First Published November 2021
It says a lot about how humble someone is when you can spend the best part of an hour talking to them about their life and career in fitness, and it’s only after you’ve finished that they just happen to mention in passing about that time when they broke their back once. It reveals more than just a genuine humility too. It hints at strength of mind that’s close to ironclad. Your body simply won’t bounce back from something like a broken back – and eventually lead you into the world of competitive powerlifting – unless your mind is totally under your control, and is a constantly stoked furnace fuelling your thoughts every day.
But that’s TARA MOONEY for you, humble, and pretty much unbreakable.
There are several different titles you can apply to the Edenderry native in trying to describe her.
Tara is a fitness instructor, a personal trainer, a fierce competitor and a proven warrior when it comes to powerlifting, and one of Rinka’s lead instructors in Ireland. But the truth is that none of those –either alone or combined – quite do her justice.
There’s more to her than just what she does. The secret to appreciating the presence of a spirit like hers in this world is to watch how such a spirit does things. Listen to how positive they always are when they talk. Be aware of how often they laugh. Take in how easily they can laugh at themselves, too. And pay attention to how passionate they become when they talk about the joy that helping others brings them.
If you ever have the chance to sit in conversation with Tara for even a little while, you’ll experience all of the above, and in abundance.
The same Tara who didn’t think that bouncing back from a broken back was any big deal, probably won’t think there’s anything too special about all those other things either. But that’s what some of the world’s best souls are always like. It’s because they’re humble that they’re unbreakable. And it’s because they’re unbreakable that they’re inspirational.
When I had the pleasure of sitting down with Tara for a chat about her life as a competitive powerlifter, and so much more, I began by asking her to explain the difference between powerlifting and weightlifting…
“They’re completely different. With weightlifting, you have your Olympic weightlifting – what you see there – but with powerlifting, you have three different lifts in the competition. You have your squat, your bench, and your deadlift. The whole idea is that the squat is power for your legs, the bench is your push-power, and your deadlift is your pull-power. It’s challenging and testing all of those areas. So to be good at it, you need to be good at all three. With weightlifting, it’s usually one lift that people do. It might be a clean-and-jerk, maybe a snatch or something like that. It’s just about getting the weight over their head or off the ground. But powerlifting is a strength test. In powerlifting you have to do all three. Now, you can do single-lifts, which is just push, which is bench. Or just deadlift, no squat. But generally, it’s all three lifts. You get three chances at each one and your highest one – the one you get the most weight in – is taken, and they’re all added for your total. You get to pick your first lift. So it can be complicated as well. Say if I go in with a 100 kilo squat, well if I don’t get that, I can’t go back down with my weight. Your second attempt has to be 100 kilos as well. If you go to a third attempt, and you don’t get it again, you’re out of the competition, and you don’t even get to the bench. Now, if you get your 100 kilos, you can go up by 2.5 kilos. So you can progress that way. But you need to be really careful about your first lift.”
So there’s actually tactics involved really?
“Absolutely, yeah. So you’ll be in a competition with a [weight] class, and I’ve done this before to win a competition. It was neck and neck with another girl. For your points at the end, the lower your body-weight and the more you lift, the more points you get. So we were neck and neck. I put in that I was doing a 150 kilo deadlift, so she went in with a number then to basically beat me. She went and she lifted that. But you can change again for your last deadlift. I did that, got the lift, and I won it. So I kinda tricked her [laughs]. So yeah, it is tactical, absolutely.”
And is it tactical in the sense that you can also prepare tactics beforehand, as opposed to on the fly?
“You prepare for it. Your opener, your first lift, you want it to be something you’ll get any day of the week. You go in there, you smash it, you’ve got it. The nerves will get at you, so you want it to be something that you know you’ll get. But, on the day you could go in, do your warm-up, and you just don’t feel it. So you could go down [on weight], you can change before the competition starts. I always say that my first lift will be something that I’ll hit comfortably any day of the week. My second lift is near enough my max. And the third lift, let’s go hell-for-leather! Let’s just f$&king go for it [laughs].”
One of the most remarkable parts of Tara’s story is how, just nine months after beginning to train – while still working in an office, and being a single mum to her children Daniel and Georgia – she ended up being flown to Berlin to battle a famous German fitness model Cornelia Ritzke, a contest which has now been viewed almost 1.5 million times on YouTube. But before we spoke about Berlin itself, I asked Tara to take me back in time to nine months before that, when all of this began…
“I’d had kids, put on a bit of weight when I got pregnant, and like 90% of women I said I’m going to go to the gym and lose the baby weight. Now, I started from complete scratch, I mean I couldn’t do a single push-up. I was doing classes and getting programs from fitness instructors and I really enjoyed it. It was my hour away from the kids as well, so I used that as my me-time. I was doing a little bit of weights, on the treadmill running, didn’t really know what I was doing, it was very basic stuff. A guy that I was starting to see was into powerlifting, and he was down one end of the gym lifting crazy weights and shouting, all this mad stuff going on! [Laughs]. I was down with my little dumbbells doing my biceps curls! So they said to me to come up and do a bit of lifting, and I was actually so intimidated, but I said you know what, I’ll give it a go. The first lift I did was a deadlift, and I was hitting alright numbers, I think I started with 80 kilos, and I was about 50 kilos at the time, so that was a decent enough number for that weight, considering I’d never done anything before.”
“But I suppose”, continued Tara, “because I’d done horse-riding before, I did have a little bit of an athletic background before I had the kids, that probably stood to me. There was a bit of strength there. But in a matter of weeks, I was up over 100 kilos. Now, when I look back, my form was terrible, I don’t know how I didn’t break myself up [laughs]. But, I could lift that weight. So then there was a bench-press competition in Tullamore – and I’m somebody who just says yes to everything, I’m a yes girl [laughs] – and I said, I’ll do it! I’ve never bench-pressed before in my life, but I’ll practise and train for it. And I came third in that. For women, it was half your body weight, as many reps as possible. So for me, I think it was something like 30 kilos, and I did it for 30 reps, which was decent enough. I had only trained for three weeks! That was it, I was hooked! I was like, I absolutely love this! So I started training, signed myself up for my first powerlifting competition, went and did that. And again, when I look back [laughs], I’m like oh my God! I was terrible [laughs]. I mean, I lifted decent weights, but I looked terrible doing it. And I thought I knew what I was doing! But that was it. I loved it, and I just never looked back.”
Was it the adrenaline that Tara became hooked on?
“It’s chasing the numbers. Everyone goes to the gym because you want to look good. But that’s something that’s just so broad to try and achieve, you’re never gonna hit it, you’re never gonna be happy. You can get lean, build this, tone down on that, but you’ll still pick yourself apart. So you come out of the gym, yeah, you’ve had an alright session, but you still haven’t hit your goal. With powerlifting, you’re chasing numbers. You’re preparing for competitions. So when you go in there [to the gym], it’s performance based. And you hit it. You go there, you do what’s got to be done, you hit your numbers, you tick things off the list, and you achieve something. You walk out of there and you feel like you’ve achieved something, rather than this unattainable goal of ‘looking right.’ It’s completely different. That’s why my mindset changed. I felt like I was training for performance, and that makes you feel good about yourself.”
So, onto Berlin! How did that happen?
“Because I’m a yes girl! [Laughs]. The guy that I was seeing, we used to watch this show called ‘Strength Wars’ on YouTube. It used to come out every week. They’d have these crazy strong guys from different countries that would battle each other. It was like a tournament and the guys that won the most matches would fight each other in the final. Then they started advertising that they were going to do a female version, which had never been done before. The girl I ended up going against, I’d seen her on ‘Strength Wars’ before, because it’s a German show, and I was always looking at her and going, holy crap, she’s amazing and she looks so strong. I put her way up here [on a pedestal], unbelievable. So we said we’d put my name down for the craic [laughs]. They got back in touch asking me what could I deadlift, can you do pull-ups…I was like, yeah, I can do pull-ups…but I couldn’t! [Laughs]. I was like, ‘Yeah, of course I can!’ [Laughs]. I didn’t think I was going to get picked! Two or three weeks later, I got a message saying congratulations, you’ve been picked to go. So I thought, awesome, I’ll learn all these things that I said I could do [laughs].”
Tara continued, “So I asked them how long did I have [until the competition], and they said three weeks! And I was like, daaaamn! [laughs]. So I went to the gym, and I got a pull-up bar and I mean I practised pull-ups every…single…day! I made a rule with myself that everytime I passed through my bedroom door, I would do as many pull-ups as I could. So I’d start off with just one…and barely. Then the next day, I’d try and get more. And I did that consistently for three weeks. Now ok, when I look back on that show, I did crappy pull-ups [laughs]. But, I did 35 after only three weeks training. They’d never done that show before, and they’ve never done it since. She was a fitness model, kind of a glamour model as well, a huge Instagram following in Germany, and I was the complete opposite. She was seeing the producer of the show, and I think she wanted an easy win, but I’ll tell ya, I gave her a run for her money! [Laughs]. She was on magazine covers and everything, and I was a mum from Tullamore, with two kids, and working in an office in a hotel! I knew I was going in as the underdog, but I’m the most determined person you’ll ever meet. I didn’t win, but I only lost by 3 reps for the whole thing. But I was happy because I’d only been doing it for a few months. And I dominated all the way up to the last pull-ups. I was kicking her ass [laughs]. Then it was burpees to pull-ups and I just couldn’t get my chin over the bar, I kept getting no-repped, I just couldn’t do it anymore. But everyone was so nice. And all the comments underneath the video were people saying they couldn’t believe how well I did because I was just a normal, average mum from Ireland!”
She continued, “I was a sales and marketing executive at the time, and I used to train on my lunch-break. I had kids, I was single at that time, I was living on my own [with my kids]. The only time I could train was lunch. We had an hour break. I’d bring my gym stuff, get changed, go train in the gym at work, and then go back to work again after. I was determined! [Laughs].
Speaking of strength of mind and attitude, most people probably think of big, huge brutes of men when they think of powerlifting, mainly because so many still think of strength as only being muscle, and the kind that’s immediately visible to the eye. Now Tara – who is also a model on top of everything else – is most definitely not a big huge brute of a man. But her story, I think, perfectly illustrates the kind of strength that isn’t always apparent in someone, and that’s strength of mind, discipline. I asked her to talk to me about the importance of mindset and attitude in what she does…
“Yeah, listen, you need to put the work in, definitely. It’s hard to juggle everything and keep everything balanced, but it is [about] routine at the end of the day. You can never rely on motivation. It comes and goes. But if you’re disciplined and follow a structure…, like, nobody wants to go into work, but we all do. It’s the same with the gym. If you really want to get something – it doesn’t even have to be with the gym – you pop it into your day, it happens at this time, and that’s it. And your mind-set has to be about how bad do you want something.”
So how did Tara develop her mind-set, or was it just something she’s had all of her life?
“I’ve always been stubborn, I suppose [laughs]. But when I was younger, I wasn’t athletic or anything like that. I never made teams when I was younger, I was never very good at anything at all. But I was always determined, I just never knew how to focus it in on something. When I started powerlifting I was after going through the break-up with my kids’ dad, and I suppose powerlifting was like a focus for me, to take my mind off things, because obviously that’s a hard time. So I was able then to focus that determination on something that was going to bring good into my life. But it wasn’t just with powerlifting, because then I wanted to try something else, so then I did CrossFit. Then running. So I kind of learned how you can apply your mindset to different things in your life.
In sport, you have to have the right mind-set to achieve the kind of success that you want. But also in life, if you have the right mind-set…
“Absolutely! You can learn to adapt to things. When we’re younger we want to have fun and stuff like that. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t really care about career or anything like that. But when you have kids, you need to focus in on things, not just really for yourself but to provide for your kids. So you need to learn how to adapt your focus. It wasn’t until I hit my thirties that all of this – everything fitness related – happened to me. I had done horse-riding, but that was it. My twenties were completely devoted to my kids. I had them when I was twenty-four, so I rarely left the house. I just worked part-time, I just raised my kids. I went for runs and stuff like that. But it wasn’t until my thirties, when I had that break-up, that I said you know what…I’m just going to live my life. I want to do things. So anything that I hadn’t done, I was just going to say yes to. So it’s never too late, it’s NEVER too late. Definitely not.”
To be in the shape that Tara is in, and to do all of the things she does, that obviously doesn’t just happen. So what’s a typical training day or training week like for her?
“It depends on how I’m working. I take time off sometimes because I always say that if you don’t do that, your body will make you do it. You’ll pick up an injury. So when I feel like I’m getting tired, I’ll take time off. I’m getting back into things now, so what I’d generally do is in the morning – if I wake up early enough [laughs] – I’ll go and do a walk or a little bit of cardio. I find it’s a good way to start your day off. I’ll drop the kids to school, then if I don’t have PT clients, or work with RINKA – because I work in kids fitness as well – then I’m into the gym to train myself. I like to get my training done as early as I can in the morning. If I’m working, I’ll get it done straight after. That’s when I’ll do my weight training. If I don’t have weight training, I’ll do my cardio that day. Then I’m back home looking after the kids, then maybe my RINKA classes. And then in the evening it’s family time. I don’t dedicate an awful lot of time to it [training], maybe an hour to two hours a day, max. That’s all you need. It’s about consistency, about just doing it five days a week, every week, instead of being in there three hours one or two days a week. You’re just not gonna get results from that.”
~ You can find, follow, and contact Tara on Instagram at @tinypowermum