Women’s Bodybuilding Categories: Choosing the Best Competitive Division

Women's Bodybuilding

For anyone who still believes that fitness is a male-dominated sport, you may suggest they attend a bodybuilding competition and take a gander at the many women in several divisions who have meticulously sculpted their bodies. Understanding the different competitive divisions of women’s bodybuilding and what is required of each category will help personal trainers, competition coaches, and competitors properly prepare.

Many Options Abound

As a certified personal trainer, once a client has made the commitment to dedicate the next year (or maybe years) of her life –and, to a large extent, yours as well — to achieving the best physique possible, the fun part presents itself: helping her decide on a category in which to compete.

While male counterparts have few choices based largely on age and height, women have many more categories from which to choose. A properly trained and prepared woman can compete in categories such as Bodybuilding, Physique, Figure, Fitness, or Bikini Diva.  While each of these choices requires following a path of rigorous dedication, training, dieting and cardio, the stage-ready result for each will appear vastly different.

bodybuiilding divisions
Image Credit women’s bodybuilding: http://npcnewsonline.com/2017-npc-usa-womens-overall-winners-photos-gallery-bikini-figure-physique-bodybuilding/370015/

Classic Women’s Bodybuilding: Powerful and Muscular

The category of women’s Bodybuilding is for the female athlete who enjoys going to extremes. In this division, judges will be looking for very lean bodies, striated muscles, symmetry, muscle mass, and full muscle bellies. A female bodybuilder competes barefoot and must be able to strike and hold mandatory poses in such a way that highlights each muscle group.

She is also required to present a 60-second choreographed routine set to the music of her choice, designed to accentuate her best individual body parts. Bodybuilders have been considered “unfeminine” by many; yet those who compete in this category (myself included) love the “hard body” look that represents power, strength, and dedication.  Judges seek extreme muscle striations and what is commonly referred to as the “shredded” appearance.

Some athletes take their body fat down as low as 6-7% before competition day. Clients who consider this division must commit themselves to a program of heavy lifting, stringent dieting, and a considerable amount of cardio in the months and weeks leading up to a competition.

Front posing during a Women’s Bodybuilding show I won in 2009.


Cathleen Kronemer
My favorite bodybuilding photo of me in competition.

Physique: Strong and Sexy

The category of Physique is a relative newcomer on the scene. Many bodybuilding organizations, most notably those looking for natural contestants as opposed to those favoring athletic enhancement supplementation, have shifted away from pure Bodybuilding in favor of a softer, yet still strong appearance.

These competitors wear the same beautifully decorated posing suits as seen in the other Female categories; however, their mandatory poses are slightly different, aimed more at reclaiming the graceful flow of the female body, and posing is performed barefooted. Judges look for mostly visible muscle separation as well as some visible striations, but no excessive muscularity. These women usually present in the 8%-10% body fat range.

Figure: Reclaiming “Feminine”

Figure has evolved to be one of the most popular divisions in recent years, encompassing the majority of female athletes at any bodybuilding show. This category invites those who wish to achieve a muscular physique without sacrificing any femininity.

Here, judges look for symmetry and lean muscle mass, yet also take into consideration aspects such as make-up, hairstyle, posing and overall presentation. Shoulders, back, quads and glutes are accentuated, offering that highly desirable “x” type of shape (developed shoulders and upper back, small waist and feminine glutes). Judges also wish to see visible muscle separation but not the visible striations sought after by bodybuilders.

The mandatory T-walk, in 4” heels, consists of moving across the stage, pausing to strike poses which are powerful while still retaining the appearance of a female. Women who enjoy serious lifting but wish to remain slim yet athletic will fare well in the Figure category. Body fat typically reaches 8%-12% by the day of the competition. While dedication to a clean diet and extra cardio sessions is also required here, the desired end result is a somewhat “softer” appearance than that upon which bodybuilders are judged.

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Bikini Diva: The Beach Babe

The Bikini Diva division is fairly new, offering a unique opportunity for those who wish to present a toned, healthy beach body, and not necessarily engage in year-round heavy resistance training. Here the judges are not looking for overt muscle mass, but rather an overall sexy and feminine body, ranging in body fat from 10-14%.

This division has been gaining in popularity, perhaps because it does not require as many of the stringent aspects as Bodybuilding, Figure, and Fitness. A healthy, lean diet combined with a no-nonsense approach to regular exercise will yield a stage-worthy Bikini Diva body that is “healthy, athletic, and fit”.

Stage Attire

The choice of posing suit designs is another aspect in which women have the upper hand in terms of selection and creativity. While the Bodybuilding division requires solid, decoration-free suits at pre-judging, the other categories encourage flair and “bling”.

Crystals, jewels, colors and fabrics can be chosen to compliment skin tone, while the cut of the suit itself (full coverage or more daring) can be chosen to accentuate glutes, leg length, or bust size. In the name of full disclosure, these suits can become quite costly…the more highly decorated the posing suit, the more expensive. In terms of self-expression, however, a magnificent presentation is well worth the investment.


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The Role of the Trainer

Enlisting the help of a well-trained competition coach proves extremely valuable when selecting the proper division in which to compete. As a whole, women often struggle to accurately view their own bodies; a trusted, seasoned personal trainer can more appropriately evaluate a body type and suggest the perfect category for each client.

Asking a few key questions of your clients helps when trying to select an appropriate women’s bodybuilding competition category. Consider the following:

What Is Her Body Type?

Help the client critically and honestly assess her body type as a guide in the decision-making process. A shorter, thicker-waisted client may struggle in the lean and curvy Bikini division, while tall and lanky females often have a difficult time adequately developing the longer muscle bellies optimal for Physique.

 Is Her Time Commitment Achievable?

To fully prepare for a competitive show, a number of aspects will need to be prioritized in the client’s life: training, nutrition, posing practice, wardrobe, and appearance. While competition prep and training are not easy by any means for Bikini athletes, all of the other categories require an entirely different level of commitment.

How Easily Does She Build Muscle?

After having worked closely with a female client, you and she will gain a better understanding of how her body reacts to the demands placed upon it. A hard-gainer may become frustrated if Bodybuilding is her goal; the same holds true for a full-figured client who desires a Bikini Diva body. You may also discover how much muscularity her body can accommodate, given her height, bone structure, and comfort level.

Does She Enjoy Performing?

If your client has narrowed her search to Figure or Physique, help her understand the opportunities each division holds for freestyle routines. If she discovers that she craves the spotlight and time onstage, a division with greater opportunity for posing routines will suit her well.

What Makes Her Happy? 

Pro Bodybuilder Ann Titone feels that “training for the physique you want should always be the determining factor”. It comes down to convincing the client that the journey is just as important, if not more so than the end result. You and she may conceivably spend 6-12 months training for what amounts to a total of 5-8 minutes on stage.

If a client is still truly vacillating, you might do a bit of research and suggest shows that allow “cross-overs”, permitting a competitor to enter more than one division. Figure and Fitness often go hand-in-hand, as do Fitness and Bikini Diva.

For a client who hasn’t yet put on significant mass but is interested in dipping her toes in the waters of competitions, Bikini is usually a good place to start since both the muscle mass required is low and the body fat percentage allowed is higher than the other categories.

A Joint Journey

By taking the time to assess your client’s physique and commitment prior to competition training, you can greatly improve her chances of success on stage at a women’s bodybuilding competition. Once she comes to a decision, dive in together and embrace the path ahead.  You are now ready to embark upon what might just be a life-changing adventure!


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Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at [email protected] She welcomes your feedback and your comments!
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