In contrast to strongman or powerlifting competitions, where physical strength is paramount, or to Olympic weightlifting, where the main point is equally split between strength and technique, bodybuilding competitions typically emphasize condition, size, and symmetry. Different organizations emphasize particular aspects of competition, and sometimes have different categories in which to compete.

Carbohydrates play an important role for bodybuilders. They give the body energy to deal with the rigors of training and recovery. Carbohydrates also promote secretion of insulin, a hormone enabling cells to get the glucose they need. Insulin also carries amino acids into cells and promotes protein synthesis.[26] Insulin has steroid-like effects in terms of muscle gains.[27] It is impossible to promote protein synthesis without the existence of insulin, which means that without ingesting carbohydrates or protein—which also induces the release of insulin—it is impossible to add muscle mass.[28] Bodybuilders seek out low-glycemic polysaccharides and other slowly digesting carbohydrates, which release energy in a more stable fashion than high-glycemic sugars and starches. This is important as high-glycemic carbohydrates cause a sharp insulin response, which places the body in a state where it is likely to store additional food energy as fat. However, bodybuilders frequently do ingest some quickly digesting sugars (often in form of pure dextrose or maltodextrin) just before, during, and/or just after a workout. This may help to replenish glycogen stored within the muscle, and to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.[29]
This period also saw the rise of anabolic steroids in bodybuilding and many other sports. In bodybuilding lore, this is partly attributed to the rise of "mass monsters", beginning with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva, and Lou Ferrigno in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and continuing through the 1980s with Lee Haney, the 1990s with Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, and Markus Rühl, and up to the present day. Bodybuilders such as Greg Kovacs attained mass and size never seen previously but were not successful at the pro level. Others were renowned for their spectacular development of a particular body part, like Tom Platz or Paul Demayo for their leg muscles. At the time of shooting Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger (while never admitting to steroid use until long after his retirement) said that "you have to do anything you can to get the advantage in competition".[citation needed] He would later say that he does not regret using anything.[8]
Weight training aims to build muscle by prompting two different types of hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy leads to larger muscles and so is favored by bodybuilders more than myofibrillar hypertrophy, which builds athletic strength. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is triggered by increasing repetitions, whereas myofibrillar hypertrophy is triggered by lifting heavier weight.[23] In either case, there is an increase in both size and strength of the muscles (compared to what happens if that same individual does not lift weights at all), however, the emphasis is different.

In competitive bodybuilding, bodybuilders aspire to present an aesthetically pleasing body on stage.[16][17] 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.

This period also saw the rise of anabolic steroids in bodybuilding and many other sports. In bodybuilding lore, this is partly attributed to the rise of "mass monsters", beginning with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva, and Lou Ferrigno in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and continuing through the 1980s with Lee Haney, the 1990s with Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, and Markus Rühl, and up to the present day. Bodybuilders such as Greg Kovacs attained mass and size never seen previously but were not successful at the pro level. Others were renowned for their spectacular development of a particular body part, like Tom Platz or Paul Demayo for their leg muscles. At the time of shooting Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger (while never admitting to steroid use until long after his retirement) said that "you have to do anything you can to get the advantage in competition".[citation needed] He would later say that he does not regret using anything.[8]
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.[14]
The first U.S. Women's National Physique Championship, promoted by Henry McGhee and held in Canton, Ohio in 1978, is generally regarded as the first true female bodybuilding contest—that is, the first contest where the entrants were judged solely on muscularity.[13] In 1980, the first Ms. Olympia (initially known as the "Miss" Olympia), the most prestigious contest for professionals, was held. The first winner was Rachel McLish, who had also won the NPC's USA Championship earlier in the year. The contest was a major turning point for female bodybuilding. McLish inspired many future competitors to start training and competing. In 1985, a movie called Pumping Iron II: The Women was released. It documented the preparation of several women for the 1983 Caesars Palace World Cup Championship. Competitors prominently featured in the film were Kris Alexander, Lori Bowen, Lydia Cheng, Carla Dunlap, Bev Francis, and McLish. At the time, Francis was actually a powerlifter, though she soon made a successful transition to bodybuilding, becoming one of the leading competitors of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Many other important bodybuilders in the early history of bodybuilding prior to 1930 include: Earle Liederman (writer of some of bodybuilding's earliest books), Zishe Breitbart, Georg Hackenschmidt, Emy Nkemena, George F. Jowett, Finn Hateral (a pioneer in the art of posing), Frank Saldo, Monte Saldo, William Bankier, Launceston Elliot, Sig Klein, Sgt. Alfred Moss, Joe Nordquist, Lionel Strongfort ("Strongfortism"),[6] Gustav Frištenský, Ralph Parcaut (a champion wrestler who also authored an early book on "physical culture"), and Alan P. Mead (who became an impressive muscle champion despite the fact that he lost a leg in World War I). Actor Francis X. Bushman, who was a disciple of Sandow, started his career as a bodybuilder and sculptor's model before beginning his famous silent movie career.
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