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Megan Looney, Spring 2014

The rise of bikini competitors: Female bodybuilders in San Diego are breaking the ‘meathead’ stereotypes

Rios, also a certified makeup artist, helps another competitor get ready for show day. Photo by Megan Looney.

Rios, also a certified makeup artist, helps another competitor get ready for show day. Photo by Megan Looney.

Claudia Rios, a 33-year-old single mother of three, wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day to get her children to school before beginning her 6 a.m. serving shift at a San Diego restaurant. Rios has just enough time after she gets off work to pick her kids up from school and hit the gym for an hour before cooking dinner and helping her children with their homework. Rios dedicates a lot time to prepare for her upcoming bodybuilding competition and she says that not everyone understands why.

“I’ve heard everything,” said Rios, a fitness competitor and bodybuilder. “People who don’t really know say ‘oh you don’t care about your kids.’ But now I’m actually always home. I can’t go anywhere else because I can’t eat out at a restaurant, I can’t go have happy hour drinks, I can’t go spend money because now it’s all going to [contest] prep.”

Rios got into fitness after she started dating a bodybuilder five years ago, but at just over five feet tall and weighing 105 pounds, she doesn’t fit any of the bodybuilding stereotypes. For many people, the word “bodybuilder” might conjure up the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing in a speedo while gazing at his reflection in a dirty gym mirror. However, bodybuilding has quickly become a popular activity among many different types of women in San Diego.

“I have never devoted so much time and energy into anything before like I have with training for this competition,” said Kathleen Martinez, a fellow bodybuilder who is hoping to compete later this year. “The saying ‘nothing worth having comes easy’ has a whole new meaning to me.”

Female competitors typically have to add a rigorous cardio component to their workout regimen because women naturally have a higher percentage of fat and not as much muscle-building testosterone as their male counterparts. The average woman has 25 percent body fat while men have around 15 percent. In order to showcase their hard-earned physiques, both female and male bodybuilders typically compete with less than 10 percent body fat. Along with high intensity cardio,  female competitors hit the weights and focus on glute-building exercises like lunges six days a week.

Women are holding their own in the bodybuilding industry 

National Physique Committee competitors “pumping up” before getting on stage. Photo by Megan Looney.

National Physique Committee competitors “pumping up” before getting on stage. Photo by Megan Looney.

While women have been actively participating in bodybuilding competitions since the 1960s, they weren’t fully welcomed into the industry until 1980 when the National Physique Committee hosted the first national bodybuilding competition for women. The NPC is the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the U.S. and the most popular among competitive San Diego athletes.

In 1992, the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness – the world’s largest professional bodybuilding organization –  started marketing bodybuilding divisions like bikini and figure to the everyday woman, adding “femininity” rules into the judging criteria. This opened up the world of bodybuilding to women who didn’t want to “get too big” or too bulky.

“Girls realize I don’t have to look like a bodybuilder, like I take drugs to enhance my physique,” said Francine Sablan, a professional figure competitor and personal trainer. “I think the look is empowering … it’s still feminine and more importantly, it’s attainable. It’s realistic.”

The bikini division: Posing, prepping and paying the bills

Bodybuilding competitions consist of pre-judging and final judging rounds where female participants pose on stage in a bikini. There are many divisions for females within NPC competitions, the most popular of which are bikini and figure. Bikini focuses more on attaining a model-like appearance while figure competitors have slightly more muscle mass but are still expected to display a feminine and sexy appearance.

The bikini division has received positive and negative reactions from fitness industry professionals since it was added in 2010. San Diego Certified Personal Trainer Spencer Aiken says the bikini division has exploded in popularity over the past few years because the industry carefully chose specific words to target the female demographic.

The average cost breakdown for a NPC bikini or figure competition.

The average cost breakdown for a NPC bikini or figure competition.

“The bikini division has taken off because of marketing and the use of the term ‘bikini’,” Aiken said. “[The IFBB] is playing on the psyche of females to achieve a skinny body instead of promoting fitness.”

The bikini division has been a major draw for both aspiring athletes and spectators, accounting for roughly 50 percent of the total competitors at recent San Diego contests. For the competitors, the price of an award-winning body is high. Personal trainers, nutritionists and accessories can run close to $3,000.

However, female competitors say they spend the time and money because they feel empowered, strong and sexy after training for a competition. During the last few weeks before the competition women, and the men, tend to start tanning, to really get their muscles to pop. Recently the mode is to use tanning creams instead but tanning is still popular. Most tanning salons adhere to SalonTouch tan salon software to help them, but I digress.

“I love seeing how far I can push myself,” said Leia Pugh, a San Diego mom who just placed second at a NPC competition last summer. “It’s very satisfying to achieve the impossible … and I’m glad I found coaches who have a healthy approach. It’s important to research the people you are entrusting a big part of your health in.”

Pugh is just one member of Body University, the new San Diego contest prep team created by powerlifting power-couple Francine Sablan and Jason Tweed.

Body University is out to school the competition

For some women, a bodybuilding competition is just a check mark on their bucket list, for others it is a career goal. Whatever their desire, Sablan and Tweed have teamed up to help local athletes build their dream body.

Sablan meets with her clients for training sessions at World Gym, a no-frills San Diego bodybuilding gym in Pacific Beach, while Tweed monitors individual nutrition plans by checking in with competitors every day.

MULTIMEDIA: Sablan works closely with two of her clients, Betsy Balger and Claudia Rios, to prepare them for upcoming competitions.

Is strong really the new skinny?

Fitness professionals, such as Aiken and Tweed, warn that without proper coaching, bikini competitors risk doing more harm than good when preparing for a competition. Some coaches encourage their clients to achieve maximum results in the shortest amount of time possible, which could cause serious long-term repercussions.

Aiken warns competitors to stay away from “quick fix” meal plans that entirely eliminate fats or carbohydrates. While this will help competitors lose weight quickly, it will also come with negative side-effects such as metabolic damage, which can lead to rapid weight gain once returning to a normal diet.

Trophies lined up backstage at an NPC competition, waiting to be awarded to the top five competitors in each height class. Photo by Megan Looney.

Trophies lined up backstage at a NPC competition, waiting to be awarded to the top five competitors in each height class. Photo by Megan Looney.

“There are some smart competitors and a few good coaches that do it right,” Aiken said. “Most are idiots who do no carb or no fat diets or [tell their clients] to do four hours a day in the gym.”

Sablan and Tweed have prepared a number of nationally-ranked competitors, whose progress they proudly show off on their @BodyUniversity Instagram page. Martinez, a Body University client and bikini competitor, appreciates the balanced lifestyle approach that she receives from her coaches. Martinez points out that they also take the time to make sure their athletes are healthy, never hungry, and always happy with their physical and mental state.

To achieve a stage body without sacrificing health and nutrition, most Body University athletes spend a few hours every weekend meal prepping, which consists of cooking and portioning out a week’s worth of meals. Athletes eat small meals every two to three hours, are in the gym 10 to 12 hours a week, and still make time for work and family. For the women who train with Body University and make it to competition day, the sacrifice is usually worth it, whether they leave with a trophy or not.

“Body University has a heart,” Sablan said. “We form these relationships, these friendships throughout the prep. It’s not necessarily about the body but the development of yourself. To change your whole body and your whole lifestyle for 30 seconds on stage makes no sense. Just do what you love.”

The various competitive bodybuilding divisions for women within the NPC.

The various competitive bodybuilding divisions for women within the NPC.

Please visit my personal fitness blog, Fit N’ Freckled, by clicking here or by going to to comment on this post and to read about my personal fitness journey.


About Megan Looney

I am a wanderer, a writer and a lifter of heavy things.


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