Female bodybuilders are redefining what it means to be feminine.
Written by Jesse Chambers
Photography by Michael J. Moore
Christina Myers, 26, a personal trainer and gymnastics coach, took great pride in a photo of herself she posted on her Facebook page in September. It shows Myers sitting on a beach wearing a bikini for a fitness shoot, and she is slim and attractive but very much in shape, with muscle tone developed by two and a half years of weightlifting and bodybuilding, including some local competitions. Myers’s post celebrates the success of her workout regimen and teases the people who didn’t think she should lift. “If I had listened to everyone who told me not to lift heavy because it was going to make me ‘bulky,’ or ‘manly,’ I’d never be where I am now,” she writes. “Lifting heavy makes me stronger and happier and gets me a little closer to a goal every time I finish a workout.”
Myers, who lives in Birmingham, is one of a new generation of female bodybuilders—ranging in age from their 20s through their late 40s—who are reshaping the sport. The popularity of traditional bodybuilding—a pursuit that allows some women to become almost as muscular as men but has long been associated, fairly or not, with the use of dangerous performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)—is declining among women. But many females in Birmingham and around the country are joining the sport in large numbers in two recently created competitive classes—bikini and figure—that allow them to develop their bodies in a less extreme way. Not only that, but these women are improving their health and appearances and finding new confidence.
Many have found a supportive family in the sport, including their coaches, trainers, and, most of all, the other female lifters and competitors. They are lifting and developing their bodies while retaining their femininity in a way that they, not men, get to define. Perhaps most importantly, these female competitors are helping to redefine what society’s idea of femininity is or should be.
With the addition of the new classes, thought to be “more appealing to the mainstream,” the sport of bodybuilding “has grown by leaps and bounds” among women, Morris Pruett, Alabama district chairman for the National Physique Committee (NPC), says. Women were drawn into bodybuilding originally in the 1960s and 1970s during the sport’s golden age, according to Scott “Old Navy” Hults, a Birmingham bodybuilder, fitness coach, and promoter of the National Gym Association (NGA) Alabama Natural Open. The women, like a lot of men, were drawn by such competitors as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, Hults explains. However, some of the female competitors “got almost gross-looking,” says Hults, who is the NGA chairman for the Southeast. This led to the new classes, according to Hults, with figure coming first, then bikini a few years ago. “The women who wanted to be healthy and build their muscles decided it was not as feminine as they wanted to be,” he says.
According to Hults, women in the NGA can compete in four classes: bodybuilding, physique, figure, and bikini. The NPC, according to Pruett, has five competitive classes for women. “We start with bikini into figure and figure into fitness and then into physique and then into bodybuilding,” he says. In both the NGA and NPC, if a competitor seeks to move up class by class, she must gradually become leaner and add more muscle. Bikini is a softer look, according to Pruett. “You are looking more at a beach-type body for girls,” he says. “Bikini and figure represent more of what women look like naturally,” Birmingham figure competitor Kari Helton, 50, explains. A lot of people find bikini appealing because it is muscular but seems “achievable,” Myers adds. “Even if you’ve never worked out, you can look and say, ‘I can do that.’”
Myers cautions women not to take the demands of bikini competition too lightly, however. Some women “think that it looks easy,” she says. “They think they can hop onstage and do it after they have worked out for 12 weeks. People don’t know how much work goes into it.” Sarah Lawley, 28, a Birmingham bikini competitor, attributes a lot of the sport’s growth to the power of social media. “A lot of women, myself included, were unaware that there were forums like bikini and figure,” she says. “I fell in love. I’ve wanted to do it since the moment I found out about it.”
While the female competitors we spoke to enjoy their hard-won looks, they all cited a more important consideration—the quality of their health—as an important reason for taking up the sport. Anna Klumpp, 47, had been an avid runner for 15 years when she realized “it was time to get serious” about getting her body fit. She began lifting weights in January 2015 and did her first figure competition at the NGA Alabama Natural Open in Birmingham in July.
Lawley says she had become 30 pounds overweight. “I woke up one day and realized that I had let my body go,” she explains. Lawley, a nurse, won the Open Bikini competition at the July NGA event—her first competition—and earned her NGA pro card. She only began training with her coach, Greg Hasberry, in March. Kathleen Huffstetler, 45, wanted to “lose the baby weight” after having her fifth child, she explains. Huffstetler began lifting in September 2014 and got her pro card in July when she won the NGA Master’s Bikini class. The Master’s class is for women ages 35 and over.
Brittany Mack, 23, who attends the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, won the NPC Alabama State Championships this year, making her Ms. Bikini Alabama. “Weightlifting and competing gave me a healthy outlet and a consistent source of motivation,” she says. “It becomes addicting to people who are very goal-oriented.” Myers has always been an athlete, playing sports like gymnastics and track and field, but had also been “very thin,” she says. “I never looked the way I wanted to look. I had zero curves. I wanted to be strong.” When I first spotted Myers in the coffee shop we met in, I wasn’t sure if she was the person I was supposed to meet, since she seemed like an athlete but not a bodybuilder, at least not one who fits the old images of the sport. But when she sat down, the muscles in her arms were obvious. Myers, who is coached by Brian Minor, began competing in 2014. She won the Open Figure and got her pro card at the NGA show in Birmingham in July. She also finished second in Open Bikini.
The women all seem pleased with the results of their hard work and dedication. “While still all girl, I can open my own peanut butter jars and rearrange my furniture all by myself,” explains Helton, who has a background as a gymnast, martial artist, and runner and began competing in 2014 as a way to keep her motivated in her workouts. Her coach is Jeff Green at Icon Performance. Myers may have attained the ultimate prize. “I was able to get my dream body,” she says. “I have a butt now.”
The health benefits of weight lifting for people of all ages, both men and women, have been much advertised in recent years. “Strength training is one of the cornerstones for fitness for everyone,” Marcas Bamman, a professor and director of the UAB Center for Exercise Medicine, explains. Weight training can allow us to remain stronger and healthier as we age, according to Bamman. “As we get older, muscle mass declines, and strength training is the most effective way of restoring muscle mass,” he says. “And in metabolism, muscle is the largest tissue that helps to regulate blood glucose. As muscle mass goes down, your ability to regulate it goes down, putting you more at risk of diabetes.”
Sticking to a demanding diet and workout schedule is tough enough without taking on the added demands of prepping for a bodybuilding competition. So why do many of these women decide they must make the sacrifices needed to get on stage and have their bodies—and the quality of their work in the gym—critiqued by judges? Some of the women entered competitions because the challenge would serve as a motivation for their regular workouts. The show would provide “something to work toward,” as Klumpp put it. Lawley, who had been interested in bikini competitions for a long time, said that she “wanted and needed a goal to get my body where I wanted it.” Signing up to compete “made this real,” Helton says. “It was hard to back down or not go to the gym knowing I had a hard deadline.”
Competitors also look forward to their time on stage because the shows can be a lot of fun. “After working hard for weeks, sweating, training, and sticking to clean meal plans, competition day is the day I get to wear pretty jewelry and have my hair and makeup done,” Klumpp says.
“I absolutely love being on stage and showing off all of the hard work that I have put in,” Lawley agrees.
Some of the competitors say that bodybuilding, in additional to physical gains, can help women develop greater mental toughness and a confidence that can help sustain them even off the stage and outside the gym. “Mentally, to know you can have a goal and stick with it,” says Myers, who does powerlifting. “It gives you a very positive body image, but you also get a good mindset.”
“Struggling to get one more rep or adding five more pounds to the bar can be a challenge, and being successful in those challenges can be a big boost to the psyche,” Helton explains. Klumpp found that the “incredible amount of discipline” it takes to get ready for the stage spilled over into her work and personal life. And weight training has another important benefit for women, according to Myers. “It’s fun to look over at a guy next to you [in the gym] and know you can lift as much or almost as much as he can,” she says.
All of the competitors expressed gratitude for the social bonds they’ve formed with other women who are lifting and competing. “The people I’m closest to are girls I’ve met on the team,” Lawley says. “They understand me. And there’s always someone supporting me and giving me the extra push that I need.” Helton celebrates the “special bonds” competitors form with coaches and training partners while prepping for a show. “There have been times when my partners and I have talked throughout a tough week of meal prepping and carb-depleted workouts, encouraging each other and being the strong voice one day and then being the one needing the encouragement the next,” Helton says.
Huffstetler turned 45 in March and celebrated by beginning to train for the bikini competition with Greg Hasberry, who is the coach of the Elite Fitness and Figure team. The first workout she had with the team was “the toughest workout ever,” Huffstetler says. “Something in the back of my head told me I needed this. And there were about 20 girls at the training session. I thought what a great way to make friends that all were working towards the same goal of getting fit and competing.
“To me my team is more of a sisterhood,” she says. “My coach and teammates keep me going.”
If a female bodybuilder decides to compete on stage, she must make an intelligent decision, usually in consultation with her coach or trainer, regarding the particular competitive class or division that suits her. A lot of women “are choosing the competition most suited to their physique and their desires and their goals,” Hults says. “[Bikini has] the muscularity that I have always envisioned myself being,” Lawley explains. “I like that we get to be muscular and strut around in heels. Something about that feels empowering to me. It’s like, ‘Yes, I’m a female. Yes, I’m strong. Yes, I can probably lift more than your boyfriend.’”
“I have always had a more athletic body type and can put on muscle and weight fairly easy,” Klumpp says. “Because of this natural body type, I chose to compete in the figure division.” She finished second in Master’s Figure and third in Open Figure in July.
It seems that traditional, old-school bodybuilding is on the way out among females. “In a bodybuilding show now, I only had two female bodybuilders,” Hults says. “I had four physique. I had 14 figure and 18 bikini.”
“It has basically fallen by the wayside,” Pruett says. “As bad as I hate it, it is not appealing to people.” Lawley has “nothing but respect” for the women who compete in the physique and bodybuilding classes and says that they are “insanely strong.” But there are, it seems, fewer of those women now. “Society’s idea that bodybuilding is not attractive brings them down,” explains Myers, who added that figure and bikini are “more universally appealing to people who don’t lift weights.” Many women may also shy away from what they see as the health risk of pursuing full-on bodybuilding, according to some of the competitors. “I think it is a lot of hard work and a lot of [women] feel they can’t do it without supplements,” Myers says.
It is no secret after decades of horror stories from football, baseball, and other sports that many PEDs used by athletes, including anabolic steroids and human growth hormones, are dangerous. The improper use of anabolic/androgenic steroids brings “serious side effects,” according to Bamman. “Their use can cause many problems, including cardiac muscle growth, leading to heart problems, liver problems, and other serious health issues from the overabundance of testosterone-like drugs.” The NGA tests competitors using urine tests or polygraphs to make sure they are not using PEDs, according to Hults. “In many cases, the winners who win pro cards or cash as pros are retested as they come off stage as a double check,” Hults says.
“The NPC is 100 percent against using any type of drugs,” Pruett says. “We have the same philosophy as college football or Major League Baseball.” However, economic factors prevent Pruett’s organization from testing as much as it would like. “Any NPC athlete is subject to drug testing, but due to the cost of testing, it will not be as widespread,” he explains. Even with the testing at NGA shows, “there are people who bend the rules,” Myers says. “But to compete in figure and bikini, you don’t need it, especially since it can harm your health.”
Mack, like the other women we contacted, says that she does not use any PEDs, but that there are other competitors who use substances to get an edge. “The [NPC] is an untested organization, so the use of PEDs and supplements has become ‘standard prep protocol’ for most,” she says. “You are at an immediate disadvantage if you compete naturally [because] so many do not.” Performance-enhancing substances are “definitely dangerous,” Lawley says. “You don’t know the long-term effects. As a registered nurse, I am very health conscious. The risk of the unknown is just not worth it to me. Plus, in my opinion, there’s something to be said for competitors that do it the natural way. You are 100 percent real.”
Of course, not everyone has the same opinion about the use of PEDs, according to Mack. “Personally, I think people should do what they feel is best for them,” she says. “Everyone’s goals are different so everyone’s methods will be, too.” And there is always a market ready to exploit the desires of athletes, both male and female, to find substances that can help them develop their bodies more fully and rapidly, despite the risks. “Any time something comes out in the biomedical research world that suggests that a new hormone or new signaling protein is in any way connected to adding muscle, those things tend to find their way onto the market either as illegal substances or, even more prevalent, is the packaging of them for commercial distribution in products at a local nutrition store,” Bamman says.
These supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because they do not fall in either one of those categories, according to Bamman. “These unregulated products don’t necessarily do what they claim to do,” he explains. In addition, he says that many of these supplements have not been adequately studied and may offer “no guidelines for a safe or effective dose.” Some products—like protein powder, fish oil, and herbal fat burners, among others—from the nutrition store are approved for use in both the NGA and NPC. “Anything you can buy over the counter” is legal, Pruett says. “Some of those things are very beneficial. In this fast-paced world, it’s hard to get all of your nutrients you need at a fast-food place.”
Athletes should be careful even about the use of safe, legal nutrition products, according to Bamman, who cited one example. “Protein supplements can be helpful for people who don’t consume enough, but your body—your digestive system, the kidneys—has to deal with an overabundance of protein,” he says. “Anything in excess is not good.”
Virtually all of the competitors say they would encourage other women to get involved in bodybuilding. “When done properly, [weightlifting] is a very healthy way to shape your body and can give women a sense of pride and accomplishment,” Mack says. Having a toned body, especially in middle age, can also attract positive attention and allow a woman to pass on a positive message to others, according to Klumpp. “When I am given a compliment on my body or asked what I do to stay so toned, I tell them my story,” she says. “I am about to be 47 years old. It is never too late in life to achieve your personal goals.”
An operating room nurse, Helton said she also wants her “outward appearance to be a tool” to allow her to talk to people about healthy lifestyles. “Weight lifting and education are the two most empowering things I’ve ever done,” Lawley said. “Nothing feels better than being a strong woman.” Lawley encourages women to start working out, even if they have no desire to compete. Helton shares a similar message but notes that you may not know exactly where you will end up after weightlifting “starts you on a quest for knowledge on how you can take even better care of yourself,” she says. “Never did I imagine that curling a dumbbell would one day lead me to walking across a stage in five-inch heels in the best shape of my life at 50 years old.”
The women and men involved in bodybuilding are not putting in all this effort and sacrifice to get rich. “There is very little money to be made in the sport,” Hults says. “Many women competitors are also personal trainers or fitness coaches and use their competitions to establish their fitness credentials.” But there are always those big goals to shoot for to keep one motivated. “I’m currently taking some time off from competing to build up more muscle,” Lawley says. “I want to compete in my first pro show in the best shape of my life.”
Myers plans to train in power lifting in her off-season to prepare for a pro debut, possibly by late 2016. She also wants to do figure with the NPC, compete nationally, and earn her pro card from the International Federation of Bodybuilding. “I want to leave a legacy of competing that’s in balance with the rest of my life,” she says. Huffstetler wants to open her own gym or studio someday. “This has been a truly incredible journey,” she says. “I eat, sleep, and dream this life.”
It is clear that the new female bodybuilders are making a profound impact on the sport. “I believe there is a new face to women’s bodybuilding, and it is one that depicts a strong, toned yet feminine look,” Klumpp says. But these competitors—and the other women who are pumping iron in gyms from coast to coast—are also part of a larger shift in what people perceive or accept as “feminine” to begin with. “The idea of a female being dainty is slowly fading away, and more women are wanting to be fit,” Lawley said. Pruett believes that women are challenging old stereotypes. “What is considered feminine now is a little different than it was 20 years ago,” he says.
“Strong is the new sexy,” Leigh Russell, a figure competitor in Birmingham who takes part in NPC shows, says. “I like to think we show that having muscles shows dedication, willpower, and determination.”
“The strong woman has become a power symbol and challenges conservative views on sexuality and gender roles,” Mack says. “Every woman who chooses to disregard narrow-minded stereotypes is a part of this movement.” These women are, perhaps, also finding a way to ignore or move past some of the double standards they face in society. “Everyone tells women they should be strong and independent, but when women start lifting, people discourage them,” Myers says.
Klumpp says she hopes that the new trends in women’s fitness, including CrossFit and the newer weight-training classifications, will have a positive impact on eating disorders and “skewed body images.” “I hope to see a decline in women’s preoccupation with being thin,” she says.
It seems we are likely to see more and more women lifting weights and doing other demanding workouts that allow them to grow and develop their bodies, minds, and spirits in the way they choose. And, like Myers, they will offer their own powerful visual testimony to the value of weightlifting. Myers enjoys having the last laugh on the people who doubted her choice of workout. In fact, almost all of the people who discouraged her from lifting weights have “come back two years later and said, ‘I was wrong. You look really good,’” she says.
For more information about the National Gym Association Alabama chapter, go to ngaalabamaopen.com.
For more about the NPC Alabama, go to npcalabama.info.
The 2016 NGA Old Navy ProAm Classic will be held on July 9 at Homewood High School, according to Hults.
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So, you want to build a better body
Female bodybuilders in the Birmingham area who talked to B-Metro about their sport all swore by the value of weight training. They shared the following tips and advice for any woman who thinks she would like to find her way to a gym and begin pushing her own body to the next level—whether she wants to compete or just get in shape.
Get a Coach
“I would strongly suggest getting a coach or personal trainer and learning to lift weights properly,” says Kathleen Huffstetler, a bikini competitor from Helena. Having a coach is especially helpful if a woman intends to enter bodybuilding competitions, according to figure competitor Anna Klumpp. “From helping you with your specific training and dieting needs to your suit selection, posing, stage presence, and tanning needs, a seasoned coach will be able to guide you through the process.”
You’ll want a coach, but not just anybody, according to figure competitor Kari Helton. “Your coach should be knowledgeable,” she says. “Check out his or her background. You don’t want to waste your money or your time or risk unnecessary injuries.” Helton recommends that you do your homework online to learn what questions to ask. You should also try to pick someone you can work with. “It is necessary to have a coach that you can communicate with easily,” she says. “If you can’t afford a trainer, coach or dietitian, get online,” says Helton, who has found lots of free information and resources—including instructional videos—on the Web.
Pay Attention to Your Diet
Putting yourself through a tough workout doesn’t mean you can run out and grab a greasy cheeseburger or scarf down a calorie-rich dessert. “There is that old saying that ‘you can’t out-train a bad diet,’” Huffstetler says. Especially if you wish to compete, a “healthy relationship with food” is critical, according to bikini and figure competitor Christina Myers. “If you are struggling with any kind of disordered eating or body image issues, competing is probably not for you, at least not without some help first,” she says.
Once you begin a workout schedule you’re comfortable with, stick with it and take the long view. “Be consistent,” Myers says. “You won’t see overnight results. There will be ups and downs. Learn to focus on more than the scale. Stay positive, celebrate the small victories.”
Get a Workout Buddy
One option if you are just starting out is to find a workout partner, according to Helton. “Although working out with a partner isn’t for everyone, it can help keep you motivated, and you’ll have a spotter,” she says.
Do it for Yourself
If you start working out, you should do it for yourself, not anybody else, according to Myers, who also works at a gym. “A lot of women will come in and say, ‘My boyfriend says I need to do this or do that,’” she says. “Find something in your body that’s important to you. It’s your dream body, and you should build it.”
Don’t Push Your Body Too Hard
If you are getting ready to compete, “don’t push your caloric deficit—by a combination of diet and cardio—below a certain point,” Myers says. “It is dangerous to your long-term health. You should take all the time you need to prepare, even if that means taking a year to build up your metabolism first.”
See Your Doctor
Last but certainly not least, you should get clearance from your doctor before beginning a demanding life in the gym.
Tags: Jesse Chambers