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The Art & History of Competitive Bodybuilding

The Art & History of Competitive Bodybuilding

For my very first college class, an English essay class, our final exam was a research essay on any form of art we chose – its entire history & a case for its inclusion as “art” – speaking to an audience that had never heard of it. One of the positives about this class was my professor was very open-minded about perspectives & definitions of things, & she had included sports in the list of “art” examples, so of course I chose competitive bodybuilding.

One of the negatives about the class was that she was absolutely meticulous about the most obscure academic writing rules no one else seems to have to follow in their classes… one of which being a severe aversity to “be” verbs, meaning is/are/was/were/be/being/been. Do you know how hard it is to talk or write while using verbs other than those? Just look at this paragraph written like a normal human being without attention to “be” verbs. They’re everywhere & it’s just one paragraph. We had to eliminate them at all costs so this essay is cumbersome as well as fluffy to appease the length requirement, but here’s a complete rundown of competitive bodybuilding! Originally titled “Competitive Bodybuilding: Living Inside the Drawing”.

History of Bodybuilding

Ancient Greeks engaged in the celebration of the human body through muscular development long before it became caricatured as “bodybuilding” (Robson 1). Bodybuilding delineates today’s translation of the same values so highly idealized throughout history. “The ‘Grecian Ideal’ would also go on to influence modern day bodybuilding as the aesthetic standard that modern bodybuilders would aim to achieve” (“History of Bodybuilding” 1). The garden-variety onlooker tends to assume the term “bodybuilding” refers only to gargantuan, vapid men perpetually flexing their biceps for anyone willing to gawk; however, the word simply defines the practice of literally building one’s body with a personal physical ideal in mind.

history of bodybuilding

Every individual working towards an aesthetic goal through athletic means, from diminutive women pining for a better swimsuit body, to the obese striving to shed half of their mass, to the ones with arms the size of the entire first person mentioned, all fall into the realm of bodybuilding. Perhaps an easier-to-swallow moniker such as “physique sculpting” would elucidate a more accurate conception in the prosaic mind, but for now, the term “competitive bodybuilding” refers to this sport. And not many better snapshots exist of the gamut of undertakings within the scope of true bodybuilding than the array of humans at peak physicality exhibited on the stage of any given bodybuilding competition, a range so varied it necessitates organization and categorization just as intricate and structured as other sports, if not more so.

Competitive bodybuilders train, prepare, and refine extensively and meticulously for months, either self-conducted or coached, and either independently or as a constituent of a team sharing coaches and brand representation, these efforts culminating towards a single day on stage where a panel of judges evaluates the presentation of their work according to established criterion of aesthetic ideals, and against one another in categories. Not only are there several organizations between which competitors choose, but many categories exist within each organization, in addition to even more specific categories within those.

Classes of Bodybuilding

As with most sports, competitive bodybuilding germinated with men. Eugene Sandow, celebrated today as the “father of modern bodybuilding,” pioneered the exhibition of physical mastery in the late 1800s. His influence effected the first organized weightlifting competitions, followed soon after by the first official bodybuilding competition in 1901 in London, featuring Sandow as one of the judges, of course. Today, Sandow’s legacy lives on as the statuette awarded to the winner of the annual Mr. Olympia competition, the most prestigious in the world (“History of Bodybuilding” 2).

history of bodybuilding

The male category in competitive bodybuilding commonly encompasses three different categories: Physique, Lightweight Bodybuilding, and Heavyweight Bodybuilding. The former presents its competitors in board shorts and exhibits a more typically sought-after male beach-body; the latter two occasionally go by different names, depending on the organization, but nonetheless, they consist of what most envision upon hearing the term “bodybuilder,” wearing smaller, swimmer-type bottoms, and ensure fairness by separating weight classes. In addition to Eugene Sandow himself, many well-known male names originate from the competitive bodybuilding world, including Lou Ferrigno, Ronnie Coleman, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Women in Bodybuilding

In 1979, women formally infiltrated the proverbial “boys’ club,” with female competitors allowed on stage for the first time (Hunter 11). Bodybuilding magazines began assenting to the female presence first with Kellie Everts, who initiated the movement earlier in the decade. Although the female faction of the sport initially only encompassed the Bodybuilding category, which, realistically, closely paralleled that category’s male correlative and attached the unfortunate stereotype which still recurs today when a female bodybuilder calls herself a female bodybuilder, women’s competitive bodybuilding has since expanded into almost twice the variety of the art’s male trailblazers (39).

The stage now affords competitive opportunity for women with virtually any personal body preference, with most organizations hosting categories for Bikini, Fitness, Figure, Physique, and Bodybuilding, exhibiting levels of muscularity and leanness scaling upwards in the same order, with several height or weight classes within each to ensure fairness. Every female competitor wears a resplendent, custom-made bikini, of which style varies depending on their category, along with hair and make-up to match, tying together the complete final sculpture (54-56). Along with Kellie Everts at the forefront, some prominent female names out of the industry include Dana Linn Bailey, Amanda Latona, Pauline Nordin, and Ashley Horner.

How It Works

In addition to sculpting themselves to satisfy standards of their chosen category, competitive bodybuilders also must choose an official organization within which to compete, and whether to hire a coach or even join a team of other competitors who train under the same coaches. Both national and international organizations exist, and athletes choose an organization to participate with based on several personal factors, such as where they live, whether they use performance enhancing drugs or choose to remain natural (since some organizations test for drugs and others do not, and an “even playing field” depends on working with a tested organization if the competitor does not use drugs themselves), their status as amateur or professional, etc.

history of bodybuildingSome of the major organizations include the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness), NPC (National Physique Committee), INBF (International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness), WNBF (World Natural Bodybuilding Federation), and IFPA (International Federation of Physique Athletes). Much like other sports leagues, competitive bodybuilders commit to their chosen organization and must adhere to the regulations set forth, and they may choose to pursue amateur or professional status.

In order to advance to “professional” status, a competitor must earn a “pro card” by winning at a nationally qualifying competition. The athlete may then compete at preeminent, national-level bodybuilding competitions for prize money. However, despite the phantasm of the label, “professional” competitive bodybuilding does not provide an alimentation the way other professional sports do; only the select few who make it to the highest cachet of Mr./Ms. Olympia royalty see any significant accruement from their endeavors.

Competitive bodybuilding proves substantially expensive as a general rule; not only do most competitors pay contest preparation coaches during the months before shows, but they also must pay hundreds of dollars for their competition suits, shoes, hair, and make-up if female, professional tanning services just before the show, travel expenses, entry fees, and even yearly renewal fees for pro card holders. In other words, bodybuilders do not get paid to compete; they pay to compete. For this reason, even the most resolved competitive bodybuilders must still yield to regular jobs in order to actually earn a living so that they may sustain their passion on the side (Locks and Richardson 138). The phrase “starving artist” surely never fails.

Without becoming the next Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Jay Cutler, a competitor’s best chance of monetary reward comes in the form of occasional sponsorships from fitness supplement brands who recognize a marketing opportunity in a competitor with a populous following, and possibly establishing a personal brand with that visibility boost if the competitor evinces the drive required to start a fitness-related business. Moreover, the smattering of world-renowned athletes who achieve a competitive level lofty enough to win five- to six-figure purses every year do so with the aid of steroids, making that choice a necessary evil in exchange for the highest ascendancy (Robson 15).

What It Takes     

Athletes make non-pecuniary investment in the art of competitive bodybuilding in the form of the months, years, and sometimes decades dedicated to the sport. Obviously, the physical training pilots the venture, as well as meticulous assiduity to nutrition and supplementation. Consistent, strategic, untiring strikes of the chisel result in a replete sculpture, and nothing less.

In addition to battle strategy in the form of training and nutrition, competitors must rehearse show day procedures to ensure quality presentation; for example, they often attend posing practice sessions with their coaches and/or teammates, as well as frequent independent practice, to hone their execution of the mandatory poses they must demonstrate on stage. Each competitive category requires certain specific poses which best exhibit muscular development and symmetry, providing a constant basis of comparison between competitors; thus, competitive success largely depends on presentation, and posing can actually “make or break” the final placing decision. A superior physique may lose to one better emphasized through adept posing.

Consequently, competitors put ample travail into posing practice. Furthermore, each competitor must scheme their stage apparel in advance to complete the final product, especially females; suits, high heels, jewelry, hair style, and make-up must all coadjute, much like a pageant, as well as choice of music for individual posing routines, if the given category includes an individual posing round (Locks and Richardson 46-47). In addition to this extensive preparation, a competitor executes several measures to prime their skin for the liquid tanning process just before the show; they must wear very swart tanner to ensure physical detail discernability despite glaring stage lighting, and the skin must undergo stages of exfoliation and sometimes multiple applications of the tanning product, usually within twenty four hours of the show (22).

history of bodybuilding

Once competition weekend arrives, competitors attend a check-in and meeting during which the organizers review the competition schedule and each athlete receives the number pin they will wear on stage. Then, tanning product application usually proceeds on the competitors’ own time, as well as precise, timed manipulation of nutrition variables, which strategically affect physical appearance during the judging process on stage; either the competitors themselves or their coaches make these calculated decisions on a respective basis (132).

On the day of the competition, two shows actually transpire: “pre-judging” in the morning or afternoon, during which competitors display all official poses and judges vacillate as much as they need to evaluate and elect their top five or ten choices in order for each category, followed by the “night show,” a shorter exhibition which almost always simply recapitulates the judging decisions made during pre-judging, avowed with an award ceremony for each category afterwards. Therefore, most competitors deem pre-judging the most vital event.

After the competition consummates, competitive bodybuilders choose from a throng of paths moving forward; most immediately pursue subsequent competitions, or rechannel their focus towards another athletic expression intermittently, such as powerlifting, during an “off-season” between bodybuilding competitions.

Regardless of their next steps, almost all competitors alter their training and nutrition following a show in order to steadily ease back to a more maintainable state (Locks and Richardson 152). Nevertheless, in the art of human body mastery, this fluctuation in tide merely represents just that: a finite ebb in a constant flow of sculpture.

Take-Home Message

In conclusion, much of the general public neither respects competitive bodybuilding a part of the world of sports, nor sports a part of the world of artistry; however, this demonstrates the narrow scope through which most people view art. Just as paintings, literature, sculpture, and music comprise the concept of art, so should creative works of the body such as competitive bodybuilding, as well as all sports in general. A line from hip hop artist Macklemore’s song “Ten Thousand Hours” posits “A life lived for art is never a life wasted.”

Every art form in existence shares an intrinsic attribute: obsession. Art utterly colonizes the artist’s life. Every ounce of energy concentrates towards the creative expression of the artist’s passion. The art of bodybuilding is certainly no exception. The philosopher Socrates famously asserted, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” Bodybuilding may beckon a gradual resurrection of the once-commonplace reverence for physical excellence.



Writer and expert

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