A woman in a gym, with one knee on a bench and a weight in her hand.

Your beginners guide to bodybuilding for women

What is body building?


When anybody mentions body building, it’s only natural to think of big, muscly men with veins popping out of their humungous muscles and perfectly tanned skin, but is that the be all and end all of body building?

The answer to that is simply: no! That unfortunate stereotype misses out all the awesome female bodybuilders who compete in the sport and work just as hard for their impressive physiques.

Ultimately, that’s what bodybuilding is at its core – a sport that encourages anyone to ‘strengthen’ and ‘build’ the body of their dreams – and women can do that too! Oxford Dictionary defines bodybuilding as1 :

bodybuilding (noun)

‘A sport involving strenuous physical exercise in order to strengthen and enlarge the muscles of the body.’

Just like men, women bodybuilders often compete in big competitions, have to follow strict diets and exercise regimens, and buy fake tan in the boat-load! But women are into the sport for lots of reasons.

Some want to take home the winning trophy after a comp, some love the feeling of getting stronger and some simply want a six pack. This intense sport is not for everyone though, and there are risks to the lifestyle for some.

Still want to know more? Keep reading for more female bodybuilding facts, diet plans, workout plans and other tips and tricks to give you a good start in the bodybuilding world.

When did women start bodybuilding?

Women’s bodybuilding didn’t start until the late 1970s and was – and still is to some extent – quite controversial. A brand new, never-been-seen-before female physique was created by these new women bodybuilders. Before this, women had never collectively come together to build muscles for purely aesthetic reasons. There were circuses that put on ‘strong women acts’ in the late nineteenth century, but that wasn’t quite the same!2

Considering how controversial it was at the time, people seemed to take it quite well at first. In the early years, women bodybuilders were not very big at all – especially when compared to the significantly more muscular standards that came in the next decade or so. This probably played a big part in why it was so accepted, as the women competing were typically conventionally attractive with good bodies who enjoyed flexing their ‘cute’ muscles on stage.

However, this ‘easy to swallow’ bodybuilding image started to transform into something a lot more powerful and seemingly less palatable as the years went on. The women didn’t seem to care though, being thrilled to discover that their natural genetics allowed them to develop muscle in a much bigger way than anybody had imagined. It was officially not just a ‘man’s sport’ anymore.3

When was the first ever female bodybuilding contest


The first ever female bodybuilding show was called, “The Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship” and was held in Canton, Ohio, USA, in November 1977.

It was the first event of its kind for women and was judged strictly as a bodybuilding contest. The participants were to be scored “just like the men” event organiser Henry McGhee promised.4

Who are some famous female bodybuilding women?


Chyna

Chyna, aka ‘The Ninth Wonder of the World’, became famous while performing as a professional wrestler in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).  Born Joan Marie Laurer, Chyna first started her career as a competitive bodybuilder, having developed an interest for the sport in her teens. 5 She then went on to compete alongside men and was one of the first women to do so in WWE history. Unlike the women before her in the pro wrestling world, Chyna was not treated simply as a sex object, but was respected for her strength – she could bench press 365lbs! And often said she felt awkward in the ring with other women as she was worried that she would hurt them.6

Unfortunately, she died aged 46 from a drug overdose in 2016, but her legacy lives on in the bodybuilding and professional wrestling worlds.

Nicole Bass

Nicola Bass-Fuchs was one of the most popular and celebrated female bodybuilders in 80s and 90s USA. She has competed in lots of wrestling competitions like WWE, the National Wresting Alliance, Extreme Championship Wrestling, the XPW, and won the NPC National Bodybuilding Championship in 1997.7

Other famous bodybuilder women8:

  • Lisa Marie Varon
  • Nikki Fuller
  • Rebekka Armstrong
  • Marianna Komlos
  • Rasa von Werder
  • Rachel McLish
  • Gladys Portugues
  • Denise Masino

How do bodybuilders get judged in competitions?

The British Natural Bodybuilding Federation is one of the most respected organisations in the UK bodybuilding world. They advise that competitions get judged by the following criteria9:

  1. Symmetry: It’s all about balance in the bodybuilding world. Achieving an evenly balanced physique is highly valued in this sphere. The structure, proportion and overall shape of the participants is considered, and an even balance between the upper and lower body should be obvious.

  2. Muscularity: the degree of muscle mass in participants in relation to their frame size is judged, as well as their level muscular conditioning and fullness. Muscle conditioning should be clear enough so you can see competitor’s muscularity but not to the extreme that it knocks their symmetry off balance.

  3. The evening performance: the final round in competitions is mostly based on participants’ posing skills and how well they have showcased their physique in the routine. Competitors have the opportunity to create their own routine to show off their physique to music of choice.

How do I start female bodybuilding?


Lifting weights and eating right is where any woman interesting in bodybuilding should start.

How can a female gain muscle and take part in bodybuilding?


Female bodybuilders build muscle through a highly regimented combination of diet and exercise – just like male bodybuilders do. However, women’s bodies naturally have less testosterone and are therefore less muscly than men’s, meaning that women often have to be even more committed to achieve those impressive results.

What is the best female bodybuilding workout?


Bodybuilding training looks different for everyone – especially when it comes to women’s bodybuilding. This is because we all have different bodies, which come with different areas to work on to achieve what professional bodybuilders see as ‘perfection’ (which will ultimately help them win competitions)

There’s a bodybuilding program out there for everyone, and while they may differ in method, their main goal is to increase your muscle mass and generally strengthen you up – which conveniently go nicely together.

Below are a couple of examples bodybuilding workout programmes that can be great for both women and men. All women need to do is add in some low-intensity cardio a few times a week, as they tend to carry fat easier than their male counterparts.10:

The Push Pull Legs routine – a true classic


Who is it for? Those who want to increase their overall strength

What does it involve? You will train from 3-6 days a week, choosing to focus on 1 of 3 major muscle groups each time. This programme is ideal for both experienced lifters / bodybuilders and those just starting out as you can begin with just 3 days of training and increase when you’re ready.

Women are advised to add in around 3 sessions of 45 mins of low intensity cardio into the plan. Performing cardio on an empty stomach can work well for women or leave it until after your resistance training. Just avoid doing any cardio before leg day or on your rest day.11

How to do it:

  • Train push muscles, pull muscles and leg muscles at least once a week each

  • Push: your upper body muscles that ‘push’ e.g. your triceps, pecs and shoulders. Example exercises include overhead pressing, bench pressing and isolation work on your triceps

  • Pull: focusses on upper body muscles that ‘pull’ like your biceps and back muscles. Example exercises include dumbbell and barbell rows, deadlifts, chin-ups and pullups.

  • Legs: focusses on your glutes, calves, quads and hamstrings. Example exercises include lunges, different variations of squat, and other isolation exercises for the muscles noted above.
  • Incorporate around 3 sessions of low-intensity cardio into your plan to burn off fat

Want to know more? Find the programme and more information for free here.

Novice Bodybuilding Program by Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez


Who is it for? This could be the program to help all you beginners out there to dip your toes into the female bodybuilding world.

What does it involve? This 4-x-a-week strength training program focuses on the compound bodybuilding exercises: deadlifts, squats, overhead presses and bench presses, with a couple ‘accessory exercises’ to support other muscle groups.

Women are advised to add in around 3 sessions of 45 mins of low intensity cardio into the plan. Performing cardio on an empty stomach can work well for women or leave it until after your resistance training. Just avoid doing any cardio before leg day on your rest day.12

How to do it:

  • 2 lower body workouts a week, including squats and deadlifts
  • 2 upper body workouts a week, including bench press and overhead press
  • Perform 5-15 reps for 10 to 12 sets, depending on the exercise
  • Use weights that are 65-85% of your 1 rep max. Take each set of compound exercises 1-3 reps from failure – which means stop when it’s hard enough that you could only do maybe 1 more rep before your muscles are completely exhausted
  • Accessory exercises include lat pull downs or flyes for upper body workouts, and standing / seated calf raises for lower body workouts
  • Incorporate around 3 sessions of low-intensity cardio into your plan to burn off fat

Want to know more? Find the programme and more information for free here.

What is a 1 rep max?

A 1 rep max is the absolute maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of the chosen exercise using a full range of motion and proper technique.

You can find 1 rep max calculators online to help you determine yours, without ever having to attempt it during normal training, as it can be very exhausting and quite risky. It’s quite rare to have to perform your 1 rep max outside of competitions.

What do female bodybuilders eat?


Have you ever watched in awe / mild disgust as the ‘gym bro’ packs away what seems like a whole chicken and a full bag of rice during his lunch break? Well, bodybuilders do like their protein – that’s a given! However, protein is not the only factor to consider in a good bodybuilding diet. Here’s some things female bodybuilders should be thinking about when planning their diet:

Macro goals


Macronutrients are the proteins, carbs and fats we get from the foods we eat. Most people don’t pay attention to these macros too much unless we’re trying to put on / lose weight or training for a sport like bodybuilding.

To get the most out of your bodybuilding training, the general goal is to increase protein and decrease carbs – especially for women - as you’ll mostly be focussing on building muscle mass – which we need protein for.

Not sure what the numbers behind ‘high protein’ and ‘low carb’ mean for you? Don’t worry, there are lots of resources online like this macro calculator that can help determine which macro goals are best for you.

For best results, speak to your training coach / personal trainer or other people at your gym who should be able to help you out with some bodybuilding tips!

Calorie counting


When you’re working out so much with big goals for your body, you need to fuel your body right. Bodybuilders know this better than anybody, with most having to be extremely regimented when it comes to what they eat. A lot of them end up counting calories to achieve specific body-composition goals, the two most popular being:

  • The cut: cutting calories and eating lots of protein in order to lose fat and get ‘lean’, but still maintain muscle mass.

  • The bulk: extra calories and more protein is added in the bulk stage to maximise female muscle building

A lot of bodybuilders will alternate back and forth from ‘cutting season’ to ‘bulking season’ to help alter and perfect their muscle-to-fat ratio.

Calorie counting is an essential tool for most who want to get the most out of bodybuilder diets. There are lots of calculators on the internet that can help make sure you’re consuming the right amount of calories for your goals, like this one.

Most bodybuilding diet plans revolve around these food groups:

  • Starchy carbs: potatoes, quinoa, oats, whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and cereals

  • Protein: protein powders, tofu, tempeh, soya ‘faux’ meats, egg whites (full eggs sparingly), white meat, white fish and high-protein yoghurts like Greek yoghurt

  • Fruits / vegetables / legumes: lentils, citrus fruits, leafy green veggies, beans and chickpeas

  • Oils: if combining with carbs, cut down on the oils and use sparingly

  • Fats: coconut oil, full-fat cheese, avocados, nuts and seeds,

Example female bodybuilding diet plan for beginners13:


Approx. 2000 calories, and roughly 40% carbs / 30% protein / 30% fat

Meal 1:

Porridge, peanut butter and blueberries + a handful of nuts

Meal 2:

Protein shake made with vanilla protein powder, soya milk, raspberries, chia seeds and flaxseeds

Meal 3:

Meat, fish or scrambled tofu / faux soya meat sandwich with a spinach and tomato salad

Meal 4:

Women's protein shake for post workout nutrition.

Meal 5:

Brown rice stir-fry made with lots of green leafy vegetables, olive oil and a lean protein like tofu, prawns or chicken.

As we have mentioned above, each individual needs a different number of calories depending on their current body composition, lifestyle, and bodybuilding goals they want to achieve

Just use this meal plan as inspiration and you can even adapt these meals to your calorie / macro needs once you’ve figured them out.

Other bodybuilding tips for your diet

  • Limit processed food: try to stick to simple ingredients and homemade meals

  • Eat frequently: eating regularly helps to keep blood sugar levels under control, keeps your metabolism steady, and helps to promote new muscle growth

  • Keep hydrated: staying hydrated by drinking lots of water is vital for keeping your performance at the gym strong – try to avoid sugary and high-calorie drinks, though

  • Choose your carbs wisely: instead of basic and nutrient-deficient white pasta, bread, and rice, make the switch to wholegrain varieties that will help you to hit your protein goals and leave you feeling satisfied for longer

  • Lean protein: top up on your protein intake every few hours, if you can, to maximise muscle growth. Some of the best sources are fish, chicken, lean beef, low-fat dairy and soya. If you haven’t got time to eat, then a protein shake for women will also do the trick

The dark side of bodybuilding: what risks to look out for


Illegal substances like steroids and other performance enhancing drugs are unfortunately quite popular in the bodybuilding scene and 100% not good for you! Yes, they may help you build muscle fast, but they can come with horrible side-effects and even cause death. Avoid at all costs, and if you think you have an issue with illegal bodybuilding supplements, seek help from your GP immediately.

What are bodybuilding supplements?

Some bodybuilders choose to take pre-workout supplements (the legal kind!) to boost their performance and energy in the gym. They usually come in the form of drinks and tablets, like the very popular energy-boosting Grenade Thermo Detonator Capsules. Some just stick to protein supplements – some of which are specifically made for ‘bulking’ like Optimum Nutrition Serious Mass Vanilla Powder that contains a huge amount of protein along with the surplus calories needed to help you put on mass. Another popular bodybuilding supplement is creatine which is super for high-intensity exercise, which makes it perfect for lifting heavy. It helps give your muscles a ‘burst of energy’ from a substance called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). Shop Sports Nutrition

Last updated: 12th January 2021

 

Andrea Dobronszki

Author: Andrea Dobronszki, Regulatory Affairs

  • Joined Holland & Barrett: August 2020
  • Qualifications: Master’s Degree in Food Science and Technology Engineering, Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics

Andrea started her career as a clinical dietitian and lecturer at a university hospital, managing the dietetic treatment of patients with various diseases, and giving lectures in nutrition for medical students. Later she worked as a Product Developer at a sport nutrition company where she developed food supplements and fortified foods, and ensured that the products complied with the relevant regulations. Andrea joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate and specialises in food supplements, food regulations, nutrition and dietetics.

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