Opinion: Are bodybuilders athletes?

are bodybuilders athletesBy Matt Ham.

So I was doing my usual scroll through my news feed on Facebook when I came across a bodybuilder/sculptor (for ease of reference, let’s call him Lou) who had posted something that a friend of mine had liked. What caught my attention however was not what he said but the fact that he had ‘athlete’ as his description.

As I am not a fan of bodybuilding to begin with I naturally got my back up, thinking out loud ’Bodybuilders’ aren’t athletes, who does this guy think he is?!’

The outrage flowed (eventually) into some thinking so in order to quell my curiosity, I decided to do some research on what constitutes an athlete. The further I looked, the more difficult it became. In particular, I was finding it hard to distinguish whether what Lou claimed to be was correct; namely, can he legitimately call himself an athlete? Even in the process of digging, I was unable to relinquish my original attitude so I decided to break the definition in to pieces to see whether I could obtain some clarity.

You might have noticed that in our facility we have the definition of athlete on the wall (it’s hard to miss – 72pt font, underneath the giant poster of MJ):

A person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.

To me, I always categorised athletes as the pinnacle of human performance in specific sports and skills, performing either individually or in a team. Not for one minute did I think that standing on stage flexing muscles would be fall within my definition of athletic prowess. People like Lou look athletic but surely they are not really athletes? You can’t have them in the same conversation as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, surely? Or can we?

There is no denying that people like Lou are absolute specimens; they are ridiculously ripped and display amazing diligence in their nutrition and training regimes (they have been shredding for Stereo for years!) However holding their pursuit up as against the definition of athlete, it’s my belief that the preparation but NOT the competition itself is where bodybuilding can loosely align with definition.

If we break the whole approach into its requisite parts:

  1. “A person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility”

Physical agility during the competition aspect isn’t really a component of bodybuilding so this is a NO, irrespective if they are trained or gifted in it.

  1. “[…]stamina or strength;”

Again, I would suggest that both these characteristics are needed by bodybuilders during their preparation (quite obviously) but not necessarily during the competition proper. I know competitors would argue takes a lot of strength and stamina to pose but it is hard to categorise this as the major characteristic in judging, wherein symmetry, density and size will always trump a competitors ability to flex. If Arnold wasn’t the best poser and still possessed the ultimate physical stature, I am pretty sure he would’ve still won Mr Olympia.

Judging in bodybuilding is subjective which, along with numerous other sports (Olympic or otherwise), is open to biases and favouritism. However, one cannot fault the activity for that as it is merely one of hundreds of sports based on subjective judging protocols despite the requirement for athletic ability. To rely on such an argument to discredit bodybuilding is flawed and would otherwise make redundant sports like gymnastics, diving and almost every Winter Olympic sport (to name but a few) despite those sports completely fitting within the ‘athlete’ definition.

  1. “[…] a participant in a sport, exercise or game requiring physical skill.”

It is this portion of the definition that I find the most difficult to analyse. In doing so, I posed the following:

  1. Firstly does bodybuilding constitute a sport, or is it merely an activity?
  2. Are bodybuilding competitions exercise, or is the preparation the exercise?; and
  3. Does it constitute a game requiring physical skill?

I think it is possible to deal with (b) and (c) simultaneously (logical, I know), but it is easy to see the correlation between the two. There is no doubt that there is an element of skill in posing and of itself, it can be relatively physical in the performance of those poses. However, to say it is a game requiring physical skill is probably a long bow to draw. Adopting what I indicated earlier in respect of (b), the art of posing is subject to the size, density and symmetry of muscular development.

While there is an advantage in being able to pose in such a way that accentuates the muscles that have been subject to the years of hard work, training and discipline, I would suggest that even a participant who is mediocre at the art of posing can still win based on their developed physical characteristics: the large, thick and perfectly sculpted and symmetrical muscle groups. It is the determination, sacrifice and discipline in the preparation for the ‘competition’ that constitutes the exercise component of the pursuit and not the performance itself. Holding the perfect bicep flex relies solely on the development of the bicep in the first place; without it, the ‘competition’ itself is moot. As such, the actual competition (that is to say, game day or show day) isn’t a game requiring physical skill but rather an event which is more often than not is determined by aesthetics rather than skill or ability.

Now, to deal with (a) – is it a sport or merely an activity?

Sport is defined as such:

An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

There is no doubt that bodybuilders compete against each other and it offers entertainment for thousands; but does it involve physical exertion? To my mind it is here that the acts in preparation to the ‘performance’ has more in in common with the definition as opposed to the actual ‘performance’ itself. Allowing for this, in my opinion anyway, bodybuilding doesn’t fit into the category of sport but rather an activity or hobby; an impressive and physically demanding activity for 90% of the time, but an activity nonetheless.

Now, before I get bombarded with vitriol, crucifying my lack of experience or involvement, knowing how hard it is to be on point nutritionally, or how to peak physically, or how hard it is to train to be competitive, I ask that you slow your roll and take a deep breath. I have never disrespected the process bodybuilders undertake to get their rigs in tip top condition; in fact, I frequently mention the contrary. That part of the pursuit is without reproach. However, in approaching the pursuit in totality, the question has always been about determining whether they can constitute themselves as athletes.

After reviewing the definition and applying the individual aspects, you would have to come to conclusion that bodybuilders are not athletes in the strictest application of the term. In approaching the claim by Lou as to his status as an athlete, I have attempted to dissect the definition as best as I could to illustrate the differences. In doing so, I don’t believe that, fundamentally, you can be classed as an athlete – the pursuit, at its core, could probably be better described as a ‘performance in muscular aesthetics’. The preparation, dedication and diligence to perform are remarkably impressive nonetheless but an athlete, Lou is not. If I were to put a finer point on it – if one is to consider bodybuilders as athletes, then it is not too far a leap to classify beauty pageants contestants as athletes; and I’m positive that no one would support such a proposition.

Comments (3)
  1. Peter Tipping Reply

    Is your opinion based on experience or is it just your opinion, which your entitled to. I have been a professional cyclist and a competitive bodybuilder. Try physique athlete, because that’s exactly what they are.

  2. Gabe Reply

    I like the guys comment above mine, seriously there are guys who have been following bodybuilding their whole lives and are some of the best athletes in the world, and this guy wrote an article because he saw his friend listed himself as a athlete on a profile and was outraged.. lol you have to be VERY experienced with sport to be able to make a black and white statement like whether a whole profession is legitimate or not lol. I do like the article obviously, but one thing I want to add is that the competition IS in fact a part of the athletes athletic ability, in fact it’s THE most IMPORTANT part. A pro can spend all year training and 14 weeks dieting and all of it can be for nothing if they don’t get contest day right!!!! Do to many things like posing in a way that is flattering while hiding flaws, water weight manipulation, very low calories (250lbs+ all lean is hard to do) and making sure all of your tanning came out right and finally posing, posing is a art in of itself, especially when they are depleted you have to understand that for those guys they are going to flex as hard as THEY can, a lot of these guys are very strong athletes a flex can produce as much force as a car accident!! All while depleted. If they come in flat and not full well that should have been accounted for and maybe up their carbs, maybe it’s the opposite, are they bloated? Manage salt and carbs, if it’s contest day it might be too late! And yes bodybuilders DO vary between each year, THEY DO COME IN TO CONTEST DIFFERENT THAN LAST YEAR. And that’s why some people win and others lose even if they won last year, there are so many factors that make them athletes especially on contest day.
    All year is preparing and contest day is executing just like every sport except other sports it doesn’t always matter what you look like and what you ate that day. Bodybuilders are the most physically gifted athletes because of the competition, how many men and women in the world go to the gym!!! That’s all of Phil Heaths competition!!!

  3. John Yates Reply

    I’m a rock climber and ski-mountaineer. Both are life styles and sports.

    I have no experience bodybuilding. That said, I’ve asked the same question: are they really athletes?

    I agree with the author’s analysis. Indeed, they are not. And a quick thought experiment illustrates why.

    Suppose there’s a universe where instead of building muscle, bodybuilders are amassing fat. Magazines, supplements, competitions—all dedicated to the fattest man/woman. Winning isn’t easy—it requires total dedication and careful curation of diet and activity.

    Would these inverse-bodybuilders get a moment’s consideration as athletes according to our present terms?

    I think not.

    Yes, doing your hair and makeup for the big day is hard too. Tanning….

    It’s hard not to snicker.

    Clutch your pearls as hard as you can. But let’s face it.

    Bodybuilding is a ridiculous activity that degrades the notion of athleticism. Legitimize that, then why not competitive eating too?

    Before you cast aspersions on my comments, I’d welcome you to try a sport where death is a serious possibility and survival is dependent on skill, judgment, strength and fortitude.

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