Thursday, 12 August 2010

My Leangains Experiment

Martin Berkham
I've been following the Leangains blog for a while now.

The author, Martin Berkhan is essentially a bodybuilder and personal trainer who has developed a system based around timing. Intermittent fasting is a key part of the concept.

He says this allows him and his clients to gain muscle while remaining lean. Or put the other way, and depending on where you started, become lean whilst preserving or gaining muscle. Apparently the meal timing encourages the 'partitioning' of nutrients.

I am the first to say that you should never take advice from someone on the basis of how they look or perform. It could be 90% genetics, 10% training; but Martin does appear to have success with his clients too. And more to the point, he clearly understands the science. He has not solely based the system on what works for him (unlike articles written in Flex magazine by people with muscles growing on the end of their enlarged chins.)

Here a good summary of Martin's system, if you want the detail - The Leangains Guide.

A very simple summary would be this:
  • You have an 8-hour eating window, on the post-workout period. For example - eat between 12pm and 8pm.
  • You hit the gym some time around the early part of that window, and make the post-workout meal the largest.
  • Regular, higher-carb 'refeeds' help keep leptin levels up so that hunger does not sabotage correct your efforts and you remain healthy.
There are are various subtleties that apply, depending on when you prefer to train. In addition, Martin advocates taking branch chain amino acids (BCAA) before and after sessions, especially if training in the fasted state, early in the morning, as I do.

I have never taken BCAAs before, because I never thought it was worth it and was not willing to spend the money when I could just eat real food. But for the purposes of this experiment I will give it a try. It will not require a big change for me - but it will require enough change that I might expect to see a difference if it works.

Current Training
  • 1 or 2, 30-minute intense workouts per week, at 7am.
  • A long, easy run at the weekends.
Current Eating
  • On 2 or 3 days, a fast: no food til dinner
  • On workout days, 3 meals, the first an hour afterwards
  • On non-gym, non-fast days, just 2 meals, starting with lunch.
What I will change
  • On gym days, I will take BCAA before intense workouts, and through the morning afterwards.
  • I will NEVER eat before 12, even on gym days.
  • On gym days I will eat higher carb, as a 'refeed' to maintain leptin levels.
I was struck by a statement in one of Martin's more technical posts in which he says that training fasted means that gains are not optimal - but taking the BCAA before and after can make it optimal. I always train fasted, and it irks me that all that effort is failing to yield the results it could.

I will tag the workout days with 'Leangains', so you can see the training and eating from workout days - here.

Call Yourself a Caveman?

I know, I know - our ancestors didn't exactly quaff vile-tasting BCAA before and after hunting, fighting or tree-climbing. But remember this is an experiment, not a lifestyle choice. In any case, I'd like to emphasise that my workouts will continue to be random. Workout days could be weights, sprinting, tabata rowing, swimming sprints or anything else short and with the potentially to build muscle.

Update 15.08.10 - by coincidence, Richard at Free the Animal has just written a post, "Ginormous Meals for Fat Loss, Leanness and Conditioning." I think it gives a great evolutionary rationale for this approach to meal timing and size.

The Goal

I have been doing weights for years, and always struggled to make any strength gains beyond the plateau I reached after 18 months because I was trying also to remain lean, and included running in my program. The only time I had any real strength and size was when I focused on bodybuilding in the late 90s. But I was never really lean and my bulking and cutting cycles seemed largely fruitless.

So my objective here is to see whether I can actually make some strength (and size) gains while continuing to run and remain lean.

My starting point is 11 stone 6.5 and 11% fat. Here's a photo.

Yes, I am tensing the abs; and no, I will not oil myself up for the 'after' photo ;-)

Most of Martin's clients appear not to start lean, so their transformations are profound. I am already lean, with some muscle, so if I am honest I would be surprised to see any profound visible change. The scales will perhaps be a better guide.

See Also:

Leangains Experiment 12-Week Update


Tyson said...

I am curious to see how you fair on this experiment. I tried his approach a few weeks back but didnt quite get the results that I wanted. I dont feel it was because of his program but rather the way in which I approached it combined with a vacation. I am actually looking to try it again in about a month.

Best of luck on your experiment. I will be checking back often to see how you do. Good luck!

Methuselah said...

Cheers Tyson - I'll keep you posted on progress.

Flavia said...

Jeez, the starting off point seems pretty damn good!

grizzancs said...

How often are you planning to do pictures? Only at the "end of the experiment"? If so, when will that be? I'm curious.

Methuselah said...

grizzancs - I was considering making it 3 months. I plan a photo per month, so I should take another around now, I guess....

Tyson said...

How are you doing in your experiment? Mine hasn't gone so well so I am sitting back and re-evaluating.

Methuselah said...

Hey Tyson - so far, I am feeling positive. I am still on 11% fat and have gained a 2-3 pounds. But since by scales do not do fractions of a %, this is not necessarily meaningful. I have also gained some strength. I think it will take a few months to be sure. The eating pattern has been fine for me. I like fasting and big meals anyway - appeals to my gluttony tendencies! What were the problems you experienced?

Tyson said...

I am not really sure what my issue with Leangains was. I have a feeling it was over training and under eating. I found it was really hard for me to get enough calories in if I only started to eat after 1pm.

I have sense reduced the amount of cardio I do and have increased my calorie intake. I occasionally do the 16 hour fasts followed by the refeed but nothing strict.

Are you still seeing progress?

Methuselah said...

Tyson - I think I am seeing progress. Nothing spectacular, but steady nonetheless. I am going to take stock at the 3-month mark with a body comp graph and strength asessment. The trouble is, the scales have just started reading 12% instead of 11% after wavering between the two for a while. I was on 10-11% at the start. Due to this non-granular measurement method, I feel downcast about the 12%, when in fact I should recognise these are very marginal, continuous changes. Since I have been recording my body comp for years using the same scales, I will be able to know whether Leangains has taken me to a new state (within the crude tolerances I've described). 11 stone 10 at 12% fat is something I've often achieved in the past. However, that may have been 12.9%, whereas this might be 12.1%. Difficult to be objective.