Competing as an Irish Body Builder - A Story of Determination, Nutrition and Sacrifice

by Brian Gunnery, Owner, Bodyworkshop Gym

The Plan. The Preparation. The Workouts. The Pain

the start

Last october one of my friends, Al,  said that he thought a bodybuiling competition would be a good idea.

  • I was already in good shape.
  • I was always strict with my diet.
  • I trained 6 days a week and never got bored.
  • I thought i could use it as some kind of a social experiment.  

Why not !

I asked my girlfriend what she thought and she was against the idea saying it was a big commitment. I said sure i would just train a bit more, eat a bit more and it would all be grand ( Mmm) . She agreed and i decided to do it although still unsure about what I was supposed to do and still not 100% that i would even be able to do it. I just sort of went along with the idea. I said to my friend Al that i was already lean and that i didnt think I would have to do much cardio (Mmm number 2 ).

I started training 7 days a week, hitting back and legs twice during the week as these were my weakest parts. One day hitting heavy squats and the other mostly assistance work. I trained back 1 day,  heavy rows and deadlifts and the other assistance pulling movements. As my muscles developed I could see that not everything was symmetrical. My hamstrings really lacked any size and my chest was hugely overshadowed by my arms and delts. The heavy bench 1 arm had to become a thing of the past ! I then changed my form taking my triceps out as much as I could, as everytime I trained chest, my arms were pumped and my chest was still soft and lacked any definition.

The  experienced lads at the gym who have competed before were constantly at me to start training like a bodybuilder and not a powerlifter. Something i had tried to do as long as I could remember was always ego lifting, with loud roars and long rests without any structure. I started to look at myself as a project and every so often asking for opinions on how the project could improve. When i started to do cardio I hated it ! I was doing 35 minutes 3 days a week, which I found a bit boring. When I would look at myself I knew I was nowhere near where I needed to be condition wise. I then started to do morning fasted cardio 45 mins , 45 mins post training cardio and 20 mins on the bike before I went home from work. I was seeing results but not as fast as I had thought I was going to see.

So I changed the plan ! I started getting up at 4am to do an hour of cardio on the bike,training weights for 1 hour 30 mins at lunchtime and 40 mins post training cardio while still keeping with the 20 mins after work. I was doing 2 hours cardio and 1 hour 30 minutes weights every day 7 days a week for 3 months. Where i got my energy from i will never know. Because my carbs were quite low and my diet was so clean i was constantly adrenilly fatigued. I would drink 9 cups of coffee a day in order to just function. I would have been better off just eating the coffee with a spoon from the jar!

Before the competition prep i drank coffee for taste, now it was an essential part of my daily routine. In the earlier months of my prep at the peak of my strength I made my heaviest lifts as I trained for strength early on.

  • lifts bench press of 185kg
  • squatting 190 kg
  • deadlifting 195kg

I think this gave me an advantage as i was able to work at a heavier weights throughout my prep. At my biggest I weighed 103.4kg and at my leanest i was 5.4% bodyfat all of which I never though I could accomplish. But I did ! There were days that i was so exhausted that while I was training I would say to myself "Brian ! Stop or something is gonna break ! " . But I pushed forward thinking if I break, I break. In the last week of my prep i was completely carb depleted and while training I started to cry. I was determined . I kept training !

Now i would say it would be quiet funny to look at a chunk of a man wearing a vest blubbering like a baby and still continuing with his dumbell press but i think most people knew how committed ( messed up ) I was. So nobody even payed any attention. I had went from the guy who always laughed, joked and smiled even when i was in a bad humour to someone who held onto the side of the pram with my head down so i didnt have to talk to anyone and walking like an old man because i couldnt keep up with the speed people were walking. Oh Dear.

Alot of the time during my prep I would winge and moan about being tired and hungry and my girlfriend would say "Brian you chose to do this nobody else ! You can pull the plug and give up at any point so stop going on like your being forced to do it" . I did not want to hear this at all because it was the truth. I felt so down that all i wanted was people to pity me. But when your the one putting yourself through the whole thing people stop feeling sorry for you. Most of my drive came from the thought that my clients knew what i was doing and how determined I was and that if I gave up on what had become my own goal how could they pick me then to help them reach their own goal!

I wanted to set an example for them that no matter how tough it gets if your determined you can do anything you set your mind to. Lesson 1.


Nutrition - When Food Is Fuel, And Your Body Is An Engine.

nutrition collage

October 2014 : I weighed 87kg. For the first 3 weeks I was under the elusion that I could eat whatever I wanted thinking naively that by eating everything  i would bulk up quicker. After the first 3 weeks I wasn't seeing much difference and was actually feeling quite sluggish. I still was not a lot heavier on the scales. I attended a seminar that Tommy Staunton was running in order to get a better understanding of what  would be involved.

November 2014 :  I asked tommy for advise and he told me what foods to eat and what to avoid. I started to gain weight slowly and I was definitely seeing results.

June 2015 : We sat down and put a plan together and he gave me the first phase of my diet. I struggled to eat the portions that were on it although the food i was eating already was quite a lot . Almost every meal I ate I was force feeding and a lot of the time I was getting sick from eating the portion amounts. In order to finish the food I would watch motivational videos on youtube and finish every bit. When I was unable to eat anymore I would just put the food in my mouth, take a mouth full of water and swallow the food unchewed.

There were days i would set my alarm for 1.30 am so i could finish the meals that i didnt eat that day in order to take all meals in. Towards the end of my bulking phase, I said to one of the girls in the gym that I just wanted the food portions to be smaller. Then I would be able to finish them and I would rather be hungry when I finished my food than the feeling of being force fed or that of over eating. I was 100% strict in every aspect of the diet,  no less and no more, and nothing that wasn't on the list went in my mouth.

July 2015 : The cutting phase began. I was excited thinking no more force feeding. I weighed 99-102kg at this stage. When I got the diet I could not believe the amount of food on it.  After 2 weeks of this diet it was apparent that my metabolism was working at a faster pace because after every meal i was getting more hungry as time went on. I tried leaving meals later in the evening but then could not sleep because of late digestion. I started making bcaa ice pops to surpress the hunger but was still starving going to bed and unable to sleep because all I could think about was food. I then started to go to bed earlier so i would sleep through the hunger. But I couldn't sleep because i had just finshed my last meal 5 mins beforehand.

I had every meal in the order of what he said for fear that my body would react differently if I changed the order around. One of the days of my cutting phase all I could think of was peanut butter. I litterally could not think of anything else so I had my final meal and stood at the food press for 15 minutes contemplating taking a spoonfull but decided to go to bed and not to bother. I didn't sleep at all because all i could think of was the peanut butter. I decided to get up around 4.05 am and just head to the gym for cardio. For the whole hour on the bike all i did was googled brands and pictures of peanut butter. When i came home about 5.20 am I had my first meal again thinking about taking a spoon of it but didn't. I went to work, then trained and done another 30 mins cardio.  I still could not take the thought out of my head.  I got home that night about 9.15 pm and said I will have a spoon. I could not stop! I ate 3/4 of the tub. Then guilt kickd in.

This was the first time in over 7 months that i had broken my diet for anything and the funny thing is i dont even like peanut butter. At the start of your prep you force feed yourself to the point that you can barely breath after meals, to the final stages of where you cut meals and litterally shake at the thought of food. At the biggest part of my diet I was eating the same amount of food for a family of 2 adults and 2 kids for two days. In my final stages of cutting i was eating just under 4kg of turkey mince and 13 eggs with a 1kg bag of brocolli. My water consumption was some days up to 10 litres over a 5 day period which was an average of about 16 toilet stops a day ! Meal timing was every 2 hours no matter where or what you were doing you had to eat. I am very lucky that my clients were so understanding because if I was on a diet and someone was eating 1 of his 9 meals in front of me I would be gone.

I started allowing myself 1 cheat meal every week from 7 weeks out. But if i was unable to do 1 hour cardio and 1 hour 30 minutes weights every day 7 days a week i wouldnt allow myself the meal. In my head i didnt deserve it ! From sunday night I thought about what i would have and imagined textures, flavours,  where to buy it, how long i had between meals to enjoy it and if it would effect my eating my meal after i finished it. Food litterally took over my life.

For as long as i can remember I have always eatin wholesome foods, good foods and portion sizes to match my training goals. So food had never been an issue. But when you are confined to the same food in the same order for a set number of weeks it then takes you to places you never thought something as simple as food would bring you. I have always found it hard to believe that someone struggles with a diet of variety but now that i have experienced it firsthand myself I know exactly how mentally challenging it can be. Before, I would have been a hypocrite because i have never had issues eating healthy. To think someone was weak because they are unable to stick to a diet,  I was totally wrong!  If anything this experience has opened my eyes to what I now know to be a genuine struggle and you don't have to be addictid to fast food or junk food to find a new way of eating tough.

nutrition collage


When i was coming into my final few weeks everyday iIwould think of foods that I didn't like that i was “definitely eating” after the show and I stored them in my phone :

nandos,popcorn,billionare shortbread m+s,chocolate,toffee yogurts,mcdonnalds,mcflurry,mcdonnalds breakfast,full fat coke,poptarts,meanies,skips crisps,lidl white chocolate, chocolate,bbq peanuts,waffle with peanut butter,kopperbearg strawberrie and lime,white chocolate buttons,thunder road pasta,nachos,breakfast roll from spar ham and egg mayo,dairy milk bar,chicken fillet roll,jambon,vanilla peanut butter,buttlers hot chocolate,muller fruit corners,toblerone, denny hot dogs,dunnes chicken and stuffing,pringles,lucozade original,daim cake ikea,every protein bar on the westside s+f counter,lemon cheesecake protein shake, grill town burger,supermacks chicken burger and taco fries,baby porridge,subway club sandwich 

1 week after the show and i have had the option of eating everything above and this is what i have ate from it:

chocolate , chicken fillet roll, thunder road pasta and nachos

Proving that a diet is completely psychological especially when we are denied what we crave. Don't get me wrong I have eaten some bad stuff but the above list was things that i was going to eat as soon as i got off stage. This had a life and death urgency about it. I ate bread with almost every meal since the day of the competition and I am sick of it already. Now I have went back to prepping the same meals as that in the second part of my diet. Because you are constantly thinking about food you are always having mood swings and spend most days being “hangry” ( hungry and angry ) . I was not great to be around apparently ! 

So, I learned not to underestimate how difficult it can be to change your diet, and to stick to that change. Lesson 2 !


The Un-Social Side Of A Social Experiment

Generally, when you are on a diet you can find somewhere to cater for your dietary needs. Most places now have healthy options or gluten free menus. For people trimming their waistline you have the low calorie options and most places have ceoliac menus. It is not that easy when you on a diet for a body building competition. These are just some of the things I put myself through.

  • Try going to a resturaunt and asking for 300 grms of turkey and a cup of brocolli.
  • Go to the cinema with your girlfriend and friends who are eating popcorn, nachos and hot dogs. Then start eating asparagus and cod from your tuppawear container
  • Going to a christening or birthday party and because a turkey salad or 12 egg omlette isnt on the menu, you start to realise that you and your diet are not catered for anywhere.
  • When you sit in a room by yourself eating cod rice and greenbeans so you dont have to explain why your not eating anything from the sandwich platter or your favourite desert that someone prepared because they knew your were attending.
  • When you stop going the pub because your sick of pretending your enjoying a vodka while holding a glass of water with a slice of lemon.
  • When your cappuchino and muffin lunch date turns into black coffee and you cant sit around the smell of the other peoples blueberry muffin for long enough to even get into a conversation.
  • When you cant take your kids to a play centre because they wont allow you to bring your own food in and you cant miss a meal in the time that your out. So you just avoid going.
  • You refuse to go to the shopping centre or the bank because of the smell of ginos instantly makes you think this better be worth it.
  • When saturday movie night consists of you sulking in the corner with a protein shake while everyone else eats ben and jerrys and pringles and the only reason you can have the shake is because you starved yourself after the gym that day so you could have something after your last meal.
  • Losing deposits on holidays because you realise that a week on the beach where I will most definitly have a drink.

Its about then that you start to ask yourself are you mad !  In order to bring all the elements of body building training together you have to realise how unsocial you actually have to be. 

This social experiment has now become the most unsocial thing you have ever done and you still have a few weeks left. I go on :

  • On the day of my sons birthday i had to go sit by myself in another room because i couldnt bare to watch another person eat any more cake, while i felt starved and anxious about food.
  • On holidays in spain no longer feel like a holiday because you still have to prepare your 9 meals every morning and still eat your containers at the beach while everyone else goes to the resturaunt for their lunch. When everday holiday things like icecream with the kids is just not realistic so you opt for a frozen bottle of water instead.

if anything this past year has made me realise how enjoyable my life is and how much we take the smallest of things for granted. I feel I have been just let out of prison and now i can do whatever i choose to do. I am nervous about going back eating whatever i choose Drinking to be social and the option of "I will have a drink im not working tommorow"

It's good to try be disciplined and achieve your goals ! But remember.  Life is for living. Lesson 3.


There Is Nothing Healthy About Bodybuilding

When I decided to sign up to doing a compettion I thought the only thing that could go wrong was an injury. Little did i know what i was getting myself in for. I always had a weak lower back,  from not working it enough. Also being quad domminant with weak glutes and hamstrings so I was always having trouble with my lower back through the whole prep. From your early stages of prep you become so fixated on creating the perfect body that you start to forget about what your good points actually are. You are constantly criticising yourself in order to improve, and you develop a kind of muscle dismorphia where no matter how well you look you can only find faults in how you look. You percieve yourself as small and weak when your  body is large and muscular.

Towards the cutting phase you start to develop anxiety and in some cases or in my case regular panic attacks. For those of you who have never had a panic attack,  imagine being locked in a soundproof box and it keeps getting smaller and smaller and you lose all of your ability to respond or stop to realise what is happening. This was a regular accurance with me (before this competition i had never suffered any mental health issues or anything related).  One day while squatting i held my breath, finishing the last 5 reps i felt a pop like sensation in the back of my head. I instantly got the worse headache i have ever felt in my life and had to stop training. The next day I thought it would pass but it then became more painfull. I had my blood pressure tested a few days after and it read 187 over 87. Severe hypertension ! I have read that people have had strokes with less. The pharmacist thought it was a missread and used a different monitor which read the same. The look of fright in her eyes was enough to make me think I wasnt waking up the next day !

I had a constant headache for just over two weeks which meant intensity came down, rest peroid went up and weight came down. After nearly 3 weeks i was referred for a CT and MRI scan which came back clear. I was given a lunbar punch and had bloods taken which again came back clear and still to this day I have no idea what caused it. For the last 5 weeks of prep i was getting an average of 3 hours sleep per night and even though I was exhausted I couldn't sleep. All of the stimulants , caffene,  ect and pre workouts definitely didn't help. Throughout your prep you are 90 % of the time in bad humour and the other 10% you have probably just ate. I have asked a number of people if this was just me !  Every one of them said no that with more experience you just learn to deal with it better but it never changes. Almost every one of them have said they all broke down and cried at one stage or another eventhough there was nothing really wrong with them.

This may sound like an absolute nightmare but I am just telling it as it was. Had I have written this during my prep I would of been a lot more doom and gloom and a lot more negative. Everything here was my own experience and may not nessisarilly be the way a prep is for everyone. But I would like to make you aware of how tough it actually is. Eating a bit more and training a bit more definitly wont cut it. I have the highest regard of respect for all of the men and women that compete year in year out and still maintain a happy lifestyle.

i dont regret it doing it , as it physically and mentally pushed me to my limits and throughout every part would have been just easier to give up rather than carry on. But i didnt give up!  I carried on and i know in years to come I will thank myself !

if you have a dream dont let anyone talk you out of it . It may make you miserable and question everything you have done but at least you can be proud in what you have achieved !

Remember when every part of it becomes unbearble     #rememberwhyyoustarted   . Lesson 4.

It's ... SHOWTIME ! 

group pose

So the week of the show I was so busy with work and trying to get other stuff sorted I had actually forgotten what i was about to do. Tthe friday night we drove to limerick to register and I had the butterflys the whole way there. Ii was thinking I have to get up on stage tomorrow wearing nothing but a pair of trunks. Doing a posing routine that im not even sure will look good. I cut my water off from 8pm. A full 11 litres today. The night before I had hardly any sleep thinking about what I could do to make my posing better and had a dream that my tan went green. Its funny now but I panicked and ran to check it in the hotel mirror (luckily i didnt). The morning of the show I met my friends who were also competing. We all ate steak for breakfast and everyone looked misserable. We drove to the show and I felt physically sick and I was shaking.

Backstage in every room there were lads getting pumped with dumbells and resistance bands and everyone was eating rice cakes and peanut butter. I have seen people eating all sorts: pringles, jellys, lucozade, chocolate, I saw seen one lad with a tub of jam and honey just dipping a spoon into it. I put my headphones on and stood in the hall posing. My playlist songs were eminem "till i collapse",rihanna "man down", eminem "no love", and rihanna "four five seconds". I was buzzing.

I was hitting poses and everyone that passed was watching and it made me more determined. I then went into one of the rooms and started to get a pump! Lateral raises, frontal raises, pushups, bicep curls, lower cable raises and a row variation. I was ready to do anything at this stage. There were lads in the room doing the same. There were a few big lads.  I asked the biggest fella what category pal .....first heart sunk!  Your joking me i thought. I smiled and said yeah mate same.

First timers were called to the stage we all stood in line in order 1-17 I think. All doing curls or pushups everybody getting excited and all looking just as nervious as each other we were high fiving shaking hands with a real sence of comradory. Finally surrounded by people in the same situation as myself ! As the first lad went on I crossed my fingers,  not sure why, but i thought it made sence. I stood out looking at everyone and I thought they all have rythm and their posing was good. I couldnt even do the robot if i tried.  Number 4 was called. That was me ,  Brian Gunnery!  My stomach sank and I thought my legs would go. I went out to the stage looking between the floor and the ceiling trying to keep what looked like half a smile. The music stops.  I walk off stage and an instant spike of adrenaline hits me. Why was I so nervous about that. That was deadly I say to myself.

Everyone is called out for the comparisons. I am buzzing. I get first callout and start hitting poses as if my life depends on it ...done everyone off stage ...judge walks over 10 minutes later top 6 lads 13-12-15-4 .... I wanted to dance!  I was that happy. Final 6 brought back for open posing. I got so excited I forgot what I was even doing .. front double bicep,front lat spread, I will throw in another bicep i got so excited. I literally forget what I was doing.I genuinely thought i was getting first. 1st place  13 , for 30 seconds i was genuinly devastated then I though ... look what you have achieved you have done amazing. Then I started smiling I couldnt stop. Dont get me wrong I busted my ass I would have liked a trophy but genuinely wasn't dishearted whatsover. Tomorrow is another day. The drive home i was looking at pictures of me on stage and I have honestly never felt so proud of anything i have ever done.

The nabbas the next day!  For some reason I am not expecting anything.  I am here just for the show,  the experience and to show my friends, family and clients what i have to offer. Backstage I was so relaxed and excited. Everyone was just standing around eating peanut butter and jellys getting their pump. I was sending snapchats and pictures  to everyone. I had reeces peanut butter cups in my bag and a bottle of lucozade orange and two packets of wine gums ... I'll have them now ! Its been too long. My mate miguel and I were standing talking when somebodys stage music came on benni benassi satisfaction.  We started dancing around.

I felt so happy to have the lads with me. We were out for the routines. I walked out you could litterally see everyone in the room. I was relaxed. I started my routine transitioning a lot smooter than the previous day and I had a lot more people cheering my name. Tt was such a high. Music finishes. I will give myself a round of applause! ;-) .

Everyone was then brought out for comparisons. We were posing for around 20 minutes. My lats and delts were aching. This is where you are really tested. The heat under the lights. The judges watching you and the sweat dripping off my chest.  I was glad  to be there. All the tears and moodswings were worth this feeling ... a real sence of achievment.

After the pregudge we were free to eat what we wanted. I had plans on going crazy but i thought i still have to pose tonight. So i opted for a beshoffs cod bites and chips with a tartar sauce. Absolutly amazing !  I was a little bit uncomfortable because everyone in the place was looking over at the oompa loompa in the corner expressing his gratitude for a real meal. But i didnt care ! I was only short of drinking the bottle of red sauce. Back in the evening show I was so excited that I could get back to a normal life the following day and it felt like a cloud had been lifted off me.

Backstage everyone was hugging and joking. We knew to just enjoy it because it was over. We were all smiling and laughing. It was brilliant.  Unfortunatly I didnt place top 6 but the feeling of the two days made it all worth while.  I felt an instant sence of achievment and I was happier than I can ever imagine feeling before. Finally i have my life back.

I can see how the atmosphere of a show becomes addictive but for me the importance of having a normal routine is more important than the glory and enjoyment of the day of a show. I am retiring my posing trunks for now .

Dedication is the hours you put in when nobody else is wathcing. Lesson 5.


pose 1pose 2