If you have spent any time looking to add some lean muscle, drop some fat, increase strength or even set foot in a gym I know you will hear these things.
“What, you are fasting? You are a crazy man. That stuff will make you into a big pussy in the gym.”
Really? Sounds like an untested assumption to me. You know what we do with untested assumptions, right?
“Carbs will make you fat”
Really? Hmmm, maybe we should test that too.
“Yo, don’t you know that you need to eat every 1-2.3337 hours to stay anabolic! Everyone knows that, bro”
Really? Sounds like some more crazy Bro-Science in need of a beat down.
Fasting for weight loss = Putting it to the test
There is not much better than setting personal records (PRs) both inside and outside of the gym. It is an awesome feeling, knowing that you are making progress.
Last night I got a triple with a weight that was 20 lbs heavier than just about 3 weeks where I got 1 rep for deficit deadlifts. Whoo ha.
To top if off, I did it at the end of a 24 hour fast as described in Eat Stop Eat. Yep, only water for 24 hours.
Ok, ok, if I am going to come clean and be perfectly honest (my wife can vouch that I am honest to a fault), I did have a fiber drink at 10 AM and 6 brazil nuts around 3pm; so technically not a true fast but very close.
Even with minimal food, I still set a PR!
Fast forward about 3 weeks to tonight:
+20 lbs and 3 reps on deficit deadlifts again.
Why intermittent fasting? I was told it makes you weak as a kitten?
Great question. Your body should be able to perform well under a variety of conditions.
The 2 most basic conditions for training are:
1) lots of food (high levels of insulin)
2) low levels of food (thus low levels of insulin)
Each has a specific purpose and a time to be used best.
High levels of insulin
When insulin is very high, your body is shifted towards carbohydrate metabolism. This is great right before a high intensity weight training session since the main fuel source to power your workouts will be carbohydrates. Insulin is also a very potent vasodilator, so you can dump all the worthless Nitric Oxide products.
Low levels of insulin
When insulin is low, your body is shifted towards fat metabolism. This is awesome when you are trying to drop some fat and lean up a bit.
Can we have the best of both worlds though?
Here is a 3 step approach to add some lean mass without tons of fat in the process.
Step 1: Moderate insulin levels during the day
You food for these meals will be protein (about 20-40 grams), fats, and veggies. While all foods have an insulin response, a mixed meal with protein and fats as a base results in a more moderate insulin response (especially if you add in some fiber from the veggies).
Step 2: Spike insulin levels pre-workout
We want to shift the body to carbohydrate metabolism for the upcoming weight training session, so by using a simple carbohydrate and protein (whey protein works great) drink consumed pre-training we can increase insulin, and vasodilation effects as a side benefit.
Sample preworkout drink
2 scoops dextrose (or 1 packet of Vitargo)
1 scoop of whey protein
5 grams creatine monohydrate (optional)
3 grams beta-alanine (optional)
Mix with about 750mL of water and drink half about 30-60 minutes before training and the rest during training.
Note: if you have not done this before and have been on a low carb diet for a long time, I would recommend that you test this beverage in place of your breakfast to determine your response. A few people will experience a drop in blood sugar after consuming it and become a bit dizzy, which is not conducive to lifting heavy objects. This is rare, but test it out at breakfast on a non training day and note your response to it.
Step 3: Monitor and continue
If your muscle to fat gain ratio of your new weight is still good, then continue on. That ratio will depend on each person. For me, if I can gain at about 2:1 or even 1:1 muscle to fat, I am happy with that since adding lean muscle is more difficult for me than dropping fat. At times in the past I was happy with a 0.5 to 2 lb ratio.
When you are gaining more mass and calories are higher (especially carbs), your body gets really good at using carbs, but not as good at using fat (constant higher levels of insulin = burning more carbs and not fat). One symptom is that when carbs are spiked, you may get a bit hypoglycemic and dizzy.
Remember what I said about testing it first?
This happened to me 2 nights ago. I went to lift and just felt bad during lifting and dizzy. I came back in and crushed 2 glasses of water and 2 Cliff bars. About 20 minutes later I felt better, cranked out a PR and called it a night.
Even during a bulking phase, we want to maintain some ability to burn fats when needed! In a perfect world, we want to be able to go back and forth between burning fats and carbs seamlessly (metabolic flexibility) to use body fat to fuel muscle growth. While it is hard to get the body to do this without drugs and extreme approaches, it can be shifted that direction.
Once I get the hypoglycemic feeling, I schedule a fast starting that night to sensitize my body to carbs and teach it to burn some fat again. A recent study by Harvie, MN et al. (1) showed that intermittent fasting was a bit more effective than even caloric restriction for reductions in fasting insulin and insulin resistance. One of the benefit of caloric restriction is centered around its positive effects on insulin and glucose management.
How often do I do an intermittent fast when looking to add lean mass?
It will vary from person to person, but about 1 every 14 to 21 days seems to be average for those training 4-5 days per week with pretty good levels of training volume. These trainers are also using this tip I share for free in this video too.
If you are looking to build muscle and you are skinner to start with, you will need to increase calories. The goal is to get those increased calories shunted towards muscle growth and not your gut.
We only want to fast the minimal effective amount (mEA) to keep insulin in check and not lose the ability to burn fat between meals.
Newer research by Dr. Layne Norton has shown that CONSTANT levels of amino acids (proteins) in the blood may ironically NOT be best for muscle growth (2); so eating every 1-3 hours is not ideal. Plus it is a huge pain in the butt.
Typical spacing is about 4-5 hours since this gives the body time to burn a bit of fat between meals (insulin drops a bit, but for it to get really really low takes up to 24 hours) and appears to “reset” the mechanisms involved in protein synthesis (stuffing proteins into those muscles).
In an experiment done by Bohe et al. (3), a constant infusion (via an IV stuck in their arm) was done to keep amino acid levels high for 6 hours. What they found was that DESPITE high levels, muscle protein synthesis started to DROP at about 2 hours; so CONSTANTLY high levels of amino acids is not ideal.
What about calories?
Calories are king, so if you are looking to gain some lean mass and your calories are really low, it will take quite some time. If you are looking to drop some fat and your calories are still sky high and you are not doing Michael Phelps 3 hour training sessions, you will need to drop them down. No matter what anyone tells you, calories do matter and should be accounted for first.
Key points to take home to maximize body composition while gaining lean mass
1) Fasting does not appear to make you weak (but run your own experiment)
2) High levels of insulin = carb burning, low levels of insulin = fat burning
3) We want to be able to effectively switch back and forth seamlessly between both conditions
4) Space meals farther apart to about every 4-5 hours
5) Calories matter and are king
1) Harvie MN, Pegington M, Mattson MP, Frystyk J, Dillon B, Evans G, Cuzick J, Jebb SA, Martin B, Cutler RG, Son TG, Maudsley S, Carlson OD, Egan JM, Flyvbjerg A, Howell A. Int J Obes (Lond). 2010 Oct 5. [Epub ahead of print] The effects of intermittent or continuous energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers: a randomized trial in young overweight women. Genesis Prevention Centre, University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester, UK.
2) Dr Layne Norton “My Powerpoint presentation from the 2008 International Society of Sports Nutrition Symposium” accessed on December 31 at 10:01am from http://biolayne.com/
3) Bohé J, Low A, Wolfe RR, Rennie MJ. Human muscle protein synthesis is modulated by extracellular, not intramuscular amino acid availability: a dose-response study. J Physiol. 2003 Oct 1;552(Pt 1):315-24. Epub 2003 Aug 8. Division of Metabolism, Department of Surgery, University of Texas Medical Branch, Shriners Burns Hospital, Galveston, TX 77550, USA.