Fake tans. Muscles. The most sparkly bikinis you’ve ever witnessed — indeed, this is the culmination of bodybuilding training, if you decide to compete in the sport. But there’s also a much less glamorous side to being a female bodybuilder: eating and meal preparing, tracking macros, rising early to engage in cardio, spending hours in the gym, and removing calluses from your hands.
Bodybuilding “does not come without its fair share of sacrifice,” says Linzi Martinez, C.P.T., a nutritional health coach and owner of Body on Fire Fitness. “However, if this is your passion, it’s worth every second. It requires you to harness your determination and mental strength, and you’ll enjoy the empowering gains across all aspects of your life.” (Not to mention, lifting weights comes with a plethora of health benefits.)
Curious? Continue reading for the complete guide to what it’s like to be a female bodybuilder.
What Is Bodybuilding, Anyway?
Bodybuilding is essentially a sport. It comes with a very specific lifestyle that involves meticulous workout training and precise nutrition to strengthen, sculpt, and develop the body’s muscles (aka hypertrophy training).
While some people practice bodybuilding to appear and feel powerful, for many, training and dieting culminates in a bodybuilding competition where you’re evaluated on your physique and muscular development — in either the bikini, figure, women’s physique, bodybuilding, or fitness categories.
Before you read further, know this: Participating in a sport where you’re evaluated almost solely based on your appearance can be challenging for the mind. “It’s crucial to take care of your spirit and mind along with your physical body,” says Ana Snyder, C.P.T., a fitness model and competitive bodybuilder located in New York City. “If you already struggle with body image problems, achieving what the outside world (or judges) perceives as the ideal aesthetic does not guarantee that you will see a different person in the mirror.”
If you’re searching for a way to goal-orient your strength training, a physique competition can be an excellent choice; however, keep in mind that even though the judges are scoring your abs, the health and performance gains you’re achieving are even more important.
That being said, you can still take advantage of bodybuilding workouts and the training style even if you have no intentions of competing and simply want to gain strength. Continue reading for an example fitness plan for female bodybuilders.
Female Bodybuilding Workout Plans
How do you develop impressive muscles? With consistent strength training, of course.
Typical bodybuilding training is not effortless,” asserts Snyder. “It usually involves training twice a day — approximately one hour of lifting and anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours of cardio per day.”
Most female bodybuilders structure their workouts by dividing their strength training days by body part, often referred to as a “split.” For instance, a common 5-day split could resemble this:
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Shoulders
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Arms
Days 6 and 7: Rest
However, everyone’s training will appear slightly distinct depending on your body type and goals. “Most individuals structure their lifting by focusing on one body part per day, but I perform three days of legs and three days of upper body,” explains Snyder.
Many athletes prefer to target each muscle group twice a week. To accomplish that, you could organize your training to alternate a “push” day, a “pull” day, and a leg workout day:
Day 1: Push (chest, shoulders, triceps)
Day 2: Pull (back, biceps)
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Push (chest, shoulders, triceps)
Day 5: Pull (back, biceps)
Day 6: Legs
Day 7: Rest
Typically, you’ll perform a warm-up, followed by three to five of exercises for the designated body part, executing three to four sets of 8-12 reps of each.
It’s wise to initiate with compound exercises (ones that necessitate the utilization of more than one joint, such as squats, bench press, deadlift, etc.) and subsequently proceed to isolation exercises (which only necessitate the utilization of one joint, such as bicep curls, leg extensions, etc.), states Martinez. (More here: How to Correctly Order Exercises At the Gym)
Compound exercises typically receive all the credit since they enable you to lift heavier weights and count as functional training. Nevertheless, isolation movements are fairly vital for bodybuilding workouts: “Because these exercises concentrate on one muscle at a time, they’re effective in amplifying the size of muscle fibers, a principal objective of all bodybuilders,” discloses Martinez. Not to mention, if you’re new to strength training, these more simplistic exercises will aid in keeping you mobile safely and free from injury.
When performing 8-12 reps of each exercise, you should only be exerting at approximately 60-70 percent of your 1RM (one repetition maximum), suggests Martinez.
“Lifting closer to 100 percent of your 1RM is more efficient in building strength and power, but bodybuilders more frequently prioritize the size of muscles,” she explains. “To induce hypertrophy — also known as an increase in muscle size — it’s preferable to lift for extended periods of time.
That is the reason why muscle builders frequently hoist a lower amount of weight for a greater number of repeatitions.
You can also utilize supersets in your training, which simply means performing two exercises focusing on the same muscle group consecutively, often with minimal or no rest in between. Tempo is also significant: You desire to lift at a very slow and controlled pace throughout the entire range of motion, states Martinez. “All these techniques are effective in inducing muscle fatigue and creating tiny tears in the muscle fibers. When the body repairs these tiny tears during rest, the muscle fibers regenerate and become thicker, resulting in hypertrophy, or an enlargement in muscle size.”
And, indeed, you must engage in cardiovascular exercise. “Cardio is incredibly crucial!” expresses Snyder. “This will aid in revealing the exquisite muscular shape you are developing.” Aim for 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week, as suggested by Snyder. If you are more advanced, you can also incorporate HIIT workouts, according to Martinez.
Women’s Bodybuilding Nutrition Plans
“I cannot emphasize enough how vital your diet is to support your building objectives,” conveys Martinez. Yes, you’ll require protein (to aid in muscle development), but healthy fats are also essential (as they will keep you satisfied for longer periods, assisting in maintaining a lower daily calorie intake), and complex carbohydrates will be pivotal for fueling your workouts. That’s why numerous female bodybuilders adopt an IIFYM or macro-counting diet. “This form of dietary pattern grants you considerably more freedom in terms of food choices, as long as you adhere to consuming a specific quantity of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins,” states Snyder.
And that’s merely the commencement. Here’s a comprehensive guide to bodybuilding diet and nutrition, including additional details on how most bodybuilding athletes “bulk” and “cut” in preparation for a competition. (And, yes, you can adopt a vegan bodybuilding diet and lifestyle as well.)
Things to Consider Before Registering for a Bodybuilding Competition…
There are numerous bodybuilding organizations available: The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), National Physique Committee (NPC), and World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF), to mention a few — and they all possess some subtle distinctions.
Prior to making a decision to enlist in a bodybuilding contest, take into consideration the category that may be suitable for your preferences. Just a friendly heads up, all of them mandate the donning of a swimsuit-style attire and striking a pose in front of evaluators in order to receive a score.
Bathing Suit: This is the most popular female bodybuilding division. It emphasizes well-balanced physiques with a moderate amount of muscle. You wear a two-piece bathing suit and pose in front of judges to be scored.
Physique: Muscle-wise, the physique category is a step up from the bathing suit category. You’re judged on muscular equilibrium and symmetry.
Women’s Athletic Look: The women’s athletic look division adds even more muscle, taking on a more athletic appearance.
Muscle Building: This is the most muscular category of women’s bodybuilding. (Think: Arnold Schwarzenegger, but female.)
Fitness Routine: This category is judged on appearance as well. However, it also includes a fitness routine performed to music and incorporates elements of dance, strength exercises, and gymnastics.
How to Begin Bodybuilding for Women
Employ a coach: “One thing you definitely should invest in is a coach,” says Snyder. Don’t just go for anyone who looks impressive on Instagram, though: “It’s important to do a lot of research so that you find a coach who can guide you with a solid training and nutrition plan,” she explains. “You’re putting them in charge of your well-being.”
Monitor everything: “Make sure you log your training so you can strategically increase your weights over time,” says Martinez. It’s also extremely helpful to log your food intake so you can keep track of your macronutrients and calories. (Some of these food tracking apps can assist you in monitoring all that in one place on your journey to becoming a female bodybuilder.)
Do not neglect machines: “For novice weightlifters, it can be advantageous to use machines as these maintain the body in the proper position throughout the exercise,” says Martinez. If you’re new to bodybuilding but have a good foundation of strength, feel free to experiment with free weights. “These typically engage more muscles that help stabilize the body throughout the full range of motion of an exercise,” says Martinez.
Allow yourself sufficient time: If you plan to compete, give yourself plenty of time to build muscle and prepare beforehand. “Everyone is different, but new competitors are usually ready to compete after a 12-week intensive period,” says Snyder. “If you’re more consistent in your diet and training even during your off-season, you will not need as much time to prepare.”
Practice patience: “There is a method to bodybuilding,” says Snyder. “It’s progressive in nature and requires a personalized plan. When implemented correctly, it will keep you safe [and] be effective and efficient. But increasing the size and strength of your muscles takes time, effort, and consistency.” Strong biceps and glutes do not develop overnight.
Keep pushing yourself: “As with any other training program, your body will adapt, so it’s crucial to regularly test yourself to ensure that you are properly adjusting the weights, reps, and/or rest intervals between sets as you get stronger to maintain or even increase the intensity of the workouts,” says Martinez.
(This is a lovely little thing called progressive overload training.)