approximate reading time: 9 minutes

1431985475_9430I’ve been struggling with this topic in my head for a couple of years now, and you may have noticed shades of it in previous blog articles like this one. The industry has many different branches that one can call his “niche” as a trainee or coach. Included would be a class instructor, sports athlete or sports athlete trainer, a powerlifter, strongman or Olympic lifter (or coach to them), and finally, an area of competition that celebrates fitness itself and the results of training and hard work.

That would be classic fitness competition. Whether it’s the act of competing in the bodybuilding, figure, or physique categories (among several others I’m sure I’m missing), there’s plenty to give credit for.

As a quick side note and disclaimer: I’m not a bodybuilder, nor any other kind of fitness competitor (I’ll also be using the words “physique”, “bodybuilding” and “fitness” as it relates to the kinds of competitions interchangeably. I’m aware they’re 3 different categories, but they fall under the same general “umbrella” of on-stage competitors). I never have been one, and it’s safe to say that I never will be.  With that said, I feel my current levels of industry experience are sufficient enough to state my thoughts without being entirely unjustified. I’m exclusively speaking from an outside-in perspective, having brushed shoulders with plenty of my friends and colleagues who have been immersed in that branch of the industry for years. We’ve spoken openly about several topics pertinent to fitness competition, including the ones you’re about to read below.

I have the utmost respect for the discipline and hard work involved with preparing for a show. Forget the psychology, and the reasons why someone wants to do it – I covered my thoughts on those things in previous articles.  It’s the actual act of doing it that has always impressed me.  It doesn’t just take training. It takes hard training and a strict latch to programming and schedule. Likewise, it doesn’t just take eating clean. It takes a very time-sensitive, discriminating mind towards food choices, macronutrients, supplementation and meal timing. It’s no joke.  To boot, your aesthetic results will be a direct product of how closely you followed the plan. Given my own training style and eating habits are basically the diametric opposite of what you’ve just read (at least beyond the “hard training” part), it’s amazing to me that this can be kept up for significant periods of time. From a dedication perspective, it’s exemplary to a serious trainee.

But with every coin, there are two sides.  I’m about to look at both, in case you were wondering.

The truth is, there’s a “reach” and “affect” everything popular in the world has on those exposed to it.  Unfortunately the world has a fairly even combination of naivety and sheer idiocy that makes the good message of most popular things get lost, or creates an obsession over its tenets without acknowledging that the obsession isn’t balanced. It’s the reason why CrossFit has a cult following, why Iggy Azalea is a Grammy nominated rap artist, and why the news entertains a Kardashian’s opinion on the ISIS attacks.

Sobering thoughts. But what I’m really saying is, the kind of thing that comes to the average mind when the words “pinnacle fitness” are spoken, usually has to do with some kind of sports player or an on – stage physique competitor.  Even if the details reveal that that may not always ring true. Sometimes we as members of our industry may not realize the impact we have on the masses, and even reinforce thinking that sets people off down a path of self-harm.

FITNESS STAGE COMPETITIONS ARE NOT A SPORT, AND YOU COMPETITORS ARE NOT ATHLETES.

Are fitness competitors dedicated? Yes. I said that above.

Are they good examples for taking your training and nutrition seriously? Yes, they often are.

Are they in good shape? Physically fit? From a general perspective, sure.

By making this subheading, I’m not contradicting anything I’ve said before. But I am taking the nature of what these competitors do, and putting it under the microscope.  In my opinion, the established actual competition day(s), and the training that goes into their preparation are completely independent of one another. If you really want to, you indeed can enter and compete in a basic amateur fitness show with zero prep, and face the music of being beaten badly once you’re there.

Ok -this kid must have lost a bet or something, but my point remains. 

To me, that is not sport. Visual contests are not sports. They should not be in the Olympic games, and they shouldn’t be argued to be. I cannot gauge athleticism based on how athletic you look.Competing in an actual sport usually in some way tests the health or skill-related fitness (you know: speed, power, balance, coordination, agility, cardio respiratory, reaction time, strength, flexibility, muscular endurance…) of the team or individual in question. None of this is significantly challenged in a typical physique or bodybuilding competition, which is why videos like this one appear when such ones are caught attempting athletic things that require the above prerequisites:

I’m not biased as an ex-sprinter. If you think this looks good, kill yourself.

One could argue that the element of competition itself makes it a sport, by definition. But that would also dubiously qualify Miss Universe pageants or Dog Shows, and further examination would expose them both as holding superior to fitness competitions in this regard; the pageant contestants have to briefly demonstrate their speaking or thinking skills and perform a talent, and the dogs have to do tricks.

It was a tough question!

This all sounds rather maligning, but there’s a line between examining something closely and deliberately trying to offend.  The millions of athletes who, in competition, are forced to use the skills, muscle, or strength they’ve developed through training – are probably a little hurt when they hear they’re being grouped with people who may be reasonably athletic but train solely for cosmetic purposes, where their performance in training AND competition aren’t tested or challenged in any way and ultimately aren’t directly relevant to the competition.  Is physique competition a sport? Are fitness competitors athletes? I’ll let you decide.

COMPETING IN A SHOW IS NOT A QUALIFICATION.

Now we get to one of the real topics that created the inception for this post: the effect this all has on the onlooker.

For the record, I wholeheartedly say this: If you want to compete, that’s fine. I have nothing against what it’s all about, and what it takes to excel at it. I even admire some of it. If you have doubts, read this article once again from the top, this time with a more open mind.

I want to also reinforce that what I’m saying here is based on previous experiences with members of the fitness competition community. In my city, every few months a whole new stock of recreational lifters enter an open fitness contest, make sure to get photos they can publish on social media, and then promptly begin their venture in taking on training clients in light of their newfound “expertise”.  All of a sudden Bob from Accounting is a certified trainer and competitive bodybuilder. And it goes right on his resume – And on his new website.

Too often, inexperienced trainees find themselves in this situation. A weekend certification and ripped photos from a fitness show are enough to woo the average 21 year old skinnyfat young man or woman into training for the same goals. But it also reinforces the wrong thinking if proper care isn’t taken. Remember what I said above? To the masses, “pinnacle fitness” is often associated with on-stage competition. That’s where good, true fitness professionals will clarify any blurred lines. Unfortunately I’ve seen a greater share of the fitness professionals I’m describing here, whose inexperience prevails, and ultimately reinforces the thinking that cosmetic change should be in first mind when coaching a new novice client on goal-setting. That’s when the client — poor strength foundation, chicken wing shoulder blades, crappy movement patterns and all — is blind-dropped into 5 day a week body part isolation programming, a meal plan containing an elixir of supplements, and a completely unrealistic contest deadline compared to his or her actual abilities. Any big lifts are performed belted and strapped up like G-Unit, and the message of the exercise is soon lost.  Showtime happens, and a medal or trophy creates the possibility of the cycle repeating itself.

I think the golden guy second from the left would be the best coach.

I think the golden guy second from the left would be the best coach.

It’s admirable to think some people are inspired to become trainers after experiencing their own physical, cosmetic transformation that reached its crescendo by way of being awarded a gold medal while gitch-clad in front of hundreds. Sadly, many of those same people think they’ve learned everything they need to know by that point. The truth is, competing in (or even winning) a show should in no way be testimony for just how much you know about training – or the human body – as a potential coach to new clients. The only testimony it provides is that you’re good at following a disciplined training and nutrition plan. In its own right, that’s respectable – but it should not overstep lines. In Toronto, so many competitions have emerged under different federations and jurisdictions, that you could be a bronze medalist in a weight, height, and age category that contains only threeentrants for that particular event!

Why is it commonplace to know that some of the best professional sports athletes don’t turn into good coaches after retirement, but hard to understand that the best looking gym trainees may not always mean they’re the most educated?

TRAINING FOR CONTEST PREP IS NOT THE WAY TO START OFF

I wish there was an unwritten rule out there that required a minimum of 5 years of weight training experience, or 2 years of proper exercise coaching before being eligible to enter a fitness contest.  It’s difficult to make someone “unlearn” that the sole purpose of exercise isn’t to look good. It’s equally difficult to teach someone entrenched in the bastion of contest programming, that training to move well and have sustainable results should be the baseline – which will help you feel better day to day; That training to look good should be substituted with looking good because you train.  It’s unreasonable to think people don’t have any parts to their psyche that gravitate towards training for a nice looking body – but that shouldn’t be all there is to it.   Understanding that a proper foundation sets the ground work for exercise will take a trainee a long way, for a long time.

It's easy for cosmetic aspirations to make a young lifter want to skip steps.

It’s easy for cosmetic aspirations to make a young lifter want to skip steps.

You can always see a difference in the technique, programming and training methods of a lifter who got their start with a contest as their goal within the first 6 months of stepping into the gym, versus one with primal movement patterns learned by rote during early training phases.  In the former, faulty movement patterns may go uncorrected, strength deficiencies unaddressed, and key exercises removed from programming as they may hold minimal importance to achieving “cosmetic excellence”.  As a result, injuries loom.  Spending time not building appreciable strength and the accompanied muscular development that’s almost always the case will turn a 21 year old fledgling into a 21 year old lean fledgling.

And Now Cry Thine Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War

Exercise, training, fitness, and enjoying and promoting it to others are good things. Celebrating the products of exercise and hard work through shows and competitions is just as good. The problem comes when people mistake it for being the wrong type of good. And that’s an important distinction to make.  If doing fitness shows is motivated by the wrong psychology, we’re off to a bad start. If it’s to be viewed as the be all and end all for all things “athletic”, or even knowledge related, it means the demise of this industry.

I won’t propose an unrealistic solution like the death of all fitness competitions. Remember – I actually don’t mind them for what they are.  Again, it’s what people make them out to be that raises the problem.  Perpetuating the wrong thinking will only lead to more misconceptions about fitness, training, and its benefits, both short and long term. As trainers, it’s our job to correct mistaken thinking, granted we took the time to possess the knowledge to do it.  If all we do is enable, we’re not solving anything. Being a role model for fitness discipline is only half the battle.

Focusing on foundation first will set a novice trainee up for long-term health and sustainable gains.

Focusing on foundation first will set a novice trainee up for long-term health and sustainable gains.

I’m sure competition aficionados are ready to unleash the hounds on me for what may come across as my excoriating the whole stock of them for their limited knowledge and impetuous style, and dissuading aspiring competitors from setting foot on stage.  I personally know many current and former competitors who do not fall under the category of those referenced in this article, in any way. The common denominator is that they all took the time to learn more about training, they didn’t start prematurely, and they’re sure to help beginners start off in the right direction before having them consider contests as anything more than a long-term goal.

Remember, this is a relatively new industry as a whole. It will be interesting to see where current trends in fitness will lead avid 20 somethings once they’re in their 60’s.

I’m ready to set up my deadlift bar and popcorn, and watch the show.

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