How a 98-pound ex-Marine became a champion bodybuilder

shawn stinson

Courtesy of Shawn Stinson

This story is part of Trans in Fitness, a profile series that highlights fitness changemakers who are making the world easier and healthier for their community. Read the rest of the inspiring stories here.

SHAWN STINSON, A two-time bodybuilding champion, he was always unapologetically himself. That’s why it’s no surprise that he joined the Marines at 18, weighing just 98 pounds. Looking to start a new life outside of Peoria, Illinois, the small town where he grew up, Stinson was drawn to the nature and elite discipline (and okay, yeah, uniforms) of the military.

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While deployed in Iraq, he trained much more frequently, but his dietary habits remained relatively the same as during his civilian life. Fast forward to 2013, eight years after leaving the Marines, when he experienced a moment that changed the trajectory of his health journey. One day I stopped at a bank I frequent and one of the managers came in and she put her hand on my stomach and said, You’re rummaging, aren’t you? Stinson tells Men’s health. Now mind you, this was years after I had trained. That worked right there, that was the game changer for me.

She quickly started making necessary changes, like cutting out excess sugar and drinking only water. He compares it to the 80/20 principle, which essentially implies that 80 percent of transformation is driven by diet and 20 percent by exercise. Since he’d been exercising consistently for years, the 20 percent component was effortless for him. However, it was the diet that ultimately transformed his body.

A year later, he gained attention on Facebook for his notable shredding results and was asked to enter the first ever transgender bodybuilding competition, FITCON (now called the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders & Powerlifters). After winning first place two years in a row, he became head judge in 2019, where he was able to mentor other bodybuilders who are continuing to build on the legacy he helped create. I love a loser! It’s nice to watch that building process. That’s what fuels me today, he says. My successes will make room for people like me to see themselves in this light.

Now based in Atlanta, Georgia, Stinson, 44, is a personal trainer, nutritionist and life coach. His program, 80/20 Fit, is about reprogramming people to believe they can do anything you put your mind to, following the same approach Stinson used to get the body he has today. Below, Stinson chats with Men’s health about living his life authentically and fearlessly, because bodybuilding gives him joy and the advice he has for young competitors.

Men’s Health: Can you share some insight into your experience of transitioning and how it was for you?

Shawn Stinson: First off, I want to acknowledge that everyone’s experience is different. We all come from different backgrounds and we all have different families with different values. I haven’t had some of the same traumatic experiences that other people I know have had. My family was very open. I didn’t have to talk to them at that table. I’ve always been what you see me. When I started making the hormonal transition, I warned my family before I got home that my facial hair started growing under my chin. And they were like OK.

When I had surgery, it was because of how I felt inside. I grew up very spiritual and down to earth. Just being very aware and very in tune, feeling my environment. Yet I had no one to talk to about it. As I grew older and gained financial independence, I realized that I have the ability to act on certain matters. It was only after transitioning that I found my community.

shawn stinson

Stinson’s bringing in a pump.

Courtesy of Shawn Stinson

Do you have any role models you’ve admired throughout your fitness journey?

Growing up, I was really into track and field. Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner) was a huge inspiration because they gave her so much negative feedback and tried to make her shine. There have been several allegations of her using steroids for years when in reality it was just her natural build. I’ve always been attracted to losers, or people who’ve been overlooked, because I can see deeper than that. Serena Williams was another [person] who has received a lot of negative feedback in the public eye based on her body. But she always rose above it too. I’ve learned that it’s all about having that mental strength and formulating your reality. This is the key to rising above.

As I got older and started diving into fitness, the people who really stood out for me were Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and Ronnie Coleman. I’m not saying I ever wanted to be that big, but it was the heights they were able to reach and the way they trained and structured their bodies. I love innovation and creation. I love watching people do the impossible. I’m attracted to mental toughness, not just physical attributes.

What is it that brings you joy in bodybuilding and how did you develop this passion?

I don’t look like the average person walking around. It’s not to impress anyone, it’s just how I want to look and feel. I address myself that way because that’s what makes me happy. And I also help others find their happiness this way. My purpose is much bigger than a bodybuilding competition. I’m here to save lives. I’m here to build people’s minds and help them fall in love with themselves like never before. I am here to give them the physique and health they desire. For me, the competition was an experience, but the most important thing is people’s livelihood. I want to make sure people are able to take care of themselves when they reach old age and can still be active.

After winning first place two years in a row at the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders (IATB) competition, you became head judge in 2019. What advice did you give to younger competitors?

The highlights for me came after the show when everyone was relaxed. I enjoyed interacting with the gentlemen and going over different tips and techniques regarding posing and whatnot. It’s not just about the physique! It’s about posing and how to show it off. You need to know your angles, how to contract, and how to transition from one pose to the next. You have to finish the stage and give a performance.

shawn stinson

Stinson after winning his first bodybuilding contest in 2014.

Courtesy of Shawn Stinson

What are some of the challenges you have faced in the world of training and/or bodybuilding?

That’s a lot of dedication and time. You have to be very structured. The biggest challenge has been balancing personal life and training. I get up at 3am every morning so I can work out without distractions. Just because something happens or you are going through something you still have to go. And that’s really the biggest challenge for everyone when it comes to this industry: consistency.

In addition to being a bodybuilding coach, you are also a life coach. One of your main pillars is helping your customers live within their purpose. How do you cultivate it in your sessions? And how do you exemplify this in your daily life?

As a life coach, I am a People Renovator. But I can’t do anything with your body if I don’t have your mind. It’s my job to let you know when you’re being hard on yourself. I’m here to change your mindset and make you fall deeply in love with yourself. You will begin to notice changes in your environment. You will notice that you can’t stand a lot of people who were in your life who don’t serve you. All of this comes together and blends into a recipe for success and happiness. But it starts with you. I stand by it because my whole program started with me.

What advice do you have for other trainers who are training trans clients?

All must be trained as individuals according to their needs and backgrounds. The advantage of training with me is that you will receive individual training so that you always feel comfortable. My position is to make you comfortable spiritually, mentally and physically. We are first and foremost spiritual beings. This body is just an avatar. So all you have to do is get out of the way and decide what YOU want. So no, there is no special treatment. We are all human.

By sharing your story, what are you hoping for Men’s health Will readers learn about the trans experience?

We are more alike than different. We all work with the same anatomy. Anyone with the right mindset can build their own body. Your results depend on how much you want to invest in your body and in your diet. But you have to start You First. If you can develop the right mindset, it will take you much further than you thought you could see. We focus too much on those who don’t understand. Let them not get it, we have too much life to live.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Jaimar Brown

Jaimar Brown is a personal trainer and content creator promoting Black Queer Joy through fitness. You can see him conducting strength and HIIT classes all over New York City. He is also a member of the Men’s health & Women’s health Strength in Diversity initiative. Follow him on Youtube (@JMalikFitness) where he posts curated follow-up workouts to playlists that highlight Black Queer artists!

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