Shaun Stafford magazine shoot FS magazine ()Shaun Stafford magazine shoot FS magazine () © Copyright

King of the jungle

To the outsider, the fitness industry can look like a jungle. It’s a dense environment, saturated by brands, personalities and content, all of whom are trying to drive upwards through the busy canopy and into the sunshine.

As in all jungles, too, there are your apex predators. They are those to whom little threat is posed; they are at the top of their food chain and are the benchmark for survival in such a hostile environment. And in the fitness industry, you don’t carry much more pedigree than model Shaun Stafford. (Check out Shaun Stafford's four-day workout plan for FS magazine)

Stafford is a two-time World Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (WBFF) world champion in the ‘pro fitness model’ category, and has made a very good living from the pursuit of aesthetic perfection.

He exists in a world of six packs, Snapchat and endless self-promotion, before squeezing himself into a pair of hotpants, getting smothered in fake tan as orange as nacho cheese, and posing in front of other men. Everything you think about bodybuilding and its various guises seems pretty reasonable, and you’d probably be forgiven for having a giggle at the absurdity of it all.

But, as Stafford explains when we catch up with him at the Arnold Classic (yup, that Arnold) in Barcelona, the industry’s overtly exhibitionist nature belies its hidden depths.

Shaun Stafford photoshoot FS magazine ()


“People ask me whether taking your shirt off all day and staring down the lens of a camera is extremely narcissistic,” Stafford says, after a full-on day of fan-boying, selfies and sharing cake with fitness sensation Steve Cook. “But I think we’re putting out content that will hopefully inspire someone to want to make a positive change in their lives.”

Scepticism with a dash of cynicism may be warranted in the era of the ‘me-generation’, but Stafford’s intentions are pure. At these mega expos such as the Arnold Classic – where people queued 90 minutes to do a meet-and-greet with both Stafford and Cook – you soon realise the vibe is wholly inclusive.

“I think there are bad apples in every industry,” Stafford continues, “and they can draw negative attention to what they’re doing, but the overwhelming message within the fitness industry is a positive one, and is extremely uplifting.

“It’s inspiring a whole generation of young people to be enthusiastic about their training, their nutrition and their overall wellbeing.”

Stafford started out in the fitness industry while studying geography and economics at Oxford University. As a teenager, he was a member of Wasps’ Academy, and his ultimate goal was to play rugby professionally for England. Training in the gym was merely an accessory to his work on the pitch, but after a serious shoulder injury threatened his career, he soon realised he enjoyed the weight training more than he did the playing.

Shaun Stafford photoshoot FS magazine ()


His route into the industry was more conventional, with Stafford taking up a part-time job in a local gym, where he progressed from mopping showers to becoming a qualified personal trainer within a year. A career as a fitness model soon beckoned.

“Once I had given up the rugby, I felt like I was in the wilderness a little bit, and having this fixed idea where you’re held accountable for what you do makes it very competitive,” Stafford says. “The idea of ‘fitness modelling’ over bodybuilding was just coming in over in the States as well as over here, and this idea of the ‘fitness model’ was popping up. It was one of those things where I wanted something to train for, so I thought I’d give it a crack. I need a goal to motivate me.”

After winning his first major contest in 2011, Stafford entered the WBFF UK championships in the fitness model category, which he duly won, before heading to the WBFF European ProAms, where again he won and got his pro card. As 2012 came to an end, Stafford found himself at the WBFF World Championships, standing on stage in front of thousands of people. Again, he won the Worlds – in his first attempt – a feat he would go on to repeat in 2014.

“There’s nothing more accountable for me than being up on stage in a pair of hotpants in front of a thousand people and being judged on the very essence of what’s you. They’re pulling your appearance apart, your physique, how you move… It makes you want to give everything, and represent yourself as best you can.”

Shaun Stafford photoshoot FS magazine ()


Now 33, Stafford’s rapid ascent within the fitness game has allowed him to open up his own gym, City Athletic, in central London, as well as travel the world acting as an ambassador for both the WBFF and performance nutrition brand Optimum Nutrition (ON).

It’s not without its sacrifices either, and Stafford acknowledges that fitness and bodybuilding can be extremely self-centred. “When you do a show,” he explains, “it’s all consuming. It’s got to be. If you don’t give it 100 per cent, it will show.”

Today, Stafford has taken a backseat from competition because of reconstructive surgery on his shoulder, as well as the birth of his son a year ago. While there are murmurs that he will commit to one more show in the new year, he has continued to build a brand that sees him recognised as an international fitness icon.

He spends hours every day managing content for more than a million followers collectively across social media, while his relationships with clients at City Athletic have to be maintained, and commitments to sponsors such as ON carried out. To reach the top in this game, the hands-on nature of turning yourself into a brand has to be something you figure out quickly. This is the new age now, and solely having a great physique is unlikely to open any doors for you.

“There’s so many people out there with good physiques, but there are very few people out there making a career from it,” Stafford confirms. “There are a few things that will help you make a career from it: one of them is having skills such as the ability to edit, write content, and then be able to manage it.

Shaun Stafford magazine shoot FS magazine ()


“Don’t get me wrong – every time I whip out my camera to do a vlog post, I cringe a little inside, but I know for some people, it’s really going to help. It sounds cheesy, but it’s amazing to be in a position where we meet people who come out to see us and explain the positive impact we’re having. It’s so fulfilling.”

With an industry worth £626m in the UK alone and with more than 21,000 businesses directly associated with coaching or training, new talent is joining the industry in droves. Social media has played a key role in this; not only has it aggregated content for free, thus democratising the flow of knowledge, but it’s become a platform where credibility is earned.

For Shaun Stafford, his advice for anyone wanting to get into the industry is simple: remember who you’re talking to. “What I think is so important is having the personality that will carry your message past the six-pack.

“If you don’t have a personality that people can connect with or relate to, and you can’t give time to people to hear their story, you’re not going to go far at all in this game.”

Check out Shaun Stafford's four-day workout plan for FS magazine

Photos: Gabriel Guzman


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