So You Want to Be a Pro Bodybuilder?
A Very Hard Look at What it Takes
The following is typical of several of the e-mails I receive every day.
I think you've done a great job proving yourself to be worthy of the title "Pro Creator" and I'm looking for an appraisal based on the photos I have attached. My name is Joe Blow and I'm 5-10, 267 pounds at 10 percent body fat. I am 28 years old and have won my state show, Super-Heavy and Overall. I want to know if you think I have what it takes to be a pro bodybuilder. Please let me know soon, as I would like to start getting ready for the USA if you think I should do it this year.
Awaiting your opinion,
A lot of people want to be professional bodybuilders. And since I started this column, many of them have sent me photos looking for me to give them the thumbs-up and tell them to "go for it." The reality is that perhaps 10 percent of these men have what it takes to potentially become a pro. Really, if everybody could achieve that goal, it wouldn't be so special, would it? It takes certain qualities, both physical and mental, to be a pro bodybuilder. Because there seems to be some confusion as to what these attributes are, this month's Pro Creator column is dedicated to explaining them. I have broken them down neatly into physical and mental categories.
Part 1 - Physical Attributes
First, I'll talk about turning pro at the Nationals or USA, since many of those who write to me are already at the national level. When you get into the different weight classes, you notice that they have different criteria. Generally speaking, the lighter the weight class, the harder you have to be to do well in it. That's just the way it is. You can be a little softer at 250 than if you are a lightweight or a middleweight, and get away with it. In the lighter weight divisions, the top five guys are almost always peeled to the bone. But beyond that, the same physical qualities that make a strong national level competitor are the ones that make for a good pro. That makes sense, since the ultimate goal of national level athletes is to compete in the IFBB. The first thing to consider is that it's not about who has the best individual body parts; more so, it's about who has the best overall balance and the fewest weak points.
At the local or state level, a couple of great body parts can be enough to carry you to a win. I have seen smaller shows where some guy with freaky arms or a great back won, even though he was sorely lacking in other areas. Such a physique will not make the cut at the national level. There, you might be able to get away with having one weak body part like hams or calves, assuming everything else is good, but that's it. Then, when you're talking about the pro stage, everything has to be balanced- nothing can be glaringly weak. This is not to say every pro has a perfect physique, of course. For example, some guys have striated glutes and others don't, but you can bet that 95 percent of the physique is phenomenal regardless. So to re-cap, these are the stages of progress you usually see as you observe competitors all the way from local show to the pro level:
- Has a couple of freaky body parts
- Has good overall balance, some freaky body parts, few weaknesses
- Most body parts are freaky, overall balance is very good and conditioning is insane
Size Matters in the Big Leagues
It has to be said that just because you qualify to be a professional bodybuilder at the Nationals, doesn't mean you could, or should, compete as a pro. Every year, the bantamweight and lightweight winners at the Nationals earn the right to apply for IFBB membership and compete. But how many of them do? Recall that last year, Jimmy Canyon, who had dominated in 2003 as a middleweight in the amateur shows, tried to compete at the Night of Champions and was totally lost in the lineup due to his lack of size relative to the rest of the men (though it should also be pointed out that he sacrificed his conditioning in an effort to come in heavier).
The biggest downside of the IFBB for men like Jimmy and others who qualify in the lighter weight classes is that there are no such classes in the pro shows. Even though you may have turned pro as a 143-pound bantamweight, you're going to be standing next to men who turned pro as 250-pound super-heavyweights. Some of these men, like Jose Raymond, choose to retain their amateur status and continue to compete in events with weight classes. There they can be the big fish in a small pond, rather than venturing into the ocean to be devoured by enormous great white sharks.
So, before you go after that pro card, you need to figure out what your true goal is. Do you just want to get a pro card and retire, as some have chosen to do, particularly in the lighter classes? Or do you want to take time off and grow until you have enough size to be competitive at the pro level? You need to be realistic. It's quite rare for someone to be like Dexter Jackson, who began his amateur career winning as a bantamweight, turned pro years later as a middleweight and went on to be third place at the Mr. Olympia at over 220 pounds. Most of the men in the lighter weight classes do not have the frame to ever hold that much muscle.
Structure of a Champion
Before you ever touch a weight, you must have the proper skeletal structure. This is the framework, or foundation, upon which the physique will be built. First, you have to have relatively wide clavicles and small hips. If your hipbones are wider than your clavicles, you will never be able to develop an aesthetically pleasing physique. No amount of back or shoulder mass will ever be able to make up for this unfortunate structural flaw. Also, your arms and legs can't be too long relative to your body. Sadly, I receive photos from men with these types of structures fairly regularly. Most of them have never competed, or have only competed at the novice level, so they don't yet realize that even though their hearts may be in it, they will never be able to compete against others with more mesomorphic body types.
Shape-Shifting Only Works for Werewolves
Bodybuilders get so obsessed with size that they often forget how critical shape is. You can always put on size, theoretically, but the genetic shape of your muscles is what it is. Of course, you can enhance your shape. Building the upper lats and side delts will enhance your V-taper, for example. But all the crunches and dieting in the world won't give you a 28-inch waist like Melvin Anthony unless you were born with it. You can reach the top without great shape, but it will be far more difficult. Jay Cutler is a good example. What he did was build so much size that the resulting shape of his body was good enough to win shows. You have to go about bodybuilding with the mindset of a sculptor, putting on mass in the right places. If not, you will only accentuate your blockiness and ruin what shape you do have. The biggest mistake I see athletes make is to get too big, too fast, using too many drugs and allowing their stomachs to grow. This leads me to our final portion of discussing the physical attributes needed to be a pro bodybuilder, a huge pet peeve of mine.
It's Not About the Drugs, People—It Really Isn't
An extremely prevalent habit of bodybuilders with pro aspirations is to attempt to compensate for less than optimal genetics with excessive use of "special supplements." A large part of this stems from the erroneous belief that the pros got their physiques by using more "stuff" than anyone else. Endless debates are held online every day by bodybuilders seeking the "perfect" drug regimen, one that's guaranteed to catapult the average gym rat to the Olympia stage.
Needless to say—though apparently it does need to be said as this myth is so firmly entrenched—there is no such cycle or regimen. Not everyone has the required genetic attributes to build a physique resembling that of a professional bodybuilder. In fact, only a very small percentage of the population does. That's a bitter pill (pun intended) for a lot of guys to swallow, so they live in complete denial of this cold fact. Rather than accept that perhaps bodybuilding should be a hobby for them, they doggedly insist on making their life's goal to be a pro. And all too often, they may have some awareness of their own genetic shortcomings, yet steadfastly believe any physical deficit can be overcome if only enough "special supplements" are used. This is so tragic.
Any time I attend large events like the Olympia, Arnold Classic, or the Nationals, I see tons of guys walking around who are obviously using vast quantities of various "special substances." There are dead giveaways such as extreme water retention, excessive acne, faces that are bright red from high blood pressure and even facial structures remodeled from heavy GH use, along with enormous protruding bellies from internal organ growth. These are all legal adults and what they do is their own business. If they merely have the goal of getting as big as possible for their own amusement or gratification, who am I to tell them they can't?
By the same token, I know that a lot of these men do have aspirations of becoming pro bodybuilders. And perhaps they lack the ability to see their reflections in an objective manner and determine whether or not they have the type of genetics to ever be a pro. My only issue is with someone who risks his health and wastes his money on boatloads of performance-enhancers because he's convinced this is the path to turning pro. Of all the factors that go into the creation of a pro, I can honestly tell you that this is the least important. You can choose to believe this or not. Those who have been around the game for many years know it's true. The one thing I hate to see is teenagers and young men buying into the myth that drugs are what make the physiques you see in the magazines. If that were true, anyone with access to these items would look like the pros, and we would have a couple of hundred thousand men walking around looking like Ronnie, Jay, Dexter and Lee. Since we clearly don't, that should be valid proof of just how ridiculous that assumption truly is.
Part 2 - Mental Attributes
I had a hard time deciding whether this was really a physical or a mental quality. Really, it's both, but I'll include it here. Even with the right bone structure, ideal muscle bellies and shape, you can't reach your full potential unless you can consistently train to failure and beyond over a period of many years. And despite what the Heavy Duty camp says, you need a fairly high volume of training, too. A lot of guys don't want to train this hard and they will constantly argue that they don't want to "overtrain." To them, let me quote the great poet of this generation, Justin Timberlake, who sang "Cry Me a River." I am not saying there's no such thing as overtraining, but so many guys use it as an excuse for not training hard and often enough. Since Dorian Yates popularized abbreviated training over 10 years ago, too many bodybuilders have been so worried about overtraining that they consequently ended up undertraining. This will cause one to fall short of one's goals just as surely as overtraining.
The complaints are usually along the lines of "I can't go that heavy, I can't do that many reps, sets, etc." I would say laziness and undertraining are more common than overtraining by a significant margin. Along with the ability to tolerate pain and a heavy workload, you also have to have a body that can handle all this over the long haul. Some people are just a lot more durable and resistant to injury than others. Let's face it, to withstand the seven to 12 years of heavy training usually needed before you even turn pro, your knees, shoulders, elbows and lower back all take a beating. Top bodybuilders have their share of injuries and aches and pains, but they're able to heal and continue training at the required intensity. It helps to be proactive and take supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin, but there is definitely something different about pro bodybuilders in that they don't seem to "break down" physically as often as normal bodybuilders. Their bodies are simply more resilient.
Mental Fortitude — Inner Strength
It takes a special breed of person to bust his butt in the gym five or six days a week, every week, no matter what else is going on in his life. It takes discipline to not let yourself get fat and to do your cardio in the off-season, even though you know you won't be competing for many months. Pro bodybuilders, and those who are on their way to becoming pro bodybuilders, have this mental toughness and supreme discipline. They do not miss one meal, not one protein shake or supplement that they are supposed to have. Whether it's taking a multivitamin with each meal or being sure to get your two servings of branched-chain aminos on an empty stomach every day, it all comes down to being consistent with training, nutrition and supplementation. You can't just eat well for a couple of days and take all your supplements at the right times, it's doing this every day that makes the difference between the good and the great.
If you can't dedicate yourself to being this consistent, simply forget about being a pro bodybuilder right now. Ronnie Coleman is not only the physically strongest bodybuilder I know, he's also without doubt the strongest mentally. Don't be fooled for one minute by his easygoing demeanor outside the gym. Day in and day out, year after year, Ronnie trains harder and harder, constantly seeking to improve and never being satisfied that he is big enough or that he's training as hard as he needs to. That's why he's won the Mr. Olympia seven years in a row.
I constantly refer to him as an "alien" because nobody on earth trains as hard as he does and at that level. Since he began competing as a pro 13 years ago, we have seen so many other pros fade away or drop out. Nobody has shown the constant improvement from year to year that Ronnie has (and now nearing 41 years of age, I might add), and I'm convinced his incredible inner drive and toughness are the reason why. We are all human. The natural instinct, even for those of us who love to train, is to stop when it hurts or to skip the gym every once in a while because you "just don't feel like" working out. The difference with Ronnie and the other pros is that they keep repping out despite the pain, and they keep training even though they may not always be in the mood. They get themselves into the mood, because for them there is no other option.
Having an Open Mind
Another mental attribute that the pros have in common is the ability to listen to feedback and take constructive criticism. Some point to the advantage of having a trainer or a nutritionist, but even the services of someone like myself, Chad Nicholls, or Chris Aceto are worthless if the athlete won't listen to what we have to say. A lot of bodybuilders look at themselves in the mirror and see something completely different from what everyone else does. Often they will ask for others to evaluate them, and then proceed to ignore any critiques or suggestions. Usually, this relates to a weak body part (or two) that the bodybuilder refuses to acknowledge. If you won't accept that an area needs improvement, it will always be a weakness and you will never advance up the ranks.
Another common misperception bodybuilders have relates to how much body fat they are carrying. I get photos all the time from guys who claim to be 260 pounds at eight or 10 percent body fat. Right away I can tell that it's more like 18-20 percent. Sometimes they will even include another common misconception/delusion: "I'm holding a lot of water right now." They may tell me they want to compete at 240, but from the shots I can see that if they dieted away all the fat they needed to, they would be closer to 215 or 220 at most.
There are many trainers and nutritionists out there who have plenty of knowledge and can often suggest changes to an athlete's training or nutrition that could translate to vast improvements. Someone who has pro potential understands that he doesn't know everything under the sun, and seeks out advice, suggestions, recommendations and ideas that could help him. Someone who stubbornly adheres to his belief that he knows everything there is to know, and that nobody has any information to offer of any usefulness, is doomed to remain an amateur, and probably one who is mediocre at best, for the rest of his life.
Knowing When to Compete and When Not to
A final component of the mental qualities needed to be a pro bodybuilder surround the issue of knowing when to compete and when not to. Some bodybuilders compete constantly, year after year, without ever having an off-season to focus on improving lagging body parts or overall mass. This keeps them from reaching their full potential. Others either have never competed or haven't competed in many years, remaining in a permanent off-season. This is also bad, because with all the body fat and water covering their musculature, they don't have an accurate idea of what their physique looks like. Many are under the impression that one day they will magically know it's time to start dieting and they will turn pro a couple of months later with the perfect physique that has been hiding all those years.
So here's an easy solution to both scenarios that can hamper someone who otherwise could have pro potential. If you have been competing quite a bit, gather a few opinions about what your physique needs and take at least a full year off to work on it. If you haven't competed in three or more years, pick a show within the next six months and just do it. Both are tough mentally. The man who has a regular routine of dieting and competing will find it difficult to switch gears and train purely for mass. Likewise, the man who has been eating and training for mass will find it quite challenging to suddenly go on a clean diet, lower his carbs and do the cardio needed to strip away all the body fat he has accumulated. But both are valuable for men who would otherwise remain in a state of limbo, stuck at a certain level they would never move beyond.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
Mat DuVall says this all the time to aspiring pro bodybuilders, because we all see so many who bank on becoming pros and have absolutely nothing to fall back on. The reality is that only a handful of pros, like Ronnie, Jay and maybe three or four others, are financially secure strictly from bodybuilding. Most pros have other jobs or means of income, such as businesses. Mat, for instance, owns a successful contracting company. The point is, even though you may indeed have pro potential, it's a wise tactic to have something else bringing cash flow in. Don't end up like so many would-be pros, and even many pros, who find themselves with nothing to show for their years of competing in the sport.
Hopefully this overview has helped give some of you a better idea of what it takes to become a professional bodybuilder. Even though I'm known as the Pro Creator, even I can't help anyone achieve that status unless they already possess the necessary physical and mental attributes. So, do you have what it takes? If so, maybe we'll be seeing you in the pages of MD, or on the IFBB stage, sometime in the near future. And if not, don't fret. Anyone can improve his physique and look and feel better, year after year, through bodybuilding. As long as you train hard and eat right, you will be a champion—whether or not you ever call yourself a pro.
The Pro Creator. Originally published 05 April 2011 in Muscular Development.