This article describes the bodybuilding dieting revolution called Intermittent Fasting (IF). It is one of the most powerful ways to make bodybuilding practical. The fact that you don’t have to eat every 2-3 hours to build muscle and get lean is a truly liberating concept that has released countless people from the fear of their muscles falling off.
No article on Intermittent Fasting can go without acknowledging Martin Berkhan of LeanGains.com. Martin is the IF dude who made IF cool when everyone else was banging on about 8 meals a day and “fuelling the metabolic fire”. I have spent so many hours over the years on his blog and I always suggest his site first when introducing people to IF. He is one smart guy and pretty funny too. Ensure you check out his Cheesecake Mastery posts. I’ll be explaining my experiences and ideas with IF but I really do recommend everyone immerse themselves in his blog if interested in IF.
Do not attempt any new diet or eating style without consultation from your doctor or medical professional. By reading this article and attempting any practices that I undertake you are doing so on your own and at your own risk. Intermittent fasting has worked well for me but it is not for everyone. It is only for healthy adults who have permission from their doctor. Definitely do not attempt Intermittent Fasting if you are pregnant, have a history of eating disorders or mental health problems, under 18 years of age, have diabetes, recovering from illness or surgery.
How To Do It
Intermittent fasting (IF) is an umbrella term for various diets that cycle between a period of fasting and non-fasting. Intermittent fasting can be used along with calorie restriction for weight loss. – Wikipedia.
The intermittent fasting eating style isn’t anything complicated. It’s about breaking away from the idea that one needs to eat frequently to achieve their body recomposition goals. It’s this freedom that means there is great flexibility in how one chooses to do it. I don’t think there is anything too magical about IF. For example calories still count and discipline is required.
The most popular method is probably the Lean Gains method. This involves:
- Fasting 16 hrs per day with an 8 hour feeding window. For example stop eating at 8pm each night and then have “breakfast” at 12pm the following day.
- No calories are to be consumed during the fast. Just drink water. Black coffee and tea are permitted.
- The first meal should be the largest. Have as many subsequent meals as you like (usually 2 or 3) until 8pm.
- This method considers weight training where training days should be higher carbs and lower fat.
- Non-training days should be lower calories with moderate carbs and moderate fat.
- Every day should be high protein.
- Fasted training is encouraged, where you weight train just before breaking the fast. You can also do morning training with BCAA’s.
I have practiced the Lean Gains method for years on end and it’s great. The cycling of the fasting creates a separation of concerns. You’re either fasting or eating. Whereas if you’re constantly eating all day on a calorie deficit, you’re continuously reminded about food. On top of this the meals are tiny and unsatisfying. By focusing on the fast, you’re body adapts to this and you can distract yourself with activity and combat any little hunger pangs with water and black coffee. You then have the goal of lunch time to look forward too, where you get to do what feels like pigging out. By ending the feeding window a bit before bed you are effectively performing half of the fast while sleeping.
The key to the morning fast is to keep busy and not think about food. Before you know it, it’s lunch time and time to feast. Many people including myself experience better mental clarity and focus in the morning compared to having an insulin spiking breakfast. Towards the end of the fast things can get tougher. This is where fasted training shines. You would think that weight training on an empty stomach would suck but it’s quite the opposite and provides the ultimate distraction. Once you get into the training session, hunger usually subsides and you can train with just as much, if not more intensity. After the workout, it doesn’t take long for hunger to really kick in. You should really have a big protein and carb rich meal ready to go. This meal is like heaven.
Benefits of IF
- Simplify your life with less meals each day.
- Larger meals consumed for better satiety.
- Create a deficit in your daily caloric intake without it feeling like it.
- More focus with no distraction of food. Bonus clarity and concentration.
- Longevity and health benefits. Cellular repair via autophagy.
- Evidence of life extension.
- Promotes flexibility in your life with different protocols possible.
- Increased insulin sensitivity after fasting.
- Better nutrient partitioning. Nutrients going where you want them to go. Less fat storage and more muscle growth.
Drawbacks of IF
- Sucky adaptation period on starting. Especially if you have never fasted before. It can take a couple weeks for your body to adapt. You need to get used to the feeling of not always having some food in your stomach.
- You can get extra snappy towards the end of the fast. This is a tradeoff with this style of eating. But I think it is character building in that it builds patience and strength to push through tough times. Life isn’t always peachy. This is only an issue when trying to lose weight no matter what diet you do.
- You need a bit of a plan for what you are going to eat each day. It’s not much fun trying to sort out a good high protein meal at the last minute when you are ravenous.
- Societal belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Pressure to eat breakfast socially.
- If you have a highly physical job where you need to consume a lot of calories – IF may not be for you. Also it may not be practical to eat such a large amount of food with limited and unpredictable work breaks.
MuscleSherpa’s Intermittent Fasting Method
Clearly I’m a fan of the standard LeanGains style of IF. But recently I have adapted the method to fit in better with my schedule and it actually feels better.
How it works:
- There is still an 8 hour feeding window and a 16 hour fast.
- But the fast starts at 4pm each day and ends at 8am the following day.
- The breakfast is a smaller meal just to get some protein and carbs in.
- The largest meal is at lunch time which is generally after a weight training session.
So the LeanGains protocol is basically just skipping breakfast. I turn that on it’s head and skip dinner. I like the feeling of going to bed with nothing in my stomach. I find I get a better nights sleep. This works well for the 4 nights per week that I work late and miss dinner at home. It simplifies my evening so sitting down to a meal isn’t required. Some nights before bed I can get peckish but I know it’s not real hunger. Upon waking food is never on my mind and I’m out the door for work again.
With the LeanGains method you are encouraged to consume BCAA’s before weight training. My method is more in line with No Frills Bodybuilding in that you eliminate the need for expensive BCAA powder since you are supplying your body with amino acids by eating protein as food a couple hours before your workout. There is no difficulty in waiting to eat at 8am. My partner doesn’t need to worry about leaving a meal out for me when I get home and frankly I don’t feel like eating anyway. So this works well.
Now I take the flexibility of IF to another level. On the weekends I just eat 3 square meals because it’s hard to plan eating when you have 2 little babies. You eat when get the chance between family activities, packing kids into cars, nappy changes, clean up, tears and chores. So come Monday, I had dinner Sunday night so I will fast until 12pm and stop eating at 4pm. Then Tuesday I can break the fast at 8am. Wednesday is a family day again so 3 square meals. Then I fast until 12pm Thursday and so on. I fast when I can and do whatever works. This is the No Frills way. This article includes other intermittent fasting methods where you too can do what just works in with your life. There’s nothing wrong with 3 square meals a day. But don’t buy into “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. I eat breakfast when I can’t guarantee I will be able to get a large lunch to break the fast with. I also eat breakfast when I have a big day of hard labour and heavy lifting. I find IF works best when I am in the office.
At the gym I would have to say I am usually the hardest working person in the gym. I am always drenched in sweat and in between sets I gasping for air to catch my breath. I definitely don’t look like I haven’t eaten for 15 hours and the fact is that I think I can train harder. It’s true that towards the end of a fast you can get a shorter fuse. Along with the hunger suppressing effect of exercising, the shorter fuse works well with lifting intensity. You can get angrier and take it out on the iron.
It is recommended by Martin to get some BCAA’s into you before doing fasted training. This is probably optimal however I usually don’t bother. I’m sick of buying $80 tubs of the stuff and I don’t really notice the difference by not using it. If I was competing again I would probably take BCAAs again but these days I would rather put $80 into my kid’s savings account.
Right after fasted training you will be feeling good with little thought of food like earlier in the morning. But it doesn’t take long for hunger to kick in again and this time with vengeance. Have a meal planned and ready to go after this workout. You don’t want to have to think or do much preparation for this meal. Otherwise you won’t be yourself.
My History With IF
In 2010 I took the plunge to compete in my very first bodybuilding competition. At that point I had several years of training under my belt and had thought about competing for a while. Realising that there’s a lot that goes into contest preparation I hired a coach. In the preceding year my coach had been the Australian natural champion of one the natural federations here. So I was in pretty good hands. We allowed 4 months of preparation. I would meet with the coach weekly for diet consultation, posing practice and the odd training session.
To this day I consider that first contest prep the most difficult thing I have ever done. I dieted down from 110kg to 90kg over 4 months. 20kg is a lot of weight to lose in 4 months. But losing 20kg to get into contest shape is a whole different ball game to being obese and dropping 20kg. Towards the end of the diet I was doing some really stupid stuff to keep the weight coming off. Of course I was eating every 2-3 hours. Brocolli and chicken was staple. 1000 calories and cardio twice a day. I experienced actual starvation. I had absolutely no libido. Laughter of anything I previously thought was funny like a TV show was replaced with mild amusement. The sick thoughts about food were like nothing else. I would look at pizza and doughnut company websites and fantasise. At the end of the day I would go to bed early because being asleep was better than being hungry. I was exciting about competing and decided to do a couple of shows. For the first one I was still well over 90kgs and clearly too soft (fat). To extend the suffering further the second show was a month later and I lost a few more kilos for that one. I was looking ok but lost lots of muscle too. Of course I didn’t get a second look from any judge. Stepping up on stage was enjoyable. But right now I still cringe at the thought of that whole dieting experience.
This kind of dieting was so sick and so unhealthy. After these shows I soon discovered LeanGains.com and it was life changing. I don’t recall how I found LeanGains.com but the fact that Martin was able to maintain a leanness year round that was much better than my contest condition without having to eat every few hours meant I was sold. For example one idea I got of his website was making protein milk cereal as a post workout meal. I thought it was hilarious I could eat a whole box of cereal post workout and still be making progress. Although IIFYM works, these days I try to eat more nutrient dense foods.
In 2011 I decided to do another competition. This time I used IF and the difference was like night and day. I had learnt enough the first year and didn’t employ a coach again. I took 3 months to diet down from around 98kg down to 89kg. The dieting was obviously going to be easier not having to drop so much weight, allowing a much more manageable weight loss each week. But the IF made things even easier. I used the standard lean gains protocol of fasting 16 hours until lunch time and having an 8 hour eating window. Cardio was reduced this time around and included a gentle daily walk or ride around the block for 40mins. Come competition time I came in with much better conditioning. I was bigger and leaner than my first year of competing. To me this was a win. I didn’t place in the competition but I was happy with the improvement I made while maintaining a better quality of life for the prep.
Come 2012 I competed in the same annual show. Again I allowed 3 months to diet down and was still doing the IF. This time around I trained and dieted harder than in 2011 but only to the degree of a few less calories and more cardio. As timing would have it I acquired a German Shepherd off a friend and spent hours each day taking him for walks around the neighbourhood. This was done during the fast to help burn some extra free fat acids floating around. This time around I managed to place 2nd in my weight division and 4th overall in quite a large show. I received the first trophies of my life and was pretty happy to say the least. Although I would say I was happy with my progress in previous shows, it was very satisfying to finally come home with a trophy. Thinking about the experience now actually makes me want to compete again. It’s this journey and gratification at the end of it all that makes competing in bodybuilding addictive.
Remember that German Sherpherd I was walking during this contest prep? Well he is how I met my partner. We met at a dog park when she was walking her dog. After meeting her I stopped competing. If I had continued the following year I have no doubt that I would have come in with even better condition and perhaps a win. IF is not only great for average joes looking to keep in shape but also for competitive bodybuilding. It makes life easier during a contest prep in an already challenging endeavour. I’m glad I had discovered IF because I’ve been able to maintain the same level as muscularity as when I was competing. The only sacrifice is the extreme level of leanness which takes a back seat to a busy schedule of having a family.
The Numbers and Some Tools
The above link is a really great tool for working out your energy (calories) and macronutrient requirements. Remember – IF is great, but it is not MAGIC – you still need to manage calories and macros.
Before you start protesting about not wanting to count calories and macro nutrients each day. I’m not saying nor do I promote becoming obsessed about exactly how many calories and grams of protein you are consuming each day. On the other hand don’t shut off your brain to what you are putting into your body. There has to be a balance.
Now with this tool it makes things easy because you just punch in some of your details and it has all these fancy formulas for working out your caloric requirements. Play around with the different formulas to get a rough idea of your maintenance calories. This number is a rough guide. Other factors that come into play are you activity levels each, metabolism and so many other things. The key is to use this number as a starting point and adjust up or down based on how your body is responding.
Once you get a calorie estimate using this calculator, the following tab has bunch of settings to configure based on your goals. I recommends trying out the standard recomposition calories of -20% on non training days and +20% training days. The idea is that you get most of your energy when you need it and when you can process it better on your training days. Do this for a several weeks and adjust accordingly.
Use a tool like MyFitnessPal.com to log your food each day. Again you you don’t need to be obsessive but it’s good to start with one of these tools to get an idea of your nutrition intake.MyFitnessPal calculates the calories, protein, carb and fat numbers for you. It has a large database of foods so you just need to say how big the serving is.MyFitnessPal then tallies this all up. I don’t use MyFitnessPal every day. Just when my diet changes a bit with new foods. That way I have an idea of what’s going on. I like to eat pretty much the same thing most days to make things easy.
Although not really directly related to IF in general. You should be weight training. So while on the topic of numbers and tools – you will get the best results if you track what you are doing in the gym using a training log. You might even find extra motivation from using social logging tool like Fitocracy.com.
More IF Protocols
This is a great book by Brad Pilon. With his book you eat pretty much as normal except you create a calorie deficit by fasting all day, once or twice a week. It sound’s crazy at first but it’s actually really good for you and not as hard as it sounds. This kind of dieting is definitely worth considering.
On Martin’s website there are a bunch of variations to his Lean Gains protocol for different kinds of individuals. They are still the same 16hr fast and 8 hour feed except training is during the feeding window and the meals adjusted accordingly. He also mentions people who want to train early morning and how to do it.
- Have your nutrition planned. Especially breaking the fast meal when you might have a shorter fuse and just want to eat.
- Be conscious of calories you are consuming. Calories still count and you can still put on fat.
- Realise the difference between hunger pangs and true starvation. Most often water solves this.
- Black coffee is your friend. Coffee has a profound effect in suppressing hunger pangs.
- It can be fun to eat protein milk Coco Pops and lose weight but try to be healthy. Eating unprocessed and micronutrient dense foods is better for you and helps with satiety when dieting.
- Don’t be a hard ass. If your partner/friend wants to go out for breakfast or dinner when you have planned to be fasting. Just eat. It won’t make a big difference. The whole point of IF is to free yourself from the guilt of not being 100% compliant.
- Mix it up. I find IF only really works for me when working in an office. On the weekends when things are more hectic with family activities, I revert to 3 square meals each day and just try to eat enough protein and not go crazy with the calories. IF has taught us that frequent meals are not the way to go.
- If your partner/friends aren’t sold yet on IF, just do it in your own time so it doesn’t effect them. On work days if you leave for work early just don’t eat breakfast and continue to fast at work until lunch time. Come home for dinner and keep the peace.
- Fasted training is scary at first but once you get going it’s actually not that bad. It’s a great distraction from the fast and you often train just as hard.
- Use BCAA’s with fasted training. Probably optimal but not essential. I often do fasted training just before lunch without BCAA’s and my muscles haven’t fallen off (yet).
- Keep busy during the fast. In do so you will forget about food and before you know it the fast is over.
Success in bodybuilding and body recomposition is mostly attributed to your nutrition. Anyone can go to the gym and bust their ass off in the gym. But the magic happens when you eat the right stuff and consistently. This is the hardest aspect and why most people never reach their goals. The best thing about intermittent fasting is that you can still enjoy your food which means a better chance of compliance. Intermittent fasting makes life so much easier and in doing so makes building a great physique so much more achievable.