Bikini, Fitness Model, Fitness, Figure, Bodybuilding and Natural Bodybuilding – What is the Difference Between All The Contest Divisions?
Q: Can you help me to understand the different divisions in competition? There are so many of them. I’ve read articles about it and I know the main difference in figure is more “femininity” and in fitness it’s a more demanding dance routine and in bodybuilding it’s more muscle size. But I still have questions: Are the bikini competitors supposed to be leaner, or (surprise!) “fatter” (or I should say, “not so ripped?”) What about the figure division? Do they want more muscle? Are the fitness girls supposed to be more ripped? Are the bodybuilders supposed to be the most ripped of all? And my biggest question is, what is the difference between the bodybuilding division and natural bodybuilding division? I attached a photo of a typical bodybuilding look. Is this what natural bodybuilding looks like? Phew! A lot of questions, but thanks for your insights.
A: When I started competing back in 1989 the only mens divisions were bodybuilding (open) and natural bodybuilding (drug tested) and the women had bodybuilding, the Miss Fitness America pageants and the Fitness Galaxy which included an obstacle course round, which was trying to add an athletic component to the competition. The very earliest forerunners of fitness and figure were just starting to emerge.
Today there are so many divisions and choices for competition, it makes your head spin. Not only that, there are countless organizations that sponsor contests, and each one has its own divisions and its own criteria for judging. In other words, if you compete in the National Physique Committee in figure and then switch to a different organization and compete in figure, you might actually get penalized for your “look” because the other organization might not hold the same judging standards. What’s more, the popular organizations and their rules in Australia or other countries may be totally different than here in the states.
So, probably the first thing I should say, or rather, admit, is that at times I get as confused as anyone else about the differences in the “ideal look” for each category. That’s not just because there are so many divisions which are similar, and so many sanctioning organizations, but also because sometimes you go to a contest and what the judges said they wanted doesn’t seem to correspond to the decisions they actually made (very frustrating to competitors, by the way).
I know we have two types of readers here – fans of the physique sports (or readers who are simply curious) – and competitors. For all of our readers, I will explain the differences in the divisions as best as I can below, but first, for anyone reading this who is an aspiring competitor, there are a few things you should do above all else.
The first thing to do is go STRAIGHT to the website and/or printed publications of the specific organization you want to compete in and look at their rules and judging criteria. Judging criteria can be different from one organization to the next, even if the division has the same name (like “fitness model”). Considering how subjective these sports are, I don’t think anything takes the place of knowing exactly what the judges are looking for in the division AND organization you’re competing in. The more you play into what the judges say they want, the better your chances.
Here’s one example a prominent organization’s OFFICIAL judging criteria:
The National Physique Committee (NPC):
And here is another of the most popular competition organizations especially for the fitness model divisions:
World Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (WBFF):
Competition categories and judging criteria:
The WBFF federation not only has mens fitness model, they have mens “muscle model” – which shows how much the divisions are ever-expanding and sub-dividing. One big difference between bodybuilding and fitness model is that a major part of the score in fitness model is marketability – which makes sense, because that’s what fitness modeling is about. A successful competitor not only must have the physique, but also a marketable face and the ability to project charisma. The WBFF judging criteria page says that stage presence, poise, projection of personality, and marketability is 40% of the score.
The next step after you look up the organization and read their rules and criteria is to decide which division interests you the most and which suits your physique and overall look the most. Then look at as many photos and videos of competitions in that ONE specific division and organization as you can. See what all the athletes look like, but especially notice what the winners look like.
Compare from one contest to the next and see if there are commonalities between the winners. Often you can see that they are going for a more ripped look, whereas in some divisions that exact look seems to be penalized and they want you softer and (in the female divisions), more feminine (for example, in the NPC they are definitely going for a less ripped look in bikini and a more ripped look in fitness).
The third and final thing you’d want to do, if possible, if you are interested in competing, is to actually speak to a judge and or a promoter. No one is more familiar with the judging criteria – so ask them point blank, what specifically they are looking for in a winner.
Once a competitor has gone through those steps, she (or he) should have an excellent idea of the look to pursue and can choose the right division for their physique structure and dial in the training and dieting to achieve the appropriate level of muscle size and muscle leanness.
There have been many changes in the last 5 years or so, and frankly I can’t even keep up with all the rules, but in the most prominent organizations in the USA, here is how I see it:
The differences between bodybuilding, physique, fitness, figure and fitness model divisions
Bodybuilding (men and women) Bodybuilding competitions have been around the longest, dating back to at least the 1930’s (the first Mr. America contest was held in 1939). Criteria for mens bodybuilding are very clear and straightforward, and in my opinion, it’s easier to judge than any other division. Competitors are scored on muscle mass (size), muscularity (definition/ being ripped), and symmetry (overall body shape and proportions).
In female bodybuilding what look is desirable has always been a bit unclear because of the femininity issue. At what point is there too much muscle mass or muscularity, and does that ever get scored down or should women get as massive and ripped and striated and vascular as they can at all costs? Unfortunately, the latter is the direction professional women’s bodybuilding has taken and the further it has gone, the less popular the sport has become.
Female professional bodybuilding is dying and has been for years. This is partly because the figure and fitness model divisions have taken over, and the contest promoters have to promote what sells the most tickets. When female muscle mass is taken to an extreme, it does not have a very broad marketing appeal. In fact, many people are repelled (or repulsed) by it. “Hard core” female bodybuilding is a sub-culture inside a sub-culture. I think it will probably end up relegated to pay to join fan websites.
At the local and regional level, the female bodybuilders usually look great, in my opinion. At the Professional level, or at any high level where there is no drug testing, almost 100% of the general population would consider these women “freaks” – in the sense of being too big, too muscular, too ripped, too vascular and too masculine. Even inside the physique community, this look has lost favor.
I think the demise of female bodybuilding is due to the drugs and the fact that the use of drugs was not kept in check. It could have been if increasing mass and muscularity were not continually rewarded the same way they were for the men. I’m TOTALLY in favor of women’s bodybuilding – but only when it stays drug free – because women simply can’t get that big without drugs.
Professional women’s bodybuilding today is NOT the same today as it was back in the days of the pioneers like Rachel McClish – or even Cory Everson, who took it up a notch, but still remained feminine.
Physique (men and women) A very new division in the NPC/IFBB is called “physique” and there are men’s and women’s categories. Official judging criteria are defined as: “symmetry, shape, proportion, muscle tone, poise and beauty flow” for women, and “muscularity, body condition, symmetry, and proper shape” for men. In physique, extreme muscularity is marked down. Men wear board shorts, not posing trunks. On the female side, I think this may be the a step toward phasing out female bodybuilding. They say physique is not bodybuilding, but the physiques look a lot like bodybuilders to me, it’s simply toned down a few notches. In fact, I’ve heard that judges have told some of the guys that they either have to get smaller, or just stick with bodybuilding.
Fitness (women). Fitness is a very lean and muscular look, however the judges don’t want muscle bulk, extreme definition or vascularity (veins) as you might see in bodybuilding. Those attributes actually get scored down. Athletes wear a two piece swimsuit in round one, they are lined up on stage and taken through quarter turns, and they may be compared against other competitors. Judges look for “firmness, symmetry, proportion and overall appearance that includes complexion, poise and presentation.” Fitness is the division where there’s a second round that includes a two minute routine, scored for strength, flexibility, and cardio or tempo of the routine. Because of the dance routine round in fitness, the judging is more complex and the athletes need more skills.
Figure (women). Figure has become immensely popular for a lot of reasons, one of which is that no routine is required, so women who don’t have a dance or gymnastics background can compete purely based on their physique without feeling disadvantaged. The judging criteria can vary from one organization to the next. The NPC and IFBB figure divisions have criteria that include: small degree of muscularity with separation, but no visible striations, overall muscle tone with shapely lines, firmness; lean but not excessively ripped. Overall appearance including make-up, suit and skin tone is part of the package. The way I see it, they are looking for a nice amount of muscle, including rounded shoulder caps, well developed arms, visible thigh muscle with a little bit of definition, and a very well developed upper back. Muscular but still feminine; definitely not as much size as a bodybuilder.
Bikini (women). In the bikini division, contestants wear a two piece bikini, usually skimpier (in back) than the other divisions, but no thongs are allowed. Competitors walk onstage and do their “model walk” where they walk to center stage, stop and do a front stance, then a back stance, and then back to front. They are then brought back onstage in a group for comparisons from front and back. In addition to the usual overall appearance and presentation, official NPC rules call for “balance and shape” as the only defined judging criteria. Some of my male friends say the bikini contestants look like “fit exotic dancers.” I’m not sure if a bikini athlete would take that as a compliment or not. In any case, I think many of these girls look very athletic and very very fit – many have visible abs, and have obviously spent some serious time in the gym. But I agree that the look is also very sexy and curvy. 100% feminine.
Fitness Model (women and men). Some organizations, like the WBFF, have fitness model divisions, which are very similar to the men’s physique in the NPC or the women’s bikini in the NPC. From one organization to the next, the names of the divisions may vary (swimsuit model, fitness model, fit model, figure model, bikini, bikini model or even yes, “diva bikini model”) and the criteria can vary. One thing is for sure, fitness model is a couple notches down from bodybuilding. Too much muscle size gets marked down. These physiques are a lot more like magazine cover models. For the men, it’s closer to a Men’s Fitness magazine cover look than a Flex magazine cover look, and for the women, fitness model is an even a softer, less muscular look than in figure or fitness.
Last but not least, what is the difference between a bodybuilding division and a natural bodybuilding contest? I think this is one of the most important questions anyone could ask, even though the drug issue is often swept under the carpet and not discussed openly except in the gyms and in the corners of certain bodybuilding forums.
Another thing I should point out is that just because an athlete doesn’t carry a large amount of muscle mass, doesn’t mean they are not using drugs. If a contest has not been drug tested, then anything goes and you never know who might take drugs – not necessarily to get as big as they can, but just to have some kind of edge on the competition. I want to point out that many “fitness model” competitions feature athletes that do NOT carry large muscle bulk – but they are NOT always drug tested. Keep that in mind if YOU are looking for a level playing field.
People ask me all the time, “is this guy natural,” or “is that girl natural?” I prefer to revert to my answer above and only state what I know – “this contest is drug tested, this contest was not drug tested.” I wouldn’t want to look at any athlete’s photo – in fitness, figure, fitness model or even bikini – and attempt to say “that person is definitely natural” or “that person is definitely on drugs” – especially when there is a face and a name attached. That is for ethical, legal and courtesy reasons and because the truth is often the opposite what you think…
Genetically-gifted, hard-working people can develop fantastic bodies that look so great, other people accuse them of being on drugs when they’re really 100% clean. And people with bodies that don’t look all that spectacular often use drugs and you might not suspect it.
Drugs are present in almost all sports, but probably more rampant in physique sports than anywhere else. The higher you climb the competitive ladder (ie, National championships versus Mr. Southern Iowa), generally the greater the use because more is at stake. At the pro level where prize money and endorsement contracts are at stake, you can also be fairly safe in assuming the drug use is probably higher.
Again, I would almost never presume someone to be taking drugs, because sometimes you can’t tell either way and because this is a delicate subject that requires some tact to talk about. But on the other hand, let’s call a spade a spade: sometimes you JUST KNOW. For example, a man 5 foot 8 inches tall does not weigh 270 lbs on stage ripped without some assistance, it simply does not happen, not even in the most genetically gifted in the world. But you see that at the premier contests in IFBB professional bodybuilding. In fact, it is quietly accepted in bodybuilding culture that almost all the top level professional men use assistance of some kind. I don’t know anyone who would argue that this not true – it’s just common knowledge in bodybuilding.
Among the women, again, I’m a wholehearted advocate of natural (drug free) female bodybuilding, but when women use the male hormones or androgenic / anabolic steroids, they may not only take on muscle bulk that most people would agree is not feminine, they begin to look more masculine overall. They lose their curvy hips and bust, their faces look more masculine (square-jawed), and their voices deepen. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say they look like men in drag, especially up close in person.
I’m not afraid to speak my opinion and say that I think there’s a lot wrong with this. For starters, most of the misconceptions about weight training and women come from an experience where an average woman sees a picture of a female pro bodybuilder who is loaded up on MALE HORMONES and a cocktail of other drugs and they assume that will happen to them if they start lifting weights. The truth is, weight training makes a woman MORE curvy, MORE feminine, stronger and healthier too, but steroid abuse makes a women less curvy, less feminine and if it’s not damaging her physical health, then I’m quite certain there are some psychological health issues going on there.
The extent of drug use is a little more unclear in the other women’s divisions, especially because in some of those divisions, too much muscle mass is scored down, but fans and spectators speculate all the time about how much assistance the fitness, figure, fitness model and bikini women use. At the pro level, it’s possible that like the men, many of them are using, perhaps it’s simply a different class of drugs (less androgenic/bulk-building drugs and more fat-burning/slimming drugs).
But frankly, who knows? Buying steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs without a prescription (on the black market) is illegal in the United States and even if it were legal, there’s still a stigma attached to drugs, so most athletes wouldn’t be likely to make it public knowledge if they did use.
I was completely naive and ignorant for years before I finally realized the difference between bodybuilding and natural bodybuilding and I wish someone had told me the truth earlier: If the show is not drug tested, anything goes, and if anything can go, assume everything does. Even though most of us in the natural bodybuilding world can still admire the top level pros for what they’ve accomplished or simply look at it as the same sport, but a different “league,” it’s still somewhat of a let down when you first find out how your “heroes” really got their physiques.
The best way to get an idea what a natural body looks like is to attend as many natural / drug-tested competitions as you can. Again, some cheaters may sneak in, but you can bet that the majority of the physiques on stage at a drug tested event are natural and that will give you a reference point of what a natural body really looks like.
For what it’s worth, in bodybuilding, I think the natural bodies usually look better – and that bigger and more ripped is NOT always better – especially in females.
Beauty is in the eye of the possessor and the beholder, and can come in all shapes and sizes. But regardless of what look is appealing or not appealing to you, I believe we ought to think really hard not only about which physique looks the best, but which physique athletes are the best role models – in every sense: From how you decide which athlete is a realistic natural goal for you to aspire to and which athletes are the type of person you would want to be your inspiration, or the inspiration for your kids.
The difference is, they drug test in natural bodybuilding contests.
Some people point out that “drug tested” doesn’t mean natural and unfortunately that is quite true. Just because everyone passes the test, doesn’t mean there aren’t some cheaters in there. But at least the drug testing is a deterrent and a statement has been made: “We don’t want drug users in this contest – if you use, go play in your own league so OUR playing field is level!”
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