Professional muscle competition for women is held in a number of categories, allowing competitors a fair chance to excel in whichever division best suits their genetic potential. There’s women’s bodybuilding, physique, figure, fitness, bikini, and most recently, wellness.
To compete successfully in any category, you have to have an athletic body. But bodies, in general, including athletic ones, can be quite different. So the various criteria for competing in each division aim to produce a lineup that’s relatively homogenous. This allows the judges to compare apples with apples.
A standard way to characterize the genetic potential of different body types is as below:
Of course, nobody is purely any one these. We’re all combinations of the types, such as ecto-endomorphs or endo-mesomorphs. And while it’s possible to change body conformation with diet and exercise – that’s what bodybuilding is all about— everyone is going to be limited at some point by their natural genetics.
Not everyone is going to be able to develop really large muscles or a great deal of muscularity, sculpt six-pack abs or build huge calves. You can change the expression of your genes, turn some on and some off, through activity over time. But you can’t alter your basic genome.
Over the years, I have worked with a lot of women I call “orphan amazons.” These are women with remarkable, impressive physiques who don’t fit into any specific competition category and are therefore unable to compete successfully in muscle contests. They have muscles and muscularity but are not big enough, or they are too big for figure.
There are also a number who look great off-season but when they diet down, they lose shape or body parts like the legs just shrink without getting hard and defined. A competitor might look great in the gym but lose a great deal after dieting to get in contest shape.
Sometimes, women competitors might simply have chosen the wrong category. Judges are always advising women that they should think about switching from one category to another. Sometimes this results in great success, but other times there is simply no category a specific physique is suited for. A given competitor might be spectacular, develop a big fan following and be a terrific model, but still not be able to get high scores from judges in competition.
One other problem is that standards change, and a woman who fits into a category today may find the judges are looking for more muscle or less muscle down the line. The first Ms. Olympia, Rachel McLish, was perfect for female bodybuilding in 1980, but within a couple of years competitors were showing up with a lot more muscle and winning shows.
As I said, there are a lot of women who qualify as orphan amazons — women for whom there is no suitable competitive category, no matter how hard they train, diet or prepare. There are a few who have been among my favorite models, and I’d like to share their stories and photos.