What the Judges Want: Figure Division
Bodybuilding competitions are always tricky, subjectively scored events – the old mantra of “you are your own competition” is 100% true, but at the same time if you can bring a better version of yourself to the stage and give the judges what they’re looking for at the same time, it can’t hurt, right?
Of course knowing what the judges are looking for can be like trying to play chess with a cat. You move your pawn, the cat stares at you for 7 straight seconds and then just swipes the board, sending all of its pieces flying. It’s unpredictable and judging standards do vary based on who shows up for a particular show – which I feel is patently ridiculous but it’s the way it is.
Also, judging standards evolve. Need proof? Check out the following two photos – on the left of course is Nicole Wilkins, on stage at the 2013 Olympia – the pinnacle of the sport – which she won. On the right is Melissa Bumstead, who took 4th at the Vancouver Pro show 2 weeks ago.
So clearly the judges are rewarding more size, more conditioning, and more extreme physiques in general than even just 5 years ago. If you want a real eye-opener, go look at some show pics from the early days of Figure when they still had the one-piece round.
It’s important to note – what flies at the highest level of the IFBB and at the NPC National Level isn’t exactly/necessarily what’s going to be rewarded at local/regional shows. The same standards will apply, but the overall level of conditioning and development is going to be less extreme of course. Keep that in mind if you choose to compare yourself to the photos that follow.
Current Standards: What Wins Today?
So to get an idea of what’s relevant now, let’s pull up two physique that have done well in recent shows. Bojana Vasiljevic who won the Vancouver Pro in July 2018, and Hope Welsh who won the overall Figure title at the NPC Jr. Nationals in June, winning her pro card at the same time.
With these 2 physiques especially, and if you search contest galleries and go to shows and really look at the characteristics of who wins, you’ll find several common themes that develop.
- Shoulders CANNOT be too big. Disproportionately large wins the day
- V-Taper (shoulder-to-waist ratio) is clearly still important, but I’d argue that larger shoulders and greater back thickness is rewarded more than a microscopic waist
- Quads – the more the better!
- Bring the conditioning! Deep separation in the quads and shoulders are expected at high levels – and if you can really bring out the detail in the glutes and hamstrings in addition to the other areas, it’s lights out.
So how do you get there? A few strategy points to consider that are more long-term items:
- Give yourself time. To really achieve the level of development the figure division requires, you need time to grow. This means eating a good bit and focused, brutally hard training. That muscle is not going to grow easily and you’re going to have to fight like hell for it.
- Don’t lose your conditioning edge. Off-seasons are for growth, absolutely – and once you’ve competed a time or two you have an idea of where you need to be on the scale (roughly) the next time around in order to improve upon your conditioning. If you competed previously at 135 and felt that something closer to 128 would have been more ideal, getting back up to 160-165 during your off-season isn’t helping, you’re just being lazy with your diet. Dropping 30+ pounds at that weight during a prep is no fun.
- Time it right. To achieve the level of conditioning you want to bring, you need to have a clear, focused head about you during prep. This doesn’t mean everything has to be perfect or you’re screwed, but avoid big, planned interruptions (vacations, unneeded trips, etc) during your prep.
And let’s talk a bit about how to focus your training, especially during the off-season:
- Shoulders, shoulders, SHOULDERS – you at least need a dedicated shoulder day (as opposed to combining them with another group). I recommend REALLY perfecting the basic movements, not just to move the weight but really to emphasize the lateral delt and make it scream for mercy for at least an hour straight. All varieties of lateral raises and presses are appropriate here. Mix up your volume, and don’t be afraid to hit them more than once a week during certain phases
- Legs – you don’t need HUGE, MASSIVE quads or glutes in figure – this is one area where being proportional really does help. But having sufficient detail in the quads and hamstrings and still a good level of development in the glutes will help tremendously. I favor a lot of slower tempo movements for legs to really get in touch with how the muscle fibers are struggling during the rep to help bring out the detail we want.
- Back – depending on your existing physique strengths and weaknesses, I like to place a pretty even emphasis on both width and thickness here. And we can’t neglect the spinal erectors either – having those thick cords of muscle showing through on your back pose makes a statement that can help make up for other weaknesses
- Chest & arms – clearly we need these, but none of the poses in figure really show off the pecs or the guns enough for it to make sense to place a training emphasis on either. Nothing wrong with combining all of these into one session for a stretch.
If you’re interested in learning more about your potential in the figure division, getting an assessment to see what you should be focusing on, or have other general questions, reach out and contact me and let’s chat.
I offer coaching for contest prep – regardless of how far out you are, it’s never too early to start working on building your ideal physique.
I also have a workout program designed specifically to fit the needs of the figure division – if you’re looking for a bit of added focus in the gym and that’s the aesthetic you’re chasing, check out #18 (The Detailer) or #27 (Figure Ready) on my workout plans page.