Oskar Boral Photography

Being a female bodybuilder drives me in a way nothing else does

Ireland’s bikini fitness champion, Jessi Kavanagh, on the highs and lows of a life of intense training and dieting.

FEMALE BODYBUILDING? Doesn’t that mean being big, bulky and masculine? That’s what I first thought.

I’ll never forget the day I picked up my first copy of Oxygen, an American fitness magazine. The woman on the front was lean, muscular and toned, but she was feminine and not excessively built. It turned out to be Nathalia Melo, one of the world’s most successful bikini competitors.

That’s where it all started for me. As a personal trainer, I’ve always kept fit and healthy, but I was looking for something to give me the drive to push my body to the next level. I knew this was it, but I realised I had a long way to go – I understood getting to that stage could take years of work.

At the time, the bikini division was not yet a feature of Irish bodybuilding competitions. So after a lot of searching, I entered an independent show in the UK. I ended up doing well and competing in the same competition again the following year.

Then, the Republic Of Ireland Bodybuilding Federation (RIBBF) and National Amateur Bodybuilders’ Association (NABBA), the two main bodybuilding federations in Ireland, both introduced the category to Ireland. I was delighted to finally be able to compete at home.


When you start competing, you can choose to compete in both federations at a national level. But if you decide to take your competing further, you’re encouraged to stick to one federation, so I chose the RIBBF.

Why? My goal has always been to make it to the professional Olympia stage, the highest level you can get within professional bodybuilding. The Olympia is run by the International Federation of Body Building (IFBB), and the RIBBF is its Irish branch. To reach the competition, you first have to qualify through an affiliate.

Preparing for a competition is definitely the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done. The workouts are intense and normally six days per week. I train every body part and have an extra glute session once a week.

One of the main areas you are judged on in the bikini category is the muscular development of your booty – so this always gets extra attention! As the competition gets closer, I add in additional cardio sessions, which normally increase in number each week depending on results.

As cardio is kept away from weight training sessions, this can mean making three trips to the gym in one day in the final weeks. You can imagine how tiring this is on such low calories.

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That said, the training is by no means the most challenging factor – the diet is where the real pain comes in. An extremely low level of body fat is required to get your body “stage ready” and really show off your muscular development.

That’s possibly the toughest part of show preparation. In the run up to competition, all your food has to be exactly measured to fit your daily requirements, which means weighing everything before you eat it.

I cook all of my own meals once a week, bag them and freeze them, meaning they’re always ready to go however busy I am. Without that level of planning, competition prep just wouldn’t work out.

One of the biggest dieting challenges is the difficulty presented by socialising. Before my earlier competitions, I found eating out or being in the company of anyone eating “normal” food unbearable, and so I became something of a hermit for a while. The cravings for even the simplest foods can consume you.

But I managed to overcome this through multiple preps and no longer find it to be a problem. While I do still get cravings, they’re far more manageable now. You have to build up your mental strength as well as your physical strength.


I get asked constantly why I do bodybuilding, and whether it’s worth it. The answer is always the same: absolutely.

Nothing in life has ever given me more drive or direction. Whether I take home a trophy or not, the feeling of accomplishment I get from competing is worth the pain involved in diet and training.

This sport has changed my life and I will continue to compete until I reach my ultimate goal. But for now, I’m preparing for the Arnold Classic in Madrid and the RIBBF Nationals in October – bring it on.

Jessi Kavanagh is the current RIBBF bikini fitness champion. She has represented Ireland at an international level and has worked in the fitness industry for the last 10 years. She owns, which offers a bespoke home personal training service in South Dublin, specialising in weight loss.

You can follow her on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here

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