Bodybuilders are athletes, men and women who train harder than pretty much any other athlete. But is bodybuilding a sport? In this article, I will take a look at what the definition of a sport is, whether bodybuilding fits into that definition and whether it should even want to.
Bodybuilding is primarily judged on aesthetics, and actual bodybuilding competitions do not fit into the definition of a sport. Scoring is subjective, and some would argue fairly arbitrary. While posing is difficult to master, it is not a mental or physical skill used to defeat an opponent, it is designed to show your body in its best light. Bodybuilding would fit better into the definition of art.
I’m a fence-sitter when it comes to most debates, I think that most rational people should be. There are certainly strong arguments for and against bodybuilding as a sport. My answer above is my own opinion, and I have no problem with people disagreeing with it. I will use the rest of this article to justify that opinion.
Whatever my answer may be to this question, I want to make it clear that I have a lot of respect for anyone who succeeds as a Bodybuilder. It is a brutal lifestyle, which requires sacrifice, hard work, physical danger, and a level of determination and discipline that I could never achieve myself.
It doesn’t fit comfortably with any definition of what a sport is, and I can’t help feeling that most arguments for or against are emotional arguments rather than logical ones. Bodybuilders perceive the question as an insult as if by not being a sport Bodybuilding is somehow lessened.
It is true, that some people certainly argue against it being a sport as a way to diminish it, but many people don’t. I certainly don’t. It doesn’t make any difference to me whether it is a sport or not. But after a lot of research, I just can’t see how it can be.
For starters, there’s the drug issue. Pro Bodybuilders technically are not allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs as they are illegal. But this is in no way tested. That means that every single winner of Bodybuilding competitions has won through cheating.
Another issue is the lack of direct competition. Sure, every bodybuilder at a competition is there to win, but a winner is chosen for looking the best. It is an aesthetic competition. How you look represents 90% of your score. Some may argue that posing is an important aspect of bodybuilding and that this counts as a skill.
I will admit, that this is a strong argument, but I would say that the best poser does not usually win bodybuilding competitions. It is almost always the bodybuilder with the best physique. This means that the skill (posing) is not a crucial factor. Aesthetics is.
I will discuss all of these factors in more detail throughout the rest of this article, but this is a quick summary of how I have come to my conclusion.
The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as:
“an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
As you can see, it would be possible to make a case either way for bodybuilding being a sport using this definition. A person arguing for bodybuilding being a sport would say that posing during a competition would be “an activity involving physical exertion and skill”. The competition against another and entertainment are also strong arguments for bodybuilding being a sport.
My argument would be that posing, while difficult, is not particularly strenuous compared to professional sport. Sure, contracting your muscles can be tiring, but nowhere near as tiring as running a 100m race. I’d also argue about it being skill-based.
Posing is quite technical, and a lot of practice is required. But as I mentioned earlier, most scores are based on the aesthetics of the bodybuilder, competitions are not won or lost with the posing. The world’s best poser is not going to win Mr Olympia, it will go down to the biggest and best-looking bodybuilder, who also happens to have a decent posing routine.
You may be asking “Why are you picking on Bodybuilding while Chess still qualifies as a sport?”. Fair question. Chess is rarely physically exhausting (though speed chess can be), but it is very skilful and involves competition and entertainment.
I would argue that Chess fits the definition better. The most skilful Chess player will almost always win. While the most skilful poser in a bodybuilding competition will probably still lose if there is another competitor with a better body.
Again, this is all very subjective. But my personal definition of sport clearly places a lot of emphasis on the first two components:
“Sport is an activity that involves physical exertion and/or skill. There should also be a competitive element where you can influence the opposition through your own skill. There are rules that are fair for all competitors, and consequences for not following them.”
That physical exertion is important, but skill is more important. Chess does involve some physical exertion as you have to physically move the pieces, but it could be completely non-physical (voice-activated commands on a computer game). The skill element is very high in Chess though, and your moves directly affect your opponent.
Darts is another interesting example. While it involves physical exertion and skill. It is debatable whether the direct competitive element is there. Remember, my definition requires you to be able to influence your opposition through your own skill. In darts, both players are trying to get from 501 to 0 in as few darts as possible. But other than some psychological tricks, very little that you can do affects your opponent.
However, darts involves accuracy, technique, stamina (matches can last a long time), and skill. There is also competition between the two players, even if it is indirect. So darts just about qualifies as a sport.
In bodybuilding. There is little physical exertion and some skill. But the skill and exertion are not always rewarded with points. Also, the competition is completely indirect. You are competing against yourself more than against others.
If you read the rules put in place by the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), you may be surprised to learn that anabolic steroid use is against the rules. As they are illegal, this makes a lot of sense. But why have a rule that absolutely nobody is interested in enforcing?
Try and find a single competitor in a Pro Bodybuilding competition that is not taking steroids or other PEDs. It can’t be done. If somebody tried to follow the rules, they wouldn’t even qualify. That’s the current state of play in IFBB competitions.
The only way you can compete is to get your Pro card, and the only way to realistically get your Pro card is to take steroids. That means that following the rules regarding anabolic steroids is not followed by a single competitor. This means that bodybuilding cannot be classified as a sport.
Imagine the Olympic 200m race, but at the starting position, every single athlete bar one was allowed to use a motorbike. Or to be more accurate, they weren’t allowed to use a motorbike, but everyone did anyway and the judges turned a blind eye. The non-motorbike athlete may be the greatest sprinter in the world, but he’s not going to win.
That’s sort of the situation we have with bodybuilding. Personally, I am fine with that. It’s great to see bodybuilders who have almost God-like physiques. As a form of entertainment, I’d rank it a solid 4/10 (having actually witnessed a bodybuilding competition, there is a LOT of sitting around doing nothing). As a sport? Not a chance.
“I would spend an hour a day, maybe a year in advance of a contest, just on posing. I used to pose to music, all the time, I would work at it just like a dance step. The music was, a part of my routine; the lighting was a part of it. It was just like being on the Ed Sullivan show —it was an act. I had an act and I stuck with this act like a professional artist. Everywhere I went I had my own lighting, my own staging, my own platform, everything.”
Bill Pearl (5x Mr Universe)
Posing is an underrated aspect of bodybuilding, and it involves a lot of training, choreography, and discipline. It is an integral part of any bodybuilding competition. But is it a skill? By pretty much any definition, posing is a skill. It requires coordination and athleticism, it requires expert knowledge, and it has to be learned. It does not come naturally.
If you’ve read my article on bodybuilding and flexibility, you will know how hard legends such as Schwarzenegger and Columbu worked at perfecting their posing. That being said, posing for a bodybuilding competition does not require the same level of physical skill as playing professional football, or even potting a cue ball at pool.
As I have mentioned before, bodybuilding is mostly judged on physique, symmetry, and aesthetics, with posing being a small part of the judging. None of the other criteria requires skill, so overall it would be difficult to talk about a bodybuilder winning a contest through skill.
I would say that bodybuilding should share a category with WWE wrestling. Both have a lot in common with sports but differ in crucial areas. A professional wrestler has to train religiously, they then have to perform highly athletic movements during a match. But, the movements are choreographed, and the results are known in advance. This means that while the performers are working every bit as hard as a sportsperson, they are not participating in a sport.
Bodybuilding is the same. It requires huge amounts of dedication and hard work, bodybuilders have to work on strength and pay attention to their diets. Perhaps more so than most sports professionals. But at the end of the day, they are not competing in a fair competition where rules are followed and the most skilful competitor wins.
If ten bodybuilders are in a competition which bans anabolic steroids, and all ten bodybuilders are currently cheating, then how can bodybuilding be a serious sporting competition? It can’t. That’s the reality of a sport which has to avoid the topic if it wants to survive.
It has many aspects of sport, and bodybuilders deserve as much recognition, but it is not a sport. Much like WWE wrestling, it represents a grey area between sport and acting/performance art.
By refusing to call bodybuilding a sport, you may believe that I would also be against calling bodybuilders athletes. Something I have avoided doing until now. But actually, I am pretty okay with bodybuilders being called athletes. Though, I feel that the term “bodybuilder” is a better and more appropriate description already. It’s like calling a sculptor an artist. Yes, they are an artist, but sculptor is a better description.
The definition of an athlete in the Oxford dictionary is:
“a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise”
While bodybuilding may not be a sport, it is absolutely a form of physical exercise. So there really isn’t any controversy in calling bodybuilders athletes. They exercise between five and seven days per week, sometimes twice a day.
One issue that did give me pause though, is the argument that bodybuilding physiques are built for aesthetics rather than function. While it is a myth that bodybuilders are inflexible, it is certainly true that they are not built for speed or power. That’s not to say that there aren’t powerful bodybuilders out there though.
Ronnie Coleman was incredibly strong and lifted some serious weights. Kevin Levrone was an absolute man-mountain, yet did not embarrass himself when sprinting against Dwaine Chambers (an Olympic Sprinter from GB).
The world of bodybuilding has changed since the 80s and 90s too. At that time, bodybuilders were focused entirely on becoming as big as possible, and the athleticism of bodybuilding was on the wane. The days of Franco Colombu, who competed in powerlifting and boxing events, were well over. Dorian Yates had taken over from Lee Haney and changed the direction in which bodybuilding went.
After the 90s, bodybuilders got bigger and bigger, and the top 10 were further removed from athleticism. With more of an emphasis on mass. But in the last decade, bodybuilding has branched out. This is mostly thanks to social media, YouTube and Instagram in particular.
The top 10 at Mr Olympia are still more bulky than athletic, but there are so many more varieties of bodybuilder. With athletic, flexible, and dynamic bodybuilders becoming more popular with the general public. Jujimufu is a great example of this new generation of bodybuilders. He does fun videos, and showcases the capabilities of his body.
Another great example would be Mike Thurston and MattDoesFitness, both of these guys are clearly bodybuilders but would look absolutely tiny if they stood next to a prime Ronnie Coleman. Just like Jujimufu, they put out YouTube videos of them performing regular sports, and you can definitely tell that they are athletes.
The truth is, bodybuilding is now an umbrella term for several different body shapes and sizes, as well as different forms of athleticism. There are some bodybuilders who are so large and bulky that you could make an argument for them not being athletic. But the majority of bodybuilders absolutely fit into that definition.
I don’t think that bodybuilding in its current form could ever be a sport, it’s too far removed from real sporting competition. The blind eye turned to anabolic steroid abuse is also problematic. On the one hand, any competition where cheating is so obvious will never get credibility. On the other hand, without anabolic steroids, the spectacle of bodybuilding would be diminished.
But, I do have a proposal.
Bring back Strongman Competitions. The original bodybuilders such as Eugene Sandow were proper entertainers. Performing amazing feats of strength, and showcasing their athleticism. Sure, their body was still vital, but they also squatted ridiculously heavy weights, tossed Atlas stones around, and thrilled audiences with their abilities.
Why not bring this element into bodybuilding? Keep the posing, keep the scores for aesthetics, but add in a strength element. World’s Strongest Man and Woman competitions have shown that ridiculously strong men lifting archaic weights can be a lot of fun. YouTube has shown us that there is a huge audience for watching bodybuilders showcasing their strength, so why is this not part of bodybuilding already?
Of course, there are practical considerations. To show their bodies in their best lights, bodybuilders have usually been cutting and dehydrating themselves so they can have as little body fat as possible. This is not conducive to lifting heavy weights. But I think that audiences wouldn’t mind this.
Audiences for bodybuilding have been declining since the 1980s, at around the time that bodybuilders became bigger and the use of drugs such as insulin began to change bodybuilding forever. Today, it would be fair to say that more people know who Eddie Hall or Thor are, than know who won the last Mr Olympia.
Do you know why? Because World’s Strongest Man is a sport. With real people performing ridiculously impressive feats. Squeezing your biceps while covered in 5 layers of fake tan just isn’t cutting it any more.
I understand why the debate about whether bodybuilding is a sport or not matters to some people. Bodybuilding still has a huge following, and many people in the gym aspire to be bodybuilders. To hear someone say that it is not a sport can feel like a personal insult.
As if by saying that bodybuilding isn’t a sport, people are saying that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. I believe that some in bodybuilding feel that having bodybuilding classed as a sport will legitimise it.
But these people are missing the point. In the 1970s, when bodybuilding was at its absolute peak, nobody thought of it as a sport. It was performance art. It was the male version of Miss World.
Bodybuilding is not considered a sport by the majority of the general public, and it never has been. This never mattered to the bodybuilding legends of yesteryear, and it shouldn’t matter to bodybuilders today.
Whether you consider it a sport or not, it’s still an amazing achievement to win a bodybuilding competition. Winners will still have fame, money, and power. They will still be strong, and have massive muscles. Invest in some acting lessons and they could even emulate Arnold himself!
At the beginning of this article, I stated that I am a fan of bodybuilding, not a hater. At times, this may not have felt like an honest description of my beliefs. But I’ve always admired bodybuilding, and after writing hundreds of articles for websites (including this one) my respect for bodybuilders has grown and grown.
But that does not mean that I am going to hide away from tough questions. I don’t think bodybuilding is a sport, certainly not in its current state. I also think that bodybuilding is in danger of becoming less popular if it doesn’t change its competitions.
Thanks to Instagram and YouTube, bodybuilding has never had a better opportunity to explode in popularity. But I just feel that it is in danger of missing the boat. Anyone who has watched a bodybuilding competition will know that they are boring affairs.
Sure, true bodybuilding fans love it, and can happily watch all of the hundreds of rounds and routines. But for us casuals? No. There is a large group of us who like the individual bodybuilders, enjoy their YouTube videos and training stories, but barely know who won the last Mr Olympia.
This may need to change. Personally, I hope it does. But if it stays on the same path, I wish it all the best.
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.