Women’s bodybuilding is undeniably going through a resurgence. Leading the comeback are a group of extraordinarily gifted women such as MayLa Ash, who have taken on the role of personifying, dignifying, and being the ambassadors for the new look of the sport.
Their mission is clear – to advance the brand by making women’s bodybuilding beautiful again. And for the first time in women’s bodybuilding history, there exists a sisterhood, who have formed a movement intent on projecting, promoting and protecting its beauty.
IFBB pro bodybuilder MayLa Ash is one of the sport’s emerging superstars. She comes from a diverse and successful athletic background, which include setting collegiate records in track & field at Western Illinois University, where she was inducted into its Athletic Hall of Fame.
After attending her first bodybuilding show, the 2012 Europa in Dallas, she decided she wanted to be a part of the bodybuilding world. She made her presence now quite quickly too. In 2013 she turned pro in figure, then moved up to women’s physique in 2017. She then hit her stride, bagging three pro wins and three Olympia qualifications in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19. In 2020 she said good-bye to women’s physique and entered the bodybuilding division. Her debut was as impressive as it gets, a win in one of the most prestigious shows over the last two decades, the New York Pro. Fifteen weeks later, at the inaugural return of women’s bodybuilding to the Olympia stage, Ash took fourth place. She also earned plenty of cred in immediately becoming one of the top female bodybuilders in the world.
Being a true fan of the sport of Bodybuilding, I always found the long and protracted loss of interest that women’s bodybuilding suffered as puzzling as it was disheartening. I lived it and watched it happen right before my eyes. As I’ve stated before, I come from the era in which the Ms. Olympia was held as a standalone event that sold0-out Madison Square Garden in New York City. To witness such a long and agonizing downtrend never stops begging the question, “What went wrong?”, and more importantly, “What have we learned?” With the rebirth of the division, now I ask everyone an even more important question, “Are the best practices from what was learned from the past being applied?” As of late, I’d say, since Jake Wood and Wings of Strength swooped in and resurrected women’s bodybuilding and the Ms. Olympia, there has been quite a bit of introspection on the matter, and I seem to be getting a ubiquitous answer.
From off season bulking regiments, to supplements and PED protocols, diet, training, dialing in, and presentation and posing, many coaches have been guilty of issuing programs to females routinely used on males. Pushing the mindset that women have to disregard all feminine attributes to achieve a stellar package and win. The result being the perennially dwindling audience willing to pay to see it.
MayLa Ash is among the division’s strongest proponents and a fierce advocate for the sport and the general “beauty” it should espouse. And, based on her conversations between women who recently crossed over to the division, long-standing female bodybuilders and fans of the sport, she has developed her own theories as to why fans loss interest in the division and why it’s slowly been able to make a comeback.
What’s your take on why women’s bodybuilding’s comeback is slower than expected?
You can’t permanently fix something until you identify why it broke. A huge chunk of the challenge lies with those who coach and train competitors in the Women’s Bodybuilding and Women’s Physique division. Instead of obtaining and “understanding” the feedback from the judges, their strategy is usually, “I don’t need to know what they think. We just need to get you bigger.” When I hear competitors parrot this, I want to grab them by the shoulders and say, “If that wasn’t your personal critique from the judges then that shouldn’t be your improvement strategy focus.”
The division is judged on the look of the “total package,” which is a balance of size, symmetry, and muscularity (density) in relation to a competitor’s body composition. Competing in this sport as a woman is about stepping onstage with the most “complete look,” along with a feminine flow that can captivate the judges and the fans. Many of my sisters of steel in the bodybuilding division are making a conscience effort to stay true to those ideals, whatever it takes. That doesn’t mean we won’t work on “bringing up” lagging areas to improve balance, symmetry, and the overall flow of our physique. But creating balance and gaining muscle density (maturity) is not the same as getting bigger just to get bigger. Producing female mass monsters and disregarding everything else is not the answer if we want the division to survive, flourish and ultimately be embraced by the masses.
Well, they tried that “downsizing” approach once before. The IFBB told the women to streamline and come in 20% “smaller.”
First, saying come in 20% smaller but not offering a reference a competitor could use as a general guide was too ambiguous to be an effective message. Second, I believe international competitors were getting mixed messages because some also competed in the other league with a similar name. These two factors are the reason I think Iris Kyle lost her title in 2005. I believe she was the only Olympian who complied and came in with a complete look but slightly smaller! But now that the division is making a comeback, we need to stay true to that balanced look and beautiful lines that made the division appealing and attractive to the fans in the first place.
But at the end of the day, competitions all come down to judging what shows up. Do you see the judging now more in line with the ideal?
I believe that judging has gotten better. Now, instead of personal preferences, judging panels are all being more consistent with their collective decision and adhering to the established parameters for a winning look in a division. In the past, it seemed judges focused on competitors that possessed extreme size and/or looked very “peeled.” Now consideration is also being given to competitor’s muscle density, structural balanced and beautiful lines – resulting in the most complete look on stage.
But do you think pursuing extreme size will always be a focal point in women’s bodybuilding?
Not in the sport itself. Yes, as the top competitors’ continue to train consistently all year, increasing their muscle density, more competitors, and coaches, will view these physiques and set them as a type of “standard.” But what’s different now is many top competitors, through social media, are taking the time to provide perspective about their gains and size. Since pictures seen online can be extremely deceiving, offering some level of transparency helps other competitors, coaches and commentators stay grounded in reality concerning our muscle gains and growth. The result is more women are starting to question prep coaches who seem hyper focused on pursuing rapid growth and winning by any means necessary. They are seeking insight from other competitors and like many of us, are choosing to make informed decisions for themselves concerning their body.
I respect my prep coach, but before we started working together I made it clear I would not sacrifice my feminine qualities or my general health. Many of us are trying to provide guidance and educate females coming into the sport, and the division, that this journey is your own journey no matter who is along for the ride. It should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint and they should have a voice in all decisions concerning pursuing your goals. Trust the process but make conscience decisions from a solid understanding of the critical aspects of the process. Never sacrifice your femininity or well-being. It’s your body, it’s your life, so don’t take this journey lightly.
I love when athletic preteens and young ladies see pictures of my muscular build and DM me that they think it’s awesome to see athletic women proving that its possible to be athletic, muscular and feminine and make it look “natural.” I always make the point to let them know I understand what they might be experiencing right now but just like curvy females and extremely thin females, there are those that will see your look as beautiful too. The current look of female bodybuilding will be embraced by the mainstream demographics if we nurture the look in the sport and educate them.
Do you think the ladies are all in on that?
There will always be a percentage of women who compete but choose develop muscle as big as possible either as their own personal preference or to cater to fans that “worship” extremely large muscular bodies. I don’t believe that will ever change and that’s fine. But what must change is this trend of competitors and coaches going onto social media sites, posting comparison pictures, and seeking feedback from personal fans about your show package and if they believe the judges got it wrong. Such behavior not only shows a lack of sportsmanship but increases confusion about sport.
Competing in the sport of bodybuilding is not just about being big or having almost no body fat. We in the sports have a responsibility to be transparent and honest with fans. If I don’t win a competition, I will be disappointed, but I make it a point to let followers know I didn’t get cheated and there were no “politics.” If I come in 100% on point and don’t win it just wasn’t my show. Perhaps my posing was off or the winner’s package was just more complete. But if I come in slightly off then I review the comparisons and tell followers the truth. “I appreciate your support but the reality is I didn’t win because I was holding water in my hamstrings and glutes,” or whatever was lagging during my performance. I try my best to help them “see” the competition from the judges’ perspective so they can understand hopefully appreciate the sport more.
Was it always the plan to do multiple divisions — you’ve done figure, physique, bodybuilding?
If you are into bodybuilding because you love training and continuously pushing your limits and are not just in it only to win trophies and titles then outgrowing a division and crossing over into the next is just a part of the journey. Some prefer to stay in a particular division and that’s totally fine. But I always knew my journey this path was for me.
Didn’t you cross over from physique to bodybuilding a week before the New York Pro?
Yes, I did. Just like in figure, by my third year of competing in physique, I was once again on the edge of being too muscular and dense from the division. When the pandemic hit, most of the shows were being canceled. So I had no post show pictures of fellow competitors to use as a gauge which was critical for me since I have terrible body perception. So I had no indicator of when to shift to a more maintenance style of lifting. I just continue training to keep busy and get out the house. Then shows later in the year were confirmed and I started my cutting phase but I still didn’t think I had added that much muscle in eight months. My showing at the Optimum Classic was less than stellar. But my critique was that there were no changes I could make to improve my placing the next week.
There was nothing wrong with my physique, my look, or my stage performance. I was just too big for the division. So, since I had already on the list to compete at the New York Pro in women’s physique I decided to submit a last-minute request to the league office to allow me to crossover and compete in the Bodybuilding division. I got the approval the Wednesday before the show, which created a bit of confusion at competitors check-ins since I was still on the list for WPD!! So, handing out the numbers was slightly delayed so they reconfigure the numbering so the numerical order was in sync with the last names of the competitors in each division. As soon as the numbers were reordered and issued it confirmed my name on the Women’s Bodybuilding sheet wasn’t an error. That’s when everyone knew officially knew I was crossing over.
Some people cross over who are trying to do better. And that doesn’t usually work out well. What do you think?
If a competitor moves up, competes against a stack line-up and does well; or gets positive feedback to make minor improvements to be competitive, then that’s the best indicator that it was time to transition to the next division. Unfortunately, some competitors who are not finishing well at competitions are looking at women’s bodybuilding division as an easier route to improve their standing or win because the division is still rebuilding so there are not as many active competitors. For them crossing over rarely produces the desired long-term goal they seek. In most cases, what they needed to do is take an adequate amount of time to make required improvements (shape, size, or get leaner), and leveling up in their training.
How tall are you and how much do you weigh?
I’m 5’5½” and I think I weighed around 154 pounds the last time I was about to step on stage. Although some competitors keep track of their weight until the morning they step on stage, I don’t because it’s irrelevant to me. As soon as I start to carb up for a competition my focus swifts over to how I look because that’s what the judges are assessing. Besides, depending on a competitors bone structure, muscle density and fullness they can look more muscular and “heavier” than what they actually weight. So, my thinking is if the judges are not assessing my actual weight when I step on stage why worry about it. One less item on my peak week “to do” list!
Are you superstitious when you compete? Do you have to wear something all the time for luck or anything like that?
I’m not superstitious but I do have idiosyncrasies and tend to be routine focused because I have OCD. For example, when I competed in Track & Field, I had a pair of thick gold socks that my mother gave me. I had to wear them at every track meet because they went with my competition outfit and uniform so well. But they were so heavy (and my coach hated them! They probably did make my sprint times 2/10ths of a second slower but I didn’t care!
Now, in bodybuilding, I initially couldn’t cross over from figure to women’s physique because I don’t like to be barefoot when it’s not situationally appropriate. It took me about five months to get comfortable enough to step on a stage with no shoes or socks on my feet. Even know, years later, you will always see me in my little fuzzy slipper backstage and I keep them on until they call my name to step on stage. Sometimes the backstage expeditor needs to do a foot check on me because sometimes I will forget I’m still wearing them!
You really have OCD?
Clinically my OCD is mild and manageable. Most just think I’m a little quirky. But it does get worse when I’m in a highly stressful situation for an extended period of time or experiencing something that logically makes no sense to me.
That must be a challenge getting ready for a show.
To excel in life, I had to learn to find ways to turn my “weakness” into an asset. So, when it came to competing my need to schedule and organize everything for a show became a huge asset. Especially since I don’t have a support system and I have to do everything myself. So it helps me get things done and show up where I need to be when I need to be there. From the moment peak week begins everything is put onto my schedule and it ticked off in order. It sounds over the top, but it ensures I don’t stress so I can bring the best look possible to the stage.
What did you do before you became a full-time bodybuilder?
I worked in corporate America and the public sector in the engineering, community development and transportation sectors as a public relations liaison. My main role was clarifying my organization’s point of view and services to the target audience and recommending solutions to eliminate high level problems, close deals and enhance an organization’s image.
How does being a bodybuilder go over in corporate America?
Since I was always in a suit, most only thought I was a health and fitness “nut’ because I always had a large container of water and eating at what they viewed as odd times! But I remember the first time it became obvious I was into bodybuilding, and I had to find a way to strategically address it. I was speaking at a large public meeting. It was a full house and a typical Texas summer so I took off my suit jacket before I started presenting. I went over the meeting agenda and what people could expect and before beginning the presentation I asked if there were any questions before I began. As usual, someone raised their hand but when I called on them, they stood up and said, “We were wondering, how often do you work your shoulders?”. After telling them twice a week another chimed in and quickly asked about my nutrition! At this point I decided to embrace the curiosity and allowed three more questions with the promise I’d answer any other fitness related questions if we get through the meeting and reach an applicable middle ground of key points.
I eventually started a lot of my community and corporate meeting allowing people to ask questions about health, wellness, training, and bodybuilding. It became a useful tool when I served as a mediator on projects to get both sides to reach common ground.
Why did you leave?
Although I was good at what I did it was a stressful career. Training and competing in bodybuilding helped. But when the demands of the work increased, and my dad’s health took a turn for the worse, the stress starting making me physically sick. So, in 2019 after chatting with my parents, I decided to resign. But instead of accepting an offer at another company, I took a chance to pursue a career in fitness and competing in bodybuilding full time.
Your bio says you’re originally from Chicago. How did you land in Texas?
A company that recruited me moved me here. I ended up staying when my younger sister and my dad both accepted jobs that also moved them here. But although I have been here for a while, I’m not the biggest fan of the Texas because for half the year it feels like I live down the street from hell! I mean, when I go out for a run at 9 p.m. and it’s still 100 degrees outside I just want to die! The struggle is real until about late October. It’s why I’m over the moon that the Olympia is in December now.
How did the pandemic affect you?
It was just a few months before the shutdown that left my corporate job and started growing my coaching business. I’m a posing and body development coach with a majority of my clientele being competitors. My biggest fear during COVID was testing positive at a show and not being able to compete. The thought of going through weeks and weeks of prepping for a show only to show up and not be able to compete and confined to my hotel room was not something I was willing to risk. Especially after hearing some of horror stories from other competitors. Then someone suggested I pursued virtual coaching and add Lifestyle Coaching as one of my services. I moved everything on an APP and it was the perfect solution. I was able to engage and virtually meet with my prep and posing clients and increase my revenue with the Lifestyle services. So the pandemic helped me not only find my way to Women’s Bodybuilding but it also launch “MoBetta Fitness.”
Is it hard to strike a balance between competing yourself and helping other prepare to compete?
It requires a balance if your goal is to be really good in this sport. When I first begin coaching, I poured so much into my clients admittedly I was like, “helicopter” coach! I would allow them to contact me any time and stay up late into the night assessing client progress reports and researching the custom solutions that catered to each client my so they had a healthy prep. Then I would walk them through proper training form to ensure they achieve their development goals. But never-ending contact and constant adjustment of meal plans because a client would get “bored” with their meals impacted my own prep.
So, I had to start being more selective with the clients I took on, started using an app and set rules and guidelines to create the balance I needed to reach my own goals. I had to learn to let go a little, but I have a nurturing spirit and want my clients to do well so I get pulled both ways. But when I’m in my cutting phase of prep my clients know at times I need to be in my zone.
Will you go back to corporate America after you hang up your posing suit?
When I stop competing, which won’t be for quite a while, I plan to remain in the sport in various capacities, I would love to have my own show and host an annual fitness event and remain an ambassador on some level. So many people don’t realize just how beautiful the sport can be. It’s inspiring talking to new competitors, helping them understand the competitor’s life. I believe this sport has taught many, myself included, how to love yourself. Embrace your imperfections and enjoy the journey. I want to continue to champion the sport like Lenda Murray.
What do you think of social media?
Social media is a necessary evil in the day and age, and I have to get better with it. Usually, I try to tell my female followers to love themselves in all their perfect imperfections. If I can reach just one who’s having a hard time, then I’m happy. But I’m not a social media maven like many other competitors. I always feel silly and awkward when I want to record myself speaking. So, creating and posting videos of myself is like a slow death happening over my 50,000 retakes! As for creating workout videos, I’m always more focused on doing the workout and getting done then recording it. Normally when I am doing a post outside my comfort zone it usually the result of pressure from one of my sisters of steel or to satisfy some mandatory obligation. That’s probably why some people hire a videographer to shadow them and capture great content. I may need to look into hiring someone to shadow me …lol.
Are you single?
Yes, I am currently single. But I love the person my life experiences have helped me to become and I finally love my life. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do hope to share my life with someone who gets me, wants to build a mutually satisfying life together. But in this day and age, finding someone that can love you with all your imperfections that you find appealing is as hard as dropping a dime and it landing on its edge! I’m all for adapting my life to allow someone to fit but I don’t plan to change who I am or stop doing what makes me joyfully just so someone can feel better about themselves while they are with me.
Are you hard to get along with?
I don’t believe I’m hard to get along with, but I don’t allow people to treat me in a manner that is disrespecting or inappropriate. I wasn’t put on this earth for someone to treat me in a way that is less than I deserve. I have a meek spirit and tend to be extremely forgiving and compassionate. But if all you’re doing is taking and not replenishing my spirit back or abusing my kindness I will remove you from my circle. So, if a guy views me expecting respect and appreciation and not taking advantage of my gifts as being difficult or “high maintenance” then I’ll claim it and they can move on.
Do you have a dog?
i don’t have a dog, but I really want one! When I was young we always had a family dog.
Tell me something interesting about yourself that not many people know.
I had an albino Burmese python. It was 10 feet long. She weighed 50 pounds. And her name was “Nefertiti.” I had a whole second bedroom for her. I’d come home make dinner, then sit on the sofa with her curled up in my lap and watching TV with her head on my cheek so she could feel my humming vibration.
That’s definitely interesting. Do you still have her?
No. One day I left her out on the balcony to sunbathe while I when I went for a run. When I came back, she had wrapped her tail around the railing and slid down to the apartment below to go after the neighbors’ little dog! The little guy was visibly traumatized by the near-death experience to the point her owner assumed a larger dog attacked her dog. Unfortunately, the property parking lot security cameras caught the whole thing and I couldn’t deny my pet nearly swallowed her dog whole! I had to give her to an exotic pet store. It was heartbreaking.
So, you like snakes. That’s not quite your everyday pet.
I loved her and still miss her. Its why I really want to do a photo shoot with a snake that looks like Neph! Now that I think about it, with my love of snakes, and my wide lat spread, it really seems fitting that fans call me “Queen Cobra.”
With that 24 inch waist, I bet MayLa Ash’s competitors do too…
For more follow MayLa Ash on Instagram @maylaash