Standing on a stage

Taking the stage for the first time, whether for a men’s physique, classic physique, or bodybuilding show, can be an exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience. Bright lights, tight shorts, and all the eyes being on you judging your appearance isn’t for the weak. I’ve been and done a lot of things in my fitness career, and the newest is a physique competitor. I took a few weeks to reflect on my journey to becoming a competitor and compiled some pretty strong lessons learned that I believe can help others thinking about embarking on the same path.

Unlike other things that I have done, from the moment I made the decision to compete, my entire mindset had to shift. It became a singular focus, and I worked much harder than I thought I would have to in order to actually get to stage ready condition. It definitely wasn’t as easy as I had thought originally and the challenges were not just physical. The majority of them were mental. Although other sports may have similar output in terms of training, stage competitors have their bodies actively working against them in every way. Physically, the body holds on to everything it can. Mentally, the brain says, “stop doing what you are doing” and consistently tries to get you to change course. The only other sport I have found that had similar challenges was wrestling because of the output stacked with weight classes. No other sport is similar.

The entire prep, show day, and even post show has been an enormous set of lessons about my body, nutrition, training, my limits, and surpassed all of my expectations.

Whether you are contemplating your debut or simply seeking inspiration to push past your limits, hopefully these insights will provide guidance and motivation on your journey to show day.

Preparing Mentally for a Physique Show

Preparing for a men’s physique show is not just physical. It requires a ton of mental strength, a LOT of patience, and a huge amount of discipline during the prep. You have to be mentally prepared for the journey ahead. Let me be clear on this: If you aren’t in a good headspace and do not have a support system in place, do not start prep. You will fail in one way or another.

If you’re in a season life with a lot of ups and downs, bumps in the road, bad mental health, or have a poor support system the additional toll from prep is going to put you over the edge, especially when the hunger hits and your hormones get all wonky.

The best-case scenario for starting prep is having a stable life and a solid headspace to begin with as well as people that are along for the journey. It makes everything easier.

When you first decide you are ready, you need to start by setting realistic expectations and understanding the sacrifices you will have to make. It really does become an all-or-nothing process that most people not competing will not understand.

Once the decision was made, I made sure that my family understood where I was, what I was dealing with, and what changes I was making week by week to keep them in the loop. This is an important note for later.

Visualization played a crucial role in my mental preparation. I spent a few minutes each day visualizing myself on stage, posing confidently and flawlessly. This mental rehearsal helped me build confidence and overcome any doubts or insecurities I had about my physique as well as mentally prepare for the lights and all the eyes on me.

Journey to my First Physique Show

For background on myself, I played sports in high school, spent nearly a decade in the Marine Corps, have lifted since I was in my early twenties, hold multiple certifications in the fitness world, have successfully trained quite a few people in and out of the gym, and have run literal mountains. In all honestly, I thought that competitive bodybuilding and physique shows would be a breeze and decided on a whim to make a men’s physique show my one addition for the year that I toss in to keep things spicy and motivating.

I was wrong.

Mid-November 2023, just before Thanksgiving, was when I decided to jump into the world of stage competitions. At the time I was 197 pounds, was hitting a few PRs here and there, but needed something to work towards.

While I had always been able to manipulate my weight and build myself effective programs based on goal, I gave myself about 2.5 months to see what I could do weight wise before deciding if I needed a coach. Spoiler: I hired a great one, and so should you. That isn’t just because I want to make money, or that I want you to spend money. It’s because you won’t know what you are doing for your first show and will have zero idea how lean you really need to be to compete. Plus, an outside set of eyes is incredibly helpful to get around your own biases about your body.

In mid-January, after dropping about 12 pounds between mid-November and mid-January, I hired a coach who specialized in physique competitions, and it was invaluable. They helped guide me through the entire process, from nutrition to posing and stage presence and provided me with the knowledge that I just couldn’t have developed on my own without a lot of embarrassment and wasted time.

Over the following months I lost roughly 2 pounds per week on average as the calories kept dropping lower. The work didn’t slow down. It was inverse. The calories dropped and the amount of exercise increased right up until the end.

It was not easy by any means. In fact, it was the second hardest thing I have ever done, first being Marine Corps bootcamp which was entirely mental.

Choosing a Show

In order to compete you have to register for a show, but how do you know what show to sign up for? There are multiple federations, and each one has their own shows, rules, and expectations. Then, inside each federation there are different classes for men’s physique, so how do you actually know what to choose?

Well, for starters you need to decide if you want a natural show or an untested show. From there you can research which federation is going to be a good fit for you. Then, you can check the federation show calendar. Look for amateur shows that aren’t super far if you don’t want to travel and that have the classes you are looking for.

Some of the classes you can expect to see at all shows include:

Debut: Very first show ever
Novice: Never placed in a show
Open: All amateur competitors
Heroes: Military, Law Enforcement, and first responders

From there, choose your classes, register for the show, meet all the federation requirements, and you are on your way.

Setting Expectations and Goals

Setting realistic expectations and goals is crucial when preparing for a physique show, or anything really. It is important to understand that achieving the desired physique takes a lot of time and dedication. Many people make the mistake of expecting quick results, but the truth is that building a competitive physique is a long-term process. How long? That depends where you are starting from, so I cannot give you an actual answer here but plan for at LEAST 4 months for your first prep.

When I first decided to jump on stage I had planned on an April show. 5.5 months was a great timeframe, but it ended up being not quite long enough. In my eyes I looked great come early April, but due to some pushing by my coach and some competing priorities, the show date slid back to early May. I gained 5 weeks for prep and those five extra weeks were when I made the most progress. As I said, realistic goals and a coach help you get where you want to be.

My goals ended up shifting a bit between the start and finish, but throughout the process I focused on both short-term and long-term objectives. Short-term goals helped me stay motivated and gave me a sense of accomplishment along the way. Things like ‘2 pounds per week’ or ‘Lifting as heavy as I did last week’ were great short-term goals.

Long-term goals, on the other hand, gave me something to strive for and provided a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve in the end. My original long-term goal was to drop to 175 pounds thinking that would make me lean enough. That was the goal weight, and while it was realistic to reach, it was shattered and not a realistic enough end goal to be stage ready. Looking back, I would say that you should plan to add another 10-15 pounds on top of whatever you think you need to lose before stepping on stage. I ended up at 161 pounds and could have gone leaner with more time.

Nutrition Really is Key

Nutrition plays an enormous role in achieving a competitive men’s physique. Even more so than for average gym bros. Throughout prep, I learned (very quickly) that no matter how hard I trained, if my nutrition wasn’t on point, I would not see the desired results. And I’d run the risk of losing all my lean mass with an enormously elevated risk of injury. While I had always been alright with food, and measuring/tracking what I ate was fairly normal, I had to become extremely disciplined with my eating habits. When you are down to very low-calorie totals each day you have to make conscious choices about the foods you eat.

What is more filling? 14 potato chips or an entire salad with low/no sugar salad dressing topped with chicken?

Not only that, but which option provides your body with the nutrients it needs to repair itself and keep going without throwing everything off internally more than it would be otherwise?

While my coach provided my calorie and macro goals, he didn’t provide a food list. So, knowing what I did about nutrition I consumed a balanced diet that focused on whole foods. Everything consumed was tracked in an app to make sure to meet daily targets without going over. Meal planning and preparation became incredibly important. Social situations became non-existent or, when they did happen, weird as I pulled out pre-planned and measured meals instead of eating what everyone else did.

In addition to macronutrients, I also paid attention to my micronutrient intake and made sure to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in my diet to ensure I was getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals my body needed to function optimally. I also made sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

It is worth mentioning that nutrition is not just about what you eat, but also when you eat. I followed a structured meal timing schedule, ensuring that I ate at regular intervals to keep my metabolism engaged and energy levels stable. This helped me avoid energy crashes and maintain consistent progress throughout my preparation.

If your nutrition is off, you won’t make it to show day. That is just how it is.

Need some help?

Shape Success, Live Exceptionally

Hit that button, and get started today.

It is Going to be Exhausting

The low calories are bad by themselves. Toss is an ever-increasing amount of exercise to widen the calorie deficit and lose weight before the show and it is infinitely more brutal. Preparing for a physique show is incredibly physically demanding and requires a high level of output to tighten everything up. There were days when I felt exhausted and questioned whether I could keep going. Shooting for 10k steps every day, lifting 5 times per week, and hitting upwards of an hour of cardio a few a week towards the end while on incredibly low calories will do that. It’s rough. This is where heading into it with a healthy mindset and expectations as well as a support structure come into play.

One of the key lessons I learned during this process is the importance of rest and recovery. It is easy to get caught up in the mindset of “more is better” and push yourself too hard. However, rest days are just as important as training days. They allow your body to recover and rebuild, ultimately leading to better progress in the long run. Take your rest days, whether they are truly off or an active rest day.

In addition to physical exhaustion, the mental fatigue kicks in the further into it you go and the lower your bodyfat percentage drops. The constant focus on training, nutrition, and posing can be mentally draining. To combat this, prioritize sleep and find another outlet to focus on while you aren’t eating or training. Stay focused on the other aspects of life as well and don’t let prep take over your every thought as much as you can.

In the End it all Comes Down to Posing and Stage Presence

While physical conditioning and aesthetics are important in a men’s physique show, posing and stage presence play a huge role in how you are perceived by the judges and audience. Posing is an art form that requires a lot of practice, precision, and attention to detail.

Posing is not just about showing off your physique; it is also about telling a story and connecting with the audience. When done correctly, it projects confidence and charisma on stage, engages with the judges and captivates the audience.

Men’s physique has four mandatory poses: Front, back, and both sides. Standing in a stationary position looking your best doesn’t seem especially hard, but it really can be, especially when you are hungry and probably tired. Toss in transitions and it is even harder. There is an unjudged walk afterwards with just you on stage where you can do whatever you want for about 30 seconds, but that is easy.

Tip: Get a coach. This is where I screwed up. While I didn’t do terribly for a first show, I definitely could have done better with more posing practice and working on my stage presence. There were some posing clinics that I attended, watched quite a few pro level events to see what they did, as well as posing in front of the mirror at the gym multiple times each week. In the end I could have done more, and a dedicated posing coach would have been helpful.

It’s hard to get on stage, so if you make it this far you are already doing more than most ever could, but if you want to win you need to practice and practice a lot.

The Day of the Show: What to expect

The day of the show is busy and not busy at all at the same time. It is a culmination of all the hard work and preparation that lead up to it. You will be running around last minute to do a few things but there will be quite a bit of waiting around as well. Here are some things to expect on the day of the show:

  1. Early morning start: Physique shows often begin early in the morning, so be prepared to wake up early and get ready for the day ahead. Of course, you might not actually sleep too well the night before due to a mix of excitement and nervousness.
  2. Final touches: On the hours before the show, you will need to fix your competition tan, touch up your hair, and make sure your posing trunks are perfect. Be prepared to be somewhat busy in the lead up to actually being ready for the show.
  3. Backstage hustle: Backstage can be a chaotic and busy place. Competitors will be pumping on, practicing their posing, and maybe even eating a candy bar. It is important to stay focused and not let the energy of the room distract you.
  4. Pumping up: Before stepping on stage, most/all competitors do a short warm up to pump their muscles up and enhance their vascularity and fullness. Bring resistance bands with you to do the same.
  5. Competing in your class: Physique shows are divided into different classes based things like age, experience, and special status’ like veterans and first responders. You will already know which ones you are competing in before show day because you register for classes when you register for the show.
  6. The show begins: As the show starts, you will be called on stage to perform. The judges may move you around on stage so they can see how people look next to different people or under slightly different lights. The whole class performance could take 5 minutes or it could take 50. All depends on the judges and competitor field.
  7. Awards ceremony: At the end of the show, the winners will be announced, and awards will be presented. Be gracious and professional, regardless of how you end up.

Overcoming Challenges and Setbacks

Preparing for a men’s physique show is not easy by any means. I learned that the hard way. It has its own unique challenges and setbacks. Throughout the entire prep, there were a lot of obstacles that really tested me.

The biggest obstacle was the hunger. Because you are on such a deep calorie deficit for so long, the hunger can be insatiable. Life starts to focus on the next time you eat, and your entire day revolves around that cycle. Wake up: ‘Hunger.’ Go to bed: Hunger. It’s just part of the game when you are trying to lose the weight. A solid tip is to have your biggest meal as your last meal of the day. Helps you sleep better.

Another challenge was overcoming plateaus and stagnation. I would go an entire week without any progress, or negative progress, on the scale or mirror just for day 7 to roll around and be down 2 pounds with new definition. it happened week after week for me. Plateau for 6 days, progress for one. Keep pushing and you will burst through them suddenly.

Then there is the body dysmorphia and dealing with self-doubt and comparison. It is easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to others and feeling inadequate. That is especially true when you are first starting off and look at the professionals, wondering how long it took and if you could ever get there. You might even look at other competitors in the show and think less of all the progress you made. Easier said than done, but don’t write yourself off if someone shows up a bit leaner or bigger than you.

Of course, there is also the opposite problem on some days as well: Over confidence. It is also easy to look at others and think about how much better you think you look.

Socially, prep stinks. You have to eat certain amounts of food each day, so eating at restaurants is basically a no-go after a certain point unless you are very careful. Family and social functions can become less fun because of your restrictions. No booze, no fast food, and no mindless snacking. It’s a disciplined lifestyle that not everyone understands. Just try to be as normal as possible and don’t withdraw into hermit life.

Finally, the fatigue, lack of energy, loss of strength, and increased soreness. All of those things are real. Low calorie intake means low energy. Low energy means loss of strength and increased soreness. Do your best to stay energetic, whether that is some caffeine or just sleeping a lot.

The Impact of This Show on My Fitness Journey

Participating in my first men’s physique show has had a huge impact on my fitness journey and I have learned so much about myself, my body, and how to tweak nutrition and activity levels to a much deeper degree than I had before. I re-found some of my limits, both physically and mentally by pushing myself to new limits.

This show reinforced the importance of setting ambitious goals and helped reinvigorate the spark that I had started to lose.

Beyond the physical changes, this show significantly improved my confidence and self-esteem. Stepping on stage and presenting my hard-earned physique to a crowd of people was not something I thought I’d ever do, but it worked wonders for me mentally and physically.

Key Lessons

  1. Get a coach: Nutrition and posing coaches at a bare minimum, but if you aren’t especially strong with training you might consider also hiring a personal trainer. Of course, each coach costs money so be prepared for those extra expenses. The extra eyes and expertise can be incredibly helpful for your first show.
  2. Start early and go hard: When I first started prepping I didn’t go as hard as I should have. While I was able to make some amazing progress, if I had gone harder at the start I would have made far more progress. Don’t wait until you are deep in the process to fully commit. The first 6 weeks saw some progress, but I wasn’t putting in enough activity to make a good dent. January 1 started #75Hard which really kickstarted progress, but 6 weeks were not used as well as they could have been.
  3. Go into it with a good headspace: A poor headspace will negatively disrupt your progress. Make sure that you are in a stable time of life, have a good mental space, and there is a strong support system in place. All of these things are things you can rely on to push you forward when you get deep into prep and it suddenly gets really hard.

Conclusion and final thoughts

Participating in my first men’s physique show was an incredible journey filled with challenges, triumphs, and invaluable lessons. It reminded me of the importance of mental and physical preparation, setting realistic goals, and prioritizing nutrition.

If you are considering stepping on stage for the first time, I encourage you to embrace the journey and all the growth that comes with it. Remember that it is not just about the outcome but the process itself. Be prepared to face challenges, setbacks, and self-doubt, but also be ready to learn, grow, and become a stronger version of yourself.

Let Us Help You Out

I want to help you achieve better physical and mental health through exercise. Check out the plans I offer to my clients and see if you could benefit from working with me. If you have questions, you can always contact me through the Contact Us page

Health coaches, like myself, can help guide you on your pathway towards reaching your overall health and wellness goals, whether that is getting bigger, stronger, faster, more lean, or just generally feeling better physically or mentally.

If you choose to join one of my programs we will work together to help you uncover motivations and roadblocks, improve your overall health and wellness, and get you on a path to being excellent in all that you do through higher levels of overall fitness

The only thing you need is some motivation and a willingness to change some old habits.

Get into contact with me to find out what, if any, membership is right for you.

Scroll to Top