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 categories. 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.
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.
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.
Sports Model Division
Since not every aspiring female bodybuilder seeks to put in hours of extra cardio and adhere to an often unreasonably restricted meal plan, the INBA/PNBA offers the division known as Sports Models. Comfortably clad in less provocative posing suits, these athletes don colorful and figure-flattering gym clothing, and coordinating sneakers instead of 4” heels. Sports Model contestants have aesthetically fit bodies that fall somewhere between a Bikini Diva body and a Figure competitor.
The Bikini division has been around since 2010 and offers an 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%.
Currently, the Bikini category attracts the largest number of female athletes. Encompassing women who work towards a shapely body through prudent exercise and a clean diet, Bikini Fitness encompasses the general lines of the female body, natural and proportionate with a healthy, toned appearance.
Judges seek all of the aforementioned tributes along with bodies that do not appear overly muscular (no visible striations) and generally have smaller frames than the other divisions. An added dimension comes into play as “overall presentation on stage”: feminine affect, charisma, posing suit (complete with accessories, nail polish, shiny healthy hair, tan, etc.), and personality.
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”.
Bikini Wellness Division
The NPC offers this description of the Bikini Wellness Division (or just Wellness):
“The Wellness Division is put in place for women who are looking to build a physique slightly bigger and more muscular than Bikini Division athletes, srill without muscle striations. This division is for women carrying more muscle mass around the glutes, thighs, and hips with body fat levels above 10%. They will also need to be carrying mass on the upper body, but not to the same degrees as the lower body.”
This new Bikini Wellness division attracts many formerly reluctant competitors, as it creates a category that rewards the natural tendencies of most female bodies.
The Bikini Wellness division favors a muscular, athletic body, with slightly more muscle than typically found on women entering the Bikini division, particularly in the lower body. Wellness competitors will have a slightly higher body fat percentage, yet still present clearly defined abdominals.
Lower body musculature focuses on separation rather than striations. Judges look for fully rounded glutes, separated slightly from the hamstrings, more so than the Bikini Diva competitors yet not quite as lean as seen in the Figure and Physique divisions.
These seemingly subtle variances lend themselves to muscularity combined with femininity, something long absent in the world of traditional Women’s Bodybuilding.
The new Bikini Wellness division, introduced in 2020, aims to embody the typical female body type seen on the beaches of Brazil and Latin America. The torso of this athlete resembles that of the familiar Bikini Diva division requirements, with a lower half more akin to a Physique athlete, sporting greater definition and size in the thighs, glutes, and hips.
According to the IFBB Spain, “Bikini Wellness is a category created by the need to find a competitive panorama for those competitors whose muscularity does not fit in modalities such as Body Fitness and Women Physique; however, the limit of muscular development that is being demanded in the Bikini category is a little bit short, mainly in the lower body.”
Bikini Wellness judges place a high value on the following attributes ~
- Feminine body’s proportion and symmetry, toned by exercise.
- Moderate muscle tone.
- Healthy appearance.
- Properly aesthetic and well-cared facial appearance.
- Uniform tanning, beauty, and skin tone.
The New Angel Division
Purely in the name of fun, bodybuilding federations such as the INBA/ PNBA have recently begun offering an Angel division. Presentation on stage plays a much larger role in this category than any other. While a traditional “bikini body” fits perfectly within this division, competitors have the opportunity to play to the audience with what judges call “sassy, fun, and sexy personality”. More so than simply a posing suit, women can get as creative as possible in terms of angel costuming.
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.
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.
If you find yourself somewhat confused by all of these categories, we are, too! First and foremost, ensure that you possess a thorough understanding of the organization offering the competition (natural athletes only, amateur versus professional, sanctions that allow steroid use, etc.).
Much of the ambiguity lies in the fact that every promoter creates their own rules/parameters, and tries to offer as many sub-divisions as possible in order to generate more income by including more competitors. As a result, competitions that previously limited themselves to the typical categories of Bodybuilding, Physique, and Fitness seem to now offer an endless array of categories with extremely subtle variations. Undoubtedly, this makes judging increasingly difficult, as well as suggesting a division to our clients.
Err on the side of cautionary experience. If a client shows an inclination to compete a bikini wellness or fitness category but isn’t sure where she fits, begin with the basic original categories and trust your gut and expertise when guiding her.