Here's what you need to know...
- Getting on stage can make you more self-assured. Becoming engrossed in it will make you self-obsessed.
- Competition prep can hone your skills in the gym and the kitchen. But it'll make certain competitors dumber and more dependent.
- The culture among competitors is one that celebrates serious training and nutrition. This belief system builds community. But some of these beliefs are stupid.
- The pressure of competing can make you exceed your expectations, but it can also make you do things that damage your metabolism and body image.
- There are prizes to be won that are far more important than titles and trophies.
Should You Step on Stage?
The woman who transforms her body under the iron is going to ask herself this question at some point in time: Do I have what it takes to compete?
The answer is yes. You do have what it takes. But the bigger question is, will it be worth it?
If you've been kicking around the idea of getting on stage, let's sort out the details. Let's talk about what you won't hear from the competition coaches.
Here are the four biggest factors of bodybuilding and physique contests that you need to consider before deciding to get on stage.
1 – Getting on Stage
The Good Stuff
With the right attitude, preparing to get on stage can be a tool for personal development. Like public speaking or performing, putting yourself out there in front of an audience forces you to take a risk and become more self-assured.
You're opening yourself up to criticism, and if you're mentally strong you'll own your perceived flaws, be proud of your progress, and tell the world "check out my hard work!"
Then when it's done, you'll always be able to tell yourself, "This is a breeze compared to that one time I got on stage mostly naked. If I did that, I can do this."
Preparing to show off your body can be like getting a booster shot of self confidence. You have to be somewhat emboldened by your progress or you wouldn't feel compelled to sign up to compete in the first place.
Getting on stage is in essence making the statement that you have a stage-worthy body and want to show it off. It's a ballsy move if you've never done one, and in order to live an interesting life you need to have these experiences that stretch you mentally and physically.
You can't be a wallflower and competitor at the same time. They're mutually exclusive.
The entire prep makes you starkly aware that you will eventually stand in front of a lot of people, and if you're not confident enough to do so, pretending to be will work just as well. Faking confidence breeds confidence.
The Bad Stuff
Competing means you're getting your appearance publically judged. The whole theme of physique competitions is to pay some judges to compare your body to other women's bodies. You're paying for validation.
If you take that idea too seriously and let it become your world, you'll end up dependent on validation from others. You'll need other people to constantly reassure you in order to feel good about your looks.
When you sign up for a subjective, looks-based competition, you train yourself to care about what other people think of you. Sure, a little bit of this caring is inescapable in everyday life. We care what people think of us because we're not sociopaths. We like being attractive, and it's natural to want recognition for the work we put in at the gym.
But if you can't zoom out and see yourself as a whole person – not just a pretty body – then this neediness for approval will run amok. Your self-worth deteriorates when the way you look becomes more important than your talent, intellect, passion, creativity, integrity, and kindness.
Making your identity revolve around the recognition you get for your appearance will make you both narcissistic and insecure. This seems like a contradiction, but it's not.
If you don't feel good about yourself on any particular morning, you'll be desperate for the opinions of others to validate you and lift your spirits (insecurity). And when you do feel good about yourself, you'll be eager to get other people's feedback on how good you look (narcissism).
The internet is rampant with competitors needy for "likes" and "favorites" and validation from outside sources because they can't validate themselves.
This is proof that it doesn't matter how spectacular your body looks. You can be a pro and an insecure narcissist at the same time. Receiving more recognition won't make you any less desperate for it. It works like an addiction.
Does competing do this to everyone? Of course not. But you have to have a rock-solid body image to begin with.
You have to love what your body can do – not just what it looks like. And you have to know that the opinions of others (positive or negative) don't really mean anything. Opinions don't reflect your worth.
Don't sign up for a competition because you think it'll make you more confident; it might not help. Sign up for being healthy on a daily basis. Sign up for mastering your body in the weight room. Sign up for loving the crap out of your life.
2 – Competition Prep
The Good Stuff
You learn. You grow. You go the gym and eat with deliberation because everything serves a purpose in making you look phenomenal once the competition rolls around.
There's nothing like it. All aspects of your lifestyle become methodical – from your bedtime to your caffeine intake to your meal timing and your pooping schedule.
There's a plan in place and a compelling reason to stick with it. When you're tempted to throw caution to the wind, you just envision what your competition is doing, or you envision what you want your body to look like once you're on stage.
This conscientiousness about food and training translates into self-knowledge. You start to think like a machine instead of letting your emotions dictate whether you'll work out or eat healthfully.
You get to see how your body responds to consistent hard work. You get to learn lessons that you wouldn't otherwise learn without testing your limits getting ready for that date on the calendar.
Competing makes you look past the basics of sound nutrition and exercise and start examining all the nitty-gritty details. Healthy behaviors become strategic behaviors, and many of them are things you end up loving and taking with you long afterward.
The Bad Stuff
Some competitors don't learn. There are two types.
- The first type is the out of shape woman who believes that the body she'll earn through competition prep is the body she'll maintain forever.
This couldn't be further from the truth. Women who depend on coaches to overhaul their lives are the ones who never learn how to be fit on their own.
Signing up to compete is the wrong way to get in shape if you're completely out of shape. Why? Because following someone else's instructions to prepare for an event is a contrived situation. It doesn't teach you how to integrate fitness into your everyday life.
It just teaches you how to make your fitness someone else's responsibility.
And no matter how good your coach's meal plan or workouts are, if you can't assimilate healthy eating or exercise into your life after the competition is over, you will return to your former lifestyle.
- The second type who won't learn is the woman who starts out fit, but hires a bad coach.
Many coaches will insist on total compliance and total dependence. They'll want you to blindly follow instructions without thinking critically about your long term health, happiness, or metabolism.
These coaches want you to continue needing them and continue paying them, so that when you win a trophy it'll make them look good.
This can even get dangerous when they're starving you, pressuring you to use illegal substances, and telling you to do two hours of cardio a day.
Sure, you may look perfect come competition day, but if your body is a wreck afterward and you don't know how to eat, what's the point?
I can't tell you how many women have contacted me after working with a prep coach and said, "I don't know how to feed myself."
Don't become one of those women. If you can't think for yourself during competition prep you won't know how when it's over.
Don't pay to be someone else's bitch, and don't pay them to make you dumber. If your coach is a dictator who tells you to do things that sound idiotic, run.
Learn how to be fit on your own terms before you hand over the reigns to a competition coach. Better yet, get so fit that you wouldn't dream of handing over the reigns.
3 – The Culture
The Good Stuff
If you take training and nutrition seriously, then it's a breath of fresh air to be around competitors and other people who do as well – especially when you're normally surrounded by people who just don't get it.
If the people in your social, work, and family life are uninterested in nutrition or training it can be a burden to always have to defend yourself and explain your lifestyle.
It's frustrating to be around people who don't understand why you, as a woman, would ever want to build muscle. Or the ones who can't comprehend your food choices and assume skipping cake and pizza is an eating disorder.
When you're finally around other fitness-minded people, it's a relief. You can share your excitement, you can geek out on training, and you can pull a protein shake out of your purse without anyone batting an eye.
It's nice to be around other people who get satisfaction from working their asses off. It's fun sharing ideas and tips. People just want to be in the presence of those who understand what they're doing and why.
It sucks to be outnumbered and scrutinized by those who don't take care of their bodies.
These shared values are a benefit of the bodybuilding culture. Nobody questions you for choosing to workout on weekends instead of partying. We get it. We support it. And we're probably right there with you.
The Bad Stuff
There's part of the bodybuilding culture that doesn't make much sense: the do-anything-to-win mentality.
This mentality glorifies living an unbalanced lifestyle. It says that everything else in your life must go to hell or you're just not "hardcore" enough.
That may be somewhat necessary for the handful of top pros out there, but certainly not for the thousands of regular competitors.
If competition prep makes you do things that mess up your family life, finances, or long term health, you're a loser... no matter how many local trophies you accumulate.
When you get on stage, your goal is to look like the epitome of fitness, but being fit should enhance your life, not detract from it.
Oh, you think competing is going to launch you into a career of fame and money? Sorry. There's only one Arnold Schwarzenegger. And nobody outside of the bodybuilding world knows who the hell any of the other top competitors are.
Physique competitions don't pay you. You pay them. You pay in time, energy, and money. A lot of money. (Doing one amateur competition last year ended up costing me over 3K.) If doing a show screws up the rest of your life, then that payment isn't worth it.
There are stories out there about people who have lost their jobs, lost their spouses, and lost their bank accounts because of their obsession with competing. And all to win third place at a local show. But it doesn't have to be that way.
4 – The Mindset
The Good Stuff
The pressure of competition prep will teach you that you're capable of more than you think.
Whenever you ask the question, "Do I have what it takes to do that?" you're going to want to know the answer. And those who take action are actually seeking the pressure that comes along with finding out. They're testing their mettle.
Do I have what it takes to squeeze out five more reps? Sprint as fast as I did as a teenager? Get my delts bigger? Cycle my carbs without a coach babysitting me? Stand in front of an audience and project confidence?
You'll never know the answers until you try. People who never ask what they're capable of don't find out. Trying stuff makes you more likely to try other stuff.
You get hooked on finding out what you're made of. You learn through trial and error. You become less dependent on coaches telling you what to do. You become emboldened and relentless.
The Bad Stuff
Competing can make you feel inadequate. Even after you've made a ton of progress, a competition mindset can be a nagging reminder of your perceived flaws. Your abs could be harder, your legs could be leaner, and your delts could be bigger.
Simply being aware of that inclination can help you cut it out. But if you let it run rampant, you won't just end up continually unsatisfied, you might also consider using banned substances.
I've committed to being a lifetime natural lifter, but there are female competitors who use drugs, even just to prepare for their first show. One coach suggested I use clenbuterol before a show because "all the other girls are using it."
I was so vulnerable and desperate to be better that I actually considered it before my husband set me straight.
If that was just an amateur show, can you imagine what the national and pro level competitions are like? I'm not judging competitors who use banned substances. They train their assess off too, but I will never take competing that seriously. There are too many risks and I like my body too much.
What happens when your metabolism stops doing its job because your body became dependent on illegal fat burners? Will your body look as phenomenal without the help of anavar and T3 later on down the road? Or will it take a whole lot of work and a tight squeem just to look pleasantly plump?
The use of banned substances leaves too much potential for being mentally screwed up about your body image when you aren't able to achieve the muscle mass or leanness without the extra assistance.
What woman wants to become dependent on drugs in order to maintain her leanness? We should pity any female who's made the mistake of messing up her body and body image just to compete.
Will I Do It Again?
If there were no awards to be won, no judges to impress, and no stage to step on, I'd still be training hard and eating conscientiously.
Yes, I'll compete again, but probably not with the same organization.
And this time around I'll place a greater emphasis on learning new things and having fun instead of worrying about pleasing judges.
Self-validation, autonomy, and a fit body – these are trophies every woman can be proud of. And they're worth more than the ones you get on stage.