This article will discuss some of the decision-making criteria we use at 3D Muscle Journey whenever we’re helping an athlete decide on which female bodybuilding division would be best for them.
We’re going to identify the four most-common divisions, then we’ll talk about the basic considerations that identify what is or isn’t included in them. We’ll also talk about the continuum from as leanest to softest physiques, and the amount of contest prep time that is generally required. Lastly, we’ll discuss the things you should think about on an individual basis in regards to your personal preferences.
This article is useful for athletes making this decision for themselves, as well as many coaches who have to facilitate this process with any of their female clients.
While I discuss these points at length in the video below, you can also scroll down for a full-text version of the material.
IDENTIFYING THE FEMALE BODYBUILDING DIVISIONS
The four main divisions in most natural bodybuilding shows right now (2016) are bikini, figure, female physique, and female bodybuilding.
There are a lot of bodybuilding organizations and some have different names for these categories (i.e. fit body in the WNBF or sports model in the INBA). Whatever their names are, they tend to be very closely related to the ones we’re discussing. I recommend you speak to the promoter or go to the organization’s website to see the differences.
Let’s start with the black and white basics of these categories before we go into the actual criteria of the physique.
|Bikini||Heels||Separate two-piece||¼ turns||T-walk|
|Figure||Heels||Separate two-piece||¼ turns||T-walk|
|Physique||Barefoot||Connected two-piece||8-13 mandatory||Posing routine|
|Bodybuilding||Barefoot||Connected two-piece||8-13 mandatory||Posing routine|
As you’ll notice in the table above, some things to consider would be what you’re wearing and what you’ll be doing on stage.
For example, bikini and figure athletes wear heels. On the other hand, physique and bodybuilding athletes will be barefoot. The attire for bikini athletes is likely to have very low-cut, separate two-piece bikini.
The other three categories wear connected bikinis. This means that rather than the bikini top strand going straight across your back and connecting to itself, it actually goes down, crosses itself in the mid-back area, and then connects to the top of the suit bottoms. In the divisions besides bikini that focus a little bit more on symmetry, the suit bottoms tend to sit up higher on your hips and taper the waist. Also, in bikini and figure, the suits are often bedazzled. Some physique and bodybuilding organizations actually do not like rhinestones or jewels on the suits. Again, it’s all very organization- and promoter-dependent.
MANDATORY POSES AND POSING ROUTINES
Now let’s talk about posing. Typically, pre-judging happens in the morning and the night show happens in the evening. (Some organizations now run a single show that encompasses the entire competition, but that is still the minority.)
The majority of the judging occurs during the pre-judging. They first line the girls up across the stage. Figure and bikini have what are called quarter turns. They are responsible for four poses, which are the best displays of their physique from the front, right side, back, and left side.
Like male bodybuilders and depending on the organization, physique and bodybuilding female athletes have many more mandatory poses. Yes, they have their four symmetry poses, but they also will have side chest, tricep, ab and thigh, etc. So there’s a lot more intensive work that goes into the posing, even in the standard lineup that happens during pre-judging.
There is also a big separation between the posing routines. Typically, bikini and figure girls don’t get a choice of music when they have their individual stage time. You would perform a T-walk or “model walk” to house music. This short presentation usually consists of the athlete walking out from the curtain to the back of the stage after they call your name, you then walk to the front, then left side of the stage, then right side of the stage, back to the middle, and finally walk off back behind the curtain. At each stopping point, you can hit a pose of your choice to display your physique in the best way possible.
For female athletes in physique or bodybuilding, you actually do a choreographed routine to display your musculature in whatever way to whatever music you want. Usually you get somewhere between thirty seconds to a minute for amateurs. You might get longer if you’re a pro.
To learn more about posing requirements and formats, CLICK HERE to go to the NANBF website, and scour through their “Resources” section. They have some of the better division descriptions online, and include many photographs of each pose.
PHYSIQUE REQUIREMENTS: WHAT THE JUDGES LOOK FOR
Let’s now go into the continuum for the physical requirements. We’re going to touch on stage presence, size, judging, prep time, and number of athletes competing.
In this section I will talk about bikini vs. bodybuilding quite a bit, as they are extreme ends of this spectrum which makes it easier to illustrate the points made. Please keep in mind that figure is further to the right than bikini, moving into physique, and then ending with bodybuilding.
STAGE PRESENCE, SIZE, AND JUDGING
In the most basic of ways, bikini is a smooth, feminine look that is what most would expect when they think “fitness model”. Not the bodybuilding isn’t feminine, but it’s simply less commonly associated with the societal norms and conventional uses of the word. The verbiage that would be used for bikini athletes is “tight and toned”. Whereas for bodybuilding, you’ll hear “jacked and lean”.
Figure is a little more hard and lean than bikini, and overall size and symmetry begin to come into play. Physique athletes need to come in even leaner than that, while female bodybuilding athletes need the maximum amount of muscular size with the maximum amount of leanness. The athletes might weigh the same across categories, but “density” and body composition will be continually excessive the further you travel to the right on the continuum.
Stage presence and personality matters most for bikini, because that is what people and judges see as one of the most marketable qualities. While stage presence is still a huge asset in all the other categories, the further you travel to the right on the continuum, the more that objective physical attributes come into play.
To put it into perspective (again, looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum), there have been many times where I have seen a bikini athlete win shows without possessing the best physique on stage because of her infectious stage presence. In bodybuilding, if you have the best physique on stage and display it decently well in your poses you will most likely win, even if you aren’t as smiley or have the best hair.
In bikini, the judging is simply more subjective. It’s really difficult to measure marketability, prettiness, sassiness, and femininity compared to how comparatively easy it is to visualize a physique’s leanness. This is why a bikini athlete’s hair, makeup, nails, suit decorations, walking ability etc. must be on point. Many things besides the physique can matter quite bit. And because of this subjectivity factor, the judge’s decisions are usually a lot more undisputed for bodybuilding than they are for bikini.
CONTEST PREP DURATION
Now that we’ve beaten the presentation horse to death, let’s focus solely on the body. As a general rule, the duration of prep will be longer relative to the leaner the athlete needs to get. Bikini athletes don’t need to diet as long, because they (hopefully) do not need to lose as much weight compared to bodybuilding athletes.
As we know, the more weight one has to lose, the quicker it comes off. So someone getting from bikini lean to bodybuilding lean will find that the last five to ten pounds may take the longest to shed.
For specific information on how long 3DMJ expects their athletes to be in the contest prep phase, CLICK HERE to read an article about athlete timelines based on divisions and bodyweight.
Then the number of bikini athletes entering bodybuilding shows is exponentially increasing, year after year. Not to discredit it, but a reason for this is that the bikini category is simply a more attainable physical endeavor. Therefore, this entry level physique is seeing a lot more people coming into this division.
In contrast, female bodybuilding does not have anywhere near as many competitors, and some shows do not have any entries in this division at all. Additionally, some organizations only have physique OR bodybuilding. They have decided that because the number of entries for each of these was so small, they should just combine the categories. As of late (2016), it is quite rare to see both physique AND female bodybuilding, with very big and/or long-running shows being the exceptions to the rule.
Another consideration is where YOU currently reside on this continuum. To illustrate, let’s go over a couple types of people we tend to enroll for our 3DMJ coaching services for the first time. (These are examples of common possible outcomes, not 100% guarantees.)
The first type is someone who has never lifted weights before in a structured manner and they say, “okay, I want to compete this year.” Well, competing in the bodybuilding division is probably not going to happen unless they’re a genetic freak (which rarely happens). If they want to get on stage really quickly, bikini might be the place to go. If they’ve never competed before and say “I want to be a female bodybuilder,” they have to know their first competition might be years down the line.
We also have people that have been weight training on their own for a couple of years and say, “I want to compete as soon as possible.” Bikini can definitely happen within a year, and even figure can mostly likely be a comfortable fit. While physique and bodybuilding are not impossible, the level of leanness required may be difficult for some first-time athletes who are not used to contest prep dieting. This is where preferences and expectations can be weighed a little more in a one-on-one discussion with your coach.
I believe preferences matters a lot more than people think, but it’s just not brought up often. A chart or continuum wouldn’t be appropriate in this case. Only you can answer how much they matter to you, your athlete, or whoever you’re working with.
HEELS OR BAREFOOT?
Believe it or not, wearing heels on stage is something you have to consider. I literally have seen high heels make or break placing decisions because it messes up their stage presence so badly if they are unable to walk in them. So while a female with a body for bikini MUST wear heels for that division, and a girl with a bodybuilding body CANNOT wear heels, the middle 2 divisions on the continuum can have this be a tie-breaker. A figure girl can often do well in female physique, and vice versa, because the body required before dieting starts is very similar. I know an athlete who fell on stage in heels and vowed she would never do figure again, having decided she would do only physique and bodybuilding from then on. It’s just totally up to you.
BODY IMAGE – CAN YOU LIVE WITH YOURSELF YEAR-ROUND?
Appearance in and out of season goes along with “feeling”, as well. Some girls say they want to do bikini, because they want to feel sexy and get in shape. Maybe they have goals of looking a bit more muscular than the average female, so figure is a good way to do that. Some other girls want to be a big badass, so physique and bodybuilding or a bit more their style.
All of these desires are useful and none of them are “wrong”. But as I mentioned earlier, the length of prep and the amount of fat you have to lose are different depending on the division.
For example, a bikini girl’s bodyweight in and out of season may not be all the different, nor would their appearance. But a female bodybuilder looks very different in the offseason than she would on stage. So ask yourself, are you comfortable with that? Can you live with the way you look in and out of prep, knowing that most of your life is off-season?Also consider, that your expectations might not be realistic. Staying near contest shape, even for some bikini competitors can be next to impossible, or at the very least detrimental overall to your body and psychology over time. This isn’t true for everyone and depends on their genetics, relationship with food and body image, but it’s unfortunately very common for people to want to stay near contest shape year round when it might not be realistic.
GENETICS MIGHT CHOOSE DIVISION SUCCESS FOR YOU
I’ll use myself as an example. I am quite boxy and do not have a naturally smaller waist, which is not ideal for any bodybuilding division. However, this can be outweighed by creating a wide upper half and quad sweep, which could make my waist appear smaller. Because this amount of size needed to make my waist appear smaller would be substantial, I think I am more genetically favored for physique and bodybuilding, which are long-term goals of mine.
However, since I started competing without this substantial amount of muscular size needed for the bigger divisions, I chose figure. This division let’s me flair my lats for SOME symmetry assistance and allows me to use my stage presentation skills to my advantage. It’s a happy medium until I can grow more over the next few years.
HOW MUCH DOES PLACEMENT MATTER?
Let’s say that in terms of size, you have a really good build for figure, but you choose to compete in bikini because those poses make you feel more feminine, even though you might not place as well. Is this a problem? Or what if you’re not big enough for figure yet, but you feel like bikini is too subjectively judged, so you enter figure anyway?
Ask yourself, does placement matter more to you than the way you’ll feel on stage? Do you want you want to be on a stage with a billion girls and feel like you’re being picked out of a crowd? Or do you want to pick the division that puts you in the best position to possibly win? Or do you not care at all because personal satisfaction of getting on stage is all you need?
Here at 3DMJ, we’d like to think that you’re doing this for yourself and are enjoying the journey of personal progress. However, we know that this is a sport and winning is definitely a positive outcome. As long as you know that this is a long road ahead of personal and physical growth and winning isn’t absolutely EVERYTHING, there are no right or wrong answers here.
HOW SOON DO YOU NEED TO DO THIS?
Lastly, the sense of urgency. In my case, I knew I wanted to compete. I had to do it that year, and I did as a figure athlete. Like I mentioned earlier, whenever I do put on more muscular size, I believe I’ll do better in female physique and bodybuilding. But I wasn’t going to wait for that. The urge to compete was too strong, so I did what I could.
So if you just started and training and want to be in the female bodybuilding division, you might have a few years before you get to see the stage, and that’s totally ok if you’re ok with it. In fact, some people might say this is better than what I did.
I applaud those that are able to wait and invest the enormous amounts of time where they want to be before getting into their desired division. I think that is a great testament to their dedication and patience. But again, I did not have that, and not all of you will.
I can honestly say that competing in figure has changed my life personally and professionally. I not only have the competition experience, but I also have the experience of going through multiple contest preps on the way to where I eventually wanted to be. I can now diet like a champ and know what semi-starvation feels like. More importantly (and of most difficulty for me), I know how to exit a contest prep mindset and habits, which will serve my athletic future in a big way. I have no regrets and embrace my lack of patience to the stage.
ASSESSING MY ATHLETES
Ultimately, no one can answer this stuff for you. When I’m talking to an athlete and they ask me, “what do you think I should compete in?”, the suggestion I give is a combination of all the factors discussed in this article. As long as they know the basics and are well informed, then it’s just a matter of me repeatedly asking, “why do you want to compete?”.
Based on that answer, I get a sense of their intentions. I then proceed to ask, “How do you want to feel on stage? What does an ideal offseason body look like for you?”. All open-ended questions.
As a coach, while they give me their answers, I have everything we’ve covered processing in the back of my mind. From their answers, I can tell what matters to them, and repeat it back to them so I know we’re on the same page.
But even if their answers might change throughout a conversation or I notice that they’re saying things that they think I want to hear, I find that their initial response is still what is true to them. Simply put, what words they use and what comes first to their mind is typically the most honest.
When it’s all said and done, and I’ve guided them as best as I could, it’s ultimately still their decision. Once it’s made, we set our goals accordingly and I support them in those goals 100%.
If you are doing this alone, perhaps journal your initial responses to these topic and considerations. Maybe after you’ve read this, freely write out a paragraph or two about why you want to compete and what you want to get from it. Then, go back to the figures, considerations, and questions in this article to see which division feels right to you and how you’d like to approach it.
While I’ve spent a very long time discussing many of these things, it’s important for me to end with a statement of how simple this can also be. Many females can look a few pictures, see which ones they’d like to emulate, and boom! They’re decision is set. Some just want to know where they have their best chance of winning, and they’re fine with whatever division that puts them in.
But I wanted to put this out into the world for those who are having a difficult time understanding the differences within these division, as it can be quite confusing for some who have never attended a bodybuilding show before.
If you still have questions after reading, scroll up and watch the video at the top of the page for further clarification.
Or, you can follow this link to watch on YouTube – https://youtu.be/goLsFfA2mYg
And if you still got more, feel free to leave them in the comment section below ?