Have you ever cruised through the pages of your favorite fitness magazine, saw the photographs of the fitness competitors, and imagined yourself on that stage? The music is playing, the warm lights are shining down on your tanned body, and the audience applauds when you hit that pose just right. Thousands of men and women at all levels of fitness do compete each year to challenge themselves and motivate others. There is something about having a definitive date and knowing that you will be on stage showing off what you got in front of experienced judges that enables one to push their physical limits. Competing is not for everyone. It requires extreme discipline, high work ethic, consistency, and pain tolerance. Now, I'm not trying to scare you off, but it's not easy. Hats off to anyone who does step on that stage. It's quite an accomplishment. This is a guide for those who are thinking about competing but have no idea where to start.
Don't Wait Forever
Yes, to be in a fitness competition you have to be fit. But the term 'fit' is relative. Nobody who competes is ever perfect. Don't hold off competing until you feel you have the perfect physique because you never will. Our bodies will always be a work in progress. If you are far from being in shape it might take a year or two to get stage ready, but go for it. Don't be a talker, be a doer.
Choose An Organization
You should be aware that there are two separate paths to take when it comes to fitness competitions. You can choose to compete naturally at tested events or non-tested free-for-all events. This is a choice you have to make as an individual. I am proud to be a natural pro athlete myself. I do all this to be healthy and around for my family as long as possible. I personally won't compromise my long term health for a few extra inches on my biceps. Some of you may have needed hormone replacement therapy or testosterone for medical reasons. In these cases, you would need to take the non-tested route even though the purpose of your treatment was not muscle gain.
If you plan to compete at non-tested events the biggest organization by far is the NPC and their pro division IFBB. If you want to take the natural route and compete on a level playing field there are a handful of quality organizations out there including, but not limited to the following:
All organizations will require you to be a member. You may want to wait and apply for membership once you have a competition date in mind. Depending on the organization memberships might expire at the end of the year or one year from when you signed up.
Select a Class
There are a lot of different body types and levels of fitness out in the world so you will want to compete in a class that best suits your degree of development. The organization you choose should have the classes offered along with photographs on their respective websites. The class types and names differ slightly between organizations, but some of the more popular are listed below.
Men: Bodybuilding, Classic Physique, Men's Physique
Women: Figure, Bikini, Physique, Bodybuilding, Fit Body.
There are also classes offered for novice, masters, mixed pairs, teens, and others. Because contest preparation takes many months of work, dedication, and sacrifice I suggest competing in as many classes that make sense. For example, if you are a teen competing for the first time in Men's Physique register for Teen, Novice, and Open Men's Physique. You've put all the hard work in at this point so give yourself the most opportunity to gain experience. In most organizations, if you win first place in the 'Open' classes you are awarded a 'Pro Card' if there are enough competitors. Then you are off to battle some of the best in the world. A 'Pro Card' is a real tangible thing. Mine has my name, Natural Pro Athlete, and my photograph on it. In certain restaurants, it will get you a discount on chicken and rice (jokes).
Pick A Competition
I heard a quote from one of the top natural coaches that really stuck with me. He said, “Pick a competition not by the date, but based on your condition”. What I notice about a lot of young competitors is that they are not conditioned enough. They needed a little bit longer to cut down a few more pounds. When will you be stage ready? That answer is different for everyone depending on their current body fat percentage and what class they are entering. When cutting for a competition it is ideal to try and lose around one pound of fat a week while retaining as much muscle as possible during the process. If you try to lose much faster than that you risk losing hard-earned muscle. So if you think you have 20lbs to lose plan on taking at least 20 weeks. A lot of the top men's competitors will have body fat levels in the 3-5% range. Women's ranges would of course be higher and change drastically depending on the class (Women's Physique would be much leaner than Bikini for example). It would be good to get your body fat levels tested to see where you are at present. This all leads to my next point of getting help. Once you have a set date to compete be sure to join the organization and register for the show. I also recommend staying at the host hotel and pre-paying for tanning services and photography. Tanning appointments can fill up and you don't want to get stuck with an 11 pm appointment the night before the show.
Hire A Coach
Prepping for a fitness contest is a completely different game than just working out with your buddies at the gym. There are time tested methods of getting ready for a competition and staying healthy that are only learned through experience. I would highly recommend hiring a contest prep coach if you are considering competing. Choose somebody who has a lot of experience and a great winning track record with competitors who compete in the organization and class you are choosing. Since your health could be on the line, get someone with many positive references. A good coach can help you plan your prep based on how much body fat you need to drop and what methods work best for your metabolism. They may even need to help you decide which class to compete in based on your physique. In addition to dialing in your body for the stage, your coach would help you learn how to pose for your specific class as well.
Hold That Pose
Posing plays a big part in fitness competitions regardless of the class. Study the mandatory poses for your class and practice them daily. You will want another set of eyes giving you guidance so work with your coach and other competitors who are known for great posing. Get in the habit of filming posing practices so you can watch the playback and critique yourself. Concentrate mostly on the mandatory poses, but learning smooth transitions between poses will help you look more polished. Other things to keep in mind when posing is to always smile as if you are on stage, learning to control breathing patterns while keeping abs tight, and eventually practice away from a mirror because there are no mirrors on stage. Confidence shines on stage and that can only be earned through repetitive practice over a long period of time.
The final days leading up to a fitness competition is referred to as 'peak week'. You will hear this term a lot. The concept is to hit your physical peak for the period you are on stage being judged. This is no one way to handle 'peak week' and each coach will have his own techniques. What works well for one champion competitor may not work for you. My best advice when it comes to peak week is to plan ahead, get ready early, and do some testing weeks beforehand. Don't try new protocol days before a competition. If you hire a competent coach just listen to them and 'trust the process' as they say. Most 'peak weeks' involve a carb load up which competitors look forward to having. Some coaches will have you manipulate water, sodium, and other nutrients. I suggest making detailed notes of your 'peak week' procedure to use as a guide for future competitions.
In addition to the workouts, cardio, and nutrition aspect of 'peak week' there are a few other things you have to get done before the upcoming competition such as shaving, packing, planning, and not stressing out. I would highly recommend paying for the tanning services offered by the show. Yes, you definitely need one of those outrageous super dark tans otherwise you will stick out like a sore thumb. The stage lighting is bright and will wash away all definitions. You also have the option of applying tanner yourself, but saving a little money is not worth the stress. Let the pros do it! Competitions typically take place on Saturdays and the first coat of tan goes on Friday. You don't want to shave your body hours before the tanner is applied so plan on doing that the night before. Men you can wait and shave your face Friday morning.
I recommend packing for your competition days before you need to leave to reduce any last-minute stress. Things to consider bringing include:
Day Before The Show
Since shows are typically on Saturday we are talking about Friday. If you are traveling somewhere to compete I would recommend giving yourself plenty of time and arriving early. Most athletes will not workout this day to let the hormone cortisol drop which will help you look better on stage. Cortisol spikes with stress so try to keep it calm and cool at this point. Get to your hotel early, check-in, unpack and relax. Know the times and location of where you need to be for the coming competitor check-in, competitor meeting, and your tanning appointment. While at the competitor check-in and meeting be friendly and meet new people. I've made lifelong friendships at shows and it's one of my favorite aspects of competing. Once your tan has been applied be very careful with drinking water and brushing your teeth. Don't let even a drop of water splash on you as it may cause a visible drip line. Even though you will be excited and have a very hard time getting to sleep, try to go to bed early. Consider a sleep aid such as ZMA or melatonin. Also, have your alarm set for when you need to wake up and eat per your coach's instructions.
Day of Competition
This is the big day and your time to shine. At this point, the work has been done and it is time to enjoy the moment and show off your best. The show promoter will tell you when they want all competitors to arrive at the venue and you should have another tan 'touch up' appointment scheduled. The tanning service will also typically apply oil as well before you have to be on stage. Know your schedule ahead of time, plan accordingly, and get places early. Remember to keep it cool and stress-free. Because things can seem chaotic, especially your very first show, I recommend having your coach or a reliable friend backstage with you. You may have to pay a small fee to get them that backstage pass, but having the extra support is well worth it. Keep a close eye on the schedule which should be posted backstage and be aware of which class is on stage at any moment. Start warming up with your resistance bands when your coach tells you or about 15-20 minutes before your class is up. You will see some people warming up way too early. Don't feel pressured to jump in just because they are doing it. If you start too early you might lose the pump. Here are a few little tips to consider on show day:
Competing can get very expensive especially if you have to travel. Between the organization fees, show registration, tanning, photographer, hotel, gas, and other fees it can really add up. The ladies have to spend much more than the men because of hair, makeup, and because fancy bikinis cost way more than men's shorts or posing trunks. Don't be afraid to seek sponsorships to help cover expenses. You don't have to be famous or a champion to get sponsorships. Start with your friends, family, local businesses, and your community. If you build your social media presence you can eventually obtain sponsorships with various fitness-related companies, but that's a topic for another time.
Most Important Tip Of All
Do a lot of research and scout out what you after show cheat meal will be. Go all in! You have worked months to compete and deserve to treat yourself to the most delicious treats of ALL time. Let me give you one example from my personal history. After winning a pro-natural show in St Louis, MO I had picked up donuts the very early morning of the show from a famous donut shop for immediately after my stage time. Once we left the venue my friend and I picked up an amazing pizza to go, but then stopped by this place to sit down and eat one of the best brunches I've ever had in my life. Then we ate that pizza several hours into our trip home.
Michael Wittig, ISSA CPT
IPE Natural Pro 5x Champ
Master World Champion
Kaged Muscle Athlete
All socials: @WittigWorks