If you have ever watched a bodybuilding show or seen photos of bodybuilders just before, during, or after a contest, you’d know they look nothing like an average human—in a good way. They are more muscular, diced, probably a little dehydrated, and kind-of golden.
Now, there is no special diet or a chicken breast recipe that turns bodybuilders golden from the inside out—it’s the magic of a fake tan. Most, if not all, bodybuilders get spray-tanned before stepping on stage. On the other hand, the likes of Mike O’Hearn are fake-tanned for a good part of the year, even though they do not compete anymore.
Even though sunless tans are an indispensable part of competitive bodybuilding, there are no set standards for their use. Some bodybuilders tan their bodies but let their faces go untouched. On the contrary, Choi Bong Seok, a Men’s Physique competitor, took it to the next level when he stepped onto the 2022 Arnold Classic stage in the pre-judging round without tanning his legs.
When done perfectly, a tan looks like a bodybuilder has been spit-roasted for the right amount of time. Okay, this might have been a little too extreme. How about a shiny statue instead? When on stage, a bodybuilder presents themselves as a piece of art, showing off their chiseled physique through graceful posing. So, yeah, a shiny bronze statue.
Competitive bodybuilders across divisions use a fake tan. Most bodybuilders opt for a rub-down, roller, or spray tan applied one day before a show. However, the process might begin two to three days in advance for athletes with a pale complexion.
In this article, we will go over why bodybuilders apply a tan before a show, the tanning process, things to consider, and how to get rid of the fake tan later.
Bodybuilding Tanning: Why Do Bodybuilders Tan?
Contrary to what most people believe, fake tanning in competitive bodybuilding is neither mandatory nor a case of monkey see monkey do. A good tan can help you present your physique better on stage and gives you a competitive advantage.
Note: In this article, we’ll talk about why bodybuilders use a fake tan as it is the most popular type of tanning method used in competitive bodybuilding.
1. Absorbs More Light
Pro bodybuilders try to get a dark tan because it helps them soak more light on stage. Bodybuilding shows use bright spotlights that could sink a pale individual into oblivion. A light skin tone reflects light and could make an untanned white individual resemble a shiny metal tin on stage.
On the other hand, a dark tan coat absorbs all the light thrown at it and accentuates a bodybuilder’s features, improving their chances of placing better in the show.
Bodybuilding is an individual sport, and a lot goes into prepping for a show. An athlete ensures they never miss a meal, workout, or supplement just for a few minutes on stage.
You could imagine the frustration of these folks when they are told they looked washed out under the bright lights because they did not use the correct tan. These guys toil for countless hours in the gym, working on bringing up the minutest details that could give them an edge over their competition.
The right tan accentuates every cut and curve of your physique by making you absorb more light.
2. Accentuates Muscle Separation and Definition
You need more than just muscle mass to win a bodybuilding show. If sheer size was the only criteria, bodybuilders would start morphing into unaesthetic meat slabs.
A bodybuilder should have the size, shape, symmetry, balance, separation, and definition. Bodybuilding is a game of illusions and aesthetics. A proportional physique makes you look bigger, stronger, and sharper, and a good tan can take this mirage to the next level.
If you have ever seen a bodybuilder after they get a few coats of fake tan, the difference is night and day. Muscle separation, definition, and shape are enhanced as soon as the first tan layer is applied. Plus, fake tan tends to accumulate in crevices like the creases between abs, giving your muscles a popping effect.
3. Get an Even Skin Tone
Most people have an uneven skin tone, meaning the skin tone of their legs, which are usually covered, doesn’t match their arms—generally exposed.
A fake tan is a great way to hide your blemishes or bruises—for whatever twisted reasons you might have them. Additionally, many bodybuilders have acne and stretch marks from pushing their bodies to the limit. A tan helps conceal them.
If you think scars and stretch marks are not a big issue, check this out:
“The judge should also look for good skin tone with an absence of surgical or other scars, spots, acne, or tattoos, which the IFBB considers as a skin blemish, tidily dressed hair, well-shaped feet, and toes. When having difficulty in placing two or more competitors who seem to be on the same level, the judge should look for faults in those aspects listed above which will help to differentiate among the competitors.”
The above is a quote from the IFBB Elite Pro rulebook, not to be confused with the IFBB Pro League that organizes the Mr. Olympia competition. The IFBB Elite Pro judges will use your skin quality, tattoos, hair, and even the shape of your feet against you in a tight contest. Not that we have a horse in this race, but if you are smart like Michal Križo, you should consider switching to the IFBB Pro League.
4. To Level The Playing Field
Interestingly, tanning isn’t mandatory in the IFBB Pro League—the biggest and most popular professional bodybuilding federation. However, most bodybuilders apply a tan before stepping on stage for reasons mentioned in this article. Not wearing a tan while your competition does might skew the results in their favor.
In the golden era, bodybuilders didn’t wear a tan but instead opted for a sun tan or bronzer.
Remember, overdoing the fake tan can be counterproductive. Although the IFBB Pro League doesn’t mandate tan use, it regulates its use with the following rule:
“The excessive application of oils, moisturizers, skin creams, tanning creams, and like products is prohibited and may be used only in moderation. The application of tanning products must produce a natural tone so as to give the appearance of a natural tan. Products that produce an unnaturally colored tone, with an orange, yellow, red, green, or gold hue, are prohibited. Bronzing agents that produce a metallic look are also prohibited.”
5. It is the Safer Method
Most bodybuilders use a spray tan because they want to get as dark as possible for a show, and getting that amount of tan from sun tanning is extremely difficult, if not impossible, especially for white folks.
On the other hand, actual tanning—sunbathing or laying in a tanning bed isn’t the safest way of doing it. Achieving that dark tan color on a tanning bed can expose athletes to the risk of sunburns or even skin cancer due to UV radiation.
Using a sunless tan helps a bodybuilder achieve their objective conveniently, quickly, and without putting themselves at risk of contracting skin diseases, considering most bodybuilders need to tan multiple times a year.
The Tanning Process
Getting a fake tan for a bodybuilding show is a multi-step process and should be considered an important part of your contest prep. Leaving tan-related preparations to the last minute can hamper your placing in a show.
This is what the tanning process for a bodybuilding show looks like:
Competitive bodybuilders do not have the most flawless skin quality as they put their bodies through a lot, including strict diets, intense training sessions, and water manipulation. These are not conducive to picture-perfect skin.
To fix these skin issues before applying a tan, albeit temporarily, an athlete moisturizes and exfoliates their skin. The process involves removing excess dead skin cells from all over the body, which primes your skin for the first tan coat.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most bodybuilders are obsessive shavers. Ask a room full of bodybuilders about the one thing they would wage war against collectively, and they’ll shout back body hair.
You would want to start shaving your body at least 30 days before a show to avoid chances of acne, blemishes, or rashes.
The tanning process will vary depending on your skin tone. If you are pale, you should go in for your first coat at least three days before a show. You might have to visit your tanning specialist twice a day to achieve the perfect tan.
The tanning product is usually a liquid mixture that gets sprayed, rubbed, or rolled on. Furthermore, consider using posing gels like the ProTan Quick Bronze® before stepping on stage.
Things To Consider While Applying a Tan
These are the things to keep in mind before going in for a tan:
1. Stage Lights
If you have the luxury of checking out the stage and lighting scheme before going in for tanning, do not pass on the opportunity. As a rule of thumb, the harder the lights, the darker your tan should be.
2. Your Posing Suit
This part is easy if you’re a Classic Physique competitor. For the rest, you need to consider the color of your posing trunks, board shorts, and bikinis before choosing the shade of your tan. Don’t choose a posing suit that overpowers your skin tone.
3. Take Care of the Tricky Places
Imagine a bodybuilder with the most aesthetically appealing physique you’ve ever seen. He’s walking over his competition with every pose. He hits the back lat spread, the side chest, and then the front-double biceps. However, as soon as he hits the front-double biceps, all you see are his snow-white underarms, and now, you can’t take your eyes off his underarms.
While tanning, you should ensure there are no white patches. Pay particular attention to your underarms and gluteal region for an even tan.
For glowing skin, you need to be hydrated. However, we aren’t your dermatologists, and the judges won’t score you highly for your cute freckles. Moreover, the bodybuilding fans are there to witness a freak show, not a beauty pageant, unless at least it’s time for the bikini or wellness girls to walk out.
Water retention can be a big problem for your tan. If you’re holding water while posing on stage, it’s only time before you’ll start sweating and make a mess of your tan. Also, this is exactly what happened with Hunter Labrada at the 2021 Olympia showdown. You should ensure you’re not holding water before you step on stage.
5. The Tan Itself
There are a ton of bodybuilding tans available on the market. Most bodybuilding shows offer a tanning service at the venue and even give you a touch-up before you step on stage.
However, no two tans are the same. You want a tan that does not have alcohol. You’ll shave your body before hitting the stage, remember? Plus, although every bodybuilder wants to look diced and crisp on stage, your tan should have a moisturizer that helps maintain a moist-skin look under the sizzling stage lights. You don’t want to look as dry as a potato chip. A little shine can bring more attention to your physique.
The fake tan removal process is pretty complex, so pay close attention. To get rid of the tan post-show — bathe!
However, it is easier said than done. No, not the showering part—that is pretty easy, to be honest, especially if you have someone helping you. A little post-show celebration in the shower never hurts—if you know what we mean, but we digress.
Getting the spray tan off is nothing like popping out a blackhead. You can rarely get it off in a single wash. For a few days after the show, expect to walk around looking like a faded (and patchy) Garfield.
Are sunless tans safe?
Fake tans contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, which is popularly known as DHA. This chemical absorbs into the top layer of your skin cells, resulting in the darkening of the cells. While the process might sound questionable, the DHA coloration process is harmless and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved for external use.
How long does a spray tan last?
Many companies claim that their fake tans last up to ten days and fade evenly without streaks. However, most competitive bodybuilders wash off the tan after a show or a subsequent photo shoot.
Do I need to get a spray tan for competing in a show?
Most bodybuilding federations do not mandate the use of sunless tans. However, most bodybuilders use a fake tan, and you should be prepared to be the only one on stage without a tan if you decide to go down that path.
Why do bodybuilders use such a dark tan?
Bodybuilders usually opt for the darkest tans available, and we are transitioning from bronze tans to chocolate tans. Although it might sound controversial, white bodybuilders try to get as dark as the black guys on stage.
As discussed above, dark colors absorb light, giving the darker contestants an advantage. Many white bodybuilders will go for the darkest tan available to match the color tone of the black athletes. Doing so puts every competitor on a leveled playing field.
Judging at bodybuilding shows is subjective. Most times, the competition is so tight that the judges are not looking at an athlete’s strengths but their weaknesses, and in such a situation, a good tan can make all the difference.
If you’re considering stepping on stage, give the tanning process the respect it deserves by not treating it as an afterthought. Best of luck!