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Go Behind The Scenes Of A Bikini Competition To See What One's Really Like IRL

Women's Health logo Women's Health 6/18/2019 by Alexa Tucker

© jacoblund/Getty Images In the fitness world, you don't have to look far to come across bikini competitions. Photos of ultra-tan, ultra-fit women in flashy two-pieces pop up in Instagram feeds, there's talk of them in gym locker rooms, and even Bravo-lebrities are on board (shout-out to Tamra Judge and Teresa Giudice).

It's not your imagination: Bikini competitions have seriously grown in popularity in recent years, according to Mindy Irish, NASM-certified personal trainer, a contest prep and posing coach (and national-level bikini competitor herself).

But the spectacle is only part of what bikini competitions are actually about. Behind the sky-high heels and smiles is months of intense preparation (which can be detrimental to physical and mental health, for some), and there's more to the shows themselves than just standing on a stage.

Whether you're thinking about signing up for one yourself or you're just curious, here's everything you need to know about bikini competition training-what the show is like, how people train, whether it's safe for you, and what real bikini competitors have to say about them.

So...what actually happens at a bikini competition?

"Competitive bodybuilding shows are held year-round, country-wide in a variety of venues and [of different] calibers," says Irish. Different federations-like National Physique Committee (NPC), one of the larger ones-host different events, but the rules and guidelines are generally pretty uniform.

"Within the show, there are different categories for women and men," says Irish. These categories include Bikini, Figure, Physique, Fitness, and Bodybuilding-all of which have unique expectations for muscle size and leanness from the contestants.

The bikini division has the smallest muscle requirement of the five, and it generally has more participants than the others, says Irish. Those requirements include: "A foundation of muscle which gives shape to the female body, full round glutes with a slight separation between the hamstring and glute area, and a small amount of roundness in the delts" according to the NPC bikini division rules.

"Competitors within this category are organized into different classes based on age and height. And, as a class, they walk out on stage and compete based on stage presence, body composition, and an overall balance of muscle proportions," she says. Each class may have 15 to 30 (or more) competitors.

As a class, competitors in the bikini division are judged on a front pose, a back pose, and a 10-second individual posing routine (as well as their transitions and flow)-all while wearing five-inch clear heels.

They're also judged based on their bodybuilding-specific stage bikini, full hair and makeup, and a dark competition spray tan.

"Generally speaking, the goal [of this division] is for a competitor to present a lean, athletic physique with balanced muscular proportions," says Irish. "All while representing poise, beauty, and athleticism in a polished presentation on stage."

Preparation for a bikini competition is pretty intense.

What happens on stage is really the last step. The first is having a solid fitness base-before signing up for a competition, Irish says should have at least a year or two of weight training under your belt.

Once you've decided to do a competition, you can amp up strength training to focus on muscle groups that need more work developing. "This time is called the building, or improvement season, and this can last as long as six months to years at a time," says Irish. "The goal in this phase is to eat enough food to be able to add muscle, train routinely, sleep on a rhythm, and keep body fat levels in check."

Individuals don't typically make these plans for themselves, though. As the contest gets closer, most competitors use a hired coach who will "read the competitor's body and guide their nutrition and training to prep for the competition," says Irish.

While plans vary based on the competitor, generally the most challenging part starts at 12 to 24 weeks before the show. "This is the stage competitors cut calories and eat very strict diets," explains Amelia DiDomenico, ACE-certified personal trainer, owner of Amrose Fitness Studio in West Hollywood, California. "Everything is measured, even to the ounces of vegetables." And competitors generally split their diet evenly between fat, carbs, and protein (a.k.a. macros.) (Note: Some competitors opt for very low-carb plans, but DiDomenico says that's not recommended. And generally carbs are cut in the final week or weeks leading up to the competition.)

This is also usually the stage where competitors ramp up cardio (often in a fasted state) and continue weight training-sometimes they'll do both types of workouts a day, says DiDomenico, with rest days built in.

Competitors also generally have to drink a gallon of water a day during this phase. This is partially to help stay hydrated during intense training. But also, according to DiDomenico, when competitors drink that much water, their body gets used to expelling that amount of water. So the strategy is, when they decrease intake closer to the competition, their body is still used to expelling the same amount of water, which helps emphasize more visible muscle definition.

Learning how to pose is also a big part of preparation. "The biggest factor in competitive bodybuilding, and specifically the bikini division, is the art of displaying a competitor's physique on stage-you have to be able to move with fluidity and avoid looking robotic in the process, all while in five-inch heels and a bikini," says Irish.

To make sure competitors feel confident on stage, daily posing practice usually starts about eight to 12 weeks before the competition, she says. "Many competitors use a posing coach, either in person or online," she adds.

Bikini competitions don't come cheap.

Here's how it adds up, according to Irish:

  • Competition coach: $100-$300 or more a month
  • Posing coach: $50-$100/hour or more
  • Heels: $50/pair
  • Spray tans: $125-$150
  • Hair and make-up artists: $100-$300 for the package
  • Swimsuit: $300-$1000 or more, depending on if it's custom made or heavily stoned.

"Like anything, there's a range of costs and as one gets further into this," says Irish. "Many of us, however, use this as a hobby and even as part of our own income, so competing has purpose well beyond the expenses!"

Bikini competitions are definitely controversial.

The extreme nature of bikini competitions doesn't come without risks. Physically, overtraining is a concern-when your body doesn't fully recover from the rigorous workouts. While signs of overtraining can be nebulous, some red flags are irritability, moodiness, exhaustion and sleep problems, and workout plateaus (basically, you hit a point where you feel weak and you're not improving).

Calorie depletion is another concern. "The light that shines in a person's eyes just sort of goes out at a certain level of calorie depletion-[I see] unstable emotions like hysterical crying, anger, depression, and more, irrational thoughts, hunger pangs, sleeplessness, listlessness or feeling 'sick,' irregularly with hormones and menstrual cycles, and bad breathe," says DiDomenico (who also has a master's degree in clinical psychology).

There are also mental health risks associated with training for bikini competitions. "From a clinical perspective, these competitions mask high levels of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorders," says DiDomenico.

Ashley Borden, ACE-certified personal trainer, has also witnessed this firsthand-a former friend would flip between binge eating and training. "She would go into competition mode, and everything changed," says Borden. "It was more militant than anything I had ever seen-she restricted everything and was a grumpy, selfish jerk."

This isn’t to say that all bikini competitors have eating disorders, Borden and DiDomenico both stress-for some, it's quite the opposite. "From my personal training perspective, working hard for a goal and accomplishing it can lead to increases in self-esteem and self-efficacy," says DiDomenico. For that reason, bikini competitions are certainly not a hard no in her book, but she does really caution against it if you already struggle with mental health.

The bottom line is it's important to know yourself, DiDomenico says. "I think that both emotional and mental stability are important for competitors to consider before signing up to compete." (If you have a history of eating disorders, these kinds of competitions are likely not a good idea-remember, organizations like NEDA can provide help and resources.)

Some people have positive experiences with bikini competitions...some don't.

a group of people posing for the camera: Alejandra Mace transformation tuesday © Alejandra Mace Alejandra Mace transformation tuesday For Alejandra Mace, training for a competition helped her deal with her divorce. While she ultimately decided not to compete as an act of self-care during a rough time, the process of training was the reward itself. "I realized even though it felt like I didn’t accomplish what I put my mind to, I had actually accomplished quite a lot," Mace . "I had learned how to be strong. I had learned how to respect myself and be proud of myself."

a woman wearing a swimsuit: Ariella Grinberg, Transformation Tuesday © Ariella Grinberg Ariella Grinberg, Transformation Tuesday Ariella Grinberg echoed the same sentiment-after she traded cardio for weights and participated in her first bikini competition, she was hooked on the confidence she found. "I’ve competed in six shows in two years, made some of my best friends from competitions, and launched my own business," she says.

However, other bikini competitors have different feelings about their experiences. Brittany Loeser passed out on a Stairmaster after depriving her body and training too much. "In the throes of prep, I was completely blind to how much all the eating restrictions and bingeing were taking a toll on my body. And when it came time for the bikini competition, I didn’t even enjoy it that much," she previously told For her, focusing on mindful eating and how her body feels is more rewarding (and she still loves lifting, even though she's not training for a competition).

Ultimately, whether a bikini competition is right for you depends on who you are.

As popular as bikini competitions are, they're not for everyone. But for people looking for a new and challenging outlet for their passion for fitness, it can be a great goal to work toward, says Irish.

Of course, it's a big commitment. "Like all competitions or sports, competing at that level requires extreme training, discipline, and focus," says DiDomenico.

"That's what competitive bodybuilding is all about: The love of the process and the enjoyment of getting on stage and showcasing our years of dedication and hard work," adds Irish.

If that sounds up your alley, awesome! Training and competing is an impressive feat that pushes your body and your mind-just be mindful of your physical and mental health along the way. And if not, you can still admire the hard work that goes into bikini contests while sticking to a fitness and nutrition that works for you (no competition necessary).

Gallery: Exactly what happens to your body when you don’t get enough protein (Prevention)


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