What You Should Know About Fasting And Lifting
By Grant Broggi
Weightlifters are Food Addicts
After 10+ years of barbell coaching I have concluded that most weightlifters are addicted to food. That’s right. They’re food addicts. They eat constantly and have convinced themselves they need more calories for performance and recovery.
While you do need nutrients for heavy weightlifting, do you really have to have a banana between every lift? Is it really that important to eat a meal prior to a workout? What if I told you there was a better way?
Well, I’m telling you today that there is a better way. A way for you to be strong, lean, not addicted to food and even capable of fasting. That’s right, Lifting AND Fasting, here’s how to do both!
Fasting is NOT for the Novice
Let me start by saying that lifting and fasting is not for the beginner. Lifting and fasting is not for someone who has never gone through a Novice Linear Progression and built a base of strength. We’ve got lots of articles and videos on how to get strong as a beginner, so if that’s you, start there.
This guide is for someone who has already built a base of strength. They’ve already gone through a period where they went to the gym three days a week and did the big barbell lifts. They added weight each time, and they ate and slept enough to facilitate recovery and adapt to the stressors they applied each day in the gym. They’ve gotten strong and are physically capable of doing anything they want in life. But they’re not completely satisfied.
Maybe that’s you. You’re tired of tracking all your food. You’re tired of eating 6 meals a day, drinking protein shakes when you are full, and most of all you are tired of being overweight.
You want to keep your strength that you’ve worked so hard to build but also lose that gut and feel good about yourself when you take your shirt off. Fasting might be a great tool for you.
Before we get into the details of an extended fast let me start by saying that there is nothing wrong with lifting in a fasted state. Almost all of my lifting sessions are done fasted, not really by design but because of how my schedule works out. I generally eat my last meal around 7:30pm, wake up at 6am the following day and coach until I train around 10am.
You are not going to miss all of your reps because you are fasted while training, and you will still perform just fine if your last meal was last night’s dinner. A few things I will caution you on:
- It will take time to adapt to training fasted. If you generally wake up and eat breakfast consisting of proteins and carbohydrates before hitting the gym and then all of the sudden eliminate it – you will 100% feel that change. I’m not saying you cannot adapt to that quickly, but understand that some adaptations will need to occur before you’re able to train just as hard as you were before.
- Make sure you are not sodium depleted. Chances are that if you were eating before your training that meal had an appropriate amount of sodium. Whether from your eggs, toast, oatmeal or bananas you were getting some salt. So if you begin to train fasted make sure that you have a little extra sodium the night prior before bed. A nice beef bone broth is great for this.
Getting Over Food Reliance
Fasting for most people is a crazy concept. Almost every time I bring up the subject of fasting to one of my lifters they are shocked by the idea. They cannot imagine skipping a meal, or not eating for a day OR NOT EATING FOR MULTIPLE DAYS.
For me, it’s never been that crazy of a concept. My father is a Southern Baptist Pastor, and I grew up watching him fast every Friday for religious reasons. So, fasting wasn’t crazy to me, I knew it was something people were capable of.
On top of watching my dad growing up, as a Marine Officer there were plenty of scenarios where food was not readily available, and you had to perform throughout a physically demanding day without caloric intake. Even with those experiences, I didn’t consider fasting while weightlifting for a long while.
I had read about the benefits of fasting for quite some time. There is lots of good science and benefits published by folks like Dr. Peter Attia and Mark Baker that are worth digging into. About 2 years ago I began doing a 36 hour fast (a full day of not eating) once a month, and I found it to be very useful to my weight management, mood, and even my lifting.
Extended Day Fast
This January I did my first multi day fast. I went 4.5 days without eating, where my last meal was on Sunday night, and my next meal was on the following Friday morning. I learned a lot during that fast, set personal records on my squat and deadlift, and ended the fast 12lbs lighter (with abs!). I will write about extended fasting in a follow up article, sign up for our email to get that when it comes out.
With that said, if you’re new to fasting don’t just jump right into an extended day fast. Just like anything you need to adapt to prepare for that and be successful. If you want to try fasting here is the progression that I recommend.
Step One: “Skipping Breakfast”
The very first thing you need to do to complete a fast is to come to the mental understanding that you do not need three meals a day in order to survive. So, to ease most people into fasting I begin by having them skip breakfast or use the popular internet term “Intermittent Fast”.
The very first thing I recommend is to move your first regularly scheduled meal to later in the day. It will be different for everyone based off schedule, commute, physical outputs during the day etc… but step one is to eat breakfast later.
So, if your first meal is usually at 6am, move it to 9am. If 8am, move it to 11am. What I’m trying to do is break your addiction to three scheduled meals a day. I want you to wake up, feel the hunger sensation, not eat and then realize that skipping a meal eventually does not feel so bad.
I would do this style of fasting for a week or so before attempting a longer fast. Once this is no longer a challenge for you then I would eliminate your first meal all together and make your feeding window smaller.
You can keep the same caloric intake, just eat it later in the day. For example, you could have your first meal at 1pm and your second meal at 6pm. The times do not really matter, we are just trying to get you down to 2 meals a day and extend your fast earlier in your schedule. Make these meals dense in both macro and micronutrients, we talk about this in our article on the Vertical Diet.
Once you’ve got that down I would go back to your regular eating habits for a few weeks. These steps do not all have to happen on subsequent days, and I do not recommend that they do. Mentally you’ve already learned and accomplished a lot so when you come back to attempt a longer fast you will feel much more confident.
NOT EATING FOR A WHOLE DAY?!
The next step in the fasting progression would be to either go down to one meal a day or just jump in and try a whole day fast. I personally do not think there is much difference between the 2 meals/day or 1 meal/day fast in terms of benefits and discipline. Not that many things change by extending the fast by just a few hours … so you might as well go for it!
When planning a whole day fast this is the first time you will need to think about your lifting routine and plan accordingly. We want to conduct the fast on the first of back-to-back non training days. So, if you lift on M/W/F then I would recommend the whole day fast on Saturday. If Tu/Th/Sat, then on Sunday.
Lifting weights is physically demanding and will make you hungry. While you can fast on a day that you lift (I will write about that in part two of this article), on your first whole day fast it will be easier to complete if you are not training.
You will then have the following day to re-feed and then continue your regular lifting the next day. There is no need to reduce the load or volume if the fast is conducted in this manner.
If you do end up training in the middle of an extended fast I have a few recommendations:
- Reduce Volume (total sets and reps) not Intensity (total weight on the bar). The natural inclination if training fasted is to do “lighter weights.” However, I have found that an intermediate lifter can totally handle heavy loads as long as the volume is not high. Completing 5 heavy reps in the 90-95% of your 1RM is great for this. Here is what my squat session looked like on day 3 of my fast.
- 505 x 1 , 485 x 1, 435 x 3505 was actually a PR, my plan had been to do heavy doubles or triples but when I did 455 as a single I knew a PR was there and went for it. I was physically able to gear up for very heavy loads for me and perform just fine. The reduction in volume to only 5 reps also helped keep hunger at bay as I finished the fast. Anyone that has done a 5×5 squat days knows how hungry it will make you. So do not avoid high intensity, just bring the total reps down.
- Potassium, Magnesium and Salt Supplementation. Supplementation becomes a little more important if you’ve lifted heavy during a fast. Glucose storages will be depleted and the body will be ready to repair itself. Make sure that you do not deprive it of Pot Mag and Salt and you will be fine until the following days refeed.
Tips for Success
Okay let’s talk about some tips for your first whole day fast. Leading up to this I haven’t given you any crutches to lean on, I’ve simply wanted you to break the mental food reliance. On a full day fast though there will be periods of intense hunger pains in which there are a few things that can help. These are techniques that I use to keep the fast a zero calorie fast:
- Sparkling Water. Not everyone loves sparkling water but if you do this can make your life a lot easier. Something about the carbonation and the hint of lemon or lime is very satisfying during a fast. If hunger pains hit, go for the bubbly.
- Black Coffee. In the morning this will be a lifesaver for you. Hot black coffee can be sipped on for a few hours and keep hunger at bay. At night decaf is an option for you as well.
- Hot Tea. Sometimes I prefer a hot tea rather than a decaf coffee at night if I’m experiencing hunger pains. Not only is it satisfying but a chamomile tea will also aid in helping you get to sleep which can be the hardest part on your first full day fast.
- Salt Water. That’s right, warm up some water and stir in a tablespoon of salt in. This will keep you satiated and can work wonders for keeping hunger at bay.
- Melatonin. I recommend supplementing melatonin if you’re having trouble sleeping or staying asleep. 2-5mg when you’re trying to go to bed can be life changing to help you get to sleep instead of thinking about the food in your cupboards.
- Embrace the Suck. It’s going to be hard at first, accept that and you’ll be fine.
Breaking the Fast
This is where beginners often mess up (I did too at first). YOU DID IT, you fell asleep and made it a whole day without eating. You’ve woken up bright and early and you’re so excited and proud of yourself. Time to reward yourself with an entire One Bite pizza that you have in your freezer.
Don’t ruin everything you just did by going crazy on your first meal back. One, it will put you on the toilet, and two we don’t want to erase all the benefits we achieved through fasting.
If you wake up early I would do your normal morning coffee/tea routine. Make sure to weigh yourself and even take a photo to compare body composition to the start of the fast. Then around 9-10am I recommend breaking the fast with bone broth. Make sure that you are getting a bone broth and not “stock” so that it has the protein and collagen we’re after on top of the sodium. You will be amazed at how satisfying and satiating that broth is to you after your fast.
I recommend eating your first solid foods in the early afternoon. A simple carb such as a piece of dry toast or a ½ cup of cooked white rice is perfect. We do not want to shock your digestive tract and make you feel sick. Then for dinner have a full meal with a protein, starch and some veggies. I would avoid ultra-spicy or greasy on this first complete meal.
Back To Lifting
The following day I would ensure that you are properly satiated before beginning your training. A few servings of bone broth or even a Gatorade with electrolytes can help. Train as you would normally, and you will be amazed that your performance is just fine.
The more frequently you conduct a whole day fast the more comfortable you will become at doing it. As I stated earlier in the article, I complete a whole day fast every month. I find that it helps keep me lean, does not negatively impact my training and just overall makes me less reliant on food.
If you’re serious about your training/weight management I highly recommend adding fasting into your routine. If you have questions or want to be coached through your first fast I help people all the time with my nutrition consult services. I would love to help you take your fitness to the next level. Do not be the typical overweight addicted to food weightlifter. You can be strong and lean! Both are possible!