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Strong is the new skinny as women pick up the weights

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Personal trainer Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Personal trainer Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Body Builders Kelly Donegan and Orla Hopkins at City West gym

Body Builders Kelly Donegan and Orla Hopkins at City West gym

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Personal trainer Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Orla Hopkins (33) buys 30 turkey breasts a week and 10 fish fillets. The mother of one from Skerries, Co Dublin was on a macro diet in the lead up to her latest bodybuilding competition, the RIBBF National Bodybuilding Bikini and Bodyfitness Championships in Limerick last week.

"Genetically, I would have had quads and biceps anyway, but I spent years hiding them because I would get slagged over them," Orla laughs. "It's only now that I'm in my 30s I'm embracing my muscles and I'm showing them off every time I get the chance!"

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Body Builders Kelly Donegan and Orla Hopkins at City West gym

Body Builders Kelly Donegan and Orla Hopkins at City West gym

Body Builders Kelly Donegan and Orla Hopkins at City West gym

Orla works full-time in her dance shop in Drumcondra, does a daily gym session and teaches dance classes in the evenings. While training for a competition she bumps her training up to two sessions a day, which means getting up at 5.30am.

Yet, when we meet, Orla bounces into the room in a crop top, with an enviable glow and a body to die for, looking by no means like this gruelling schedule is taking any toll.

With a background is gymnastics and dance, Orla started bodybuilding two years ago and is now completely hooked.

"I have always been quite fit, but I never really would have lifted weights because I had the impression that I would have got bulky, but I started to choreograph routines for bodybuilding competitors and one particular girl had a similar physique to me, but she was in much better shape," Orla explains. "I loved the definition in her arms, I thought she looked amazing. So I decided to stop being a cardio fanatic and look at the other ways I could change my body."

Orla competes in the 'Fitness' or 'Physique' category, a step up from the more slender 'Bikini' contenders.

While competitive bodybuilding commands a huge lifestyle change, Orla says it is not all blood, sweat and tears; she loves planning her routine, her outfit and getting her moment of glory on stage after all that hard work. Last week, she enjoyed her moment in the sun, taking first place at the national final.

"Picking the bikini is very much a part of it, the stones, the colour, what connectors you want; you kind of forget that you actually are going to have to wear it," she smiles. "There are certain suppliers, before this year I could only get them abroad, but there are actually a few ladies now who you can get them from in Ireland."

"They are smaller than normal bikinis and there are different shapes you can go for. For example, in the fitness category you have to go for a criss-cross on the back to show your shoulder muscles, and there's a much higher cut on the leg; they'd have diamond connectors and a rouche at the back to make the bum look better too," Orla explains.

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Personal trainer Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Personal trainer Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Personal trainer Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

The tan is another key element of the competition. Entrants cannot use just any fake tan; it must be a specific competition-sanctioned product. "It shows off the total definition of the muscles and you have to remember we are under very strong lights, so you need to show off all the work you have put in, every line, and for that you need the dark, dark tan," Orla says.

The majority of the time, the sport is met by very positive feedback; Orla regularly has young girls come up to her while she is training to enquire about how they too might start. However, she has had to contend with some negativity.

"You do get some comments. I had people say to me last year, 'Oh you need to put a bit of meat on those bones!' and I remember thinking that's all muscle," Orla laughs. "Unfortunately, for the competition, you have got to dry out and you are going to be very tight and very ripped, but it's only for the competition, the week after you are upping your calories again and within a week to two weeks you are back to your regular weight. We slag one another that it's 'the junkie look' because in that last week you are quite pale and kind of gaunt while you are dehydrating."

Bodybuilding newcomer Laura Connick (25) from the Navan Road in Dublin had a similar reaction.

"The first thing people think when you say that you want to start bodybuilding is 'Oh my god, you're going to look like a man!'" she tells me. "It's very much misunderstood. Women have different hormones to men so it's scientifically nearly impossible for us to grow and build at the same rate as men."

The RIBBF Nationals last week were Laura's first experience competing in the sport. She competed in the Bikini category.

"There are three categories depending on your height, which gives everyone an equal chance. I originally wanted to go in for physique or fitness, which involves a bit more muscle mass, but I was advised as it's my first time to go for bikini and I can build on this then. I do prefer a bit more mass. So next year I'd like to compete in the fitness category because I like that size," Laura explains.

Walking on that stage for the first time was understandably playing on Laura's mind before the event. "I know that I'm going to be standing on that stage for all my imperfections to be judged, but it's all part of the process so I'm mentally ready for it," she said ahead of the event. "It is daunting but exciting at the same time. I never thought I would cry through training sessions and I did."

However, the lighter, more fun parts of the competition helped Laura through the gruelling training.

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Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

Laura Connick. Photo: Martin Maher

"I had my bikini custom-made. I picked the colour, the connectors, the diamantes, everything," she grins. "I spent around €200 on it, but I could have added a hundred more Swarovski diamonds onto it for double the price. People were shocked that I spent that much money, but having the right bikini means a lot in these competitions - I don't think Penneys or River Island would have done!"

Unfortunately, Laura - a personal trainer at the Active You Fitness Studio in Drumcondra, who teamed up with the studio's owner Mick Barrett for her training - failed to place at the event, but she is still eager to progress in the area.

"It's been really empowering. I would have thought I had a good figure and was really fit, but this has changed my body to a completely different level," she explains. "I enjoyed every second of it. I felt great and I couldn't have done anything else. I felt confident on stage and will learn from my experience to ensure I nail the next competition! Everyone in the gym has seen me going through my own transformation. My clients have seen me doing it, which has motivated and encouraged them too stick to their own goals."

Donna Brennan (24) from Finglas has had to put her training on hold for the last few months due to an illness. However, she is hoping to return to the form, which saw her take a bronze medal at the European bodybuilding championships last May, for next year's competition.

"I've been lifting weights since I was about 14 or 15, but it was only last year when I decided that I wanted to compete," Donna, who is a member of the Defence Forces, explains.

"I started training in May 2013 and competed in the nationals last October. That was my first time ever competing," she says. "It was tough going with the dieting and the training - you have no social life and you miss out on a lot of other things when you are doing it - but that was all I was focused on for the whole year."

The result was worth the effort, as Donna won the Bikini category in both of Ireland's national competitions - the NABBA and the RIBBF - last year.

"The feeling I got on stage after winning was just amazing," she beams. "It's addictive. It's such a hard lifestyle to maintain, not just for you, but also for your family. The amount of preparation that goes into it is amazing every day, between your meals and getting your training done, but when you get results like that it's definitely worth it."

"A lot of women are afraid of it, they think they'll get huge, but you are not going to go like that. I'm lifting weights years and that hasn't happened to me," Donna adds. "In the last two years it's really starting to get big in Ireland. It's really starting to take off. Women want curves and muscle now. I think it's a healthier lifestyle for girls; it's not like your starving yourself to be stick thin, to look like these supermodels. You actually have curves, you are still feminine, but you have muscle and are toned - it's the whole package."

After many years battling her body image, former Irish reality TV star and model Kelly Donegan took up bodybuilding in January.

"I had been into fitness and when you are in the public eye, you are conscious of how you look, but I really didn't know what I was doing," Kelly says. "Whenever I had something coming up I would just eat as little as possible and do loads of cardio, then I'd go out at the weekend and have drinks and pizzas so there was a lot of inconsistency." Kelly met her now coach Calin Brehaita of Titan Nutrition in her local gym, and he eventually convinced her to get involved in the sport.

"I had all these perceptions about it, that it was masculine and that I would get really big, so I though no, not for me," she says.

Last year, however, following what Kelly refers to as a 'little bit of a low point in my life' she decided to give it a go.

"I was thin, but I was still insecure, I had parts that I hated, like all women," Kelly explains.

"I did some research into bodybuilding and discovered the bikini category. These girls are feminine and sexy and it just looked so empowering."

"I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn't think it was literally going to take over my life. So January 1, I made the decision to go for it and my first show was in April so I had four months," Kelly explains.

"When I met with my trainer Calin for the first time, he said I was too skinny and I had no muscle. He said 'you're skinny, but you're actually kind of fat'. I was shocked."

Kelly had to bulk up in order to train, which involved putting on a stone in the space of six weeks.

"As you can imagine as a model too this was terrifying!" Kelly explains.

"I went from being a size eight to over a 10 and I was very curvy. So I was training every day and eating every two-and-a-half to three hours, eating loads to put on some size and then the weight cutting started for the show. So I had to strip back all my food, still eat every two hours but very clean food, no salt, no sauces, no chocolate."

Kelly was a size six for April's show, the smallest she has ever been in her life, but her body had completely changed. "I had bigger shoulders, bigger bum, bigger legs, a smaller waist and I love my body now," Kelly adds. "I am literally just addicted ever since."

 

PERSONAL TRAINER LAURA'S PRE-COMPETITION DIET:

Meal 1:

30g porridge

Meal2:

100g white fish and asparagus

Meal 3:

Post workout: protein shake

Tuna and spinach

Meal 4:

100g white fish and asparagus

Meal 5 :

Tuna and Spinach

Drinks

Plenty of water, herbal tea.

Supplements:

Vitamin C, flaxseed oil, multivitamin, glucosamine, magnesium.

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