Despite transplant, John Orlando had the heart to stay in shape

November 7, 2020

Over the last 20 years, I have used my body transformation program to help some amazing people improve their physical and mental health. In addition, I’ve documented many of the inspirational stories in my column with the hope of motivating others to get in shape. John Orlando’s transformation story is very special, because in addition to using fitness to look and feel better, he also used working out as a way to manage a heart condition that would eventually land him in a hospital bed waiting for a transplant.

John was originally diagnosed in his mid-20s with a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. At the time, there was no need for concern because the condition can often be managed, and only 3 percent to 5 percent of the people that have it eventually need heart transplants. So John carried on normally for many years, until 2009 when he began to notice a change in the way he felt.

“The doctors had always asked me if I was short of breath, and although I had no previous issues, all of a sudden I was answering yes to a question that I never had a problem with before,” said John.

So he made an appointment to see his doctor, and based on some testing and the fact that his brother died of cardiac arrest in 2002, they decided to install a defibrillator. 

At this point, John had been training with me for several years. He had lost 15 pounds and looked great. I periodically reached out to his doctors and modified his workouts based on their recommendations, and despite a few occasional issues, there were no major problems. In 2015, John was doing cardio on the elliptical when he blacked out and fell off the machine. Luckily, his defibrillator sprang into action and shocked his heart back into rhythm, or he might not have regained consciousness. 

In 2017, John’s condition deteriorated, so he decided to leave the beach and move to Middletown to be closer to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. In fall 2017, John became much worse. He was constantly out of breath, and even walking became extremely difficult. By February 2019, he was in the hospital waiting for a transplant.

“This time, things were much more serious,” he said. “The doctors said ‘You’re coming in, and you’re not leaving until you get a heart.’”

Finally, after a period of waiting, John had the surgery April 8, and 11 days later, he was discharged and began his recovery.

John started with physical therapy and then progressed to cardio rehabilitation. After he finished, he went back to the gym and began working out. He decided he needed help, so he called me and we signed him up for his first of two consecutive body transformations. We started his initial transformation just seven months after his heart transplant with a very basic workout; it consisted of six exercises with only two sets per exercise followed by two minutes of very light cardio on the recumbent bike. We added cardio time weekly as he began to regain his strength and stamina.

John quickly responded to his program, and with each passing week, he was more capable of lifting heavier weights and doing more advanced exercises. When he started his second transformation, he had grown confident with his new heart, and we adjusted his workouts accordingly. It was at this point that I began to realize his true potential. We were finally able to take him off the recumbent bike and get him back on the elliptical that had once rendered him unconscious. He could now do multiple sets of push-ups, birddogs and other difficult exercises that would have been impossible before his heart transplant.

When we finished the second transformation, it was obvious he was a new man. He had lost 21.5 percent of his starting body fat, gained over nine pounds of pure muscle and dropped 17 pounds of body fat. He could now do workouts that would have been impossible 10 years ago, and he vowed he would never return to the way things were before his heart transplant.

“After surviving cardiac arrest multiple times, I knew this was going to be OK,” he said. “I didn’t believe God would allow me to survive all of that and then drop me flat.”

On a side note, working with John and seeing him get a second chance at life was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been able to be part of. Congratulations, John. You are proof that working out and getting in shape can guide us through some of the most challenging situations life has to offer.


  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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