What does it really take to look like your ultra shredded, six-pack Instagram idol?
Once considered to be a niche, underground sport, bodybuilding (and physique competitors) exploded in popularity toward the end of the 20th century thanks - at least in part - to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seven Mr Olympia victories between 1970 and 1980. In more recent years, technology has helped propel bodybuilding even further into mainstream society, with social media being perhaps the most influential factor in the modern bodybuilding movement.
With their chiseled abs, powerful chests and legions of devoted followers, ‘fitspiration’ personalities are leading the way for the next generation of bodybuilders, but few of these social media fitness icon are transparent about what it actually takes to compete in this demanding sport. So, what really goes into being a competitive bodybuilder?
A competitive bodybuilder’s life is essentially split into two phases: off-season and preparing for competition. In the off-season, the primary goal is gaining size, which is achieved by consuming more calories than the body burns. While this usually involves strict calorie counting, there is a bit of wiggle room here to occasionally indulge in treats and cheat meals.
During competition season, however, there’s very little leeway in terms of diet, and things only get stricter in the lead up to the big day. Generally speaking, carbs, fats, dairy and even water intake goes down in the lead up to the competition, though protein intake stays fairly consistent in order to prevent muscle loss. As noted in a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports, this can result in a variety of micronutrient deficiencies, including vitamin D, calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron (although smart supplementation can mitigate these risks to a certain extent). Sticking to such a regimented diet can be incredibly mentally challenging and have a negative effect on your strength, mood, energy levels and more.
Unlike other forms of training, a bodybuilder’s primary focus isn’t on increasing the amount of weight he or she can lift. Instead, it’s about focusing on the contraction during the movement, working the muscle to exhaustion and training in a higher rep range than you would if your goals were centred around gaining strength.
Because of the higher rep ranges, the need for more cardio and the fact that the central nervous system isn’t under so much stress, a bodybuilder’s training session can easily exceed the two hour mark. As a competitive bodybuilder, you’ll be in the gym at least six days per week, and perhaps double that in the lead up to competition day if you need to get in extra cardio sessions.
Like it or not, your genetics have a big say in how successful you will be as a competitive bodybuilder, particularly if you’re aiming to compete higher than a regional level. Hard work and discipline can offset many of your body’s weaknesses, but no matter how much time you spend in the gym you can’t change your bone structure. Your height, joint size, bone thickness and natural ability to build muscle all have a large influence on how far you’ll be able to make it as a competitive bodybuilder.
It’s no secret that many competitive bodybuilders use illegal drugs such as growth hormones and anabolic steroids to enhance their body’s capacity to pack on muscle. Yes, there are a number of ‘natural’ bodybuilding competitions that have fairly stringent drug testing systems in place (the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation is probably the biggest), but the largest bodybuilding contests have no such policies, which means competitors can do whatever it takes in the quest for greater mass, a leaner physique and a competitive edge.
While many bodybuilders claim that anabolic steroids can be used safely so long as the proper precautions are taken, research indicates that they can impact the body’s ability to produce testosterone, and are a contributing factor in testicular atrophy, impaired spermatogenesis and gynaecomastia. Beyond the physical effects, long-term use of anabolic steroids are also thought to be associated with a range of psychiatric conditions, including dependence and mood syndromes, according to research published in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. It’s important to note that our understanding of the long-term effects of anabolic steroid use is still limited.
Having said that, there are many bodybuilders who refrain from drug use and have achieved amazing results. Their minds are focused and centered towards one goal, which is reflected in the extremely disciplined lives they live.
We have a lot of respect for competitive bodybuilders - not everybody can afford the dedication, discipline and hard work they put into building and maintaining their impressive physiques. We want to shed some light on what the sport takes so people can make a more informed decision as to whether or not they want to be a competitive bodybuilder. And for those of us who might not want to compete in the sport but still want to look the part, we ought to be realistic and ask ourselves if we are willing to go through the very strict diet and exercise regime these athletes put themselves through.
The daily routine of an IFBB Figure Pro
IFBB Figure Pro and winner of Ms. Figure Olympia Asia 2016, Shanghai-based WorldTrainer coach Kristine Finsaas is no stranger to bodybuilding. Kristine generously gave us a sneak peek into her daily routine as a champion bodybuilder.
"As far as my personal prep it's fairly simple. I eat 6 meals/day, and like to eat at least two meals before I go work out. I do a 4 day training split where I workout 3 days, then rest one day. I only train once/day, usually for 60-90 minutes. Then I eat another meal, and as the show comes in closer I add in 30 minutes LISS cardio after this meal. I'm not a fan of cardio, so I do as little as I can, but make sure my diet is always on point. Apart from traditional cardio I also try to get a couple long walks with my dog in every day, ranging from 20-60 minutes/walk."
"The real secret lies in my diet. I've found a 3 day carb & fat cycle that works really well for me. For example one day I eat carbs, but not fat, one day I eat fat, but no carbs, and one day I don't eat fat nor carbs. My protein intake never changes, but the amount of fat and carbs does. I eat this knowing it'll get me the results I want. I will occasionally have a "cheat meal", but only when my coach says so. It usually goes weeks in between these. I drink plenty of water, and sleep 7-8 hours/night. For faster recovery I also go get massages 1-2 times/week."
"That's pretty much it. Very simple in theory, hard to do in practice."