Three Aspects of Physique Competition

A while ago I wrote a little bit about what judges are looking for in competition.  Today we’ll discuss the three main factors that are used to assess a physique in competition:  symmetry, muscularity and conditioning.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how these aspects play a role in the judging process –


I pirated the following two definitions from Mr Webster as it really sums up the whole thing pretty nicely:

  • the proper or due proportion of the parts of a body or whole to one another with regard to size and form;    excellence of proportion.
  • beauty based on or characterized by such excellence of proportion.

When we talk about symmetry in physique sports we’re referring to a balance, not just from left to right but from top to bottom.  This is what is commonly referred to as the “hour glass” shape or, as I prefer to call it, the “X” shape.  This shape is what tends to catch the human eye as most natural.  Because we view it as natural it’s easily taken for granted.  We don’t always realize that what we’re seeing is perfect because there’s nothing wrong with it.  But have you ever looked at something that just doesn’t seem right, but you can’t put your finger on why?  Our brains know when something isn’t balanced even if we can’t quite identify why.  If we could break physiques down to straight lines instead of curves, perfect symmetry or a lack thereof would become more apparent even if it was only slightly off.  Take a look.

What does this mean for competitors?  The cross of the “X” is the waist line.  For bodybuilding, figure and fitness competitors a well balanced physique should be small at the waist and flare out at the quads and lats.  The width of the quads should be similar to the width at the center of the delts.  Now you know why Phil Heath is smiling.

If the quads are small, a competitor will look top heavy and out of balance.  Likewise, big quads with poor upper body development will ruin symmetry as well.  Unfortunately, very few of us have perfect proportions but it’s important to keep in mind that judges are placing you based on what they can see.  As mentioned in a previous blog, posing can make or break you.  If you’re practiced when it comes to presentation, you can hide a great many flaws and create an illusion of perfect symmetry even if you don’t have it.  Conversely, a perfect physique can look terribly out of proportion if not presented properly.

Symmetry is not just limited to front and back views.  A physique should ideally have the same symmetrical proportions when viewed from the side:  Small at the waist and flaring out at the chest and legs.  Hamstring development becomes critical here.  I’ve seen quite a few competitors who looked great from the front and back but when they turned to the side their legs disappear.  It can be a make or break deal for a lot of competitors.

Quarter-Turns are essentially a symmetry round for bodybuilding.  Many times an entire lineup can be judged solely off the quarter turns, depending on the size of the class and competitiveness.  The top 5 will almost certainly be called based on the quarter turns.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure your ‘posing’ in the relaxed position and in the quarter turns is polished and dialed in.

Men’s Physique is judged in board shorts which cuts our “X” in half.  What are we left with?  “V-taper”.  It’s the same basic principle but I really feel this makes the waist line way more important.  A bodybuilder with a wider waist can work on a good quad sweep and wide shoulders to create the illusion of a small(ish) waist.  Men’s Physique competitors should not have extreme size like bodybuilding, so keeping a small, trim waist is essential to a great contest package.  Compliment that with good delts and lats and you will create an excellent V-taper.

Bikini may be a different set of rules but really is looking for the same basic shape.  Instead of looking for a big quad sweep to match the big delts, a competitor should looking for the same “X” proportions in the hips and bust with a tight waist.  Come on, do we really want to argue with Sir-Mix-A-Lot?  “36-24-36? Ha! Only if she’s five three.” 


Though this term applies primarily to bodybuilding, it’s important to understand what it conveys for the other divisions as well.  Figure is also judged based on muscularity, though to a lesser degree.  The bikini classes are NOT looking for muscularity but rather an athletic, in-shape build with good tone and proportions.  The Men’s Physique division is looking for muscularity but not to an extreme degree in terms of size.

Muscularity is really a combination of both size and shape.  Simply being big does not qualify.  Sumo wrestlers are huge and have a great amount of muscle but have virtually no muscle shapeand posing suits that look like diapers.  A certain degree of leanness must be achieved to display proper muscularity but leanness in itself is not enough.  On the opposite end of the spectrum from the sumo wrestler we could take marathon runners as an example . . . extremely lean but not at all muscular.

A bodybuilder wants to be both as large AND as lean as possible to display the most muscularity they possibly can.  This means full muscle bellies, exceptional muscle separation and, hopefully, muscle striation.  The separation and striations give the muscle a hard, crisp look.  While this has a lot to do with conditioning, the muscle detail is also a product of the intensity of training over time.  Without intensity, a muscle will still grow but it will never achieve the “holy crap that’s the nastiest freakiest craziest thing I’ve ever seen and where can I get one?” look.  Yeah . . . you know what I’m talking about.

Figure competitors should have muscularity but to a much lesser degree than bodybuilders in terms of both size and muscle detail.  Muscle separation is good but judges are not looking for striation or ‘extreme’ size.  Bikini competitors will take it down another notch, training for muscle shape and proportion but not for size or muscle separation.

Men’s physique:  This division is still growing and will evolve as we get more competitors and judges involved with it.  The NPC specifically states:  “This is not a bodybuilding contest so extreme muscularity should be marked down.”  Based on contests and results I’ve seen, if you would do well in bodybuilding, you most likely are too big for physique.  The division is ideal for guys with good muscle shape and low body fat, but not for BIG guys.


We don’t need to spend too much time on this topic as a lot of it is covered above as part of muscularity.  But really, this is going to be the essential component to getting ready to step on stage.  Losing the fat . . . this is the part that separates the 90% who plan to do a physique competition from the 10% who are dedicated enough to push on through to the end.  Looking conditioned is awesome.  Getting conditioned sucks.  It’s a combination of strict diet and cardio, peeling away the winter (or summer) coat and dialing your body in for contest day.  Conditioning is closely related to muscularity because it’s what makes the muscle visible to the judges.  The challenge is to become well conditioned without sacrificing hard earned muscle.  It’s also important to take into account the symmetry of conditioning.  Yeah, I’m all about the mix & match.  Keeping body composition even is sometimes very difficult.  A competitor with a hard, lean upper body and a softer lower body is not symmetrically conditioned, or vice versa.  Some people will have shredded abs and a soft back, etc.  Are you looking at your physique from ALL angles as you progress toward competition?  The judges are.

A well conditioned bodybuilder will display great muscle detail, hardness and separation.  Figure, as discussed earlier, requires excellent conditioning but to a lesser degree than bodybuilding.  Bikini competitors should not be extremely lean, so their challenge is to achieve a balanced composition in the upper and lower body.  This can be quite difficult as many women hold more fat in their lower body than their upper body.  Sometimes attempting to get the legs toned up can leave the torso looking super lean and/or stringy.  Men’s Physique classes seem to be trending toward VERY well conditioned competitors with a moderate amount of muscle.  Regardless of which division you compete in, you want to be as conditioned as possible for what’s appropriate to that class.


As a side note – A lot of people are concerned about being vascular when they’re on stage so I figured I’d address this quickly:  These are physique competitions, not cardiologist conventions.  Vascularity is like hair.  If you’ve got it, good for you.  Competitors are not judged on whether or not veins are visible.  I have actually seen competitors who were so vascular that it was difficult to make out muscle detail.  While vascularity may be indicative of leanness it means nothing about the overall physique of the competitor.