Respect the Journey – A Request to Stop Demeaning Female Bodybuilders

This week I'm re-hashing a very old post from my last blog.  Sadly attitudes towards female bodybuilders (and even male bodybuilders) by many hasn't changed much since.  I'm hoping that re-surfacing this post can help others to respect rather than be revolted by bodybuilders. 

Take a look at the two pictures below:

NaturalBodybuilders

They may not be very pleasing to your eyes.  It's probably not a physique you'd ever want to have.  You may even be a little disgusted.

It's completely fine to not want to look like a bodybuilder, I'd say most people don't.  However there's a trend I notice when talking about bodybuilders with many people that I do find a little troubling -

Bodybuilders are spoken of with disdain, with disgust, as though they were somehow less human than the rest of us merely because of their chosen sport.  As though because we don't like their physique ideals something about them must be flawed.

If you do a Google search for 'female bodybuilders,' the first link is entitled "Steroids gave me a penis."  Seriously?

In truth, bodybuilders are doing what most people want to accomplish, but to a higher degree: Losing fat and gaining muscle.  They're experts at it.  Thankfully for most of us, we don't have to work half as hard as a bodybuilder must to achieve our goals.

I'm hoping that this post will serve two purposes:

  1. Lend more evidence to why merely doing strength training is not enough to 'bulk' you up.  We'll take a look at how some bodybuilders train - it's probably a bit different than your typical strength routine!  Bodybuilders would love if they could just wake up one morning HUGE from a few months of strength training!
  2. Come to respect bodybuilders for their resolve, consistency and dedication to their sport instead of being repulsed by it.

Competition Divisions

Back in the day of Arnold Schwarzenegger and crew, bodybuilding was pretty simple.  Nowadays there are several different divisions, each with their own judging criteria.  It can get a little confusing.

In general though, all of the competitions are looking for some degree of muscle size, the best muscle symmetry and proportion, as well as a certain degree of muscle definition.

The fake tans caked on so liberally that competitors' heads look photoshopped on, oil, and minimal clothing isn't just to look as strange and inhuman as possible.  It's to enhance muscle definition and make it more visible to judges.

Let's define the different types of body aesthetic competitions:

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding competitions have simple goals: Get as much muscle and as little bodyfat as possible, while maintaining good symmetry and proportion. (As in, not having one shoulder larger than the other and not having quads that are out of proportion with your hamstrings)

There are drug-tested bodybuilding competitions (the two bodybuilders at the beginning of the post are "natural" competitors), and then there are open divisions where basically anything goes.  That's where you'll find your Jay Cutlers, Ronnie Coleman's and Iris Kyle's.

Iris Kyle looks like she cares a lot about your opinion of her body.

In addition to the spray tans, oil, etc. mentioned above, dehydration and lifting weights before going on stage (in combination with drastically low body fat percentages) are some other techniques used to help increase vascularity and get that really 'shredded' look.  Before going on stage a competitor may also take in a high amount of carbohydrates in order to make the muscles appear fuller and larger.

Physique

Female physique competitors

Very similar to bodybuilding, except competitors can get marked down for having too much muscle.  That's really the main difference.  Sort of seems like an option for women looking to be muscular and compete but still retain a more traditionally "feminine" shape - but don't quote me on that.

Fitness

A step down again in terms of muscle size, leanness, and vascularity requirements.  However competitors in this division typically have to do some kind of routine that combines aspects of strength / flexibility, so a greater degree of athleticism is required.

Figure

Like the Fitness division, minus the routine.

Bikini

Bikini Competitors

I'll admit, I'm not sure what exactly judges look for in this division, because the only judging criteria from the NPC (National Physique Committee) website are:

  • Balance and Shape
  • Overall physical appearance including complexion, skin tone, poise and overall presentation.

So, perhaps a step down from figure.  Judging by the pictures of most bikini competitors, that's accurate: fairly lean, not much muscle definition.

Note: I thought Scott Abel's take on 'watering-down' bodybuilding competitions was interesting.  There is a lot of talk about the dangers of deciding to compete in figure and bikini competitions going on lately.  Take a few minutes to listen to this podcast starting at 12:48.

Bodybuilding Exercise Routines

Bodybuilders spend a lot of time in the gym.  The stereotypical "bodybuilding split" workout typically involves 4-5 days a week and tons of volume. (Competitors on drugs can recover faster and thus do more work) That takes quite a chunk of time each week.  To give you an idea, here's a sample day from competitor Josh McMillan:

*2 warm up sets of 15 reps, seated dumbbell curls, then:

  1. INCLINE SEATED DBELL CURLS (SUPINATED)-
    4 sets of 6 reps (slow deceleration), then 6 hammers.
  2. BARBELL REVERSE CURLS (to forehead)-
    3 sets of 12 reps (3 second decel)
  3. HIGH PULLEY MACHINE CURLS-
    3 sets to failure (around 15-20 rep range)
    *2 warm up sets of tricep push downs
  4. TRICEP ROPE PUSHDOWNS-
    4 sets of 12 reps w/flex
  5. ONE ARM REVERSE TRICEP PUSHDOWNS
    3 sets of 10 reps
  6. BENCH DIPS-
    3 sets to failure
  7. MACHINE SHRUGS-
    4 sets to failure

A bit more work than most put in on a typical day - done 4 or 5 times per week.  Doing exercises to failure is not pleasant.  It burns.  Your body begs you to stop but you must have the mental fortitude to push through it anyway.  Rinse, repeat again the next day.

This doesn't count the cardio that many competitors put in.  It varies from competitor to competitor, and you'll find many arguments for and against excessive cardio.  But at the end of the day most will do some form of cardio in the weeks leading up to a competition.

I got to interview Staci, a natural female bodybuilder in the 118-132lb weight group.  She gave me a general idea of how much time she spent in the gym and how much cardio she also did on top of regular training:

"During off season, I am in the gym for 1 hour a day for weight training 4 days a week and cardio will take up 2 of those other days, with 1 day full rest. When I am cutting for competition, I am in the gym in the morning for HITT (High Intensity Interval Training) before breakfast and for another hour later in the day for weights. I will do this for 4 days, and depending on energy levels, I will put in a few more cardio sessions the other 3 days as well."

Now bear in mind, this is just a sample.  Bodybuilding requires you to take note of whether or not an exercise is working for you, whether or not you should consider a different angle on the bench when you're doing incline bench press, whether or not you should widen or narrow your grip, are you making sure to target both your soleus and your gastrocnemius on calf day?

Bodybuilders need to have a good, basic understanding of human anatomy to be successful.  How can you make a muscle bigger when you don't know it exists?  How can you make sure a muscle is activating unless you know what its function is and what bone it attaches to? (You could always read blog posts, I guess!)

So if one needs to have a broad knowledge base in anatomy and physiology (or hire someone who does) to be successful in bodybuilding, where did this stereotype come from?

Bodybuilding Diets 

Dieting for a show can get pretty grueling - not to mention boring.  Ask any competitor.

If you think that your diet is restrictive, try a bodybuilder's who is preparing for competition.  Men strive to reach levels of 3-8% bodyfat, women around 9-15%.  For reference, average bodyfat percentage for men is 18-25% and for women is 25-31%.  How do you have to eat to get to these numbers?  I asked my friend Charlie, and he had this to say about dieting for competition:

"The diet is the tough part. Lifting is fun, being hungry for 12-16 weeks is not. Diet for competition is usually a low carb diet... total calories 1700-2000. The target is no more than 2lbs of weight lost a week, anything more your losing muscle. Off season diet is 3500-4000 calories a day with protein being about the same, but way more carbs...

Three weeks out from the show I wanted to quit. I was grumpy, tired, hungry, and wondered was it all worth it. I didn't quit, because I knew I would beat myself up if I did. The diet messes with your mind. You question everything your doing and wonder if you're screwing up. This is why I think a coach is the most important thing you can have. Someone to talk you off the ledge, to have a sane mind that can hold you to the plan and can gauge your progress and make adjustments without sabotaging everything."

In the weeks leading up to the show, all food is logged.  How many ounces of chicken, exactly how many almonds, how many grams of plain oats?  Exact calories and macronutrient levels must be measured.  There can be no cheating involved - you bring your food to work, to restraunts, to birthday parties and holidays.  Research the correct supplements men over 40 (legal or not, depending on your division), take them at the exact right times according to your training each day.  Any deviation might mean the different between first and last place.

And then there's the post-competition diet.  You don't want to completely de-rail for a month (though many do) and get fat, since it's just that much more weight you'll have to lose before the next show.  But to gain muscle, you do have to eat at a caloric surplus.  It's a fine balance between eating enough to gain muscle and support your workouts, but not so much you gain 50 pounds of fat.

Staci had this to say about switching between phases:

"The main difference between off season eating and pre-contest diet is the amount of calories. When I am bulking, I aim for about 2500 to 3000 cals a day. When cutting, I am looking at around 1400 to 1000 cals, depending on the workout for the day. Macros will move up or down, obviously but keep protein very very high...

The transition can be grueling. The key is to not reduce the amounts to quickly, as you will almost go in to shock psychologically and mentally. Obviously your body is use to taking in so much, and when it is not receiving, it will come back to bite you...[[One time]] I cut my cals too quickly and had a difficult time functioning, as far as speech, cognitive and emotionally. It was an eye opener to see just how much this affects you."

Now obviously if you found female bodybuilders less than easy on the eyes before this post, nothing above will have changed that.

But how about we show these ladies (and gents) a little respect for the tremendous amount of work they do and do away with comments like these:

FemaleBodybuilders

How about we stop being "afraid" of getting too "bulky" as though that's a bad thing or the only reason to lift weights?  Again, bodybuilders would LOVE it if it were that easy.  Hopefully we can see now that's not the case.

Even in light of all this, the physique of a bodybuilder will probably be continually unappealing.  And that's okay.  Take a look at this video of a young female bodybuilder:

Chances are good she doesn't care if you think she's too manly looking, or that some random dude on the internet wouldn't have sex with her.  But I just want you to look at the confidence she exudes while on stage.  Just from her body language you can see the hard work she put in, the dedication, and you can tell she knows she's amazing.

Even if you don't want to look like her, we should respect her for her resolve.  We should respect her for having the guts to even decide to prepare to get up on that stage.  We should respect her for the respect she has for herself.

That's something that we should all strive for, no matter in what manner.

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