Leangains Intermittent Fasting (IF)
The Hodgetwins have made Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Intermittent Fasting (IF) program even more famous. Is the incredible buzz about intermittent fasting deserved? In this article, I give you my un-biased opinion on what intermittent fasting is, if intermittent fasting works, and why it works.
For those of you who won’t read this whole article, let me give you the conclusion first. The Leangains intermittent fasting program will definitely help you gain muscle and lose fat, the question is why and whether it’s really works better than any other training and nutrition methods. If you want to know more, I suggest you get the book shown on the right, Eat Stop Eat. I know I say this all the time but I will say it again:
“Bodybuilding is not an exact science, you need to experiment and find what works best for you” – Scooby Werkstatt
There are an incredibly complex array of factors that goes into determining what workout style and nutritional style will be best for you. The only thing for certain is that it probably wont be the same as for the guy standing next to you at the bench press. For some people, P90X, Insanity, or Crossfit works the best. For others, 5×5, SS, or a bodybuilding style workout like my home workouts give them maximum results.
It’s all about finding what works for you and helps you achieve your goals. Nutritionally, many people find eating frequent, smaller meals too stressful and time consuming – for them intermittent fasting provides optimal results. Others find that frequent small meals help them keep hunger at bay with fewer calories so they can lose fat and get ripped easier. Again, find what works best for you.
“It’s far more important WHAT you eat and HOW MUCH you eat than WHEN you eat it.” – Scooby Werkstatt
Although I am still recommend to people that they frequent small meals, I would much rather someone eat just two healthy meals a day in an intermittent fasting protocol than eat five meals consisting of BigMacs! What you eat is far more important to your success in health and bodybuilding than when you eat in my opinion. If you do follow intermittent fasting, remember that your work does not stop when you decide to constrain eating to an 8 hour window. The biggest nutritional task for any bodybuilder is deciding what to eat.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is just like you would expect from the name. There are many other kinds of intermittent fasting, like alternate day intermittent fasting, but I will focus on the kind that Martin Berkhan at Leangains presents which is intra-day fasting – basically extending the night time sleeping fast a bit longer. Normal people fast for 8 hours during sleep and then eat for the other 16 hours. In the leangains intermittent fasting program, it’s the other way around – you fast for 16hrs and eat for 8 hours. If Leangains was just that the webpage would be just one sentence and we wouldn’t be talking about it now, Martin Berkhan’s Leangains website has hundreds of pages of information which I am going to try to boil down into a few bullet points below. I apologize profusely to Martin for this oversimplification of his program but for those unfamiliar with his program I need to give them a quick idea of what it involves:
- Fasting 16 hours, eating window 8 hours long – number of meals irrelevant
- TDEE +20% calories on lifting days, -20% on non lifting days. (TDEE is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure,if you eat at precisely your TDEE you will neither gain nor lose weight.)
- For lifting, SS (Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Program)
- Nutrition, consume at least 2.5g protein per kg of bodyweight
Intermittent fasting isn’t as new as it sounds, in fact it is thousands of years old. Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. During the month of Ramadan, they do not drink nor eat anything (nor sex, nor smoking either) from sunrise to sunset. This is a rather brutal type of intermittent fasting, brutal because the fasting period is during the day. Trying to concentrate and perform normally all day long without food is very, very difficult. If intermittent fasting by itself was the magical key to bodybuilding success then the pro bodybuilding contests would be won by practicing Muslims but this does not seem to be the case. In fact, a 2007 study of two Algerian soccer teams (practicing Muslims) showed that it significantly decreases athletic performance during Ramadan. As bodybuilders, this study is our first warning that we need to proceed very carefully with fasting.
Does Intermittent Fasting work?
Yes, Intermittent fasting does work well for a lot of people. If you are getting good results from it then keep using it! You will note this is very similar to how I responded when people wanted to know “What Scooby thinks about YouTube trainer …” Before I take a critical look at Intermittent Fasting , lets look at why I make the above statements – I’m not being wishy washy. If intermittent fasting gives you the desired results, the reason *why* it works is irrelevant in my opinion. Intermittent fasting will help you gain muscle and lose fat if you believe it will. “WHAT?”, you say! Please hear me out. It doesn’t matter if it works because it is a superior program synergizing nutrition with Starting Strength workouts or if it works because of placebo effect.
Brain – Ally or Enemy?
The brain is the most powerful and important part of our bodies, it determines what you can and cannot do. If the brain in convinced that your life is in danger it will pump out adrenaline like a geyser and give you super-human strength. On the other hand, if you are pessimistic and convince your brain that you cannot do something then you will not be able to do it. If you make a P90X enthusiast do 5×5, I can guarantee you they will whine and complain the whole time and they will have very poor results. This is the reason it pays to have a positive attitude, there is something to it. In a very poorly understood process, if you believe that something will help you then it will.
This poorly understood process is called “The Placebo Effect“. The placebo effect is well documented in medical literature which is why all good research studies include a placebo group to make sure that the benefit is from the drug itself and not because the peoples brains have been fooled into healing them thru positive thinking. The term “placebo effect” is most often used when talking about drugs but it’s just as applicable when it comes to training programs. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that there is so much heated disagreement from all the experts about what is the “best” training program. It’s because what is “best” depends on what the person believes is best. If someone is completely convinced that GOMAD and 5×5 is the optimal way to get stronger and more massive – then it will work! If it’s a reasonable workout strategy and you believe it will work, then it will give you great results. If you don’t believe your workout program is good then you wont have results no matter how well it works for everyone else. I am serious when I say that bodybuilding is equal parts mental and physical, leave out one half of the equation and you get poor results. When you choose a workout strategy, you need your brain as an ally – it’s gotta be 100% convinced you are doing the right thing. Work against your brain and it’s you are wasting your time.
Intermittent Fasting and Placebo Effect
So what does all this have to do with intermittent fasting ? I think you see where I’m going here. Since there is SO much buzz in locker rooms and gyms across the world about the leangains intermittent fasting program, a lot of people are totally convinced it will give them the results they want. Since their brains believe this, it WILL work. When they believe in the program, they will workout more intensely, they will workout longer, they wont skip days, and they will be religious about their nutrition. The leangains intermittent fasting program has an incredible momentum behind it. This is why in my blogpost “What does Scooby think about ..” I say that if a program is working for you and giving you the results you want that it is absolutely the best for you – no matter what it is. If intermittent fasting works, does it really matter *why* it works? Does it matter if it’s placebo effect or if their is some magical synergy between intermittent fasting and Mark Rippetoe’s SS style workouts?
The Newbie Effect.
This is a good time to point out that rank beginners to bodybuilding can do virtually any workout program, no matter how stupid, and get stronger and more massive. They can also use any nutritional program, no matter how stupid, and get stronger and more massive. Rank beginners can do the “curl monkey workout” where every day they do 100 curls and 100 pushups and have great results. The reason this is important to bring up is that as you will find in the following critical look at intermittent fasting, there is a severe lack of applicable, well done research – almost none. With a lack of good research, all workout programs (mine included) resort to anecdotal short term “before and after” comparisons are used and these folks are often beginners. A great before and after of a beginner on my website is just as useless as one on the leangains website. What matters is, can an advanced bodybuilder overcome a false genetic limit and make further gains with the workout system and what is the maximum that someone can achieve on the program.
Leangains program seems to be associated with the term “recompositioning” in peoples minds. What is recompositioning? It’s what I have always referred to as gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. Every day on bodybuilding forums across the world people argue about whether bulking and cutting is the fastest way to a ripped, muscular physique or if recompositioning is. Many bulker/cutters seem to think that *everyone* has to bulk to gain muscle but the success stories pages of P90X, my website, and the leangains website suggest otherwise. Remember what I said earlier, that beginners and intermediates can do virtually anything and make good gains? From everything I have seen, beginners achieve their goal of obtaining a muscular, lean physique much faster with a recompositioning type nutritional program (set goal = recomp on my calorie calculator) than with bulking/cutting. This is true for many intermediate bodybuilders as well. It’s my experience that only when you get to within 20% of your genetic max that you need to start playing tricks with your body, like bulking/cutting, to coax out further gains. Leangains and I are in complete agreement on this issue, recompositioning is the way to go for beginners and most intermediate bodybuilders – in other words, workout hard while eating at your TDEE. If you are obese, then perhaps eating 5-20% under your TDEE is called for depending on your level of obesity. For advanced bodybuilders, that is, those within 20% of their genetic potential it appears that bulking/cutting is the way to go.
Examination of Intermittent Fasting.
First it’s important to ask, does intermittent fasting work for *what*. What is the criteria that we are judging intermittent fasting on? Gaining muscle? Losing fat? Athletic performance? Endurance? Disease prevention? Reduction of cancer risk? Improved cardiovascular health? Better health markers (blood pressure, lipid levels, etc). Since most people here are young and healthy and are only concerned with the cosmetic aspects, we will stick to those: strength gain, mass gain, and bodyfat reduction.
Often in bodybuilding, arguments about nutrition or lifting programs turns into a ping pong match where the opponents take turns sending research volleys over the net to the opposing team where they point out the faults of the study which render it useless then smack their research paper over the net which ‘proves’ their point – and the game continues. At the end, if both players have the hundreds of hours at their disposal to find, read, and analyze the research, the game ends in a draw with both players exhausted both admitting that their needs to be better research done. In my opinion, this is basically what has happened with intermittent fasting between Alan Aragon and Martin Berkhan. I’m not going to re-invent the wheel here nor am I going to pretend to know as much about nutrition as Alan aragon. If you want to see the definitive critical analysis of intermittent fasting based upon research, then see Alan Aragon’s An Objective Look at Intermittent Fasting. Alan Aragon is one of the top bodybuilding nutritional specialists in the world and he makes a living doing unbiased, critical analysis of published researched papers with a bodybuilding eye. If you argue with Alan’s opinion then you had better have done your homework and have a stack of research to back you up. If you don’t read his whole paper, please read at least the conclusion. I don’t want to copy it here but I think I can safely include one sentence from the two paragraph summary that gives the flavor of the whole paper without stepping into copyright issues:
“In the world of fitness, recommendations for improving performance and body composition often gain blind acceptance despite a dearth of objective data.”
In an objective review of intermittent fasting, thats not a very positive outlook! OK, so lets look at some of the main points of intermittent fasting.
I know most are not interested in the health aspects of leangains intermittent fasting program but I have some big concerns about it so I will cover it quickly. A bad omen is that as far as I can tell, the words “vegetable”, “fiber”, and “anti-oxidant” do not seem to appear anywhere on the leangains website but there is a whole section on supplements. I’m a bit concerned about what the people following the Leangains program are actually eating. As far as the health of the intermittent fasting itself. It does appear the following the leangains intermittent fasting program does improve your cholesterol levels but according to this study, it appears that the same benefit can be achieved by exercise alone. The other concern I have about the health aspects of the leangains program is that it does not include cardio. In my opinion, daily cardio is the kernel of any fitness program that has overall health and well being as a goal.
By performance I mean strength, endurance, speed, balance, and coordination. The before mentioned study of Algerian soccer players during Ramadan clearly showed that Ramadan style fasting is detrimental to performance. What about leangains style intermittent fasting, is it detrimental to performance? We don’t know as there is no research other than the soccer study. It’s clear that Ramadan style fasting where no food nor beverage can be consumed during the day has a far worse effect on performance than leangains style intermittent fasting where eating can happen 8 hours during the day. So leangains style intermittent fasting isn’t as bad as sunrise to sunset fasting on performance but is it still a problem? My guess is it depends on when the athletic event is. If the athletic event falls in the feeding window like a football practice would, my guess is that there is no performance degradation at all with leangains intermittent fasting. On the other hand, if your athletic event occurs during the fasting window then I’m willing to bet there is a significant performance degradation. Research done by Bird points to me being correct in this assumption. There are many anecdotal reports of people “having so much energy” in the morning before they eat. To those people I say, “see you at the race”. If you have so much energy while fasting lets do a Half Ironman and see who wins – you keep fasting during the race and I get to eat my normal 5000 calories or so in energy drinks, gels, and bars. Well see how much energy you have then 🙂 As I discuss in when to do cardio, I personally find that when I attempt cardio before eating in the morning my cardio session is much shorter than if I do it after a small meal. What works for me is to eat a small well balanced meal and then exercise.
Ability to Lose Bodyfat.
Lets start with something that is very clear. Meal frequency does not affect how many calories per day your body burns, your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). If the number of calories is the same, it doesn’t matter if you consume then in one large meal a day or ten small meals a day – your TDEE remains constant, as long as they are regularly scheduled meals. It does appear that an irregular feeding schedule can decrease your metabolism and make losing fat harder but nothing increases it and makes losing fat easier.
What about decreasing your feeding window from the normal person’s 16 hours to a leangains intermittent fasting participant’s 8 hour feeding window, does that make losing fat easier? Let the ping pong match between Alan Aragon and Martin Berkhan begin! As far as I can see, all the studies used when talking about this are seriously flawed and both sides agree that more research is needed. According to Alan Aragon, the main study used to show the benefits of intermittent fasting has a number of serious flaws and I agree with him. There were only 20 participants and 5 dropped out which most likely means those 5 participants were having poor results. Leaving out all the people who have poor results out of the study doesn’t make it much of a study does it? The other huge problem is that they used a very inaccurate method for determining body composition, basically just measuring body impedance as the cheapo digital bodyfat tools do. Couple the inaccurate body composition measurements with the extremely short study period (6 weeks) and you get questionable results at best.
It’s clear that many, many people have gotten muscular and shredded from the Leangains style intermittent fasting. The question is why. Let me bring up something related, carb cycling. It’s clear that carb cycling works great but it’s very complicated to make a meal plan (which is why I made my automated carb cycling meal planner) so anyone who does carb cycling is making a huge commitment. Does carb cycling work because there is some biochemistry behind it or does it simply work because it’s followers watch their macros and calories so carefully as the old admin of the AskScooby forum suggested? It’s pretty clear to me now that he was right, it’s not carb cycling that makes you ripped quickly without losing any muscle mass, it’s the fact that you get plenty of protein, lots of vegetables, enough good fats and EFAs, and run a tightly monitored caloric deficit. The same question applies to intermittent fasting, is something inherent in the intermittent fasting itself that makes losing fat easier or is it just the fact that you are paying more attention to your nutrition? Again, I ask the question – does it really matter if it works? No! Leangains intermittent fasting works for many people in helping them get ripped while gaining strength and muscle mass so who cares why? So does intermittent fasting help you lose bodyfat? Maybe, maybe not. What is clear is that more research needs to be done.
Ability to Gain Muscle.
So, will leangains style intermittent fasting help you gain muscle? As far as I can tell, Martin Berkhan’s Leangains program recommends that you follow Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength (SS) program. Yes, of course! Following Mark Rippetoe’s lifting program while following Martin Berkhan’s leangains intermittent fasting program WILL make you bigger and stronger. A number of questions arise though. First, is SS the best choice for you based upon your goals, age, and limitations? Second question which is more important, is it the SS alone giving Leangains participants their mass and strength gains or is it a symbiotic relationship between SS and leangains IF that causes some amplification of results? If you did a year long study of SS+IF vs SS+GOMAD, who would have the better muscular and strength gains? If SS+IF produces better results, is that because IF people on the whole are more educated about nutrition than GOMAD folks? So then you have to do another study, what if everyone did GOMAD and SS but half the group did GOMAD in the intermittent fasting style? You will see here that we have far more questions than answers. As far as I know, there has been no study to date that shows you can gain muscle mass and strength faster with an intermittent fasting protocol than with normal eating.
Does Leangains intermittent fasting work? Yes, intermittent fasting helps you gain muscle and lose fat but the reason why it works is unclear. It’s also unclear if it works better than other nutritional programs – maybe, maybe not. What IS clear that more basic research is needed.
So, cut to the chase, do I recommend that you follow Leangains style intermittent fasting? I would say “Yes” if you are sure it’s the best thing since sliced bread and “No” otherwise. If you are unsure, I recommend my top-down bodybuilding nutrition approach. I will also continue to recommend 3+ meals a day because I believe (but cant prove) it is a great tool in satisfying hunger with fewer calories as well as a great aide in maximizing muscle gain. I would also say it’s far more important what and how much you eat than when you eat it or in how many meals you consume it in. Beer and protein shakes at the “right time” is far inferior to a big pile of vegetables and a chicken breast at the “wrong time”.If you want to do intermittent fasting, I recommend the book Eat Stop Eat.