The question, in regards to judging is which of these three is the most important? If you ask a dozen people this question you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. The truth is that all 3 aspects are equally important. The difficulty for judges is that every person in each class will have a varied combination of these three components so we’re rarely comparing apples to apples. If a class of 10 competitors stepped on stage and every one of them had identical conditioning, it would be very easy to assess their symmetry and muscularity and place them accordingly. Or if the entire class had the same symmetry and muscularity then we’d simply be placing them based on conditioning. However, it’s never that simple.
Homework time - I’m going to give a few tips here that will guide you through the judging process if you’ve never done it before. A lot of people who attend shows spend the whole time looking at their friend on stage. They tend to ignore the rest of the class because they’re fixated on one or two competitors. When placings are announced at night they suddenly become a critic and start throwing tomatoes at the judges. Well guess what? I like tomatoes and they’re FULL of antioxidants. Next time you go to a show, take a note pad and a pencil and try actually placing the entire class. I don’t mean just figuring out how you think your friend did, I mean placing 1st through 3rd or 4th or 10th or 12th or however many people are in that class. If you’ve already done that, you know how difficult it is. Here are a few things to keep in mind next time that will make the process a little less difficult:
Every class is different but when you’re looking at a lineup, particularly during quarter turns, there are typically one or two physiques that will catch your eye instantly as being top of the class. This is not to say you’ll instantly know who’s first but it won’t take too long to figure it out. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll have one or two physiques that are quite the opposite of those top couple competitors. For the most part, what will noticeably separate the two ends of the spectrum is conditioning. This is not to say that conditioning is THE most important aspect but it is quickly apparent who is dialed in for competition and who is not. Someone with very poor conditioning is usually going to place low in their class despite their size. Remember that neither symmetry nor muscularity will be well displayed if you’re poorly conditioned (sumo!).
In a class with a large variance in conditioning, the top few competitors and the bottom few competitors will tend to create a curve for that class. Once you’ve established who is first and who is last you can works backwards to place the rest of the class. Who is the closest to the guy or gal who was first? Who is closest to the guy or gal who was last? In larger classes, placing the top few and bottom few tend to be quite easy. Where it starts getting tough is placing the middle. As you get closer to the middle of the pack, the physiques will be more similar to each other. Now you get down to deciding what’s the most important to you in terms of symmetry vs. muscularity vs. conditioning. This is subjective!
Personally, in bodybuilding classes, I tend to favor a little bit larger and more symmetrical physique over a smaller but slightly leaner physique. It is, after all, bodybuilding . . . not body shredding. Some judges prefer quite the opposite but it’s really just a matter of preference. While that might sound haphazard, the scoring process tends to even the playing field as we’ll get into in just a bit. To an extent, this also varies by class. If you’re looking at a Super-Heavyweight class on stage, you expect that they’re going to be huge. If it’s a Bantam Weight class and the heaviest guy on stage is 143lbs, they ought to be shredded.
One of the most ridiculous sounding, yet useful tips I ever received on judging came from Elaine Craig during a judging clinic in Bellevue quite a few years ago. I still revert to this in classes where two competitors are very similar and the decision is a tough one:
“If an alien came to Earth and asked ‘What does a bodybuilder look like?’ what would you show them?”
When I heard this I laughed. Then I thought about it for a while and it actually made sense. If you had to show someone who had never seen a bodybuilder or bikini competitor etc. what one was supposed to look like, which competitor would be the best example? When I’m having a hard time deciding, I often revert to this statement to pick which competitor best represents that particular division.
That being said, I have to add this: Sometimes a competitor will win or place high in a class that they don’t look cut out for, such as a super ripped bikini competitor or a HUGE men’s physique competitor or a very muscular figure competitor. Although this person may not be the ideal vision that we hold for a particular class, if they’re the best representative of the group on stage they are still the winner. Bikini competitors should not be super lean, but if a ripped gal is against a lineup of competitors who are way out of shape I would still place her 1st. Likewise for all other divisions. Could a 400lb woman win 1st place in bikini? Sure. If she’s the only competitor in her class she is automatically the winner OR if her competition is a 600lb woman of the same height. The winner of any class will be the best option out of that particular lineup on that particular day.
There are a handful of other factors that can play a role in placing. Bodybuilding is pretty cut and dry. Judges are looking for the best physique, period. Skin tone (tan), oil, presentation, etc are components that can help show off a physique better but this isn’t something a bodybuilder will be judged on.
For all other divisions, the NPC rules specifically state that judges WILL take these factors into account. This is still a physique competition before anything else but keep in mind that if two competitors have similar physiques, the other factors can play a big role in where they will place. I was recently at a show where two bikini competitors looked almost identical but one kept falling off her heals. Presentation is an essential part of that division! The following is taken straight from the NPC website rule page:
Judges will be scoring competitors using the following criteria:
- Small degree of muscularity with separation, no visible striation
- Overall muscle tone with shapely lines, overall firmness and not excessively lean.
- Full general assessment
- Healthy Appearance
- Skin Tone
- Balance and shape
- Overall Physical Appearance including: Complexion, Skin Tone, Poise, Overall Presentation
- Judges will be looking for fit contestants who display proper shape and symmetry combined with muscularity and overall condition.
- Judges are looking for the contestant with the best stage presence and poise who can successfully convey his personality to the audience.
The Scoring Process
So how do you take a subjective judging process and make it as fair as possible? We use a panel of qualified judges and combine their scores to determine placing. The panel will consist of an odd number of judges. Typically there are seven judges on a panel though smaller shows will sometimes use five judges and in other parts of the country some panels will consist of nine judges.
A judge will score each class by assigning a placing to each competitor from the lineup. So if a class has ten competitors, a judge will write in a place next to each competitor number, 1st -10th. When the scoring is complete and the class is dismissed from the stage, judges hand their score cards down to the tabulator. The tabulator transfers each score card onto the final scoring sheet and marks off the high and low scores for each competitor, adding up the remaining numbers to determine how many points each person has. The elimination of high and low scores prevents any single judge from being able to affect a class outcome based on personal bias, etc. In a seven judge panel, only five scores count toward the total score and in a five judge panel only three scores will count. In just a bit I’ll provide an example of how this is set up and why it works so well.
Backwards to most other sports, what a competitor wants is the lowest total score of the group. If you have a seven judge panel, the lowest possible score you can achieve is 5. That would indicate that you had all 1st place scores after the high and low score were removed (x5 judges). Final results are awarded from the lowest total score being first to the highest total score being last.
Here’s a score sheet from Shawn and Cinzia Clapp’s show that I attended last week. Shawn just posted this up, saving me the hassle of scanning in an entry form to use here (Thanks Shawn!). This is a perfect example of how well the scoring process works. Although not all judges scored this class the same, once the high and low scores were removed you will find that the placings are unanimous:
The larger the classes become, the more varied the scores will typically be but this system tends to produce very consistent results. Sometimes the large classes will have a handful of scores that seem way out of line. Once they’re marked off, the remaining scores will typically be within one or two places of each other.
Occasionally, competitors will be tied for the final score. When this happens, those two competitor’s scores are compared directly to each other rather than to the rest of the class to determine the tie breaker. The full panel of scores is used in a tie breaker (all 7 scores for a seven judge panel) and they are tallied on a win/lose basis, i.e. 4 to 3 or 5 to 2, etc. The larger and more competitive the class becomes, the more likely it is that you will see a tie.
A Perfect System?
Perfect? Not by a long shot. The judging process is subjective and variable. Judges can’t always see all competitors as well as they’d like to even with the class being moved around on stage. We all have personal preferences in terms of what we like to see in physiques and although everyone judges based on the same guidelines, we all see things a little differently. But the system that we use does tend to produce the most consistent and reliable results that we are able to offer.
That being said, I think it’s important for competitors to keep in mind that their placing is merely the averaged opinion of a qualified judging panel, nothing more. Where you place is not necessarily indicative of the time and effort that you put into stepping on stage. From the front row we cannot analyze the journey that you took to get where you are. We don’t know the countless hours of training, cardio, diet and sacrifice that you invested to get where you are. All we can tell you is how you stack up against whoever might be standing next to you on that day. Your motivation is to improve yourself each time you compete. Your reward for all the hard work is the ability to step on stage and be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Never let your placing define your success!