Have you ever wondered how to become a pro bodybuilder? Let's start by defining what it takes to become a competitor, and how to choose an organization, division, and show.
Before you begin competitive bodybuilding, you should consider the time and financial commitment required. There are some significant lifestyle changes needed such as meal prepping, dedicated time at the gym, and potential impacts on social activities among other things. You must accept being atypical and become obsessed with your goals, all while balancing life and managing to enjoy the process.
Oftentimes competitors begin bodybuilding with different goals or different reasons. Some enjoy the challenge and structure of contest prep because the fear of failure or having a specific date pushes them harder. Others pursue a career in bodybuilding for external validation, trophies, or to appease their social media followers because it's trendy. While the more serious athletes may have their sights set on a pro card from the very beginning.
When I started bodybuilding, it was to feed my competitive fire which has evolved over the years from basketball to boxing, to powerlifting, to physique and bodybuilding. If you have a competitive personality, good genetics, and a crazy work ethic, competitive bodybuilding may be a great fit for you!
How to Get Your IFBB Pro Card
Here is a list of the most prominent bodybuilding federations:
• National Physique Committee (NPC)
• International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB)
• World Beauty Fitness and Fashion (WBFF)
• World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF)
• Organization Of Competitive Bodybuilders (OCB)
• Fitness America
Of these, the gold standard is the National Physique Committee (NPC)/International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB). The NPC is the official amateur league while the IFBB represents the professional bodybuilding league. These organizations make up the largest federation in the world for bodybuilding by both members and revenue.
To become a coveted IFBB Pro Athlete, competitors must win at different levels in the NPC and earn their pro card at one of the NPC national-level contests.
Starting at the amateur level there are multiple divisions an athlete can participate in as follows:
• Women's Bikini
• Women's Wellness
• Women's Figure
• Women's Fitness
• Women's Physique
• Women's Bodybuilding
• Men's Physique
• Men's Classic Physique
• Men's Bodybuilding
Your current physique, body type/genetics, and goals will help determine which division is best suited for you.
Here are the basic competition levels:
• Amateur, Regional Shows
• Amateur, National Qualifier Shows
• NPC National Shows – *Pro Qualifier
• IFBB Pro Shows (tier 1, 2, 3…)
• IFBB International Shows (i.e., Arnold Classic)
• IFBB Mr. Olympia Contest
More info on divisions and categories in the NASM Blog: Bodybuilding Competition Divisions for Men and Women.
Choosing a Bodybuilding Show
To choose your next competition, you should first consult with your coach (and judges if you have recently competed). Based on your current shape, experience, and goals you can then choose a show that aligns with your schedule and location. To minimize cost it's always ideal to compete locally and choose a national qualifier NPC regional contest.
Once you have placed top 5 (1st callouts) at a local NPC show (national qualifier), you are qualified for one year to compete on the national stage. However, there is a massive step up in competition and cost to compete in a national show. Hence, you must hone your skills and develop your physique at the regional level before jumping up to the national stages which can be very discouraging for new athletes if they do not place well.
Generally, when I coach athletes regionally, good indicators that he/she is ready to progress to the national level are when they consistently win their height class, win the overall for their respective division, and place well in front of different judges. From there, as a physique and bodybuilding prep coach, I consult with the head judges to understand any deficiencies and give a recommendation if the athlete is ready to progress.
This is complex and takes into consideration the athlete's physique, how their body is responding, their mental health, financial health, posing and stage presence, and any areas they need to improve before stepping onto a national stage.
Training Your Training
Training and dieting for bodybuilding in general can feel overwhelming and extreme to the average gymgoer. For most elite bodybuilders it is a lifestyle change that has become more autonomous over time. You must structure your lifestyle around your goals. Schedules are built around meal times and the gym is a non-negotiable 5-7 days a week on prep. Quality sleep is also non-negotiable to aid in recovery from intense training.
Training itself varies and will be hyper-customized around the athlete's specific goals. Division requirements and lagging areas will heavily influence the training volumes and frequency. In general, most competitors will train primarily in the Muscular Development (Hypertrophy) phase with some undulating periodization into Phase 2 or 4, integrate progressive overloading, and ramp up cardio throughout the prep.
The average bodybuilding prep (cutting phase) ranges from 12-20 weeks depending on the athlete and goals. If more significant areas need to be developed, or body composition needs more time, then an improvement phase (pre-prep) is generally recommended.
Nutrition may vary depending on the athlete's genetics and baselines. In general, to build muscle there will be a caloric surplus, and to cut there will be a deficit (relative to TDEE). During a cutting phase, more advanced techniques will introduce carb cycling with more carbs on specific days to fuel workouts, while still allowing for fat burning. In the pre-prep phase, it is a good idea to focus on metabolic conditioning which will help boost metabolism heading into prep.
Calories may taper the closer the athlete gets to the show depending on how the body is responding and leaning out. Some athletes and coaches prefer more flexible macro dieting, whereas the majority tend to have limited variety and more structure. Learning what your body responds best to is the name of the game.
Pro Tip: If you ever feel lost or are thinking about cheating on your diet, stop and think, "If I was an IFBB Pro Bodybuilder, what would I do?"
Common ratios for pre/post workout are keeping macros between 15:5:2 (pre-workout) and 2:3:1 (post-workout), Carbs: Proteins: Fats. The best addition to intraworkout is Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) to help with muscle growth and recovery.
Micronutrition is also a huge part of any athlete's success and should be consulted with their contest prep coach, a nutritionist/R.D., or a doctor. To help identify nutrient deficiency or toxicity, a good place to start is by getting bloodwork done. This can help identify key health indicators, outliers, and opportunities to increase health and performance during prep.
The best advice is to hire a qualified contest prep coach with a proven track record, experience on stage as an athlete and coach, and legitimate credentials such as NASM Physique & Bodybuilding Coach (PBC) or a degree in nutrition and exercise science.
The Challenges That Come with Training and Competing in Bodybuilding
During your bodybuilding journey, you must be prepared for highs and lows. There will be times when everything goes according to plan, and you perform amazingly. Other times, you may blow your peak week, mess up a prep, or not place where you wanted. The best advice is to take the wins and losses and keep it moving! Each prep is a learning opportunity to have fun, adjust and keep improving!
Physical health and both mental and financial burnout can challenge you may face at some point. It is important to be proactive in each of these areas to avoid burnout. Mental toughness is certainly a huge part of keeping an athlete-focused, engaged, disciplined, consistent, and on track.
In summary, there are a lot of steps an athlete must take to become a pro bodybuilder, but it starts with a burning desire to be the best you can be. Don't take any shortcuts, put the right coaches, and team around you, and become obsessed with the journey. And remember, everyone's journey is different.