As an online contest prep coach, one of the first thing that aspiring competitive bodybuilders often bring up to me sounds something like this:
I want to compete in bodybuilding but I have to idea where to start
To be clear, the “bodybuilding industry” does not make it easy – there are a ton of amateur organizations with different rules who use different terminology, the myriad categories you can compete in are ill-defined and leave most people clueless as to which one they should be in, and there’s no guidance on how to actually pick the right show and what to expect.
So let’s clear it all up here with this. Online bodybuilding coaching is about many things and one of the first big decisions your coach should help you with is deciding what show (or shows) to hit.
It’s really a pretty easy decision tree. Let’s start at the top with some things to know.
All Sanctioned Bodybuilding Shows are Affiliated with an Organization
There are “unsanctioned” shows as well, which are largely exhibitions and small affairs. These are often pop-up events, might be at a beach or a gym, and much more casual.
A sanctioned event is going to be in a venue that the show promoter has rented out, set up a stage in, and has paid a sanctioning fee to the organization to be able to use that organization’s promotional muscle. It also binds them to that organizations rules and structure.
Some of these organizations include the NPC, OCB, INBA, NGA, GBO, UFE, CPA (Canada), UKBFF, and many more.
Most of these organizations are amateur or Pro/Am. For example, the NPC is an amateur organization, and if you earn a pro card you can then compete in the IFBB which is their affiliated pro league (some larger shows will have an NPC amateur show and an IFBB pro show on the same stage in the same weekend). The OCB on the other hand, has both amateur and pro events that fall under the OCB name.
Yes, it can get very confusing. Hang with me, there’s more to go over.
Not All Bodybuilding Shows are Drug-Tested, But Many Are
Some organizations (OCB, NGA, INBA, NANBF, etc) are fully drug-tested organizations, meaning no performance enhancing drugs are allowed. The rules and banned substance list can vary between organizations.
The NPC is the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the world and they do NOT have consistent drug testing. Some of their shows ARE tested (usually called “The NPC Natural Something” to make it obvious), but they are the exception. Even the drug-tested shows in the NPC are typically more lenient in terms of allowing TRT (testosterone replacement therapy), which other organizations explicitly ban.
It is also common for “clean” athletes to still compete in untested shows. This often happens due to geography and time – the show happens to be closer to home and during a window when the athlete needs to compete based on external scheduling conflicts.
If you can’t pass a drug-test, do not compete in a tested show. It is an asshole move, and generally in life we want to avoid being assholes. As a coach, I have worked with ‘enhanced’ athletes who insisted on competing in a tested show because they “didn’t use much” and in all cases I fired the client and informed the promoter of the show. I take a hard line approach on this because the sport needs more credibility, not less, and I take my role as an online bodybuilding coach seriously.
If you CAN pass a drug-test, think about how important it is for you to have a level playing field. If it’s important, only consider drug tested shows. The level of competition at untested shows is going to be higher in terms of the size you need to be competitive. This will have an impact in all categories except for bikini, where the added mass isn’t necessarily always helpful for all people (a lot of this is determined by your genetic potential as well). Banned substances also include certain fat loss agents (clenbuterol, T3 among others) than can help competitors get leaner, though with hard work both a natural and enhanced athlete can match up reasonably well in terms of leanness.
It’s All About Geography and Dates
Once you’ve decided on whether a drug-tested show is appropriate, it’s time to think about the 2 remaining important elements: how far you want to travel for a bodybuilding show, and when the right time is on your personal calendar.
Geography: a show close to home is ideal as you can potentially save on travel and hotel expenses if you’re able to stay in town. My general rule of thumb is that if I can do a show within an hour of home, I stay at home. Farther than that and I get a hotel room or AirBnB closer just for convenience. I highly discourage flying for your first show – it provides a near exponential increase in the complexity and degree of difficulty of those last few days when keeping stress lower is paramount. Safe the flying for when it’s absolutely necessary (it’s often unavoidable if competing at a national level show, unless there’s one close to home for you).
Dates: think about your personal calendar and come up with a list of conflicts. This can be work-related events (end of year/quarter can be busy times for people, work travel, busy season like the tax deadline for accountants, etc), kid-related (school events and functions, sports, etc) vacation, and a whole bunch of other things. Most obvious of course is to make sure you don’t have something like a college graduation ceremony on show day (kinda obvious). But also think about big things like travel, and try to minimize how much of that you do during the prep phase before the show (commonly 16 to 20 weeks leading into show day). The more simple, routine and basic your life can be during that time, the easier your prep will be and the fewer gray hairs you will accumulate. It’s not necessary to have your calendar TOTALLY empty, but try to ensure it’s manageable as it’s important you remain 100% on plan throughout your entire competition prep. Keep in mind that “prep” – the day in/day out grind of getting ready is the real competition. Show day is just when you show off your hard work.
Ok, Now What?
Now that you’ve considered what organization to choose and also where and when your show can be, it’s time to find options. This is where it gets tedious and a good contest prep coach can save you a lot of time and headache.
I’ve listed as many competitive organizations below as I can think of, and you can look to the ‘event calendar’ (or similar) section on each site to see what they have available. Keep in mind that if you’re looking for a show next year, most organizations are not that well planned out and won’t have those dates available in most cases. You can generally assume that the calendar for this year will be similar next year – and with a little sleuthing you can generally find an email address for the promoter and reach out to see if they have any insight on if they’re planning a big change in date, venue, or cancelling the show altogether next year.
NPC – there isn’t an overall website where the NPC has their show options listed. Your best strategy is to Google “NPC” + “name of state” and find an appropriate website. Some of those will be state specific, and some will be region specific (Northeast, mid-Atlantic, etc) Historically, NPC websites are very slow to update their schedules for a given calendar year, but the year-to-year presence of shows at relatively the same time is fairly consistent and stable.
Additional Advice for Your First Bodybuilding Competition
Clearly there’s a lot more that goes into the process of choosing a show, but those specifics are going to get more and more custom to each person. What category (bikini, figure, physique, classic physique, bodybuilding, etc) is your best fit, how far out you should give yourself to get ready, what needs to be focused on prior to them in terms of getting your physique ready to handle a competition prep phase, and a whole lot more.
Of course I always recommend having a coach on your side to help with the planning aspect of competing. I can help with all of the above and help you make the right decision on what show (or shows) to hit, and of course guide you through every step of the process – fine tuning your diet, training, cardio and supplementation through the weekly check-in process to ensure you’re ready on time and bringing your best.
You can read more about my bodybuilding competition prep package offerings and also check out my client results page for bodybuilding before and after transformations as well as testimonials. Also be sure to check out my bodybuilding workout programs available online too.