By Shawn Maves, Former Mr. Ontario
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I had the dream of winning bodybuilding championships. In one way or another don’t we all? During my best years of training, the World Wide Wrestling Federation was at its height. I looked up to guys like Jim Hellwig, the “Ultimate Warrior,” who was former Mr. Georgia. Winning bodybuilding championships led to movie roles and commercial work for the lucky few. I wanted to be one of them. This vision drove me for over five years, through more than two thousand hours of grueling workouts and strict dieting.
Listen to the companion podcast interview hosted by Troy Ismir.
I figured I’d move to California soon after earning my first major title. I admired classic bodybuilders, like Steve Reeves. Though I competed from 1989-1990, much later than the guys I admired, I wanted to look like their black and white pictures in the muscle magazines. The images they portrayed back then were more realistic and attainable—before it became popular to use steroids to enhance training. I learned how to win and achieve my dreams from both the guys who came before, and the men I trained with along my journey.
At the age of twenty-three, I won the Ontario Bodybuilding Championship, “Mr. Ontario.” I competed in the heavyweight division and qualified for Mr. Canada. Those who win Mr. Canada or Mr. USA gain “pro status.”
If you want to compete at that level, you’ll have to do four things:
Train intensely. Change the atmosphere. Maintain a strict diet. Trade average for exceptional.
To succeed in bodybuilding, you need to prioritize your time and relentlessly focus on the vision of winning a championship. To even come close to a state title or the equivalent, provincial title in Canada, you’ll have to train hard—five-to-six times a week, and for a minimum of one, to one-and-a-half hours a day. You also have to be willing to maintain this workout schedule for at least five years, potentially up to eight.
The first three or four years must be dedicated to building muscle mass slowly, by using progressive overload techniques. As your strength increases, you’ll need to systematically increase resistance, rather than trying to add more repetitions past the eight-to-twelve rep norm for most exercises. You must also work towards decreasing rest time between sets when possible. You should assess weak muscle groups and increase training frequency over time.
CHANGE THE ATMOSPHERE
Pay attention to the atmosphere and training partners you choose. It took me eight months to change my approach to training. I began my workouts at a no-nonsense military gym at the Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario. It was there that I teamed up with the future Mr. Ottawa, Mark Lapierre. We trained together, like two machines on a mission. We fed off of one another’s energy. If one of us went heavier, so did the other. We even set our alarms in the middle of the night to remind ourselves to eat additional protein.
In the summertime, I trained with Mark, but during the school year, I attended Carleton University in Ottawa. After graduation, I worked out at Gold’s Gym in Toronto and I’d done my research. Some of the best bodybuilders in Canada trained there at the time. It was at Gold’s that I partnered up with Jason Marcovici, who eventually earned the title of Mr. Canada in 1990. If you want to be the best, you have to train with the best.
MAINTAIN A STRICT DIET
Learning to develop and follow a strict diet is crucial to achieving your bodybuilding dreams. At the beginning, my nutrition consisted of pizza, burgers, and fries. When I realized I was going nowhere fast, I traded my average “North American” diet for smaller, well-balanced, high-protein meals. I ate up to seven times a day.
You must work up to consuming approximately 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, daily. Lastly, you need to be able to endure an exhausting pre-contest diet and additional preparations before the competition date.
You can control what you put into your body, how often you train, and who you train with, but in the end, you’re at the mercy of the judges to decide your fate in the sport.
TRADE AVERAGE FOR EXCEPTIONAL
After applying these principles for almost three years, I’d gained strength, relative to my natural approach to training. My arms measured over seventeen inches in circumference. I could bench press three hundred pounds and my eight-rep max in the back squat was over four hundred pounds.
I moved to Toronto before I competed in the Ontario Bodybuilding Championship. It was exciting to be wrapped up in that world—training hard and living the life of a young man in Canada’s largest city. I pushed harder than I ever had before. I experienced continual personal bests and my dream seemed attainable. Like so many in the competition realm, I eventually tried using performance-enhancing drugs on and off for a season, though I quit weeks before the big competition.
At the age of twenty-three, I won my first championship, Mr. Ontario.
I was just starting to reach my dreams, but all I felt was empty. I never expected that.
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, only to lose his soul? I ask myself that question now, but didn’t think in those terms back then.
I’d lost one of my brothers in a tragic accident. I had a medical issue, was dealing with the emotional pain of broken relationships, and had few close friends. I released some of my pain at the gym by pushing myself hard, but I just couldn’t find fulfillment in the training or the victory. I was held captive by dreams that would never fulfill me, and I ended up chasing darkness.
You can win a championship or achieve success in academics or business—whatever your dream is—and still feel like something’s missing. I’d qualified to compete for the title of Mr. Canada, but I felt convicted not to go any further. Gold’s gym eventually shut down and everything seemed to be changing overnight. I remember waking up and looking in the mirror one day, realizing I wasn’t who I wanted to be.
The dream was over. The world had made a lot of promises that it just couldn’t deliver, and the innocent vision I’d had of living on the west coast, was lost. Men were supposed to look and act like someone from a Hollywood movie, drive black sports cars, and own million dollar homes. But the things we set our hearts on fade way, never keeping their promises once we’ve attained them.
There was no such thing as a modern day Steve Reeves. It was time to “come home.”
HOW FAITH CHANGED EVERYTHING
Do you remember when you were a kid, and you were outside playing and it was getting dark? How you went a too far from home and it got hard to hear your Mom calling you back? If you went too much further, you couldn’t hear your Dad’s voice either. I was dangerously close to that point—to the place where I couldn’t hear the Father’s voice. I was technically a Christian. I’d accepted Christ as my Savior in my teens, but pushed God away to live a life of selfish ambition.
My roommate at that time, who happened to be the only Christian I knew in Toronto, invited me to a Bible study. Though it wasn’t until a few years following the bodybuilding competition that I rededicated my life to Christ, that experience was a turning point. I began to realize that the dreams I had were smoke-in-mirrors, that my thinking was warped. My sheep hear My voice, I know them and they follow me…I began to practice listening for God’s voice above the World’s.
The truth is that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. That means that we can never be completely satisfied by earthly desires, pursuits, and achievements. We’ve been taught to think too highly of shortsighted dreams in this life, but not enough of eternity. Many of us go on thinking, “If I’d won just one more championship, earned one more degree, or made one more business deal, that would have satisfied me.”
I read that in the United States, between one and three million people use anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes. Fifty-seven percent of users said they would continue steroids, even though it could shorten their lifespan. Also, forty-four percent of teens say that the drugs are fairly easy to obtain.
Regardless of the statistics, I know this to be personally true: The heart is deceptive above all things, even when we don’t realize it. The earthly things we long for fade away in the end, but the truth sets us free. Most of us realize we desire something that can’t be gained in this world. There’s a real want in us for heaven. Because we’re made in God’s image, we have spiritual thirst and eternal value. He’s built in us a longing for Himself and for the kind of perfect world that we can only get short glimpses of here on earth. The dreams that fill our lives won’t fulfill us in the end. We must learn to desire something more. The real prize is the person of God, Himself.
THE VALUE OF SPIRITUAL ENDURANCE
Maybe you can relate to the pressures of competition. Maybe good is never good enough for you either. I remember getting photos back from the Ontario Championships and still not being satisfied. One of the problems of bodybuilding is that, to win, you have to submit to worldly ideals. But by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, we receive eternal life, pressing on toward a day that we’ll be everything God calls us to be. We’re to set our minds on things above, not earthly things.
God is showing me that my relationship with Him, and my family relationships are something to be valued above all earthly achievements. Life in Christ is different from bodybuilding. We can all win and achieve our dreams.
In the book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said it this way, “The Christians who did the most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” The trophies we aim for fade and collect dust. Sometimes achieving the ultimate dream means finding a new one. Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, wrote these words, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training—they do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
Today I'm thankful to spend time with my father, mother, sister and surviving brother when I visit them in the Pembroke, Ontario area a few times a year. God has blessed me with Victoria, my beautiful, spirit filled wife. We have been married for more than eleven years. He has also blessed me with my son Joel, a strong young man of faith. He is a earning his business degree at Brock University in Ontario, and a summer program coordinator for Youth for Christ International. God has even greater things in store for him. God is showing me that my relationship with Him, and my family relationships are something to be valued above all earthly achievements.
I still train hard, three times a week for personal fitness, but now I aim for a higher prize by living for Christ. Prayer, worship, Bible study, and sharing my faith are my focus. We run the race marked out for us with endurance, fixing our eyes on Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Jesus saw the joy ahead of Him, so He endured the cross to pay the price for the sin of all mankind. When we face trials, we consider Him—who endured such opposition—so that we won’t grow weary either.
T.D. Jakes said, “If you don’t have at least a vision of the promise, the process will discourage you.” Where once I pushed hard at the gym, now I push toward an enduring faith.
Physical training has some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life, and the life to come.
Life in Christ is different from bodybuilding. We can all win and achieve our dreams. There’s no single champion. Jesus saves everyone who believes in Him, if only we make the decision to ask.
Meet Shawn and talk with him more about training and how God has given him a high definition perspective on faith and fitness. He will be at Faith & Fitness Magazine's 2017 redefined - a faith and fitness conference. Join us and watch for more of him from the conference on our social media.
This article appears as the cover story and in the Men's Interest department of the October/November 2017 issue of Faith & Fitness Magazine. Share this story on your social media or e-newsletter. Save our social media graphic (seen below) to your device.