In the last week leading up to a contest, bodybuilders usually decrease their consumption of water, sodium, and carbohydrates, the former two to alter how water is retained by the body and the latter to reduce glycogen in the muscle. The day before the show, water is removed from the diet, and diuretics may be introduced, while carbohydrate loading is undertaken to increase the size of the muscles through replenishment of their glycogen. The goal is to maximize leanness and increase the visibility of veins, or "vascularity". The muscular definition and vascularity are further enhanced immediately before appearing on stage by darkening the skin through tanning products and applying oils to the skin to increase shine. Some competitors will eat sugar-rich foods to increase the visibility of their veins. A final step, called "pumping", consists in performing exercises with light weights or other kinds of low resistance (for instance two athletes can "pump" each other by holding a towel and pulling in turn), just before the contest, to fill the muscles with blood and further increase their size and density.
Sandow was so successful at flexing and posing his physique that he later created several businesses around his fame, and was among the first to market products branded with his name. He was credited with inventing and selling the first exercise equipment for the masses: machined dumbbells, spring pulleys, and tension bands. Even his image was sold by the thousands in "cabinet cards" and other prints. Sandow was a perfect "Gracilian", a standard of ideal body proportions close to those of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Men's physiques were then judged by how closely they matched these proportions.
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 recent years, the related areas of fitness and figure competition have increased in popularity, surpassing that of female bodybuilding, and have provided an alternative for women who choose not to develop the level of muscularity necessary for bodybuilding. McLish would closely resemble what is thought of today as a fitness and figure competitor, instead of what is now considered a female bodybuilder. Fitness competitions also have a gymnastic element to them. A study by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine found that female bodybuilders who are taking anabolic steroids are more likely to have qualified for substance dependence disorder, to have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, or to have a history of sexual abuse.
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. Other performance-enhancing substances used by competitive bodybuilders include human growth hormone (HGH), which can cause acromegaly.
In the 1970s, bodybuilding had major publicity thanks to the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno, and others in the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron. By this time, the IFBB dominated the competitive bodybuilding landscape and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) took a back seat. The National Physique Committee (NPC) was formed in 1981 by Jim Manion, who had just stepped down as chairman of the AAU Physique Committee. The NPC has gone on to become the most successful bodybuilding organization in America and is the amateur division of the IFBB. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the decline of AAU-sponsored bodybuilding contests. In 1999, the AAU voted to discontinue its bodybuilding events.
Sandow organized the first bodybuilding contest on September 14, 1901, called the "Great Competition". It was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Judged by Sandow, Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the contest was a great success and many bodybuilding enthusiasts were turned away due to the overwhelming amount of audience members. The trophy presented to the winner was a gold statue of Sandow sculpted by Frederick Pomeroy. The winner was William L. Murray of Nottingham. The silver Sandow trophy was presented to second-place winner D. Cooper. The bronze Sandow trophy — now the most famous of all — was presented to third-place winner A.C. Smythe. In 1950, this same bronze trophy was presented to Steve Reeves for winning the inaugural NABBA Mr. Universe contest. It would not resurface again until 1977 when the winner of the IFBB Mr. Olympia contest, Frank Zane, was presented with a replica of the bronze trophy. Since then, Mr. Olympia winners have been consistently awarded a replica of the bronze Sandow.