Long before the muscleheads of Jersey Shore popularized the GTL lifestyle (that’s Gym, Tan, Laundry) during the late ’00s, bodybuilders were applying self-tanner to their physiques in the days and weeks leading up to their competitions.
This practice is certainly a head-scratcher for outsiders but, believe it or not, physique athletes tanning themselves is an integral aspect of bodybuilding. It also has a storied history that stretches further back than you might think.
Why Do Bodybuilders Tan?
Make no mistake — a bodybuilder’s tan isn’t just the result of catching some stray rays on a sunny summer afternoon. Regardless of their natural complexion, competitors go to extensive lengths to dramatically darken the tone of their skin and add a sheen before they reveal their physiques on stage.
Most of the time, this is achieved through a combination of an organic “base tan” from sunlight or beds, which is then augmented with synthetic tanning sprays and oils. Why? Presentation, of course.
Tanning Improves Muscle Definition
If you spend months and years building up and shredding out your physique to participate in a bodybuilding competition, you want your body to look as cut and defined as possible. That’s really the long and short of it.
Darker complexions hold up well under the excessively-bright lighting commonly seen at bodybuilding shows. The contrast between sharp lighting and dark skin helps define muscular cuts and striations and gives a bodybuilder’s physique a “harder” look.
Tanning Adds Visual Contrast
In addition to helping a bodybuilder show off every crevice of their feathered quads, the predictability offered by synthetic tans gives a competitor a bit more leeway with their apparel. A bodybuilder may sometimes choose the color or pattern of their posing trunks or bikini based on the level of tan they expect to bring to the stage.
Furthermore, many competitors will often complement their tanning protocol with last-minute applications of various oils. This gives their physique a shiny, pristine look, not unlike that of a bronze statue.
Spray Tanning Spares the Skin
Spray tanning is the most common way for modern bodybuilders to achieve the look they require for the stage. And it’s not just about convenience — it’s also a health-conscious evolution in the sport.
A study in the medical journal Cancers suggests that using tanning beds before the age of 20 can increase the odds of getting melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — by 47 percent, with the risk increasing with each use. It also increased the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers by as much as 58 percent for all ages. (1) Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays from natural sunlight also increases the risk of skin cancer, according to The Mayo Clinic. (2)
Still, many top bodybuilders (like 212 Olympia champ (2021) and Men’s Open competitor Derek Lunsford) remain committed to the tanning bed to achieve a slightly darker base before getting sprayed come showtime.
In a Q&A segment for Muscle & Fitness, Head Olympia judge Steve Weinberger noted that fair-skinned bodybuilders in particular stand a better chance of achieving an even spray tan if they get some base color beforehand. Weinberger stressed that if you head outdoors to work on your tan, you should do so in a limited and careful capacity.
Artificial tans — meaning, those achieved from a combination of tanning booths or beds and topical products — weren’t always the norm in bodybuilding. However, they’re a small reprieve from the extreme amounts of sun exposure some athletes once had to subject themselves to during their preparation for the big day.
The History of Tanning in Bodybuilding
Dressing up your physique with a good tan is as integral to the visual splendor of bodybuilding as a good posing routine. The sport has evolved quite a bit in the last few decades; so too have the norms and approaches athletes take regarding their tans.
The Golden Era
The physique stars of the late 19th and early 20th century — think Eugen Sandow or Charles Atlas — would famously apply chalk or other powders to their bodies to enhance their spectacle and make themselves appear more like famous Greek sculptures. In fact, bodybuilding owes a good deal of credit to those physical works of art. (3)
Years later, tanning grew into an accepted facet of contest preparation during the sport’s “Golden Era” in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In his seminal book, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the practice at length:
“A good tan helps to keep your definition under bright stage lights, but it must be approached with a degree of moderation and care… I recommend that you get as good of a [natural] tan as possible first, and then increase its depth with the use of artificial agents.” (4)
The seven-time Mr. Olympia also remarked that many of the earliest professional bodybuilders would take to the stage with virtually no tan at all, something he considered a tactical error. And as the sport matured and grew in popularity (and muscularity), tanning norms evolved as well.
The growth of bodybuilding — both figuratively and literally — may have contributed to evolved tanning practices. Classical physical performers would show off their bodies as they were naturally, while the golden-era bodybuilders that followed mixed organic sun exposure with a bit of synthetic tan.
In the modern age of bodybuilding, tanning protocols are extremely thorough. You need only look at the Men’s Open finalist lineup from as recent as 2021 to see that many of the world’s best modern bodybuilders are opting for noticeably darker tans than a decade prior.
This may have to do with the evolving standards in certain divisions. In the pursuit of higher placings and better results, bodybuilders can easily get caught up in a proverbial arms race to show up onstage a bit leaner than the year before.
As such, spray tanning rituals the day before (and the day of) a show are as essential to the bodybuilder’s pre-stage warm-up as catching a good pump. Companies like Pro Tan often have multiple staffers applying last-minute polish to the athletes, reminiscent of a NASCAR pit crew.
So, as physique standards become more stringent, and the average levels of body fat continue to drop, darker tans become more valuable as a means of bringing out every facet of the athlete’s hard work.
Under the Skin
Bodybuilding success, particularly at the sport’s highest levels, necessitates all kinds of crazy practices. Ritualistic tanning may look a bit silly from the outside, but a proper tan is absolutely crucial if you’re a competitor.
After all, the last thing you want is to train your butt off for years at a time, diet down to truly harrowing levels of body fat, and then present anything less than your absolute best on stage. The lights are stark and the judges shrewd; a good tan helps the bodybuilder cut through the static.
- An S, Kim K, Moon S, Ko KP, Kim I, Lee JE, Park SK. Indoor Tanning and the Risk of Overall and Early-Onset Melanoma and Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Cancers (Basel). 2021 Nov 25;13(23):5940. doi: 10.3390/cancers13235940. PMID: 34885049; PMCID: PMC8656707.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Melanoma.” MayoClinic.org. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/melanoma/symptoms-causes/syc-20374884
- Strongman project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2022.
- Schwarzenegger, A., Dobbins, B. (1998). The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding (664-667). United Kingdom: Simon & Schuster.
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