Deciding to compete in your first bodybuilding competition is a big deal. The journey you’re about to take is truly transformative. But before you embark on this adventure, there are some things you should know. Behind those blingy bikinis is a butt load of dedication and sacrifice.
The female bodybuilding lifestyle isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to earn those capped shoulders and full glutes through hours of grueling workouts and carbohydrate manipulation. That phenomenal physique doesn’t build itself. But when done the right way, the experience is life-changing. It will leave you wondering why you didn’t start competing sooner.
Below, you’ll discover the correct way to approach competing in your first women’s bodybuilding competition. To get you started we’ll talk about:
- What even is Female Bodybuilding?
- What are some common myths around women’s bodybuilding?
- What are some mistakes to avoid as a beginner?
- What is reverse dieting and how do you do it?
- A sample diet and exercise plan with the best women’s bodybuilding exercises
- 7 key competition tips for female bodybuilding athletes
What Is Female Bodybuilding and How Do You Pick a Division?
Bodybuilding is a way to sculpt your body through a specific diet and exercise routine. The sport you and I know today took hold in the 1940s with the Mr. America contest, and later in the 1970s with the Olympia contests. Thank you, 7x Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger and 6x Ms.Olympia, Cory Everson.
There are a bunch of bodybuilding organizations out there, but the 3 most common are:
Women’s Bodybuilding Divisiona
And women’s bodybuilding can be broken down into 6 divisions:
- Bikini: This is by far the most popular female bodybuilding division. It focuses on a balanced physique with a moderate amount of muscle tone. Judges will also score you on your overall physical appearance and charisma.
- Figure: This division is a step up from bikini in terms of muscle. Your judging will be on muscular symmetry and proportion. You’ll want to have some muscular separation, without being too lean.
- Physique: This is where women start packing on the muscle. Judges will look for an athletic look with an emphasis on symmetry, shape, size, and tone. Physique competitors pose individually to a 90-second routine in final judging.
- Bodybuilding: The category that comes to mind when you hear the word “bodybuilding”. This is the most muscular division, and arguably the most difficult, for women to compete in.
- Fitness: This division focuses on athletes who can show their physique in motion. ⅓ of the score will come from muscular balance and shape, with ⅔ coming from a dance, strength, and gymnastics routine.
Understanding the division and federation you’d like to compete in will determine your diet and exercise expectations.
What Are Common Myths About Women’s Bodybuilding?
Myth #1: Lifting Weights Will Make You Look Manly
Coming out the gate guns ablaze on this one.
First of all, women’s bodies naturally make 1/10th to 1/20th of the amount of testosterone that men’s bodies make. So, science says that even the most seasoned female athlete can’t naturally build the bulky muscle you see in male competitors.
Second, adding lean muscle mass to your physique—as a result of lifting weights—helps you burn more calories on a daily basis and maintain a leaner body.
Myth #2: Eating More Will Make You Fat
Quite the contrary. When it comes to calories, less isn’t always more.
When you restrict your calories to lose weight, you actually burn fewer. Your metabolism drops and your body goes into a panicked conservation mode. During your day-to-day activities, you burn calories through NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Add 45 minutes of heavy weight lifting onto that and it’s no wonder you’re starving. While dieting, adding more calories keeps your metabolism burning and allows you to safely shed pounds.
Myth #3: Exercise Will Increase the Size of Your Chest
Sorry to break it to ya, girls, but this is false.
Women’s breasts are mainly made up of fatty tissues and therefore won’t grow due to weightlifting. To add insult to injury, going below 12% body fat—which is common when competing—may actually decrease your breast size due to fat loss.
Myth #4: Once You Stop Training Your Muscles Will Turn to Fat
This is like comparing apples to oranges. Muscle and fat are two completely different tissues and one doesn’t magically turn into the other.
What is likely happening is athletes finish their weight training program and the diet goes along with it. So, muscle is being lost from inactivity and undesirable fat is being gained from a lax diet, ergo, “muscle turns to fat”.
What Are Common Mistakes Beginner Bodybuilders Make When Getting Started?
Let’s take a look at the most common mistakes that women make when first taking up bodybuilding as a sport.
Mistake #1: Choosing the Wrong Coach
Choosing the right bodybuilding coach can make or break your performance when it’s time to get on stage.
Over the next 12-16 weeks, whoever you choose will be in charge of everything from your diet to your posing routine. It’s important you choose someone who’s qualified and meshes well with your personality. Here’s a quick guide from Dumbbell Blonde on criteria and questions to ask when searching for your competition coach.
Mistake #2: Getting the Wrong Suit Cut and Color
Bodybuilding suits can be expensive, but this is one area where you won’t want to skimp. Bikini competitors should pay extra attention to the cut of their bottoms. Choose the amount of coverage that will accentuate the fullness and roundness of your glutes (like a peach).
Suit color is equally important. Consider your hair and skin tone before deciding on a suit color. You want to avoid getting washed out or blending with your suit.
Check this out from Angel Competition Bikinis for some helpful tips when choosing your competition suit.
Mistake #3: Competing for the Wrong Reason
If you want a challenge and to learn the limits of your body, then this sport is for you. But if you want to compete to
- Get back at your ex
- Treat an eating disorder
- Address insecurity
- Any reason other than a desire to push yourself and compete for personal satisfaction
It’s a mistake. Bodybuilding is a grueling process. Albeit, a rewarding one that can lead to untapped physical and mental health benefits. But still tough. So make sure you’re doing this for yourself and no one else.
Mistake #4: Cutting Your Prep Short
Most competitive female bodybuilders will reach between 8%-14% body fat and grossly underestimate how long it takes to get there.
To make sure you lose weight and keep your muscle (and your sanity) you’ll want to give yourself at least 12 weeks for your first competition. 16 if you’ve never lifted weights before.
Mistake #5: Doing. Too. Much. Cardio.
Enough said! You should not try to out-cardio a bad diet.
What Is “Reverse Dieting” and Why Is It Crucial to Female Bodybuilders?
Reverse dieting is exactly what it sounds like: a backward diet. Or the diet after a diet.
When you diet and have a period of prolonged fat loss, your metabolism adapts to keep you from starving to death. At this point, if you add calories back too fast you’ll experience rapid weight gain. Which is your body holding on to every bite for dear life.
Reverse dieting allows you to slowly reintroduce calories so your body can properly increase its metabolism and return to maintenance levels.
And like everything else, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about reverse dieting.
How Do You Correctly Reverse Diet?
It’s more complicated than just eating more and moving less. Reverse dieting can be broken down into 4 main steps.
- Decide how quickly you want to increase your calorie intake
Discuss with your coach what your goals are. If you want to add calories fast and you’re not worried about fat gain, you’ll want an aggressive reverse diet. If gaining fat is your concern, approach your reverse diet conservatively. Incrementally increase your carbs and fat.
- Calculate your new calories
If you’ve chosen to approach your reverse diet slowly, start by increasing your carb and fat intake by 2%-5% per week. If you want a more aggressive reverse, bump those percentages up to 6%-10% per week. If you’re not sure what that looks like, here’s a handy dandy calorie calculator.
- Reduce cardio and add weights
Increasing your calories is a great time to start lifting heavier weights. After all, food is fuel. Lifting weights is a great way to build muscle and increase your metabolism.
- Evaluate, adjust, and monitor
Weigh yourself a few times a week—especially in the beginning—to track weight gain. Aside from the first week, if you see any strange jumps in weight week-to-week, you may want to slow down on the rate you’re increasing your calories. And if you’re losing weight, bump up those carbs and fats. When you reach a weight that you feel good at, you’ve found your maintenance weight.
Why Is Reverse Dieting Essential for Female Hormone Regulation?
Extended periods of extreme dieting can wreak havoc on your hormones.
A 2017 study of female IFBB bodybuilders found that leptin, testosterone, and estradiol were all negatively affected after 20 weeks of contest prep dieting. Decreased sex hormones, like estradiol, will cause many women to experience menstrual irregularities like amenorrhea (no period). And decreased testosterone will leave women with low libido, low energy, and a bad move. Adding back calories during the reverse dieting phase allows hormones to return to normal levels. This helps reduce the risk of long-term hormone changes and imbalances.
See why reverse dieting is so important?
What Does a Female Bodybuilder’s Diet Look Like?
Bodybuilding diets are not one size fits all. But most nutrition plans will follow some form of calorie-counting and macro diet (AKA, ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ or ‘IIFYM’). If you’re a newbie to macros, it will be easier to follow a strict meal plan until you get the hang of it. Here’s a sample for a 12-week prep.
You can break your nutrition into 3 main categories: proteins, fats, and carbs.
- Protein-rich foods: Chicken breast, lean ground turkey, lean fish (like tilapia or cod), egg whites
- Healthy fats: Avocado, coconut or olive oil, greek yogurt, nuts, seeds
- Healthy carbs: Rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, berries, quinoa
A sample “Phase 1” 4-week plan might look like:
After 4 weeks, you and your coach will make adjustments to portions and total calorie count. Don’t forget to drink your water!
What Are the Best Exercises for Women’s Bodybuilding?
Female competitors can build a bangin’ body with a few key movements. Some of the best exercises for female bodybuilding are
- Smith Machine Squats
- Stiff-Leg Deadlifts
- Hip Thrusts
- Leg Extensions
- Lateral Raises
- Wide-Grip Lat Pull-Downs
- Seated Rows
- Hammer Curls
- Tricep Rope Pulldowns
- Side Plank Crunches
- Mountain Climbers
Sample Women’s Bodybuilding Exercise Plan: 4-Week Plan
Your workout program will depend on what division you decide to compete in. For instance, physique athletes will need to focus on chest exercises way more than bikini athletes.
A sample 5-day split for a female bodybuilding competitor could look like this:
With this 4 week plan you’ll build a firm foundation of muscle. After 4 weeks, you can evaluate and adjust your split to focus on certain areas that might need more TLC.
What to Expect at Your First Bodybuilding Competition
Since you’ve been following your diet and exercise plans religiously for the last 12-16 weeks, you’re ready. Let the fun begin.
By now you should have your suit picked out, hair and makeup decided on, and learned how to strut in 5-inch heels. The day before the show, you’ll get a spray tan that rivals those on Jersey Shore. And unless you’re applying it yourself, be ready to rock your birthday suit in a room of fellow competitors.
After you’ve pumped up and you’re loaded full of carbs, the show will start with pre-judging. This is where you’ll have time to show off your hard work for the judges with your individual posing routine (that you’ve mastered by now). You’ll then go up against the other contestants and move from spot to spot while the judges make their decision. The closer the judges move you to the center of the lineup, the better you’ll score.
The night show is all about the glitz and glam. By now, the judges have a strong opinion of where you’ll place in the lineup. This is where you have fun posing for your friends and family. Starting from 5th place, the judges will announce the winners. Sweet, sweet victory
7 Key Competition Tips for Female Bodybuilders
- Hire a quality coach: Even if you think you can do it yourself. Having a qualified coach in your corner to talk you off the ledge when you’re 2 weeks out and going on day 3 of low carbs is well worth it.
- Practice, practice, practice: A good chunk of your score comes from your stage presence and posing routine. Practice your posing every chance you get. Between sets? Pose. Walking the dog? Pose.
- Be patient: Give yourself more than enough time to get show ready. It’s important you pick a show that’s far enough away to give you time to prepare the healthy way.
- Make the weights your friend: Everyone thinks cardio is the key to winning a bodybuilding competition. And while it is necessary to uncover those muscles, you have to lift weights to build something to uncover.
- Splurge on your suit: While you don’t have to get the most expensive one out there, a high quality suit in a cut and color that flatters you is well worth it. Also…glue. You don’t want any wardrobe “malfunctions”.
- A solid stage tan: Stage lights are brutal. Don’t let all your hard work go to waste by getting washed out when you step on stage. Be prepared for a tan 5 shades too dark that doesn’t wash off for a few weeks. And bring spare sheets to the hotel. You will ruin theirs…
- Enjoy the ride: You’re going to have bumps in the road along your journey, but it is so worth it. At the end of your prep, take a moment to celebrate. You’ve earned it!
FRequently Asked Questions About Women’s Body Building:
- What’s the best diet for a female bodybuilder?
Dieting isn’t one size fits all. The best diet is the one that you’ll stick to. Make sure you’re eating plenty of protein and enough fats to keep your hormones in check. Start with the 40C/30P/30F macro split.
- What are the biggest reasons that female bodybuilders drop out?
Impatience. It takes time to see meaningful changes in your body composition.
- What are the most popular women’s bodybuilding competitions? Bikini is the most popular women’s bodybuilding division. It’s a great place to start if you’re a beginner.
- How long does it take a beginner female bodybuilder to become a pro? At least two shows. To become an IFBB Pro, you will need to place in a National Qualifier and then win a National show within the same year.
- Are there any workouts or exercises a female bodybuilder can do at home? Absolutely! You can do a good amount of exercises can at home with some bands and a dumbbell, or no weight at all.
Devon Gonzales is a former NPC competitor and fitness junkie living in Tampa Bay with her husband and two pups. She is passionate about providing fitness tips and health advice to help others live their best life.
Devon offers freelance copywriting services and specializes in offering content and digital marketing to the health and fitness industry.