This post has been 3 years in the making. Every year I plan to write something but I just don’t get the time.
There are quite a few guides now about gaining muscle and losing weight in Ramadan. The only drawback to them I find is, they seem to be written by people who obviously don’t practise Ramadan so don't have real experience. They don’t really seem to understand the variety of challenges we face. Further, many seem outdated, and written for a time when Ramadan was much shorter.
Well this year, currently where I live the eating window is approximately 4 hours or less for some people. To squeeze in Maghrib, Isha, Taraweeh, Fajr, training, have all the recommended meals whilst getting enough sleep to function normally at work is near on impossible if you’re working a normal day job. Let’s not forget you should be seeking to increase your other voluntary spiritual acts in this month primarily reading and reflecting on the Qur’an. So yes, it’s going to be a lot tougher than it sounds on paper even with those idealistic Ramadan planners that get passed around every year that assume you’re a machine.
In theory if you can get in the all the nutrients, proteins carbs and fats, or even just the right amount of calories from the right sources, get enough sleep and recover whilst providing the appropriate stimulus required through training you could even gain muscle and make normal progress.
Remember, people make progress on diets like the warrior diet 20 hour fast 4 hour eating window and other intermittent fasting protocols like 16/8 which I have been doing since the beginning of 2012.
For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume you already know what Ramadan is, so I won’t go into the details of the Muslim fasting of Ramadan.
Benefits to Ramadan
There are a ton of spiritual and mental benefits to Ramadan. Since this is not a religious blog we won’t get into all of that. Although I regard spirituality a part of one's overall health and well being. The mental benefits of learning discipline should help you with your future fitness and life goals.
Historically in the fitness community Ramadan was generally seen as something detrimental although is this changing now. Yes, even yours truly used to live in fear of the Ramadan catabolism monster. We have since learnt especially due to the interest and popularity of intermittent fasting that extended periods of going without food can actually be beneficial to health in a number of ways. You improve insulin sensitivity (insulin reset), improve nutrition partitioning, fat burning hormones like glucagon increase. Growth hormone increases.
For these reasons Ramadan is ideal for those seeking to lose weight.
First of all decide on your goals what do you want to achieve?
From the option of losing weight and gaining muscle. Losing weight is the easier of the two. Although theoretically it’s possible to build muscle, for trained individuals this is going to be extremely tough because of all the obstacles I’ve highlighted further down. Once again for newbies it won’t be nearly as difficult.
I recommend either maintenance or weight loss, if you’ve been training all year use Ramadan as a cut and or deload. If you are just embarking on training, then Ramadan is an ideal opportunity to kick start your weight loss since you are almost forced in to a calorie deficit if you can maintain just a tiny amount of discipline. Additionally, I need to keep in line with the title of this post which is about losing weight.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Can’t Make it to the gym
You have all year for gains, instead view it as an extended deload and focus your energy on cleansing your soul and strengthening your spirit. The only people I would strongly encourage to take up exercise in Ramadan are people who are overweight or suffering from health conditions. For the regular gym rats, it’s fine to just chill and take a break. Any muscle you do lose can easily be regained very quickly, due to muscle memory. In fact, the break might even help you see new gains when you return to lifting. The other thing trained individuals could do, is use it as a slow cutting period. As it will be easy to achieve calorie deficit with such a small feeding window just throw in some slow cardio like power walking and burn the fat.
Alternatively if you’ve got ample muscle mass you can skip the power walking and all other types of cardio and only perform low volume heavy weight training. You don’t want to over stress your body too much or put yourself in a position of getting dehydrated.
How To Eat In Ramadan
The things to consider in terms of eating are :
- 1Are you prone to overeating?
- 2Are you training straight after iftar?
- 3Number of meals you'll be having.
At other times of the year, I always tell you to eat high volume, nutritionally dense, calorie sparse foods. Ramadan is an exception, in Ramadan you should aim to eat calorie dense and nutritionally dense foods because of the small feeding window the aim is to get in all the nutrients your body needs within this time.
However this advice comes with a caveat and that is providing you're only having one or two meals consisting of mainly good wholesome foods and avoiding fried foods and a ton of junk food.
Most people should have no problem getting in 1800 - 2000 calories. You can even go as low as 1500 - 1700 without it affecting you in anyway and possibly even see a greater weight loss dependent on activity level of course, if you’re more active consume more calories.
If however you find you’re struggling to get in the calories your body needs due to the small feeding window and trying to squeeze in all the other activities, then do the opposite of the other popular weight loss advice of not drinking your calories, in Ramadan drink your calories.
“Do the opposite of the other popular weight loss advice of not drinking your calories, in Ramadan drink some of your calories.”
Remember do not drop your calories so low that you struggle to function, especially if you’re thinking of training it’s better to eat more and burn it off than to eat less. If you get very hungry you’ll have less willpower to avoid junk foods. Furthermore, a severe calorie deficit will result in losing muscle mass, it’s this that leads to a metabolism slow down. It could also end up making the fast unnecessarily difficult especially if you're training too.
That’s why extreme dieting eventually leads to more fat and slower metabolism than you started with if you don't know how to transition to weight maintenance and don't build good behaviours and food habits.
You can also get away with eating more carbs during Ramadan without them making you fat.
Important note: This DOES NOT mean empty useless calories, you can eat some empty calories and some junk food but SERIOUSLY limit it.
The reason people gain weight in Ramadan is not because their metabolism slows down it’s simply because they eat too many fried foods and sugars.
Do that and you’ll end up fatter than you started Ramadan even though you’re going twenty hours without food. It’s easy to exceed your energy requirements with fried foods and empty calories.
Avoid too much caffeine, tea, green tea, coffee as these things are diuretics and will dehydrate you. Do drink plenty of water aim for at least 2 litres or more, this will also help you to avoid dehydration headaches. I used to suffer from them all the time until I started drinking more water.
Examples foods to eat that are calorie dense. The stuff you should usually reduce if you were trying to lose weight.
And the usual stuff you should eat.
In your suhoor meals try get and some fat, fibre and slow digesting protein in there such as cottage cheese. Casein protein is a slow digesting protein.
Sample Pre Workout Shake
300 ml Milk (whole milk is probably better in Ramadan)
1 Scoop Protein Powder
1 Tblspn natural organic unsweetened peanut/almond butter
1 Tblspn organic honey
Handful of oats
3 - 6 dates
Handful of nuts
You can have some of these ingredients and leave others out if you decide to have them all in there track it, because it can become quite high in calories.
On the day’s you’re training have this shake before your workout, since it’s in a liquid form it’s easier to digest and is packed with good calories to fuel your workout whilst not being too heavy, so you don’t feel drowsy.
As I’ve mentioned earlier on the day’s you’re not training have this shake after a solid meal unless you have massive appetite and deliberately want to curb your appetite. If you have it before a solid meal it will blunt your hunger to some extent and you won’t be able to eat as much. Our aim is to squeeze in more calories within the tiny eating window and with a fewer number of meals. Otherwise you'll have to stay up all night to eat.
Consider Intra workout Nutrition
Normally I’m not a big fan of intra workout nutrition for normal people with a training duration of an hour or two intra workout nutrition is not necessary. With that said, in Ramadan when you’re trying to cram in all your calories (remember we’re trying to eat mostly whole foods) within the tiny feeding window, you might want to consider some form of intra workout food or snack. Bananas, energy balls, protein bars, meal replacement bars, make great choices.
Remember you’re not going to stay awake all night eating, with so many devotional activities to perform you’re lucky if you can get a workout in. And if you do manage to have some time, it’s Ramadan spiritual activities take priority. Read and reflect on the Qur’an
Final Word On Eating
Although I’ve said eat good nutritious food don’t deprive yourself completely. If you feel like having a dessert, have it, as long as you’re eating well for the most part and fasting such long hours you should be ok. Even without such long fasts most fitness folk follow the 80/20 rule (eat 80% clean and 20% junk) or a flexible dieting strategy.
When to Train?
The are pro and cons to training fasted and training after you’ve eaten. I’ll tell you the advantages and disadvantages of both and you can go with what works best for you. Remember your training duration should be 30 - 60 minutes and that’s it. Don’t try and be a hero this month. If you're going to train fasted, pace yourself so you don't get thirsty. If you're an experienced lifter and you need to hit a specific amount of volume you might want to even consider splitting the workout up. However you should time your training so that Ramadan always falls on a deload. Not a volume or peaking phase.
Pros: You have more energy, and you function better during the day. Suprisingly as long as you've paced yourself and it's not been an all out crazy kind of workout you'll handle your fast better, be more productive and focused.
I'd recommend something like 30 - 45 minutes, doing 8 - 10 reps with your 12 rep max 3 bodyparts 9 sets total. I also prefer machines during ramadan, it's not as taxing.
Cons: Can tire you out and make the fast feel a lot harder. Post workout your muscles are breaking down and need a supply of energy to replenish muscle glycogen. Then to go a whole day without replenishing them can be counter productive
In recent years I've experimented with training earlier on in the day and have found it be very beneficial.
Pros: More energy available compared to later on in the day
Hydration levels are higher
Cons: Still a lot of hours to go before food can make the fast harder, muscle breakdown
fasted an hour or two before iftar
Pros: Have a longer feeding window, get more sleep. Some people feel stronger.
Cons: You’re the most dehydrated at this stage, so you have a higher risk of injuring yourself. Quite few things can go wrong training with intensity in a dehydrated state with really low blood sugar levels. You can’t drink water. You lack the energy to train. I struggle to train towards the end of my fast since I feel weak and tired.
Not everyone feels like this I have friends who say they are stronger in the last couple hours before breaking the fast. Between Asr and Maghrib it’s an auspicious time for Muslims it’s better to spend this time in worship and contemplation. You could finish training 30 minutes before maghrib to accommodate for this
Training after breaking the fast
Pros: Feel stronger, refreshed. Get hydrated before training. This is my preference. Ideally have a light meal and then train and then eat a heavier meal.
Try and have a meal that has a decent amount of calories but easy to digest so not heavy. Maybe a shake made up protein, banana and whole milk. See sample pre workout meal/shake above.
Cons: Depending on when you train, If you’ve got work in the morning you could be missing out on a lot of sleep which will affect your ability to train and recover further down the line. Some people feel tired and lethargic after eating. You also have a shorter feeding window since part of it will be spent on training.
These are the two best best times. If you don’t have work in the morning you can train late at night. Personally I’ve found this to be a better time.
I’ve previously trained after 12am and it worked great for me. This was a few years back when Ramadan fell during the August school holidays I trained with the same intensity I do all year round and it didn’t affect me one bit.
Training just before suhoor or early morning is a bad idea. Training early morning will leave you weak, thirsty and tired for the rest of the day. You are unable to restore muscle glycogen to help repair your muscles. Overall it’s just not a good idea and it will take it’s toll.
How To Train
Studies have show sub maximal effort is not affected in Ramadan. What this means is pick a weight 65 - 70% of your 1 Rep Max , you can experiment up to 80% and go for 8 - 10 reps. Staying 1 or 2 reps shy of failure. In more simple terms if you pick a weight that you can do 12 reps to failure do 10. Get it? Pick a weight that is challenging to do 10 repetitions with. You can experiment with what works best.
Just know that lifting extremely heavy above 80% of 1RM (a weight so heavy you can only get around 5 reps to failure) is very stressful on the body and exhausting whilst lifting extremely high reps will lead to a lot of sweating and water loss which is a concern if you're training fasted. That's why I recommend a weight in between that is challenging that will help to maintain strength and size and possibly build muscle if you still haven't got your newbie gains.
While avoiding a ton of junk food it will be difficult to get in all your calories with the little time you have to eat, so with reduced calories, your volume of work should be reduced accordingly.
I would not exceed 12 - 15 sets total volume. 4 exercises 3 up to 5 working sets.
The aim is to lift heavy enough to maintain muscle, if you gain that’s a bonus. Muscle being the most metabolically active tissue, less muscle equals slower metabolism and vice versa. I’ve written about this in more detail on my facebook posts and other places so, for the sake of brevity, I don’t want to reiterate all of that here again.
Avoid the kind of training that will dehydrate you and put an increased demand on your body for fluids. So no intense cardio or HIIT whilst fasted, post fast it’s possible. If weight training isn’t your thing, go for a long walk. I lost a lot of weight last year just by walking.
“For most people power walking is the perfect workout whilst fasted.”
Even those who are lean have enough fat stored in muscle fibres and fat cells to supply up to 100,000 kcals – enough for over 100 hours of marathon running!
The reason I recommend weight training even for people trying to lose weight in Ramadan is to offset the possibility of losing muscle mass and metabolism crashing as a result due to the long fast.
As a minimum I would recommend 3 full body workouts a week. Anything more you’re making it unnecessarily difficult on yourself during this time. Anything less you won't be getting enough stimulus. Skip the isolation movements and stick to compound movements that will hit many muscles. That way you can keep the volume and duration of your workouts manageable.
These are just my recommendations go with how you feel if you really feel you can do a little more do it, if you feel worn out and tired, struggling to recover cut back. A lot of it will be to do with the time you train.
Bent Over Row
3 - 5 Sets 8 - 12 reps for each exercise. The weight should be challenging enough to just about achieve those reps short of a rep or two
I want to conclude by saying this is about as extreme as it’s going to get. Think about that for a moment, if you can survive this period and be disciplined then the rest of the year will be a breeze in comparison. In essence you’re building the mental fortitude to withstand anything when it comes to training and fitness and some of it will carry over into other areas of your life. Let it become a monumental reference point of what you are capable of.
After Ramadan when you get lazy just remind yourself you did it in Ramadan when it was a lot tougher, give yourself a slap and tell yourself to stop being a wimp.
I rushed to get this finished so check back for further updates, I've lots of improvements planned, such as pdf downloads of meal plans and sample workouts etc specifically for Ramadan
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