Want the perfect workout program?Take Quiz
Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
While people typically associate bodybuilding with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, and other men, there is also a long history of successful female bodybuilders.
Female bodybuilding has rapidly gained popularity in recent years, but the sport has existed for decades. In fact, there is a long history of strong, muscular women who have dominated the sport of bodybuilding.
Female bodybuilders in the 80s were the first to be officially recognized in competitions and helped pave the way for the women bodybuilders of today. In this article, we will highlight the top female bodybuilders of the past and present.
Get ready to be impressed as we go over the top 20 best female bodybuilders, discuss their major contest wins, what makes them so inspirational, and what they're up to today.
While male bodybuilding competitions occurred in the 1920s, women in bodybuilding didn't happen until the late 1970s. During the mid-1900s, it was rare to find muscular women. There was an unfortunate (and incorrect) stigma around athletics and exercise hindering women's ability to be mothers.
Thankfully, the landscape for women bodybuilders changed after 1972 when Congress passed Title IX, which required schools to allow equal opportunity for female athletes. This act opened the door for muscular women to explore different sports, including bodybuilding.
The first-ever woman to win a female building competition was Gina LaSpina from Ohio in 1977. By 1980, the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) and the National Physique Committee (NPC) recognized female bodybuilding competitions, including the first Ms. Olympia in 1980.
Since then, there have been tons of inspirational women to champion the sport. It's those women we're about to highlight.
The 20 best female bodybuilders of both the past and present are:
Without further ado, here are the most influential female bodybuilders from then and now!
The 1980s was considered the Golden Age of female bodybuilding, as this was when it started to blossom into what it is today. Rachel McLish, who is from Texas, is perhaps the most famous professional female bodybuilder of the Golden Age era.
McLish began to focus heavily on bodybuilding in the late 1970s while working at a local gym after she graduated college. She cemented herself as a legend and pioneer by being the first female bodybuilder to win the inaugural 1980 United States Championship and the first ever IFBB Ms. Olympia the same year. She had more magazine covers over the next five years than any woman.
Although Rachel only competed for four years, she was more dominant than any other 80s female bodybuilder, never finishing worse than third. She claimed her second IFBB Ms. Olympia in 1982, becoming the first-ever two-time champion.
She was inducted into the inaugural IFBB Hall of Fame class in January of 1999 and went on to author two books about weight training that were featured on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Rachel McLish is now 68, so she isn't as active on social media as younger female bodybuilders. With her amazingly toned body, outgoing personality, and competitive success, we can assume if social media existed in her days, she would have dominated that too.
You can follow her on Instagram at @RachelMclish
Corinna "Cory" Everson is often considered the best female bodybuilder in history, and plenty of evidence supports those claims. While Rachel McLish set the bar by winning two of the first three Ms. Olympias, Cory took it to another level and elevated the sport during the Golden Age.
Cory was introduced to bodybuilding after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by her future ex-husband, Jeff Everson, a competitive bodybuilder himself. Jeff coached Cory, which led to her debut victory at the 1980 Ms. Mid America.
She continued to dominate, winning her first IFBB competition at the 1982 North American Championship, and reached the sport's peak by claiming the 1984 Ms. Olympia title in her debut, a title she never lost.
Cory went on to win Ms. Olympia six years in a row from 1984 to 1989 before retiring on top undefeated. Cory went on to have a successful film career and was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 1999. She became the first woman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Arnold Classic.
You can follow her on Instagram at @theofficialcoryeverson
Just as Cory Everson had her historic run of six straight Ms. Olympia's end, another star was paving her way to be the biggest female bodybuilder in history.
Lenda Murray was a cheerleader and record-holding sprinter during her teenage years in Detroit, Michigan. She discovered bodybuilding in 1984 after a professional suggested she compete due to her naturally muscular frame. She gained national attention by winning her first of six straight Ms. Olympia titles from 1990 to 1995.
Lenda briefly retired in 1997 after losing two consecutive Ms. Olympias to Kim Chizevsky-Nicholls before returning in 2002. She claimed two more Ms. Olympias in 2002 and 2003 before finishing runner-up in 2004 to end her career with eight titles.
Considered the second most successful female bodybuilder in history, she was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2010. Lenda remains connected to the sport by continuing to promote events today.
Follow her on Instagram at @themsolympia
Kim Chizevsky-Nicholls is regarded as one of the best American female bodybuilders ever. She started bodybuilding in 1988 after starting to date her future husband and bodybuilder, Chad Nicholls.
She earned her pro card in 1992 after winning the IFBB North American Championship and began a long, successful career. After winning the Ms. International, Kim defeated Lenda Murray at the 1996 Ms. Olympia, ending her six-year run on top.
She became the first woman to win both the Ms. International and Ms. Olympia in the same year in 1996 and went on to win four consecutive Ms. Olympia titles before retiring in 1999. In 2008, she was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame, recognized as one of the most muscular female bodybuilders in history.
Follow her on Instagram at @mzolympia
All of the amazingly strong and ripped women of the 80s and 90s paved the way for Iris Kyle, the most successful female bodybuilder in history.
Iris Kyle, nicknamed "The Female Ronnie Coleman," began her professional competitive bodybuilding career at 22 in 1999 after years of dominating amateur competitions. In 2001, she won the heavyweight title at Ms. Olympia but came in second in the overall competition. Her first Ms. International title came in 2004, which opened the floodgates.
She then went on to win Ms. Olympia in 2004, narrowly lost in 2005, then won the next nine years in a row from 2006-2014. Kyle finished her career in 2022 with a record ten overall Ms. Olympia wins, the most of any male or female. She also has a record seven overall Ms. International wins. Her massive, symmetrical physique inspired an entire generation of young women bodybuilders.
Iris has been very open about her use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout her career, which she began using after coming in 2nd at the 1994 NPC Iron Maiden Championship. She stresses that steroids alone are not responsible for success, as hard work and genetics are more important.
Follow her on Instagram at @IrisKyle
The dominance and impressive physique of Iris Kyle inspired countless women worldwide to take their bodies to the next level, including Andrea Shaw.
Andrea began training at 17 with the help of her mom, a former personal trainer, and started competing in the physique category, in which competitors performed a choreographed routine to music. Despite her early success in physique, which included a win at the 2018 Lenda Murray Detroit Classic, Shaw decided to switch classes after advice from a legend.
Hall of Famer and legend Lenda Murray was working as a judge at the 2019 Toronto Pro when she encouraged Andrea to change classes to the bodybuilding division.
This move paid off, as Andrea went on to win two of the most prestigious titles in the 2020 Ms. Olympia and Ms. Rising Phoenix Champion. Since then, she has continued to rise in popularity and rankings, repeating as Ms. Olympia in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
She is extremely popular on social media, with over 113 thousand followers on Instagram, where she shares a mix of training tips and everyday life activities.
Follow her on Instagram at @mzprettymuscle
Still in her 20s, Melina Keltaniemi represents the present and future of women's bodybuilding.
Melina is a bikini fitness model from Finland that has experienced immediate success with a win at the 2018 IFBB Elite Pro World Championship. She followed that up by winning the 2019 Nordic Elite Pro and repeated it at IFBB 2019 Elite Pro World Championships.
Between her early success and shredded body, it's no wonder she has a large following on social media. We look forward to a long and successful career in bikini fitness for Melina.
2x IFBB Elite Pro World Championship: 1st (2018-2019)
Follow her on Instagram at @melinakatarina
Yaxeni Oriquen is a legend in women's bodybuilding and is ranked second best only to Iris Kyle on the IFBB best female ranking list.
Born in Venezuela, Yaxeni is an even bigger inspiration worldwide for her success after moving to the United States to pursue bodybuilding. She broke through with a win at the 2005 Ms. Olympia, becoming the first and only Venezuelan-American winner.
She also won the Ms. International competition five times, cementing herself as a legend. With over 20 years of experience, Yaxeni now owns a gym in Miami where she trains clients herself.
She has nearly 50 thousand followers on Instagram, regularly sharing gym videos and exercise tips.
Follow her on Instagram at @yaxenita
Debi Laszewski is a legend in women's bodybuilding and ranks number three on the IFBB's best female ranking list.
Debi, a track-and-field athlete from Wisconsin, became interested in bodybuilding after seeing Linda Hamilton's character of Sarah Connor in The Terminator. She had an impressive career, finishing in the top three of the Ms. Olympia five times from 2009 to 2014, with her career-best runner-up finish to Iris Kyle in 2012.
She is now a personal trainer in Jupiter, Florida, where she trains several champion bodybuilders.
You can follow her on Instagram at @debilaszewski
Andrulla Blanchette, a female bodybuilder from London, England, paved the way for British female bodybuilders. Andrulla competed from 1986 to 2002, compiling an impressive resume that has made her the world's most successful British female bodybuilder.
Her career highlight came in 2000 when she won Ms. Olympia Lightweight Champion, which she narrowly lost the following year. While she is not very active on social media and has private accounts, she currently spends most of her time at her gym, where she helps train girls of all ages.
Elisa Pecini is a young Brazilian bodybuilder with one of the most successful careers in the bikini competition.
Elisa is an inspiration to people struggling with eating disorders, as she openly discusses overcoming anorexia nervosa. A hospitalization led her to change her lifestyle, and she earned her professional card at age 19.
Elisa dominated the bikini division and won several major competitions. She reached the pinnacle of the sport by winning first place in the 2019 Ms. Olympia Bikini.
Elisa is constantly spreading positivity across social media and works endlessly to help others conquer their own eating disorders. She has over 600 thousand followers on Instagram and shares various wholesome content.
Follow her on Instagram at @isapecini
Sarah Villegas is a current IFBB professional that competes in women's physique. Sarah has risen in popularity over the last few years as her career has blossomed.
She attained the sport's peak by winning Ms. Olympia Women's Physique in 2020, one year after finishing runner-up. Sarah also won in 2021 and again in 2023. She is also a personal trainer and certified sports nutritionist, working hard to help others achieve their fitness goals, along with an entire team working for her at ASF Premier Fitness.
Her success, both on stage and in her professional life, is extremely impressive and motivating. She is an inspiration to many, and her competitive career is far from over.
You can follow Sarah on Instagram at @iamsarahfit
Monique Jones is a women's bodybuilder ranked seventh on the IFBB best female bodybuilder list.
Monique has amazing genetics that she slowly groomed since starting weight training at age 13. She won her professional card as a heavyweight in 2010 after winning the IFBB North American Championships.
Monique has an impressive large frame, competing at 220 pounds at 5'8" and sitting around 250 pounds in the off-season.
She has a large social media following, with her last Instagram account, @fitnique, having nearly 100 thousand followers before being shut down.
You can follow her on her new Instagram page, which is @fitnique2
Alina Popa is a Romanian-born professional bodybuilder ranked number four by the IFBB Pro Women's Rankings list.
Alina began training at age 19 and entered her first contest in 2000 at 22. She began her pro career at the 2010 Ms. International, which is the only competition she has ever entered in which she did not finish in the top five.
Alina finished second in the Ms. Olympia in both 2013 and 2014 to Iris Kyle, who has the record for most Olympia titles.
Her career highlight was winning the 2018 Rising Phoenix World Championships. She is regarded as the best of the Romanian female competitors in history and remains an inspiration to many to this day.
She is currently the vice president of European operations for Wings of Strength, a company that advocates for female bodybuilding.
Alina is very active across social media, with nearly 100 thousand followers on Instagram, posting a combination of fitness content and everyday life.
Follow her on Instagram at @alinapopa1
Helle Trevino is a Danish bodybuilder that is one of the most influential figures in women's bodybuilding. After earning her pro card in 2004 at age 27, she competed in her first Olympia contest before suffering several herniated discs in her back.
After eight years of rehab, Helle overcame the odds and returned to bodybuilding, winning the 2011 FIBO Pro Germany. In 2012 she accomplished her dream of moving to Venice Beach, California, to train at the legendary Gold's Gym.
The thing that brings her the most joy is helping others transform their bodies. She hosts several training seminars, including private mental training focusing on strengthening the mind.
Follow her on Instagram at @HelleTrevino
Deepika Chowdhury is the first-ever female IFBB professional bodybuilder from India.
Despite having an impressive education as a molecular biologist, Deepika broke through barriers to become an inspiration for women from India and across the world.
She takes pride in her body and believes fitness is essential for a healthy mind, character, and spirit.
2015 NPC Steve Stone Metropolitan Championships Overall Figure Category: 1st
She has a large following on social media, with nearly 100 thousand followers on Instagram. She posts a variety of training videos, gym tips, and posts that highlight her Indian culture.
Follow her on Instagram @deepikapune_ifbbpro
Sheila Bleck is a retired American bodybuilder ranked number six on the IFBB Pro Women's Bodybuilding list.
Shelia first became interested in bodybuilding and weightlifting at a young age after watching Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. By age 16, she was competing in powerlifting before earning her IFBB pro card with a win at the 2008 NPC Nationals.
She is now the owner of Bleck Discount Nutrition and frequently posts vlog-type videos on her Instagram.
Follow her on Instagram at @ifbbsheilableck
Nataliya Kuznetsova is one of the best Russian female bodybuilders with millions of fans across the globe. Her impressive, muscular physique began with powerlifting at age fourteen.
In addition to being a bodybuilder, Nataliya is also incredibly strong and holds several world records for arm wrestling, deadlift, and bench press. Several sources report her to be the most muscular female in the world, and at 5'7" and 220 pounds, it is believable.
While she has incredible strength and various world records, her bodybuilding career took off with a win at the 2018 IFBB WOS Romania Muscle Fest. Her unique combination of strength, power, and pure size is genuinely aspirational.
With over one million followers on Instagram, Nataliya is one of the most recognized female bodybuilders in the world.
Follow her on Instagram @Nataliya.amazonka
Theresa Ivancik is one of the top American female bodybuilders. She began weightlifting at age 19 when she was on house arrest.
She came across an old Joe Weider exercise equipment in her parent's basement and instantly became hooked. After moving from figure to bodybuilding, Theresa eventually won the 2016 NPC Nationals Heavyweight to earn her pro card.
Since then, she has had great success in competitions, winning multiple events. She also works with Wings of Strength, which advocates women's bodybuilding.
She has amassed quite a following on social media, with an impressive 270 thousand followers on Instagram.
Follow her on Instagram at @tivancik_ifbbpro
Shanique Grant is one of the best female bodybuilders, born and raised in Chicago. Sadly, like thousands of children, Shanique suffered from bullying, leading to years of struggling with her identity.
After hard partying led to kidney failure, she reinvented herself and began bodybuilding. At just age 23, Shanique reached the pinnacle by winning the Ms. Olympia Physique title in 2018 and then repeated in 2019, becoming a true American female bodybuilder.
She finished runner-up in 2020 Ms. Olympia before retiring to focus on her Youtube channel.
2x IFBB Ms. Olympia Women's Physique Champion: 1st (2018-2019)
With her successful Youtube channel, Shanique became an influential figure on social media, where she has over 324 thousand followers on Instagram.
Follow her on Instagram at @therealfitnessbeauty
In this section, we will answer some of the most commonly asked questions regarding female bodybuilders.
Before contests, female bodybuilders undergo extensive dieting combined with intense cardio sessions to maximize weight loss. Most bodybuilders will also take some kind of fat burner, including banned substances such as ephedrine or anabolic steroids. Most will also use a type of diuretic before going on stage to eliminate as much water as possible to achieve a dry, hard look.
Female bodybuilders typically follow rigorous diets and count their macronutrients to monitor their caloric intake. Their diets tend to be high protein, low carb, and include healthy fats. High protein low fat foods, whole grain complex carbohydrates, and leafy green vegetables are diet staples. Some foods they may eat include chicken, fish, lentils, eggs, avocado, kale, spinach, nuts, and seeds.
Yes, many female bodybuilders take testosterone to help muscle recovery and increase muscle size. While there are natural female bodybuilders, there are also many female bodybuilders who take testosterone, as it helps increase strength and muscle size, and redistributes body fat to provide more definition.
Do you want the testosterone benefits while staying natural? Check out 5 Ways Women Can Naturally Increase Testosterone Levels.
Yes, many female bodybuilders take steroids. Steroids are very common in the bodybuilding world, and women are no exception. Many women take oral steroids rather than injections because of the convenience and positive results. Women bodybuilders often use steroids like Anavar and Winstrol to help burn fat and be as ripped as possible before a competition.
Female bodybuilders get so big because they are very strict and consistent in their exercise routines and diets. Many have trainers or are certified to maximize their training efficiency to build muscle. Eating a clean, well-balanced protein-rich diet is crucial for building muscle mass. Several female bodybuilders also use supplements, including anabolic steroids, to gain as much muscle as possible.
Female bodybuilding has five different categories in competitions with varying weight classes. The different categories are created for the different body types. The five categories are bikini, figure, physique, bodybuilding, and fitness.
Most female bodybuilders will work out between one and three hours a day, or more in some cases. Usually, they will spend roughly an hour or so weight lifting, plus another hour or so for cardio. As it gets closer to competitions, they will increase their cardio to two hours a day or more to be as lean as possible on stage.
Determining an average income from female bodybuilding is difficult because it depends on several factors. Female bodybuilders who work full-time as bodybuilders can take home anywhere from $20k to $200k a year, depending on contest winnings, social media deals, and other income. The IFBB Olympia competition is the top contest in the sport, with winners of each division taking $50,000, followed by $20,000 for second and $12,000 for third.
Supplements are meant to complement a balanced diet and training program, not replace them. Unlike most professional bodybuilders, we'll only consider the safe and legal supplements. In this case, there are a few key supplements you should consider using to help you achieve your goals faster.
We generally recommend four tried and true supplements which include whey protein, casein protein, creatine, and pre-workout. This stack can help you build muscle, gain strength, recover faster and boost your energy levels. We'd recommend the following supplement stack to super charge those gains you're after.
The perfect supplement stack for women's bodybuilding (only the musts):
Images courtesy of the featured bodybuilders' Instagram accounts
Prior to the 1970s, it was considered taboo to be a muscular girl until a group of brave, powerful women burst onto the stage and created female bodybuilding.
Now, thanks to those who paved the way, all of these women have unbelievably strong and lean bodies that show their dedication to the love of bodybuilding. They are all an inspiration for their courage to challenge social norms and dedication to sculpting their bodies.
With the help of social media, women and men alike follow competitive bodybuilders as a source of inspiration and helpful information. As such, female bodybuilders are more common than ever and will continue to grow and spread worldwide thanks to these women.
Looking for more great female fitness inspiration? Check out our article on the Top 25 Female Fitness Models!
At SET FOR SET, we strive to equip you with the tools and knowledge needed for your fitness journey. Our team of experts, including certified trainers, dietitians, and athletes, brings over a decade of industry expertise. Our goal is to be your primary resource for all fitness inquiries, guiding you toward a stronger and healthier life. Sign up to stay up-to-date!