So, you want to become a competitive bodybuilder? Welcome to a small and dedicated group of female athletes committed to achieving "the impossible physique" through focus, daily discipline, and will power!
There are many other divisions in physique competitions for female athletes. Bodybuilding focuses on building muscle mass, symmetry, and a lean physique. Careful attention is paid to diet, high-intensity training, and, in many cases, weight loss for 3-6 months or more in preparation for a contest. However, with hard work and the right motivation and guidance, anyone can work their way to getting on stage.
The first steps towards competing in a bodybuilding contest are to develop a plan, hire a trainer, and choose a competitive organization.
You're motivated and you have committed to doing a show, right? Why would you need a trainer? The answer is simple; there will be many days that even the most motivated athletes will not want to go to the gym, drive is low, or a donut sounds a whole lot better than lean meat and veggies. Even the elite bodybuilders, male and female, have trainers!
Hiring a personal trainer who specializes in bodybuilding prep will provide accountability, structure, and, when needed, that extra kick to get through a tough workout. You can simply check in with them every few weeks or, if you need more accountability, strength train under their watchful eye a few times a week. Whatever will keep you on track!
If you are a trainer looking to work with bodybuilding athletes, the ISSA Bodybuilding Certification is step one for you!
There are several major bodybuilding federations to choose from. The four main federations for amateurs are:
These are all international organizations and have shows in most major US cities throughout the year. Explore the rules, divisions, and eligibility for each and choose one. They do not overlap, and annual membership is required for each one you compete in. Outside of membership, you will also need to pay to enter the competition itself.
Once you decide on a federation, now, you can select a date for a show! This will allow you to set your training timeline and effectively plan the phases of your program.
There are two phases in a bodybuilding program: bulking and cutting.
The bulking phase of training can last as long as needed to gain the muscle mass desired. Athletes focus on an excess of calories to build muscle while minimizing body fat gain. Nothing beats working hard and lifting heavy to build lean muscle, precision with calories and the diet, and the dedication to commit to a strict but rewarding lifestyle.
The cutting phase lasts 12-16 weeks depending on how much body fat the athlete begins with and their desired weight. It is a slow and steady process of creating a calorie deficit, training hard, and using cardio and high-intensity interval training to reduce body fat while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. Cardio and strength training complement one another and bodybuilding prep is a perfect example of how they do so. When the goal is to reduce body fat, you need these two training components together in the correct balance!
Another great reason to hire a trainer or even a nutrition coach for bodybuilding prep is the diet. Trial and error is part of finding the correct balance of calories and macronutrients for each individual athlete. Carbohydrates, protein, and fats are typically included in every meal for contest prep with their amounts, ratios and the overall calorie requirement varying based on the phase of training you are in.
Competition prep diets are very strict and may allow for a cheat meal (not a cheat day!) once a week to provide a mental reset, spike hormones, and rev the metabolism. Some tips for your bodybuilding diet:
Prepare as many meals as possible at home. This gives you full control over what you are eating and how much
Use a food scale and measuring cups. Don't guess!
Spread your calories out over 5-8 smaller meals a day
Include veggies to keep you feeling full
Choose lean proteins to promote muscle growth
"Healthy" fats like avocado, coconut oil, and nut butters are necessary for satiety
"Good" carbohydrates are a good thing! Think of them as an effective energy source for your training and daily activity. "Good" means whole grains, brown rice, potatoes, and even vegetables versus candy, processed foods, and pastries.
Drink 32 or more ounces of water with each meal to aid in digestion. Overall, you should be consuming 1.5 gallons of water or more daily.
The intensity during bodybuilding prep will be high from start to finish. If you wish to promote lean muscle growth without the aid of anabolic steroids (which are illegal in the U.S.), the diet and heavy lifting are all you have to rely on!
During the bulking phase where the focus is muscle growth, the desired result during training sessions is muscle fatigue and, ultimately, muscle failure. Pushing a muscle group to failure will promote muscle fiber remodeling and lead to hypertrophy.
When the cutting phase begins, calories will be reduced, and the intensity of training and cardio will remain high. Thus, general fatigue will be high, and you may feel hungry by the evenings. This is an uncomfortable sensation no doubt, but it is one you must expect for the last 6-8 weeks of contest prep.
Creating a training split focused on the muscle groups you wish to improve will be key for success. Focus on your weakest muscle groups more often as you design your weight training routine. If your chest and hamstrings are your weakest muscle groups, then those groups would be the focus of your training split for 2-3 days each week. Here is a sample training split with cardio (for the cutting phase):
Afternoon: cardio- 30 minutes | Sprint intervals- 10 x 30 sec max effort | No cardio | Sprint intervals- 15 x 30 sec max effort | Morning cardio- 45 minutes |
Notice, a rest day for training may not be a rest day for cardio when the cutting phase is initiated. Cardio is included 5-6 days a week and is a workout all by itself!
Complete morning cardio fasted or after a meal. There is no research proving fasted cardio is more effective than non-fasted cardio. It is more of personal preference. There are three ways to do your cardio training:
Steady state - moderate intensity, longer duration often done on a stair master, elliptical, or treadmill
Intervals - maximum intensity, short duration with full recovery between rounds usually done on a treadmill or an outdoor track
High intensity interval training (HIIT) - including explosive exercises like kettlebell swings, push press, or squat jacks into a training set to increase the heart rate and increase calorie burn
Now that you have the essentials to start bodybuilding, you can plan for the other aspects of the sport.
Supplements - Should you choose to add supplements like protein powder, branch chain amino acids, fat burners, glutamine, or pre-workout to your routine, these will be at an added cost. Discuss these supplements with your trainer or nutrition coach before beginning a regimen.
Trainer costs - It will all depend on how often you meet with or train with your coach, but training is expensive. It is well worth the cost though! If your trainer will be traveling with you or attending your show, they may ask you to cover some or all of their expenses like airfare, hotel, backstage passes, or meals.
The suit - Suits worn on stage can range from plain to ornate. Women's bodybuilding suits are typically plain with few embellishments, but they are custom made for each individual. They range from $200-$1000+!
Posing - Stage poses must be practiced! Some people can practice on their own, but many need a coach to help them learn and perfect the poses. If your trainer doesn't offer posing lessons, they will likely know someone who does.
Travel costs - Where is the competition you chose? If you must travel, add airfare or other transportation, lodging, and food to your expenses. Book hotels and flights early for better rates.
Tanning - No matter what your skin tone, EVERYONE needs to tan before getting on stage. The darker you are, the more your physique will "pop" under the bright lights. Tanning can range from $100 to $250 if you use a vendor. If you dare do your own tanning (or have your trainer do it), liquid tanner is about $25 online. Make sure someone experienced is applying it for you as this is no average spray tan!
Hair and makeup - By the time you get to the competition, you will probably be pretty tired if we're being honest. It may be worth the $100-$300 to have someone else do your hair and make up for you and supply touch-ups if needed.
A lot goes into women's bodybuilding, but it can be done! Stay organized, focused, and disciplined and you will make it to the stage. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The average person will never even try what you are about to do. Win or lose, you have succeeded by simply getting to the stage!
Are you ready to learn more about the science behind fitness and crafting the perfect workout? Explore the ISSA's personal training course online. Simply expand your own knowledge or use it to help others achieve their health and fitness goals!