The winner of the annual IFBB Mr. Olympia contest is generally recognized as the world's top male professional bodybuilder. Since 1950, the NABBA Universe Championships have been considered the top amateur bodybuilding contests, with notable winners such as Reg Park, Lee Priest, Steve Reeves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Winners generally go on to become professional athletes.

The general strategy adopted by most present-day competitive bodybuilders is to make muscle gains for most of the year (known as the "off-season") and, approximately 12–14 weeks from competition, lose a maximum of body fat (referred to as "cutting") while preserving as much muscular mass as possible. The bulking phase entails remaining in a net positive energy balance (calorie surplus). The amount of a surplus in which a person remains is based on the person's goals, as a bigger surplus and longer bulking phase will create more fat tissue. The surplus of calories relative to one's energy balance will ensure that muscles remain in a state of anabolism.
In natural contests, the testing protocol ranges among organizations from lie detectors to urinalysis. Penalties also range from organization to organization from suspensions to strict bans from competition. It is also important to note that natural organizations also have their own list of banned substances and it is important to refer to each organization's website for more information about which substances are banned from competition. There are many natural bodybuilding organizations; some of the larger ones include: MuscleMania, Ultimate Fitness Events (UFE), INBF/WNBF, and INBA/PNBA. These organizations either have an American or worldwide presence and are not limited to the country in which they are headquartered.
Some bodybuilders use drugs such as anabolic steroids and precursor substances such as prohormones to increase muscle hypertrophy. Anabolic steroids cause hypertrophy of both types (I and II) of muscle fibers, likely caused by an increased synthesis of muscle proteins. They also provoke undesired side effects including hepatotoxicity, gynecomastia, acne, the early onset of male pattern baldness and a decline in the body's own testosterone production, which can cause testicular atrophy.[43][44][45] Other performance-enhancing substances used by competitive bodybuilders include human growth hormone (HGH), which can cause acromegaly.

Bodybuilding developed in the late 19th century, promoted in England by German Eugen Sandow, now considered as the "Father of Bodybuilding". He allowed audiences to enjoy viewing his physique in "muscle display performances". Although audiences were thrilled to see a well-developed physique, the men simply displayed their bodies as part of strength demonstrations or wrestling matches. Sandow had a stage show built around these displays through his manager, Florenz Ziegfeld. The Oscar-winning 1936 musical film The Great Ziegfeld depicts the beginning of modern bodybuilding, when Sandow began to display his body for carnivals.

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