Case Study: How Xi Han Lost 45 Pounds In 5 Months

Gather round children, for today I shall tell you a tale.  A tale of love (of food), loss (of fat), and most of all, the tale of one man’s journey from being a chubby couch potato to being lean, sexy, and running a 5k. 

That man is not me.  I’m what you might call a supporting character in this story.  There’s a bit of a twist ending related to that, actually.

This is the story of Xi–pronounced “she.”   Xi is a Chinese software engineer who was, last summer, finishing up his post-graduate studies at UCLA.  He’s also my favorite client I’ve trained so far– you’ll see why.   

Xi had grown up in a very healthy family.  He had always been fairly slim as a kid, always ate his vegetables, his parents both worked out and are still, at fifty-something years old, in great shape.  Unusually for China, nobody in his family smoked.

Of course, staying slim has a way of getting harder when you’re all grown up.  In addition to his studies, Xi was also finishing up his thesis project as well as working at the university as a graduate assistant.

All of which is to say that he was working pretty damned hard–well over forty hours a week– to ensure that he’d have a sweet tech career down the road.  And like many people in his position, he had been too busy and stressed out to pay much attention to his health. 

And that’s how, at six feet tall and 24 years old, Xi had gotten all the way up to 211 pounds at 35-40% body fat.  Now, I’m guessing most of you have never been the one chubby person in a family where everyone else is slim and healthy.  Suffice to say, it doesn’t feel great.

In late June of 2018, Xi decided that it was time to get serious about his health.  Two weeks after that, at the beginning of July July, he started training with me three days a week.  Xi’s goal was to lose fat, plain and simple, with a goal weight of around 165 pounds.  He said he’d like to gain maybe a few pounds of muscle, but only so long as it didn’t conflict with his fat loss goal. 

By December, Xi was down to 165 pounds. 

That’s 45 pounds of weight loss, and at least 45 pounds of fat loss–he probably gained about 3-5 pounds of muscle too.

Unfortunately, Xi didn’t take before photos.  This is a common mistake– when you’re overweight the last thing you want to do is take a shirtless pic with your gut hanging out, but after you lose the weight you really wish you had one so you could look back and see your progress.  On the plus side, he did get Chinese ID photo updated after he hit his goal weight, so we do have before and after photos of his face only.

People tend to over-focus on having a flat stomach and under-appreciate just how much of a difference weight loss makes to your face. Xi looks like a completely different person now.

His diet was certainly on the lower-calorie side of things, but Xi never meticulously counted calories, although he did make an effort to estimate them most of the time.  He didn’t go hungry and he still got to eat food he knew and loved.  The diet even included a weekly cheat meal.  Within two weeks, Xi found that following his diet had become second nature.  He didn’t use any supplements.   

Now it’s March, and and his weight continues to hold steady at 165 pounds.  He’s loosened up his diet a bit–but not much, because at this point he honestly enjoys eating healthy food more than eating empty calories.

Here’s exactly what he did to lose all that weight and keep it off.

The Exact Workouts Xi Used to Lose Weight

I’ll start this off by saying I think diet was a bigger factor than exercise in Xi’s weight loss.  That said, he would have lost a lot of muscle if he hadn’t been working out properly, and his diet included some calorie cycling that won’t make sense until you know his training schedule.  So, I’ll talk about training first. 

This was Xi’s training schedule:

Monday: Upper body workout plus 30 minutes of cardio

Tuesday: 45 minutes of cardio

Wednesday: Lower body workout

Thursday: 45 minutes of cardio

Friday: Upper body workout plus 30 minutes of cardio

Saturday: Typically a 2-4 hour hike

Sunday: Usually 30-45 minutes of cardio, occasionally no exercise

The hiking was done more for fun than for exercise.  Other than the hike, the cardio workouts were 30-45 minutes of steady-state cardio, at the fastest pace he could sustain for that long.  Typically this was running or elliptical training, but sometimes he would opt for stationary biking on Thursdays due to his legs being sore from the lower body workout.

Gym sessions were performed with me at RetroFit in West Hollywood, at 2 PM.  His warmup consisted of 5-10 minutes of treadmill walking and a few minutes of calisthenics.  His cool-down was five minutes of stretching.  Cardio sessions were performed either right after the upper body workouts on Mondays and Fridays, or around 2 PM at his school gym on other days. 

Because the cardio was lower-body focused, I initially had him train his upper body twice a week but his lower body only once a week.  As you’ll see, I made a slight adjustment to that as time went on. 

Here Are the Workouts I Designed for Xi in July

Upper Body Workout

A1) Dumbbell bench press, 3 sets of 8-12

A2) Dumbbell bent over row, 3 sets of 8-12

B1) Arnold press, 3 sets of 10-15

B2) Cable pull-down, 3 sets of 6-10

C1) One-armed dumbbell row, 2 sets of 12-15 per arm

C2) Knee pushups, 2 sets to failure

C3) Monkey shrugs, 2 sets of 12-20

Lower Body Workout

A1) Romanian deadlifts, 3 sets of 6-10

A2) Barbell back squat, 3 sets of 8-12

B1) Cable hip thrust, 2 sets of 10-15

B2) Swiss ball twisting ab crunch, 2 sets to fatigue

C1) Unilateral leg curl cluster set, 2 sets of 5-5-5

C2) Leg extension, 2 sets of 12-20

C3) Seated calf raise, 2 sets of 30-50

Most of the circuits are organized into agonist-antagonist supersets, meaning I paired up exercises that move the same body parts in opposite directions.  Without going deep into the science of it, this way of ordering exercises has been shown to improve muscle hypertrophy compared to doing the same exercises in different orders.

Rest periods were auto-regulated, meaning that instead of precisely timing them, I simply had him rest as long as he felt he needed.  In practice that worked out to about one minute at the beginning of his workouts and closer to three minutes towards the end.

After the first month, two things became clear.  First off, his work capacity was fairly low, particularly for his upper body.  With circuit A for instance, a typical workout would look something like this:

DB bench press: 12 reps

Rest 1 minute

Bent over row: 12 reps

Rest 90 seconds

DB bench press: 10 reps

Rest 2 minutes, noticeably winded

Bent over row: 9 reps

Rest 2.5 minutes, very winded

DB bench press: 6 reps

Rest 3 minutes, gasping for air.  I have to push him to do the next set

Bent over row: 7 reps

Rest 4-5 minutes before doing the next circuit.

His lower body had a somewhat better work capacity–okay but not great, but he could at least do the three sets of circuit A.  I attribute this to his history of running, which probably gave him more capillary blood flow to his legs as well as some resistance to muscle damage in his lower body.

Second, he had been gaining strength at a decent rate, but he wasn’t gaining much muscle, and his strength gains were starting to slow down.  In order to fix this, I needed to add more training volume, and probably also increase the per-muscle training frequency slightly. 

However, doing more workouts per week wasn’t an option, and simply adding more sets with the same overall workout structure wouldn’t work due to his low work capacity.  I knew I had to re-design his workouts to allow for more total sets per week and higher per-muscle training frequency with less fatigue.  So I did that, about six weeks into his training program.

Here Are the Modified Workouts I Designed for Phase Two

Upper Body Workout

A1) Dumbbell bench press, 2 sets of 8-12

A2) Dumbbell bent over row, 2 sets of 8-12

A3) Arnold press, 2 sets of 10-15

A4) Cable pull-down, 2 sets of 6-10

B1) Lunges, 1 set of 10-20

B2) Front plank, once to fatigue

B3) Jump lunges, one set of 6-12

B4) Seated calf raise, one set of 20-40

For circuit B, stop well short of failure on all sets

C1) One-armed dumbbell row, 2 sets of 12-15 per arm

C2) Knee pushups, 2 sets to failure

C3) Monkey shrugs, 2 sets of 12-20

D1) Zottman curls, 2 sets of 12-20

D2) DB tríceps extension, 2 sets of 12-20

Lower Body Workout

A1) Romanian deadlifts, 3 sets of 6-10

A2) Barbell back squat with accommodating resistance, 3 sets of 8-12

B1) Cable hip thrust, 2 sets of 10-15

B2) Swiss ball twisting ab crunch, 2 sets to fatigue

C1) Cable decline press, 2 sets of 8-12

C2) Bayesian cable curl, 2 sets of 12-20 per arm

For circuit C, stop well short of failure on all sets

D1) Unilateral leg curl cluster set, 2 sets of 5-5-5

D2) Leg extension, 2 sets of 12-20

D3) Seated calf raise, 2 sets of 30-50

As you can see, these workouts keep most of the same basic structure, but I added a low-intensity lower-body circuit to the upper-body workout, and vice versa.  This technically makes both workouts full-body, but the main purpose behind this was to provide a few minutes of extra rest for the main body parts being trained in each session.

I also combined the first two pairs of exercises in the upper-body workout into one mega-circuit in order to allow for more rest time between sets of the same exercise, and then dropped that circuit to just two sets per exercise since the third run-through was taking a long time and causing a lot of fatigue, while being barely productive. 

I initially tried to make up for that by adding a third set to circuit C (the one with the one-armed dumbbell rows) but ran into the same problem.  So instead, I kept that at 2 sets, but upped the decline press/cable curl circuit on the lower body day to 2 sets, where it had initially been just 1. 

This proved so effective that Xi started completing his upper-body workouts  in just 45 minutes, so I added the final set of isolation exercises as a fun, minimally-fatiguing finisher. 

The final change I made was to use accommodating resistance with the back squats.  In plain English, I added resistance bands to the barbell, effectively making the barbell lighter at the bottom of the squat and heavier at the top.  This allowed Xi to squat deeper without fear of getting trapped under the bar and not being able to make it back up. 

The only reason I waited to do that was because he had to get strong enough first; since the barbell weighs 45 pounds and each band provided 15 pounds of resistance at the bottom and 30 pounds at the top, I wanted him to be squatting at least 85 pounds first.  Otherwise, I highly recommend everyone modify their barbell squats in this manner. 

With these new workouts, Xi’s strength started increasing steadily again, and he started putting on muscle.  I also had him increase his calorie intake slightly at this point. 

Also, starting in September, Xi began working out 4 days a week, time permitting.  This was made easier by moving into an apartment complex that had its own gym.    

Here’s What Xi Ate

Xi had already made big improvements to his diet in the two weeks between when he decided to get serious about his health, and our first meeting.  He was eating three meals a day on a regular schedule, eating fruits and vegetables, and had cut out all obvious junk food.

On the other hand, he was still making a few of the typical “healthy eater” mistakes.  He was drinking fruit juice, not eating enough protein, not calorie cycling, and was going too far in avoiding fat.  Combined with not weight training, he had probably lost a couple pounds of muscle during those first couple weeks.

Here’s how his diet looked after I counseled him on nutrition, and got him started lifting weights.

Breakfast: 7-9 AM

Typically 2-3 eggs, some low-sugar fruit (typically berries), and a protein shake with reduced-fat milk.  The morning after a weight session, he would also consume a bowl of oatmeal.

Lunch: 1-3 PM

Some sort of meat and vegetable dish, usually home-cooked with about a teaspoon of oil.  Typically around 5-8 ounces of lean beef or chicken with some mixed vegetables.

On gym days, this meal was consumed before his gym sessions, and he would sometimes add a small amount of fruit or rice.  Or, if pressed for time, he would instead have a protein smoothie at the gym. 

Dinner: 6-8 PM

A meat and vegetable dish much like lunch, but slightly higher portions and with some added rice and fruit.  On gym days, it would be around two cups of rice and several ounces of fruit.  On other days, the rice was limited to one cup, and the fruit to 1-2 ounces. 

Each meal was pretty similar in nutritional content, and probably amounted to around 400-500 calories, except for dinner on gym days, which came up to 700-800 calories.  Total protein intake was around 110-140 grams a day, split fairly evenly between each meal. 

Aside from helping him build muscle, the extra carbs at night also helped him sleep, since the brain uses them to produce serotonin.  I also didn’t want carbohydrate intake getting below about 80 grams a day, to ensure that h wouldn’t transiently enter ketosis and suffer from the “keto flu.”

Xi also had one cheat meal a week.  It was always some sort of Chinese comfort food eaten at a restaurant, typically a fried meat and vegetable dish with rice or noodles and some kind of sugary sauce.  He usually consumed this on Friday night, which helped him recover from the week’s workouts and be ready for his hike the next day.

This Is What Can Happen In Five Months

Xi went from 211 pounds in late June to 165 pounds in early November, so this was actually more like four and a half months.  Here’s what his progress looked like. 

211 was his highest weight, and the point at which he decided to lose weight. He started working with me about two weeks after that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few more results worth noting:

  • His resting heart rate went from 80 to 55 beats per minute.
  • His blood pressure went from high to normal.
  • He gained around 3-5 pounds of muscle.
  • Strength roughly doubled on most lifts.
  • Xi’s waist size went from 39 to 32 inches.
  • On the other hand, his upper arms only shrunk by a quarter inch, indicating that he gained some muscle there to offset the fat loss.
  • When Xi’s parents saw him, they were absolutely blown away by his transformation
  • Xi went from not being able to run a mile, to running a 5k in under a half hour.  He also ran his first 10k last Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last but not least, Xi feels great about himself.  He’s no longer the chubby kid in his family, he’s living up to his own standards of health and self-discipline, and when he looks in the mirror, the man he sees is the man he knows himself to be on the inside.

He still lifts weights mostly follows the same diet he was following when he worked with me, but he’s less strict about it now that he’s at his goal weight.  He still has at least one cheat meal a week, and usually two or three, which he’s able to enjoy guilt-free because he knows he’s earned them and they support, rather than conflict with, his fitness goals.

Speaking of me, here’s the twist I promised in the beginning: Xi was only working with me for the first half of this transformation.  Yeah, remember when I said he moved in September?  He moved to Silicon Valley for his new job, and that was the end of our time together. 

He kept on doing the workouts I’d designed for him, three or sometimes four days a week.  He kept hiking when he had the time, and later on started training for that 5k.  He kept following the diet.  The results kept coming. 

This is why the best time to work a coach or trainer is early on.  A good trainer can design workouts you can keep using, perhaps with slight modification, for months or even years afterward.  They can show you how to eat for your goals and help you build habits that will keep you healthy without the need for constant mental exertion.

A good trainer is not a crutch that you need for the rest of your life, but a teacher who will impart lessons that will stay with you forever, even after you stop working with them. 

A good trainer can also help to motivate you and keep you disciplined.  In this case though, I didn’t need to do that.  Xi was one of the most disciplined, committed clients I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.  He did every single thing I told him to do, and he did it with enthusiasm. 

One story of our time together stands out.  After our initial session, in which I tested his strength and taught him proper form for a few exercises, he said he felt nauseous and rushed to the bathroom.  I followed him in, to find him puking up some kind of red liquid into the toilet. 

Thankfully it turned out to be cherry juice, which he had consumed pre-workout in a misguided attempt to carb-load.  I apologized and said I wouldn’t push him as hard next time.  His response: “No, I want you to keep pushing me.  I just won’t drink a bunch of cherry juice before my workouts from now on.”  Music to my ears.

The truth is, while I used a few “techniques” here like accommodating resistance, agonist-antagonist supersets, calorie cycling, and timing weights and cardio to minimize the interference effect, his results were mostly a matter of consistency, plain and simple.  He did the same thing, day in and day out, week after week, and the weight kept coming off. 

Now he’s able to maintain that physique with a fraction of the effort it took to get there in the first place.  Fitness is like investing.  Do the hard work early on, and you can keep reaping the rewards for the rest of your life.