Bikini, Figure, Physique and Bodybuilding – What’s the Difference?

It wasn’t that long ago that if you a were a woman who hit the weights, trained hard, and wanted to get on the stage to show off your stuff your options were pretty limited.

Think “female bodybuilder”… What comes to mind? Be honest. Bulging veins? Awkward bikinis? Worse yet, man face?

Up until the 1990’s being a female bodybuilder was pretty much the only game in town if you wanted to be a fitness competitor. Great for the ladies who were up for hanging with the big boys, not so much for those wanting to maintain shall we say… A more feminine look.

While the sport of bodybuilding came with a lot of awesome implications for women, it also came with a ton of negativity and stereotyping. Total bummer. Ladies who pursued excellence with their physiques in this arena were often considered “too masculine” or “too big” by most everyone’s standards, even though the sport encouraged them to work and look just as hard as the big boys.

Great news though! The world of women’s fitness competition has since opened up, wide up. Now offering the categories of Physique, Figure, and Bikini competition, the sport has come around to offer “something for everyone”…

OK well not actually everyone. Anyone, that is, who commits to training hard, eating clean, and to being brave enough to sport a bikini and 5-inch heels on stage. Not to mention going all-in with all the other things that go in to competing! More on this later…

It’s a really awesome time to be a fitness competitor. The competition categories now offer an opportunity for ladies at different levels of physical development to jump in the ring. There are different styles of competing to choose from, and there’s a place to showcase different “desired outcomes” of physique (you don’t have to worry about looking like a dude any more).

Bottom line: If you want to embark on this incredible adventure you now have options to do it in the way that feels right for you, your body, and for where you are in your fitness journey.

So what do these options look like? Let’s start with where it all began…


If we want to go back, way back, to where women started with the sport of bodybuilding we’d be back in the 1930’s when it wasn’t actually considered a sport. Instead, “strong women” were circus acts, and performed in trapeze and side shows that would later become inspiration for burlesque and striptease. Who knew, right?

By the 1940’s, the first women’s competitive weightlifting contest hit the scene, and the next two decades would see a rise in women’s interest in lifting weights to create a toned, curvy body. Go Rosie The Riveter! This was the era of the “bombshell pinup” (think Betty Paige and cheetah-print). We have another Betty, the incredible Betty Weider, to thank for tipping the ladies of this era off about how they could look and feel with a little sweat-time put in. Thanks Betty!

With the ‘60’s came a bit of a revival of some old-school thinking about how women should look. A few steps forward… and a couple back.

No worries though! By the late ‘70’s women’s bodybuilding was taking off. Ladies from all kinds of backgrounds- models, strippers, bodybuilders, began competing on stage to see how their physiques stood up against one another.

Once the ‘80’s arrived, women’s bodybuilding competitions and beauty pageants said goodbye to each other and became separate events. When the Ms. Olympia contest came along, the guidelines for women’s bodybuilding were the same as men’s. So, what that meant, pretty much, was that women who looked too feminine were considered lesser competitors, and from that point on the ladies were encouraged to pursue a more muscular and masculine physique. If they wanted to win that is. Bummer again.

From the mid-1980’s until 2015 women’s bodybuilding took on the life, and stereotypes, that most of us know it by. Women who chose to compete were challenged to bulk up their bodies as much as possible while staying “pretty”. And oh ya, don’t forget the sex appeal! Um, anyone see the problem here? Hard to be girly with massive biceps and thighs that will only fit in sweats. Looking back on it now, it’s easy to see how things went sideways.

The nice folks who put on these competitions also wanted to keep the peeps happy and keep bodies in chairs at contests. It is, after all, an industry, and money runs the show right? Soooo, as society’s ideas about what made women feminine and the “criteria of acceptable womanhood” constantly shifted, so did judging standards at contests. Women bodybuilders were faced with the dilemma of keeping up with ever-changing ideas about femininity versus going for it and developing their bodies as much as they could and risk placing lower in contests.

To put it bluntly, women’s bodybuilding shows became “freak shows” in the eyes of the public, and the public wasn’t feelin’ it. After asking female bodybuilding competitors to “decrease muscularity by 20%” in 2005 due to shrinking audiences, in 2015 the Ms. Olympia competition was completely dropped.

In the pursuit of massive mass, which was a primary judging point for both men’s and women’s bodybuilding, the standards of muscular femininity and beauty were blown way, way out of proportion. Did I say way out of proportion? All the ugly stereotypes we can now associate with women’s bodybuilding thrived, essentially killing the sport.

At least this aspect of it. The good news? The way was paved by many incredible female athletes for an evolution in the sport. Thanks sisters! This evolution offered the opportunity for women to compete without the head-trip of balancing what they believed the sport wanted them to do to win, with the pressure society put on them to “stay pretty”.

So that we can see where this ride is going to take us with the other categories that evolved, let’s take a brief look at what the judging guidelines were for women’s bodybuilding — specifically NPC vs IFBB.

These guidelines come from the National Physique Committee (NPC) which is the largest amateur bodybuilding federation in the United States, and the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB). The IFBB is the most recognized professional bodybuilding organization internationally, and they’re both kind of a big deal in the fitness competition world.

Female bodybuilders were judged on what the NPC called the “total package”: A balance of size, symmetry, and muscularity. They competed barefoot, were judged wearing plain bikinis with no embellishments, and weren’t allowed to wear any jewelry during pre-judging rounds. Where’s the fun in that? During finals, though, suits could have embellishments and earrings could be worn.

Competitors performed what were called “compulsory poses”, the same poses performed by male competitors (like the good ‘ol “Double Biceps” pose for example). They also did a self-choreographed posing routine during the final round. Source


By the ‘90’s there were a lot of sisters out there who wanted to compete, but who didn’t want to deal with a road-map of veins or traps that would make The Hulk jealous. Fitness competitions started that were geared toward a softer physique. They also involved a gymnastic-style routine, and this opened the door for women with backgrounds in things like dancing and gymnastics to compete.

But wait! There were still some ladies feeling left out… These were women who had the physique of a Fitness competitor, but without the gymnastics abilities. Not everyone can do back flips and one-arm push-ups. So here came the Figure category!

How they’re judged

In their words, the NPC judges Figure competitors based on the following criteria:

  • Small degree of muscularity with separation, no visible striations
  • Overall muscle tone with shapely lines, overall firmness and not excessively lean
  • Full general assessment
  • Healthy appearance
  • Make-up
  • Skin tone

The IFBB, which calls the figure category “Body Fitness”, judges competitors based on “overall athletic appearance of the physique, taking into account symmetrically developed physique, muscle tone and shape, with a small amount of body fat, as well as the hair, makeup, and individual style of presentation, including personal confidence, poise, and grace.”

What they wear

Competitors wear a 2-piece posing suit and high heels. Fun right? A lot of money and effort go in to these suits, they’re often custom-made and are bedazzled out in rhinestones and crystals. The IFBB calls the high heels a “classic stiletto pump”, while the rest of us know them better as “stripper heels”, and they’re typically a 5-inch heel. As part of overall appearance, jewelry gets the thumbs up.

What they do

During the judging rounds, competitors walk to the center of the stage individually and perform quarter turns, face the judges, then move to the side of the stage. The ladies also line up all together in a comparison round where they perform quarter turns. No pressure!

Who’s it for

According to the IFBB: “This sport discipline is widely open for all well-shaped women working out in the fitness centers and following the healthy sport diet. And they take the advantage of it!”

Figure is a good category for someone who’s been training for a while and who wouldn’t have too far to drop in the body-fat percentage department. Someone starting at around, say, 18%, for example, would have better luck (and enjoy the process a lot more) starting with a Bikini competition. While Figure doesn’t require the muscularity that the Physique and former Bodybuilding category did, it is a category for the more seasoned competitor. It’s pretty common for Figure competitors to “cross-over” and compete in Physique as well.

If you’re a beginner, and you just really have your heart set on Figure competition, consider your timeline and availability to train and diet. Simply put, keep it real with yourself about what you have going on in your life, how much time you can dedicate to training, and how extreme you can be with your dieting efforts (this can really be the most mind-bending part of it all). Give yourself a year and consider competing in a Bikini competition first to gain the experience of getting on stage and showcasing your hard work.


In 2013 the IFBB added the Physique category, the same year they dropped women’s bodybuilding from their official list of sports. This category is considered somewhere in between Figure and Bodybuilding. According to the NPC, the words “ripped, shredded, peeled, striated, dry, diced, hard, vascular, grainy, massive, thick, dense” should not describe female Physique competitors.

How they’re judged

This is for the ladies who want to “prepare heavier, bodybuilding-style body but not extremely dried, lean, and muscular, yet athletic and aesthetically pleasing… Competitors are expected to present the overall athletic development of the musculature but also balanced and symmetrical development of all muscle groups as well their sport condition and quality, with visible separation between them.”

In the NPC’s words: “Women’s Physique Division has been created to give a platform for women who enjoy weight training, competing, contest preparation. Competitors should display a toned, athletic physique showcasing femininity, muscle tone, beauty/flow of physique.”

They also say that being too ripped and muscular will be down-scored, and that competitors should have the overall aesthetics and look of a Figure competitor with a little more muscle.

What they wear

Like their former bodybuilding counterparts, Physique competitors compete barefoot. Similar to Figure, though, snazzy, sparkling 2-piece posing suits and jewelry are allowed.

What they do

Physique competition involves individually performing quarter turns, like Figure, but with added compulsory poses similar to Bodybuilding. There is also what’s called a “posedown” (sounds totally intimidating right?) where competitors perform the compulsory poses while on stage together. Physique competitors also perform an individual routine set to music where they can strut their stuff and perform poses of their choice. Fun!

Who’s it for

This category isn’t for the beginner so much, but is more suited to someone who’s been hitting the weights a while. While these competitors aren’t encouraged to be “shredded”, they do have pretty low body fat percentage.

To put it in perspective, the average woman’s body fat percentage is around 20%. Female bodybuilders typically came in around 6-10%, and Figure competitors aim for 9-15%.

A Physique competitor, while somewhere in between these two categories, would realistically aim for the lower end of this spectrum. These ladies have done their homework, and they’ve been doing it for a while.


Bikini, or “Bikini Fitness” as the IFBB calls it, became a category in 2011. Since then, this category has rapidly grown and has opened the door for many women to be able to experience fitness competition. Sweet!

How they’re judged

This category is “aimed at women who keep their body in shape and eat healthy. Overall body lines, balance and proportions, body tone and healthy appearance are taken into consideration. High-intensity weight training and hard, lean muscles are not necessary. The emphasis is on a well-shaped, fit, healthy and attractive appearance, similar to that of models.”

The NPC is looking for “balance and shape” and “overall physical appearance including complexion, skin tone, poise and overall presentation.”

What they wear

Ladies in these competitions are required to rock high heels, and jewelry is allowed. Posing suits can be “off the rack”, but need to be in “good taste” (ummm lots of room for interpretation there!). Thongs are a no-no, and suits that are cut too low in the front get a big frowny face. Competitors with suits that aren’t up to snuff are warned, and can also take a hit in the scoring department.

What they do

During competition, athletes walk on stage alone and do what’s called a “model walk”. This consists of a “walk to the center of the stage, stop and do a front stance, then a full turn and do a back stance, then turn to the front again and face the judges as directed then proceed to the side of the stage. No lewd acts are permitted. Length of time allowed is 10 seconds.”

This is your time to show your stuff solo on stage, make sure the judges remember you, but not to do anything you wouldn’t want your granny to see.

There’s also a comparison round, where competitors are brought out as a group and do half turns, performing a front and back stance.

Who’s it for

Bikini competition is an awesome place for someone to get started who either wants to experience the challenge and thrill of competing, or who wants to get their feet wet and decide if this is a world they want to explore further. This is an excellent place for the sister who enjoys taking care of her body and eating healthy to explore what it’s like to get on stage in a bikini and 5-inch heels!

There’s also a shorter prep time involved in getting ready for this type of competition. While training and eating clean are still really important, the daily time commitment, depending on where you’re starting from, can be a little less intense in this category.

What Do They Have in Common?

OK now that we understand the difference between the categories available to women who want to compete in the fitness world, what do they all have in common?

No matter which category you choose to go with, there is a common thread: Preparation and commitment. Competition is NOT just about the time spent in the gym. Here are some other things to think on:

  • Tanning: Skin tone is important and achieving the right color on stage, not to mention maintaining it for an entire day of judging, is a science unto itself (most shows consist of morning pre-judging and a finals round during the “night show”, this is what most people show up for). There are many ways to go about this- some people tan ahead of time and apply tanning products the night before and morning of the show, some go with only using tanning products the morning of, some people pay others to do spray tans… The possibilities are almost endless! This is a really important aspect of competing though. The lights on that stage are very, very bright and if you’re not dark enough not only will you wash out, but you will be scored down. There is nothing more lame than doing all that prep work and dieting and then getting nicked for not being the right color.
  • Posing suit: Your posing suit is sacred… It’s like the beautiful coat of paint that goes on that badass car! Again, many people choose to have their suits custom made and this can run in to the thousands of dollars. This isn’t a “must” though, and there are great sites like where competitors can buy and sell gently used competition wear.
  • Posing: Similar to tanning, this is an area you absolutely do not want to skip. Again, why put all that effort in to training and eating well just to look goofy on stage? Stage presence is a huge part of competing, and while it isn’t a “must” it is wise to get some coaching, and definitely practice, prior to competing. Whether it’s the complexities of the compulsory poses for Physique or the model walk of Bikini, when you’re finally on that stage you’re nervous. Having the confidence of having your strut down pat makes all the difference in the world.
  • Waxing: Again, not a must but not a bad idea if you’re going to be in a teeny-bikini under super bright lights up on the stage.
  • Makeup: Stage makeup is different than “every day” makeup. Because the stage lights are so bright, your makeup needs to be bold and almost garish under normal conditions. It’s somewhat of an art, and it is part of your overall appearance so once again, it pays to put some time and effort in to it after all the other hard work you’ve done.
  • Hair: How are you going to wear your hair? This is also a big deal. You want to look polished and feminine, while not having your hair distract from your physique too much (they should be focusing on your bod right?). This is another thing you do not want to leave until show morning to figure out. Looking at pictures of competitors, particularly the pros, can give you some good ideas about what will work for your style.
  • Accessories: Jewelry is permitted and encouraged! Plus it’s fun, like the icing on the incredible cake you’ve whipped up. It’s not a good idea to go over-board in this department, but accessories like earrings, a simple bracelet, are something you want to plan out ahead of time. Again, you want a nice overall presentation but don’t want any aspect of your appearance to be too distracting (aside from your killer figure of course).
  • Nails: This is just one more aspect of your overall appearance that you don’t want to leave out. A nice French manicure on your nails and toes can set off the rest of the package beautifully. Voila!

Aside from these fun and important aspects of competition prep, the different categories also share a commitment to training and diet. If you’re going to go the distance and get up on that stage, then you’ve most likely already made the commitment to training hard and eating clean. This isn’t something to be taken lightly, it’s a lifestyle and daily commitment. Depending on “how deep you’re in” it can affect your family and relationships, your work, and pretty much every aspect of your life while you’re preparing for a show. Taking yourself to these kinds of limits is an experience you won’t forget, and you won’t regret.

Which One is Right For You?

People compete for a lot of different reasons. For many, it’s an opportunity to prove something to themselves. For some, it’s a way to be acknowledged for the hours of blood, sweat, and tears spent in the gym. For others, it’s an opportunity to go way outside their comfort zone and that can be an exhilarating place to go. It may be a combination of those, or something entirely different, like working through something from your past. Whatever the reason is, it’s a personal choice that can offer an awesome challenge and opportunity to grow.

As we said earlier, it’s a great time to compete. There are now options for where your body is currently at, as well as for where you want to take it. Bikini offers a “softer” look that’s more focused on the traditional feminine body style. Figure is still very feminine but places more emphasis on muscle definition and symmetry. Physique is a category suited for those interested in pursuing muscle size and development.

The experience of making your choice, committing, and seeing your decision through with the hours of preparation and effort is almost, if not more, exciting than the competition itself. Your choice ultimately comes down to the decision to be the best you you can be and going for it.

Why not YOU? Why not NOW?