Steel Sisters: Bodybuilding Women

Women came into the sport of bodybuilding somewhat late. It’s understandable, as bodybuilding is essentially a male-dominated sport. But not to be put down, bodybuilding women’s athletes have risen above the mediocre stamp that has been placed on them ever since the first bodybuilding women’s competition took place.

The first bodybuilding woman, Lisa Lyon, was a pioneer, a media star, and a spokesperson for female bodybuilding. Born in 1953 in California, USA, Ms. Lyon was a graduate of UCLA and a student of kendo, a Japanese martial art. Then a bodybuilding enthusiast, Ms. Lyon was encouraged to join the bodybuilding women’s competition by none other than premier bodybuilding promoter, Arnold Schwarzenegger who saw potential in Lyon’s small, dancer’s physique. As it turned out, Schwarzenegger was right in betting on Lyon’s bodybuilding talents as she won first place in the first bodybuilding women’s championship.

Bodybuilding Women woman lifting barbell
Photo by Amar Preciado on

Lyon was replaced by Rachel McLish, the champion of the first ever Miss Olympia bodybuilding women’s competition sponsored by the International Federation of Bodybuilders. Rachel McLish combined aesthetics and muscles in female bodybuilding. She was considered the symbol that all bodybuilding women wanted to look like. More than just an icon, this Texan-born bodybuilding woman helped define the sport of bodybuilding.

Next to Rachel McLish is the Australian shot-putter-turned-bodybuilder, Bev Francis, with whom she incidentally co-starred in the movie, Pumping Iron II: The Women. If McLish was the feminine embodiment of bodybuilding women, Francis represented the muscular extreme. Her incredible appearance and awesome muscular bulk sparked both awe and shock in the bodybuilding world, which eventually led to the question: “How much is too much?” This is the question that bodybuilding women have been troubled with ever since Francis first hit the spotlight in 1986 as a finalist at the Ms. Olympia competition.

In 1991, the overly muscular Francis was relegated as runner-up to the more aesthete Lenda Murray, who won the Ms. Olympia title. Ms. Murray went on to win eight more Ms. Olympia titles to her name, the last of which was in 2003 when she was also hailed as the most successful and most popular bodybuilding woman.

Bodybuilding Women : Steel sisters
MS. OLYMPIA ANDREA SHAW with Steel sisters

Other bodybuilding women include Juliette Bergman, known as the Dutch Superwoman, who won the 2001 Ms. Olympia competition, and Mandy Blank who was an IFBB fitness professional competitor. Ms. Blank is one of the new breeds of slender bodybuilders whose goals are more geared toward shaping the muscular body into aesthetic forms than beefing it up to become ultimately grotesque. Other bodybuilding women of Blank’s caliber are Monica Brant, named 1998 Fitness Miss Olympia, and Canadian Sharon Bruneau who went through radical changes from being a model, to hardcore female bodybuilder, and finally to fitness competitor.       

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