If you have read my last article, you will know that I don’t believe bodybuilding is actually a sport in the first place. But if we stop worrying about semantics, we can debate the question “Is bodybuilding a dying sport?”.
Bodybuilding as an industry will continue to grow, and there will always be people who enjoy it. Competitions such as Mr Olympia may have to adapt/evolve to avoid losing fans in future, but there is little danger that bodybuilding will die out completely.
There is a temptation when writing articles like this, to go down the sensationalist route. “Bodybuilding is a dying sport” is a much sexier headline than “Bodybuilding will be fine”, and the truth is that nobody can really know what will happen in the future. I read an article today that Pickleball is pushing for Olympic status, how predictable was that five years ago?
In this article, I will make the case for and against bodybuilding being a dying sport (even though it isn’t a sport).
It’s hard to say that bodybuilding is a dying sport when current Mr Olympia Big Ramy has 3.2 million followers on Instagram. Sure, he’s not in Cristiano Ronaldo territory (270 million), but 3.2 million people following a bodybuilder on social media is a good indication that bodybuilding is doing alright.
That’s not to say that bodybuilding does not have its issues. It’s hard to see how bodybuilding competitions can expand as a whole. Bodybuilding will never grace the Olympics or even lesser sporting events like the Commonwealth Games. So it is not going to expand into global markets via that route.
My prediction is that individual bodybuilders will continue to gain in popularity, in the same way, that individual World’s Strongest Man competitors are now much more popular than the competition itself.
The problem that the IFBB has is that bodybuilding events are, to put it frankly, boring. Pumping Iron is the docudrama that put bodybuilding on the map, but even then they spent as little time filming the actual competition as possible. Because the competition itself only appeals to a very small subset of bodybuilding fans.
Endless rounds of posing, dancing to bad music, and embarrassing outfits do not make bodybuilding much of a spectacle. The biggest issue, however, is the judging. Since the 90s, bodybuilding judging has moved away from aesthetics, and favoured mass monsters.
Big Ramy is an example of that. The guy’s physique is unquestionably impressive, but to the general public, it doesn’t spark any interest in the sport. Compare the last 10 winners of Mr Olympia to the winners of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. There is no question which bodybuilders have the more aesthetically pleasing physique.
There is a reason why Arnold is still the face of bodybuilding, even after retiring 40 years ago.
I don’t want to paint pre-social media bodybuilding as dying, to be frank, I don’t have much evidence to support that statement. But the Golden Age was long gone, and I’m fairly certain that if you asked 100 people to name 5 bodybuilders, 99 would have struggled to name anyone other than Arnold.
In the early 2000s, bodybuilding was pretty much run by supplement companies. They were the only source of revenue for most bodybuilders, and other than Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler, there were few big-name bodybuilders out there.
Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram all arrived over the coming years but made little difference at first. I would say that YouTube helped to keep bodybuilding going for quite a few years, with interviews, archive footage, and individual bodybuilding accounts beginning to grow.
What social media highlighted was how controlled bodybuilding was by the IFBB. If you weren’t a PRO, then you were nothing. But unconventional bodybuilders on YouTube began to build big audiences without ever thinking about competing. This made a huge difference in the bodybuilding world.
As many industries have found (particularly sports and entertainment). Giving fans more freedom and access can massively improve engagement and revenue. Social media allowed websites such as Bodybuilding.com and T-Nation to hugely increase their audience, and while the demise of bodybuilding magazines has been sad, it is but a symptom of the transformation of this industry.
At the end of this article, I present my five-point plan for future success in bodybuilding. Without giving too much away, one of the key points is that bodybuilding needs a superstar that can transcend the “sport”. Michael Jordan and basketball, Roger Federer and tennis, Arnold and 1970s bodybuilding.
At the moment, bodybuilding does not have that. It has lots of bodybuilders with decent followings, but they still don’t hold a candle to Arnold. That is a problem. Bodybuilding needs a new Arnold. In 40 years it has completely failed to unearth one. But social media could be the solution to this.
Luckily, the IFBB has taken a backseat here, which is a smart move. Let the big-name grow organically through large social media followings, and then allow him to blossom.
The title could easily have been Thor Björnsson but 1) I can’t spell his name right, and 2) I’m English so therefore biased. On the face of it, neither Eddie or Thor are bigger names than Big Raimy or Phil Heath. Raimy and Heath have similar online followings to Thor and more than Eddie.
But what Eddie and Thor have is real-world recognition. There may be less diehard fans, but most people will have heard of Eddie and Thor, but few will have heard of Big Raimy or Brandon Curry. That’s thanks to Eddie and Thor transcending their sport.
They have done this through a combination of social media (both have huge YouTube channels), and traditional media. Both men are strongmen who have competed against each other for the deadlift world record. They have also built up a rivalry. I’m not sure how real this rivalry is, but that doesn’t matter. There is controversy, a bit of friction, and they’ve even scheduled a boxing match between each other.
Think back to what made Pumping Iron so compelling. It was the (completely artificial) rivalries built up between Arnold and Ferrigno. The contrasts between the two. Arnold portrayed himself as a bad guy who was everything that Ferrigno was not. This created tension, personally, I was willing Ferrigno on throughout that documentary.
Where are these rivalries in modern bodybuilding? Sure, Heath and Greene had some form of rivalry, but nobody cared about it outside of bodybuilding forums. Despite being the two biggest names in bodybuilding, they were unheard of.
Bodybuilders need to be outspoken, be controversial, be genuinely exciting and interesting to follow. Ideally, the two would also be fighting for the title, and there needs to be some form of rivalry that can capture the imagination.
Bodybuilding as a whole is going from strength to strength. There are more bodybuilders than ever, they have more exposure, and it has never been easier to earn money as a bodybuilder (though it is still very difficult). But Bodybuilding competitions such as Mr Olympia are not growing at anywhere near the same rate, in fact, they may even be less popular.
It’s hard to say for certain because there are no published viewer figures. Or if there are, they are well hidden. After an hour of searching, I’ve given up. Even if Mr Olympia is doing well, it’s not doing anywhere near as well as it should be.
A prestigious competition that contains the best bodybuilders in the world? This should be big news. Yet when was the last time you heard anything about it in the mainstream media? As someone with an interest in bodybuilding, I will say this: I have not seen a single advertisement for Mr Olympia on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. Nothing. I’ve not read about it in any newspaper or news site, and I had to look up who won last year’s competition because I didn’t know who had won.
Yes, I am a casual fan. But that is exactly who the IFBB should be targeting. People with a bit of interest in bodybuilding who aren’t part of the hardcore crowd.
I think that bodybuilding probably needs some version of the Kerry Packer World Series Cricket scenario.
A big investor decides to create their own tournament and hires all the big-name stars. They use this tournament to make big changes to the format and spend a lot of money trying to bring in a new audience. This then motivates the traditional competition to emulate it.
This worked wonders with cricket (2.6 billion people watched the 2019 Cricket World Cup Final) and similar stories have played out in other sports.
Packer’s tournament led to huge changes in player fitness, added day/night matches, massively marketed the sport, improved safety, and turned cricket into a global sport. I think that eventually, the cricket authorities would have brought in these rules, but it may have taken decades.
The IFBB and bodybuilding are at a similar crossroads. Bodybuilding is popular, but the stars aren’t marketable enough and the rules need to change. Judging needs to change, as mass monsters are killing the sport’s credibility. The competition needs to become more entertaining, and it needs to become more marketable.
The Golden Age of Bodybuilding is often described as the period between 1960 and 1985, give or take a year or so. This was a time when many bodybuilders were superstars, and Arnold Schwarzenegger became perhaps the most famous man in the world.
The Golden Age is often looked back at these days as a time when bodybuilding peaked. Not just in terms of popularity, but in terms of physique and aesthetics. Bodybuilders looked like Greek gods, but they also looked like their physiques were achievable to us mere mortals.
Of course, they weren’t, you still needed good genetics, the luxury of training 6 days per week, and steroid abuse was rife. But the perception was that these men had bodies that were just a good workout program away.
That mattered. The human element was/is very important. I believe that the biggest issue that modern bodybuilding has these days is the fact that the best bodybuilders no longer look like natural humans. They look like something that is false, that is “other”, and it puts off a lot of people.
If you talked about bodybuilders in the 60s or 70s, it was with awe and respect. If you hear people talking about bodybuilders today, the words “freak” or “cheat” are more likely to be heard. That’s a big deal.
If the Golden Age was 1960 to 1985, then the 1970s was the decade where bodybuilding peaked. I would say that there were four big contributors to this:
All of these factors tied together to make the 70s the greatest era in bodybuilding. Was it as good as we have been led to believe? It’s hard to say really. Without Arnold, and without Pumping Iron, bodybuilding may have been a shadow of what it was. But looking at the other competitors, it’s hard to argue that there was a better decade for bodybuilding.
This is the big question. The time before the Golden Age was a bit of a wasteland, sure there were some big names, but bodybuilding was a very niche hobby and little was known about it. Then it became massive news, with a global superstar. Then it sort of fell away again in the 80s and 90s, before slowly resurging thanks to social media.
So is it fair to compare modern bodybuilding to the 70s? This was a time where all the stars aligned, and a massively charismatic bodybuilder brought down a lot of publicity into bodybuilding. Perhaps the Golden Age was a bubble, and ever since it has returned to the expected level of enjoyment. Things go in and out of fashion all the time, could bodybuilding be another victim of a fickle public?
In my opinion, the 70s was a bit of a one-off, and it is unfair to compare subsequent decades to it. But, that does not put the IFBB off the hook. They should be trying their hardest to recreate the conditions that led to it becoming so popular. They should also acknowledge that their flawed decision making was in part to blame for the inability to hold on to the public’s interest.
I think what is so frustrating, is that 6 years ago Arnold himself highlighted exactly what was wrong with modern bodybuilding, and specifically told the IFBB how to fix it. But they really haven’t listened.
Is bodybuilding a dying sport? Absolutely not. It is a growing hobby, and it’s not going anywhere. Too many people enjoy it for it to die out. But that doesn’t mean that bodybuilding won’t evolve and eventually outgrow its current design.
As I said earlier, I think that a Kerry Packer style intervention is not only necessary but also likely. I believe that a return to the more aesthetic bodies of the 70s is a great idea, but that Mr Olympia is too far gone down that path to change.
Think about it, most of the big-name bodybuilders who compete in Mr Olympia have built themselves to win that competition. They can’t change their physiques. Changing the judging criteria would seriously affect Big Raimy, Brandon Curry, Phil Heath, and the other superstars.
Also, there is a whole generation of Pro Bodybuilders who are coming through the ranks who are already to massive to win a 70s style competition. So Mr Olympia is in a bind. A new competitor with better marketing and more marketable bodybuilders (possibly led by Cedric McMillan) could well light a fire under bodybuilding.
But even if that doesn’t happen. Bodybuilding will still go strong, just with the actual competition becoming less and less important. Already, we are seeing bodybuilders with zero ambition to compete in competitions but with millions of views on YouTube.
Bodybuilding outside of competitions is now a legitimate business, and people such as Jujimufu have proven that. Type in “Biggest bodybuilder on YouTube” and you get Jeff Cavaliere, who looks absolutely nothing like a bodybuilder, but is certainly following that lifestyle. He has almost as many followers on Instagram as Phil Heath, and he doesn’t even compete!
Or you have Kali Muscle, who hasn’t entered a single bodybuilding competition (as far as I know), but has created an entire film career and motivational speaking career through bodybuilding. It’s evolving and is in no danger of dying.
So if bodybuilding is at no risk of dying out, why does it need saving? I would posit that surviving isn’t good enough. For something that has as much potential as bodybuilding, it needs to thrive. To do that, you need strong competition, you need big-name competitors, and you need public interest.
Here is my five-point plan to save bodybuilding.
I know that there have been several bodybuilding documentaries since Pumping Iron, and some of them have been really good. But they haven’t inspired the general public in the way that Pumping Iron did. They’ve just been consumed by the bodybuilding community.
What we need is another documentary, possibly with a big name director, and some Netflix-style funding to really transform Mr Olympia and its stars. Pumping Iron succeeding in part due to the acting and artistic licence of Arnold et al. It was a docudrama, and it was led by an artificial narrative.
That approach could really work today, but for it, you need to find a bodybuilder with a lot of charisma, who doesn’t mind playing the villain.
This, in my opinion, is a no-brainer. Arnold himself said it in 2015. Change the judging and the competitors will change their training. Removing the need to take insulin, HGH, and other drugs that were not popular in the 70s, and putting more focus into symmetry, aesthetics, and more balletic posing. As Arnold said, most bodybuilders can’t even hold a vacuum during posing any more, and the V-shaped torso to hip ratio has vanished.
This will take a few years to implement but needs to start as soon as possible. It also needs to be thoroughly communicated to all bodybuilding participants. It also needs to be universal. Not just Mr Olympia, but the Arnold Classics, and all IFBB events. Pro cards should be given out based on this new criteria.
The first bodybuilders were strongmen, who came from a Circus background. Lifting Atlas stones, squatting huge weights, and participating in World’s Strongest Man competitions. It’s not enough to just look strong, you need to prove it. A skill or strength-based event that contributes to overall score would not only promote more athletic bodies, but it would also help to entertain the public more.
The entire Mr Olympia event has become way too bloated, with it being more like Comic-Con every year. It’s not treated like a heavyweight boxing title fight when that is what is most likely to get eyes on the screen. 10 heavyweight competitors, performing 3 rounds (skill/strength event, posing routine, 2nd posing routine), all over the course of a day. All other competitors (swimsuit etc) should be a separate event.
WWE is a good example to follow, look at how they find their superstars. When Hulk Hogan left, they brought in The Undertaker, The Rock, and Stone Cold Steve Austin. When they left, they brought in John Cena (you can probably tell that I haven’t watched WWE for a long time).
They respected the greats, but were always planning for the future. Bodybuilding can do the same. Search for the biggest and the best by all means, but also look at charisma, acting ability, backstories, look at ways to build tension, and create a legend.
This last step is perhaps the hardest, but it is also the most important. A new superstar could give bodybuilding the shot in the arm (excuse the pun) that it needs.
No, I would not say that bodybuilding is a dying sport. I would say that it is a growing hobby, but that the old guard (Mr Olympia et al) need to wake up and smell the coffee. Because the competition is in danger of being left behind.
These are just my opinions, some backed by facts, some backed by my own (possibly flawed) analysis. I may be right, I may be wrong. I would love to hear your opinions, so please comment below. Thanks!
Also, I am aware that I haven’t really mentioned Women’s Bodybuilding at all in this article. To be honest, I grew up in the 90s and 00s, where Women’s Bodybuilding was essentially dead in the water. Sadly, I was never interested and this has led to a complete gap in my knowledge. I will look to learn more, but at the moment I just don’t have the knowledge to discuss it thoroughly.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.