My main objective was to see whether the Martin Berkhan's Leangains approach to eating could create favourable strength and size changes after years of little or no progress in the gym - while delivering on its promises to make those gains lean.
Overall, I gained a little over 2% fat and 10lbs and gained 5-10% strength. In the final few weeks, I blew it on the diet front. Here's the detail.
Eating and Fasting Windows
I recorded the times of my meals - the graph shows the fasting window and eating window for each day during the experiment.
Orange = Fasting Window Blue = Eating Window
Note that since the fasting window started the day before, the bars do not always add up to 24 hours. The red line indicates the recommended 8 hour eating window size for Leangains.
I still threw in 24-hour fasts about once a week, and although I said I would never eat breakfast, I did eat it on a few occasions when I had a big race.
Other than these few anomalies, I quite consistently adhered to the 8-hour eating window rule.
I tweeted all my meals - and from the collected text of those tweets, have produced this word cloud showing the foods I was eating and how often (bigger word = more often.)
The pictures of the 12 weeks of meals can be seen here, in chronological order. For 98% of the time I ate Paleo - meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Most of the 2% was concentrated in the final few weeks - more on that below.
Initially I ate high carb, low fat on gym days. I achieved this with sweet potatoes, bananas and lean meats like venison, chicken breast and tinned tuna. However, after a while, I switched to one day per week because my guts didn't seem to like the high carb.
Ultimately, I lost patience with the low fat concept. Too many of the foods I rely on are high fat and I was finding I often forget which way round I was supposed to be eating. As a leptin booster, eating high carb on one day per week seemed to work, but more often that than was a struggle.
On gym days I took branch chain amino acid supplements on gym days - 10g before the session, then 20g spread through the morning. This is the Leangains recommendation to optimise fasted training. I was pretty rigorous about sticking to this.
One thing not reflected in the meal pictures is my post-dinner snacks, or 'finishers'. This would be some, or all of the following: coconut cream, nuts, cocoa powder, seeds. I reckon this was often a significant amount of calories, and of course never features in the meal photos. However, I DID take it into account when recording fasting and eating windows.
Meal Size and Calories
I did not attempt to measure or record calories. This would have been way too granular and whilst I was willing to make sacrifices (e.g. on workouts below) from my Paleo principles for the experiment, this would have been a step too far. I did make an effort to eat big on gym days, but did this by instinct alone.
I am quite sure that my evening meals were too big and my lunches not big enough. The idea is to load most of the calories closer to the workouts. However, I was at work (where it's harder to eat big) for lunch and at home (where it's easier) for dinner.
The workouts from the experiment can be seen here.
I made a point of not increasing the time I spent on resistance or intense exercise, so that the only variable changing was the diet.
I wanted to keep the training random (i.e. more Paleo) but I ended up switching to a more consistent, traditional, regular weight training routine because I wanted to measure my progress. I actually enjoyed getting back into the weight-training 'groove'.
I trained for 60 minutes per week, in two 30-minute sessions. Push exercises on Tuesday, pull exercises on Thursday. Dumbbell chest press, weighted chin ups, and Romanian deadlift were the 'big' exercises. I did not do squats because their interfere with running and vice-versa.
I always trained at about 7 am.
I used dumbbell chest press and chin ups as my progress measures.
On chest press, I went from not quite being able to so 5x5 @30kg to being able to do 5x5 @32kg.
On weighted chin ups, I remained almost entirely at the same weight - 3x5 @15kg then 10kg or less for the remaining two sets. However, since my body weight had increased by 10lbs, this is arguably roughly a 5kg increase.
This all translates into roughly a 5-10% gain in strength.
For the first two months, I was gradually gaining weight. The flat line in October is where I went on holiday for two weeks (see The Great Buffet Abuse Tour) and had no access to scales.
Clearly I put on a lot of weight during those fateful two weeks, but it was only during the final days that the wheels fell off and I started eating bad food. The rest of the time, as the meal timing chart shows, I still stuck to the rules. I also continued to train hard in the Vegas gyms.
Overall, between August and November I put on 10 lbs and 2% body fat. My crude calculations suggest that's about 3.5 lbs in fat and 6.5 lbs in other things.
My hydration levels, and water retention levels ought to have been consistent across the two readings, since I had been eating and drinking cleanly and consistently for at least a week before both readings. However, I was under-eating just before the experiment and overeating at the end - so a portion of the non-fat weight gain was extra food in my system. Let's call it 6 lbs of muscle.
I tried to keep the lighting the same and crop the photos to make them equivalent - but it's hard to judge.
Before - 11% fat, 11 stone 6.5
After - 13% fat, 12 stone 3.0
Thoughts and Conclusions
Before and after photos often show people who started out with more body fat and less muscle because they do not regularly lift weights. But I have been training with heavy weights for years and remained relatively lean and muscular; and for a couple of years, I have been fasting regularly and eating mainly Paleo food.
No big surprise then, that the results were not profound. However, I was not looking to this experiment for radical changes. I wanted to see whether:
- BCAA supplementation
- Eating more food close to training sessions and fewer elsewhere
- Carb re-feeding
...could create the tangible gains in strength and size I had failed to see for several years.
The answer: yes.
Three months is a relatively small period, so I think a 5-10% strength gain for someone already regularly training is not bad at all.
But were the gains lean? Again, I think yes. They were not as lean as they could have been, but this was because of my holiday blowout, not the eating method. According to my calculations, perhaps only one third of the weight gain was fat, which would probably have been more like 20% without the binge.
However, there are some caveats.
First, whilst I was trying to keep all variables the same, I did change my workouts. I went from random to consistent. This is probably the most consistently I have done the same weights routine week after week for a number of years.
Second, this is also the longest period for which I have deliberately overeaten calories in a number of years.
Both of these factors alone could have led to the gains. I imagine Martin would argue that this may be true, but would the gains have been lean?
Coincidentally, Richard at Free the Animal has also been experimenting with Leangains, in his case with more of an emphasis on the weight training in this particular report, which includes an interview with Martin.
I will continue with the same eating protocol, but reduce calories and go very low carb. I will fast a little more often, and avoid 'finisher' snacks after evening meals.
The objective is to strip back to 11% fat over 4 weeks and see whether I have retained any of the muscle. I will post an update in due course.
I will then, I think, try to hybridise my normal Paleo approach to eating and training with the things I have learned from Leangains. I will post updates as these plans come into focus.
My Leangains Experiment