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How to prepare for a bodybuilding show: Tips from a pro

Posted by Tammie Sarkozy in Muscle Building

Estimated reading time: 12mins

How to prepare for a bodybuilding show: Tips from a pro

The first step, understand what bodybuilding is all about

Let’s start at the beginning. Bodybuilding is the art of constructing what is considered the most aesthetically pleasing physique. Every single division, in every single federation, requires an element of muscle and lower than average body fat. To achieve this, you must have a solid background in resistance training or sport. This is where many go wrong. A lot of people decide they want to do a show because they have experienced a body transformation and feel motivated to take it to a new level. Maybe they lost body fat in a challenge or perhaps started their fitness journey and are addicted to the results. However, the most extreme of all body transformations is bodybuilding.

Often people do not understand that bodybuilding requires a lot of muscle (even though it seems obvious) and phases of 'off-season' that involves dedication to a particular style of training and nutrition. This means months and even years are dedicated to building lean mass (it's slow progress) so that when it comes time to strip the fat down, a beautifully carved physique is revealed, shaped by the perfect amount of muscle, in all the right places to suit the chosen division.

So, for those who do not have training time under their belt, they are always bitterly disappointed when the fat loss reveals a 'skinny' appearance with no shape due to a lack of muscle. I highly recommend at least one year of solid weight training before deciding to prepare for a show and men, much, much more.

Bulk Ambassador James Newcombe performing a double bicep flex.
Bodybuilding is both physically and mentally demanding and building lean muscle is a slow process, but if you remain consistent and discipline the outcomes can be really rewarding.

Do your research on the sport and the federations

Now that you understand the art of bodybuilding here are 4 more steps:

  1. Look at different federations and decide who you want to compete with and why.
  2. Go to a show. This will help you to understand what you will be doing and what is involved on stage.
  3. Understand all the costs associated with competing.
  4. Determine what division is appealing to you and what you are best suited to.

Different bodybuilding federations

It’s important to choose a federation that's right for you. Each competition has unique qualities, so you must understand the differences.

For example, some have a compulsory theme-wear round. You either get totally excited by this or petrified. If dressing up isn't for you, find a federation that doesn't require this round.

Go to a show and see what it’s all about

Do you want to be the best? Think like an athlete. Research every element of this sport to be Prepared on all levels. The ones who do well are those who go that extra mile and leave no stone unturned.

Find out the costs of competing

The cost of federations varies dramatically so your choice must be affordable. You will need to know:

  • Membership fees.
  • Registration and category fees.
  • Location – is travel and accommodation required?
  • Costume prices ranges (bikini / gown / theme-wear / shoes). Each show is specific in the rounds and the bikini designs.

Enter the division your body is most suited to

Research the criteria and determine (with your coach) where you have the most potential.

As a judge, I can recall 100s of times the panel has agreed one particular athlete looks far better than everyone else in that lineup, however, perhaps this particular athlete is too conditioned (lean) or too muscular than the division requires. They cannot take 1st place as they don't fit the criteria. It isn’t always who looks best (as this is subjective), it’s about who best fits the division criteria. So, try to enter the division your body is best suited for.

Bulk Ambassador Ella Martyn looking incredible and strutting her stuff on stage.
It is critical you understand everything that is required of you when planning which federation and division you’ll likely enter in. If you are unsure, it may be best to consult with an experienced coach, so they help you find the event that’s best suited to you.

Don’t be a trophy hunter

While it might seem cool to win seven trophies in one show, it makes you look greedy and I can guarantee the judges and audience are tired of seeing you up on stage repeatedly.

Not only this, but stage day is exhausting. If you are peaking your body for an extremely specific look, you must have minimal stress. Getting up on that stage repeatedly, nerves, adrenalin, and the pump up will 100% place stress on your body.

In my years of judging shows, I have seen bodies change over the day. From looking razor-sharp in their first-round with 1st place potential, to flat and watery on their last round where they wouldn’t even rank top 5.

Keep your body looking like a masterpiece and get up there with integrity and absolutely NAIL the division you truly want to enter.

My advice is to enter no more than 3 divisions. If divisions have multiple rounds (e.g. bikini and theme-wear), I'd consider 1-2 divisions (as this will ultimately be 4 rounds on stage if you enter 2).

It's all smiles on stage as Bulk Ambassador Trent Baynes wins his first INCA VIC Men's Fitness Division trophy.
The months of prep and stage day can be extremely taxing, so it’s recommended that you only enter one or two divisions and focus all your energy on those. Don’t spread yourself too thin and you’ll give yourself the best chance to succeed on the day.

What can you expect during prep?

Get ready for 4-6 months of one hell of an emotional ride!

The pros:

  • You will test your mental strength to its absolute limits and become an unstoppable machine.
  • You will witness your body evolve into a beautiful fitness queen or a human anatomy chart.
  • You will achieve something that you originally thought impossible.
  • You will learn more about yourself than ever before.
  • You will learn how to manage nutrition under any circumstance.
  • You will inspire others to improve their health. Nothing beats that feeling!

The cons:

  • The commitment and mental strength required can push you to breaking point.
  • Some people cannot separate prep from everyday life, believe the world revolves around them and end up driving friends and family away because they can't step outside their own head. Yep, it’s true, people can really go crazy during prep.
  • If there is a hint of an eating disorder, this will pull it out (please do not embark on this journey if you have a history of eating disorders).
  • You will sacrifice your social life. Prep involves a lot of extra work which means you won’t have the gift of time to do all the usual fun things and the luxury of endless calories to consume.
  • Post comp. Everyone underestimates how extremely challenging this phase is. My advice is you should seek further coaching until you have returned to your 'regular' body again.
  • You must let go of your hard-earned stage body. There is no way around this without putting extreme stress on your health. It's hard to let it go, but it must be done.
  • The emotional rollercoaster is nuts. One day you think you look on track, the next you're bloated and think you'll never be ready. It's a constant battle of emotions and self-doubt.
Bulk Ambassador Ellena Tsatsos performing a seated row in the gym.
Prepping to compete will have both immense highs and extreme lows but this is all part of the process. It’s important to try and stay positive, remain focused, and enjoy the journey.

Find the right coach for you

You will need guidance from someone who:

  • Has an understanding of bodybuilding.
  • Federations, regulations, competition dates.
  • What division you are best suited to.
  • How to prep specifically for the chosen federation.
  • Contacts for posing, bikinis, shoes etc.
  • Qualified in nutrition.
  • Qualified trainer.

It's really important you research who you decide to hand your health to. This person should be someone you can get along with, trust and has experience. I can’t stress enough the importance of the knowledge and qualifications of your coach.

There is still 'so-called coaches' that strip their clients down to sub-1000 calories/day in the sheer desperation to shed the fat. Some of their clients may win a trophy but leave with health issues.

A hungry women using a fork to reach for a single pea on a plate.
Health should always be the number one priority! You should never starve yourself just to look lean on stage and a good coach will know that. Find a good coach that you trust and that values your health above all else.

What will happen to your body?

Considering you have had a good off-season and starting your prep in a healthy position, you should see physical changes on average, every 2 weeks.

You will slowly lose body fat over 4-6 months to chisel down to the required look. A slow and steady fat loss is desirable to retain muscle. This requires a world of patience and where a coach is needed most. It's easy to want to fast track things to finally reveal those glorious abs… patience my friends. All in time, and at the right time.

Well then, when WILL I see my abs?

The most common question I get asked.

For most, abs don't shine through until the last 8 weeks, or for some, the last week.

It's very genetic and depends on how much muscle mass you have in your mid-section. A lot of first-time competitors have very little muscle mass here (mostly due to not having enough time for training). As I mentioned, be patient.

Bulk Ambassador Syed Ali of Daredevil Fitness looking absolutely shredded in the gym.
Everyone wants the killer 6-pack abs, but there are a lot of factors like body fat, muscles mass, and genetics that will ultimately determine when they will stand out. Remember they are often the last thing to appear on your physique, so be patient and trust the process.

Final checklist before committing to hitting the stage:

  • Do you have commitments around show day eg: exams / starting a new job / getting married/going on holidays?
  • Do you have a high-stress job that requires you to be switched on 24/7 eg: lawyer/surgeon? From around 8 weeks out you can become edgy, emotional, slower to process information and lethargic. This mustn't sacrifice your performance at work.
  • Will people around you support this?
  • Do you have the time required to get the job done?
    • Training 4-6 times/wk at least (30mins to 2 hours)
    • Food prep, groceries, washing containers, constantly eating.
    • Posing daily.
    • Travelling to get bikini/costume fittings.
  • Can you afford it?
  • Have you done your research and understand what is involved?
  • Have you had a successful off-season to allow for a successful comp prep?
  • Is your health at its best?
  • Do you have a positive relationship with food?
  • Have you researched a reputable coach who you trust and know has the appropriate qualifications?
Sam Brereton posing at the beach.
The above checklist is a great way to run through all the questions you’ll need to ask yourself or answer before you should commit to hitting the stage for the first time.

Who is best for this sport?

  • Mesomorphs! Those who can grow muscle easily. This is a genetic gift and like every sport, you need genetic requirements to succeed.
  • Those with sheer, unstoppable determination. Even those with great genetics can fail if they do not have the willpower and drive to do everything required.
  • People with a lifestyle that supports this goal and allows the time needed.
  • Those with at least one solid year of resistance training or professional/high-level sporting background. Remember, you need muscle to be a bodybuilder.
  • People with good health. If you have a history of yoyo dieting or health issues, you may struggle to both build muscle and drop body fat. Make sure your body is tip-top before starting your Prep.
  • Anyone who wants to put their body and mental strength through a seriously tough challenge!

To support your growth, I recommend the following supplements:

Muscle Food 101 - to support protein synthesis and extra energy and recovery with added carbs. Perfect for off-season growth gains!

Whey Protein Isolate – lower carb and fat alternative to Muscle Food 101, for those taking a less aggressive approach to growth.

Creatine Monohydrate - to assist in strength gains and growth.

Muscle Food 101 is Bulk Nutrients premier mass gainer supplement. It offers a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein making it perfect for adding size in the off-season.
Muscle Food 101 is Bulk Nutrients premier mass gainer supplement. It offers a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein making it perfect for adding size in the off-season.

Now all that is left is to do it!

So, my friends, there is a lot involved in the art of bodybuilding and to be honest, if you are thinking about competing for the first time, no amount of knowledge can prepare you for what’s ahead.

It is an amazing and exciting ride with an extraordinary result worth every single moment. Do your research, have a solid offseason, surround yourself with the right people and dive right in. Good luck!

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