Women have had an interesting relationship with fitness throughout history. Often referred to as the ‘weaker sex’, women were discouraged from exerting themselves (unless with constant, physically demanding housework of course, that was considered acceptable *extreme eyeroll*).
Sweating was unladylike, exercise was blamed for infertility, and the ‘modest’ fashions of earlier times were restrictive to say the least.
Enter the fabulous, fearless, females of fitness! From go-getting pioneers who paved the way for anyone to follow their fitness goals to modern women smashing records and gaining legions of followers, these legendary ladies demonstrate how to achieve the best versions of ourselves through the power of health and fitness.
Go on, grab your leotards, legwarmers and weights, and join us in celebrating these trailblazing icons of fitness.
MUSCLE AND HUSTLE: WOMEN IN BODYBUILDING
The formidable pioneers of female bodybuilding first emerged in the 1930s, starting with Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, renowned as a trailblazer in women’s strength training. Stockton was affectionately referred to as the “queen of muscle beach” due to her remarkable displays of strength and her commitment to advancing women’s involvement in weightlifting. This is particularly impressive considering that bodybuilding, even exercise itself, was generally a man’s game back then.
After some small-scale competitions in the 1950s (that were mostly overshadowed by male comps), the evolution of women’s bodybuilding underwent significant changes. The first-ever International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness (IFBB) Women’s World Bodybuilding Championship, held in 1979 was won by the legendary Doris Barrilleaux, who played a multifaceted role in the realm of female bodybuilding, serving as an organizer, promoter, author, administrator, judge, photographer, and, significantly, a philosophical guiding figure within this emerging discipline.
In the 1980s, women’s bodybuilding gained popularity with the advent of competitions like the Ms. Olympia contest, which featured athletes with increased muscularity and definition such as Rachel McLish, Cory Everson, Lenda Murray, and Bev Francis.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the sport faced criticism for extreme size and definition, which led to efforts to redefine the criteria for judging. Organizations like the IFBB introduced divisions like Figure and Fitness, which emphasized a more balanced physique with less extreme muscularity.
American bodybuilder Andrea Shaw is just one of many modern athletes leading the way for women in this sport. Known for her discipline, work ethic, and commitment to promoting a healthy and empowered lifestyle through fitness, Shaw and many other female bodybuilders prove that strength, big muscles, and hardcore training are all possible for women.
Learn more about bodybuilding: IFBB | International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation
Follow Andrea Shaw on IG
LOTTE BERK AND THE BIRTH OF BARRE FITNESS
Lotte Berk, a German dancer and fitness pioneer, is credited with laying the foundation for the modern barre fitness movement. She developed a unique exercise method that combined elements of ballet, yoga, and rehabilitative therapy. Her innovative approach was designed to improve flexibility, strength, and posture while promoting a toned physique.
In the 1950s, Lotte Berk opened her fitness studio in London, where she began teaching her signature method to a select group of clients. This was unusual in a time when gyms and fitness were generally considered to be for men only. Her workouts were distinctive for their use of a ballet barre as a prop, which provided support and balance during exercises, and were also known for being racy, fun and ‘torture’ for women (though not unbearable, as evidenced by their popularity). Berk was one of the first to make fitness for woman enjoyable and normal.
Over time, Lotte Berk’s classes gained popularity, even among celebrities. Her method became known for its effectiveness in sculpting long, lean muscles and enhancing overall body awareness. Berk eventually documented her techniques in books and videos, making them accessible to a wider audience. She laid the groundwork for what we now know as “barre fitness”, a widely practiced exercise method that incorporates elements of Lotte Berk’s original approach, combining ballet-inspired movements with elements of strength training, yoga, and Pilates.
Find out more about the Lotte Berk Technique
JUDI SHEPPARD MISSETT: THE DANCE FITNESS VISIONARY
Judi Sheppard Missett is an American entrepreneur and fitness visionary who revolutionized the fitness industry with her innovative approach to dance-based fitness.
While teaching dance, Missett identified a need for a more enjoyable and accessible fitness program for all types of women and founded the Jazzercise dance fitness program in 1969. Jazzercise blended her passion for dance with a structured fitness routine, creating a fun and effective way for people to get fit. Missett encouraged her clients to find the joy in movement and fitness while her engaging teaching style and commitment to inclusivity made Jazzercise an instant hit.
In 1977, Missett opened her first Jazzercise studio in California, and from there, the fitness phenomenon expanded rapidly. Despite a constant uphill battle against a male-dominated industry as well as restrictions on women in business, Missett eventually created a certification program and a franchise system, thus being the first business to offer employment opportunities through fitness for thousands of women. Childcare is also offered at Jazzercise, removing yet another barrier to fitness for many women.
Over the years, Missett continued to evolve Jazzercise, incorporating contemporary dance styles and music to keep it fresh and exciting. Her commitment to promoting a healthy lifestyle through dance fitness has inspired millions to enjoy exercise while improving their overall well-being. According to their website, Jazzercise currently has 8500 franchises worldwide and ‘has been named one of Entrepreneur magazine’s fastest-growing franchises year over year’.
Learn more about Jazzercise
JANE FONDA: THE FITNESS VIDEO PIONEER
Jane Fonda was already a successful actress and activist before she became a fitness icon who made a lasting mark on the industry. In 1982, after recognizing the need for accessible and effective home workouts, Fonda released her first fitness video, “Jane Fonda’s Workout.” This video was a game-changer, becoming the first non-theatrical home video release to top sales charts. It remained the top-selling VHS tape for an impressive six years.
Fonda didn’t stop there. She continued to release a series of workout videos throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which collectively sold a staggering 17 million copies. Her fitness videos covered various exercise routines, from aerobics to strength training, and they resonated with people of all fitness levels.
Fonda’s approachable and encouraging style made her a relatable fitness instructor who motivated millions with her signature catchphrase, “Feel the burn!” Her commitment to helping people achieve their fitness goals was evident in every video.
Fonda’s fitness videos played a significant role in altering the fitness landscape. They opened doors for women in the fitness world, sparking a boom in women’s exercise classes and making the once male-dominated fitness industry more inclusive. Fonda’s influence extended beyond the workout mat, establishing the celebrity-as-fitness-instructor model that remains popular to this day.
Access more on Jane Fonda’s Original Workout Series
TIA-CLAIR TOOMEY: CROSSFIT’S FITTEST WOMAN ON EARTH
Tia-Clair Toomey is an accomplished Australian athlete best known for her remarkable achievements in the sport of CrossFit. She first gained widespread recognition in 2015 when she placed second in the CrossFit Games, a highly competitive global fitness competition. One look at her muscular body leaves no doubt as to her commitment to fitness.
Toomey’s dedication and relentless work ethic paid off when she was declared the world’s fittest woman after achieving victory in the world CrossFit Games for six consecutive years from 2017 to 2022. Toomey didn’t compete in 2023, instead welcoming her first child in May after a fitness-filled pregnancy. Since the birth Toomey has been back in training amidst speculation she’ll compete again in 2024.
In addition to her CrossFit success, Tia-Clair Toomey has an extensive athletic background, including weightlifting and track and field. Her versatility and determination have made her an inspiration to many aspiring athletes and fitness enthusiasts worldwide.
Toomey is also known for her commitment to health and fitness advocacy, promoting a healthy lifestyle and sharing her journey with fans and followers on social media. She and her husband Shane Orr run PRVN Fitness, sharing their passion for strength and fitness with others. Toomey certainly serves as a role model for those pursuing excellence in fitness and athletics.
Follow Tia-Clair’s journey: Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr
KAYLA ITSINES: A MODERN FITNESS INFLUENCER EXTRAORDINAIRE
Kayla Itsines, from Adelaide, Australia, is a fitness influencer and entrepreneur who has made a significant impact on the world of fitness and wellness through her innovative approach to health and her own inspiring journey.
Itsines’ fitness journey is a fascinating one: from working as a trainer in a women’s gym, to training a growing client list in her parents’ backyard, to developing her signature training method, which she later named the “Bikini Body Guide” (BBG). Her method focused on high-intensity interval training (HIIT), resistance workouts, and simple, effective exercises that could be done with minimal equipment. Unable to keep up with the increasing demand for training, Itsines sold the BBG as a PDF set of instructions and boy did people love it!
In 2012, Itsines and then-partner Tobi Pearce founded the Bikini Body Training Company, now known as Sweat, to bring her training program to a global audience. She gained widespread recognition and a massive following on social media, particularly Instagram, where she shared workout tips, progress photos, and motivational content. As of 2023 Itsines has over 16 million Instagram followers.
What sets Kayla Itsines apart as a fitness influencer is her relatability and her ability to connect with her audience on a personal level. Down-to-earth, not motivated by money (despite her phenomenal success in that area), and family-oriented, she has remained a typical Aussie who just happens to be extremely passionate about fitness. Yet, Itsines has still had to deal with detractors who criticize her decision to focus her training on women, and others who accuse her of promoting one body ideal (the bikini body).
Itsines shares her own fitness journey and the challenges she faces, making her followers feel like they are on the path to better health with her. With a deliberate and unwavering focus on women, she is realistic about many of the reasons why her clients and followers start a fitness regime: low self-esteem, bullying, infidelity, post-partum body changes, depression – as well as simply wanting to feel good or strong or capable.
Discover more about Kayla Itsines and Sweat
If these women can teach us anything (besides some groovy moves) it’s that tenacity, passion and innovation can go a long way to achieving your fitness goals. Boundaries are there to be pushed and transformed (and should be!) Fitness belongs to everyone and can bring tremendous joy and physical, social, emotional, and financial fulfilment.
In honor of these trailblazing women, get out there and achieve your own fitness and business goals, whatever they may be!
For more on the challenges and triumphs of women in fitness roles, download our latest FREE ebook: Women in Fitness: Stats, Stories, and Strategies for Breaking Down Barriers.
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Article by TrueCoach
First published: October 09 2023
Last updated: January 11 2024