At first glance, professional and amateur bodybuilders make bodybuilding seem the most straightforward sport: Train hard, build your muscles, get on stage, and flex in front of judges and an audience. And yes, if we had to boil it down to the most fundamental aspects, bodybuilding is all these things. But the truth is, bodybuilding is a nuanced sport, and there is much more to it than meets the eye.
To that end, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide for you. Below, you’ll learn everything there is to know about the sport and what it takes to be a successful bodybuilder. Ultimately, we’ll review some of the most notable names in bodybuilding history.
What does it mean to be a bodybuilder?
In bodybuilding, competitors use resistance training to develop their muscles. Bodybuilders typically split their time between the off-season and the season.
During the off-season, the goal of bodybuilders is to pack on as much muscle as possible. They achieve this by eating a lot of food and lifting a lot of weight. When competition is a few months away and bodybuilders enter the season phase, the goal is to shed the fat and achieve stage-ready conditioning. To do this, they train less and maintain a calorie deficit, forcing the body to burn fat for fuel.
Competitors should be more muscular with each passing off-season, allowing them to place better in competitions and eventually win titles.
To be a professional competitor, you need much more than a pro card (which we’ll look at later). You need to have the grit and determination to push yourself to the limits, eat even if you feel like puking, and persevere through failures and low placings. Professional bodybuilding is 99 percent working behind the scenes and one percent showing what you have on stage. It involves months, even years, of hard work in silence, knowing full well that you’re never guaranteed a title. Yet, despite the odds, you go through it all and step on stage for a shot at the title.
The sport of bodybuilding is not just about the physical; it’s also about the psychological. As Arnold Schwarzenegger wisely said:
“Bodybuilding is much like any other sport. To succeed, you must dedicate 100% to your training, diet, and mental approach.”
What does it take to train like a bodybuilder?
Bodybuilding seems like a vain sport – that much is clear. Yet, today many people critique bodybuilders and the sport, suggesting that you mostly need to have good genetics to become an accomplished competitor. While this is a critical piece of the puzzle, many others exist.
Let’s take a look at what it truly takes to be an accomplished bodybuilder:
1. Training consistently and intelligently
To build your body, you need to place more stress upon it. That way, it grows in response to better handle this type of stress again in the future.
The goal of training for muscle growth is to challenge muscles on an ongoing basis. When the movement feels comfortable, you need to change and push the muscles more. You have three primary ways to overload muscles and keep them growing consistently:
- Lift heavier weights for the same number of reps and sets
- Lift the same weight for more reps or sets
- Train muscles more often throughout the week.
So long as you’re doing more work or seeing some improvement over time, you’re achieving progressive overload. But, of course, it’s important to note that progressive overload only comes after using the proper technique. For example, squatting more weight but cutting the range of motion shorter isn’t progressive overload; it’s ego lifting.
Aside from progressively overloading muscles, you also need to train consistently and do enough training volume for all of the major muscle groups in the body:
- Upper and lower back and traps
It’s also essential to do the above things balanced and avoid doing too much work where a muscle becomes overtrained.
The mind-muscle connection is another vital component. Unfortunately, many trainees make the mistake of lifting to move a weight from point A to point B. At first glance, that might sound like a good objective. But the truth is, bodybuilding is about stimulating your muscles, feeling them work, exhausting them, and even experiencing some soreness in the following days.
To do this, you need to be mindful of your training. Lift weights with intent, focus on activating the right muscles, and achieve peak contraction on every repetition. Work just as hard on a rep’s concentric, eccentric, and isometric parts.
2. Have a balanced and calculated nutrition plan
Your training is what causes a stimulus to the body. But your nutrition (and overall recovery) allows the stimulus to turn into an adaptation. Without a solid nutritional plan, your gym efforts will be in vain. Much like a car needs fuel to run, so does your body. If your tank is empty, you can press the gas pedal all you want – you won’t get anywhere.
During the off-season, a bodybuilder’s goal is to build as much muscle as possible while preventing too much fat from accumulating. That way, the season (dieting) phase doesn’t need as long for the competitor to achieve stage-ready conditioning. To achieve this, you need to be in a small to moderate calorie surplus, which provides you with enough energy to optimize muscle growth but not too much that you store a lot of it in the form of fat.
Unless you’re a seasoned bodybuilder with many competitions behind your back, the best way to go about it is to calculate your caloric needs and then track them meticulously from day to day. According to most research, a surplus of about 200 to 500 calories per day is optimal for growth.
It’s also important to split the calories well between the three macronutrients – dietary fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Each macronutrient plays an essential role, and we need an adequate supply of all three to optimize muscle development and stay healthy.
Protein typically receives the most attention as it provides the body with the building blocks it needs to repair muscle after strenuous training and grow it larger. According to research, we should consume between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Carbs are also vital as they provide us with the energy we need to complete our workouts and kickstart post-workout recovery. They should make up a large percentage of our daily calorie intake.
Fats are essential because they support metabolic health and functioning. They should make up at least 15 percent of our daily calorie intake. For example, if you need to eat 3500 calories per day, at least 525 should come from fat – around 60 grams.
When the competition is months away, bodybuilders enter the season phase and begin shedding the fat to reveal the hard-earned muscle. If the off-season is done well, they aren’t too much over-stage weight, and the diet is typically over within 12 to 16 weeks. But, if the bodybuilder makes the mistake of trying to gain as much scale weight as possible (as opposed to muscle), the season diet can go from 12-16 weeks to upward of 24-30 weeks. As you can imagine, this is not an excellent spot to put yourself in.
The fat loss phase aims to moderate a calorie deficit (typically 300 to 600 calories below maintenance level) to shed fat and maintain muscle mass. Bodybuilders should lose somewhere between 0.5 and 1 percent body weight per week. The leaner a bodybuilder becomes, the more they should slow down their fat loss phase to prevent unwanted muscle loss. Aside from that, the same dietary rules still apply:
- Focus on whole and nutritious foods.
- Eat a balanced diet of proteins, carbs, and fats.
Supplementation also plays a role in bodybuilding success, and many products out there seem to give a competitive advantage. For example, protein powders are one of the most popular products on the market because they allow bodybuilders to get cheap, easy, and convenient protein. Creatine monohydrate is also a favorite of many, and the compound has research dating as far back as the 1970s.
Other popular choices include pre-workout supplements (stimulants), fat-burning agents, mass gainer shakes, and Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs).
3. Sleep as hard as you workout!
For many would-be bodybuilders, the process is straightforward: eat a lot and train hard. However, most of them miss the most critical piece of the puzzle – adequate sleep.
Yes, Arnold once said that we should sleep faster, but things aren’t that simple. While it may not seem important or exciting, sleep is vital for bodybuilding success. During sleep, the body can repair itself and grow stronger. The growth hormone production is through the roof, and the body kicks muscle protein synthesis into high gear. Non-essential energy consumption is also lower, which further allows the body to work on recovery.
Over the years, countless studies have shown that getting enough sleep is vital for post-training recovery and optimal muscle growth. However, with all else equal, sleeping less often results in slower progress. This is typically a result of two things:
1) Sleep deprivation hinders muscle protein synthesis, preventing the body from recovering and growing optimally.
2) Sleep deprivation slows athletic performance, reduces time to exhaustion, and decreases energy levels. These results with sub-optimal workouts cause an optimal disruption and subsequent slow growth response.
Some research also suggests that sleep is vital for effective fat loss. In one cross-over study from 2010, when the subjects slept over five hours per night, around 80 percent of their weight loss came from lean tissue. Then, when they got to sleep for over seven hours per night, their lean-to-fat tissue loss ratio was 50/50. With everything else being the same, this study says a lot:
Adequate sleep is vital for fat loss, which makes it an essential tool for bodybuilding contest prep.
Sleep is also vital for the mind. The body flushes out toxins built up during the day, and the brain recharges. Seeing as mental alertness is critical, everyone – including bodybuilders – can benefit from more sleep.
Adequate sleep is vital for cognitive function and alertness, which impact our training quality. Sleep is also critical for motivation, mood, and mindset. Unfortunately, we’ve all had to suffer through sleep-deprived days, and I’m sure you’ll agree it’s not fun. Combine tiredness, irritability, lack of motivation, and decreased gym performance; you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Well, sleep. According to research, we should aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night. If you can, go for eight, even nine hours.
4. Develop the mindset of a winner.
It may sound a bit cliché, but having a winner’s mindset is vital, not just for bodybuilding. Beliefs and how we see ourselves will hugely impact thoughts, actions, and results. Believe that you’ll never win a bodybuilding show, and you won’t. Believe that you will, and you might pull it off.
The process behind the results sets winners apart from losers: the daily grind, the early morning training, the hours’ worth of meal prepping, the posing, and the research. Little by little, small actions add up and snowball into huge improvements.
One workout isn’t much. But train 290 times the following year, and you’re getting somewhere. Of course, eating more food for a day also doesn’t move the needle. But make it a point to do so every day, and you’ll be amazed at the progress you can achieve within several months. And this is where our mindset comes in:
It sets the stage for what we’re willing and unwilling to do. If you genuinely believe you have a shot at winning a bodybuilding competition, you’ll be much more likely to train hard, follow your nutritional plan, and prioritize sleep.
Having the proper mindset also comes with the understanding that victory is not guaranteed. Despite your years of effort, countless hours in the gym, and just as many Sunday meal preps, the competition is fierce, and victory is never a sure thing. And yet you still do it. Despite the odds, despite the competition, despite the previous failures, and despite the limiting beliefs you may have, you push yourself to your limits, prepare for your competition, and get on stage because that is the meaning of having a winner’s mindset.
5. Posing and finding a way to set yourself apart from the competition
“Posing is a performing art.”
If you’ve built an aesthetic physique that can easily impress 95 percent of the people on earth, you’re still fighting an uphill battle because dozens of other people have achieved the same thing and are on stage, fighting to win.
As a bodybuilder, it’s not just about building the best possible physique; it’s also about knowing how to present it and set yourself apart from everyone else. Posing is hugely vital in bodybuilding; you need to win the crowd.
There are many ways to go about setting yourself apart from your competition. For example, Arnold carried immense confidence and charisma on stage. Every person in the crowd could sense that he was on stage for the win, and he did a great job of getting inside the head of his competition. As a result, Arnold won seven Mr. Olympia titles, six of which consecutively.
Kai Greene is another fantastic poser in the bodybuilding world. Unlike many bodybuilders, Kai used to make his posing unique by combining it with dance moves. There could have been dozens of other competitors on stage that day, but you can bet that he stood out the most. While not the most accomplished bodybuilder, Kai was certainly a fan-favorite.
Many would-be bodybuilders believe that it’s mostly about building your body. Still, posing is hugely important and should be practiced often – until even the most complicated sequences become second nature.
Here’s what you can do:
Once you finish your workout, get in front of a mirror (preferably not in front of the dumbbell rack) and start posing. Do some primary poses, spend time admiring your gains, and call it a day. As little as five to ten minutes of posing practice a few times per week can make a massive difference in the long run.
Two bodybuilders can have incredible physiques. But if one of them poses awkwardly and chops up sequences, you can bet his competitor, who moves with astonishing grace, will snag the trophy.
6. Knowing what your strengths are and using them to your advantage
Let’s face it:
We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Some folks have naturally big and defined arms; others have wide backs. Some build impressive pec muscles with seemingly little effort, and others can develop monstrous quads with just a few sets per week.
Most bodybuilders fall somewhere in the middle – if they lack in one area, other attributes make up for it. For example, you might not be the biggest guy on stage, but you might have fantastic proportions. Or you might not have the best structure for a bodybuilder, but you can gain muscle fast.
Whatever your strengths are, recognize them and use them to your advantage. Begin by taking a good hard look at your physique. Make videos and photos, pose differently, and look at yourself in the mirror. Asking for opinions here and there is also a good idea, as we often don’t look at ourselves objectively as we should.
Once you have a firm grasp on your strengths, emphasize them in your posing. Remember: it’s not just about having the best physique; it’s also about presenting yours in the best way possible.
7. Continue to work on improving your weaknesses
Aside from recognizing your strengths and using them to your advantage, you should also be as objective as possible and improve your weaknesses. As a person bodybuilds for some years and trains their entire body in a balanced manner, they typically notice something:
Some of their muscles develop much better than others. For example, many trainees see that their traps grow well, but some muscle groups, like the shoulders and calves, are more stubborn and require more effort.
To become a successful bodybuilder, you must recognize and improve your weak points. Then, do more work on them in the offseason and train them more frequently throughout the week.
For example, IFBB professional Jeff Nippard once said in a video that he received a low place in one of his early shows because his arms weren’t well developed. As a whole, he looked fantastic on stage. But, judges deemed his arms inadequate, and he couldn’t even break the top five.
Say that you notice that your arms, much like Jeff’s, grow more slowly. What you can do is start attacking them with more work. You don’t necessarily have to start pushing your effort level higher, but you should do more sets, exercises, and weekly workouts.
If you follow a classic push/pull/legs split, you can train your biceps on pull workouts and triceps on push day and still include an arm day in your weekly training. Perform three to four exercises for your biceps and three to four for your triceps. Do upward of 15 weekly sets for both muscle groups, and spread that volume across two or three sessions. Keep your level of effort high, but avoid taking your sets to failure – always leave one or two reps in the tank.
So long as you stay consistent, give your arms enough time to recover, see that your performance improves, and maintain good form across all reps, your arms will catch up.
When working on a weak point, you must lower your training volume on muscle groups that grow well. The reason is systemic fatigue can become too high, and that can lead to recovery issues. This is something Mike Israetel talks about, and he refers to it as systemic maximum recoverable volume.
For example, if you want to work on your arms this offseason, and your quads tend to overgrow, pull the volume from your quads and use it for your arm workout.
8. Work with, not against, your genetics
You’ve probably noticed that we included genetics last on the list. The reason for that is simple:
Too many would-be bodybuilders give up before starting because they have limiting beliefs.
“Oh, I can never be a successful bodybuilder. I don’t have the genetics for it.”
Yes, genetics plays a significant role in your bodybuilding success. Your height, frame, proportions, and ability to build muscle and lose fat will hugely impact your success as a bodybuilder. But here’s the thing:
Genetics is not everything, and many people have built incredible physiques without having exceptional genetics. What’s more, you can never be sure just how ‘genetically blessed you are until you pursue bodybuilding. So while having an objective opinion is good, it’s also essential to put in the work and not fall for limiting factors.
The pro card
Ah, the pro card – a goal for every serious bodybuilder out there. Each year, thousands of bodybuilders compete for the honor of turning pro. So, how does this happen?
For a competitor to turn pro, they must earn their pro card – the golden ticket that shows hard work, determination, and an impeccable physique. In addition, a pro bodybuilder possesses qualifications such as an IFBB or Wabba International Pro Card.
A competitor must first win a regional contest in a specific weight class to try for a pro card. While this may sound simple enough, it often isn’t. Despite the competitions being on an amateur level, the battle is often fierce because everyone wants to rank higher.
Once a competitor wins such a show or places higher (typically in the top three), they receive an invite from their country’s National Championship contest for that year. This is the National Physique Committee (NPC) – the only amateur organization recognized by the IFBB league.
The competitors that win their respective weight classes then have to go head-to-head against one another in a separate show to crown an overall champion for the year. In some cases, only the overall winner gets offered a pro card. In certain federations, the winners of each weight class receive one.
From bottom to top, ascending from an unknown amateur to an IFBB pro looks like a giant funnel. Thousands of competitors go in and slowly fade away as the best ones remain and make it out through the other side. Once a person earns their pro card, they become a professional bodybuilder. At that point, bodybuilders can sign up for prestigious events where they face off against the best in the world.
Some of the most notable names in professional bodybuilding
The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) was founded in 1946. At that time, bodybuilding wasn’t the huge sport it is today. Bodybuilding was relatively small back then. But since that time, the sport has grown, and we’ve seen dozens of incredible competitors step on stage.
In no particular order, here are some of the most notable names in modern bodybuilding:
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Known as the Austrian Oak, Arnold is one of the most accomplished bodybuilders of all time and has played a significant role in popularizing the sport.
2. Phil Heath
As a seven-time Mr. Olympia winner, Heath is easily one of our time’s most impressive and accomplished bodybuilders. His Olympia wins tie with that of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
3. Steve Reeves
Steve Reeves wasn’t the most prominent or most accomplished bodybuilder. But, he had impeccable symmetry and proportion that helped him land the 1950 Mr. Universe title. He later portrayed Hercules, Goliath, and Sandokan on the big screen and played a role in popularizing bodybuilding.
4. Lee Haney
Lee Haney has an incredible eight consecutive wins of the Mr. Olympia title and is only rivaled by the next person on our list.
5. Ronnie Coleman
Ronnie has a record-tying eight Mr. Olympia wins next to Lee Haney. Known for his brute strength and incredible mass, Ronnie Coleman is one of the most recognized names in modern bodybuilding.
6. Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler was the primary rival of Ronnie Coleman and was the man who eventually dethroned him in 2006. Jay would have become one of the most accomplished bodybuilders if not for Coleman.
7. Dorian Yates
With six consecutive wins of the Mr. Olympia title, Dorian Yates took the bodybuilding world by storm. He quickly made a name for himself by bringing monstrous size on stage and impeccable conditioning.
8. Eugen Sandow
Often referred to as the father of modern bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow boasted an incredible physique. The Mr. Olympia trophy is named after him – the Sandow trophy. It was introduced in 1977, and the first winner of it was Frank Zane.
9. Frank Zane
Despite weighing less than 200 pounds on stage, Zane won three Mr. Olympia titles and is known to have one of the most aesthetic physiques in bodybuilding history.
Conclusion and final thoughts on bodybuilding
Bodybuilding is a huge sport, and it is here to stay. While it didn’t have the most impressive beginnings, bodybuilding has become incredibly popular and attracts thousands of individuals worldwide.
For many, bodybuilding is an art, and it’s about showing what the human body can become. Each year, competitors push themselves to their limits to reach peak conditioning and show the world what they have.
Moreover, bodybuilding is much more nuanced than most people imagine. To become a successful competitor, one must gain mastery over their body and mind. Over the years, we’ve seen some incredible individuals on stage who’ve shattered our perception of what is and isn’t possible.