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.
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.
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.
Although muscle stimulation occurs in the gym (or home gym) when lifting weights, muscle growth occurs afterward during rest periods. Without adequate rest and sleep (6 to 8 hours), muscles do not have an opportunity to recover and grow. Additionally, many athletes find that a daytime nap further increases their body's ability to recover from training and build muscles. Some bodybuilders add a massage at the end of each workout to their routine as a method of recovering.
The motor proteins actin and myosin generate the forces exerted by contracting muscles. Current recommendations suggest that bodybuilders should consume 25–30% of protein per total calorie intake to further their goal of maintaining and improving their body composition. This is a widely debated topic, with many arguing that 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is ideal, some suggesting that less is sufficient, while others recommending 1.5, 2, or more. It is believed that protein needs to be consumed frequently throughout the day, especially during/after a workout, and before sleep. There is also some debate concerning the best type of protein to take. Chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish, eggs and dairy foods are high in protein, as are some nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils. Casein or whey are often used to supplement the diet with additional protein. Whey protein is the type of protein contained in many popular brands of protein supplements and is preferred by many bodybuilders because of its high Biological Value (BV) and quick absorption rates. Whey protein also has a bigger effect than casein on insulin levels, triggering about double the amount of insulin release. That effect is somewhat overcome by combining casein and whey. Bodybuilders are usually thought to require protein with a higher BV than that of soy, which is additionally avoided due to its claimed estrogenic properties. Still, some nutrition experts believe that soy, flax seeds and many other plants that contain the weak estrogen-like compounds or phytoestrogens, can be used beneficially, as phytoestrogens compete with estrogens for receptor sites in the male body and can block its actions. This can also include some inhibition of pituitary functions while stimulating the P450 system (the system that eliminates hormones, drugs and metabolic waste product from the body) in the liver to more actively process and excrete excess estrogen. Cortisol decreases amino acid uptake by muscle, and inhibits protein synthesis.
Intensive weight training causes micro-tears to the muscles being trained; this is generally known as microtrauma. These micro-tears in the muscle contribute to the soreness felt after exercise, called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is the repair of these micro-traumas that results in muscle growth. Normally, this soreness becomes most apparent a day or two after a workout. However, as muscles become adapted to the exercises, soreness tends to decrease.
In the modern bodybuilding industry, the term "professional" generally means a bodybuilder who has won qualifying competitions as an amateur and has earned a "pro card" from their respective organization. Professionals earn the right to compete in competitions that include monetary prizes. A pro card also prohibits the athlete from competing in federations other than the one from which they have received the pro card. Depending on the level of success, these bodybuilders may receive monetary compensation from sponsors, much like athletes in other sports.
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 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.
To combat steroid use and in the hopes of becoming a member of the IOC, the IFBB introduced doping tests for both steroids and other banned substances. Although doping tests occurred, the majority of professional bodybuilders still used anabolic steroids for competition. During the 1970s, the use of anabolic steroids was openly discussed, partly due to the fact they were legal. In the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, U.S. Congress placed anabolic steroids into Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In Canada, steroids are listed under Schedule IV of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, enacted by the federal Parliament in 1996.