thought id give my own humble opinion on how to demystify the world of women's bodybuilding! I don't claim to be the expert so if you have any thoughts, disagree, or want to contribute please comment below!
Im going to concentrate on the federations who hold competitions in the UK and Europe currently- the ones I mention are not an entire list... there are more feds out there too!
The great thing is, there are so many competitions out there, each with there own interpretation of what the classes should consist of... that although you could say this is confusing, I actually think its a good thing, as it means there is likely to be a federation with a class that's suits the look you have, but you cant assume that because you do well at one comp, you will do well at another... as they could be after a totally different look. What is important is to do some research and try a few shows, maybe watch a few first, to get an idea of what is required.
Basically there are a few ways to classify the type of competitions available and its important to look at what each requires you to do, the options in terms of classes that they have to make sure it suits you.
Tested or non tested shows.I actually divide competitions into 3 groups: Tested (Natural) Pseudo Natural & Non Tested.
Natural / Tested
Basically Some federations carry out drug testing and or polygraph tests, and have clear criteria of how long you should be drug free prior to competing, this ranges anything from the 2 years WADA uses for the sports they administer, up to lifetime drug free. In the UK the federations I would add to this group are NPA, BNBF and UKDBFA,
Most bodybuilding federations come into this category and there are quite a few! They don't generally carry out drug testing and don't have any criteria to enforce on this subject. (UKBFF being the exception, having one drug tested show per year) These include UKBFF, NABBA, WABBA, IBFA, NAC most independently run bodybuilding area shows.
I say pseudo natural as there are some shows out there who state that they are natural but there aren't always clear policies or drug testing / polygraphing taking place, or you just have to be 'clean' on the day'. If this is important to you, and you are not sure, its always best to check with people who have competed before for their experience, or contact the federation and ask them.
Old School bodybuilding
These are shows that have fairly set traditional classes, with a traditional format and cater for all levels of bodybuilding. Some are more open to new classes, but they still have a fairly traditional feel about them. I would put federations like NPA, UKBFF, NABBA, WABBA, NAC , IBFA, NAC, UKDFBA, NAC & BNBF all into this category.
Fitness / Model / Talent Competitions
There are a whole host of new shows and federations that have launched over the last few years giving a whole now perspective on shows. They provide for a whole different type of competitor, although some classes / athletes do fit into both types of competition. Often these shows encourage costumes & theme wear etc. as well as normal stage attire (posing suits, bikinis, trunks or shorts) It has opened up bodybuilding to many more people and generally offers a more commercial and more attainable look, making them hugely popular. I would put shows like Bodypower Model Search, Glifting, MuscleMania, Pure Elite, UFE, WBFF & UKUP into this category.
Some federations I compete with in Europe and USA have managed to successfully combine both types of show. .
This is a list of the classes I have come across in the federations in the UK. Where it can get confusing is that the same title may be used by more than one federation, but the criteria is very different.
Model (Bikini, fitness, muscle)
Trained Figure Natural
Athletic Class Natural
Figure / Bodyfitness
Trained Figure Non Tested
Fitness - this class is judges on gymnastic / strength, flexibility routines as well as the physique.
What are the criteria for each class. Well, the criteria for each class is written for each federation. Bodybuilding and physique / Trained Figure are at the top end of the scale in terms of muscle mass and conditioning.
Main Judging Criteria
Symmetry (front to back and left to right and top to bottom)
Proportion (does each body part fit with the rest of the body part)
Shape (V-Taper, fullness of the muscles)
overall package (general presentation, stage presence, hair & makeup, suit, tan etc)
How important each criteria is, depends on the category. For example, Bodybuilding is essentially to gain as muscle mass as possible and get as lean as you can to show the muscle off. The other classes have varying levels of conditioning and muscle mass required and may place more importance on other factors.
I personally believe that the figure / bikini / model classes were created to give women the opportunity to compete who did not aspire to have the bodybuilding look, or don't have the genetics for it. So As bodybuilding has become more extreme, the array of figure / athletic classes have been introduced, to allow a more moderate look. This is where things get complicated. Its a subjective decision to decide when has someone crossed the line from figure to bodybuilding or physique? So some judges may believe the best figure girl is the one with the most muscle, or the leanest, but it was never designed to be an extreme class, most figure criteria state that an athlete should have 'some muscle' and a low level of bodyfat but not striations.. but its hard for most judges to see beyond mass or conditioning, to reward shape, symmetry or proportion. So year on year, the competitors aiming to improve, basically push the boundaries further, until it borders on the next category... so then the bikini class was introduced, again to give women an opportunity to compete without the more extreme look that figure was becoming. Now many bikini competitors are showing more muscle and conditioning, I guess this is an inevitable consequence as competitors aim to improve, and they only way to stop that, is for athletes to move category once they have developed beyond the one they are in.
I personally believe its the judges and federations responsibility to not allow the criteria to merge into one another, by keeping each category with a very clear and distinct look. Having very clearly different criteria, each class should have a different look, so whereas bodybuilding places the emphasis on mass and conditioning. Figure usually focuses on V-Taper, symmetry, shape and proportion, before looking at size or conditioning. Model classes may put more emphasis on the overall package. I do understand this can be difficult as when faced with a line up of competitors, none may actually fit the criteria, but someone still has to win and its difficult to mark someone down for being 'too good' or beyond criteria.... so what can be done.
Some federations are finding ways to keep the classes very distinct.
Checking the athletes in advance
Some shows see the athletes the day before, or backstage and check they are all in the correct class. Anyone who has 'outgrown' a class or has simply entered the wrong class, is given the opportunity to move, in order that they have the best chance by being in the correct class.
Putting limits on a category
Some figure classes have height to weight limits, to prevent the competitors going what it considered 'too far' for that category. If they don't fit, they move up to physique.
Multiple class entry
A lot of competitions allow you to enter more than one category, so if you don't really know what category you are, you can try your luck and see where you fit best... this can cause confusion though, if one class has a low standard and the same athlete is the closest to criteria over a couple of categories, the same competitor wins both and again category criteria is confused... should someone be able to win a figure and bikini class.... probably not really. Model classes can overlap and as the category looks beyond the physique, different body types can compete well together. Also if you enter Fitness, you could also have the body of a figure or other body category, so in some cases you could enter two categories and do well at both because the criteria looks more beyond the body itself.
If you are looking at pictures of previous competitions to determine what category or class to do, try and look at the national or international competitions, where the number of athletes and standard is likely to more reflect the actual criteria, as regional competitions can have varying standards.
Class RequirementsThis is another thing that varies a lot from fed to fed and class to class, so its something you need to check out... also, bear in mind that if you could be switched class.... you need to learn the requirements for the other class too. Things that vary are whether shoes are allowed and type, bikinis or figure suits, costumes, theme wear, gowns, fitness wear and what you are required to do on stage.
Comparisons/ Quarter turns
T Walk / Model Walk
Routines - Bodybuilding
Routines - Fitness Skills / Ability
So in a nutshell... do some research!
Watch some shows, get advice from coaches, judges, ask the federations for advice... Most federations hold camps / workshops now, where you can go and learn the essentials about their particular federation or competition, where you can get advice on class criteria, learn the correct posing etc. also check out The Beef Magazine. This magazine covers pretty much the whole UK competition scene and is a valuable resource about the sport, results, competitions and dates etc.
My pictures here show me competing in Figure and Bikini. The suits are different, as are the type of poses required.
Well that's my overview... im sure you have your own views... so please comment if you agree / disagree or have a different experience?