Recently I was asked if I'd encourage my kids to compete in bodybuilding or any of the related physique sports.
Now, I've competed a few times myself and know how the whole process goes. I've trained pro bodybuilders and top figure competitors. I also have a lot of friends competing in physique sports, both at the amateur and pro levels. Among my friends who compete, quite a few are actually sane and fairly balanced individuals.
That said, would I encourage my own kids to compete? Hell no! Here's why.
First of all, there's the drug abuse issue. Yeah yeah, there are drugs in all sports. True. But not at the level you see in physique sports. While you have those genetic freaks who can be competitive with fairly conservative doses of anabolic steroids, growth hormone, clenbuterol, and thyroid medication, they are the exception.
I was recently talking to an IFBB pro and he mentioned that some pros take as much as 60 units of growth hormone per day on top of 5000-7000 mg of testosterone or steroids per week. They also take a total of over 200 units of insulin (combination of long acting and short acting) and other products like pharmaceutical IGF-1, thyroid hormones, etc.
To put it in perspective, those 60 units of pharmaceutical growth hormone would be, by itself, about 500-600 dollars per day. How can they afford that? Well, not all bodybuilders have to pay for their "stuff," and for some people there are no limits.
Even at the amateur level, I knew a guy who was taking seven different steroids at the same time, on top of a good dose of growth hormone, insulin and products to lose fat. In total he was taking 12 different pharmaceuticals at the same time! And that was for a LOCAL show.
Granted, plenty of solid bodybuilders use "conservative" doses and do well. But they aren't among the mass monsters. They get by because they have slowly built a good amount of muscle over years of training and are blessed with a good aesthetic structure. They also can move up a few placings by coming in super conditioned.
But you cannot do well in bodybuilding if you're not taking drugs. Period. Some might require only a small amount; others will need to abuse. But except for the one in a million genetic freak, you'd have to go that route.
And despite what steroids users like to say, there is a large risk of suffering serious health issues from steroid abuse (not to mention diuretics). Cardiovascular problems, liver problems, kidney issues, etc. Sure, they can rarely pin the problem directly on the drugs, but who are we kidding?
While steroids may not directly cause heart problems, kidney failure, or liver problems, they can certainly put your body in a state conductive to developing these problems. Now there are preventive measures that can be taken to reduce the risks, but if you go from use to abuse you'll eventually have to pay the price.
There's one thing I tell people who want to do a physique competition. If you plan to go natural, your only shot to look like you belong is to come in freakily conditioned. Even if you're fairly small, under the stage lights you'll look good if you're shredded. And natural guys can come in as shredded as drug users. But it's much harder, will require a longer, smarter, and more difficult diet, and with that route comes the very good chance of losing a decent amount of muscle.
Chronic Unhappiness and Eating Disorders
If you decide to do compete, prepare yourself to be really unhappy most of the time.
I remember when I was dieting to get to super-low levels of body fat. For the last 6 weeks, I basically felt like every ounce of joy had been squeezed out of my body. I was so tired that at the end I could only manage to train for 20 minutes and I couldn't sleep at night. I also developed unhealthy eating patterns, becoming somewhat bulimic. I once ate 24 Arby's roast beef burgers in one sitting. These bad eating habits stayed with me for years.
Call me crazy but I wouldn't want my kid to abuse steroids and other drugs, risking long term health issues. Nor would I want him or her to have body image issues or develop eating disorders while being unhappy most of the time.
What About Men's Physique?
As for those new categories? Men's physique and "classic" physique don't require as much muscle, so surely you can do them naturally, right? Maybe. At the lowest, local level. And you won't win.
The fact of the matter is that you need a helluva lot more muscle than you think to compete in these sports. In classic physique for example, if you're 5'6" then your weight limit is 170 pounds. At 5'10" your weight limit is 192 pounds and at 6'1" your weight limit is 232 pounds.
Now, this might not seem like that much but understand that Arnold was around 225 pounds at 6'2" in contest shape, and he wasn't as lean as people are getting at now. So a 6'1" guy would actually have to have more muscle than Arnold to exceed his class limit. We all can be bigger than Arnold naturally, right?
Frank Zane was 185 pounds in contest shape at 5'10", almost 10 pounds under the classic physique limit. We can all be 10 pounds larger than Frank Zane without drugs, right?
The issue is that the average gym-goer grossly underestimates how much fat he'd need to lose to be in contest shape. A guy walks in, he's 220, has a small amount of abdominal definition and maybe a biceps vein. In his mind he's 20 pounds away from contest shape.
Well, from my experience, when a normal guy has a full six pack (or full abdominal definition) he still has about 20 pounds to lose to look ready for the stage. So our 220 guy would most likely need to drop down to 175 to be contest ready. An IFBB pro friend of mine competes in the 212 class and at 235 he has full abs and drop down to about 208 in contest shape.
What I'm saying here is that decent physique guys are much bigger than you think. Yes, it's more likely that you could be competitive as a drug-free contestant but it would still be the exception.
Body Image Disorders
One last point that applies to both men and women. If you have a body image problem or self-esteem issue, don't go into competitive physique sports. You are judged on how you look. And even if you look great, if you don't get on the podium it'll crush you.
Sadly, competitive physique sports are often an outlet for people with self-esteem issues (it was for me) because of all the attention you get. So those who absolutely shouldn't get into this type of competition are the ones who are most likely to be attracted to it! And for these people, physique competitions will very likely scar them for life, or at the very least exacerbate their issues.
Figure and Bikini?
All of what I said applies to women too. Sure, they don't need as much drugs, but you don't need a lot of male hormones to screw up the female physiology.
And while it's possible for a female to do well in physique competitions naturally, the use of growth hormone, clenbuterol, ephedrine, thyroid medication and even amphetamines is rampant. As are steroids, like anavar and lower doses of primobolan and nandrolone.
Drugs plague other sports too. But in most sports, talent and effort make it possible to be competitive. Not so much in bodybuilding. And I'd want my kids to know that if they work hard, they have a shot at doing well.