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How much do top professional bodybuilders make? How much do natural bodybuilders make? Is bodybuilding rewarded with passion alone, or can you earn income for your hard work? If so, are there any other alternatives to making money as a bodybuilder?
If you have been asking yourself these questions because you want to become a professional bodybuilder, this article should answer them for you – so stick with us!
How much do bodybuilders make?
When you ask how much a bodybuilder makes, it’s important to break it down. Mr Olympia and your local beginner aren’t comparable.
We can make a few different distinctions that help make it clearer. We want to talk about professional, semi-professional, and amateur bodybuilders. Then, from there, the different types of bodybuilding: are these professional bodybuilders natural or not? Then, you can break it down even further – what category are you thinking of? Open classes are different from fitness model and physique competitors. These open up different funding pathways, different types of pay, and different independent opportunities.
The Bodybuilding Market
Let’s be frank, there are a lot of factors to consider. This isn’t an easy question.
First of all, if you compare bodybuilding to sports like football, there is virtually no money to be made in bodybuilding. The market is not the same – and neither is the audience.
As a niche hobby and activity, bodybuilding doesn’t have the same international financial structure. Funds are tighter and federations won’t pay their athletes as much as Paris St Germain will pay Neymar (€36.8 million a year).
However, the fitness industry is growing, and it’s a shame that bodybuilders don’t see the same kind of numbers. With the new internet-heavy culture, there’s also a question of what kind of new opportunities are arising in the social media space.Although I believe that at the pace the fitness industry is growing, it is a shame bodybuilders don’t receive higher rewards for their hard work.
There is no fixed salary in bodybuilding
Bodybuilders don’t make a salary – they’re more like prize-fighters. You win money, you don’t have the stability and certainty of a fixed salary, like a footballer.
Competitions are necessary for earnings as a bodybuilder. Injured? Ill on the way into the show prep? Too bad, there’s no salary and there’s no allowance for these kinds of huge problems.
Unlike other areas where individual competitions are the way we get paid, bodybuilders don’t make big money. It’s different in golf, for example, where you’re going to get millions for winning, rather than the relatively small pay-offs that come from winning bodybuilding contests.
Just like many sports, athletes are not paid a fixed salary. While footballers will have a fixed salary from their clubs, bodybuilders have to place in competitions and earn their money through prizes. That sounds pretty fair, just like tennis players and golfers have to win contests to get paid. It’s just that bodybuilders don’t make anything compared to these two sports.
What top professional bodybuilders make in enhanced divisions
We can run down the earnings of the top 5 placing men, which is their main earning spot for the year:
5th place, Roelly Winklaar
4th place, Dexter Jackson
3th place, Hadi Choopan
2nd place, William Bonac
1st place, Brandon Curry
Contestants placing from 10th to 5th place did not get anything in the last two Olympia competitions, so this is actually a significant step up. The prize money looks significant to most of us – $400,00 is a lot – but it’s also the main earning and doesn’t consider the cost of being a top-level bodybuilder.
Take into consideration that these bodybuilders are paying for “supplements”, their daily costs, travel, and a variety of other bodybuilding-specific costs. Not only that, but these are the elite of the elite – what about the other competitors? Or the Olympia hopefuls who are betting everything on their genetic potential to reach the top spot?
It’s also important to remember this is the bodybuilding event. Bodybuilders can’t compete year-round due to the physical demands of competition prep, and smaller competitions don’t offer nearly as much in cash prizes.
Did you know?
In 1990, Vince McMahon tried to create a rival bodybuilding organisation to the IFBB. The World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF), as he called it, offered contracts and salaries to bodybuilders, which succeeded in tempting some bodybuilders away.
Gary Strydom, one of the top bodybuilders at the time, signed a 3-year deal worth 400,000 dollars per year. This was a huge cash incentive in 1990 dollars, especially compared to the IFBB who were not paying their bodybuilders much money and refused to deal with contracts.
This also captured the attention of other bodybuilders, with Lou Ferrigno and Mike Quinn signing on with the WBF. These are big names for the time, with Lou Ferrigno being a legitimate competitor with Arnold Schwarzenegger during his peak.
Even today, we still don’t have a consistent salary or pay structure for even the best bodybuilders in the world. While McMahon’s WBF never saw much success, it’s a clear symbol of the fact that unstable incomes for bodybuilders have been a consideration for the last 30 years, at least.
The fitness industry continues to grow and bodybuilding and its subsidiaries – non-competitive physique and aesthetic media, for example – are bigger than ever. The clear picture is that the people on the stage, performing, are not getting the financial returns to match this growth.
If you’re interested in the development of these different models for payment, there’s a great Generation Iron clip, discussing with Shawn Ray – a perennial Mr Olympia competitor.
Making up the difference: sponsorship and 3rd parties
One of the main ways that bodybuilders make up for this lack of salary and stability is through work in 3rd party bodybuilding media. This includes working with supplement companies, magazines, and other content outlets.
These include all kinds of different deals – and they’re not just based on the contest performances of these bodybuilders. These include things like social media presence, “marketability”, and the commitment of bodybuilders to individual contracts.
It’s not possible to get a clear number on the value of these sponsorships and similar income pathways – we don’t get to see those contracts. What we can say is that it depends entirely on who you are and what you achieve, but even the most successful bodybuilder of our generation – Phil Heath – made around 2-3 times as much from his sponsorships and work with 3rd party businesses as from his 7 Olympia wins (~2.5 million USD).
These are going to be a big deal for upcoming bodybuilders who can’t rely on win-money and need to develop independent funding for their careers. It’s also not uncommon to see elite level bodybuilders working full- or part-time jobs.
Bodybuilders own businesses to make money
For many bodybuilders, the public exposure and fame that comes from their competitive success is enough to launch their own businesses with some success.
This could be a blog, online supplement shop, clothing line, or all of the above. These are boosted through their personal image and brand. Ronnie Coleman, for example, won Mr Olympia 8 times and also runs titled clothing and supplement brands.
Equally, Jay Cutler did well for himself, too. After Winning the Mr Olympia 4 times, he bought himself a mansion and has his own supplement brand that fuels his income. Obviously, these are top-level athletes, but these business moves are just examples, and open to anyone.
You’ll also see these experienced, successful bodybuilders working as coaches. The experience and expertise is in-demand among amateurs who have the money and want to pay for the decades of experience that comes with an elite level competitive bodybuilder.
Bodybuilding fans and passionate fans can pay a decent amount to get coaching from someone who was “walked the walk”.
Not all of these businesses among bodybuilders are so honourable. There are many elite competitors whose sponsors, business partners, and own brands are tied into the steroid and illicit drug markets.
Bodybuilding has always been associated with drug use and abuse on the open, untested side. Other well-documented less-professional ways to support their bodybuilding lifestyle – such as erotic and provocative magazines, pornography, or escorting business.
It’s interesting to see just what people are willing to do to chase those dreams and afford the best performance-enhancing drugs!
What about natural bodybuilders?
So far, all we’ve talked about is the popular untested (i.e. steroid-heavy) – and there’s a ton of difference between unnatural, Mr Olympia winners and the rest of the bodybuilding world.
What about natural bodybuilding? The PNBA is the best known organisation for the natural world – and Elite is the best known organisation in the natural world for their prizes:
Open Classic Physique:
Open Women’s Bodybuilding:
That’s only if you place in the top 3, unlike the extended, top-5 approach that we see with the Olympia. Good luck after cutting hard for 5 months, with no drug support, for these much smaller rewards.
The price of being a natural bodybuilder is obviously less, since you don’t have to pay for chemical enhancements. However, it’s still a huge step down when we make the comparison – even 5th place in the Olympia will get you paid better than winning the best-paying natural bodybuilding competition.
Even here, the media presence and popularity of natural bodybuilding is smaller, so those 3rd party options like sponsorship and personal supplement lines are significantly reduced.
Should you get into bodybuilding to make money?
This is the real point: bodybuilding isn’t a reliable route for financial success. Sure, those at the very top are going to get paid and earn both social and financial rewards. However, those are a very small minority of the people who get into this lifestyle.
You have to pay a lot to do this, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever earn a single dollar with your bodybuilding – especially as a natural bodybuilder. The point is that you should focus on the passion and self-improvement that it provides. If you get money from your hard work, that’ll be amazing – but you shouldn’t expect it or set your enjoyment of it on the prospects of making money from it!
Bodybuilding, whether natural or enhanced, is a very expensive hobby. You usually have to eat a lot of food, buy quality ingredients, and travel. You also have to pay for your membership at the gym and for those who will go for the enhanced categories, you have to pay for your “supplements”, which will be very expensive.
You should get into bodybuilding because you are passionate about it, not for the money.
What’s interesting is that you could make it a side business to coaching or having your own supplement brand. This way, you could “live” on your passion and have an activity very closely related to bodybuilding which pays your bills. Remember that this is going to take a lot of time, effort, and it’s not going to make big returns for a while.
Nick’s strength and power in one of his videos says that if you basically can build a good body for yourself, you can make money because you are then able to advertise yourself or make something out of it. Expertise and experience are what you sell yourself on – so make sure you’re smart about it and educate yourself!
Winning in bodybuilding is not always fair
On top of the competitive, unreliable chances of winning in bodybuilding, you also have to remember that bodybuilding isn’t always fair. It’s also not always going to agree with your judgment of competitions, of what should be important, or of who should win.
Bodybuilding has its political elements, and they influence success in the industry. Marketability in the 21st century is about more than a great physique – it also includes how you present yourself, your following, and how well you’re integrated into the fitness industry and bodybuilding culture.
There’s always a subjective element, and that makes it easy for people to twist the rules, the judging, and the market side of things. Success in the field comes from a lot of different factors and – even if you’ve got what it takes – you have to ask yourself if you’re willing to bet it all on this kind of unpredictable judgment and this variety of factors.
Bodybuilding could be so much better!
The sad thing is that it could be so much better
The fitness industry continues to grow and everyone’s getting rich off it, but the bodybuilders outside of the absolute elite are struggling to keep themselves in the competitive scene.
That’s sad because the industry is worth $100 billion, and the local and regional scenes rely on the passion of people who are never earning money from their work. They’re the ones making it a popular and effective industry, but never seeing their effort come back to them.
Bodybuilding is a difficult, expensive, and requires years of commitment. It’s sad that this isn’t represented in the lifestyle it affords everyone but the absolute best.
Don’t hold yourself back from pursuing a bodybuilding career if you want to. But temper your expectations and don’t rely on it to cover your bills.
You could try to grow your image and have another activity on the side while trying to get your career started on stage. Maybe one day it will pay off. Building relationships can be very important so it’s never a waste of time.
But make sure you’re in it for the right reasons: be passionate, be supportive of other bodybuilders, and get involved with your grassroots community. It’s the passion and enthusiasm of us, the fans and enthusiasts, that make it all possible!
Don’t hold yourself back from pursuing a bodybuilding career if you want to. You could try to grow your image and have another activity on the side while trying to get your career started on stage. Maybe one day it will pay off. Building relationships can be very important so it’s never a waste of time.
Is there hope in bodybuilding for more money?
If there was a new system, it would be possible for athletes to make more money in bodybuilding.
Looking at the fitness industry’s growth, this is something which should be possible and increase the prizes bodybuilders can earn. It might require changes to how we judge bodybuilders on the stage – but do we really think that a more transparent form of judging would be a bad thing?
Who knows, maybe improving the accountability of judges and their reasoning could help clear up bodybuilding culture? Let me know your thoughts in the comments – on judging, money in bodybuilding, or anything else this article has you thinking about!
If there was a new system, it would be possible for athletes to make more money in bodybuilding. Looking at the fitness industry’s growth, this is something which should be possible and increase the prizes bodybuilders make. Although this would come with a lot of new rules as to how you judge the bodybuilders on stage.