Amateur bodybuilding competition is conducted using weight divisions for same reason sports like boxing, wrestling and weight lifting are: Body size is an important factor. And bigger competitors usually have an advantage over smaller competitors, all else being equal.
While competing as amateurs, bodybuilders have to make weight, control their diet and prep to end up under the limit of the weight division they have chosen to enter.
I remember bodybuilder Tim Belknap just before a national competition, right on the line between light heavyweight and heavyweight, holding a baked potato and trying to decide whether to compete as the biggest light heavyweight or the smallest heavyweight. He chose to go bigger, which turned out to be a bad idea since Lee Haney was in he heavyweight class that year.
Up through 1979, there were also two weight divisions at the Mr. Olympia. So Franco Columbu could win an Olympia title without having to compete directly against Arnold — until the posedown for the overall title.
Nowadays, there are some weight categories in pro shows and in classic bodybuilding, like the 212-pound class at the Mr. Olympia (a limit that was moved up from 202 pounds). A 212-pound champion like Silvio Samuel, standing on stage by himself, does not look at all like a “small guy” until you line him up beside much larger bodybuilders, some of whom might outweigh him by 70 pounds or more.
But over the years, there have been a lot of excellent bodybuilders who have tried to be bigger on stage than they should have been, not realizing it’s the definition and detail in a physique that attracts the eye on stage. Being bigger but smooth causes the eye to slide off and look elsewhere.
I have seen a number of really excellent smaller or mid-size competitors, several among the very best, who gradually gained weight competing as pros over the years but ended up too heavy, diminishing their aesthetic quality. Some of these individuals were not only among the best, but also among my all-time favorites.
I understood why they gained weight over time. The bodybuilding diet is highly demanding, and it doesn’t get easier over the years. In fact, as you get older and your body continues to mature, it can get harder. Plus there is the psychological factor. Holding yourself to that kind of intense discipline year after year can burn you out.
Then, there’s the disappointment and frustration of realizing you’re always at a disadvantage competing against much bigger opponents. The saying that a bigger athlete will always have the edge over a smaller one is often, though not always, true in bodybuilding. So being the “pound for pound” champion is not the same as being the winner. After a while, you can feel like you’re beating your head against a wall.
The legendary Vince Gironda, one of the first to emphasize definition over mass, was fond of saying “ bodybuilding is illusion.” Bigger in reality doesn’t always look bigger on stage. Again, detail and definition are what attract and hold the eye. Mass that detracts from your overall symmetry will get in the way of the kind of competition success you would otherwise deserve.
Of course, there would be much less motivation for pro bodybuilders to gain too much weight if there were more weight divisions, more like the amateurs. This would reward smaller competitors to train for a class in which they would be the most competitive.
I remember discussing this option back in the 1990s with Wayne Demilia, who was in charge of pro bodybuilding for the IFBB. “It isn’t going to happen,” he told me. “The big guys don’t want to share the money.”
These guys are just a few examples of bodybuilders who, at times, took their size too far.