If you follow professional bodybuilding at all, you’ll have noticed a common trend in competition.
It’s rare to see a competitor on stage who isn’t darkly tanned, looking shiny and defined.
A well-applied tan can make a marked difference to a physique. But there are also plenty of examples out there of terrible-looking bodybuilding tans.
This article is a guide on everything tanning for bodybuilding competitions.
We’ll cover the top reasons the pros utilize this method, as well as how to do it yourself.
Why do bodybuilders tan?
Bodybuilders undergo both real and fake tanning practices to further accentuate their extremely lean and muscular physiques.
Bodybuilding competitions take place on brightly lit stages. Alongside pale skin, this can ‘wash out’ the look of a physique.
All professional bodybuilders tan, regardless of their natural skin tone. This is because fake tans can also be light-reflective, highlighting muscle definition.
Tanning is a critical part of bodybuilding competition. Competitors spend months of hard work in the gym, dieting, and sacrificing to build their best physique.
Having a good-looking tan is an important piece of the final effect. When done wrong, it can have disastrous consequences when being judged in competition.
We’ll go into further detail on the many reasons bodybuilders tan. But first, let’s take a look at the process of how to apply a tan for a show.
How do bodybuilders get so tan?
Step 1: Hair Removal
To ensure an evenly applied tan that doesn’t have dark streaks, all body hair must be removed.
This includes areas such as the chest, back, forearms, underarms, legs, and more intimate areas.
In addition to making the tan easier to apply, removing body hair is a method in itself to reveal muscle definition.
Hair removal can be achieved with shaving, waxing, laser hair removal, or hair removal creams.
Step 2: Exfoliating
After removing all hair from the body, the next step is to scrub the skin. This cleans away all dirt, dead skin cells, and other particles on the surface layer of the skin.
These artifacts can cause a tan to become patchy if they are not removed before application.
Exfoliating the skin can be done with a combination of cleansing or body-wash products.
Some of these products include beads or other elements that give them a rougher texture, to help add friction to the cleaning.
In addition, cleaning cloths, loofahs, or sponges can be used to scrub and wipe over the skin surface. This helps to remove dirt and other particles.
Step 3: Tanning
Once the skin is hair-free, clean, and fresh, it’s time to actually apply a tanning method.
The different ways to tan are described in the following section, but we’ll provide a brief overview here.
After the steps outlined above, a tanning product can be applied either with a spray tan or a self-tanning product like a cream.
Usually, it requires multiple layers and sessions of tanning products. The timing and strategy leading up to a show are important.
After the base layers of tan are applied and set, final touches are usually applied on the day of the competition.
The Most Common Types of Tan that Bodybuilders Use
One of the most common mistakes novice bodybuilders make when it comes to tanning is relying solely on artificial tans. These are often applied only shortly before showtime.
This can create issues when sweating, rubbing skin while posing, or wearing clothing. This is because it causes the tan to streak, run, or be wiped away in parts.
The solution to this is to have as dark a natural tan as possible before going in to add fake tan.
You may have seen old footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the classic bodybuilders all lying out in the sun or training outdoors.
This was because the best-looking tan will always be a natural one. While additional tan is needed for competition, having a natural base is an advantage.
A natural tan can be achieved with short bouts (as little as 10-15 minutes) of exposure to sunlight, consistently over a couple of weeks.
For those living in colder or cloudier climates, the same effect can be achieved with a tanning bed.
Obviously, sun exposure comes with its own health risks, so be sure to weigh the pros and cons before getting out there to fry yourself.
Another commonly used method of tanning is with creams and other self-application products.
These products come from many different brands and have different consistencies, colors, and finishes.
Self-tanning creams often need to be applied in multiple sessions. It’s common to have someone else help apply it to hard-to-reach areas.
This method is probably the most difficult, as it requires a lot of technique to avoid creating streaky portions or dark patches on the elbows and knees.
Spray tanning is becoming more popular as the go-to method for applying pre-competition tan.
Champions such as three-time Mr. Olympia Classic Physique Chris Bumstead have their own professional tanners. These assistants apply their spray tans before a show.
Spray tans are applied in two to three coats, with the first base coat having the excess showered off afterward.
There is then additional touching up to accentuate the physique leading up to stage time.
Another approach to tanning in bodybuilding is with supplements that increase pigment in the skin.
Some of these supplements are widely available, however, the evidence supporting their use is dubious.
The idea of such products is that they cause melanin to darken uniformly across all of the skin.
The advantage of such a method is that it avoids problems with running or streaking. It also creates an overall tan even in normally hard to tan areas.
The downsides of tanning supplements can include side effects such as flushing and nausea in some cases.
Of course, consult with a medical professional before deciding to go this route.
Does tanning affect muscle growth?
Because tanning has such an effect on the look of a physique, some people may get the impression that tanning itself affects muscle development.
Although a tan can make muscles look more defined, it doesn’t actually affect the physiology of the muscles themselves.
Natural tanning through sun exposure can affect health overall, with positive exposure for healthy vitamin D production.
Why do bodybuilders use tan so much?
This section provides a list of the most common reasons professional bodybuilders take their tanning so seriously.
1. Muscle Definition
The first and main reason bodybuilders use so much tan for a show is that darker skin tones simply make muscles stand out more.
Bodybuilding competitions are all about aesthetics. The better the judges can see muscle definition, the higher the athlete will score.
2. Stage Lights
Bodybuilding competitions take place on brightly lit stages. There are all manner of downlights and spotlights shining on the contestants.
Without a dark tan and oil to show the relief of the muscle shapes, these bright lights will make a pale-skinned contestant look less impressive.
These lights can also be quite warm, which is why a good tanning technique is important to avoid streaking from excessive sweating.
3. Hides Blemishes
A tan hides all kinds of skin blemishes from a bodybuilder. This way, judges are not distracted from the physique.
Things such as rashes, stretch marks, freckles, moles, and even pimples can be masked with a good tan.
4. Masks Tattoos
In the same regard, many bodybuilders like to express themselves with tattoos in the offseason.
But tattoos can cover and distract from muscle shape and definition, especially when contrasted against paler skin.
A dark tan can hide the majority of tattoos, so they don’t take away from the athletes’ physique.
5. Evens Skin Tones
Bodybuilders from all walks of life compete against each other on stage.
All competitors having a dark tan evens the playing field for all of the athletes. This is especially apparent in a side-by-side posedown.
Even bodybuilders with naturally dark skin tones apply tan and oils. This helps them still reap the benefits to the look of their physique.
6. Appearance of Health
Part of the reason a tan is sought after in the bodybuilding world is that it simply has become a marker of health and vitality.
When people picture a ‘beach body,’ they don’t exactly picture a pasty white but muscle-bound physique.
The natural tans of the golden era have evolved to the more extreme dark tans we have in bodybuilding today. Darker skin tones have simply become the standard.
7. Competitive Advantage
Part of the reason for tans becoming darker over the years stems from the results of past competitions.
Athletes with darker and better tans start to get better results and win more competitions. Understandably, other bodybuilders start to emulate their success.
There is just no way in today’s competitive scene that a pale athlete could get up and look better than one with a good tan, even with identical physiques.
8. Aesthetically Pleasing
Leading from the last point, bodybuilding is all about making the best-looking body possible.
Bodybuilder physiques aren’t everyone’s definition of the perfect body. But most can agree that different bodybuilding physiques are aesthetically impressive.
A good tan has just become another part of what judges look for when scoring the best bodybuilder’s physiques.
Bodybuilder Tan vs. No Tan: Is there a difference?
The best way to illustrate the difference between a bodybuilder’s physique with or without a tan is to do a side-by-side comparison.
Take a look at the two pictures below:
As you can see, both guys have great physiques. But, the one with the tan has darker shadows and sharper highlights on his muscles.
This makes them stand out more, especially to judges when comparing these under bright stage lighting.
You can also find plenty of examples of bodybuilders before and after they have their tan.
While a bodybuilder tan can look funny to some, there’s no arguing that it does its job.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is tanning good for bodybuilding?
Hopefully, this article has provided some compelling reasons why bodybuilders should master the art of tanning as part of their competition preparation.
Why do bodybuilders tan so dark?
As mentioned, the darker the tan, often the more the muscle definition is thrown into sharp relief.
While these ultra-dark tans can look a bit strange to some, if they didn’t work, the top competitors wouldn’t use them.
Why do bodybuilders not tan their face?
Some bodybuilders tan their faces, some don’t. It depends on the method you use as to how easy it is to make it look more natural.
For instance, a spray tan is easier to use on the face than some of the rub-in creams.
It comes down to personal preference, whether the athlete thinks they look better with or without the face tanned.
Why do bodybuilders have shiny skin?
In addition to layers of tan, oiling the body is an important part of stage prep.
Oil sharpens the highlights on the muscles, creating a more chiseled and separated look than dry skin.
What tan do bodybuilders use?
There are dozens of brands and products used by professional bodybuilders to get their show tan.
Various brands of creams, supplements, tanning beds, and spray tan services can be found to suit different requirements.
Pro Tan has been one of the most popular brands for decades and has a wide range of products. These include tans, hair removal, and tan removal for after the competition.
There are also various tanning sprays, mousses, and water-based products available through Amazon.
Do some research and experimentation, and consult a dermatologist if you have any special requirements for your skin type.
Does being tan make you look more muscular?
Yes! Especially under bright lights, a dark tan will always make a physique look leaner and more muscular.
Why do bodybuilders tan for competition?
The best bodybuilders do everything they can to make their bodies look their best.
Bodybuilders undergo hard training, strict dieting, and many other techniques and methods to sculpt their muscles. Tanning is just another necessary part of competing.
So, what do you think about our guide to tanning for professional bodybuilding?
Let us know if you tan to create a more muscular-looking physique – and which tanning methods you use – in the comments.
If you have any training buddies that are looking a little pasty, don’t forget to share this article with them, too.
Jesse is an Australian Accredited Exercise Physiologist currently based in Prague, Czech Republic. He has been working in the Allied Health and fitness industries since 2011, helping personal training clients, athletes, and clinical exercise patients achieve their goals. Jesse is a contributor for Exercise with Style.