Oh hey there. I’m up to some shit again. Another thing, a new thing… kind of. In a surprise to nobody, I’m a real busybody, it turns out.
Two and a half weeks ago I opened up my bodybuilding season by taking home a silver in the pro figure division at the WNBF California Natural Muscle Mayhem. But in speaking to the judges after the show, I received feedback that, though my offseason had clearly been a good and productive one, it had left me with this very densely packed muscle (verbatim quote from one judge: “Are you a powerlifter? I can see it in your muscle.”) that makes my current physique a bit more suited to a different division.
When I brought this up on Instagram, it brought on a whole bunch of questions. I have a tendency, as do most humans, I believe, to assume that because I know something, everyone else also obviously knows that thing. When I talk about bodybuilding divisions, or various strength sports, I never even think for a moment that my listener might not have any idea what on Earth I am talking about or how they vary.
As a caveat, there are MANY strength and muscle sports that I will not be covering. This is not an exhaustive primer. This is a sort of guide to What Stephanie Is Talking About, so it will be largely focused on the sports and divisions that I compete in, with light mention of a few others that will be used for comparison or clarification only. Seeing as I do not compete in any of the men’s bodybuilding divisions, I won’t be touching upon those in this series.
If you’ve been following for a while, whether here on the blog, or via Instagram, you’ll recognize that I compete in several sports in various seasons. I do this for several reasons.
- It’s a physical necessity. Bodybuilding is incredibly taxing on a body. The levels of leanness that I must achieve in order to compete at the professional level are incredibly unhealthy. This should be maintained for very short amounts of time, and it takes a long time to safely get to these body fat levels while trying to maintain muscle mass. A body needs time to recover from extended and extreme dieting. Not only that, but as a natural athlete (using no performance enhancing drugs), my body needs time to grow, which demands a surplus of calories and time in the gym. Natural bodybuilders often take between 2 and 5 years off between seasons for this reason. Dieting is the “easy” part- it’s the growing in between that is hard and time consuming!
- My brain needs the shift. During bodybuilding season, my life is very regimented and scale-focused. My food is weighed precisely, and I log tons of data into a spreadsheet daily (macros, steps, training, daily weight, etc.). It. Is. Exhausting. Absolutely draining. On top of that, because the goal is to have a certain physique, a person gets very fixated on their body- every single flaw, imperfection, little pinch of fat near your belly button is up for criticism. You begin to hate what you see in the mirror, and hate how you feel at stage level lean, and you are hyper-critical of your body. A brain needs a break from that to recover and get right with your body again.
- I am wildly competitive. It’s not enough for me to have a long term goal of improving my physique for the next competitive bodybuilding season, so I use strength sports as a way to keep me focused on a shorter term goal in the interim. It also removes my focus from being on my body, so that I can stop nitpicking myself in the mirror and focus on what my body can do, not just what it can look like. Also they are super fun and I’m pretty good at them so I just like them.
So let’s begin with those strength sports- the ones in which I actual perform silly human feats of strength tricks for applause and plastic medals, and I get to wear clothes and eat food.
Powerlifting is a competitive sport in which each athlete, divided by weight class and (usually) sex, attempts each of three lifts, three times, for a total of nine lifts in the competition. These three lifts never change- squat, bench press, and deadlift. There are very specific rules regarding what constitutes a “good” lift, including commands for each lift and specific requirements, such as squat depth, a pause on the chest for bench press, and full lockout at the top of a deadlift. These rules have slight technical variations between federations (eg. USAPL, USPA, RPS, and several others) but largely remain the same.
The goal of the day is to gain the highest total in your weight class. A total is calculated by adding up your heaviest successful attempt in each of the three lifts. Attempts typically start low (well, relatively- they’re still heavy, but you start with a weight you feel confident you can get even on your worst lifting day to make sure you at least have that on the board) and work up to max effort. Ideally, you would be successful in all 9 of your day’s lifts, which is called going “9 for 9,” but often, lifters fail in their third attempts (and sometimes second!) because that is typically the attempt reserved for personal record (PR) attempts and sometimes a lifter just doesn’t have it in them that day. Each lift is watched closely by three judges, one at the front and one at each side of the lifter, each of who determines if, from their vantage point, the lift met the specifications for successful completion. If 2 of the 3 judges or more agree, indicated by a red or white button that they press, lighting up a matching light on the scoreboard, the lift is good and the weight is counted towards the lifter’s total for the day.
Competitors are required (in most federations) to wear a one-piece singlet, which looks good on exactly nobody. They may also wear some protective equipment as appropriate for the lift, such as a lifting belt, knee sleeves, wrist wraps, or even a full body suit if competing in an equipped division.
This is the main sport that I compete in during my non-bodybuilding time periods. I love the structure of it. The proficiency of the three lifts can always be improved, and there is a clear measure of strength gained. The weight on the bar is completely objective- you pick it up or you don’t. That’s it. The work is hard because the weights are heavy for most of your training cycles. It tests both your mental and physical strength- it takes a lot of courage to walk up to a barbell with two, two and a half, three times your weight on it, and confidently say “I will fucking lift this,” and then do it. I’ve competed as a powerlifter in two weight classes over the span of 5 years and earned an elite level total in each… which means I’m pretty ok at it. Or that I’m borderline freakishly strong, I guess, for a bodybuilder anyhow.
Most people know of strongman via the Worlds Strongest Man televised freak show of amazing athleticism. Three hundred-plus pound Nordic men bleeding from their facial orifices and screaming.
Spoiler- I am not on that level.
I gave this a go at the urging of my powerlifting coach last fall, just for fun. Everyone I was lifting with at the time was first a strongman, second (if at all) a powerlifter, and I was bullied into competing, as I was the only one on the team not competing in a particular contest. I trained for about 6 weeks, and let me tell you, they were 6 of the hardest weeks of my entire life, physically. Also it was super fun and different and I will absolutely do it again, but with more training. I have not felt so challenged in any aspect of my life in a long time!
Strongman has like three rules, and even those are ambiguous when compared to powerlifting’s very specific, technical rules, straight down to your underpants (really).
- Sumo deadlift is cheating. No matter what. (This is not the case in powerlifting, thankfully). You may hitch your deadlift, you may use straps, you may use whatever means necessary to get to an ugly lockout, but you may not under any circumstance use a sumo stance, even if your hips are just naturally wide.
- Unless explicitly stated in the rules briefing before the contest starts, whatever question you have, the answer is yes. The fewer questions you ask that start with “Can I use…” the more shit you can get away with. Chalk, tacky, mixed grip, jerk instead of strict press, whatever man, if it wasn’t banned, it’s allowed.
- Don’t be a dick.
And the events are similarly ambiguous. Every single contest you sign up for will have different ones, meaning that your training is incredibly varied, again, in stark contrast to the monotonous three lifts of powerlifting. There are several iterations of one and two handed overhead lifts that include weird implements like axles (a hollow, lightweight bar with a fat circumference), logs (literally a giant plastic log with neutral grip bars inside of it), and circus dumbbells. There are running medleys where you push, pull, drag, carry, or some combination of these various implements like weighted sleds, weirdly shaped heavy items, boulders, and sandbags. Deadlifts using regular bars or the axle for time and reps are a common event. Atlas stones (giant cement rocks) loaded over a bar or onto a platform for time and reps, yoke run (essentially a solid squat rack you load up with weight and place on your back then go for a sprint with), tire flips, running and carrying weird things, and weird things like static holds for time or literally being strapped to a truck and pulling it like you’re a horse plowing a field are events you might find in any given contest. It’s fucking wild.
There are generally no required uniforms- your clothes will probably get fucked up so you should account for that, and often the safety gear requirements are extensive, depending on the events, so outfit changes happen often throughout the day. I was told the real athletes wear kilts, so, I tried to pass as a real athlete. (Nailed it, I took home a second place award.)
I tried strongman out a few years ago, twice, actually, but not in a sanctioned contest, just in a fundraiser event. It was sort of my intro to competing!
Other popular strength sports include, but are not limited to:
Crossfit. I have lots of friends who love Crossfit. A lot of people talk a lot of shit about Crossfit. I have never tried Crossfit, because they make you run sometimes and that’s a dealbreaker for me honestly. I do know that some of the certification requirements for becoming a coach are sketchy, but there are also people buying meal plans from girls with ass implants on Instagram, so sketchy people exist all over the place. A properly trained coach with an eye for safety and form is key, as in all strength sports. Many people thrive on the community aspect of Crossfit, and there are many good coaches and gyms- do some research. Beyond that, I will reserve my judgement on the sport.
Olympic lifting, also called simply, weightlifting, (this is the one that people always think of/mime weird motions of doing overhead barbell movements that I am unfamiliar with when I say powerlifting. There is no powerlifting in the Olympics, and a powerlifter never puts anything over their head.) Frankly, I know nothing about Olympic weightlifting. As such, I’m not going to say anything other than that shit is hard and that’s why I don’t fuck with it. My bestie is a weightlifter and I admire her so much! Otherwise, I know that it happens as an Olympic event, it is incredibly technical, and there are a lot of very fast movements that result in a lot of weight being suspended above your head a lot of the time.
This ended up being a lot of words, so I’m going to let you catch your breath before I dive into the many women’s physique sports (bodybuilding) divisions in part 2.