Women’s Bodybuilding Categories: Choosing the Best Competitive Division

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 both trainer and competitor properly prepare.

Many Options Abound

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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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!