Hi! Tell us about yourself and your training
Hi guys! My name is Maria Lee and I’m from Vancouver, Canada. I turned 33 in December 2019, and I ended my career in technical documentation back in 2014 to make health and fitness my livelihood.
I currently own a personal training business that is just over five years old and growing stronger each year. My business is my baby and consumes the vast majority of my life — business owners who are goal-oriented often have to sacrifice time with loved ones when pursuing professional success, and I am no different.
Being an entrepreneur and activist with ethical vegan ideals doesn’t make it easier to meet the right guy! I’m not married and I don’t have any kids. Actually, not true. My clients are my kids, I care for them like they’re my blood family.
I started working out when I was 17, a newbie who imitated what she saw others do at the gym. I went to the community gym when I was in high school and just never stopped. Over the years, the gym has become my home away from home, the place I turn to for reinvigoration, structure, and resetting.
In the summer of 2018, I went on stage to compete as a natural vegan bikini athlete and placed 2nd in Bikini Open at my first regional show, the BC Cup Natural Championships. This allowed me to move on to the international tier, which was the IFBB Van Pro Qualifier. I didn’t win first place, but I did get 3rd in Bikini Open again, which I was VERY happy with given the fact that I didn’t even expect to get up to that tier as a total newbie to the stage.
I’ve been a @VeganAthleteWear ambassador for a year now, and also sponsored by a local plant-based meal delivery company in Vancouver called Planted Meals (@plantedmeals). I also have a friend in LA who started a Brazilian jiu-jitsu streetwear brand called @aetculture who sponsors me as well!
I don’t normally shoot for PRs as a goal in training as I’ve had chronic nerve damage in my wrists and chronic hip and lumbar issues from my previous career for over seven years now.
So, my numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but here they are: Deadlift PR is two plates a side for three reps, barbell hip thrusters is 235 lbs for six reps, and pullups PR is 14!
What I love most about fitness and bodybuilding or weight training is how it fulfills all my criteria for universal applicability:
- It is accessible and adaptable for everyone, no matter what life stage we’re at
- It’s a positive endeavour that improves all of our states: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual
- It helps us show up better in all of the roles we hold in our relationships and environments
- It teaches discipline, self-restraint, self control, resilience, self-love and self belief, and pursuit of worthy goals
- It can be a conduit of self-empowerment for people struggling with self-destructive behaviours to overcome self-loathing and despair
As for other pursuits or hobbies, I’m one of those people who don’t do entertainment. One of the advantages of growing up without TV. Most of my screen time is for social media, research, or business operations.
When I get a chance, I enjoy watching conspiracy videos and theories on aliens, higher consciousness, and how quantum physics ties into spirituality.
I recently got into the show Rick and Morty, which is amazing once you get over the burping and narcissistic flamboyancy!
I do take short trips to LA and other cities in North America to visit friends and make connections. I prefer to seek out business opportunities even while travelling — you never know who you might meet that may become an important catalyst or connection.
Instagram, @meatfreemarialee - photo by @trix_pangilinan
Describe a typical day of training
I may go against the grain here but I’m ironically one of those people who hate following the same workout routine every day — even though as a trainer I promote sticking with a routine and structure!
My philosophy is more intuitive in nature where I constantly seek new limits and experiment with different techniques. I go to the gym five to six days a week, and I alternate between upper body pull (my favourite!), lower body anterior chain (quads, glutes), upper body push, and lower body posterior chain. I throw in core and a ton of HIIT and plyometrics every day.
I also like to combine athletic conditioning into my bodybuilding programming. On leg day, for example, I’ll superset deadlifts with flip weighted jump squats. I love high reps for muscle endurance, and I’ve learned over the years that they can be really beneficial for muscle building while promoting fat loss and aerobic gains.
I recently started doing what I call Tabata-inspired sprints as a warmup, and a really nice stretch sesh after each workout. After my bikini shows in 2018, I decided to make flexibility and mobility my next area of improvement, to undo all the rigidity that bodybuilding training can cause. It’s been a little over a year of consistent stretching and mobility work and I’m my most fluid and bendy yet, even inspiring my male friends to focus on more stretching themselves!
I used to adore full-body complexes that improve coordination, power, explosiveness, and speed, but now that I’ve got bodybuilding training under my belt I’m a little torn between the focus of the two training modalities.
Train for well-rounded functionality and performance, or train for aesthetics and brute strength? I alternate between the two, depending on which muscle group I’m training. I still want to build my glutes, so I do mostly bodybuilding on leg/booty day.
On most other days I return to my hybrid HIIT + weights approach. Calisthenics, and pullups especially, still remain my favourite though!
How do you keep going and push harder?
Just like anyone else, I have days where motivation is flagging and I feel depressed and low-frequency (especially right before my period), more easily negatively affected by external stimuli. When those days come around, I turn to positive affirmation videos on YouTube and podcasts by spiritual and professional leaders who can, in turn, fill my cup.
Because, as a trainer and coach, I’m constantly filling the cup of others and giving out positive and supportive energy to help clients overcome hurdles and traumatic life events. To help bolster me for such a calling, my life motto has been the following for years:
“I am an infinite source of positive energy here to do good work.”
Simple, and yet profound in lifting me out of temporary states of negatively perceived circumstances. Thanks to my university training in philosophy (existentialism and metaphysics were my favourite topics) and subsequent self-education in quantum physics married with spirituality, life to me is more vast and malleable than what I’d been conditioned to perceive.
As such, I truly believe that our flesh and bone body is our first home, and will be our last home. It houses our spirit and deserves our love and respect. How can we treat it badly?
I’ve become so used to working out and the invigoration and strengthening it provides me that I cannot even imagine stopping or giving it up. It is my #1 priority every day. I will train before I eat my first meal. It keeps me grounded, makes my day so much better, clears my head, makes me feel confident and powerful. It is literally the secret to my strong life-force.
I also believe that we must take care of ourselves first before we can truly be at our best to take care of others. Thanks to my training over the years, I’ve become so mentally strong and disciplined that I have been able to achieve my professional and financial goals.
The skills and qualities I developed at the gym have served me well in the other arenas of my life. And so, my parents don’t have to worry about my future.
I have become a healthy, well-rounded, successful individual that can make mom and dad proud, who can give back to them because she is independent and capable. And I think that is the best gift that a child can gift her parents.
That isn’t to say there weren’t hurdles that knocked me down hard. One was a partner I had when I was still building my business who did not me believe in me at all. There was only criticism, put-downs, negativity, judgment. It was pretty verbally and psychologically abusive, but it was familiar to me because it was what I had grown up to as a kid. The ones closest to me didn’t believe I would succeed.
I didn’t let those words and lack of belief squash me for good though. I didn’t cave to the negativity and lack of support. I used it as fuel to work even harder, after a couple months of financial instability thanks to his head trash. I knew that he was only projecting what was inside of him.
The things people say about others is usually only a reflection of their own internal world, not of us. I managed to bounce back and turn things around in a year, so much that he said I was the first person to ever make him eat his own words.
And now, my life is the BEST I have ever experienced! I wouldn’t have been able to imagine all this abundance and success, all the amazing people I would meet along the way who’ve steered me onto greater and greater achievements.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Currently, I’m hyper-focused on taking my business to the next level and shifting from trading time for money to achieving infinite scalability online.
I’m still hitting the gym five to six times a week, but not for more than 1.5 hours in order to make time for business tasks. My workouts are usually dedicated to the big lifts, kickboxing/bag work, plyometrics, calisthenics, and other compound movements to make the most of my time there.
My goal for 2020 is to launch a successful online fitness and wellness brand, which will allow me to go visit all the places in the world that I’d put off for years in order to become financially established.
I sacrificed travelling and exploring the world in my twenties for long-term professional gain, and now I feel like the time has come to finally invest in growing my treasure trove of experiences.
In five years’ time, I expect myself to be so financially free that I’ll be able to fly anywhere at the drop of a hat!
I’m not really interested in having a committed relationship, even though I’m at the age where many women are low-key panicking. I know that everything that is meant to happen will happen, all at the perfect time and in the perfect way.
This is why I don’t regret anything along my life’s journey, either to do with my fitness, my bodybuilding experiences, or my professional endeavours. I trust that the universe has my best interests at heart and that I am well taken care of — as is every one of you!
How do you recover, rest and handle injuries?
My main injuries are not from the gym! They were caused by improper ergonomics years ago when I was working in a sedentary environment.
On the off chance I do get injured though, it’s usually minor incidents like a smashed knuckle while racking a weight, or an ankle sprain from a faulty landing — I’ve sprained both ankles six to eight times so they are very prone to rolling!
Overall, it doesn’t take me long to recover at all though. My body has felt superhuman ever since I went vegan, and recovery and healing are usually accelerated. I know my systems are functioning at optimal levels because I seem to avoid all the colds and bugs that fly around every few weeks, including the seasonal flu.
For muscle soreness from training, I just rely on the basics: A rubber lacrosse and a ridged foam roller for deep tissue self-massaging, both pre and post-workout. Sometimes simple is best!
I never go for RMT or physio treatment, and I don’t supplement with anything other than gentle iron for women and the micronutrients like B12 in fortified plant-based products.
I usually get 7-8.5 hours of sleep a night! It’s quite a ritual for me. I like to pick out a few crystals from my metaphysical collection to be my sleep buddies, and I turn my phone to airplane mode and drift off to a meditation, auric cleansing track.
When I go away on trips, I ALWAYS make sure I have a gym to visit! Checking out new gyms is actually one of my favourite pastimes when I go away.
If I’m visiting a friend, I heavily persuade them to take me to the gyms close by. It’s a must-have, a non-negotiable… like eating or going to the bathroom!
How is your diet and what supplements do you use?
I’ve been eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons for over four years, and I follow a predominantly whole foods approach nowadays… Although, when I meal prep, I still use meat alternatives because I like the taste and texture, and I want to ensure I get adequate protein.
However, ever since I stopped competing, I’ve stopped counting calories or macros religiously. That sort of management was too militant for my personality and instilled a paranoia about what I was consuming. I felt the onset of an eating disorder starting, and I backed off of tracking my meals to nurture a healthy relationship with food again.
Currently, my meal prep is a very simple formula: A serving of mock meat and two to three servings of veggies, like broccoli, spinach, carrots, celery, leeks, cauliflower, red cabbage, kale, swiss chard, etc.
I use Tupperware containers that are pretty sizeable (for my stomach size), and I cover the bottom with an oil-free pan-fried vegan protein source and fill the rest with stir-fried veggies! Easy, delicious, and nutritious.
I don’t like the process of bulking and cutting, and prefer to stay relatively lean year-round. Of course, times like the holidays can throw things off a bit, but I usually stay around 14-18% body fat no matter the season.
As spring approaches, I ramp up the training intensity to lean down a bit more. But I’m bikini-ready all the time. As I write this in January 2020, I actually just took a dip in the ocean at the beach with my vegan best friend to celebrate her 30th birthday! It was her idea, to challenge herself mentally and physically — and I was happy to accompany her!
I also like to do intermittent fasting. It just works well with my routine. I actually never eat breakfast, and I do my workout fasted from roughly 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. so that my first meal is around 2 p.m.
I do have coffee or black tea in the morning as a little treat most mornings, although I make sure to wean off of coffee whenever I feel I’m becoming too dependent and my cortisol feels off balance because of it. I don’t like to feel reliant on any substance.
I do get cravings for salty and sweet snacks right before my period.. It’s so regular it can be pretty annoying! Sometimes I cave and go to a coffee shop for a vegan cookie.
Other times I make myself a hot cocoa with oat milk and monkfruit, a zero-calorie sweetener that tastes much better than Stevia. Or, I train extra hard to tire myself out so I don’t have the energy to go find and indulge in an unhealthy purchase!
It’s like playing chess with your weaker self. If I do go and buy salty snacks, it’ll be premium chips or crackers that are expensive, so I don’t allow myself to buy more than one! Haha.
What has inspired and motivated you?
I have been blessed over the years to be the type of person to seek out mentors and inspiration, and to be answered by the universe. I’ve had some prominent people in my life who’ve catalyzed me onto a new, better path of self-evolution. Two of them are my now ex-partners.
The first one was the one who inspired and motivated me to change careers, from sedentary office work to one of vibrancy and wellness. The second was the catalyst for my becoming fully vegan, for ethical and spiritual reasons.
I will be forever grateful to both of them for being my angels along my life’s path.
One book that had been absolutely pivotal in my development and maturity in adulthood is A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.
This book was my bible for well over a decade, I came across it as a 20 year-old and it shook up my entire worldview and understanding of myself, of the people around me, my relationships, and the world at large. It taught me about the ego.
This book taught me to step outside of the known, sensory world and detach from my emotional reactions, to become aware of my own inner motivations for doing the things I do and thinking what I think. It taught me to become the observer of myself, to become aware of the stillness and infinitude of myself as a spiritual being that resides in this human form.
During trying times, especially due to family and personal issues, I had turned to that book thousands of times to seek solace and guidance on how to respond with kindness, understanding, awareness, and control.
I became a much more stable, even-keeled, confident, and purposeful person thanks to Eckhart’s wisdom. Like many, many of his readers, I will forever be indebted to him.
As a result of this expansion of my understanding of why I am on this earth, I’ve been able to cast aside much of my self-doubt and fear carried over from childhood to attempt new challenges. Some I’ve failed at, most I’ve succeeded at.
Some of the best advice I’ve received is to JUST DO IT. That even if you fail, you’ll come out of it with valuable lessons and a heightened sense of how to improve upon your process and decision-making.
Another piece of advice that’s invaluable is to just BE CONSISTENT. Remove the emotions as they are fleeting, distracting, and usually not meant to help you reach greater heights.
If you have a plan, then take time out of every day to accomplish more of that plan. I’ve been using a running to-do list for years. It keeps me on track during the times when I don’t want to be doing jack shit, when I’ve had an emotionally trying day, when I am feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks.
Seek out the big WHY for what you’re aiming for. Once that question has been clarified, then all else will fall into place.
For myself, I have become so attuned to my alignment that I can tell quite easily when I’m getting off-course in my expenditure of time and energy.
I always need to be aligned with my Why in the things I choose to do. I find that when I attempt things while out of alignment, I fail. Things don’t work out. That’s a signal or warning to me to stop, retreat, and seek out clarity and understanding of my greater purpose in what I’m attempting. Then I usually realize where I went wrong.
A lot of the time it’s because I was working towards a selfish, self-serving aim, not one set for higher ideals. However, when I do refocus on the greater good, then I am gifted with success.
Make a list of priorities for what you want to achieve. Determine which of your to-do’s will get you to that most important set of goals, and then ignore the rest.
There will always be distractions from other people, FOMO, life things — but it’s up to US to erect and then protect those boundaries around our time and energy.
We all have the same amount of time, but some people will achieve 100x more than others. Why is that? Not only because they’re blessed and gifted although those may be factors, but because they’ve learned the right times to say YES and NO.
Advice for other people who want to improve themselves?
I can definitely empathize with people who have never stepped foot in a gym. It can be VERY intimidating, especially for females in serious bodybuilding gyms.
I would suggest first following and connecting with fitness figures and influencers you resonate with online. There is a vast number of really amazing individuals sharing their journey, their wisdom, their advice and tips on social media.
Another is to find a local fitness group online, any that are specifically tailored to you. If you’re a young college student looking for friends to go explore gyms with or seek support and motivation from, find these groups on Facebook.
I see online support groups like this all the time that are local to Vancouver. It’s important to find the community that you feel you can belong to. They can be a fantastic resource.
As for advanced lifters and regular gym-goers, I’m sure they know what they’re doing! If I WERE to recommend anything for people looking to spice up their fitness routine or get out of a rut, I would suggest investing more time on STRETCHING.
Stretching can be a powerful recovery tool that can help a big dude get even bigger from opening the fascia to give the muscle fibres space to grow further. Stretching is NOT just for women. It’s a powerful activity that can prevent injury, release a lot of trapped tension (both physical and emotional), and overall allow for greater functionality in and out of the gym.
Also, eat more plants for less inflammation and more gut cleansing!
Now onto the observations I’ve made at all the gyms I’ve trained at… One of the most glaring mistakes people make is to be loading weight onto a spine that isn’t set to neutral.
Rows, deadlifts, any exercise that requires the scapula to retract into the spine to ensure proper alignment really needs to be performed with a proper straight spine.
I’ve never really seen anything too crazy at any gyms I’ve been to, but what does slightly grind my gears is when people (more guys do this than girls) just scream when lifting, so loudly that I lose my concentration. I understand that high levels of exertion can result in sounds being made, but have some respect for the people also using this space. It can be really distracting!
I do love how bodybuilding and weight training can work so well in conjunction with other sports. I was doing kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu last year in combination with weights, and my coaches said I was at an advantage because my punches already had so much power from all my upper body strength training.
I could feel how solid my throws were, that they carried weight behind them because my bones were dense and muscles worked cohesively together.
One of the most important lessons that the gym can teach you is that whatever you want to achieve requires consistent dedication to the goal.
There is no easy loophole or shortcut to get what you want. Anything worth achieving has to be EARNED.
Challenging yourself is one of life’s greatest undertakings — there is literally no limit to what we can become.
Take that first step, focus on what has to be done TODAY. Don’t worry or stress about tomorrow. As long as you’re making progress in the direction you want, then you’re coming out ahead already.
Are you taking on clients right now?
You bet, I’m definitely still taking clients for personal training and fitness and lifestyle guidance! I actually have another trainer who works for me in training my Tribe so that together we can help more people achieve the life and physique they want.
I heavily emphasize maintaining a judgement-free, supportive, and positive environment for my clients. I consider them family, I care about each of them, and support and believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves.
I’ve witnessed complete transformations of not only the body, but the mind and heart. One of the most beautiful things to witness is when an individual realizes that they are capable and worth working hard for, that their efforts can reap the rewards their heart desires.
I may not be the most shredded or ripped, or the most knowledgeable or have the most expertise. Where my strengths lie is in my ability to encourage, strengthen, motivate, show care for, support unconditionally, and create innovative ways to go over setbacks and find creative, unique solutions for all sorts of client obstacles, both in the gym and out.
I am FULL of positive energy that I love to share and give. My mantra, “I am an infinite source of positive energy”, has sustained me for years, and I’m sure played a part in my success as a business owner as well.
The MOST common training questions I get asked by clients are…
“How do I get rid of this belly? This arm fat? My floppy inner thighs?”
And, I always answer that we cannot target any one area for localized fat loss! Our bodies shed fat in a sequence we don’t have much control over. It depends on the age of that fatty tissue, on genes, on how much lean muscle you have in which areas.
I tell my clients to focus on appreciating the experience of training, to enjoy their time at the gym, and to show appreciation for their bodies as well.
Instead of thinking self-hating thoughts like, “When will this fat go away”, switch to “My body is beautiful and strong, and I am doing the things that will make it even stronger and fitter.” The words we entertain in our minds write our future, and they should always be kind and loving towards ourselves.
Where can we learn more about you?
I’d love to connect with you, guys, online! Getting to meet plant-powered badasses from all over the world is what makes social media exciting and enjoyable for me.
On Instagram I can be found at:
I’m working on making my other website meatfreemarialee.com live! I’ll let you know when I’ve got it up and running.
I’m not on YouTube yet so my main social media platforms are Instagram and Facebook. Looking forward to connecting with y’all!