It’s all the rage these days: just write an article on “5 easy tips” to whatever—specifically as pertains to fitness—and everybody is sure to gobble up your info, garbage or not. See, putting a bunch of complex material into 5 bite-sized morsels that people can easily digest, makes it, well, easily digestible I guess. And people like ease of digestion. So my brain started yelling at me, “Hey, every other asshole out there has his 5-tips article. And I’m an asshole! I can do that, too!”
Without further pomp and circumstance, here are my 5 tips that will help make you a better physique competitor. But we’re not going to cover the minutiae of how to get in shape. Instead, we’re going to talk about the 5 brain states, or ways of thinking, that might actually help get your butt to the stage, and possibly even win a show in time:
1) Always assume that somebody is working harder than you are.
Sure sounds easy enough, but somehow, people overlook this. When dieting hard and prepping for a show, we all get worn down, tired, and beat up. And in the process, it’s very easy to get trapped into focusing on one’s own struggles, with no reference to what else is going on. We feel the exhaustion, and let the fire fade.
But somewhere out there is an individual—somebody you don’t know—who will be in your class, and who is working harder than you. Or at least, you should assume there is. And if not in your class, then that individual is working harder for the overall, or for the entry-level national show, or on the cusp of turning pro. Point being, when the chips are down and you’re wiped, with nothing left to give, just remember, almost without doubt, somebody out there is outworking you. Statistically speaking, this is just a likely truth, so best to embrace it, and re-light that fire under your ass.
2) Always have something to prove.
It has become a modern bromide to tell the people in your life, or to convince yourself at least, “I have nothing to prove to no one. I do this for me. I’ll bring my best, and if I get rewarded, great; if not, it’s all politics anyways”.
Bullshit. The people I know who grind the hardest, are the ones with something to prove. That leaves open-ended who you are proving it to, and I don’t need to provide the content there—prove it to yourself, prove it to your husband or wife, prove it to your son or daughter, prove it to your mother who contributed to your eating disorder growing up; prove it to society and all of your coworkers who think you are crazy for eating chicken breast after chicken breast; prove it to God, family, country. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t think the world is going to “accept and embrace you” as awesome, while walking around “with nothing to prove”. Having nothing to prove, is a very comfortable zone to float in, and comfort breeds apathy and half-assery. Stay hungry, stay uncomfortable, and remember, you have everything to prove—to yourself, if nobody else.
3) Know that there is always somebody better than you out there.
I also like to call this one “Big fish in a little pond syndrome”. I’ve worked in enough gyms now, and seen enough good regional competitors, that I know this syndrome is rampant within the physique competitor world. Most people see themselves in their gym mirror, compared to all of the other regulars at their gym, and, whether consciously or subconsciously, start to think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. This is a natural reaction and way of thinking—after all, your contrast case is a bunch of office workers who likely ate candy out of a dish all day, then took a spritz at the local fitness center after having vigorously parked their ass on a selectorized machine or, better yet, an elliptical trainer, during their respective “Beast Mode time” at the gym.
But here’s the problem with that: we live in a big world, a VERY big world, with LOTS of people. And waiting around just about every corner, is a monster who outworked you, or who was born with better genetics, or who has been in the game much longer than you. And until you have some serious perspective on the sport of physique competition—until you have done lots of independent research, gone to several big pro and national shows, and actually seen with your own eyes the leagues of amazing competitors out there—well, you’re just another person who lifts weights at the local gym. You are likely just a big fish in a small pond. (Don’t cry now, the same applies to myself.)
Even at the highest levels of this sport, there is always somebody out there better than you. Let’s look at the standard trajectory of a successful competitor. You plug away and do your first regional show, winning your class in the process. Awesome! You decide to go to the national level, only to get your ass handed to you. You plug away for 5 long years, making the necessary improvements, then return to the national level. This time, you crack the top 5. But now, it takes another 5 years to work your way into the top 2 and nab a pro card. In time, you finally get there—that pro card is yours. So you do your first pro show the following year—only to take dead last to a bunch of freaks who have been pros for a decade. Let’s say you truly are blessed, and have the ability to work your way up the pro ranks. You are now Jay Cutler, standing on stage at the Mr. Olympia, and in walks 2003 Ronnie Coleman. You are relegated to 2nd place, 4 times in a row, despite being the second best in the world, despite having the genetics to be a 4-time Mr. Olympia, despite being one of the greatest of all time. See, even the greatest of all time got beaten by other competitors—because there is always somebody better than you out there.
Moral of the story is, there is only one person who truly is happy with their situation in all of this, and that’s the king sitting at the top of the hill. Everybody else is just chasing that person. It’s important not to be a big fish in a little pond, and keep perspective—there is always somebody out there better than you.
4) Be proud of your accomplishments, but never satisfied.
This ties and relates to always having something to prove. Physique competition is a double-edged sword: in many ways, it will help to build your self-esteem and self-image to levels you never thought possible; and in other ways, it can drag your soul down into the depths of hell, making you question why you even bother doing all of this, when, after all, there will always be somebody better than you (see point number 3).
At that point, you need to adopt a dualistic perspective: always being proud of how far you have come, but never quite being satisfied.
To give an example, when I started bodybuilding ten years ago, I had no aspirations to step on stage. I just wanted to be less fat, and more muscular, simple as that. Seven years later, I was winning my class at the NPC Maryland State as a superheavyweight. If you would have told me in the beginning that that was my long-term fate, I would have laughed in your face in disbelief. Once I got there, I was incredibly proud—I knew that if this was the farthest I was ever going to take my bodybuilding endeavors, I could retire happily with that, knowing I had already proved something great to myself (see point number 2) and surpassed all of my own expectations. However, I wasn’t yet satisfied—I still had numerous improvements to make to my physique, which left me hungry to want to return for another season and keep chiseling away to work up the ladder. Thus, I realized, I was very proud, but not yet satisfied—which allows me to sleep at night and enjoy the process, while at the same time keeping me hungry enough to keep pushing.
5) Remember, it’s about self-improvement, not winning.
Winning a bodybuilding show is kinda’ like arguing on the Internet—even when you win, you still lose. Meaning: there is no money, there is no eternal fame, there is no serious glory, there is no future, there is no practical application, it likely won’t get you laid, it likely won’t get you a better job, it likely will beat up your body, your joints, and even your mind. So even when you win, the return is often crummy compared to the investment, at least when viewed on paper.
But that’s only the case if you “don’t get it” in the first place. Bodybuilding—or physique competition, more generally—is not about winning. It’s about a journey of self-improvement and self-discovery, about seeing what you’re made of, and seeing what you can transform into with hard work and consistency over time. The people who shift their focus to winning, tend to be the spoiled brats in the sport who bitch about “politics” when they don’t place how they want to, or who are willing to do “whatever it takes”, with no regard for personal health or other values, in order to beat some other vain schmuck they have never met and couldn’t give two shits about.
When the focus is shifted from the process, to instead dwelling on the end point, the fun dies, as does the road to self-betterment. So focus on self-improvement. In the end, it’s all you have control over anyways.
So there it is, people: five incredibly simple tips to keeping your head screwed on straight while prepping for a show. Now I can join the long list of assholes who have contributed their own “5 Tips” article!
-David A. Johnston