While many bodybuilders have tattoos, the topic of tattoos in bodybuilding is more controversial than you might think.
Today we’ll discuss why most bodybuilders don’t recommend getting tattoos and why one of the most body-proud sub-cultures recommends keeping your body squeaky clean for a better stage performance!
Can you have tattoos in bodybuilding?
Yes – you’re allowed to have tattoos in bodybuilding, but they are a problem in some areas or when competing at the absolute highest levels. This is because tattoos can obscure the areas of the body that you really want to show off – specifically around the edges of muscles or deep-cut definition.
Tattoos are a common sight in bodybuilding communities, but they do have to be considered if you want to take bodybuilding seriously and compete at the highest level. Being smart with tattoos can allow you to express yourself however you want while giving you the best chance to perform well on stage.
If you can avoid getting tattoos – especially large ones – you should. However, if you feel like you really want one, you can do a few things to help you look better and stay competition-ready.
How to get tattoos as a bodybuilder?
You can get tattoos as a bodybuilder with a smart approach to what kind and where you get them.
1: If you can, don’t
Obviously, if you’re super serious about bodybuilding, then the best choice is to avoid tattoos. The extra obscuring ink may cause problems with your competition performances, and – if you don’t need it – why take the risk?
Most bodybuilders will consider their bodies to “speak for themselves” as a form of expression and a showing of time and discipline. This is as expressive as some people want their body to be, especially on competition stages where the hard work really shows up.
Adding tattoos is obviously not necessary and not functional. It’s a personal choice to take on tattoos, but it is also an expensive way to add more challenge to your competitive appearance. If you want to be a top-level bodybuilder, avoiding the risk is just the smart thing to do.
2: Smart placements; nothing on the silhouettes
The first area to avoid is anywhere on the body that provides the silhouette. This includes things like the round edges of the deltoids, the edge of the lats, the sides of the quads, and anything around the edges of the arms. These break up a silhouette that is winning you major points in a competition.
Consider using other areas that are not so important for judging and which you can more aggressively tan in the lead-up to your competition. This priority organizing is a good way to get the most out of your physique without too many issues.
3: Avoid finer details!
The opposite of silhouettes, you should also avoid finer details with tattoos where they may obscure the most important areas. For example, you shouldn’t get a large and dark tattoo anywhere near the core – where the fine details of muscle separation in the abs, obliques, and intercostals are massive scoring areas for a well-developed physique.
You want to make sure that tattoos avoid filling in these important areas. Even an aggressive tan will start to obscure these crucially important details. Even more than silhouetting details, these separations are absolutely crucial.
Avoid filling in the core, the separation between muscles like the bicep-tricep, or the separation of muscle heads. Look to only tattoo on muscle bellies and other flat panels that take well to tanning.
4: Consider your gains and touch-ups (the later, the better)
Remember that, as a bodybuilder, you’re also likely to see significant changes to tattoos over time as your body fluctuates in size through bulking and cutting cycles. These change how tattoos look, and getting them too early could be a major blunder.
With the constant changes in skin texture and stretching-shrinking cycles, you may need to spend more money and effort on touching up tattoos if you get them too early in your bodybuilding career. If you're taking both tattoos and bodybuilding seriously, try to defer tattoos until you get closer to your ‘final’ size.
It’s just one more reason to hold off until you have more experience and knowledge about your size, your competitive goals, and how you can integrate tattoos smartly and responsibly.
Tattoos to get
If you do really want a tattoo, then you want to add it to a flat panel on the body and consider the important shapes that make up an aesthetic physique and the order of importance. The more you stick to non-intrusive placement, the more you can get away with it.
You also want to consider how the severity and darkness of colors pair up with the location, both of which are important. The darker a tattoo, the more consideration you need to put into the positioning since it has more impact on the total appearance and is harder to cover up.
Less-judged areas (hands, neck, feet, calves below the attachment, etc.)
Returning to the priorities and shapes, look for areas that draw less attention in competition due to being further away from key muscles. Areas like the calves and forearms are typically less important than the quads, back, core, or arms.
The more you can put these items away from direct attention, the fewer problems you’re likely to have with judging, especially if you don’t get the best tan coverage over a tattoo. This can be a great way to ‘get away with something darker and more intricate without really distracting the eye or damaging the presentation of the whole package of a physique.
This is even more effective if you get ‘beyond’ the muscles into areas like the lower calf and ankle, or the lower forearms, that don’t have significant musculature that needs judging. Being conscious of these ‘ideal’ placements is a good way to avoid the most common and damaging problems of huge back pieces, chest coverage, or obscure major ‘point-scoring’ detail.
Tattoos to avoid
There are a few specific ‘don’t’ tattoos in bodybuilding. The complete back piece is one of the most common problems since it covers the often subtler details of the separation in these muscles and especially the contours of single muscles like the traps, which are naturally not deep cuts like separations but have a slope that shows size, definition, and symmetry.
Back pieces like these can eat up the hard-earned details of a big, chiseled back. It’s a fast route to wasting a ton of effort and discipline in prep while also being one of the most obvious ‘avoids’ for a bodybuilder.
Anything on the core will be both distracting (due to the position relative to eyeliner for judges) and at risk of obscuring crucial details. The core is where many of the major definitions of a well-conditioned bodybuilder show, from the separation of muscles to striations and grain.
These are areas where even a little dark line work can obscure details or distract from the greater whole, which is always a bad idea. As you get better, these fine details contribute to decisions of win or lose, of 1st or 2nd, and it’s just not worth it.
Tattoos on or around the core are rare but deserve to be – they’re a major risk for very little actual benefit. They’re also harder to tan than other options, possibly softening some of those hard-cut lines even with a smart cover job.
Anything on lines of definition
Any tattoo that covers the separation between the heads of muscles should be seriously considered as these are major aspects of a great physique. The separation of muscles in the upper arm or in the quads is a huge factor in showing conditioning. Even softening those separations or distracting them with a tattoo is likely to be a problem for elite-level competition.
As ever, tan work can do a lot, but it does put you one step in complexity behind the competition and adds more things to worry about on stage day. Avoiding these worries by not getting a tattoo in these areas is the easiest way to go – or focusing on very light (i.e. easy to cover) tattoos in these areas.
Your body is obviously covered in muscle separation, and you can’t avoid them all, but try to avoid the major ‘scoring’ separations so that – if you do need to tan cover – it won’t detract from your major strengths.
Areas that you want to highlight
Consider what you’re bringing in terms of a physique and what your strengths, weaknesses, and priorities are. Covering a weak point won’t fix it, but it also won’t be as harmful as covering up something that you’ve emphasized in your prep.
It’s going to sting if you’ve put serious work into getting rippling delts with deep separation and clear striations, only to run into a poor-quality tattoo covering up the results of all that effort, so the judges don’t see your sick feathering and grain.
Consider the whole package and what you’re showing off. Prioritize what matters, what’s strongest, and use tattoos and positions that are either easy to cover or with the least total damage to the physique-presentation you’re trying to show off.
Get a really good tanner: consult an expert and get the best results
Every bodybuilder should put effort into getting a good tan and tanning expert on competition day. However, those with tattoos need a great tanning artist/consultant before a competition to make sure that everything is covered appropriately without ‘clumping’ or excessive coverage that softens the definition.
Spend some time really getting to know a good tanning expert and dry-run some coverage on major tattoos if you’ve already got them. Make sure you know how they act and look under heavy lighting to ensure you’re prepared for competition day.
This is Bodybuilding 101, but you absolutely can’t afford to get it wrong when you’ve already got tattoos that need to be treated properly for your goals. You have less tolerance than the normal bodybuilder and need to take it more seriously.
Bodybuilding and tattoos FAQ:
Why don’t bodybuilders have tattoos?
Bodybuilders avoid tattoos because they cover up the muscle separation, striations, or other finer details that make the difference in elite bodybuilding competitions, where judging is based on these tiny details.
The use of tattoos is completely allowed within bodybuilding competitions at every level. Once they’re in, you can’t get rid of them, and many competitive bodybuilders voice regret poorly placed and especially dark tattoos in places where they cover details.
Bodybuilders will thus either avoid tattoos entirely or put them in places that don’t compromise the appearance of the physique. The definition is an essential part of judging. Proper attention to detail is key for bodybuilding competitions for even intermediate and advanced competitors, where judging is exacting, and the space between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd is incredibly tight.
Will getting a tattoo help or hinder my workout?
Getting a tattoo will definitely hinder your workout in the mid-term due to the reduced amount of training you can do – and possible limitations for exercises – that come from the recovery period. You shouldn’t sweat excessively during this time, cause too much friction, or exaggerate the skin's strength.
These are not good for your training, where you’ll likely need to reduce volume, change movements around a body part, or simply avoid it altogether to reduce infection risk. These obviously damage your training in the short and mid-term, but they shouldn’t be any real problem in the long-term of months and years that go into building your physique.
Just be aware of this limitation while building up weaknesses or in later aspects of your training. These can be major blunders when you’re trying to round out a physique and bring up areas, only to be denied by infection concerns and proper tattoo recovery.
Just be smart about it.
Do tattoos make you look stronger?
While there’s an old cultural trope of only tough guys getting tattoos, they definitely don’t make you look stronger (i.e. able to lift more or produce more force). They’re just very subtly associated with sailors, prisoners, and biker gangs from earlier in the 20th century when these were the only people who got tattoos.
Because of those roots in popular culture, tattoos used to be seen as a tough-guy symbol that said you weren’t to be messed with. Most of this stigma has died out now, and – while those circles still have specific tattoo practices – so does just about every other subculture.
You’re not going to look stronger, tougher, or meaner just because you got a tattoo. They might add to the appearance if you’re already big, strong, tough, and scary – but they won’t do it for you.
Bodybuilding is about showing off your hard work in the physique you create. When you’ve done this, it can be very easy to limit the results and cause problems on the most important day: stepping on stage on comp day to show it off and win some hardware.
Tattoos in bodybuilding are permissible and won’t ruin your physique, but they do introduce more variables to deal with, a bigger ‘swing’ depending on your tan and coverage, and interruptions or changes to training to fit in new tattoos.
The obvious answer is that these aren’t worth introducing into the efforts around elite competition – but they are manageable once they’re on your body. The more serious you are about bodybuilding, the more functionally prohibitive it is for tattoos, but it’s not a game-breaker until the Olympia!