Competitive Breakdown: Explaining the Sport of Bodybuilding

By Jaime Rice


Me in Bikini (left) and Lisa in Figure (right)


We all get the question “what do you for fun?” or “what do you do in your down time?” I often respond by saying I am into fitness, specifically competing. Of course that spawns a whole other set of questions.

And I know once I say, “I compete in bodybuilding shows,” I will get “the look.” It’s that confused, curious, and wanting more information look. The “but you are a short tiny woman and bodybuilding is for big men who can’t turn their neck” look.

Bodybuilding has changed tremendously over the years, and yes, even a little woman like me has a category to compete in these days. Today’s post is an attempt to spread the word and explain how nearly every fit woman can find a place in the bodybuilding competitive world now. There truly is a division for everybody and body type.

While there are different competitive federations and/or organizations, the most popular and the one I compete in is the NPC – or National Physique Committee.  Within this competitive organization, there are five different divisions for women, each showcasing different aspects of the female physique.


There is a huge variance in the body types and divisions of bodybuilding. This is also the professional level. Competitors are often much less muscular on the local and national level.

The Bikini division, the one I compete in, is the most popular female division at the moment. It doesn’t require as much muscle mass as the other divisions and is considered the most “feminine.”

A competitor wears a bikini, usually very elaborated blinded out suit one could never wear on the beach, and a pair of clear heels. She is judged on stage presence, posing, femininity, and overall physique with the focus on a softer look. A competitor does not flex for poses, instead one does a model pose/walk and judged.

This division is considered one of the most subjective because what the judges are looking for can vary from show to show. One may like the leaner look and another may deduct points for being too lean.

Figure division is next up. In figure, the competitors tend to have more muscle mass than a bikini athlete. Figure requires three poses – front lat pose, side pose, and back lat pose. These poses are designed to show the shoulder, back, and leg development in the athlete, as well as a high level of conditioning.

The desired figure athlete would have defined shoulders, small waist and developed quads all without having visible striations. Figure girls also wear a two piece suit but it is not the true bikini suit. Clear heels are also required for figure. Some bikini athletes compete in the figure division as well, the posing and flexing can complete change how a competitor looks on stage.

The women’s physique division is another newer division in the women’s category. This division requires a good deal of muscle mass with visible striations. The goal is a strong, muscular look without the muscle mass required for the bodybuilding division.

Women who compete in physique wear a two piece suit and do not have to wear heels. They actually are barefoot on stage for their posing routines. These routines can be very elaborate and are set to music of the competitors choosing. The routines are designed to showcase the athlete’s muscularity. With every pose they hit, they will flex that desired body part.

Here is an example of a women’s physique routine by Dana Linn Bailey, first ever women’s physique champion:

Women’s Fitness is an awesome division, and I wish I could still tumble so I could compete in this division. Basically fitness is a combination of figure with gymnastics. The athlete is judged on appearances first, doing the three figure poses mentioned above. Then, they will perform a tumbling routine that must have several moves in them. This division is more difficult due to the amount of gymnastics involved, therefore not as many competitors are able to compete in Fitness.

Here is an example of a routine: 

Finally there is women’s bodybuilding. This division is getting smaller with the creation of the physique division. Most of us are familiar with bodybuilding and know it’s quite a bit of muscle mass and most of the time can not be achieved naturally. It is very difficult to sustain the amount of muscle mass needed for this division, hence why it is not as popular.

A female athlete who competes in bodybuilding division wears a two piece suit and also does a routine barefoot. It is very similar to physique with main difference being amount of muscle.

Now that you have an idea of the variety involved, you should check out a show! They really are entertaining and it’s amazing to see all the hard work and dedication of the athletes displayed on stage.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about those dark, dark tans? It’s for a reason. Under the bright light of the stage, muscles wash out on pale skin and definition is more difficult to see. It’s not a tanning bed addiction, but rather a couple of coats of body paint, that give the dark color.

And how about our “bulky” size? Well, the stage and posing can be quite deceiving! Off-stage, at competition time, we all hear about how “tiny” we are.

IMG_0569 IMG_0570

Check out the NPC website for more information.

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