A Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding for Women
Whether you want to strut onstage in a bikini or just hit the weight room for the strength benefits, here's what you need to know.
Fake tans. Biceps. The most glittery bikinis you've ever seen—sure, this is the culmination of bodybuilding training, if you chose to compete. But it's also much less glamorous: dieting and meal-prepping, counting macros, waking up early to do cardio, spending hours in the weight room, and peeling calluses off your hands.
Sound like a lot to handle? The bodybuilding lifestyle isn't for the faint of heart.
"This does not come without its fair share of sacrifice," says Linzi Martinez, a certified trainer and nutritional therapist "However, if this is your passion, it's worth every second. It requires you to harness your willpower and mental strength, and you'll reap the empowering gains across all areas of your life." (Not to mention, lifting weights can radically change your body.)
Curious? Here, the full guide to bodybuilding for women.
What Is Bodybuilding, Anyway?
ICYDK, bodybuilding is actually a sport. It comes with a very specific lifestyle that involves detailed workout training and precise nutrition in order to strengthen, sculpt, and develop the muscles of the body (aka hypertrophy training).
While some people practice bodybuilding just to look and feel strong, for many, training and dieting culminates in a bodybuilding competition where you're judged on your physique and muscular development—in either the bikini, figure, women's physique, bodybuilding, or fitness categories. (More on that below.)
Before you read on, know this: Participating in a sport where you're judged almost solely on your appearance can be rough on the psyche. "It's important to attend to your spirit and mind in addition to your physical body," says Ana Snyder (@littlebuffblondie), a certified trainer, fitness model, and competitive bodybuilder based in New York City. "If you already struggle with body image issues, attaining what the outside world (or judges) views as the perfect aesthetic does not guarantee that you will see a different person in the mirror." (That's why this fit Instagrammer stopped doing bikini competitions and started powerlifting.)
If you're looking for a way to goal-orient your strength training, a physique competition is a great option; however, keep in mind that even though the judges are scoring your abs, the health and performance gains you're making are even more important. (Read more here: Why Weight Loss Won't Make You Happy)
That said, you can totally take advantage of bodybuilding workouts and the training style even if you have no intentions of competing and just want to get strong as hell.
What Female Bodybuilding Workout Plans Are Like
How do you build impressive muscles? With strength training, of course.
"Typical bodybuilding training is not easy," says Snyder. "It usually involves training twice a day—approximately one hour of lifting and anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours of cardio per day."
Most female bodybuilders structure their workouts by dividing up their strength training days by body part, often called a "split." For example, a common 5-day split could look like this:
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Shoulders
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Arms
Days 6 & 7: Rest
However, everyone's training will look a little different depending on your body type and goals. "Most people structure their lifting by focusing on one body part per day, but I do three days of legs and three days of upper body," says Snyder.
Many athletes prefer to hit each muscle group twice a week. To do that, you could structure your training to alternate a "push" day, a "pull" day, and a leg workout day:
Day 1: Push (chest, shoulders, triceps)
Day 2: Pull (back, biceps)
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Push (chest, shoulders, triceps)
Day 5: Pull (back, biceps)
Day 6: Legs
Day 7: Rest
Typically, you'll do a warm-up, then four to five of exercises for the designated body part, performing three to four sets of 8-12 reps of each.
It's smart to start with one or two compound exercises (ones that require the use of more than one joint like squats, bench press, deadlift, etc.) and then move onto isolation exercises (which only require the use of one joint like bicep curls, leg extensions, etc.), says Martinez. (More here: How to Correctly Order Exercises At the Gym)
Compound exercises typically get all the glory because they allow you to hoist bigger weights and also count as functional training, but isolation moves are actually pretty important for bodybuilding workouts: "Because these exercises focus on one muscle at a time, they're effective in increasing the size of muscle fibers, a major goal of all bodybuilders," says Martinez. Not to mention, if you're new to strength training, these more straightforward exercises will help keep you moving safely and injury-free.
When you're doing 8-12 reps of each exercise, you should only be working at about 60-70 percent of your 1RM (one repetition maximum), says Martinez.
"Lifting closer to 100 percent of your 1RM is more efficient in building strength and power, but bodybuilders more often focus on the size of muscles," she explains. "To induce hypertrophy—AKA increase in muscle size—it's better to lift for longer periods of time. That's why bodybuilders often lift less weight for more reps." (Related: What's the Difference Between Muscular Strength and Endurance?)
You can also use supersets in your training, which simply means doing two exercises targetting the same muscle group back to back, often with little or no rest in between. Tempo is important, too: You want to lift very slow and controlled along the whole range of motion, says Martinez. "All these techniques are all efficient in causing muscle fatigue and causing micro-tears in the muscle fibers. When the body repairs these micro-tears during rest, the muscle fibers grow back thicker, resulting in hypertrophy, or an increase in muscle size."
And, yes, you have to do cardio: "Cardio is crazy important!" says Snyder. "This will help uncover the beautiful muscular shape you’re creating." (Related: You Don't Have to Do Cardio to Lose Weight—But There's a Catch)
Snyder recommends shooting for 20 minutes of cardio three times a week. If you're more advanced, you can also incorporate HIIT workouts, says Martinez.
What Female Bodybuilding Diets Are Like
"I cannot stress how important your diet is to support your building goals," says Martinez. Yes, you'll need protein (to help build all that new muscle) but healthy fats are also a must (they'll keep you satiated longer, helping you keep your daily caloric intake low) and complex carbs will be crucial for fueling your workouts.
That's why many female bodybuilders follow an IIFYM or macro-counting diet. "This form of dieting allows you much more freedom in your food choices, as long as you stick to eating a certain amount of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins," says Snyder.
That's just the beginning. Here's a full guide to bodybuilding diet and nutrition, including some more details on how most bodybuilding athletes "bulk" and "cut" to prepare for a competition. (And, yes, you can follow a vegan bodybuilding diet and lifestyle too.)
Before You Sign Up for a Bodybuilding Competition...
There are a ton of bodybuilding organizations out there—the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), National Physique Committee (NPC), and World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF), just to name a few—and they're all a little different. Before you decide to sign up for a competition, do some research on which competition and genre of bodybuilding for women might be right for you. They all require you to wear a swim-style suit and pose in front of judges to be scored.
Bikini: This is the most popular female bodybuilding division. It emphasizes balanced physiques with a moderate amount of muscle. You wear a two-piece bikini and pose in front of judges to be scored.
Figure: Muscle-wise, the figure category is a step up from the bikini category. You're judged on muscular balance and symmetry.
Women's physique: The women's physique division packs on even more muscle, taking on more of an athletic look.
Bodybuilding: This is the most muscular category of women's bodybuilding. (Think: Arnold Schwarzenegger, but female.)
Fitness: The fitness category is judged on physique and appearance too, but it also includes a fitness routine performed to music and includes elements of dance, strength moves, and gymnastics.
How to Start Bodybuilding for Women
Hire a coach: "One thing you definitely should invest in is a coach," says Snyder. Don't just go for anyone who looks impressive on Instagram, though: "It's important to do a lot of research so that you find a coach who can guide you with a good training and nutrition plan. You're putting them in charge of your health."
Track everything: "Make sure you log your training so you can strategically increase your weights over time," says Martinez. It's also super helpful to log your food so you can keep track of your macros and calories. (Some of these weight loss apps can help you track all that in one place.)
Don't ignore machines: "For beginner weight-lifters, it can be beneficial to use machines as these keep the body in the proper place throughout the exercise," says Martinez. If you're new to bodybuilding but have a good strength base, go ahead and play with the free weights. "These typically engage more muscles that help stabilize the body throughout an exercise’s range of motion," says Martinez.
Give yourself plenty of time: If you plan to compete, give yourself plenty of time to build muscle and prep beforehand. "Everyone is different, but new competitors are typically ready to compete after a 12-week intensive period," says Snyder. "If you're more consistent in your diet and training even in your off-season, you will not have to take as long to prep."
Be patient: "There is a method to bodybuilding. It's progressive in nature and needs an individually tailored plan," says Snyder. "When implemented properly, it will keep you safe, be effective, and efficient. But increasing the size and strength of your muscles takes time, takes effort and consistency." Strong biceps and glutes don't grow overnight.
Keep upping the ante: "Like with any other training program, your body will adapt, so it's crucial to test yourself regularly to make sure that you are adjusting the weights, reps, and/or the amount of rest in between sets properly as you get stronger to maintain or even increase the intensity of the workouts," says Martinez. (This is a beautiful little thing called progressive overload training.)