Sunday 25 March 2018

From dance mom to bodybuilder: meet social media's newest #fitspiration

Orla Hopkins hid her gymnast's physique, until she found inspiration in a fellow athlete. Now, the mum of one is a champion bodybuilder helping other women achieve their fitness goals through the power of the hashtag. Joanna Kiernan follows her journey

Orla Hopkins
Orla Hopkins

Skerries native Orla Hopkins (34) is a living and breathing advertisement for the 'Strong is the New Skinny' school of thought.

A busy mum of one, Orla divides her time between her day job (she owns a shop called Dimensions Dancewear in Drumcondra) the gym, her work as a choreographer and family life.

Orla has always been a fan of fitness; she did gymnastics and dance from the age of four, however, two years ago she turned her attention to body building.

"I was actually choreographing a routine for another competitor when I first discovered the sport," Orla tells me. "I taught her daughter dance and she had asked me to help her with her routine for an upcoming competition. I thought she looked amazing and I really wanted to do it then.

"When I was growing up, as a gymnast, I would have been quite muscular and I would have been very conscious of that because people would say 'Oh look at the quads or biceps on you!' so I would actually cover them up.

"Especially in my early 20s I was really conscious of it because not many girls had muscles. When I saw this girl I thought she looked incredible and wondered 'why am I covering myself up all the time?'"

From that moment on Orla became hooked. She was, however, faced with a steep learning curve, particularly as there were no other women in Ireland competing in the same 'Fitness' or 'Physique' category, which involves a combination of dance and gymnastics routines with strength movements and poses.

"I went into my first competition really unaware of what was going to happen," Orla explains. "I prepped as much as I could and I had a coach helping me as well, but on the day it was a real shock - I thought 'wow these people look amazing' - they have spent years training and I have just rocked up after 12 weeks.

"It was such an eye opener, I really didn't realise the size of the community in Ireland, how big it was until then," Orla adds.

"From there is just escalated and I met so many people who I have learned from along the way. Social media has also been a really good help, there are so many different Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram accounts now where you can get information from lots of competitors.

"I am lucky that I have been able to compete abroad and I can now give other girls tips who want to compete in my class."

Orla's first competition was in October 2013, and since then she has won her class in the RIBBF National Bodybuilding Bikini and Bodyfitness Championships in Limerick, and earlier this year she took part in the European Bodybuilding Championships, placing in the top five.

"It becomes a lifestyle. For me it just became a way of life. I love the training and I love the intensity and the challenge, setting goals and having something to work towards," Orla tells me.

"Everybody that I speak to who has become involved in the competition end of things are the same; they are just so inspired by the people they've met along the way and it has become very much a community.

"We help one another. We use the hashtag #girlssupportinggirls because the girls in the industry become really good friends and really help to inspire each other and for me that's what it is all about. Letting people know that you can go for it and that there is nothing stopping you."

Orla generally begins her preparation for competitions 16 weeks out.

"During that time you do give up a lot," she admits. "It is empowering to set yourself a goal, go for it and see an end result."

Any down time Orla can squeeze in between work and training is spent with her family.

"I am a mum, so my social life is more about family time," she says. "I still enjoy my weekends with my son Noa and my husband, but it becomes more about chilling or movie nights or days out that are more outdoorsy, maybe walks in the park and that kind of thing."

Motherhood played an important role in Orla's fitness journey.

"I loved being pregnant but I did find my body changing difficult," she tells me. "I don't know if all women feel that way, but I definitely did. I felt amazing after I had Noa and I was so proud to be a mum. I have got stretch marks and I am proud of them and that doesn't mean I am not going to show off my body; being a mum is not going to stop me from achieving what I want to achieve. I don't think anything should get in your way.

"Noa is five now and when I had him I remember thinking 'I want him see me as someone he could look up to'; that I could do other things in my life as well as being his mum. That I could show him that you can do whatever you put your mind to in life," Orla explains.

"That is really important for me to teach him because that is what my parents taught me - that I could be whatever I wanted and I think at this stage I have proved that to myself that.

"I'm really lucky that Noa enjoys fitness and enjoys watching me train and he will come with me and he does gymnastics and at home if he sees me stretching he will be beside me doing it too," Orla smiles.

"I love the fact that he says 'Mum is this good for you? Is this healthy?' some people say that is too extreme and that children need to enjoy their childhood and not worry about what they eat, but I think it is important in society today that a child knows what is healthy and what is not healthy.

"I don't deny him sweets or treats, but he is aware of the difference; he knows when he is getting a treat and when he is eating good food and being active."

Orla enjoys eating a clean and balanced diet, even when she is not preparing for a competition.

"I tend to eat clean all of the time," she explains. "That is the food I like, so my diet would consist of the usual eggs, green vegetables, chicken, fish, sweet potatoes, quinoa, but I still enjoy my turkey sausages and burgers.

"My husband is brilliant, he is an amazing cook, so he gets quite creative and we barbeque a lot this time of year.

"I am not really a pizza eater or into chipper food," Orla adds. "Although I do enjoy a cheat meal once a week and I love Indian food so that would be my cheat meal most of the time."

Off season, however, Orla does not to deny herself treats.

"I still have my almond butter and my dark chocolate. I don't really deny myself too much at this stage, I try and have a flexible diet," she says. "I love my wine and that's what I mainly miss when I am doing a competition, I love my glass of wine at the weekend with a nice steak."

Follow Orla on Instagram

Orla’s fitness  tips

• Make a plan, write it down. Keep records

• Find an exercise or sport you enjoy doing; don’t just do something because your friend is doing it If you don’t enjoy it you are not going to stick at it.

• Allow yourself the odd treat and be flexible. In the off season I live the 80:20 rule – 80pc of the time I am good and I train hard and eat clean, but 20pc of the time I allow myself to enjoy treats

• Prepare your meals as much as you can

• Get your family involved Try not to miss a Monday session. If you have a plan, stick to it and try not to miss a Monday because it will often mess you up for the rest of the week.

Orla's training regime

Competition training

My competition prep is split up into different stages for the different weeks, but coming very close to the competition I would be in the gym every morning at 6am and I would normally do fasted cardio in the mornings for 40 minutes and up to 60 minutes depending on what day it is.

Then I would have my weights session in the evening when Noa is in bed around 8:30pm. So they would be my two training sessions and then I would have my gymnastics training sessions for my routine also and I would go to my adult gymnastics class on one of the nights. Coming up to a competition you are looking at three training sessions a day - cardio, weights and your routine rehearsal - six days a week.

Off season

Off season I still train six days a week, but it would pretty much be an hour to an hour and 20 minutes each day. I still do my cardio and weights and I split them up; so I wouldn't do cardio every day. I do four days weight training and then three days weights and a cardio session and I still have a rest day on a Saturday or Sunday.

Although I am not going in with the same sort of intensity off season, I am still training hard, but it is a lot more about trying new methods and different ideas, just to mix things up so that you don't get bored, so recently for example I started incorporating yoga.

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