LeanGains

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).

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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.