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Women are getting increasingly involved in fitness, but not just working out and lifting once a week in the gym. They are also working hard to get ripped bodies and are competing in events that used to be the sole domain of men.
Are you ready to take your fitness to the next level and try a competition? Even if you are a trainer, getting ready for a fitness competition will be harder and more involved than you can truly realize until you actually do it.
To give it your all, be prepared to put a lot of time into training and eating right, to spend a decent amount of money, and to get on stage and strut your stuff in an itty, bitty bikini. So, let's dig into fitness competitions and what it takes to compete.
Bodybuilding is an ancient sport, and it has evolved into the many categories of fitness competitions. A fitness competition is a contest in which the participants strive to have the best physique, muscle definition, and appearance.
The original modern fitness competition was Eugen Sandow’s Great Contest, a bodybuilding event that debuted in 1901. From that originator, many more modern competitions have taken root around the U.S. and the world. Early shows were more entertainment led by strongmen, but these evolved into genuine competitions.
Often referred to simply as bodybuilding, today there are actually several additional categories and types of fitness competition. Bodybuilding is now the most advanced category with contestants who have the biggest, most conditioned physiques.
Today’s fitness competitions are all about muscle definition, stage presence, and a certain ideal look, including symmetry. It doesn’t matter how much the competitor can lift. Participating in a fitness competition begins with months of work.
Training requires a lot of gym time with targeted lifting to develop muscle definition and to maximize fat loss. Diet is just as important. Competitors follow a strict diet that changes leading up to a competition to allow them to drop fat and water for greater definition.
Exactly what happens at the event depends on the organization leading it. Some of the most popular competitions are run by the National Physique Committee, International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, and the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association.
Most events include a pre-judging portion during which competitors line up before the judges and stand in various prescribed poses.
The second portion usually occurs in the evening and is more of a show with a bigger audience. At some events, the competitors perform unique routines to showcase posing, while at others it is a repeat of what happened during pre-judging. There is also often a showdown between participants who freestyle poses.
In women’s competitions there is more emphasis on other aspects of appearance, including hair, makeup, and even jewelry. In many events, women wear four-inch heels.
Women have a variety of categories to choose from when it comes to fitness competitions, including a relatively new type called wellness.
This is a good starting point for beginners. It’s one of the most popular events for women because it doesn’t require as much muscular development as the more advanced categories. The goal is a balanced physique with some muscle definition.
Also popular in women’s fitness events is the figure competition. It requires more muscle development than the bikini category, but competitors still have a softer look than those in physique and bodybuilding. Symmetry becomes important at this level.
Physique is yet another step up in terms of muscle development and definition. Competitors must have good symmetry, proportion, and muscle tone. The look and posing are very similar to bodybuilding but still considered to be softer and more feminine.
Bodybuilding is the most advanced type of fitness competition for women. The posing and guidelines are very similar to what is used in men’s competitions. Women in bodybuilding competitions have very little body fat, major muscle development, and significant muscle definition. Female bodybuilders do not wear heels in competition.
Women have to approach bodybuilding differently than men. Here’s a quick guide on how to eat as a woman in bodybuilding.
Fitness is a category that spun off from bodybuilding. It includes a physique competition, but what makes it unique is the fitness round. Competitors perform a routine to music that shows off their athleticism. It might include dance, gymnastics, or strength and lifting moves. Women who have trained in cheerleading or gymnastics tend to do well in this category.
The Newest Types of Fitness Competitions - Wellness
Relatively new to the competitive fitness scene, the wellness category takes some of the emphasis off body composition. It allows for women with less muscle definition and more body fat to be competitive.
Women in this category tend to have athletic figures with more body fat and more mass in the hips, thighs, and glutes. They do not necessarily have significant muscle definition but are still fit and healthy.
There are three main categories of competitions for men, although there is some variation depending on the hosting organization. Each category is also typically broken down into weight or height classes.
Similar to the women's category, this is the best place to start for beginners. To the uninitiated, the body type for the physique category is pretty serious but is actually the most mainstream of the three categories. There are two main poses in physique: front and back. Men wear board shorts, which provides a lot of coverage of the upper legs.
More advanced is the classic physique. Competitors must wear shorter, tighter shorts, so there is more emphasis on upper leg definition. Symmetry becomes an important judging factor in this category, with side poses in addition to front and back.
Again, similar to the women's categories, men's bodybuilding is the most advanced, and some would say extreme, category for a fitness competition. Bodybuilders strive to be as conditioned and as big as possible. They wear very small trunks or briefs that show nearly everything. They must master several poses to show off all muscle groups and even the veins running along them.
Bodybuilding is a difficult sport that isn’t for everyone. What do your genetics tell you about your ability to put on muscle and lose fat? Find out more here.
Of course, with any kind of competition, there is planning, hard work, and a lot of other factors involved. But even compared to other kinds of athletic competitions, like races and triathlons, fitness competitions require a big commitment.
Fitness competitions aren’t really like any other kind of athletic event, and it’s hard to know what to expect if you haven’t seen one. Before you make the final leap and sign up for a competition in the upcoming months, actually go to a show. See what it’s all about first-hand, and then decide. In the meantime, here are some important things to consider:
The dark side of a fitness competition includes obsessing over body appearance, disordered eating, and even drug use. And all of this leads back to motivation. If you don’t have a healthy motivating reason to do this, you run the risk of heading to the dark side:
Positive motivation: “I want to push myself to reach a new goal and have fun doing it.”
Negative motivation: “I’ll finally look lean and muscular and have my dream body forever.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the body you craft for a fitness competition is one you’ll keep until the end of your days. It’s not healthy or realistic to be that ripped for too long. A positive, healthier motivation is the desire to simply to challenge yourself in a way that is healthy and rewarding but also realistic.
Ask anyone you know who does fitness competitions how much time they spend training. If you don’t know anyone personally, ask around the gym and you’ll quickly find someone. They will probably tell you it takes at least two hours a day, most days a week. Also factor in the time spent planning and preparing healthy meals, buying outfits, practicing posing, and traveling to competitions.
There are more costs associated with fitness competitions than you ever realized until you actually do it:
Gym membership/coaching fees
Nutrition/posing/competition coaching fees
Registration fees for competitions
Food and supplements
Travel expenses for out-of-area competitions
Child care costs for when you hit the gym or go to competitions
Finally, a big hurdle for many people is the actual competition. You will be putting on a tiny bikini or fitness outfit—likely gluing it to your skin to hold it in place—rubbing down with vegetable oil, strapping on a pair of high heels, and walking and posing on stage in front of judges and an audience. Can you do it? Of course you can, and don’t feel bad about being nervous because everyone is afraid of this part, even seasoned pros.
If the world of competition sounds fun or like a healthy challenge, the next step is to consider which type best suits you. For anyone new to the sport, it makes sense to start with either bikini or wellness for women, or physique for men.
You should also do some more reading and research. There is more to fitness competing than exercise and diet. Fashion, hair, and fake tans are essential, for instance. Remember, you’ll need to master poses and a walk. Depending on the type, you might also need to create a routine.
While you can do this alone, for the best outcomes and to do it safely, it makes sense to work with an experienced coach. They can help you decide which type of event is best for your body type and lifestyle and then guide you through a personalized training and diet plan to get ready for the big day.
Competing in fitness events can be a fun challenge or a serious lifestyle. Regardless of how you approach competition, it’s important to be prepared. Understand the events and categories and what goes into training before you get started.
There are two main types of training for a body competition:
Strength training and lifting
Strength training is important for obvious reasons. This is what builds muscle size and definition. Plan to hit different muscle groups each day with one or two rest days built in each week. A typical week might look like this:
Monday – legs
Tuesday – chest and shoulders
Thursday –abs and back
Friday – legs
Saturday – arms and abs
Sunday – rest
Those rest days aren’t lazy days, though, because you also need to fit in cardio. Most plans include 30 to 60 minutes of cardio five days a week to help you lose fat. Use your strength training rest days to do cardio. Double up and do both weights and cardio three days a week and suddenly you have no true rest days.
Even if you are a trainer yourself, it doesn’t hurt to work with a coach or someone experienced in fitness competitions if this is your first time. Training for figure or physique is different from training for good fitness or athletic events. Someone with experience can help you craft the right plan for you and keep you motivated and on track.
When you're working toward a fitness competition, what and how you eat is a crucial part of getting a lean, defined, and muscular body. Again, if this is your first time through, work with someone who has done it before or at least have an initial consultation with a nutritionist to help you make a diet plan.
In general, the strategy for eating for fitness competitions means:
Eating several (five or six) small meals spaced throughout the day.
Focusing on protein and healthy carbs and fats.
Drinking about a gallon of water per day.
Eating a lot of veggies to feel full on a limited-calorie diet.
There is also an important dietary strategy involved in the week and days leading up to the actual competition. For instance, most people start carb-loading two days in advance and stop drinking water to dehydrate. Both enhance the appearance of muscles.
Fitness competitions are not for the faint of heart. This is serious business, and it requires a commitment of time, effort, and a flawless diet. But, if you’re up for the challenge and have a positive attitude, training for a competition can be a fun way to take your workouts to the next level. And the experience can make you a better trainer for your clients of all types.
If you want to learn more about training in lifting and bodybuilding, check out the ISSA’s comprehensive course in Bodybuilding Specialist.
This distance education course covers training, recovery, motivation, and nutritional strategies to prepare the personal trainer to work with bodybuilders.