At some point you’ve probably seen photos online showing lots of glamourous women in sparkly bikinis and heels, all lined up on stage posing and showing off their best assets. I could probably write a lot about my own experiences and tips regarding the specifics of fitness competitions, but I wanted to give an overall idea of the Pros and Cons of competing. It’s so easy to look on Instagram and envy the final stage photos, or even if someone has photo-documented their entire prep then they may only talk about their good days! There’s so much that goes into a prep on the mental side that many either don’t know about or under appreciate. I’m not trying to encourage or discourage anyone from doing one, I just wanted to put my point of view out there.
Firstly, what is a bikini competition? Think of it as a mixture between bodybuilding and a beauty pageant. Some will argue that it is bodybuilding, some stress it’s ‘fitness modelling.’ Ultimately it depends on the federation that you compete with and what they look for. However most will judge you physically based on the proportion of your body, muscle tone, and beauty aspects such as tan and hair. A darker spray tan than normal is required to bring out the muscle definition, but often for the bikini category it is required to be lighter than the stereotypical bodybuilders with a white face and orange body.
Preparation for a competition is (or should be!) highly individualised and takes anywhere between 8-16 weeks, which includes a specific training plan and eating in a calorie deficit to reduce body fat. It’s then expected to use your ‘offseason’ in-between shows to progress (muscle size, strength and shape) so you improve on yourself every time. Winners usually receive a small cash reward, some kind of supplement prize and Instagram boasting rights, as well as sometimes winning a “Pro card” for that specific federation. The federation IFBB leads to the ultimate title of Ms Olympia.
These thoughts may not apply to everyone who has ever competed, but they’re common topics that I’ve either experienced myself or that come up a lot online – I’m a member of a few online forums specifically for competition prepping, and although each country is slightly different, a lot of the same issues, problems and experiences crop up, many of them to do with the mental side of it all.
Pros and Cons of Competing
PRO – Self-confidence. You’ll have a lot of self-belief. You’ll have worked so hard and been so dedicated with your training and diet that you’ll feel unstoppable, and probably relate it to other areas of your life too. You’ll have completed a goal by being consistent, and accomplished it because you’re doing it for YOU (if you’re doing it for someone else then it’s likely you’ll never make it to the stage.) It’s a great feeling, and let’s not forget that it takes guts to get up on stage wearing high heels and next to nothing!
CON – Lack of self confidence and “post-show blues.” Prep has its ups and downs emotionally. After spending months concentrating on the outcome of one specific day, many competitors get majorly demotivated and find it hard to get back into the gym afterwards. Some people also binge eat because they’ve been in a calorie restriction for so long.
(Tip: It’s worthwhile taking a couple of days break from the gym after the show, but don’t leave it too long. Hopefully as you increase your calories again you’ll feel stronger and get back into it, remembering why you love the gym. Make medium term strength based goals for yourself, to shift your focus away from aesthetics for a while. Also make sure you stick to a reverse diet plan so you don’t overeat and upset the balance of your body afterwards.)
PRO – You’ll learn a lot. You’ll probably have learnt a great deal about yourself, whether it’s how your body reacts to certain macro percentages, new ways of programming your training, or even just how you react in certain situations. As well as challenging your body you’ll have challenged your mind.
CON – You’re still not an expert. When friends and colleagues hear about your goal then they’ll often ask you for weight loss or nutrition tips. Obviously you want to help them to the best of your ability, but remember that you have not suddenly become a PT, prep coach or nutritionist. Also just because a specific way worked for you, doesn’t mean that it’ll work for someone else in the same position. Don’t try to coach others if you’re not qualified to.
PRO – It’s glamourous! The tan, hair, makeup, the posing on stage…after months of sweat in the gym, there’s something exciting about picking out your bikini colour and getting dolled up to see the final “package.”
CON – It’s expensive. Cost is a huge factor to consider and can be more than you expect, especially for your first show. Sometimes there are things you have no control over, such as shows that require you to use their tanning or makeup services.
(Tip: It is possible to do it on the cheap, but it entirely depends on the person and level of competition. Make a budget and do your research. Buy or rent a second-hand bikini or heels. Share hotel rooms. Do your own makeup. Preparation is key and the more time you give yourself the better.)
Pro – Photoshoots. You can capture some incredible artwork that you can look back on and be proud of. Be creative, get some inspiration from online and check out photographers that have experience in capturing bodies and movement.
Con – Body-dysmorphia. Competing can majorly mess up your way of thinking. It can be hard to accept your body afterwards while it’s going back to its normal and more healthy shape. You may even think you’re fat, when in reality you’re not and you’re just not used to seeing yourself in a less-lean state.
(Tip: Don’t continually look back at your competition pics, wishing you were back to that level of lean. Book another shoot with a local photographer a couple of weeks/months after comp that you can use as another goal, but also to appreciate yourself when you’re stronger and more carbed up).
PRO – Like minded friends. You’ll meet people who are going through the same thing as you, either from training as part of a team, on online forums, or the girls you’ll meet on the day.
CON – Comparing yourself. It’s so easy to search through Instagram and compare yourself to others, but you are YOU. Everybody is different and has varied ways of prepping for a show, so the worst thing you can do is to worry that someone is eating differently/training differently/looks leaner than you are at a specific time frame out from the big day.
(Tip: Competing is about being the best version of yourself you can be. You can’t change your height or basic body shape, so embrace it and remember that every body is different.)
“I’ve read your pointers above and I’m thinking of entering one. How do I know if I’m ready and do you have any more advice?”
Ok. Well here are my tips to consider before deciding:
– Be honest with yourself about why you want to do it. Do you just want to lose weight and like the look of the glamour, or do you genuinely love weight training and want to challenge yourself?
– Don’t do it if you’re not comfortable with your current body image or have a bad relationship with food. If you’ve ever had an eating disorder, then don’t do it. It’s just not worth it. You do hear some success stories of those who comfortably have, but they are the exception, not the rule. Also if you dislike your current body then changing up your exercise habits can be beneficial, but competing will likely increase the problem, not fix it.
– Really think about cost and budget accordingly. Do your research and don’t be afraid of talking to others for help.
– Get a decent coach. I can’t stress this enough, and if there’s one area to not cost-cut then it’s this one. If you’ve done your research online you’ll hear many horror stories of people hiring a ‘reputable’ coach, only to be put on super low calorie diets and messing up their metabolism by completely burning them out. It’s not necessary, especially for the bikini division. You need to be able to trust them with your body. Check out their credentials and who they have prepped in the past. Talk to those people and ask how they felt about the coach throughout the prep. You don’t want to play roulette with your health for the sake of a plastic trophy.
– You can never start too early with posing. This is an area that so many people undervalue and don’t practice enough. You could have the ‘best’ body up there (remember it’s all subjective) but if you can’t move or pose properly then you won’t stand a chance. My dance background gave me a big advantage to this, but in my first competition my mind still went blank and I forgot everything.
Some industry professionals will argue that it’s vital to have a good few years of consistent weight lifting experience before even considering to compete. That you have to have the winning mentality and there is no point in cutting calories if you don’t have the decent muscle base underneath – that it isn’t the time, place or platform to do the job half heartedly, because you want to win and be the best up there.
While I do agree with this, I also think that some federations encourage beginners to compete for the starting motivation of weight loss, and that’s ok (With “Transformation” and ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ categories). Do it if you know you’ll be dedicated and accept that it’s not an everyday look, but accept that there’s a high chance you might not place. This doesn’t make you a failure – it’s about what the judges want on that specific day.
Finally, some tips if you’re currently prepping!
– Keep going! It’s easy to think “why the hell am I doing this’ but remember why you started.
– Don’t overdo the Instagram stalking. It’ll just make you compare yourself more, which we know isn’t good.
– Don’t stockpile keep treats in the house. You’ll either be tempted while still dieting or you’ll eat them all in one go afterwards. Just don’t.
– Accept change. Afterwards, get out of the mind-set nitty gritty details you’ve learned along the way. Remember that comp prep isn’t real life. It’s ok to drink water that has more sodium in it. It’s ok to go back to eating food groups you might have cut out nearer comp (eg. Dairy.) It’s ok to start flavouring your chicken again with exciting sauces. It’s ok to have the odd bit of sugar again. Just be careful and balanced. Anything to keep you from saying “F**k this.”
– It’s never too soon to start posing. If you’ve started prep then you should already be practicing in heels…
– Trust your body. There are differences between being lazy, being challenged, and being pushed over the edge. Online you’ll often hear people saying ‘trust the process; trust your coach.’ Do, but there’s a limit for this. Hopefully you’ll have done extensive research before hiring your coach and have 100% faith that 1) they have your best intentions at heart and 2) your health at the centre of your wellbeing. Yes, it’s hard, but there are some crazy coaches out there that shouldn’t be coaching. Health is your number one priority!
– A lot of the time it’s mental. Do you really need an extra ‘refeed’ meal or did you just see a burger on TV and your mind is taking over?
(Photograph by Toby Harrison Photography, Dubai Muscle Show 2016)