Can Women Build Muscle Mass ?

It is commonly believed that women cannot build muscle. This does not seem to be accurate when examining the matter for an exercise physiology perspective. Women can in fact build muscle, because muscular hypertrophy does operate in the same manner in the female body. The level compared to men would be less in relation to size. There is a fear that some women have of “bulking up.” This term bulking also is not accurate either. The word bulky can be defined as ” taking up much space typically inconveniently” or ” a person that is heavily built.” This description  could be used for various body types if applying these definitions. A person who is overweight could be bulky according to that definition. The best terminology would be muscle mass gains. It seems what is bulky can vary depending on what a person’s aesthetic preferences are. The term bulky just like the term tone has limited scientific basis. These terms are either used to deter or encourage women specifically in their fitness goals. There is a taboo against women with muscular or strong looking bodies. Ideas about women’s physical capabilities are still based on dated notions that the female body was not designed for strength or endurance. Popular fitness literature states that women cannot “bulk up” through heavy weight lifting. Basically this is saying that women cannot build muscle. Fitness literature does correctly state the health benefits, but denigrates the muscular look on women. The ability to gain muscles mass does not only depend on sex, but factors such as body type, genetics, exercise regimen, and age are also factors.

         Muscular hypertrophy is the process in which skeletal muscle will increase in size including the associated cells. This does not only increase muscle mass, but the cross sectional area. Individual muscle fibers increase in size. Cardiac muscle can even adapt to increased work load. The heart can become more efficient at squeezing blood out of the chambers of the heart and the skeletal muscle can push more force through the tendons of the body. Skeletal muscle must contract to produce body movement, but also functions in maintaining body posture. When doing progressive overload intermittent levels of stress is applied to the skeletal muscle. This allows for the muscle to adjust for the enlargement and amount of contractile proteins. This effects the myofibrils in each muscle fiber.

Women have the same muscles as men. Anatomically and physiologically the muscular system of women is similar to that of  males. To understand the nature of muscular hypertrophy one must examine satellite cells, growth factor proteins, and immune system responses.   The satellite cells are responsible for repair of damaged skeletal muscle tissue and they are facilitators of growth. Their location is on the surface of the muscle fiber between the sarcolema and basal lamina.


These cells contain one nucleus which has most of the cell volume. They are only activated in the case of injury or trauma. Resistance training only cause some micro-trauma. The daughter cells respond, while there is an increase in satellite cells. The daughter cells merge to the damage site. This results in the increase in myosin and actin proteins. Simultaneously the daughter cells will donate nuclei. Muscular hypertrophy can be induced by high intensity anaerobic resistance training. The changes it causes result in neural adaptations, muscular endurance, and strength. The total amount of satellite cells differs depending on the type of muscle fiber. Oxidative   fibers have at least six times the satellite cells. These muscle fibers are in use more frequently. They have an are larger blood and capillary supply which explains this function. This physiological process is the same for people, but potential varies when considering other factors. The initial fitness level and natural strength capacity are critical. People of ectomorphic body types will struggle to build muscle, while mesomorphic bodies can easily gain. Endomorphic body types would benefit in terms of weight loss, because muscle burns fat.  This means that women can vary in the level of muscular gains they can make depending at their starting point before hypertrophy.

Somatotype plays a major role in physical fitness potential in terms of muscular gains. Proteins actually have the ability to govern growth rates.

      Growth factors include hormones and cytokines. Growth factors maintain division and various characteristics form the original cell, which are acquired . This process is known as differentiation .  The major growth factors of skeletal hypertrophy include insulin growth factor, fibroblast growth factor, and heptocyte growth factor. Insulin growth factor regulates protein synthesis including insulin metabolism. This growth factor appears in two forms which include IGF I and IGF II. IGF I must proliferate the cells as well as cause differentiation  IGF II must spread the satellite cells. IGF responds to progressive overload during resistance exercise causing it to increase in level.

Fibroblast growth factor is present in the skeletal muscle. FGF has nine forms, but only five cause the proliferation and the differentiation of satellite cells. The amount of fibroblast growth factor is proportional to the degree of trauma or injury.  Hepatocyte growth factor has numerous cellular functions and is also a cytokine. The role of HGF is to get the satellite cells to migrate to the areas of trauma. Besides cytokines, the endocrine system and hormones also contribute to the growth of muscle.

         The endocrine system has the function of directing hormones in the body. Hormones are a group of chemicals, which are designed to regulate activities in organs or cells through out the body. Hormone function can be effected by nutritional status, food consumption, and lifestyle factors. Life style factors include stress, amount of sleep or rest, and general state of health.Testosterone is an androgen that also contributes to muscular hypertrophy. The sex hormone is produced more in males which effects the nervous system, skeletal muscle, bone marrow, skin, hair and sex organs. Women produce more estrogen, which effects the body composition to produce more fat. The endocrine system contains ovaries in women which is responsible for the ripening of eggs and the thickening of the uterine wall. The reason men find it easier to build muscle or lose weight is because they are producing more androgens  in the testes. Testosterone has anabolic effects on the body and can generate more protein synthesis. This explains why it is harder for women to build mass. Even when the training regimen is the same for both sexes male absolute strength is higher.

  However,  it is not the total amount of  testosterone in the body. The amount of free testosterone that is not bounded in the body.  As confusing as this can be it explains that a woman who trains can be stronger than a man, even though their is a hormonal difference. Hormones are not the only factor involved in muscular hypertrophy. It should also be understood that other hormones such as growth hormone and cortisol contribute to the endocrine elements. Growth hormone is classified as a peptide, which causes stimulation in IGF. It has been suggested that GH is more responsible for enforcing connective tissues. Growth hormone also needs to be involved  in the process of activation, proliferation, and differentiation. Cortisol is categorized as steroid hormone, produced in the adrenal cortex and kidney. This stress hormone causes gluconeogenesis. The process allow for formation of glucose from other areas such as amino acids and free fatty acids. Cortisol has the ability to stop the use of glucose by cells of the body. Protein catabolism can be caused by this, which allows amino acids to focus on more protein production. If this process happens too much it can inhibit skeletal muscular hypertrophy. Steroid hormones are critical because they have a nucleus than can transport through the cell membrane without a receptor.

 The endocrine system is a combination of glandular tissues and glands within organs that manipulate hormones to regulate the body. The endocrine system and the interactions of hormones do plat a role in muscular hypertrophy. These hormone interactions are complex and simply saying women cannot achieve muscle gain would be incorrect. Testosterone does provide an advantage, but IGF and GH add to the anabolic role to compensate for lower levels in women. Estrogen may also be helpful in some regards. Studies have shown that estrogen can aid in muscle repair and may have the ability to protect joints and bones from injury. Estrogen and testosterone are both important to the health of the human body.

       Women have the same muscle fibers. There is a belief that there are “men’s muscles” and  “women’s muscles.” The force than can be produced from muscle fiber is dependent on size and particular composition. Slow twitch and fast twitch fibers are different in terms of metabolism, contractile velocity, neuromuscular activity, glycogen stores, and capillary density. They do respond differently to hypertrophy. The fast twitch type II fibers are capable of more force production. Type IIa fibers are oxidative glycolytic fibers, which can be a combination of type I and IIb fibers. They need both need anaerobic and oxidative metabolism to support contraction. This type of fiber can be the product of both endurance training and resistance training. Type IIb fibers have the ability to convert into type IIa fibers. Fast twitch glycolytic fibers require anaerobic metabolism for energy needs. Contraction in this circumstance requires an amount of glycolytic enzymes. The reason this type of fiber generates more force is due to the enhanced size of the nerve body, axon , and the muscle fiber. The conduction of velocity of alpha motor nerves becomes higher, while simultaneously causing more of a response in terms action potential. Although this type of muscle fiber has more power, it has less long term endurance.

 Depending on the sport there are muscle fibers that are more helpful than others. Fast twitch fibers would be more helpful for weightlifting and slow twitch would be useful in running. The slow twitch muscle oxidative muscle fibers contribute to maintaining skeletal support and body posture. These fibers have more endurance and can generate tension for longer time periods. Slow twitch fibers have the ability to use fats and carbohydrates better compared to fast twitch fibers. The require less excitement for the sake of muscular contraction. The explanation is that oxidative metabolism provides an efficient means of breaking down fuels from energy with the help of oxygen. Type I fibers can grow with progressive overload including resistance training. Aerobic exercise to a small extent can cause hypertrophy in type I fibers. There is no difference in structure and physiology of the muscular system of women. Men have can develop larger muscles in terms of total body composition. Muscular development comes from a training regimen and the result of that particular stimuli.

        The type of exercise and training method also influences how women gain mass. There are numerous types of exercise. Weight training is the most effective method to building muscle mass. cardio vascular exercise, while still good for health will not cause mass gains. This is also true of aerobics, which does not aid in significant strength increases.

The muscular system of women contain the same muscles as men.

   Women either avoid weights for fear they will “bulk.” Basically, it is a fear of becoming muscular, which is very possible. Looking like a professional athlete or female bodybuilder takes decades to achieve. Thinking that such strength and power can be acquired with minimal effort is ludicrous. Such athletes have a genetic advantage unique to their physiology, a strict diet, and train over a number of the years. Some athletes resort to performance enhancing drug use to reach fitness or performance  targets. There still is a huge amount of cultural bias against women who do not fit a societal body image paradigm. Women have various body types and the ability to enhance physical fitness capacity. There still continue to myths about women’s bodies that were based on 19th century eugenics and pseudoscience. The female body was thought to be too weak for vigorous activity and  exercising would cause infertility in women. These concepts have been disproved, but research is still needed in terms of training of the female athlete. Exercise physiology has not examined female athletes as much as men, so it still may be a mystery about women’s total physical fitness capacity. This makes it more difficult to figure out what is the best training method for women. There are two factions that emerge in this debate. The first claims women should not train like men and the other advocates similar methods between the sexes. The one reason some argue women should not train like men is due to endocrinology. Estrogen can help women recover faster from training and reduces fatigue. Women would need more isolation work in the upper body to gain strength in that section of the body. Adding muscle to the upper body would be the most challenging element, which means there may need to be adjustments in exercises. When women do bench presses they use more of their triceps compared to their shoulders and back. Seeing as women are closer to men in lower body strength, they respond just as well to a mix of high volume and high intensity squats.

Other advocates say that women should follow the exact same regimen as men. That means lifting heavy and doing this at high intensity.  Both positions have their well argued positions, but may be there are some deeper considerations. The choice may not be either selection, rather a combination of both methods. Individuals vary in somatotype and this will effect on the results of training stimuli. The only way to find out the best training program is to determine your body type and experiment with a regimen. The only practical way would be to document or record changes to see if it is fully effective. Training should be tailored to the physical characteristics and attributes of an individual.

      Nutrition and diet are also critical to building muscle mass. For women, this becomes more complicated due to differences in how food is metabolized. If one is to consume more calories activity level should be high enough to utilize them or else it could become extra fat stores. An active woman should consume close to 2,400 calories per day to maintain mass. A diet should consist of protein and carbohydrates. Protein is required for muscle growth and repair. Foods that should be consumed for required carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. It is best to consume carbohydrates prior to and after workout sessions. This diet must be consistent to be effective in producing results. This may be the mot challenging aspect, other than the training itself. Dietary proteins can be found in meat, chicken, fish, eggs,whey, and dairy products. There is another limitation here in terms of knowledge. It is not entirely clear how much protein an active sportswoman should consume. The recommended suggestion is 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This may require a level of modification. Besides food, there are supplements that can gain in strength and muscle mass gain. Creatine  has been shown to be very helpful with women in their training regimens. Supplements and diet can allow women to build muscle mass.

        Genetics plays a role in how muscular a person can get. There is not one gene responsible for a single attribute, but a combination of genes. Eye color can be affected by  15 different genes. A gene is a single unit of DNA required to form a protein. They consist of sections of DNA that code for all the amino acids of a particular protein. Lengths of DNA are referred to as introns and exons, which transcribe  to form immature mRNA.

ADN gene

The mRNA has sections that are made from introns, which will be removed. After the removal the mature mRNA  will remain for the purpose of translation. Regulatory DNA sequences code for their own proteins and this affects the gene transcription rate. Introns can be sliced out, leaving the exon section. That remaining section will allow for protein production. Relevant to muscular hypertrophy, the MSTN gene plays a significant role. This gene provides directions to the protein myostatin. Myostatin is part of the transforming growth factor beta super family. This protein is active before and after birth and is found mostly in the skeletal muscles. It has the function of  regulating muscle growth. Athletes with low myosatin could therefore find it easier to build muscle compared with individuals with higher levels. The often used phrase ” they have great genetics” actually does have credibility. A natural physique suited to a particular sport does provide an edge in certain competitions. Genes are not a compete explanation either. Organisms interact with their environments and it can also influence biological states. There could be an athlete with great potential, but they do not work as hard. There could be women of high potential that do not have the opportunity to enhance physical skills.

 Humanity is a combination of genes and environment. Muscular potential from a genetic standpoint is inherited to a degree. Whether it can be extended further is determined by dedication, access to certain facilities, and nutrition. As science continues to uncover the nature of the human genome and gene interactions,  there still are unanswered questions.

        Age also does play a role in how much mass can be gained. The muscular system like other organ systems is effected by senescence. The aging process changes the skeletal and muscular system at different stages at life. Girls  during puberty attain their full natural skeletal and muscle mass growth faster than boys. The growth process for most people ends by age 25. Men may be slower to grow, but when it is done they are taller and have more total body mass. Muscles can change depending on use and level of exercise. Muscle will reach its full potential in size, strength, and contraction rate by the mid-20s of the human life cycle. When the muscular peak reaches a certain level, it will decline with age. Body fat  will increase throughout life. Muscles by middle age become weaker and stiffer, which can affect voluntary and automatic body movements. Bones have a more difficult time with reconstruction, leaving people more vulnerable to osteoporosis. Age causes muscle mass reduction. Between the ages of 45 to 70 muscle strength declines about one third. However, exercise can prevent muscle mass and bone loss.

 Linda Wood Hoyte started to compete in her 30s  and in her 70s still has a good physique. 

Load bearing exercises can build strength and bone mass. Besides those benefits, it might also aid in keeping a  healthy circulatory system and controlling blood pressure. It is true it would be difficult for an older person to build muscle, but not impossible. Doctors once believed that the elderly should not engage in vigorous exercise,because it could be too much for them. Seniors should be physically and mentally active to improve the quality of life. Seniors can see an increase in strength and bone mass.

        When examining these factors the question becomes to what extent are women’s capabilities? Growth rate in muscle gain for women does not differ. Women respond to training stimuli, but the difference is starting point. Men will appear that they grow more, because they have more lean body mass to start with. This may not be the case , because appearances can be deceiving, without precise measurement. Studies conducted show that women can enhance their physical fitness over a number of weeks.

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Both male and female subjects gained 10 lbs of muscle.
Women saw dramatic increases percentage wise in squats and bench press. Arm curl percentages were lower because of the vast difference in upper body strength.

Women seem to see higher percentage increases. This does not mean they go beyond men in absolute strength, rather they gain more because the have less natural strength to begin with. It seems that women have more endurance than men when doing an exercise session.  Studies suggest women can utilize fuel reserves better and are less reliant on carbohydrates during training regimens. Women can burn more body fat relative to their size. Understanding these biological and physiological differences can contribute to making a training program more effective.

          There still is unscientific and incorrect ideas about women gaining mass. Some of these views are simple misconceptions. The term “bulky” is nothing more than a colloquial term that does not accurately describe the athletic or muscular female body. The athletic female body can come in numerous forms being either smaller or larger.

Their bodies look a particular way depending on which sport they compete in. A gymnast will not have a body of a weightlifter. A track and field athlete will not have a body like a swimmer’s. Women are still scrutinized more about appearance and body image. Even athletes have to be subject to such ridicule and derision. The irrational fear about becoming “too big” or looking “mannish” still plagues women in sports and fitness. The fitness industry promotes mostly weight loss plans to women, rather than programs that enhance physical conditioning. There are guarantees of “you can never bulk up from weight training” or “its simply impossible for women to build muscle.” There is a bias against women of different sizes. Muscular women or physically strong women face these biases. Critics either call it unnatural or unattractive. Most of these sexist claims are based on pseudoscience from 19th century  Victorian Age  medicine. Women were thought to have naturally frail bodies and rigorous exercise could harm their health. At  this time, women’s sole purpose in the eyes of Victorian society was to direct all her energy to childbirth. Getting an education, working, or doing physical activity would according to medical professionals would take away body energy for childbirth. This was false, but these myths were designed to control women’s bodies and deny them reproductive rights. Women developing their bodies to the highest physical condition has become a major statement about what a woman can be and achieve. Although the concept of female biological inferiority has been proved false, prejudice remains.

          The women that are commonly referred to as “bulky” are female bodybuilders. This should be interpreted  from a point of height and weight differences. The women who appear on stage are not as large as they seem. During contests their body weight is lower depending on what weight class. The off season is a rest period in which body fat levels will go back up. The stage body is different from  the out of contest body. Fat levels are low to show as much definition and vascularity  as possible. This condition can only be maintained for a short period of time. When body fat levels get too low it can cause problems for the cell membranes. Specific to women it can cause issues with the menstrual cycle. That is why competitors do not remain in contest shape year long.

A combination of tans and low body fat produce a body uniquely sculpted. The look is different from any other female athlete. Depending on the category, muscularity, size, definition, and conditioning vary. There are numerous weight and height classes in the physique, bodybuilding,  figure, fitness, and bikini classes. These women sculpt their bodies to a particular aesthetic. Bodies can either be lithe with some muscle, a middle range, or the hypermuscular version. While to an extent their is a level of acceptance of some muscle on the female body, there remains a bias in sports and in the whole of the fitness industry. Most fitness magazines for women encourage diets and weight loss rather than specific exercise programs. The fitness industry even blamed female bodybuilders and weightlifters for making women fearful of lifting weights. This is not true, because many publications promoted the thin body as an image of health and beauty. They were the first women to lift and spread this activity. The industry they contributed to now wants to disown them. There is a change with a the rise of crossfit and more women wanting to use weight rooms in their local gyms.

Seeing women in other sports the spectrum is much bigger. On average women are shorter than men and adding muscle to a smaller frame makes it seem as if they are gigantic. Women of this physique are often criticized as being as large as men, but this is not necessarily true. As revealed previously men have more muscle mass and larger skeletal frames. Also depending on which man you are comparing a muscular woman to she may obviously be bigger. Somatotypes vary between men and women. Comparing a muscular woman to a thin man, she would obviously look bigger. Men with endomorphic body types would be larger in terms of total body mass. The mesomorph however would be larger than most women depending on their height and weight.

The one who would be considered  bulky according to the denotation of the word would not be the muscular woman. 

Terms like bulky and toned are gender based fitness constructions. The only utility it serves is to present what types of bodies are acceptable to a dominant cultural perspective. The another myth that needs to be challenged is that some how muscles turn into fat when training or competition ends. Muscle only goes through atrophy meaning they decrease in size. Hypertrophy as discussed earlier is the opposite of this process. Maintaining a muscular physique requires high calorie consumption. Women have to work harder to achieve higher physical fitness levels. Looking like a bodybuilder or fitness model take an enormous effort. For the average non-athlete, how one looks could be completely random. The fitness industry tries to present a claim everyone will look a particular way after a training regimen, but this has no scientific basis. Their main purpose is to sell a training program, not realistic expectations.

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Looking like either one of these women  may not actually happen. However, weightlifting can improve health.

 There are women who think touch a heavy weight will make them a Lenda Murray and the others who think they can look like a smaller fitness model. It is clear that these women are professional athletes who have talent and genetics to produce such appearances. The diligence and number of years required would certainly deter a majority of people. Women who see some muscle develop and do not want it become fearful that it is permanent. Obviously it is not. The body does change when exercise is  either stopped completely or adjusted depending on goals. Muscle atrophy when it happens in women may theoretically go at a faster rate, due to body composition. Former competitors are not as large as they were when in contest. That is because the body is no longer being challenged by exercise stimuli. The only way excessive weight gain happens is when calorie consumption is still high, but physical  activity level is still low.

The photographs above show former competitors Dawn Riehl and Laura Creavalle in their post athletic career stage. Their muscles did not transform into fat, they merely shrank in size compared to when they were competition. The general public has a weak comprehension of science, especially the anatomy and physiology of their own bodies. Having a grasp of basic exercise physiology would make many understand why bulky is really not a precise term to describe a muscular body.

      The term as one can see is relative to a perspective of an individual.Another aspect that should be realized is that the claim women with muscle look like men is false. Simply having muscle does not make women look like men. This is distorted logic, because it assumes that all men have physiques that are like men on the cover of fitness magazines. Another problem is that it ignores the fact that women’s muscular systems can be developed through training. The only reason a woman would exhibit male secondary sex characteristics is from long term anabolic androgenic steroid abuse. This type of performance enhancing drug alters the endocrine system, which can enhance strength and aid in workout recovery. Virilization and other negative health consequences can be a result of use depending on the type of steroid, dosage,  and length of use.  However, it should not be assumed that all muscular people are on some drug. Training and diet are more effective in comparison. Drugs will not produce a quality athlete if training and diet are inadequate.  Women do have the ability to build muscle mass depending on age, type of exercise, somatotype,  and genetics. While much has been discovered, there could be more to learn about the full extent of female muscular physiology.


Parker, Steve. The Human Body Book. New York: DK Publishing,2013.

Kravitz, Len. “The Mystery of Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy.” Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy, University of New Mexico , 7 Mar. 2006,


Henselmans,  Menno. “The Muscular Potential of Women .” Bayesian Bodybuilding, Bayesian Bodybuilding, 12 Jan. 2015,
Jacob Wilson. “Are Women Stronger Than Men?” The Muscle PhD, The Muscle PhD, 25 Sept. 2017,
Samuels , Mike. “How to Bulk Up for Females.” Healthy Living, Healthy Living , 8 Dec. 2007,
MSTN Gene – Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 7 Oct. 2017,
Chee April 01, 2015, Rosie. “Muscle Building: Hypertrophy And Physiology – How To Lift Weights To Maximize Mass!”, , 1 Apr. 2015,
Can Women Build Muscle Mass ?

Has Female Bodybuilding Died ?

The end of the Ms.Olympia to many was a signal that the sport of female bodybuilding was over. Cynics and detractors claimed the sport was on a slow decline, but they failed to realize this was an evolving activity. Female bodybuilding like other women’s sports struggle to survive due to sexism, lack of media coverage, and unequal pay. It is not that women are not great bodybuilders, its just they got too good for some peoples’ taste. The muscular woman still remains anomaly to a portion of people in the public and even in the fitness industry. Women had to fight hard to get competitions organized and even get recognition. Many dated cultural mores in regards to femininity and gender roles explain why women still continue to struggle in the sports world and the strength sports in particular.   Even with all the negativity and obvious discrimination women continue to be part of a smaller sport. The reality is bodybuilding can no longer just be called one sports activity. The new categories emerged such as fitness, figure, physique, and bikini. While fitness emerged in response to the increasing musculature of female bodybuilders , fitness athletes also went up in size. This followed by the figure category for women who could not perform the acrobatics on stage and were larger. Women with bigger body frames had to either stay in a middle weight bodybuilding category or struggle to be in a lightweight category. Physique was the introduce to accommodate these women. Then came bikini, which at first was controversial. Now the appearance is being retooled for this division and it is unclear where it will lead. Female bodybuilding has not died or been replaced with a beauty pageant format; it is evolving while simultaneously developing factions in terms of aesthetic ideals. If the sport was truly dead it would be stagnant. When there is no change, there is no progress. There has been unexpected results in relation to the bodybuilding revolution for women. The number women who want to develop their bodies increased and there is a small portion of fans. There is probably more visibility of the muscular female form now than in any other point in human history. Female bodybuilding has not died, but changed form. What it will culminate in is impossible to guess.

        During the 1970s female bodybuilding was in its infancy. There were early pioneers of the female muscular form such as Abbye Stockton in the 1940s and 1950s. Women prior to 1977 had no competitive outlet for bodybuilding. It was considered male only and women could only compete in bikini contests between men’s shows. Sometimes  women’s beauty pageants were conducted between men’s events as well as filler. There were physique contest for women staring in the 1960s. The first female bodybuilding competition was held in Canton Ohio. The Ohio Women’s Physique Championship was developed by Henry Mcghee and at the time, it seemed that it would not expand into what it is today. Muscular women existed before the sport, but they never had an outlet to compete. Look back, there development was different from what a fan sees today. Gradually, more contests and organizations would appear. They would either fail or have difficulty surviving. The early prototypical era lasted from 1977 to 1980.

FBB 1919
Female Bodybuilders of the 1970s
FBB 1980s
Female Bodybuilders in the 1980s
Female bodybuilders of the 1990s
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The female bodybuilders of the 21st century

If it were not for the Canton YMCA a place in which women did weight training activities, there may have never been female bodybuilders in competition. The feminist movement for all its faults, should be given credit for changing society’s view of women. Title IX radically changed may women’s lives giving them access to school athletic programs. These girls would grow up loving sports and pursuing athletic careers. Although women were entering sports in larger numbers, there was a level of anger and trepidation coming from those with less progressive ideas about sex politics. There was a widespread belief that there were some things women should not do because it was not “proper.” Developing muscle was even more taboo in the past for women. Such attitudes were so pervasive, organizers of the first female bodybuilding competitions asked women not to do a double biceps pose thinking it would scare the audience. The athletes had to face both criticism from externally and internally. Many women found that their families would not be supportive of their endeavor. Combined with an American society already uncomfortable with women’s rising prominence in the public sphere. By 1980 the Ms.Olympia had come into existence. The physiques were becoming more defined compared to the first pioneers.

       The 1980s presented a different type of physique.The physique that Rachel Mclish present was different in regards to definition. Visibly an observer would note that there were lines defining muscle separation. Earlier female bodybuilders of the 1970s had bodies closer swimmers.

The sport was evolving, this time in terms of body definition. While earlier competitors had great shapes there was limited definition on their bodies. Rachel Mclish then took this a step further. The women still had to navigate a subjective and nebulous judging criteria. During this period they had to experiment with training techniques and physique presentation. Carla Dunlap presented a physique with more size, while Bev Francis ushered in a model of physique prevalent on the heavyweight bodybuilding stage today. This rift between a sleeker image compare to a larger one still divides the female bodybuilding community. Even with various weight divisions that would later emerge ( lightweight, middle weight, and heavyweight), there were judges still not comfortable with the idea of women with muscle. Objections, which are still echoed today still focus on what is appropriate for women. There are people who still believe that a woman of a different appearance is abnormal. This was most virulent even during the golden age of the sport (1980 to  2004 ).  The golden age marks the appearance of various competitors such as Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle, Cory Everson, Kay Baxter, and many others. Each were unique in their own way from posing, training technique, and opinions in regards to women in sport. It should be understood that bodybuilding is not a mainstream sport, but did get mainstream exposure. Female bodybuilding at its height was getting TV exposure and coverage.

Women’s sports suffer from a lack of coverage and this puts subcultural  sports women are involved in at more of a disadvantage. During the golden age ticket sales to the Ms.Olympia were high, yet the women’s pay in terms of prize money was still low compared to their male counterparts. There was and continues to be sexist discrimination as well as double standards. Women were scrutinized for not being ‘”feminine” enough. This claim has been used to describe the decline in the mid-2000s. However, this complaint by critics has been around since female bodybuilding’s inception. There was even disagreement among fans of the sport on which type of body best represents the bodybuilding sport. Fans either fell into several camps: the sleeker model, a mid-range size, or a larger musculature. These models of body structure have shown them selves in the categories of the 21st century. By the end of the first decade of the sports existence women began to gain more size than ever before.

         The 1990s saw the golden age continue, followed by a decline. The audiences began to shrink for competitions by the end of the decade. Many cite that women just got “too big” and the sport simply was not marketable. This was not true, due to the fact there was a loyal fan base that emerged over the years. The rise of the internet gave athletes the opportunity to start their own websites rather than waiting for a fitness magazine to promote them. Fitness competitions were introduced by the IFBB to counter the image of the larger female bodybuilder. The intent backfired in some regards, because the fitness competitors resembled the earlier female bodybuilders of the 1970s  with better training . With a new category women could switch between the two if they desired.

 Some fitness competitors even switched to the bodybuilding category, if they felt that it was a better fit. During this period it was the era of Lenda Murray who even in retirement promoted the sport. The competition was also quite formidable. Laura Crevalle, Debbie Muggli, Kim Chizevsky  and Andrulla Blanchette. Women such as Julitette Bermann, Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia  and Valentina Chepiga also held the Olympia crown. Iris Kyle would go on to be the most accomplished in the sport. The IFBB made rule changes in the year 2000 stating muscularity should not be “too extreme.” This was an unclear and subjective statement. Then five years later there was the 20% rule. This dictated that that athletes had to reduce their muscularity by 20%. It was only applied to the women’s categories.

The institution that the Weider brothers built did not treat the women fairly. The continuation of double standards and a second class status of women in the sport frustrated athletes. Yet they  marched on and continued to compete. While the golden age ended in 2004, there were still great athletes. Iris Kyle went on to break Lenda Murray’s record and be the last Ms.Olympia. Although the Ms.Olympia was gone by 2014, female bodybuilding competitions still continued. The problem was that it was the most iconic one. Fitness was the first emerging category branch, but figure would follow in the 2000s. These contests did have posing and women were slightly more muscular. This was an excellent choice for women who could not do the gymnastic moves of fitness, but were not muscular enough for bodybuilding class.Women who had more size had another option of going to a newly developed physique class. These new categories did not harm the sport. The change had the opposite result. More women got involved in the sport. Compared to the 1970s  and beyond the numbers have increased. More classes means more opportunities for women to get involved in the sport, who otherwise would not have. The sport appears to be a survivor mainly because of the talented athletes and the fact it was not mainstream in the first place. The changes that happened from 2004 to present many just be the sport going back to its roots.

         There was another consequence that may not have been intentional. Female bodybuilding has spread across the world. Although its birth place was in the United States, it has spread to Asia, Africa, Europe,  and South America. When people state that female bodybuilding is dead, they ignore the fact that it is present in other countries outside the West. The US being the world’s most powerful nation, tend to ignore the accomplishments and contributions of other nations. This narrow perspective does not let people realize just what a phenomenon the sport has become. The National Amateur Bodybuilders’ Association (NABBA)  has sponsored contests around the globe. This organization had physique contests prior to being introduced in North America.

If there is some decline continuing it is only happening in some parts of the West. This is significant because it shows the sport is becoming more diverse. Examining past competitions in North America, most of the competitors were white women.  It was a reflection of a racist society and the US still trying to challenge injustice. With unequal barriers removed the playing field opened to women of various backgrounds. decolonization of the Global South during the 20th century also changed the world for the better. This improved women’s status in various African, South American, and Asian countries yet some still clung to traditional views about women. Some states continued to reduce women’s rights as a whole.

Iran even has female bodybuilders.  This is Shirin Nobahari find out about her experiences living in the Islamic Republic  in this article : Iran’s First Female Bodybuilder Tells her Story.

 States that are highly religious and conservative do not value women. They especially do not approve of women doing something out of the traditional gender role paradigm. This does not deter women who really want to participate in a particular activity. Female bodybuilders in Iran like Shirin Nobahari have to fight restrictive laws and prejudice.While many tend to focus on large international competitions, it is often ignored that there are local and regional contests throughout the globe. India and South Korea have joined the sport over the past three decades and women followed. Some of these competitors have even made it to international competition.

 The other bodybuilding categories are also present in these countries. Just like in America, their judging criteria  is evolving as well. One element remains universal is subjectivity and particular standards. This debate will never be settled and it depends on what a judge’s preferences are. The rise of fitness and bodybuilding culture shows the power of the cultural dynamics of globalization. While there is an economic aspect, there is also a level of acculturation. The West tends to believe it has a monopoly on culture and promotes itself being part of a “civilized world.” This racist position ignores nations of the Global South and their contributions to various fields. When detractors say female bodybuilding is dead, they only focus on the sport in America. Little do they realize that just south of the USA there are Latin American nations that also hold contests. Across the Atlantic women in Uganda are becoming competitors.

Uganda FBB

Ms. Kampala
Irene Katsuubo competing in the Ms. Kampala Fitness Competition

The Ms.Kampala Fitness Competition is just like any other bodybuilding contest, but it is one of the few contests on the African continent. It would not be such a shock to see African women competitors reaching the international level. It seems that in other parts of the world, female bodybuilding is not dying. There is growth or gradual evolution. This sudden spike would indicate that the sport is not dead. Latin America also has contests for women. The Arnold Classic Brazil has the female bodybuilding category.  However, the last two years it seems to have more of the physique category.

 South American female bodybuilders come to the US to compete. It is not just from Latin America, but all over the world. Competitors are not lacking in enthusiasm. If that were to happen there would be a sign of possible death.  Although small in number, it is not imaginable that all women would just stop competing. Their dedication and love for the sport seems as strong as ever. As long as that remains constant the sport can go in a positive place.

        There has been evolution in the sport. Without it it would have fallen into obscurity or become a mere historical footnote. Change means new ideas are developing and being stagnant indicates decline. There was a level of decline in the mid-2000s in terms of economics relative to the sport. Ticket sales were not as high and the prize money still low. Women’s sports struggle for survival due to a long standing male dominance. Faced with such challenges women in the sport had to make adjustments. Pay websites and session wrestling became methods to finance their athletic endeavors. Hardcore fans known as schmoes became a financial support for an industry that ignored athletes. It seems odd that the Weider Corporation did not tap into this market. It seemed to work out better for the athletes, because they did not have to go through a corporate gatekeeper. This new business model did have controversy. Some objected saying it was inappropriate. It was no more inappropriate than how fitness magazines sexually present women. One just has more acceptance. The women in the 1990s were also changing the aesthetics. There was a race for size, which was ushered in by Bev Francis. Lenda Murray perfected it. While there was an emphasis on size, other elements such as symmetry and definition may have been less valued. However, the winners of the ms.Olympia had to have a great balance of all these elements. Bodybuilding is not just about large muscles; its about sculpting a physique the that incorporates symmetry and conditioning. This explains why some larger competitors may not always win. They show great physiques, but they may be weak on one part of the criteria. This was why Iris Kyle was able to win so many Olympia contests, because she worked on all these elements. Cory Everson had done this before winning the Ms.Olympia six times.

There are many great women bodybuilders, its just acceptance of what a woman can do is not that progressive. Women can be political leaders, scientists, entertainers, but for some reason looking different generates disapproval or shock. Even within the fitness community there are claims “women went too far.” One should not expect an evolving sport to remain static. There was a trend toward larger competitors followed by a reduction, there seems to be s trend to a fuller shape once more. Physique divisions if observed closely resemble female bodybuilders of the late 1980s to early 1990s. Really it is female bodybuilding repackaged for a new era. It is more similar to lightweight bodybuilding divisions. There are many times in which a physique competitor could just add a few more pounds and enter a bodybuilding division.

Britney O’Veal switched from physique to bodybuilding in 2016.

Some complaints have come from athletes that there are so many divisions. They present this argument that it is so simple to get a pro card in this current climate. The more competitors means that it would actually be harder to get IFBB professional status. Back in the 1970s there was a greater chance reaching that level faster, now it could be a decades long process. These divisions could be best thought of as weight classes. There are weight divisions ( also one based on height) in the bikini, figure, physique, fitness, and bodybuilding categories. This gives women of multiple body types to be participants on stage. Women of ectomorphic body types would find fitness and figure more to their liking and larger women the bodybuilding category. The addition of new categories demonstrates the sport is evolving and more women are going to be a force in the bodybuilding sports. The sport has definitely come a long way since the Rachel Mclish and Carla Dunlap era. If we were to transport them from the time of their physical primes, it seems dubious if they would place in a figure competition.

Critics also state that performance enhancing drug use caused a decline. While it is true that drug use has been a part of most sports, one must wonder why muscular women were ostracized for their appearance prior to the creation of anabolic andogenic steroids. Men consist of the majority of users of AAS, but women are scrutinized more. This points to another double standard and issues surrounding body image. The public got the notion that a woman with muscle must automatically be on steroids, due to preconceived stereotypes and views. The image of  a woman with side effects of virilization is what the general public thinks of when they hear the word female bodybuilder. This does not represent reality. There are drug tested competitions and women are still criticized for being muscular. While many women have began to lift weights, there are always assurances “you won’t get too big.” Some ridiculously blame female bodybuilding for scaring women of weightlifting. Really the culpability of the blame comes from an unrealistic beauty standard that women must follow. Being thin to the point were it harms health has been promoted by magazines, movies, and advertisements.Being a large or muscular  woman who falls out this standard are either harassed or ostracized.Women choose what they want to look like. No one should dictate this to them. People should understand that there are multiple forms of beauty. It should also be clear that female bodybuilding is not a beauty pageant. While it presents a standard to judged at its core is sport that is very competitive. That competition differs from a pageant. The only change it seems to be is that the hyper muscular size on competition stages is becoming less frequent in appearance.

Just because one model of bodybuilding physique is seen less does not mean it has disappeared. The number of contests the larger version of physique has decreased, but it has not faded away. There are trends and cycles in this sport. This is another stage in changes that have been occurring since 1977. Three decades have shown that this process is far from over in terms of judging, training techniques, and aesthetics. The multiple divisions are just part of the development. Fitness was at first disparaged, but as the years went on it got acceptance. The gymnastic and acrobatics require a high level of athleticism. To just say that the fitness division should not be part of the bodybuilding family is not fair. Similar arguments are made against the bikini division. Since its existence the physiques have changed and now it is distinguishing itself. Athletes made statements that it did not require training or effort. These accusations were false. Not only have women entered bikini, sometimes they transition to the physique division.


These divisions are not all the same, but are part of the same strength sports family. It seems that fitness contests are declining compared with the new other divisions as well. Compared to the 1990s when fitness competitions began the audience had shifted its taste to figure competitions. The dance and acrobatics are amusing, yet the trend shifted once more. Fitness competitors by the mid-2000s began going into figure or bodybuilding . This sport is still relatively new, but the change has been rapid. The growth is a sign of creativity and that is greatly needed to keep the sport alive. There has been a level of decline in terms of media coverage and opportunities to compete. This is no uncommon with other sports women compete in.  The media coverage of the female athlete is minimal even in sports that are more popular like tennis or soccer. When they do receive media attention commentators focus on their appearance rather than their list of athletic accomplishments. This problem was prevalent in the 2016 Rio Olympics. There was a time that female bodybuilding was broadcast on ESPN. As the years past they dropped it off their schedule. The peculiar aspect is that the channel broadcasts poker, so why not a variety of sports? Ratings could be a factor, but it seems executives show what they think audiences would like rather than what they want to see . Whether one approves or disproves of what these women do, it has to be acknowledged this has been an incredible journey.

          Female bodybuilding and women’s sports in general may struggle to survive, yet there are women who are embracing muscular development. This is a new phenomenon , that started with female bodybuilding and has influenced other sports. Crossfit and weightlifting are sports women are not afraid to participate in anymore. To these athletes they love to see progress and push themselves to their maximum physical limit . If it were not from the 19th century and 20th century strong women who pioneered weightlifting, these athletes would not have these opportunities. Now women have access to better training facilities, techniques, and platforms for competition.

People may not have imaged women could get this strong 100 years ago. It is not uncommon that female athletes work out with weight to improve their performance in a particular sport. There still is a level of stigma that has to be confronted, yet this does not deter them. Track and field athletes, swimmers, tennis players, and weightlifters are display physiques more muscular than in the past. This is part of the fitness revolution ushered in by bodybuilding. Even women who are not athletes may just want to “tone” ( a repacked term for building some muscle). These women are doing it merely for the sake of improving health or controlling weight. The great aspect is that older people are now taking up such exercise and prevent chronic illness.Bodybuilding is a subculture that has gotten mainstream exposure and elements of it have been diffused into the mainstream. If the sport for women has reached a slump it can always go back to its underground roots. There has been to some degree a popularization of a woman with some muscle. Maybe not to the level of various competitive divisions, but at least in great physical shape. The phrase “strong is the new skinny” has been used in fitness circles. The extremely thin body type has been challenged with a small body acceptance movement and a growing fitness culture that women have developed. The amazing part of this is that women are redefining what it means to be beautiful on their terms, rather than by society’s standards. If female bodybuilding sports do not survive, muscular women will be here to stay.

         Female bodybuilding technically has not died. There was a decline or close to a slump. The sport is going through shifting trends and readjustment. The evolution of this sport and the aesthetic it presents has not reached a conclusion. No one can predict the future. There were many who believed that no such sport for women could survive. That was proven wrong over the decades and women still continue to compete. Although the rewards are limited even when achieving pro status, women do this for the love of the sport. As long as that dedication and devoted passion is still part of competitor’s motivations it will be safe. Women should not expect the IFBB to treat them fairly. Realizing this they have acted. Lenda Murray is a promoter of competitions. When the Ms.Olympia ended in 2014 a successor competition emerged. The Rising Phoenix Wings of Strength in 2015 became the new major contest for female bodybuilders and many of the familiar faces returned to stage. The quality of the competitors was a great as ever. Margie Martin took first place in the first post- Ms.Olympia era. With every industry or form of entertainment there is a decline. Theatrical animation disappeared with the rise of television. TV then caused a rebirth in the animation industry during the late 1980s to early 1990s. Film was in a dire state until the rise of the blockbuster. Hopefully a new generation of athletes and organizers can induce a renaissance. One matter is certain is that the sport knows how to survive under less than optimal circumstances.

Has Female Bodybuilding Died ?