, and not stressing out. I would highly recommend paying for the tanning services offered by the show. Yes, you definitely need one of those outrageous super dark tans otherwise you will stick out like a sore thumb. The stage lighting is bright and will wash away all definition. You also have the option of applying tanner yourself, but saving a little money is not worth the stress. Let the pros do it! Competitions typically take place on Saturdays and the first coat of tan goes on Friday. You don’t want to shave your body hours before the tanner is applied so plan on doing that the night before. Men you can wait and shave your face Friday morning.
I recommend packing for your competition days before you need to leave to reduce any last minute stress. Things to consider bringing include:
- Posing trunks or suit: Bring a back up if possible just in case.
- Flip flops for backstage.
- Very loose-fitting dark sweat pants and t-shirt. Ladies maybe a robe to wear after the tan is applied.
- Resistance bands for warming up before stage time. Don’t rely on what is available and be at the mercy of others.
- Copies of all paperwork for your organization membership, show registration, hotel information, flight details, tanning services, photography services (which are generally offered). If there is travel involved have a plan and directions for everywhere you need to be.
- Get the Uber app if you are flying to compete.
- Bottled water and all the meals you will need. Map out on paper exactly what food you will be eating and when. You might need to consult with your coach on this. Don’t forget the smaller things like utensils. Will you have access to a microwave? Consider all the details.
- Laptop and books to help you relax and pass the downtime.
- Phone charger
- If you have sponsors bring whatever you need to represent them.
- Dark bed sheet and dark pillow cover to sleep on after your coat of tan has been applied. You don’t want to get charged by the hotel for ruining their sheets.
Day Before The Show: Since shows are typically on Saturday we are talking about Friday. If you are traveling somewhere to compete I would recommend giving yourself plenty of time and arriving early. Most athletes will not workout this day to let the hormone cortisol drop which will help you look better on stage. Cortisol spikes with stress so try to keep it calm and cool at this point. Get to your hotel early, check-in, unpack and relax. Know the times and location of where you need to be for the coming competitor check-in, competitor meeting, and your tanning appointment. While at the competitor check-in and meeting be friendly and meet new people. I’ve made life long friendships at shows and it’s one of my favorite aspects of competing. Once your tan has been applied be very careful with drinking water and brushing your teeth. Don’t let even a drop of water splash on you as it may cause a visible drip line. Even though you will be excited and have a very hard time getting to sleep try to go to bed early. Have your alarm set for when you need to wake up and eat per your coaches instructions.
Day of Competition
This is the big day and your time to shine. At this point the work has been done and it is time to enjoy the moment and show off your best. The show promoter will tell you when they want all competitors to arrive at the venue and you should have another tan ‘touch up’ appointment scheduled. The tanning service will also typically apply oil as well before you have to be on stage. Know your schedule ahead of time, plan accordingly, and get places early. Remember to keep it cool and stress-free. Because things can seem chaotic, especially your very first show, I recommend having your coach or a reliable friend backstage with you. You may have to pay a fee to get them that backstage pass, but having the extra support is well worth it. Keep a close eye on the schedule which should be posted backstage and be aware of which class is on stage at any moment. Start warming up with your resistance bands when your coach tells you or about 15-20 minutes before your class is up. You will see some people warming up way too early. Don’t feel pressured to jump in just because they are doing it. If you start too early you might lose the pump. Here are a few little tips to consider on show day:
- Smile and have fun! I put this first for a reason. Yes, we want to win, but more importantly, enjoy this experience after all your hard work.
- Document everything you did upon waking up until after walking off the stage. This data will help you in the future. This includes the time you woke up, timing of meals and what you ate, how you felt and looked, and every detail you think relevant.
- If you don’t place as well as you would have liked have good sportsmanship. This is a subjective sport being judged by people looking for particular things. Regardless if you come in first or last be kind and respect all the other competitors and the judges. Learn from this experience, put the work in to improve, and come back stronger. Complaining about places on social media just makes you look bad.
- Be sure to get notes from the judges after the show. Ask someone working for the show promoter where you can get this. Sometimes they are emailed after the show upon request. This information is vital so you know what the judges are looking for and so you can make the appropriate improvements in the offseason.
Sponsorships: Competing can get very expensive especially if you have to travel. Between the organization fees, show registration, tanning, photographer, hotel, gas, and other fees it can really add up. The ladies have to spend much more than the men because of hair, makeup, and because fancy bikinis costs way more than men’s shorts or posing trunks. Don’t be afraid to seek sponsorships to help cover expenses. You don’t have to be famous or a champion to get sponsorships. Start with your friends, family, local businesses, and your community. If you build your social media presence you can eventually obtain sponsorships with various fitness-related companies, but that’s a topic for another time.
Most Important Tip Of All: Do a lot of research and scout out what your after-show cheat meal will be. Go all in! You have worked months to compete and deserve to treat yourself to the most delicious treats of ALL time.
Michael Wittig, ISSA CPT
Natural Men’s Physique Pro 3x Champ
Master World Champion