Dr. Andrew Chappell WNBF Pro Bodybuilder
I’m a Pro Natural Bodybuilder. As of 2022 I’ve competed in 8 Professional Bodybuilding competitions. Four of those events were World Finals, 1 European championship and 3 British Grand Prix’s. I’ve been competing as a Pro since 2014. The professional scene is where the best natural bodybuilders compete. These guys are the crème da la crème. They have the best genetics, the craziest shapes, the best conditioning, and the best presentation. It’s truly an awe-inspiring thing to see top Pro’s and to be in a line up competing against these guys is an honour. I’ve been lucky enough to hold my own in these line ups for almost 10 years. There’s prize money, usually between $1000 to $5000 for the winner. The real prize however, is to be able to call yourself the best on the planet and to be recognised by your peers.
In-terms of the Pro scene, there are different organisations, the OCB, IPE, WBFF etc. but the undisputed granddaddy of them all is the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF). The WNBF (https://www.worldnaturalbb.com) run the most shows and have over 50 worldwide affiliates. As well as having the most shows, they also run the most Pro shows, offer the biggest cash prizes and have the most athlete. Importantly for natural bodybuilding they also have the most comprehensive drug testing program. Sadly sometimes it’s more a case of “natural..scouts honour” with some organisations not withstanding the obvious ones (https://www.wada-ama.org/en/news/wada-confirms-non-compliance-international-federation-bodybuilding-and-fitness). So the WNBF is where it’s at. If you want to be elite and then this is where winning a Pro card matters. This Pro card covers you to compete in all natural bodybuilding Pro events, across organisations. If you don’t have a WNBF Pro Card then internationally athletes won’t take you seriously.
For most when they start out, they never dream of turning Pro. It’s never the aim, they do a show because they’re into fitness and have a good physique, or it seems like a useful marketing tool. They start out doing one or two competitions in their first season, realise they’re quite good at it and then decided to keep going. Usually after two or three seasons’ athletes are in place where they can start to ask questions, is turning pro a viable option? Am I likely to be good enough to win a British title or compete at a world amateur final? Finally, and non-trivially, is this still worth it for all the effort I’m putting in?
the elite pathway
You can enter a first timers show once, after that you move into the novice classes. People usually enter a local independent show in their own town initially. These are events not aligned to any organisation and run by a local promoter. Thereafter people tend to compete in regional qualifiers affiliated to organisations like the WNBFUK (https://wnbfuk.com/). Something like a Scottish, Welsh, or Midland’s championships for example. The level at these events is usually higher than local independents. If you’re lucky enough to do well and place in a top 3, you can usually go to a national final and compete. Some do the local and regional show and then decide to call it a day for the season and come back the next year to try again. After your first season as a novice, if you made a top three, the next step for you is the “Open” division. These are the Mr Classes where the competition is higher. Alternatively, if you failed to place in any contests in the novice section you remain a novice until you can achieve this feat. The novice is a proving ground where the level isn’t quite as high as the open so athletes can learn the ropes. Some competitors are novices for years, others do single shows and go straight into the open. It all really depends on the athlete’s level. The novices can be tricky place sometimes to get a win as it includes athletes of all levels. I’ve seen guys go onto win Pro Cards at World amateur finals in their first year. I’ve also seen guys spend five to six years in the division before placing in a tope three and stepping up to the open.
In my experience competitors usually do one, maybe two contests in their first timers/novice season. My recommendation if you want to get good at bodybuilding is to aim for between three to five events. It sounds obvious, but to be good at bodybuilding you must do bodybuilding. That means competing. There’s a lot to learn the first time round and that extra experience is invaluable. People literally get better show by show, not because they get leaner in some cases and henceforth more competitive, but because they begin to understand how to do the sport better. There’s a lot of logistics and planning besides the nuts and bolts of nutrition and training. Moreover, people grow more comfortable being on stage, they start to understand the judging process and really get to grips with how the sport works. The competitor who comes into their second season with four to five shows under their belt has a huge advantage over another who might only have done only one or two.
The Proving Grounds Teens & Juniors
If there’s a safe place to cut your teeth it’s here. This is where I started. Simply put the expectations on teens and jnr competitors are not as high. Like the novices/first timers, people aren’t expecting teen or jnr competitors to be exceptional. They’re expecting athletes to be still working on elements like conditioning, muscle mass and posing. Athletes can learn the ropes here without the pressure of competing against adults where they really wouldn’t be competitive. Teens/jnrs should make the most of this time, ideally you want to be able to step into the novice or open with four to six shows under your belt. Teens and Jnrs can also be a great place to get opportunities and experience, you can step into overalls, and travel to national and international finals as a teen or a Jnr. I did 4 British finals as a teen/jnr and 1 world finals. I had done 11 shows by the time I made my open class debut. By the time an athlete reaches 21/22 after a few years in these divisions under their belt you can really start to see some polished competitors and athletes that might go on to be great open division athletes or Pro’s one day.
The Open Division
Open bodybuilding is where the serious amateurs compete. The divisions is a mix of former novice, jnr, regional, national and international champions. Competition can be fierce, and the margins small. As you might expect, the level is higher at a national event like the WNBF UK Supernatural’s compared to the regional qualifiers or local independents. For national finals an athlete will time their peak and they’re often significantly improved from the regionals. The open division is usually split into classes of either height or weight to help with the judging. So, a competitor can be a light, middle or heavyweight open class champion for example. Athletes then go onto to contest the overall which is a match up between the respective class champions e.g the best lightweight compared to the best middle and heavy. The winner of the overall at national level is usually awarded Professional status. Class winners or those who make the top 3 very often are invited to take part in international events like the amateur WNBF European Championships or amateur WNBF World Championships. Do well at these events internationally and an amateur might also be awarded a Pro card.
How long does it take to make it?
Written down on paper the pathway seems easy and straight forward. The reality is that it’s far from easy. Between 2015 and 2019 I surveyed 80 athletes as part of three research papers I published into the habits of natural bodybuilders (https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-019-0302-y). I asked them how long they’d been competing and how long they had been weight training. I found that British champions and Pros had trained between 8 to 17 years, and they had spent between 4 to 12 years competing. The average age of these competitors was 35 and that they’d competed in around 2.5 shows per year. If you do the math and you can work out the median number of years training is 12.5 years of training, with 8 years of competing, so it probably takes around 20 shows before turning pro.
Training and Competing Years of Male and Female Competitors Who Placed Or Did Not Place (DNP) At British Championships
Chappell, A.J., et al. 2018. JISSN, 15(1), pp.1-12.
Training and Competing Years of Male and Female Professionals (PRO) vs Amateurs (AMA) At British Championships
Chappell, A.J., et al. 2019. JISSN, 16(1), pp.1-12.
My own personal story squares perfectly with this. I was a gifted amateur. I won six British finals and placing 2nd twice. I also won seven regional Mr Scotland titles and competed in three world finals, winning one won. For all intents and purposes, by the time it got the pro card, I was at a professional level. My first amateur show was in 2006 as a Jnr and last was as a heavyweight in 2014. That’s 8 years of competitive bodybuilding, plus another 4 years of weight training before I decided to do my first show. All in it took me 12 years of training, 8 competing, and 18 shows before I turned pro. A lot of the guys that turned pro around the same time as me where either in their late 20’s or early 30’s. Somewhere in their late 30s. Equally a lot of guys and girls came and went in that time, they realised they didn’t quite have what it took to turn pro and cut their losses. While others turned pro and never went any further, they knew that was as far as they could take it and wouldn’t be competitive in the pro ranks.
Now some guys and girls are lucky, they have great genetics, they will always be destined for greatness. After 1- 3 years competing, they turn Pro and their good Pros. I must stress though in, 20 years of bodybuilding; this is not the norm. Likewise, you also get scenarios where it’s a weak show, an athlete turns Pro, and they’re just not cut out for the Pro ranks. These guys can struggle in the pro ranks for years not placing, where they might have had a successful amateur career with all the opportunities that come with being regional and national champions. The trick really, if you want to turn pro and be competitive is to try and be ready for it. That means getting a good amateur foundation, learning the ropes, picking tough contests, and overcoming adversity. That way when the time finally comes to step up, you can bridge the gap. You want to be a competitive pro rather than simply making up the numbers. The take home from this is that it takes time. Like I said there are always exceptions to the rule. Some are blessed with great genetics, but the truth is if you want to get good at bodybuilding and go down the elite pathway, then you need to invest the time in bodybuilding. That means doing shows, not shying away from competitions, and being prepared to be in this game for the long haul.
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