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Amherst family gets buff – and learns better health habits

Maureen Wilk started eating for comfort after she finished chemotherapy for colon cancer, and gained nearly 30 pounds.

Her husband, Ron, a landscaping company owner, packed on about the same during the last few years while eating on the go during busy workdays.

Their daughter, Courtney, put on 25 pounds by using food to relieve stress after graduating from high school almost three years ago.

Bodybuilding changed the weight equation for all three.

“Going through cancer was a scary time for all of us,” Maureen Wilk said. “This was a nice way for us to stay connected as a family.”

Mother, father and daughter will be among about 150 competitors next Saturday in the Mr. and Ms. Buffalo Bodybuilding Championships. All three have spent the past few months preparing for next weekend’s event – nuts-and-bolts work that taught them how to take better charge of their health and wellness. The trio sat down this week at Catalyst Fitness in Amherst, where they train, and talked about how anyone can apply their strategies to look and feel better.

1. Goals matter

Courtney Wilk counted Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, potato chips and Oreo cookies among her go-to foods in recent years. They helped tamp down anxiety and depression that sometimes came after high school – but also put her into a size 8 by the time she and her brother, Kyle, 17, joined their parents last March on a family vacation to Florida. She will slip into a size 2, thanks to her bodybuilding prep, when the family makes a similar trip on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Competing isn’t the most important thing to me, it’s staying in shape,” said Courtney, a hairstylist at Buffalo Trim in Amherst. “But knowing that I have something to get ready for gives me that much more motivation.”

Maureen Wilk, 48, looks to improve upon her second-place showing in the Women’s Masters Division last winter. Her husband, 50, aims to see if he can capture first place in the Men’s Masters Division, as he did last October during his first competition, the National Physique Committee Greater New York Championships in Syracuse. Courtney, 20, had so much fun handling the makeup last October in Syracuse for her mother and several others that she decided to enter her first contest this time around, in two bikini division classes.

Maureen Wilk and her husband, Ron, center, train at Catalyst Fitness on Wehrle Drive in Amherst last week under the guidance of Mr. Buffalo 2014, Aaron Newman.

Maureen Wilk and her husband, Ron, center, train at Catalyst Fitness on Wehrle Drive in Amherst last week under the guidance of Mr. Buffalo 2014, Aaron Newman. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

2. Knowledge counts

The Wilks call their certified personal trainer “Satan,” in a playful way – and Aaron Newman understands the gym moniker. Newman, 38 – the 2014 Mr. Buffalo overall winner – pushes the trio of bodybuilders. He has established eating guidelines for them. He works with them individually two or three times a week, and each of the Wilks also take his two hourlong group body sculpting classes weekly. “You’re completely gassed when you’re finished,” Maureen Wilk said. “It’s upper body, lower body, abs.”

Newman said he sees himself as a coach. “My job is to hold people accountable.” He teaches the Wilks proper exercise form, encourages them to mix up their fitness routines and challenges them to surpass their expectations. The lessons learned help them handle their own workouts on other days, and the investment has set them up for more-effective workouts.

3. You are what you eat – and drink

“A lot of people think they’re going to get into better shape with just exercise and that’s far from the truth,” Ron Wilk said. His wife said she launched her path to better health – and weight loss – by first eating right. The Wilks began their training by scrapping carbs and processed foods – and focusing on the produce, organic meat and dairy sections on the perimeter of their favorite grocery store. “I would like my pasta and my bread, but once that stuff and alcohol was gone I started to lose weight,” Ron Wilk said. Water – and lots of it – has been the drink of choice in recent months.

Sugar cravings disappear after a few weeks, the family said, when switching to a “clean” diet of lean proteins – including fish, chicken and ground turkey – healthy fats that include small portions of cheese and dark chocolate almonds, and salads that are heavy on greens. Instead of two or three big meals, the family has eaten eight to 10 smaller meals a day in recent weeks. As the competition nears, many have included egg white and spinach omelettes, or “5-star salads” Maureen Wilk tops with a few ounces of protein, or simply protein shakes.

Maureen Wilk, left, and her husband, Ron, work their triceps while daughter, Courtney works her shoulders at Catalyst Fitness. They are preparing for the Mr./Ms. Buffalo Championships next Saturday.

Maureen Wilk, left, and her husband, Ron, work their triceps while daughter Courtney works her shoulders at Catalyst Fitness. They are preparing for the Mr./Ms. Buffalo Championships next Saturday. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

4. Exercise counts

To prepare for the bodybuilding contest, the three family members have worked out twice a day, seven days a week, for at least the last nine weeks. Husband and wife hit the gym at 5 a.m. and in the early evening; their daughter, before and after work. To be sure, not everyone has the time, drive or energy for such a regimen in the long run, but their general approach has merit, Newman said. Each member of the Wilk family does cardio three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes – but they focus more on strength training because building muscle burns more calories.

“Muscle growth comes into play when you learn to push your body past where the mind wants to go,” their personal trainer said. “Knowing the difference between growth, overload and injury – that’s where I come into play.” He believes in pushing past standard 10-, 12- or 15-rep exercises. He often starts arm workouts with men by asking them to “warm up” by curling a 45-pound bar 100 times. Arm, leg and core exercises might involve 50 to 100 reps of three or four sets. Newman will focus on one or two muscle groups during each personal training workout, mixing things up on different days of the week. Form – controlled and steady, not lurching – is key. “You don’t want to hurt yourself,” Maureen Wilk said.

5. Daily choices matter

Exercise and healthy eating have sped up the Wilk family’s metabolism. Ron Wilk is down to 8 percent body fat as the competition nears. The need to focus on the competition means less time for other things – although mom and dad made time last weekend to watch son Kyle and his Williamsville North teammates win the Section VI Division 1 hockey championship over Niagara Wheatfield, a quest that kept Kyle from joining the family for the bodybuilding contest.

“We don’t have a lot of time for TV,” Maureen Wilk said. Husband and wife are both in bed most nights by 9 p.m., so they can arise at 4:20 a.m. to get to the gym. Courtney is on a later schedule but said her daily choices have improved her sleep. Family members also pamper themselves with a massage twice a month, and see a chiropractor as needed.

Body building is a family activity for the Wilks. Three of the four will be competing in the Miss Buffalo contest on March 11. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Bodybuilding is a family activity for the Wilks. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

6. Teamwork helps

“It’s important to have a good support system when you’re doing this,” Courtney Wilk said. “My mom is doing this, my dad, but I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend, Jordan Johnson. At first this was really frustrating for him, but now he gets it.” Kyle also has encouraged his family along the way – though all involved will feel a sigh of relief after the competition ends next Saturday night. A late weekend filled with Tim Hortons Timbits, Bocce Pizza and Tully’s chicken tenders will follow – foods they haven’t had in months – along with a vacation in which the family will relax for a week after a pursuit well tended.

Maureen and Ron Wilk have decided their competitive bodybuilding days will end next weekend, although Courtney may participate in other contests to come. All three also have decided they will not return to the far less-disciplined lives of a few years ago.

“This changed everything a lot,” Ron Wilk said. “Our outlook on life. Relationship-wise. It helped my wife and I do more things together. We will still work out every morning because it’s now part of our life. The prep diet is a little intense” but the nutritional lessons learned will stick.


What: Mr./Ms. Buffalo Bodybuilding Championships

When: Next Saturday, March 12; judging in 10 divisions and dozens of height, weight and age classes starts at 10 a.m.; finals start at 6 p.m.

Where: Niagara Falls Conference and Event Center, 100 Old Falls St., Niagara Falls

How much: Tickets for a $12 day pass, or finals tickets that run $21 to $34, are available at

More information:


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