Yvonne McGarry (36) from Macroom, Co Cork is a posing coach and competitive bodybuilder, and says her preparation for competitions involves extreme discipline
“I suppose I’ve always been a competitive person… I was a competitive Irish dancer from the age of four up until the age of 19, and I used to practise two or three hours a day. I went on to win All Irelands and World Championships and then, at the age of 16, I became a professional dancer in Riverdance.
After having my son at 18, I stopped travelling and dancing and went back to college to study psychology, obtaining bachelor and masters’ degrees. Then, at the age of 20, I started training in the gym, and I probably turned into a bit of a cardio bunny! A few years later, I decided to do my qualifications in nutrition and personal training so that I could help other people.
Having been diagnosed with cancer and having a hysterectomy and treatment, and losing my hair, at the age of 25, I felt a bit lost. So the gym became my happy place. A few years later, at the age of 30, I decided I wanted to become a competitive bodybuilder.
I took part in my first competition in Belfast a few months later and I was very nervous. I was used to being on stage with Riverdance, so stage fright was never an issue for me. But I had never put myself out on stage to be judged. In bodybuilding competitions you’re standing in front of people who are judging your body, so it’s not for everyone.
I really enjoyed that show and I took home four or five trophies, winning every category. I got the buzz for it then, and I’ve been competing ever since.
The standards at the international shows are mind-blowing. I remember at my very first international show, I wanted to walk straight out the door! The men and women were on a different level to anything I had ever seen before – it was crazy. They were like Greek gods and goddesses that you see in the movies.
Tanning is part and parcel of competing. The lights on the stage are very bright and skin can look pale otherwise. Every show has its own tan organisation. You can use your own tan if you want but it’s recommended that you go for the tan that is provided – it just means that everyone looks the same on stage and is the same colour.
The day before the competition, you go and register and have your first layer of tan applied. The next day you go and have your top-up done. Then, a few minutes before you go on stage, you get a gloss applied to make you shine.
I’m currently preparing for a competition taking place in Alicante next month. The Olympia Amateur Spain is one of the biggest amateur shows in the world with people attending from all over. I’m currently in pursuit, and hoping to obtain, my IFBB pro card, which will qualify me as a professional athlete/bodybuilder.
Right now, I’m in ‘prep’ for the Figure category, which involves holding significantly more muscle than Bikini, which is the category just below me. The next class up is for girls holding a lot more muscle, which is striated and highly defined.
The prep period can last anywhere between 16 to 20 weeks and it’s like Groundhog Day. You get up in the morning and you do the exact same thing, day in, day out, which results in lower body fat while holding onto muscle.
My full-time job with BIC, where I have worked for nearly nine years, starts early so I have to be very organised and get my cardio done before 6am. I’ll have a black coffee after waking and then I’ll do cardio exercise on an empty stomach.
A lot of people recommend not eating carbohydrates like potato, pasta and rice after 6pm, but that’s not true. Sometimes my last meal before bed is a big bowl of cream of rice. Calories are calories and it doesn’t matter what time you eat your last meal at.
Right now, as I prepare for a competition, my daily calories are on the low side, whereas in my off-season it would be closer to 4,000 calories. This is very person-specific and I would not recommend doing this without the assistance of a professional.
Bodybuilders need to consume high calories during the off-season to grow muscle and make any changes that are needed. Then, as we prep for competitions, it’s all about cutting weight while still holding onto muscle. Water is an extremely important part of it and everyone should drink a lot of it. However, towards the end of prep, water may be lowered.
It’s not all protein, though. Carbs and fats are very important too. I eat jasmine rice, sweet potato, cream of rice, rice cakes, dark chocolate, peanut butter and avocados. You can still enjoy nice food, but it’s just the quantities we have to watch. Everything has to be measured, no matter what you eat, so you can keep a track of calories going in.
During the prep phase, between cardio and training, I normally exercise for two to three hours a day, five to six days a week. On average, my split would be lower body, upper body, rest, and then that just keeps repeating. That’s the split that works for me, but not everyone is the same. It varies a lot with different categories. The Wellness category, for instance, is much more lower-dominant, therefore more leg days may be required. I take a few supplements as well.
Rest, recovery and sleep play a very, very important role in prep, and that was something I was very poor on when I first started. I used to want to train seven days a week. And I thought I was doing myself good until I got educated and realised I wasn’t giving my body a chance to repair, so I wasn’t able to build as quickly as I should have been.
As an online coach helping clients prepare for competitions, I watch for the signs that the client needs rest. Sometimes, especially if they’re in prep, I’ll suggest two full rest days and then, all of a sudden, the scales drop and their energy increases. But again, this is very person-dependent.
Is prepping for shows for everyone? No, certainly not. I advise any new client to plan a photo shoot and see if they can stick to their diet for eight weeks without cheating. If they can stick to it, then it’s likely that they’ll be able to compete.
Ultimately, you have to be able to take your mind off food for a few months at a time, and not be food-driven. You’re eating six meals a day during prep, which is enough food to fuel the body. But still, some people find it really hard. All they can think about is food and that’s extremely hard on the mind, which is in turn extremely hard on the body.
Under-eating when you’re not in prep is another issue. A lot of my clients, my female ones especially, are almost afraid to eat when they first come to me. Then, when I look at their food diary, I can see they should be eating a lot more.
They’re in the gym and they’re training but they’re wondering why they’re not growing muscle, and they don’t realise how important food is in adding lean mass.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifestyle client or a competitor, every time we go into the gym to lift weights, we’re putting our body under strain, so to recover we have to make sure we’re fuelling the body correctly.
This life is not for everyone as it’s very much about routine and it’s extremely disciplined. It becomes your life. It was much the same when I was a competitive Irish dancer. At the weekend I was always taking part in competitions so I missed out on a lot of things. I think I’ve always been used to being out of the norm in that respect.
Have people been intimidated by me since I became a bodybuilder? Well, you will always have certain types of people who will give you that look, especially when you’re cutting down and you’re starting to become a little bit vascular and more defined muscle is coming through.
There is that ‘eurgh’ look from certain people if you go into a clothes shop to try something on. It used to bother me, but now I couldn’t care less. I think, ‘I’m doing this for me, I don’t know you, so if you want to look at me that way, off you go’. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
As told to Katie Byrne