FROM BODYBUILDING TO FITNESS/FIGURE:
THE EVOLUTION OF WOMEN’S MUSCLE COMPETITION
By Bill Dobbins
FIRST CAME BODYBUILDING
Before there was fitness and figure (and physique or fit bikini) there was bodybuilding for women – with the first contests being held in the late 1970s.
Although not everyone agrees with this, bodybuilding is a sport and has been recognized as such by a variety of international athletic organizations and governments. It is unique in being a sport of plastic form rather than involving dynamic performance like running, jumping, throwing or lifting. Sports of dynamic or plastic form (like skating) so not involve quantifiable measurement (100 meter dash). But like all sports, bodybuilding involves finding the extreme limits of human performance – in this case, the maximum aesthetic development of muscle. And also like all sports, it is progressive – that is, the champions of today are inevitably better than those of the past.
BODYBUILDING AS AN EXERCISE SYSTEM
Along with being a sport, the word bodybuilding also describes a system of exercise and diet that is the most effective and efficient every devised to shape, strengthen, develop and define the muscles of the human body. This system can be used by those interested in creating an extreme physique, such as for bodybuilding competition – but it is also useful in building and shaping muscle for a variety of other purposes. It also provides a method of creating the appropriate balance of opposing muscles and muscle groups so that no area of the muscle system unduly overpowers another.
You can use the bodybuilding method to achieve a variety of physical goals. Most athletes nowadays, from football players to golfers, use some form of bodybuilding as part of their training programs. Actors like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme created a lot of muscle and muscularity (developed muscle that is also highly defined) without any intention of entering a bodybuilding contest. A lot of models and actors work out on a regular basis in gyms and employ personal trainers. Most of these are doing some kind of progressive-resistance training, the most effective form of which is a sets-and-reps scheme based on the best practices of bodybuilding.
There are also thousands of women who train and diet like bodybuilders with the goal of competing, not in the sport of bodybuilding, but in the contest categories designated as fitness, figure, physique and fit bikini (and other similar classes used in Europe and other geographical locations.
We are all familiar with the concept of a beauty contest. These competitions can take somewhat different form and have different rules, but essentially the contestants are judged based on some standard of physical beauty. The standard can be the result of historic tradition or some arbitrary formulation. The only necessity is that any panel of judges share common view of what those standards are. Without consensus you have chaos.
Look at beauty contests from the early 20th century compared to contemporary ones and it is obvious how subject to fashion standards of beauty can be. Compare a beach bikini contest like Hawaiian Tropic to winners of the Miss America competition and you see they share certain standards but differ in others. All beauty contest standards are subjective and to a large degree arbitrary; there can be no fixed, objective criteria .
FITNESS COMPETITION ORIGINS
Fitness competitions began to be held in the mid 1980s. Fitness contests came about when promoter Wally Boyco was looking for a way to make his fitness expos more entertaining. The attending exhibitors were invited to designate women who would represent them in a kind of fitness beauty contest. Eventually Boyco got the idea of putting these contests on television. Not cable, but syndicated TV – where the programs are sold to various independent stations around the country and then the world. Syndicated programs make a lot more money than do ones created for cable. But in order to fill up an entire hour, the Ms. Fitness contests – Boyco created and trademarked the name – the events needed to include some kind of fitness routine (often based on gymnastics) along with evaluating the competitors physiques and beauty.
Fitness contests were intended as beauty contests for women with athletic hardbodies. Although they involve some kind of athletic routine, this does not make them a sport. Holiday On Ice is an entertainment event, while skating in the Olympics is a sport. Gymnastic in a fitness contest is likewise a demonstration, not scored like an athletic competition.
Subsequently, fitness moved from syndicated TV to cable. Lou Zwick was a producer primarily working in cable TV and he decided to start his own brand of fitness contest. He named his Fitness America Pageants. Because of the money to be made in syndication, Boyco had not been concerned about how big an audience attended his events since they were primarily produced as TV shows. They were shot in segments, with breaks in between for the benefit of those who would see them on a TV screen rather than the audience in the theater. He needed just enough audience to make the event seem real. TV syndication income was the business model, not selling tickets.
But working in cable, Zwick needed a different approach. There is not as much money in cable and he couldn’t depend on income from cable advertising sales. So he opened up his contests to more than 100 competitors in each show, each paid an entry fee and they brought ticket-buying friends, family and friends to see them in the show. He was very aware of marketing, to the point where it was suspected he was selecting winners, not entirely on the basis of judging scores, but with an eye to which winners could result in the best promotion for future events. So quite often the beauty part of the competition seemed to matter much more than the performance round.
Eventually, seeing the popularity of the fitness contests, the NPC and then the IFBB began sanctioning similar competitions on both the amateur and professional levels.
CHRONOLOGY OF FITNESS
The first ever Ms. Fitness National Championships was held in Las Vegas , Nevada, at the Tropicana Hotel on November 15-16, 1985, promoted by Wally Boyco, and was held in conjunction with the National Fitness Trade Show. The winner was Gea Johnson.
The first NPC National Fitness Championships was held in Chicago, Illinois, in the Fairmont Hotel’s Imperial Ballroom on August 25-26, 1995. The winner was Dale Tomita and 64 contestants took part. The top ten qualified for IFBB pro status.
The first Ms. Olympia Fitness contest was held in Atlanta, Georgia, On September 9, 1995, at the Atlanta Convention Center. The winner was Mia Finnegan.
The first NPC Figure Championships was held on August 3-4, 2001 in New York City. The winner was Davana Medina. 57 contestants competed.
Fitness had allowed women to compete who did not have the genetics or desire to build bodybuilding muscle. And because the routine was so important the women in general tended to be relatively small and compact – with the genetics you associate with gymnasts.
Figure contests were created as fitness without the performance routine. This opened up competition to women without the skills to do high-level gymnastics or dance routines. It also gave a competitive chance to women who were taller and bigger, not limiting the field to those with the pixie-like bodies we tend to see in gymnastics. So where hundreds were signing up for fitness, the lack of the necessity of doing a routine meant that thousands would be motivated to enter figure. So the ranks of competitors swelled.
Since figure contests involved only rounds in which the body was judged and no performance was involved, these events were easier to stage and took less time. You could get a lot more women on and off the stage a lot more quickly . Figure was also somewhat more satisfying to the audience, since in a fitness event looking at a lineup on stage they had no idea how competitors might have been scored in the performance round and therefore could not easily predict winners and losers. With figure, there were no performance scores to factor in.
THE ROUND SYSTEM
With a few variations, judging NPC amateur and IFBB pro fitness and figure contests involved the same sort of round system. During afternoon prejudging (separate from the evening finals) women would come out and do quarter turns for the judges. They wore heels and in one round two-piece suits and in the other one-piece suits. Fitness also included everyone doing a routine during prejudging, and only the top finishers performing in the evening show.
In recent years, the one-piece suit round has been dropped. Which is a good idea. Nobody has ever explained to me why you would judge athletic bodies in a physique contest with their mid sections and abs covered up. One-piece suits disguise a lot of figure faults, making women in poorer shape look better on stage. One-piece suits also tend to make many of the women with really muscular bodies look blockier than they are.
But the reason this round was dropped probably has less to do with the fact that it is absurd and more as a result of the rapidly proliferating categories of competition: at this point frequently including male and female bodybuilding, fitness, figure, physique, men’s physique and bikini. With so many competitors to get through during the contest, dropping one round makes a lot of sense.
This is kind of ironic because one reason the round system was originally developed was the fact that it used up a lot of time. Promoters wanted to be able to sell tickets to prejudging as well as to the finals and adding another round – however unnecessary or even misleading – extended the proceedings and made it more likely the audience would feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth.
Amateur fitness and figure competitors are not divided into classes on the basis of weight, as are bodybuilders, but of height. With 100 or more competitors in an event, this allows the judges to score more on an apples-to-apples basis, since there is a lot of difference in body conformation between women who may differ considerably in height.
It also means that the number of women on stage at any one time is limited, given the judges a better chance at making meaningful decisions.
The IFBB pro figure competitions – like most of the men’s and women’s pro bodybuilding contests – don’t use height or weight divisions so smaller women in amateur figure have almost no chance of having any kind of a pro career. Whether it’s bodybuilding, fitness or figure, throwing all competitors on stage together, no matter their body size, would be like forcing amateur boxers, once they turn pro, to all have to fight each other regardless of size. This defeats the definition of meaningful competition.
SUPPRESSING MUSCLE DEVELOPMENT
If women bodybuilders over the years have often been pressured not to get “too big” (and they certainly have) this has been almost universal in fitness and figure competition. The problem is, when you get a group of athletes who train diligently with weights over time, they are inevitably going to develop more muscle. And when they add strict dieting to the equation you are going to see increased muscularity (muscle plus definition.)
But the federations have, from the beginning, tried to discourage the women in fitness and figure from developing to a level that is actually normal and healthy. As a result, they have had to train and diet to lose muscle – and this has often resulted in an unhealthy degree of deprivation and way too much emphasis on aerobic exercise. Many a competitor who had a gorgeous, shapely, define and muscular physique month before a contest has shown up on stage with the body of a famine victim. This should hardly be the goal of working to win a contest in federations with physique and bodybuilders in their names.
HOW MUCH MUSCLE
Of course, as I have pointed out since the beginning of competition, how big is too big is all a continuous sliding scale. What is acceptable today is a level of muscle that was frowned on some five years or so in the past. The women keep developing but with yesterday’s too big becoming today’s aesthetic ideal.
Actually, the women competitors themselves don’t want to get unnaturally small. They don’t have to do what it takes to accomplish this. Getting unnaturally small involves too much deprivation, excessive levels of exercise, and sometimes the used of various kinds of diet pills to accelerate the process. So they like the bodies they managed to create, regret having to cause them to shrink and doing what it takes to make this happen.
The audience for these women like hardbody women. Many may prefer fitness and figure physiques to that of advanced bodybuilders, but that doesn’t mean they want to see women on stage who have trained and dieted away so much of their muscle. Especially since, for those sitting more than just a few rows back in a theater, this makes it difficult for them to see any real muscle at all. So limiting the development of the women should certainly not be done for their benefit.
So the only group that approves of these artificially limited body are the judges themselves, and other federation officials.
What sense does it make for the judges to impose standards on the competition that nobody else wants? Some explain this is to make these women more appealing to the “mainstream” – but since neither the NPC nor IFBB have full time public relations representatives very few in the so-called mainstream even know these women exist. So suppressing their level of natural, healthy development actually serves no real purpose at all.
STARS OF FITNESS/FIGURE
But while bodybuilding for women has given us some incredible champions, fitness and figure have produced lots of memorable champions as well. Until the magazines and sponsors started ignoring them a few years ago, many became very famous and developed large fan basis. They still have a following today, but this is evident mostly on the Internet. The magazines tend to feature interchangeable “fitness models” instead, women with largely no fan base at all.
I have photo archives full of a number of wonderful women from fitness and figure. But here are just a very few examples:
Alphie Newman was one of the first fitness stars. A remarkable athlete, Alphie sets 8 world powerlifting records as a teenager. She went on to become NPC Teenage Bodybuilding Champion and then the first Ms. Galaxy (an event in which competitors were judged both on physique and beauty but by their time in an obstacle course as well) in 1993.
Monica Brant was one of the first superstars in IFBB pro fitness. She won the Ms. Olympia Fitness championship in 1998, switched to figure a few years later and placed 2nd in the Ms. Olympia Figure competition in 2003. Monica was not a gymnast and the fitness routine was always a challenge for her so she hoped figure would be a better fit for her abilities.
As one of Monica’s avid fans, I always thought she should be a lightweight pro bodybuilder – if and when the IFBB chose to use weight divisions in pro shows for women. There were a few figure competitions in which I saw her compete where I was sure she could have been competitive with any of the smaller female competitors in the bodybuilding category.
But as the type of physique winning figure evolved more and more into a long, model-type body the judges started paying less attention to Monica, with her more compact proportions. Plus she builds beautiful muscle easily – which the judges often frowned up.
When any naturally muscular competitor tries to shrink down (from bodybuilding to physique to fitness or figure; or simply trying to get unnaturally small in any category) the results are usually not good. You get a lot of shape and quality, sometimes the look of a deflated balloon.
So Monica remained one of the most popular of all competitors but ended up 7th at the Olympia in 2007. With her future prospects in the IFBB looking dim she accepted an offer to compete for another federation and won the 2010 World Pro Figure Championship as sanctioned by the WBFF.
Timea Majorova. When Slovakian fitness competitor Timea Majorova first showed up in New York for the IFBB Fitness in 1997 after winning the Amateur World Fitness Championships she caused a sensation. She was so beautiful and sexy on stage, with so much personality, and did such a highly sexy athletic routine that the whole industry took note. Unfortunately, after placing her 6th in the competition, IFBB officials advised her to “lose muscle” in order to be more competitive. And for the next year or so was very disappointed by the results.
As I said, when the judges tell a woman to lose muscle or definition it rarely leads to improvement in her placing. Timea did win a couple of pro events in subsequent years but eventually retired from competition to become one of the most success fitness models of all time. She hosts her own fitness event in Hungary and developing lines of products bearing her name. What is remarkable about her success is that most fitness and figure champions end up with very little recognition – certainly none outside the fitness industry – and tend to earn very little income from their efforts. This is true even though the whole world seems to be moving more in the direction of appreciating fit women. Models, actresses and female celebrities all work out and have personal trainers. The cute little girls on MTV love to show off their abs – and sometimes their biceps.
Adela Garcia has been enormously successful in IFBB pro fitness competition, winning numerous Fitness Olympia and Fitness International titles. She is an object study in the benefits of perseverance. Adela competed as an NPC amateur from 1995 to 1999 before qualifying for her IFBB pro card. She competed in 10 pro fitness contests before finally winning a title.
She has since won (at this writing) 9 pro championships. Adela has shown an admirable consistency in both conditioning and the quality of her routines.
Oksana Grishina is a rising star in fitness – winning Arnold’s Fitness International and placing second in the Olympia. Oksana is from Riga, Latvia, and began training for rhythmic gymnastics at age seven. The used her interest in weight training and her gymnastics ability to come IFBB European Fitness Champion in 2005 and World Champion in 2006. If all goes well, she will no doubt soon win the IFBB Ms. Olympia Fitness title.
BETTER FIGHT THAN SWITCH
As categories of female muscle competition have proliferated, women have been motivated to switch from one class of competition to another. Usually to little avail. Although the criteria for judging one category or another is somewhat arbitrary, there is a genetic reality underlying the whole thing. As the fable of the Ugly Duckling teaches us, ducks are ducks and geese are geese and they each have their own intrinsic aesthetics which have to be observed.
Nonetheless, when fitness was first introduced there were a number of female bodybuilders who believed they were too small to compete (or simply didn’t want to continue working to stay that big) and that all they needed to do to compete successfully in this category was lose body size and practice a routine. But if the woman was a good bodybuilder in the first place, this almost never worked. Even when they tried to compete in figure, where the contestants were often bigger and no routine was involved, there were still very, very few who managed this. Today you see the same thing with bodybuilders switching to physique, a category that is very vaguely defined. Again, for the women who were successful bodybuilders their genetics is such that trying to lose weight and size also involves losing shape and proportion and very few are rewarded for their efforts.
Some switch because they think another category will be “easier.” But it doesn’t work that way. It is easiest to compete in the category you are best suited for genetically. Many change because they are not placing well in contests. But it’s better to look terrific and suited to the line-up even though you do not conform to a particular set of judging standards. Many less-than-successful competitors are so impressive and attract such a strong fan base that they are more famous and make more money than those placing near the top.
And it wasn’t just bodybuilding to fitness. Many fitness competitors switched to figure so they no longer had to work on difficult and potentially damaging athletic routines. But fitness judging has always tended to favor smaller, gymnastic-type bodies, while the figure women often have taller, model-type physiques. So good fitness competitors rarely did well in contests standing in a line-up of successful figure women.
An example of the futility of switch is Lena Johannesen, who was not big enough to win major pro competitions but was one of the most attractive and famous of women bodybuilders. She switched first to fitness and then to figure. With each change she lost more of her appeal and placed even worse. She was better off scoring more poorly but looking incredible and getting a lot of positive attention and publicity.
There are plenty of examples in sports like tennis and golf of athletes who are not good enough to be major champions but get more than their share of attention and endorsements. Winning is not the only criterion that counts, especially for the pros.
When it comes to switching categories you can’t fool much nature. Genetics is tyrannical. If you don’t believe in genetics, then get taller.
Unfortunately, there is little opportunity for most fitness and figure competitors to capitalize on their contest success. There is little reward in winning titles. A very few might form a relationship with a sponsor or magazine, but not many. And since there is little magazine coverage for them within the industry and no recognition outside it, whatever success they achieved has to be gotten by their own efforts.
But a lot of them earn a good living doing personal training. Gyms around the country – particularly places like NYC, Florida and Southern California are – full of people working out under the direction of female physique competitors. Some women have created products like supplements or clothing. They create websites to promote themselves, attract paying subscribers or to use to make money selling photos, products or down loads. They do a lot of social networking, show up at the Olympia or Arnold Expos or at the FIBO in Germany.
They are pretty much on their own in extending their careers and benefiting from their success.
However, in my opinion the magazines and fitness advertisers are missing out on a great opportunity by not featuring and promoting these women more than they so. In an age of sedentary lifestyles and obesity, they represent a fit and healthy alternative. They look the way most women would like to look and the programs of exercise and diet they adopt help women in counteract the aging process and create a world in which 40 really is the new 25.
These women can help sell and promote fitness products, supplements, gym memberships, athletic clothing and magazine sales. They are the Supermodels of the 21st century and any business not recognizing this is simply leaving money on the table.
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Signed and Dedicated by Bill Dobbins