BCAA

Fasting 20 Hours Daily: My Experience One Year In

I haven’t posted for a long time, but I just had the sudden urge to write. I’ve officially been fasting every day for a year now, the majority of which has been for 19.5 hours daily (9pm – 4:30pm). I don’t see myself ever going back to a more “normal” eating pattern. When people find out that I fast every day for so long (usually because I don’t eat at work), most of them are intrigued and ask questions. I thought I’d post some of the questions I’m asked most frequently and how I answer them.

“Don’t you get hungry?”

This is almost always the first question. Sometimes I do, but only for very brief periods (like five or 10 minutes) that quickly pass. I consume the number of calories appropriate to my fitness goals (whether it be muscle gain or fat loss) in my 4.5-hour eating window at the end of the day, which I believe my body is processing through a good portion of the period during which I’m fasting and that helps limit hunger. I drink two cups of coffee each day as well, which definitely helps reduce pangs.

“How do you stay awake and how do you think clearly?”

I’m way more awake and clear-headed during my fasted period. When I begin eating food (particularly carbohydrates i.e. rice, potatoes and oats at the end of the day), I become palpably groggy and sluggish. That’s good because it helps me go to sleep, but only when I want to go to sleep. I’ve learned to use carbs like some people use Ambien. Only difference is that the carbs are natural, while Ambien is a scary chemical monster.

“Doesn’t eating so much right before bed make you fat?”

Clearly no. Not only have I found no academic literature demonstrating causality between eating right before bed and getting fat, but I also happen to finish eating literally a few minutes before going to bed every night and it has absolutely no effect on fat gain. Energy balance is still king. I also have a 50% bro-science theory that the body can more efficiently digest food when it doesn’t have to divert energy into doing other stuff like moving around, talking, thinking etc.

“Doesn’t your metabolism slow down?”

No. There are mountains of peer-reviewed studies in well respected medical journals clearly demonstrating that the metabolism of a healthy individual (human) doesn’t slow until somewhere in the three-day fasting range. My own experience is the best proof for me, and I see no hint whatsoever that my metabolism is slowing. In fact, my hair and nails have been growing noticeably faster since I began fasting, which is an indicator of a faster metabolism.

“How can you possibly build muscle without eating for so long?”

Technically, my fasting isn’t absolute; I do take BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) during my fasting period: ten grams spread out during and immediately after lifting, then another ten grams a few hours later. It works out to 80-100 calories (BCAA is technically protein, so it’s 4 cal/ gram). It’s the one supplement that without question has a direct effect on my rate of muscle growth. When I began fasting, I took BCAAs according this schedule, but after a few months of doing it, dropped the second serving out of a combination of forgetfulness and believing they weren’t necessary (I think I even mentioned that in a past post). I maintained a six-day heavy compound lift schedule and maintained my total daily caloric intake, but my gains slowed dramatically. I chalked it up to the body’s natural adaptive response (sort of a foolish idea looking back). But nearly four weeks ago after reading more about the importance of BCAAs while fasting, I reintroduced the second serving of BCAAs into my routine, and sometimes also a third smaller serving around 2pm. I changed nothing about my lifting or caloric intake other than the extra 40 or so calories that came from the added aminos. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was like flipping on the muscle and strength switch. Every single one of my big lifts has increased (working max on the deadlift by 6% and a whopping 11% on the back squat in just four weeks), and I’ve visibly added muscle. My wife noticed, some coworkers noticed, and my clothing is tighter in the right spots. I’m not a big fan of supplements (aside from creatine monohydrate, fish oil, whole food multi and vitamin D), but I strongly believe in the power of BCAAs for gains while fasting. I don’t think they’d be worth it if I wasn’t fasting since I’d be eating real food and getting a similar effect. The hypertrophy signaling power specifically of the BCAA leucine has received a good deal of attention in the bodybuilding community recently, and, based on my own experience, it’s definitely not just hype.

“How do you have any energy to lift heavy without food?

I eat a lot at night and lift early in the morning during a time when I believe my body is still processing all that food from the night before. I have more energy lifting fasted than I ever had lifting after eating a traditional breakfast. I’ve begun referring to it as “clean” energy in that blood sugar levels are stable and there’s very little circulating insulin. As long as I’ve consumed enough complex carbs the prior night, I have a ton of energy, which can probably be attributed to good muscle glycogen levels. I’ve heavily experimented with both carbohydrate loading and restriction, and have found that my strength and stamina decreases noticeably when I’m restricting, even when keeping total daily calories constant.

As an aside, I see no point to carb restriction other than for vanity’s sake. Yes, a high carb intake (200-300g/ day for me) tends to blur the abs a little and cloaks deltoid striations as a result of some fluid retention, but it’s such a great boon to strength development that I don’t care. My perception is that a common belief is that carbs cause fat gain. I think people tend to mistake the associated water retention with fat gain. It’s also why people drop weight like mad for a week or so on low carb diets. Most of that is just water. I don’t think there’s any way to have it both ways; it’s just not possible for a TRAINED individual to continue to make strength and size gains on a low-carb or calorie restricted diet. That kind of diet is great for getting ripped, but not stronger.

“Why do you fast? What’s the point?”

All said, fasting makes it much easier for me to control my calories, it improves my focus, it’s easy and convenient (no thinking about what food to bring to work, no lunch prep) and it’s vastly improved my understanding of how my body works. It’s special to me and always with me. I’ve become preternaturally aware of specific foods’ effects on how I feel. For example, I’ve learned to break each day’s fast with some meat (both fatty and lean), cheese and fruits and vegetables rather than something higher in carbohydrate because carbs absolutely, positively make be feel like I’ve been sprinkled with sleepy dust. Not a bad thing at all–just not good when I’m not ready to sleep.

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Is Calculating LeanGains Macros and Calories Irrelevant?

I used LeanGains to develop and maintain this condition... but I also didn't.

I used LeanGains to develop and maintain this condition… but I also didn’t.

I owe a good deal of my success in learning how to get ripped to Martin Berkhan, founder of the LeanGains intermittent fasting protocol. When I began to understand that intermittent fasting was conducive to both caloric control and muscle maintenance and/ or gain, I really began to understand how to get ripped. But reflecting on my experience with LeanGains recently, I realized that I had actually been following relatively few of the program’s guidelines, yet I still got ripped, and I still put on muscle. Naturally, I began to wonder how relevant those guidelines were. Since I’m interested in determining how little effort is really required to get ripped and determining what’s best for me, I decided to pull LeanGains apart and examine the pieces.

The Big Five

  1. I see lots of inquiries online about how to calculate daily LeanGains macros. If you were to ask me how, I’d tell you that I’m really not sure because I never did it… yet I still got ripped using LeanGains.
  2. I also see lots of discussion about how to get ripped by employing LeanGains’ caloric cycling rules of 20% above maintenance on lifting days and 20% below maintenance on non-lifting days. I definitely couldn’t provide much information on the subject because, again, I never did it, yet I still managed to get ripped using LeanGains.
  3. Then there’s the issue of using BCAAs every two hours after a lifting session when fasted until the eating window opens. I frequently either forgot to take them, was too busy to take them, or purposely didn’t take them… yet I still got ripped fasting daily for 21 hours per day.
  4. Of course,  to the above point, I just naturally stopped following the 16/8 fast/ feed guideline a few weeks after beginning LeanGains in favor of 21 hours fasted… and yes, I still got ripped using LeanGains.
  5. Then there’s the reverse pyramid style training program that Martin Berkhan himself uses, or did at some point. It seems like a good program, but I never used it exclusively and I still got ripped following LeanGains.

These realizations led me to the conclusion that I was having a delusion that I was following LeanGains, when I really wasn’t. But I still got ripped. Placebo? No.

How to calculate LeanGains macros? The question might be irrelevant.

I’m gonna come right out and say it: macro cycling played no role in me getting ripped. If it had, I don’t think I would have been able to drop from 13% body fat to 7% (9 lbs of fat) with only a 2 lb net weight loss. That means I gained 7 lbs of muscle at the same time.* I paid exceedingly little attention to my carb to fat ratio. When I look back at my MyFitnessPal logs (which automatically tracks macros) I see that there was no pattern to my fat/ carb intake. I sometimes ate high fat on lifting days and high carb on non-lifting days. Sometimes it was reversed. Sometimes I only ate 120g carbs, sometimes 250g. Sometimes I forgot to eat carbs, as in “40-grams- for-the-day-from-broccoli-and-kabocha-squash” forgetting to eat carbs. After conducting a bit of a deeper dive into my nutrient data, I discovered that my three-day carb average was usually in the low 200g range. From that fact alone, I’d have to conclude that averaging 200g per day over three days is adequate for me and enables optimal lifting performance. That said, I always maintained consistent protein intake of 130-150g/ day. I’m not suggesting that macro manipulation is wrong–it’s just not right for me.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I had dropped heavy lifting in favor of total engagement in a [stupid] metabolic conditioning program [that ate my strength and muscles for a snack] for the eight months before I began fasting intermittently. This possibly primed my body to respond more rapidly when I began lifting heavy again. As an aside, something else I don’t understand about macro cycling under LeanGains is that carbs are to be consumed on lifting days, after lifting. But from that time until after the next lifting session (48 hours), carb intake is to be reduced significantly. It makes more sense to me that carbs are increased on the rest day evening so that the muscles are primed with glycogen for the following day’s lifting session.

I said nah-ah to cycling daily caloric intake.

LeanGains suggests that its practitioners swing caloric intake hard from day to day based on lifting vs non-lifting days. The recommendation is +20% on a lifting day, and -20% on a rest day. On a 2,500 calorie diet, that’s a 1,000 calorie swing multiple times per week. I found that it actually became complicated and felt very unnatural to consume so many calories on a lifting day. This stands in paradoxical contrast to how natural fasting for 90% of the day feels to me now. The rationale behind the guideline is that the body requires all that extra energy to build muscle. But in my experience, like macro cycling, it just doesn’t matter. I maintained a daily calorie deficit of 300-600 calories whether lifting or not. This can only mean that for me, protein synthesis is relying to some extent on fat stores for fuel. This would make sense since we know that fat stores provide a buffer for energy imbalances (i.e. deficits), although I’d imagine that a body fat threshold exists below which muscle catabolism becomes more efficient than fat catabolism. Whatever the case, the takeaway from this I believe, is that there’s flexibility in any program. This is certainly not a knock on LeanGains or its creator. But if I hadn’t experimented and listened to some things my body (and brain) was telling me, I might not have been as successful in achieving my goals. That’s what learning how to get ripped was all about for me.

The little jury in my brain is still partially out on BCAAs

I admit, my statement about BCAAs at the top of this post might have been a touch hyperbolic. I do take BCAAs, but not like I used to. When I began fasting intermittently, I gulped them down according to Martin Berkhan’s recommendations of before, during and after lifting, and every two hours until feeding time. But after a while, I began to get lazy about the two-hour rule to the point where I didn’t have any between 8am and, say, 2 or 3pm at which time I’d have my first meal (that’s since changed to 5 or 6pm). I pretty much failed at adhering to that guideline and I still got ripped. Now it’s true that I might have hindered my gains [picture the Hodge Twins saying that], but it just goes to show that there’s no hard and fast line that defines the boundaries of how to get ripped. I do, however, believe that BCAAs have played a critical role in my lifting performance. On two occasions I tried lifting under truly fasted conditions without anything in me but water. In a word: disastrous. In two words: utter failure. My guess is that BCAAs are so acutely effective for my lifting sessions because they provide energy in the form of calories, which I think is separate from other anabolic qualities they possess. I’ve estimated that one scoop of the BCAA supplement I use (Modern BCAA +) contains 30 calories*, so a couple of scoops before and during lifting provides around 60 calories, which provides an energy boost, albeit modest.

*Unlike the case for foods, the U.S. FDA only provides nonbinding supplement labeling recommendations (you can read all about the boring details here) . More specifically, supplement manufacturers are not required to list caloric content anywhere on the product label. Nevertheless, BCAAs are building blocks of proteins, and do contain approximately the same number of calories per gram. Keep in mind that although a 7g scoop of pure BCAAs might contain ~28 calories (7 x 4), it might contain more or less depending on the extent to which other ingredients are present in the supplement (e.g. electrolytes, artificial sweeteners, etc.).

Eating doesn’t matter. I don’t ever eat.

Of course that’s not true, but it sometimes feels like it. While LeanGains programs for a 16 hour fasting window, on many days of the week I easily go 21 hours without eating, which a year ago I would have said is preposterous, foolhardy, pointless, difficult and just plain backward. My fasting pattern just naturally evolved from the initial 16 hours; I wasn’t intentionally trying to extend it. My point is (again) that based on my experience, the processes and practices for getting ripped are flexible and customizable to an individual’s preferences and needs.

There are lots of ways to lift.

LeanGains’ founder is fond of the reverse pyramid lifting method, which, in my opinion, is an awesome technique that I use as a component of my own strength program (you can learn about the details of the RF Strength Program here). But because I or someone else thinks it’s great and has had success using it doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. I’m not suggesting in any way that LeanGains is claiming that it is; I’m just making the point that modalities for getting ripped are multifarious. The most effective eating style, supplement stack (if you’re into that) and lifting routine is one that is crafted by the individual to his or her unique predilections and requirements (as long as basic core principles are accounted for).

Ripped Recipe: Watermelon or Fruit Punch BCAA Citrus-Mintade Ginger Fizz

A few fresh ingredients take BCAAs in a new direction.

A few fresh ingredients take BCAAs in a new direction.

This recipe is a departure from my standard of not including chemicals in my food; it’s a necessary evil though. Because I fast for what’s recently turned into 21 hours per day, I require some form of nutrition that favors maintainance of an anabolic state while remaining as close to fasted as possible. For this reason, I take BCAAs (branch chain amino acids). They’re completely synthetic and contain artificial flavors and Sucralose. I take anywhere from zero to 30 grams per day. Because they’re unnatural and expensive, I wouldn’t recommend BCAAs to anyone unless they’re lifting heavy in a fasted state and want to maintain a near-fast for several hours after lifting. They’re totally unnecessary otherwise. I’ve already written more than I like to for a recipe post.

Now doesn't this look refreshing? Non-fasters might enjoy as well.

Now doesn’t this look refreshing? Non-fasters might enjoy as well.

Ingredients
1-2 scoops watermelon or fruit punch BCAA powder (I prefer Modern BCAA +)
juice of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1/2 lime
flavored seltzer of your choice (I prefer Polar brand)
several leaves fresh mint
1-2 thin slices of fresh ginger

Preparation
Add lemon juice, lime juice, mint leaves, and ginger to small vessel and muddle well with the back of a spoon. More muddled = more fresh flavor.

Add BCAA powder to 1-2 oz water in bottle or shaker and shake hard until dissolved.

Combine citrus-mint-ginger solution with BCAA solution over ice in large glass, add flavored seltzer to desired dilution and stir gently.

How to Get Ripped, Section 2.1: The Zen of Intermittent Fasting

I dropped breakfast and pushed lunch to late in the afternoon.

Before becoming ripped this time around, I used to eat breakfast. As a NASM Certified Personal Trainer (I used to train people as a hobby), I told my clients that they should eat breakfast. Why did I do that? For one, “everyone” on TV, the internet and in the business said you’re supposed to, and for two, it seemed to make sense. How else would you have energy to exercise? You’d certainly waste away without breakfast. Needless to say, I’ve discovered through my own experience that this just isn’t true. It was a pretty significant moment of realization for me. I frequently eat my first meal of the day around 2:30 or 3pm, which concludes an 18 hour fasting period.

Martin Berhkan is the father of an eating protocol (many consider it a lifestyle) called 16/8 intermittent fasting a.k.a “LeanGains“. Some people reading this might already be familiar with it. The core principle is that you don’t eat for a period of 16 hours straight, after which you can eat within an 8 hour window. I’ve adjusted it to my own preference of typically 21 hours fasting, three feeding during the week and around 18 fasting, six feeding during the weekend.

There are several styles of intermittent fasts with each specifying a different fast length and frequency. Examples include the Warrior Diet and Eat Stop Eat, the details of which aren’t relevant to this post, but they’re all the same in principle: don’t eat for a certain period of time, then eat within a specified time window.

Many individuals have found LeanGains to be exceptionally effective for maintaining both leanness and an internal environment conducive to protein synthesis (i.e. muscle development). Berhkan cites multiple studies that explain why intermittent fasting is so effective. The main concepts include the following:

  • Little to no circulating insulin during the fast promotes a flush of human growth hormone, especially after heavy lifting. This provides an ideal stimulus for muscle growth. Additionally, growth hormone is a potent fat burning and muscle sparing agent.
  • Fasting promotes muscle glycogen depletion to the extent that the muscle will be apt to rapidly “soak up” nutrients once reintroduced when the fast concludes.

As an aside, Bojan Kostevski of lift-heavy.com recently released some very interesting research on intermittent fasting and its effects on human health. You can find it here.

Stop eating to reduce hunger… WTF?

I’ve read numerous studies on this subject, some cited by Berkan, others that I found on my own. The evidence is clear that contrary to conventional wisdom, muscle loss is not an issue when fasting for short periods like this (even 21 hours is considered to be a short period). But in the end, I have a basic theory (that I mentioned in an earlier post) about why intermittent fasting can be so effective: it is a tool that enhances control over caloric intake. Because insulin levels are minimized during the fast since glucose isn’t present in the bloodstream, blood sugar undulations are nearly nonexistent and hunger is suppressed to a great degree. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t done it myself, but it absolutely worked for me. Less hunger = better compliance with caloric restriction goals. I’d even venture to say that for me, fasting has made appetite control as close to effortless as possible. All in all, I tend to think it’s a little less scientific than some proponents make it out to be, but that’s just my opinion. I’ll stress again that I chose intermittent fasting because it integrates well with my lifestyle and I enjoy it for several reasons. I love not having to spend time preparing food and eating in the morning, and I also prefer pushing my first meal as far into the afternoon as possible because when I’m at work I can’t really enjoy what I’m eating. This is why I like to eat the majority of my calories at home in the late afternoon and evening.

But there’s also something almost spiritual about fasting for me. Somewhere between 14 and 16 hours in, I usually begin to experience a mild euphoria and my ability to concentrate goes through the roof. I’d read many accounts of this phenomenon and can say from my own experience that it’s real. Additionally, not having to think about food for hours of the day is truly freeing. Before I began fasting, I felt like I was hungry all the time at work, thinking about what I should eat next. Insulin circulating through my body kept me hungry, and the small snacks I ate were never ever completely satisfying; they just kept me hungry. Having a maximum of only a six-hour feeding window now means that when I eat it can be a lot of food and very satisfying, and that’s good for my soul.

Coming off the fast

I typically prefer to come off my fast (especially a 21-hour weekday fast) with decaf coffee (decaffeinated via water or CO2 method only) and a quarter cup or so of whole milk. I don’t like to jam a bunch of food down my gullet straight away. This is completely a personal preference.

All this said, I don’t believe that fasting is a requirement for getting ripped, since I’m pretty sure that old school guys like Ed Holovchik, Steve Reeves, Jack LaLane, Lou Ferrigno, and early Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t get ripped fasting–they lifted heavy using strength programs designed for progressive overload, controlled their calories and rested. But fasting is great for me, and I don’t think I will ever stop fasting intermittently since I find it so crucial to effortlessly staying ripped.