Bodybuilding, Figure, & Bikini: The Case FOR Competing

I don’t want you to think I’m anti-competing. In some ways I am, in that if it’s not approached with the correct mindset or with the right coach using the correct methods, I very strongly think it can be dangerous.

And I mean, people have had their engagements broken off because of their competition preps. One girl was one diuretic pill away from death because all she did was listen to her coach (I really, really wish I were making this up). Hundreds upon hundreds of individuals have experienced some pretty serious rebound, or worse, metabolic adaptation, upon completion of their shows. Many have stopped enjoying exercise, have developed disordered relationships with food, have strained their friendships and family ties, have lost their zest for life.

But again, I’m not necessarily against competing. Not inherently, anyway.

In fact, asinine prep approaches aside, [Tweet "done correctly, there’s a lot of good that prepping for a competition can bring into your life."]I encourage you to consider the situation from both sides to get a comprehensive grasp of what competing is really like. Without further ado, then, I present to you my case for competing.

 My favorite bikini competitor, IFBB pro Dianna Dahlgren (now retired) 
My favorite bikini competitor, IFBB pro Dianna Dahlgren (now retired)

Preparing for a competition brings a tremendous amount of order into your life. 

If you’ve ever been on a strict eating and training regimen for any appreciable length of time, you’ll know from firsthand experience that it’s impossible to succeed unless you’re on top of your time management. Whereas before you may have gotten away with haphazardly throwing together your work belongings in the morning and ambling home in the evenings with an open schedule, prepping forces you to plan ahead. What time will I be training? OK, in order for that to happen, what things do I need to prepare the night before?  Sundays traditionally become a day for cooking food in bulk and planning out meals for the coming week. Add to that, you know you won’t have a good workout unless you’ve gotten sufficient sleep, so you find yourself cutting out the late night television and hitting the sack hours earlier than before. Consequently, you find your entire life becoming more organized. You can’t weigh and measure your food with a messy kitchen, so you tidy that up. Your room is also clean, because how else are you going to find your Wunder Unders? You stay on top of your hygiene – I mean, you know you have to make a statement when you step into the gym. The discipline you’ve summoned for your fitness inevitably leaks over into your work life, home life, personal life – you name it. (Just be careful not to let it cramp your style.)

The pursuit of such a demanding endeavor brings about a surge of confidence and self-esteem.

This stems not only from the aesthetic achievements – the visible changes you see in the mirror from week to week – but also from learning that you do have the mental strength, the drive, and the capacity to accomplish something so difficult. Because let’s face it: preparing for a competition is far from easy. To reach such low levels of bodyfat undoubtedly hurts. So to push through a challenge like this in which there are a thousand and one reasons to quit halfway – that’s really something to be proud of. And hell, others will start noticing, too. That cute guy at the gym you’ve been eyeing for the past year? Maybe he’ll finally approach you and compliment you on your incredible progress (and then he’ll sheepishly add that he’s simply been too shy to talk to you until now). Your girlfriends will prod you for details on how you’ve been able to get rid of your love handles and get such ah-maaaazingarms. How could that not make you feel good?

Staying the course and making it to the finish line will demonstrate true commitment to a goal.

Of the scant handful of people around the world brave enough to embark on such a journey, even fewer will make it all the way to the stage. Whatever your reason for wanting to compete – whether it to be just to say that you’ve stood near-naked under bright lights in front of a roaring audience in the best shape of your life or to win your pro card – actually following through to the end is nothing to scoff at. Of all my fitness friends who have implemented sane, healthy prep methods and competed, not a single one has yet to say that they regret the experience. Not all of them may want to compete a second or third time, but that’s not the point. The point is that in this day and age, where it’s become the tragic norm to start and quit a half dozen projects on any given day, getting up on that stage is a true rarity.

Remember that 100-page thesis you wrote in your last semester of college, when all you wanted to do was lie out in the sun and drink mimosas everyday to celebrate your imminent adulthood? Remember all those nights you stayed up late, seriously questioning your decision to write said thesis in the first place? Remember all the evenings you had to skip out on Senior Night in order to make progress on your paper? Right, right. Now do you recall how it felt to finally, finally get that baby done and turn it in, once and for all?

When you get to that point, you’ll realize then and there that all the sacrifices you’ve had to make have been worth it. Because you did something that very few people do, and that’s something you can hang your hat on.

My favorite figure competitor, IFBB pro Erin Stern 
My favorite figure competitor, IFBB pro Erin Stern

There are always the caveats to mention, of course. I’ve discussed this in depth in my other pieces, so I’ll summarize them very briefly below.

There’s always a chance that prepping for a competition will make you go off the deep end.

You can become neurotic, obsessive, and no fun to be around. This has a lot to do with the mindset with which you approach your prep. In short: don’t take it too seriously, continue to make time for what matters in your life, don’t let your prep consume you.

You could end up with an irresponsible coach.

That’s why it’s imperative that you do your research thoroughly, avoid hopping onto a team solely due to popularity, and ask around for other people’s experiences.

It’s expensive. Also potentially kind of annoying.

Competing is not a cheap hobby. Hiring a contest prep coach (optional), picking out your suit and heels, practicing your posing, and dealing with the hassle of hair & makeup, several layers of tanner (and then trying not to let it smudge off on show day), travel and hotel fees, registration fees… it adds up fast. And it can get really, really exhausting.

Understand this: it’s never about the trophy. It shouldn’t be. For a genuinely happy experience, the prize is not a piece of plastic hardware that will eventually gather dust on your back shelf.

However. If you do it the right way - if you are properly prepared mentally and you go through a sane prep that allows you to still live your life - it could be one of the most gratifying, uplifting experiences of your life.

Even today, I have people asking me if I will ever step on stage again in an itsy bitsy scrunch-butt bikini. And my answer, over two years later, is still: probably not. But I refuse to rule out the possibility of, “maybe one more time,” because the more time I spend immersed in the fitness industry, the more I realize that anything - truly anything - can happen.




Sohee Lee, NSCA-CSCS is a personal trainer, online coach and writer. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in human biology from Stanford University, she interned at Cressey Performance before her current position at Peak Performance as a performance coach. She specializes in women’s fat loss and the fitness mindset.