The Evolving History of Bodybuilding Poses

Bodybuilding is both an art and a sport. The training, dieting, and competition make it a sport, but posing is what brings it to an art form. In an inherently subjective sport, posing helps separate the champions from the runners-up. It is posing that helps hide weaknesses, accentuate strengths, and create iconic moments within the sport. 

Few individuals will have escaped bodybuilding culture without a cursory knowledge of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ¾ turn pose, Frank Zane’s vacuum, Sergio Oliva’s victory pose, or Jay Cutler’s quad stomp

Unless you have competed in bodybuilding, it is easy to think that bodybuilding poses are an afterthought — that the training and dieting are all that matter. But the history of bodybuilding is incomplete without a history of bodybuilding poses. Here’s what poses are in bodybuilding and, more importantly, how they have evolved in competition over the past century. 

[Read More: How Bodybuilding Is Judged, Different Divisions, and Scoring]

What Are Bodybuilding Poses? 

Put simply, posing in bodybuilding is the positioning of an athlete’s body to show off certain muscle groups. 

Bodybuilders of all divisions and classes have to strike several mandatory poses in competition. Judges award points based on which body is the right combination of size, symmetry, and muscularity within each pose. 

Because there are so many divisions in bodybuilding — with different expectations and mandatory poses — we’ll break them down for you here. Since the IFBB is generally regarded as the sport’s most important bodybuilding federation, those are the divisions outlined below.

[Read More: 10 Bodybuilding Poses — What They Are and How to Do Them]

At the IFBB, Figure, Fitness, Wellness, Bikini, and Wheelchair Bodybuilding were only created in the past two decades. The 212 Division for men was created in 2011, while the Women’s Open Bodybuilding came to the IFBB in 1980. The original Men’s Open was created in 1965 with the inaugural Mr. Olympia competition. 

But the sport of bodybuilding, and the art of bodybuilding posing, has a much longer history.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by MichaelD.Bryson (@this_is_bodybuilding)

[Read More: International Association of Trans Bodybuilders & Powerlifters 2023 Competition Full Results]

The First Bodybuilding Poses

The first ‘live’ bodybuilding show took place in 1901 when Eugen Sandow, the man known as the father of modern bodybuilding, hosted a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. While previous regional and private competitions were held, Sandow’s show was the first large-scale effort to host a competition. 

[Read More: The Fascinating Story of the First Bodybuilding Show]

Wearing leotards and black tights, Sandow had competitors strike a series of poses, including relaxed poses, a front double biceps (which may legitimately be the oldest pose in bodybuilding), and a series of movements inspired by ancient Greek statues. Critically, Sandow and the judges did not focus on size, symmetry, and muscularity but rather on:

General development

Equality or balance of development

The condition and tone of the tissues

General health

Condition of the skin

This was the birth of bodybuilding and the birth of competitive bodybuilding poses.

Ancient Greek Inspiration

The next show of note, a physical culture exhibition by American entrepreneur Bernarr Macfadden, in 1904 and 1905, followed a largely similar pattern. Competitors, which in Macfadden’s competition included men and women, attempted to model themselves on Ancient Greek statues and imagery. (1

The first competition poses were a combination of recognizable movements like the front double biceps pose and admittedly awkward-looking poses from the art world. Remarkably, video footage exists of the male and female winners of McFadden’s first competition in 1904 and the poses they used in competition.

[Read More: The Stomach Vacuum: What it Is, Benefits, & More From Bodybuilding Experts]

Olympic Weightlifting Inspiration 

It was not until the late 1930s, with the birth of the Mr. America competition in the United States and the Mr. Universe competition in 1948 Europe, that bodybuilding as a sport began to enjoy significant annual competitions. (2

During this time, bodybuilding was largely attached to the sport of Olympic weightlifting. In this stage, bodybuilding competitions were often an afterthought and held at the end of Olympic weightlifting competitions. In the context of Mr. America, which was largely the sport’s most prestigious show for several decades, it also meant that weightlifting — more so than posing concerns — impacted what poses were used.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Barbell Films (@barbellfilms)

[Read More: 9 of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Timeless Bodybuilding Tips]

For several years, the Mr. America judging process was centered on athleticism, physique, and personality. (3

Competitions took the form of asking bodybuilders to perform an Olympic lift to showcase their athleticism, undergoing an interview to showcase their personality, and posing. 

Early poses at the Mr. America competition were thus relatively lackluster, consisting of a front, back, and side pose. Early reports on the competition reported that many athletes simply made up poses on the spot for each pose and clearly didn’t practice them. (4)

In time, the competition became a little more sophisticated and focused on bodybuilding itself. It began awarding individual merits for best back, best thighs, and best abdominals, etc. This, in turn, forced competitors to practice and perfect their poses. 

What Happened to Bodybuilding Posing? 

While the Mr. America competition was one of the most important in the sport’s history, it was eventually overtaken by the Mr. Olympia. First hosted in 1965 by Joe and Ben Weider of the IFBB, the Olympia represented a seismic shift in bodybuilding. It allowed previous winners to compete and it was entirely focused on bodybuilding. 

There were no points awarded to athleticism or personality. It was solely about the body. 

For this reason, the Mr. Olympia became bodybuilding’s most important contest, being the title that the likes of Arnold, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Ronnie Coleman all fought for. It was also the Mr. Olympia which featured in the 1977 iconic bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, which pushed bodybuilding into the mainstream of American culture. (5)

Writer Jon Hotten has noted that the Weiders, and fellow bodybuilding promoter Wayne DeMilia, are largely responsible for shaping modern posing routines and rules within bodybuilding. Through the Mr. Olympia, and several of DeMillia’s rival contests during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sport of bodybuilding introduced strict rules and guidelines for competitors. (6

Posing for men became centered around prejudging and judging rounds consisting of mandatory poses (relaxed quarter turns and the poses set out on the table) and a free posing round during this period. This largely set the sport’s framework for years to come.

One of the most interesting innovations by DeMillia was the introduction of posing music at his 1978 Night of Champions. (7) Prior to this point, bodybuilding promoters played music during free posing rounds — but DeMillia allowed athletes to choose their own music. This helped give athletes far more independence and the opportunity to express their creativity. 

Some of the most iconic bodybuilding routines — ranging from Dorian Yates’ phone number routine to Ronnie Coleman’s king routine — were a direct offshoot of this.

[Read More: The Man, the Myth, the Legend — Sergio Oliva’s Rise and Fall in Bodybuilding]

Flexing and Leaning Out in Bodybuilding 

The innovations in posing standards did not stop there. 

As bodybuilding photographer and journalist Bill Dobbins noted, the 1980s witnessed a further change to bodybuilding poses. Whereas previously, the quarter-turn poses for bodybuilders were typically in a relaxed state, during the 1980s, competitors began to flex their muscles. (8) Thus, despite being called the ‘front relaxed’ pose, the reality was anything but as athletes turned the relaxed poses into fully tensed and poised movements.

Furthering changes to bodybuilding poses was Rich Gaspari’s legendary conditioning at the 1986 Pro World Championship. (9) Gaspari came to the contest with such low body fat levels that he had striations in his glutes. This revolutionary level of leanness changed bodybuilding in two ways

First, it forced bodybuilders to get even leaner. Second, from a posing perspective, it forced bodybuilders to accentuate their glutes more in posing. And while the ‘moon pose’ is banned from men’s bodybuilding, you’ll often find athletes pointing to their glutes during free posing rounds.

[Read More: The Infamous Moon Pose Is Forbidden on Bodybuilding Stages]

Expectations of “Femininity” in Women’s Bodybuilding

While men’s bodybuilding has undergone the greatest change, women’s bodybuilding has likewise evolved since the 1980s. Due to an additional requirement that female bodybuilders be assessed on judges’ perceptions of athletes’ femininity, athletes since the inaugural 1980 Ms. Olympia have been required to accentuate traditional femininity. 

This has placed increased pressure on athletes to wear makeup, high heels, and jewelry. (10) As newer women’s divisions were added during the 2000s and 2010s, further changes to poses were done with this in mind. In a wonderful round table talk in 2023, four former bodybuilding champions ran through the evolution of women’s posing from the early 2000s to the present day across several major changes in how women presented on stage. 

Muscularity and Posing in Women’s Bodybuilding

In the Fitness and Figure divisions, both shows initially had a two-piece bikini and a one-piece bikini round. The one-piece was very much an ‘old-school’ bikini but was removed from the Olympia over time as it became obvious that any item of clothing that hid the abdominal muscles was counterproductive in bodybuilding. (11)

Likewise, early ‘relaxed’ rounds in Fitness, Figure, and Bikini often saw competitors relaxed on stage as opposed to nowadays, where athletes tense their muscles even during the “relaxed” quarter turns. This was something that largely left men’s bodybuilding in the late 1980s. 

Competitors in Bikini rounds started out mimicking poses from mainstream modeling but, by the mid-2010s were using bodybuilding poses designed to showcase their leanness and muscularity. (11) This was largely the result of judging changes by the IFBB, which demanded more leanness and muscle separation. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Ariel Khadr – 3x Ms Fitness International (@itsarielkhadr)

There have also been some very large changes in the muscularity expected of women in each of these divisions. In her 2018 overview article on the evolution of the women’s side of the sport, bodybuilder Ashleigh Atkinson noted that across the board, muscularity has increased in Fitness, Physique, and Bikini since their inception. Granted, different divisions emphasize different things, but overall muscularity has been an increasing trend. 

While the IFBB did change judging rules in 2016 to penalize what judges may deem to be excessive muscularity, the drive for more defined physiques in bodybuilding meant that competitors continued to push extremes. (12)

[Read More: Andrea Shaw Biography — Early Life, Career, Training, and More]

The Future of Bodybuilding Poses 

IFBB co-founder Joe Weider once claimed there was nothing more powerful or impressive than a posing routine done correctly. (13) Posing is the lifeblood of bodybuilding and changes in routines and mandatory poses over the past century have reflected two things: The sport has continued to grow in popularity and competitors have continued to push the boundaries of what fans believe is possible for physiques. 

Where will bodybuilding poses go from here? Time will tell.


Todd, Jan. “Bernarr Macfadden: Reformer of Feminine Form.” Journal of Sport History 14.1 (1987): 61-75.

Fair, John D. “Oscar Heidenstam, The Mr Universe Contest, and the Amateur Ideal in British Bodybuilding.” (2006): 396-423.

Fair, John D. Mr. America: The tragic history of a bodybuilding icon. University of Texas Press, 2015.

Chapman, David. ‘The Mr. America Contest: A Brief Background.’ Muscle Memory. 

Klein, Alan M. “Pumping irony: Crisis and contradiction in bodybuilding.” Sociology of Sport journal 3.2 (1986): 112-133.

Hotten, Jon. Muscle: a writer’s trip through a sport with no boundaries. Random House, 2011.

Roach, Randy. Muscle, smoke & mirrors vol II. AuthorHouse, 2011.

Dobbins, Bill, ‘Bodybuilding Competition: The Posing Rounds.’ Muscle and Fitness. 

‘Rich Gaspari Reflects On All 7 of His Olympia Appearances,’ Muscular Development.

Lowe, Maria R. Women of steel: Female bodybuilders and the struggle for self-definition. NYU Press, 1998.

‘Evolution of Women’s Posing,’ Olympia TV. Jul 21, 2023. 

Atkinson, Ashleigh. ‘The Evolution of the Female Physique,’ Muscle Insider, Jan 25, 2018.

Weider, Joe, Ben Weider, and Mike Steere. Brothers of iron: How the weider brothers created the fitness movement and built a business empire. Sports Publishing LLC, 2006.

Featured Image: @barbellfilms + + @this_is_bodybuilding + @itsarielkhadr / Instagram

The post The Evolving History of Bodybuilding Poses appeared first on BarBend.


您的电子邮箱地址不会被公开。 必填项已用 * 标注