This Guy Got Lean and Ripped with Workout Variety and Simple Meals

Samuel Kong, 43, was a varsity basketball player and for a long time, never thought about his weight or health, even though he started feeling exhausted all the time. When he happened on some YouTube videos and a workout program by one of the most prominent fitness models, he committed to trying it and everything changed. He not only lost nearly 20 pounds, he got lean and ripped. Here’s how it happened, in his own words.

WHILE I THOUGHT I knew what I was doing nutritionally and fitness-wise, the scale proved otherwise. Of course when you’re young, you know everything right? Being overweight never even remotely crossed my mind.

I was a former varsity basketball player with six pack abs and I could dunk a basketball at my height of 5’10”. Plus, I was chronically underweight my whole life. My parents struggled financially as new immigrants working hourly jobs living paycheck-to-paycheck. Excess food wasn’t exactly just laying around the house. I definitely remember going without and being hungry in elementary school.

I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand as my parents fled the Khmer Rouge communist party in Cambodia in 1980. My parents lost two of my older siblings to starvation before I was born. I would have loved to have met them—I would have had an older brother! We’ll meet in heaven.

But then in my early 20’s after undergrad living on my own in my very first big-boy apartment, working in the health insurance industry, and then entering an MBA program, I started to gain weight—rapidly! I was eating whatever I wanted, taking in way too many calories. But it all made sense to me and I told myself, “Hey, I’m in shape, I work out so much.”

samuel kong and his family

I thought I had a good program going, I was either lifting weights at the nearby YMCA or I was playing basketball in several Chicago men’s basketball leagues. I was doing some form of exercise 7 days a week. I got this! Wrong. My overeating caught up with me and body-slammed me on the mat…my weight went up to 190 pounds, and it wasn’t pretty. The pictures from that time in my life proved how out of touch I was.

I Knew I Needed a Change

I WAS TIRED all the time, I just couldn’t shake it. I’d have to take an hour nap after work. My weekends consisted of sleeping until 11 a.m. and then having to take another nap at 5 p.m. before going out at night. At one of my annual physicals, I learned that I had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, my blood sugar levels were all jacked up, my waist size ballooned to a size 36, and I was diagnosed with anemia….all at age 26. My face was swollen, my joints were inflamed, and I had constant digestive issues. It wasn’t pretty.

In 2006, I realized I had a weight problem when I was playing in a pick-up basketball game at the YMCA and a group of high schoolers wiped the floor with me. And they weren’t even that good at basketball, they were scrubs! But on that fateful day, they easily ran circles around me. Remember, I had played highly competitive Varsity basketball in high-school and could play basketball for 4 to 5 hours, almost nonstop, on a daily basis.

But after this game, I crumbled to the floor unable to catch my breath, hair gel had dripped into my eyes turning them red and bloodshot, my legs were so fatigued I couldn’t stand up anymore, I had this cramp in my calf every time I tried to walk, and my hair was all messed up. It looked like I was in a bad street fight and lost! I sat there on the gym floor for about 2 hours, too tired to get up. It was a sorry sight. I had to call out of work the next day, not because I was sick, but because I was fat.

I Found a Plan

AROUND 2012 AT the age of 32, I randomly discovered some YouTube videos from the late male fitness model Greg Plitt (who later died in 2015). From those videos, I learned how to transform my body and get my body to perform optimally. To my surprise, it actually worked!

At the time, Greg Plitt was probably the most famous male fitness model, having been on 400 fitness covers. The dude was a former Army Ranger, a West Point graduate, an All-American wrestler and state champion, and a seriously different kind of human being. An actual superhero walking among us. His mindset and the way he approached life and fitness was what motivated me to transform my body.

I became a member of his website (it was cheap, like $9/month) and I started to program my weightlifting routine and diet to mimic his by just watching and learning from his videos. And I got ripped, jacked, and shredded with 6 pack abs! I had never been in that kind of shape in my life. Not only did I put on muscle, but I was able to cut calories while keeping muscle on my frame, and got my body fat percent to single digits.

In addition, the magnitude and meaning of his messages weren’t just relevant to fitness, but they were applicable to how to live a fulfilled, successful, happy life. It was his mindset for how he approached his life—his winning attitude, his insistence with setting his ego aside, the ability to do things differently than those around us. There was no catch, he wasn’t trying to sell us anything or get us to buy an exercise program (he didn’t even have exercise programs to sell), it was just how he lived his life.

When my friends ask me how I stay in shape, I’m mindful of how I come across. I try to be very humble; I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about their own fitness journey. But the truth is, I work out like a mad man. I have 4 gym memberships to several different local gyms and I work out like it’s my job!! It’s an obsession and I love it.

I like to use a lot of variety to stay lean and ripped. I lift weights at a local Anytime Fitness; do HIIT classes at Red Effect (an infrared fitness studio); I play basketball/do cardio at a local park district facility; I take some additional specialized crossfit/HIIT exercise classes at a gym called “Burn Boot Camp” (which I originally thought was a women’s gym, wrong again I was, because that gym will kick your butt if you go in there overconfident). Also, I have a treadmill at home, a basketball hoop in my driveway, a heavy boxing bag, and Normatec boots for recovery.

I Keep Things Simple

WHEN I’M NOT doing an exercise class, how I approach lifting weights at 43 years old is very uncomplicated and simple. Since I’m already in-shape and not actively transforming my body. I just need to maintain the muscle on my frame and stay lean, which for me, translates to: I don’t need a ton of volume.

I’ll go in there and first get a good warm up because I’m deathly afraid of injuring myself, which will put me on the sidelines for weeks, and that’s not good. Then my weightlifting program consists of some form of bench press (usually incline bench or flat bench reverse grip), a squat movement of some sort, and a back exercise (seated chest-supported row, lat pulldown, or bent-over rows).

The key for me is that I keep the volume very low and the weight as heavy as I can. I actually only do one set of each exercise. Yep, that’s right. Only one set of bench, one set of squats, and one set of a back exercise–and I get the hell out of the gym. It’s a quick gym session‚ I’m usually out in 45 minutes.

samuel kong

Man, I used to lift weights for like 1.5 hours and be in the gym for so long. Not anymore! That one, all-out set that I do, consists of only 6 or 7 reps. On that 7th rep, I’m going to total failure and I usually can’t complete a full rep.

I rest three minutes in between each set. And that feels like a long time to rest and at first, it feels boring and awkward. But if you’re doing that one set to an all-out-failure, you’re going to need that 3 minutes of rest, every second of it. Sometimes I’ll add a rest-pause set right after, or I’ll do a mechanical drop set, or I’ll do that one set with very slow eccentric movements. I’ll listen to how my body is feeling on that given day. Sometimes during a very hard set, in the middle of that rep that feels painful, I love it—it’s like meditation, it’s really living, I’m alive.

Keeping It Simple With Food

MY DIET BEFORE my body transformation was straight-up trash. I was surviving on Hungry Man frozen dinners, Minute Maid fruit punch, bagels, donuts, pasta, potato chips, ice cream, and tons of Chicago deep-dish pizza. Everyone knows how this is going to end…except me, of course. I barely cooked anything with fresh ingredients, I didn’t even own spices. Just constantly going out to restaurants and eating highly processed cheap-nutritional value foods that I could reheat in the microwave or oven.

But now, my diet is just so much simpler. I wish I had something sensational or amazing to tell you about my diet, but it’s pretty basic. And that’s the best thing, this journey doesn’t have to be all fancy and sophisticated. In my 20s and 30s I was constantly bloated and in the bathroom so much. But all my digestive issues and sensitive stomach issues disappeared when I moved to eating only one, solid meal a day, and that’s a big dinner around 6 p.m. (about 2,300 calories).

This one meal consists of some kind of meat, veggies, some nuts, and a ton of fruit. I seldom eat dessert. My go-to meal during the week is a grilled rib-eye steak with some Irish butter melted on top, a whole bag of sauteed spinach, a scoop of cottage cheese, some guacamole, some almonds and pistachios, and then a bowl of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. I don’t take any whey protein or any supplements. I don’t even take a multivitamin, but I probably should. I used to weigh my food on a food scale and track my daily calories, but not anymore. It’s painfully really simple now. Grocery shopping is a breeze.

Tips That Made My Transformation a Success:

Stop Drinking Alcohol

Yes I know–this is a sensitive and controversial topic. But for me, as soon as I stopped drinking alcohol I found it way easier to stay lean, ripped, and shredded.

Learn the Language your Body Is Communicating to You in

I’m not trying to be all new-age and weird, but your body has its own language, stay with me here. Just like I’m typing this in English, your body sends you messages, it’s trying to tell you that it needs rest, it needs to move, it needs a savory nutritious meal. Are you even listening? Learn that language and listen to it carefully.

I used to have these nagging injuries like elbow tendonitis and lower back pain and a bum shoulder that just wouldn’t go away. After I started paying attention to what my body was telling me—I learned how to best recover after a workout and how to optimally train over the years—I wake up every morning pain-free, with full mobility, 100 percent turbo-charged, full of gratitude, ready to go.

Know the Difference Between “Transformation” and “Maintenance”

When you’re going from fat to skinny, or skinny to muscular, or there’s some kind of body goal you’re working towards, you’ll need to follow a game plan or a blueprint and stick with it. But not a lot of people talk about what happens when you’re finally at your goal weight or you achieved your ideal body, and now you’re in the maintenance phase.

Once you’ve climbed that enormous mountain or you’ve crossed that finish line and achieved your ideal body, the low-down dirty secret is, you don’t have to kill it every time you’re in the gym, you’re just maintaining the muscle on your frame and keeping it there, while generally keeping your diet clean. Pat yourself on the back you did it, just maintain it.

I think what really changed for me over the years relative to my fitness journey is that as I became more healthy and fit, other areas of my life significantly and positively improved as well: My career took off and I moved into executive leadership roles, my relationship with my wife and two small daughters become even sweeter, my finances exceeded my expectations way more than I imagined for myself, my emotional well-being, mindfulness and optimal use of time all rose to optimal levels.

I started to recognize even more that I could die tonight, hit by a head-on drunk driver and it would all be over for me. I can’t be more clear: Every.Moment.Counts. And that means being locked in as I’m watching my 7-year-old read a book to me, to listening purposely in a gentle, loving, and kind manner when my wife tells me about her day, to when I’m on the phone with my buddy as he tells me a funny story—it all counts, it’s all worth it. Life now is just thicker, and better, and valuable.

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