Competitive bodybuilding has grown exponentially, most notably in the Bikini division. When bikini started in 2010 it was very beach body-esque. As the division grew more popular, the standards raised to a leaner and more muscular physique; a trend that has continued fairly steadily each year. Fast forward to 2019 and the competitions are exceptionally large, exceptionally competitive and the idea of a “lower barrier to entry” (versus entering the Figure division) is a thing of the past.
Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. The Bikini division represents a physique many women would love to achieve and can naturally achieve, if they so choose. With the growth of bikini and more emphasis on the division as a whole, there has been more exposure to competitive bodybuilding in general, more opportunities for female competitors and improved coaching methods. However, there is also absolutely a dark side to competing, and it has little to do with bodybuilding itself.
The most problematic behavior a competitor can engage in, in my opinion, is perpetually competing. We’ve all seen people compete year after year to do a little bit better but then make a sharp decrease. They only learn to live their life through the lens of a prep and a very short offseason which creates a whole host of problems. Maybe you’ve seen this at your gym, or with one of your friends. Or maybe, this person is you. I know I personally competed far too frequently for far too long.
The notion that the Bikini division is “attainable” and “easier” creates a large part of this problem. When bikini first started, that was understandable. Even when I turned pro in 2014, bikini was lean and muscular, but nowhere near the size and shape that we see now. Part of this is genetics. More people doing shows means more people with better genetics doing shows. Those are facts and since this is a physique sport, if someone naturally has better muscle insertions, they will win more times than not. But regardless of the higher stakes and broader competition, the standards are so much higher now. No longer can bikini girls compete year-round if they’re looking to make improvements. Getting super lean can indeed make you look more muscular, but after a point, no amount of leanness or time spent on stage will improve your placings.
Make no mistake, other divisions (for both males and females) have competitors who perpetually compete. I am not here to downplay that, so please read this advice through the lens of whatever division you compete in. However, in my coaching experience I have seen more bikini competitors perpetually compete and run themselves into the ground than other divisions.
Then there’s the relevancy issue. Many people think they have to compete to stay relevant in both the competition space and the business space, if they have a business related to fitness. Here’s where this notion comes from: Subconsciously, if you see someone that you know, you’re more likely to look at them. Even if it’s for a brief second ‘oh hey, I know that girl!’ your brain says. We all do this all the time in our life. Do we really think judging is different? So when the judges “see your face” more frequently, it does help from a recognition perspective. However, this does not mean that just because you see the judges at every show month after month you will place better IF you don’t have a better physique. Plain and simple.
Taking the combination of the perceived lower barrier to entry and “easier criteria” coupled with trying to stay relevant, you have created a monster. A monster that is addicted to competing, can’t live their life without it and have potentially created obsessive and disordered behaviors.
Eric Helms co-authored on a great paper on how to move towards a sustainable nutrition paradigm. I’d encourage everyone to read this! They dive deep into the psychological tendencies of people who do engage in competitive bodybuilding. Many have predispositions to neuroticism, perfectionism, obsessive tendencies, binary thinking and the need for control. These same predispositions predispose individuals towards disordered eating behaviors. Couple that with the biological effects of competing and we can see why many people develop disordered eating or even full blown eating disorders from competing.
What needs to be taken into serious consideration is living your life only on the terms of prep. Does this sound familiar: Diet super aggressively to look amazing on stage, then start to have a faltered relationship with food, overeat and potentially binge only to then use your next prep to diet the weight off? This is so common and nothing to be ashamed about. Like I said, I’ve been here before. Living life thinking you’ll just diet off the weight come next prep and not giving your body, physically or mentally, enough time to recover post hard prep is not how I would suggest living your life. It’ll work for a few years but you can only last for so long doing that and will inevitably cut your career short.
It’s understandable to get caught up with competing. It’s understandable to want to be as competitive as possible, earn your pro card, win pro shows, and the like. But it does need to balanced out with life outside of competing and your long term health. Right now turning pro seems like the most important thing to you and you’re willing to do every show; but at what cost? Will this really matter 10 years down the road? Putting long term goals before short term goals is one of the hardest things to do but is one of the most powerful if you can master it.
Coaches, we need to be open with clients about this. Yes, it’s great to have tons of competitors on stage year-round and at all the big shows with you. But this should never come at the risk of their long term goals, life or health. Doing hours of cardio and eating like a bird for years on end should not be celebrated. What should be celebrated is having long term coaching relationships with your athletes where you help them grow both physically and mentally in their offseason and in all aspects of their life. And from a coaching perspective, clients who work with you for extended seasons and offseason often have the best results given the slow, yet important, changes that you all can see together.
Having this discussion as a coach can be terrifying, I get it. The fear of losing current or potential clients because you take a stand for long term goals versus promising short term wins is real. However, speaking for myself and the rest of the Team LoCoFit coaches I can confidently say that we stand firmly in our beliefs that the appropriate amount of time off of stage will help mitigate the psychological and physiological disruptions and enhance your long term life, inside and outside of competing.
Athletes, you need to open and honest with yourself here. Are you competing just to stay relevant? To fill a void you’re not addressing? Or to keep a physique and image you’ve withheld for a long time? If the answer is yes, stepping back is highly suggested. You are not any less of a competitor for taking time off. If anything, you are a far better competitor for taking breaks!
One last point to make is that this is not a bash on competitors or the sport itself. This is simply my aim at bringing awareness to the fact that if you want a long career, then you need to be smart about it. Stop chasing short term satisfaction without maintaining that vision of where you’d see your future self. As a coach, it’s my job to help our clients lead healthy and fulfilling lives, both inside and outside of the sport.