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This one is for the women of fitness.
As with so many other articles about women in bodybuilding, the goal today is to get to the important stuff with no fluff. There is a ton of information to filter out when it comes to women in physique competitions and bodybuilding, and we rarely get to focus on the pioneers of women’s bodybuilding.
We’re throwing it all the way back to one of the most important women in the history of women’s physique, bodybuilding, and fitness modelling. Rachel Mclish – her physique, philosophy and methods – are the central theme of today’s article.
It’s time to give some love to the women who paved the way for modern women to get jacked and be proud of it!
How do you gain muscle as a woman?
First, let’s remind ourselves how to build muscle as a woman? Is there a difference between women and men training? The differences tend to be subtle, to say the least – there are usually no differences in the kind of training – we just have to adjust a lot of the fitness advice out there towards female physiology.First, let’s remind ourselves how to build muscle as a woman? Is there a difference between women and men training?
Men and women actually have to train similarly. It is about lifting proper weights and respecting the crucial principles of dieting and progressive overload to build muscle. The difference is a slightly higher tolerance for volume – women can usually perform more reps at a given % of their 1rm than men – and this might be due to differences in muscle fibre type.
In this article, we take the example of Rachel McLish, who was the first famous female natural bodybuilder back in the 80s. We did a similar piece using the model of Steve Reeves for the guys on how to achieve an incredible natural shape. The advent of women’s physique and bodybuilding was – clearly – a few decades later.
We can say Rachel Mclish was in absolutely phenomenal shape, which many women would dream of having today. She had excellent arm definition without being overly muscly, great legs, and outstanding overall shape and proportion.
We all have different body morphologies, and nothing is precisely the same for each individual, but we can follow general footsteps to get to a similar physique.
Who is Rachel Mclish?
Rachel Mclish is an American bodybuilder and fitness model. She went on stage for the first time in 1980 at the 1980 US Bodybuilding Championship as she was looking to gain some popularity to get visibility for her business and she ended up winning the show!
From there, Rachel continued to improve – competition to competition – until she finally went for the Olympia contest. The judges voted in favour of her phenomenal shape and McLish became the first woman to win the Olympia title.
Her bodybuilding career did not last long, though. She was more of a fitness model being featured in magazines looking to popularise fitness, not just a competitor.
In this video, she insists on the fact that it’s not because you lift weights as a woman that you will become a “monster”. Lifting takes time; it will certainly take a bit of time before you are satisfied, and it’s not like becoming massive happens ‘accidentally’.
The only way you would become as big as the insanely shredded bodybuilder women is if you take steroids. The only way to get too muscular is on purpose – and if that’s the plan, you probably don’t care what natural bodybuilders have to say.
What did Rachel lift, what were her performances?
Rachel would train three days in a row before taking one rest day and repeating, which is quite a lot – but necessary to build that Olympia shape. It’s been hard to find what Rachel Mclish’s best lifts were, but she clearly built up significant amounts of training volume – one of the key factors for women’s bodybuilding. It’s been hard to find what Rachel Mclish’s best lifts were, but from experience, I can estimate what it would take for anyone wanting to achieve her kind of shape.
If you are training for bodybuilding, which is about looks, you have to get stronger over time on your lifts. For women, specifically, you can’t forget to implement plenty of volume/hypertrophy training in the routine. That means implementing strength methods with lower rep schemes followed by higher rep methods for the extra volume tolerance.
I think Rachel could have been squatting 70-80kg for reps. In terms of deadlifts, this is hypothetical, but I would guess she’d be deadlifting between 90kg-110kg, as for bench-pressing, probably 55kg-60kg, maybe more.
At her prime and probably still to these days, Rachel weighed around 125-135lbs at the height of 167cm.
What was Rachel Mclish ‘weekly training routine?
So, what would a proper woman fitness model workout like Rachel Mclish’s one look like?
Rachel Mclish would train day one, day two, day three and a rest day before restarting this cycle. This meant there was never a specific day linked to specific training, but it would depend on which day of the 4-day cycle she was on.
Getting closer to Rachel Mclish physical shape
The human body has a lower and upper body – no surprise here!
To get closer to the iconic Rachel McLish aesthetic, we will focus our workouts on half-body workouts.
Two days a week for your lower-body, two days a week for your upper body.
Because if you are starting the gym, four times a week is definitely enough. Then, if we talk about a woman’s aesthetic shape, we could say a defined upper body is vital with a slightly bigger and more-defined lower body.
Now, if your standards are different, feel free to change the program accordingly. These are just the proportions that made McLish’s figure so iconic at the time, and continue to be a huge influence to fitness enthusiasts today.
The two lower body sessions will be more intense as the legs are what we want to focus on more. This also develops the hips and back extensively, covering around 60% of the musculature of the body, not to mention the core muscles. Also, legs have muscles which can take quite a lot of effort to develop!
As for the upper body, we won’t be able to concentrate as hard on each muscle group because we have to work on back, chest, shoulders, arms and core. But this will allow us to reach the goals mentioned above, splitting into ‘smaller’ exercises and improving the variety of workouts.
This routine aims to get closer to Rachel Mclish’ aesthetic shape, meaning an overall strong aesthetic upper body shape with a little extra focus on the lower-body. For both physiological and cultural reasons, a more bottom-heavy physique seems to win out in women’s physique – and the wider fitness culture.
How to get closer to Rachel Mclish’ lower body shape
Rachel Mclish said it herself: the lower body was where she excelled. She had an easier time building her lower body than her upper body, and found that the time put in was more closely related to getting results out.
You could say: let’s copy Rachel Mclish’ training plan to get a similar body, but that would be a mistake!
First, everyone has different genetics and body-morphologies; second, we want to get closer to this type of physique but while recognising personal goals and weaknesses.
At the time she was following the routine plan described above, McLish had already trained for years on end! We have to take it easy to start, and continue to add more work and weight as the body adapts to the training system.
We want to focus on the best exercises out there and follow the right principles to build muscle; this means focusing on the basics because there is no magic shortcut. We will be doing squats, Bulgarian split squats, Romanian deadlifts, calf raises, and other time-honoured classics.s
Then if we are in a position where we want to build muscle, we will eat at a small calorie surplus. If you are a total beginner, you will need to adapt your diet to something healthy and keep yourself at a maintenance level.
Ok, where do we start?
Yes, pretty basic and boring, right? But every routine is pretty simple if it works – what makes it exciting is improving on these routines.
Here we are practising squats in your full range of motion. Work as low as possible while keeping the full foot flat on the floor, knees aligned with toes, and the back in a neutral position.
Squat: 4 x 6-8
We will go relatively heavy and make them our first source of a leg workout. The 6-8 range allows for heavy lifting but maintaining high-rep training.
We will then focus on the glutes with Bulgarian split squats and hip thrusts.
Bulgarian split squats: 4 x 8-10
Hip thrusts: 4×12-15
Last but not least
Calf raises: 4×15-20
That’s for our first leg session. Because we work legs twice a week, we will focus the second workout on hamstrings and quads.
We start again with squats! But why? Because you get good at what you practice the most. Our goal is to get stronger and be able to do more volume over time to improve.
By practising the same movements, we become experts at them and our body becomes adapted to that specific kind of loading. It would be best if you did squats twice a week to start improving on this movement.
Needless to say, squatting is a great exercise..
Romanian deadlift: 4×10-15
Here we are working on your hamstrings with Romanian deadlifts. They are probably one of the best exercises for this, but you need to focus on proper technique and feeling the stretch in the hamstrings.
Goblet squats: 4×8-10
We will then go onto doing goblet squats; these really put emphasis on the quads. Goblet squats are very similar to front squats, but without the same postural demands.
Leg curls: 3×15-20
Here we go, we’ll finish with leg curls as a way of getting more volume with the hamstrings without using more heavy weights.
Calves raises: 4×15-20
How to get closer to Rachel Mclish’ upper body physique?
Rachel Mclish had an incredible upper body shape. I would say that her biceps were one of her best body parts – and perfectly proportional so that she could bring her defining shape to competition.
Her back definition was also fantastic showing a good-looking “Christmas tree” shape (lower back visual effect when you are lean enough). This showed the importance of regular strength training in the back, as well as great conditioning.
We are going to do two days a week workouts for your upper body. These workouts will involve all upper body parts, biceps, shoulders, back, core, chest, triceps.
We could do two workouts where we split it in two instead, but I believe doing a bit less while focusing on the right exercises more frequently like twice a week will be more beneficial to building muscle and keeping fit. You will improve faster on the exercises, and therefore, allow for faster and more consistent overload of the muscle.
Here is what it could look like:
Day 1: Back, chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, core
Let’s also try to do your first pull-up if you have never done one!
4×5 pull-ups with elastic bands
3×12-15 chest flies
4×12-15 lateral raises
Biceps and triceps:
3×12-15 inclined curls in superset with 3×12-15 skull crushes
Day 2 will be the same. We will focus on getting good at these exercises and specialising in them. Because this is a half body workout and our time is limited, we chose the very best exercises (specialising).
When can you expect to see results and how to keep track?
Tracking your results is essential.
You will have to write down what you are capable of at the start of this program and write down how many sets of how many reps and at what weight you can perform. This program will have you progressing quickly and often, which can be really useful but requires a little bit of nerd-ing around.
Once that is written, you now know how to progress and what you need to beat from last time. Don’t be too impatient and give yourself time to improve on those lifts. Avoid training to failure, especially if you are a beginner. The goal is to train close to failure but leave 1-2 reps in the tank.
When progress starts to feel like it’s slowing down despite doing things well, slowly increase your calorie intake, which will help you go through the plateaus.
Rachel Mclish philosophy
Rachel Mclish was an advocate for popularising fitness and bodybuilding for women. She felt a lot of women were scared of lifting weights – and her personal journey was that of a woman breaking traditional attitudes. This is why this article contributes well to the one entitled “women in bodybuilding” – Rachel McLish was dealing with many familiar issues decades ago.
At first, Rachel was scared of the atmosphere in the gym, but as soon as she jumped in, she loved it. This is something that many experienced women’s physique and bodybuilding competitors also tend to say: the gym feels intimidating until you’re part of the culture, and realise everyone just wants to look and feel better!
Rachel was against steroid use, she says you should get an incredible physique naturally, and although it will take more time, you will be delighted with the result in the end.
You can listen to this interview with Rachel and hear her philosophy. She has influenced thousands of women back in the 80s, so why not you and why not now?