In the last week leading up to a contest, bodybuilders usually decrease their consumption of water, sodium, and carbohydrates, the former two to alter how water is retained by the body and the latter to reduce glycogen in the muscle. The day before the show, water is removed from the diet, and diuretics may be introduced, while carbohydrate loading is undertaken to increase the size of the muscles through replenishment of their glycogen. The goal is to maximize leanness and increase the visibility of veins, or "vascularity". The muscular definition and vascularity are further enhanced immediately before appearing on stage by darkening the skin through tanning products and applying oils to the skin to increase shine. Some competitors will eat sugar-rich foods to increase the visibility of their veins. A final step, called "pumping", consists in performing exercises with light weights or other kinds of low resistance (for instance two athletes can "pump" each other by holding a towel and pulling in turn), just before the contest, to fill the muscles with blood and further increase their size and density.

In competitive bodybuilding, bodybuilders aspire to develop and maintain an aesthetically pleasing body and balanced physique.[16][17] In prejudging, competitors do a series of mandatory poses: the front lat spread, rear lat spread, front double biceps, back double biceps, side chest, side triceps, Most Muscular (men only), abdominals and thighs. Each competitor also performs a personal choreographed routine to display their physique. A posedown is usually held at the end of a posing round, while judges are finishing their scoring. Bodybuilders usually spend a lot of time practising their posing in front of mirrors or under the guidance of their coach.

During the 1950s, the most successful and most famous competing bodybuilders[according to whom?] were Bill Pearl, Reg Park, Leroy Colbert, and Clarence Ross. Certain bodybuilders rose to fame thanks to the relatively new medium of television, as well as cinema. The most notable[according to whom?] were Jack LaLanne, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, and Mickey Hargitay. While there were well-known gyms throughout the country during the 1950s (such as Vince's Gym in North Hollywood, California and Vic Tanny's chain gyms), there were still segments of the United States that had no "hardcore" bodybuilding gyms until the advent of Gold's Gym in the mid-1960s. Finally, the famed Muscle Beach in Santa Monica continued its popularity as the place to be for witnessing acrobatic acts, feats of strength, and the like. The movement grew more in the 1960s with increased TV and movie exposure, as bodybuilders were typecast in popular shows and movies.[citation needed]
In contrast to strongman or powerlifting competitions, where physical strength is paramount, or to Olympic weightlifting, where the main point is equally split between strength and technique, bodybuilding competitions typically emphasize condition, size, and symmetry. Different organizations emphasize particular aspects of competition, and sometimes have different categories in which to compete.
The winner of the annual IFBB Mr. Olympia contest is generally recognized as the world's top male professional bodybuilder. Since 1950, the NABBA Universe Championships have been considered the top amateur bodybuilding contests, with notable winners such as Reg Park, Lee Priest, Steve Reeves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Winners generally go on to become professional athletes.
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