So you want to enter a physique contest. Your reasons, of course, are your own. Perhaps you saw a photo of Candice Lewis-Carter or Courtney King online and said, "I want to look like that." Or maybe your days as a gymnast, swimmer, weightlifter, or tennis player are over, but you've still got the passion to compete. Maybe someone in the gym just said you have "great genetics," and you're intrigued.
That last situation is especially common, but it leaves a follow-up question: Great genetics for what? With five very different women's competitions available, your first step, assuming you're already serious about working out, is to determine the best fit for your physique, your development, and your goals.
The New Competitive Landscape
In the beginning, there was one women's physique sport: bodybuilding. But, over the years, as the bodies became bigger and more elite, competitive organizations introduced new divisions to emphasize different sizes, styles, and levels of conditioning. This allowed more women—and more physiques—to take the stage.
Today, the main divisions include:
- Women's Physique
All five are different, but they all require sculpting and developing your body with weight training, nutrition, and cardio. Whichever division you set your sights on, your success will require enormous amounts of effort, determination, and persistence.
Here's a rundown of the women's physique sports, from the smaller bodies to the more developed, to help you decide which division is right for you.
This division emphasizes curvy, balanced physiques with just enough muscle tone. How much is "just enough" will depend on the organization and level of competition. As is true for all the divisions, the degree of conditioning and muscularity will intensify as you go from local contests to national qualifiers to pro qualifiers and—perhaps—on to the professional ranks. That's a good point to keep in mind when considering your ultimate goal.
Bikini is currently the most popular women's division by far. Competitors wear two-piece suits with "scrunchy" bottoms, high heels, and sparkling jewelry, and they are judged on overall physical appearance, including complexion and presentation. Attitude counts for a lot as they perform model walks and hit front, rear, and over-the-shoulder poses. Bikini competitors train their entire body for competition and are often especially proud of their guns, although the glutes and hamstrings are also particularly important, as you might imagine.
A small waist with a balanced, curvy structure and long, shapely legs would seem to be the ideal genetics for bikini, but sculpting to create the illusion is what it's all about.
"The bikini division calls for a curvier shape, more of an hourglass figure, where her top and bottom are equally proportioned, but if she is a little bottom or top heavy, that can be shaped by diet and training," says Gigi Amurao, an IFBB pro and personal trainer who has coached hundreds of bikini competitors.
That said, you'll want to avoid displaying a body, or portions of the body, that are "ripped," "shredded," "huge" or other words and phrases typically used to describe bodybuilders.
Because the muscular development required to compete is more understated than that of traditional bodybuilding, bikini appeals to a wide variety of women who work out.
"The typical bikini candidate is somebody who wants to have nice shape, who works hard at the gym and wants to show off her physique in a classy and respectable way," says promoter Dave Liberman, who stages two big, amateur competitions in Cleveland every year.
If you resemble that description, bikini could be for you.
Competitors in this division also wear heels and jewelry, but the focus is on a more developed physique and achieving muscular symmetry and proportion. Onstage, they do quarter turns in a neutral position, making it harder to hide flaws from the judges. Figure athletes should have good muscularity, with separation, but with no visible striations. The judges are looking for bodies that have shapely lines and overall firmness, but are not excessively lean. Skin tone and makeup are also judged as part of the final score.
"If a woman carries more muscle naturally and easily gets lean, figure would be a good choice over bikini, whereas if a women experiences the opposite, it could guide her decision," says top figure pro Ann Titone, who retired from the stage to train competitors of all sizes in her gym, The Dungeon-Titone Pro Gym.
Even so, she cautions that your body's natural tendencies "should not be the only determining factor."
Amurao takes a practical approach.
"Someone who has too much muscle and it would be a waste to shrink her down is more suited to figure," she says. "In that case, it would be better to keep her mass and just increase it or tighten her physique."
Liberman cites wide shoulders and a small waist as good genetics for figure, but agrees that body type is only part of the equation.
"Then the question becomes, is that what she wants to look like," he says. "How far does she want to take it?"
Women's physique division (or WPD) kicks it up a notch or three. The ideal physique is along the lines of figure, but bigger, more athletic, and with a little more muscularity.
The athletes wear two-piece suits with V-shaped bottoms and are barefoot onstage, and the posing is similar to a traditional bodybuilding contest. They do quarter turns as well as mandatory poses, including open-handed front and back double-biceps shots, which are considered more feminine than the close-fisted bodybuilding versions. They also perform an individual posing routine at the judging, as well as a 90-second routine to music at the finals.
Physique judges are looking for symmetry, shape, proportion, muscle tone, and poise. Excessive muscularity is frowned upon, and once again, the rules specify a list of common bodybuilding-related terms that should not describe the physiques, including, "ripped" and "shredded."
"WPD and figure are similar in many ways, requiring conditioning, shape, and symmetry," says Titone. "All three must be met before a competitor can excel. If WPD is a goal—and a woman has smaller muscle bellies—she will grow. She could also start in figure and 'grow out of it.'"
If you put on muscle easily, have trouble keeping it toned down for figure, and are comfortable with a higher level of development, you're a good candidate for women's physique.
These contests feature the most muscular women's physiques, and though many promoters have swapped women's physique for bodybuilding, you can still find events at all levels of competition, including national events and the pros.
Titone, whose contest schedule includes pro women's bodybuilding at the IFBB Omaha Pro/NPC Duel of Champions, says "It's an honor to support these women. It makes my heart smile that we can provide a stage for them to grace."
The judges are looking for the so-called total package, which is a balance of size, symmetry, and muscularity. Athletes do quarter turns and mandatory poses, like closed-fisted muscle shots, as well as performing individual posing routines at the judging and posing to music at the finals.
If you love building serious muscle—and love a serious challenge—bodybuilding might be for you.
Fitness was the first division to branch off from bodybuilding. In addition to physique comparisons, it features a fitness routine that is performed to music and includes elements of dance, strength moves, and gymnastics. Former gymnasts, cheerleaders, and dancers are often attracted to this division, but you don't have to have formal training to take the fitness challenge. Notable champs who did not start out as gymnasts include all-time Olympia winner Adela Garcia and recently retired top pro Tanji Johnson.
The physique portion of this division is essentially the same as in figure, but the overall emphasis is on the routines, which are worth two-thirds of your final score. As with bodybuilding, newer divisions have depleted the fitness ranks, in many cases because women who didn't have the skills to excel in the routines—or the time—crossed into figure. Even so, it's a marquee event at big professional shows, like the Olympia and Arnold Classic, with pro cards awarded at many of the qualifiers.
If you love to perform, can put together a routine, and are willing to devote ample time to perfecting both your physique and an ambitious routine, fitness may give you a quicker trip to the pros than other divisions.
Remember: You're Not Stuck in Any Category
You may have an idea already of where you want to compete right now, but be open to the possibility that your journey may not end where it started. Getting results, as you sculpt and develop your physique, has a way of encouraging more results. Soon enough, you may find that your body is better suited to one look over another.
"Nine times out of ten, once women start adding muscle, they like it," observes Liberman, who works with competitors in all divisions.
Amurao sees many competitors change divisions, mostly moving from bikini to figure.
"Bikini judges don't like to see too much muscle, so it's easier to add size and switch to figure than shrinking it down," she says.
Don't be afraid to try different divisions to see where you fit best. "Crossovers" are permitted at all shows except pro qualifiers (at the promoter's discretion), which means you can enter more than one division, provided you've got the right bikini for each. It's not unheard of for a talented beginner to earn trophies, or even win in multiple divisions at a lower-level show; for example, figure and bikini, figure and women's physique, or fitness and any of the others.
Titone agrees in the benefit of crossovers. "As amateurs, this is where competitors 'find themselves.' I highly recommend training and dieting as you like and competing in the divisions you chose. If you do best in the division you prefer, it's an easy choice; however, if you don't do well in the one you prefer, keep working. If you're willing to put in the work it takes to mold and build your desired physique, eventually you'll get there," she says.
Many promoters don't charge for crossovers, but even if there is a separate fee for each division, enter as many as you can afford and think you can be competitive in. Then, get feedback from the judges to find out where you excelled the most.
5 Questions to Help You Find Your Division
Even if you've made up your mind about which sport you want to try, here are few factors to consider when you're sitting with that entry form in your hand:
1. What is your body type and where are you in your development?
Consider which divisions are a reasonable goal for you given your preparation timeframe. Also, take an honest look at your body type and let it guide you in making your decision. Shorter, thicker-waisted girls tend to struggle in the lean and curvy bikini division, just as taller, lanky girls find it tough to adequately develop their longer muscle bellies for physique. Just because you do not have the "right" body for a particular division does not mean you can't do well in it—but it will be more challenging.
2. Do you have the time and commitment for your chosen division?
Take a detailed inventory of everything it takes to get yourself onstage—training, nutrition, posing practice, wardrobe, and appearance. Are you ready to commit to each and every one? Training and prep for a bikini competition are by no means easy, but physique or fitness add even more items to your to-do list, like more training to build muscle and extra practice sessions for your routine and choreography.
3. Do you enjoy performing and want to shine in the posing round?
That could make the difference between choosing figure or physique, since one allows you a greater chance to perform than the other. Fitness takes it to another level. These routines are the main event at contest finals, and women are generally more entertaining and creative with their posing than men. If you love the spotlight and want more time onstage, a division with greater opportunity for posing routines may be right for you.
4. How much do you love muscle, and how easily do you build it?
Are you a mesomorph who struggles to hold it down for figure (or bikini), or a hard gainer who has to fight for every ounce of lean mass? Once you start working toward your competition goal, muscle will inevitably become an issue. Also consider how much size your body can carry aesthetically and what you are ultimately comfortable with.
On the other hand, people often misunderstand how much size it takes to be competitive, in any of the divisions.
"I hear it all the time: 'I'm not big enough!'" says Titone. "It makes my skin crawl, because size is not an end-all in my book."
For example, she was always one of the smallest onstage. "Hypothetically, if your conditioning, shape, and symmetry are impeccable, and the girls you're sharing the stage with have a little more size but are lacking one of the other three, the pendulum could swing your way," she says.
How much muscle is a question not just for beginners, but also those women who may be "coming down" from figure to bikini, physique to figure, or even bodybuilding to physique. Or, they may be coming out of retirement after a year or 10, and trying to see where they fit in.
5. What makes you happy? This really is the bottom line when it comes to choosing a division
"It's the first thing I ask new clients," says Liberman. "What makes you happy? What do you want to do?"
Titone agrees. "Training for the physique you want should always be the determining factor," she insists.
Go to A Show and See What Inspires You
It goes without saying that you should see what you're getting yourself into. Attend a show, preferably one that includes multiple divisions as well as novice and masters classes. Pick a local event or "national qualifier," where you'll get an idea of the competition you will face.
A big pro weekend, like the Olympia or Arnold Sports Festival, can be incredibly motivating—if you get the chance, go—but a lower-level show will give you a much better idea of what to expect. You could also check out competition photos online, since most promoters post photos of their events, but nothing beats the total experience of being there and seeing the athletes onstage.
While you're there, don't be shy about asking questions. Competitors you meet at the contest—or at the gym—are usually happy to tell you about their experiences. Promoters, too, can be very helpful, and if you are working with a trainer or coach he or she will be a major source of information on all of these points.
In the end, though, the final decision is up to you. Where you are in your training will have a lot to do with where you start your competition journey, but it does not dictate where you will end up. Do what makes you happy and you'll enjoy your journey to the stage all the more.