In competitive bodybuilding, bodybuilders aspire to present an aesthetically pleasing body on stage. In prejudging, competitors do a series of mandatory poses: the front lat spread, rear lat spread, front double biceps, back double biceps, side chest, side triceps, Most Muscular (men only), abdominals and thighs. Each competitor also performs a personal choreographed routine to display their physique. A posedown is usually held at the end of a posing round, while judges are finishing their scoring. Bodybuilders usually spend a lot of time practising their posing in front of mirrors or under the guidance of their coach.
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.
Site enhancement oil, often called "santol" or "synthol" (no relation to the Synthol mouthwash brand), refers to oils injected into muscles to increase the size or change the shape. Some bodybuilders, particularly at the professional level, inject their muscles with such mixtures to mimic the appearance of developed muscle where it may otherwise be disproportionate or lacking. This is known as "fluffing". Synthol is 85% oil, 7.5% lidocaine, and 7.5% alcohol. It is not restricted, and many brands are available on the Internet. The use of injected oil to enhance muscle appearance is common among bodybuilders, despite the fact that synthol can cause pulmonary embolisms, nerve damage, infections, sclerosing lipogranuloma, stroke, and the formation of oil-filled granulomas, cysts or ulcers in the muscle. Rare cases might require surgical intervention to avoid further damage to the muscle and/or to prevent loss of life.
Overtraining occurs when a bodybuilder has trained to the point where his workload exceeds his recovery capacity. There are many reasons why overtraining occurs, including lack of adequate nutrition, lack of recovery time between workouts, insufficient sleep, and training at a high intensity for too long (a lack of splitting apart workouts). Training at a high intensity too frequently also stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) and can result in a hyperadrenergic state that interferes with sleep patterns. To avoid overtraining, intense frequent training must be met with at least an equal amount of purposeful recovery. Timely provision of carbohydrates, proteins, and various micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, even nutritional supplements are acutely critical. A mental disorder, informally called “bigorexia” (by analogy with anorexia), may account for overtraining in some individuals. Sufferers feel as if they are never big enough or muscular enough, which forces them to overtrain in order to try and reach their goal physique.
The bulking and cutting strategy is effective because there is a well-established link between muscle hypertrophy and being in a state of positive energy balance. A sustained period of caloric surplus will allow the athlete to gain more fat-free mass than they could otherwise gain under eucaloric conditions. Some gain in fat mass is expected, which athletes seek to oxidize in a cutting period while maintaining as much lean mass as possible.
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.
Contrary to certain rumors that animal-based protein is more suitable to trigger muscle growth than plant-based protein, a study by Mangano et al. (2017) could not provide any evidence for this. In contrast, if combined properly, plant-based protein can even have a higher biological quality. A combination of one part wheat protein (e.g. seitan) and two parts soy protein (e.g. tofu) has thus been favored by many bodybuilders. Some bodybuilders, such as Patrik Baboumian and Robert Cheeke, follow a strict vegan diet.
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.