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.
Bodybuilding is the use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one's musculature for aesthetic purposes. An individual who engages in this activity is referred to as a bodybuilder. In competitive bodybuilding, bodybuilders appear in lineups and perform specified poses (and later individual posing routines) for a panel of judges who rank the competitors based on criteria such as symmetry, muscularity, and conditioning. Bodybuilders prepare for competitions through the elimination of nonessential body fat, enhanced at the last stage by a combination of extracellular dehydration and carbohydrate loading, to achieve maximum muscular definition and vascularity, as well as tanning to accentuate the contrast of the skin under the spotlights. Bodybuilders may use anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to build muscles.
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. Insulin has steroid-like effects in terms of muscle gains. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Due to the growing concerns of the high cost, health consequences, and illegal nature of some steroids, many organizations have formed in response and have deemed themselves "natural" bodybuilding competitions. In addition to the concerns noted, many promoters of bodybuilding have sought to shed the "freakish" perception that the general public has of bodybuilding and have successfully introduced a more mainstream audience to the sport of bodybuilding by including competitors whose physiques appear much more attainable and realistic.