This post is for those of you who’ve considered taking exercise to the next level by competing in one of the strength or fitness based sports, such as Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, Strongman, Bodybuilding/Physique/Figure, CrossFit, Highland Games, or endurance sports like obstacle courses or triathlons. The questions that normally come to mind before taking that plunge are “Am I good enough to compete?” and “Do I have the nerve to get up on the stage or platform?”. While good questions, there are other aspects to competing that many don’t consider until they’re deep into it. Here’s an insider’s guide to the pro’s and con’s of competition.
• Extra focus and motivation – nothing will light a fire under your butt to work hard in the gym and stick to your diet like a looming competition. Fear of embarrassment and the desire to place well are both strong motivators, especially when performances are often immortalized on Youtube or Instagram. Sending in your entry form can be like turning on a light switch when it comes to effort and intensity.
• Competitor camaraderie – you’ll find the vast majority of competitors are super friendly and encouraging at the contest, even if you’re scheduled to do battle a few moments later. I suppose it’s the shared love for the sport and experience of suffering through contest prep that brings competitors together, as no one else really understands what you go through.
• Road trips & memories – chances are you’ll have to travel to some of your contests. Road trips with friends or family can be a blast, especially after the stress of competition is released and it’s time to celebrate and eat!
• See where you stack up – you never really know how good you are relative to others until you face them head to head under the same conditions. Give it a go and see what you’re made of!
• Adrenaline rush – Thrill seekers will enjoy feeling their heart pounding through their chest before that last lifting attempt or going on stage to pose at the night show. Live life to its fullest and experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
• Sense of accomplishment – it’s a great feeling to set a challenging goal and then to follow through and achieve it. Even if you don’t place as well as you’d hoped, persevering through the training and having the guts to step up to the plate is something to be proud of.
• Monetary Cost – contest entry fees, federation membership dues, travel and hotel costs, special foods and supplements, special clothes or lifting gear, personal training, massage/chiro/medical care, tanning – these things add up quickly!
• Less freedom in training – you’ll probably have a special diet and training program leading up to a contest, and deviating from the plan or taking too many cheat days or days off can screw up the contest. If you prefer to freewheel it in the gym, competition may not be for you.
• Potential for injury – when you’re pushing your body’s limits before and during a contest, especially when in a fatigued state, the chance of injury goes way up. The sad truth is that most strength competitors enter contests nursing some kind of injury, and often times it’s a goal to get through the contest with all muscles still attached. If you’re smart you can reduce the chances of injury, but to a certain extent they are just part of the game.
• Focus on beating others – one of the beautiful aspects of exercise is the focus on improving one’s self and being the best you can be. When you compete, some of the focus invariably switches to beating others and handing them the agony of defeat.
• Anxiety/Nerves – depending on how much pressure you put on yourself, getting ready for a contest can be mentally stressful, and the contest itself can be downright nerve racking. If you can’t deal well with this type of stress, competition is probably not for you.
• Unhealthy physical aspects – exercise is supposed to be healthy, but the reality is that many competitors push their bodies to unhealthy limits in an effort to win. Many competitive lifters are constantly in some type of pain due to the beating from heavy weights, and they can end up doing permanent damage to their joints. Bodybuilders put their bodies through the ringer while on a caloric deficit and typically arrive at shows weak, dehydrated, and depleted. And the ugly truth is that many competitors put unnatural and potentially harmful substances in their bodies in an effort to gain an edge on their competition. Is that in the spirit of why you began working out? Probably not.
• Unhealthy social or spiritual aspects – if you’re not careful, the same competition induced tunnel vision that kicks your training up a notch can cause you to neglect your friends, your family, your faith, or other aspects of your life. That’s what you call an unhealthy obsession. I’ve known competitive lifters who spent practically all their free time in the gym, and when not in the gym they were too tired or hurt to do anything physical with family or friends. Add in a desire to eat quality food every 3 hours and get to bed before 10pm and their social lives were in the crapper. Let’s not even get into how difficult it can be to tolerate a bodybuilder during a pre-contest diet. What does all of that do to your relationships, and is it worth it?
Whew – lots to consider besides “Am I good enough to compete?”
If you’ve been keeping track, my list has more con’s than pro’s, but the truth is I had a great time competing in strength sports for the better part of 20 years and don’t regret any of it. One thing to look out for is that the further you get up the competition ladder, the more the unhealthy aspects tend to grow and the more you lose things like competitor camaraderie. In that sense I was fortunate not to make it to the very top.
Many young budding bodybuilders dream to one day make it to the Olympia stage without having a clue about the type of beating those athletes’ bodies take, the amount of unnatural substances they are putting into their bodies, and the effects of their obsession on those around them. My advice to those interested in competition is to give it a whirl and always try to keep things in perspective and have fun with it. Use it as a motivator to better yourself and enjoy the ride!