Hundreds of women turn to bodybuilding to get fit or help with their mental health

Hundreds of women have turned to bodybuilding to get fit or help with their mental health - with dozens across the North West turning the gym into a way of life.

It comes as movement #strongNOTskinny gains more ground on social media, with women lifting weights to help with health, fitness and the menopause.

Lydia Halliwell and Grace Cowan say working out has changed their lives so much, they now coach other women so they can feel the same.

Lydia Halliwell's before and after Credit: @lydiaspt

Lydia says the gym gave her an outlet while she was coming out - helping her deal with her emotions, and as her body changed, giving her more confidence.

She says: "When you start to go to the gym and you start to see your body progress it is really addictive.

"It's that desire to just go, 'Ok I want to be better, I want to be more, I want to see what I can actually push myself to'."

Grace says, although she was always the one who did not want to be in the spotlight, after struggling with food and dieting, weightlifting gave her the confidence she needed.

Grace has lost a lot of weight but more importantly, she is happier in her own skin and says she has a better relationship with food.

"I can just remember always wanting to blend into the background," Grace says.

"When I started lifting weights it's just the most incredible feeling being able to push something and feel that strength and that power is coming from me."

Grace said that lifting weights gave here confidence to achieve more. Credit: @grace_cowan_

Grace has even just competed in a strongman competition which consisted of a nine-hour triathlon where she ran, swam, and cycled - something that she thought she would never have been capable of doing before.

The bodybuilding industry:

  • The UK fitness industry is one of the biggest in Europe - bringing in £2 billion annually.

  • In the North West, the number of gyms opening has been steadily climbing.

  • Over the past 10 years, the bodybuilding and fitness industry has seen a sharp rise in women competing.

  • Experts say the sport has become more accessible because of the introduction of different categories and the boom of social media.

As more women get into fitness, the attraction of female bodybuilding and entering competitions becomes the next step.

This year across the UK there will be more than 200 female bodybuilding shows, from more than 20 different federations.

Competitors spend months 'bulking up' and growing muscle by eating healthily and making sure they ingest a lot of protein.

Then they spend time 'shredding', to lose fat and to improve muscle definition before taking to the stage.

But competitors will only stay at their 'show weight' for a short period of time, before going back to their normal weight when training resumes.

Amy is a biology teacher and a bikini competitor.

Amy Scholes-Higham, from Bolton, has had a meteoric rise from a secondary school classroom to the bodybuilding stage in just two years.

Most recently she has been crowned the new Miss Universe - competing with her partner Ryan Mackins who also won, making them the first-ever couple to win Mr and Miss Universe.

Credit: @amyhope_pcapro

The biology teacher started her bodybuilding journey in 2020, and now competes in the bikini category at shows.

Amy undertook the shredding process in 20 weeks to represent team GB in her first international competition.

But she stresses the process bodybuilders go through is not 'yoyo dieting' which is not healthy, and she is not starving herself.

She says: "You absolutely do not need to starve yourself to do this, in fact, that would be really counterproductive because you would actually lose quite a bit of muscle.

"To build muscle you need to eat."

Dan Welburn is Amy's coach and helps her, and other women during competitions, especially looking after nutrition.

He says the industry has grown immensely since he started coaching women, with more categories making the sport more accessible, and women are able to get the desired look without extra help from drugs.

Dan Welburn with one of the women he coaches. Credit: @team_dw

Professor James McVeigh who is a Professor of Substance Use at Manchester Metropolitan University agrees with him.

He explains there are fewer women taking substances and when they do, they are more likely to be fat-burners.

He stresses there is a risk attached to taking any substance, especially ones that are not tested, but he says people are still going to take substances so there needs to be a new approach.

"I would say avoid all risks," he says. "But people are getting a lot of satisfaction and gratification and this striving to success is something we are not going to be able to ignore.

"The key thing is to get those messages over that anything that they get from the illicit market, they don't know what the contents are.

"They don't know the actual strength, and they don't know if it's been adulterated with another active ingredient.

"So people need to be cautious but we do have to recognise that people will do this and they will take substances."

As the world of female bodybuilding expands, it has also allowed different businesses to flourish, from gym wear to nutrition and even bikinis.

These bikins are all hand made then hundreds of real cristals are added. Credit: @blackicebikinis

Mandi Nugent is the owner of Black Ice Bikini in Irlam, her Bikinis are worn by some of the world's best female bodybuilders and can sell for more than £400 each.

Women buy Mandi's bikinis from all over the world and come from all over the UK to be fitted by her.

She first started making bikinis after buying a second-hand costume to wear in a show, but quickly realised the quality was terrible.

Instead she remade the bikini and, after dozens of compliments, told other competitors it was her profession.

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