Change The Standards, Save The Sport

Olympia 03-0100
Lightweights and heavyweights together at the Ms. Olympia

The Ms. Olympia in 2014 featured these categories: bodybuilding, physique, fitness, figure and bikini. All of the standards for these different types of competition have been long established (even if subjective and subject to interpretation and controversy) except for physique. Physique is new. And in my opinion presented the most disappointing lineup in the enter event.

Physique has been introduced as a “not so much” form of bodybuilding. This is not the first such attempt. Europe has had categories like “Body Fitness” for some time. This is not surprising given that since bodybuilding for women began officially in the late 1970s female competitors have faced constant and often vehement opposition.  Magazine articles were written declaring women to be “too big” who nowadays don’t look nearly as muscular as pro fitness competitors.  “Guidelines” were introduced to artificially limit the development of female bodybuilders that were obviously sexual discrimination since no such limits were placed on the men.

back compare
Bodybuilder, Physique, Figure, Fitness and Bikini at the 2014 IFBB Ms. Olympia

There are a number of reasons that would motivate the IFBB to provide an alternative to bodybuilding for women.

  1. Bodybuilding at the pro level is very, very difficult. The amount and intensity of training and the extreme discipline of diet required are beyond the abilities of many who otherwise possess the necessary genetics. The degree of commitment is super extreme.
  2. The genetics required, particularly at the pro level, are so specific. When you take into account things like the muscle mass, muscle maturity and density involved, the skeletal proportions, the number and types of muscle cells, the shape and distribution of muscle mass, the requirement that all major body parts be developed, the number and distribution of fat cells and the ability to diet away fat to an appropriate degree over all parts of the body the number of (female or male) bodybuilders who qualify to compete at the highest pro levels remains very limited.
  3. Our conventional ideas of female beauty and “femininity” are so entrenched and ingrained that it is taking a long time for the culture to get used to the idea of women with aesthetically developed muscles and as the women continue to grow and develop what becomes acceptable is “not so much,” or some degree of muscle and muscularity that was state-of-the-art some years ago and is not now considered too extreme.

Amateur bodybuilding is held using weight divisions, as are most sports are in which body size is an important factor (boxing, wrestling, powerlifting). When you limit the size of the competitors involved and smaller women and men can go head to head on an equal basis, you vastly increase the number of athletes have some hope of success and you get a lot more individuals entering shows. But with pro competitors competing in a single class, the bigger bodybuilders have a decisive advantage, the overall size of the lineups tends to increase, the competition becomes more about mass than sculptural perfection and smaller amateur champions are largely prevented from having any success as pro.

Pro bodybuilding is just too difficult for all but a few.

In 2000 the IFBB introduced a lightweight class into the Ms. Olympia and the Ms. International.  Immediately, we started seeing champions like Juliette Bergmann (coming out of retirement), Dayana Cadeau and Kathy Lefrancois.  These winners were considerably smaller than bodybuilders like Iris Kyle and Yaxeni Oriquen, but pound for pound with just as much quality and more acceptable to many who were not fond of the biggest heavyweights. Having a lightweight division meant that smaller amateur women, such as those who earned pro cards in the lighter weight divisions, could have some hope of achieving success competing as pros.

Weight divisions also encourage the women not to pack on too much mass for their fames, but to stay smaller so as not to have to go up against bodybuilders who are naturally much bigger than they are. The women who compete as lightweights generally have a more acceptable look in terms of conventional beauty and aesthetics – although there are some really massive and muscular lightweights, to be sure.

Juliette Bergmann came out of retirement to win the Ms. Olympia Lightweight Title.

Currently, although the lightweight division hypothetically exists, you will not see in used in top pro shows like the Ms. Olympia.  (There is at present no longer a female bodybuilding category at all at the Arnold.)  Instead, the federations have introduced a category called “physique,” which is apparently intended to be “bodybuilding-light” but so far is nothing specific at all.

Physique Olympia 2014-129
hysique competitors do double-biceps poses open-handed and no lat spreads.

The problem with all non-bodybuilding competition standards is they tend to be overly subjective and arbitrary. They are not sports, but are really beauty contests – although the competitors are often highly accomplished athletes.

Fitness evolved from events held at expos where women representing exhibitors competed in bikinis and a “routine” was included to create a show that would fill up an hour of television.

Figure came after that, starting as fitness without the routine but allowing for somewhat bigger and taller women – not built like gymnasts – to present themselves as somewhat more muscular and defined fitness models.

The federations have continued to pressure the women in both fitness and figure to limit their muscle mass and muscularity even though the women themselves have found it difficult to suppress the natural level of development that comes from years of weight training and the audience has never expressed any great degree of desire to see much smaller women on stage. At the same time, they have been more tolerant of bigger and more muscular female bodybuilders – although it now looks as if this were a prelude to getting rid of the category all together.

A lightweight vs. a heavyweight – why not physique and bodybuilding instead?

From the IFBB website: The Women’s Physique category, which is aimed at women who prefer to develop a less muscular, yet athletic and aesthetically pleasing physique, unlike today’s current bodybuilders.

Aside from the fact that is not really a sentence, and terms “today’s” and “current” are redundant, what does this really mean?  It’s a category for women who are not or don’t want to be as muscular as bodybuilders.  Isn’t that what “fitness” is?  Or could be, if the officials did not keep pressuring the competitors to be smaller than they prefer or is natural for them.  And does this indicate that the IFBB doesn’t think the best female bodybuilders are “aesthetically pleasing?”

Here is more:

“The following are examples of common terms used in the bodybuilding industry. These words can be helpful to assess what should not be descriptive to the physiques being judged in women’s physique:

Ripped, shredded, peeled, striated, dry, diced, hard, vascular, grainy, massive, thick, dense, etc.

While all types of physiques will be considered when it comes to height, weight, structure, etc. Excessive muscularity should be scored down accordingly.

What does all this mean? There are no positive and specific standards here for judges to apply. Looking at many in the Ms. Olympia Physique lineup the result would seem to often seem to be flat, deflated, out-of shape bodies. I felt so bad for many of these competitors whom I’m sure could be quite impressive if they were permitted to actually train and diet to allow themselves to look their best. But these confusing, subjective and arbitrary standards don’t allow for that – and don’t give the judges any kind of clear-cut means of evaluating the bodies on stage.

Physique competition introduces some small changes in the compulsory poses.  Double-bicseps poses are done open-handed and there are no lat spreads.  Of course, all that does is give the judges less information by which to assess the physiques.  And supposedly the open-handed poses are more “feminine.”  Which simply reinforces the idea that this is an athletic beauty contest rather than a sport.


Lightweight Cathy Lefrancois could hardly be accused of being too big and bulky and hard.

Based on past history, what will likely happen with physique is that a number of events will be held and, over time, a consensus will develop as to what the judges are looking for. That is future champions will be chosen because they look like champions of the past. Traditions will develop on a trial-and-error basis.

But there is another way to go about this – to create a category that is not “bodybuilding but not too much,” one that has specific judging standards and is actually a sport rather than a specialized beauty contest.

And that is to take the standards of physique and substitute those of lightweight bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding with an upper weight limit of something like 138 lbs – adjusted over time depending on the results. With smaller competitors like this there will be no worries about excessive hardness, definition or muscularity. Dayana Cadeau won a Ms. Olympia Lightweight title at 128 and 121 lbs. – a lot smaller than she has been in competitions with no weight limits.

Physique Olympia posing 2014-138
he best pro physique competitors look just like lightweight bodybuilders, not like bigger women shrunken and depleted.

With physique using the standards of lightweight bodybuilding, a lot of women from the NPC or the IFBB World Amateur ranks would be motivated to turn pro and have a division in which they could compete. The Ms. Olympia Bodybuilding Competition in 2014 had mostly the same old faces. Physique-as-lightweight-bodybuilding would introduce a lot of new faces and physiques from all over the world. And as the physique competitors matured and gained size, they could move up to pro bodybuilding with no major changes to their training or preparation.

As it is, the International Federation of BODYBUILDERS is not doing justice to the women competitors and in fact can be accused of blatant gender discrimination. But modifying physique as I’ve proposed would avoid this kind of accusation, expand the ranks of competitors (benefiting the federation and the promoters) and create an additional group of female bodybuilders whose aesthetics are more acceptable in traditional terms – without forcing dedicated athletes to “not try so hard,” which is contrary to the nature of sport and to the aims and goals of serious, dedicated athletes.

Weight limits create a lineup of smaller more aesthetic competitors, just as in the case with the amateurs.  And gives those amateurs a place to compete as a pro

There is no need to do anything to make physique relevant and meaningful except to change the standards to that of lightweight bodybuilding.  Piece of cake.

Bill Dobbins with Lightweight Ms. Olympia Dayana Cadeau

Modern-Amazons-cover002 copy

Signed and Dedicated by Bill Dobbins




  1. Love this article. Raises many questions and it will be interesting to see how the sport will survive and evolve. I hope that it will stay a ‘sport’ discipline and stop the nonsense of a beauty pageant. I agree that there needs to be some definite femininity shown but not like the way it is going now. Women lift weights to develop not only their physique but their mental capacity and self confidence in their strength on the inside as well as on the outside. Let us not forget the special women who through the years contributed to a sport that one , women, sacrifice so much to be able to do. Thanks for writing this article Bill.
    Warm regards
    Vivian Hylkema

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s