Way back in the day, some bodybuilding contests were conducted by having all the competitors and the judges in the same room within a few feet of each other, which gave the judges a chance to look over all the bodybuilders, move them around, make comparisons and eventually decide what order they should place. (The first Ms. Olympia in 1980 was done like this.) There are certain advantages to this method. But it doesn’t allow for an audience to participate. It doesn’t create a “show” to which you can sell tickets.
So, in time we had the evolution of today’s “round” system. It involves having competitors present themselves in different ways for the scrutiny of the officials. These are
- The “Symmetry” Round.
- The Compulsory Round.
- The Free Posing Round.
- The Posedown.
These rounds are one thing on paper, according to the rules, but are often quite different in actuality.
THE SYMMETRY ROUND
For example, the symmetry or “standing relaxed” round is supposed to involve competitors standing as if “at attention” and facing in four directions to give the judge a look at the overall shape and proportions of their physiques. It is not supposed to be about flexing and showing your muscularity. But starting in the 1990s, bodybuilders began twisting severely from the waist, flexing their triceps in the side poses and flaring out their lats in the back view. For some, the effort was so great they had trouble simply getting through the round. I remember watching IFBB Pro Paul Dillett compete in the Olympia and his efforts appeared so intense and exhausting, that I did not think he was going to make it.
So, obviously, the symmetry round has become just another muscle-posing round, and it is not about symmetry. This has been tolerated for so long now that it seems unlikely the federations are going to step in to change things back to what the rules originally required. So, bodybuilders
with obviously great symmetry are disadvantaged when this round is done this way, and those with less symmetry can disguise their weaknesses.
THE COMPULSORY ROUND
There is little controversy regarding the compulsory posing round. This involves a series of poses designed to show a competitor’s strengths and weaknesses to the judges in as straightforward a way as possible. So, bodybuilders do a biceps pose from the front and back, a side chest and triceps pose, lat spreads from the front and back and an abdominal and thighs pose. The competitors each do these poses on their own and then in comparison to others. And this is very important. As you get to higher and higher levels in bodybuilding, virtually all the competitors are amazing genetic geniuses and, compared to any other human beings, truly amazing. When they first come out on stage and are seen as individuals, they mostly all look like winners. But human perception is largely based on comparison and contrast.
If I were to give you a 25-gram weight to hold and asked you to estimate its weight, it would be tough to come close. But if you hold a 24-gram weight in one hand and a 25-gram weight in the other, you can immediately tell the difference. That is the power of comparison. Along the same lines, you take a bodybuilder you thought was terrific and stand him or her next to another in the lineup, and small differences immediately become apparent.
Plus, there is the fact that our perception of something takes place in “layers.” The brain does a quick scan of what we are looking at, then uses succeeding scans to acquire more information and register more details. This is an unconscious process that takes place automatically. Except that it would be more difficult to create a show to which you can sell tickets, it would probably be best not to score by round but simply let the judges continue to look at bodybuilders posing over an hour or two to give their brains time to accumulate the maximum amount of information. In most cases, who is best or better would become painfully obvious with no conscious effort required.
THE INDIVIDUAL POSING ROUND
In any event, the compulsory round involves the judges saying, “show me your physique in a way that gives me all the information I am looking for, with no way of disguising your weaknesses.” Then comes the round of individual posing, in which the competitors put together a routine as a way of showing off their physiques in a way that calls attention to their strengths and away from their weaknesses. Ideally, this round is a way for competitors to change the minds of judges, “my physique is actually better than you first thought.”
Some competitors concentrate on movement in their routines, even to the point of dancing, or showing themselves as “robots” or doing the “moonwalk.” But the question should always be, “Is this routine going to make the judges score the athlete higher than they would have otherwise?” Some contests have “best poser” awards, but the winner of this is rarely the winner of the contest.
Many simply rely on free posing routines that are basically just more versions of the compulsory poses, which the judges have already seen. Bodybuilders with truly outstanding physiques frequently need to do nothing more than just keep hitting the same basic poses to remind judges how good they are.
The posedown round, in which the bodybuilders all just mill around on stage, hitting whatever poses they can and creating comparisons with their rivals, is very exciting. It would be great if this had some actual impact on the scoring, but this rarely seems the fact. Usually, the pose down takes place while the judging scores are being tabulated.
The posedown allows competitors to seek out a rival and try to show the judges who is superior. But this can have the opposite effect. I once saw a bodybuilder race across the stage to pose his legs up against those of Tom Platz, who had the most incredible legs in the sport. I would have called this action a moment of insanity.
Maybe there could be a posedown round during prejudging as well as the evening finals. This could actually have some impact on the scores. But as it is, the posedown is mostly just for show.
The one absolute necessity to make these posing rounds work is accurate and unbiased judging. In the past, this has often been problematic, with officials allowing political, economic, or even sexual biases to cloud their judgment. Thankfully, this has not been any kind of major consideration in the recent past. Judging bodybuilding is always going to involve a balance of the objective and the subjective. Two judges may see the same kind of development of a physique, but one prefers it while the other doesn’t or, at least, not as much. There are so many elements to a competition physique, including such things as mass, muscularity, symmetry, and definition – and another that Is aesthetic beauty – that it is inevitable that two judges will develop different opinions when it comes to scoring. But not “too different,” or the federations will not consider that judge really qualified.
For judging to work, there must be at least a consensus as to what the contest is about and what everybody is there for. So, differences in judgment and perception must be within certain limits to be accepted as quality judging.