So there I was in the gym the other day and I saw a guy who I’ve known in there for a while.
I’d put him the way of Intermittent Fasting as he was ready to start cutting some fat after a period of bulking.
Zip forward to present day and here he was talking about how great Intermittent Fasting was, and about the latest training program he’d been doing.
He mentioned that the program had some burpees (this link has a very attractive woman doing some pretty reasonable burpees, the video isn’t perfect, but I can forgive that) at the end, and he considered those good for helping him burn some more fat off.
An alarm bell rang in my head.
It went something like this:
What are we trying to do when we are cutting fat?
We are attempting to get rid of as much fat as possible, whilst maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.
So in practice that means two things, first that we need to create a calorie deficit. Second, that we need to aid muscle preservation in the face of reduced calories.
I got to thinking, ‘where had I read something like that before?’
Ahh, that’s right, it was something Martin Berkhan said on the bodybuilding.com Intermittent Fasting thread:
It has not been my experience that low intensity cardio on rest days (i.e. 4x/week, <45-60 min/day) has any compromising effect (at all) on strength or muscle retention during dieting.
There’s a few reasons for this.
1. Walking does not affect AMPK (which blunts muscle protein synthesis).
Moderate to intense cardio does. Prolonged cardio, i.e. jogging at a good pace for >30 min has the most detrimental effect in this regard.
2. Walking does not stress the CNS. You’re saving your nervous system (strength) and performance for the weights, which is crucial for muscle gains and muscle retention. HIIT is very stressful for the CNS. An all out sprint (i.e. HIIT done right) is not so different from a set of 3-4RM squats.
Lifting at a suboptimal capacity starts a downward spiral in my experience. If your nervous system cannot keep up with what your muscles can lift, muscle loss happens as a consequence of never being able to apply adequate stress/perform optimally.
3. Cardio – HIIT in particular – tears up muscle fibers and require repair and recovery, just like a set of squats.
If you’re adding 2-3 sessions of HIIT to your 3 sessions of weights, it is almost comparable to adding 2-3 days of weights. Keyword is “almost”, I’m obviously not drawing direct comparisons. That’s all fine and dandy if you think working out 5-6 days/week is a good idea on a diet. But I don’t think anyone – no matter what level of experience – needs more than 3 days a week in the gym when cutting. (Yes, this goes for competitors and beginners alike.)
In conclusion, if conditioning is not terribly important for you, if your goal is really about getting shredded while keeping your muscle, I highly suggest limiting moderate to high intensity cardio on a diet – or ditch it completely. Save it for some other time when your recovery is good and not limited by your diet.
A calorie deficit is a recovery deficit. Avoid deficit spending.
This left me with some questions:
How does I.F. help during a cutting phase?
You could imagine that your day is split into two; a cutting (fat loss) phase, and an anabolic phase. This is in contrast to a ‘normal’ eating day where you are never fat burning as effectively as when fasting, although post training you are properly anabolic.
Splitting your day in this way has tremendous benefits, but the biggest one is the Holy Grail of dieters and bodybuilders the world over; you (almost) guarantee losing fat whilst maintaining, or even gaining, muscle. I say almost because it’s still dependant on you doing the right things with your diet.
You can read a fuller explanation of why and how Intermittent Fasting continues to work even once you get into single digit body fat figures at Martin’s site (here for stubborn fat removal, and here for leptin problem avoidance). But one of the great things about Intermittent Fasting for fat loss/weight loss is that you just don’t seem to get the same metabolic slowdown problems as you would normally do with a strict caloric restriction diet (jointly due to the effects of maintaining muscle mass and having a significant number of calories in one meal every day).
This means that with Intermittent Fasting you can continue to eat for muscle gain and fat loss even whilst you get lower and lower body fat. And you just can’t do that anything like as easily as with a normal calorie restriction + cardio setup.
How do you optimise both fat loss and muscle gain when doing Intermittent Fasting?
This is all about optimising your calorie intake, your macronutrient ratios and your nutrient timing. I am going to expand on this idea more fully in a future post, but for now I would advise that you get protein at every meal, carbs after training, at least half of your daily calories post training and work toward a big daily deficit on resting days, with a moderate deficit on training days. Please hold tight for my own experiences with figuring out how this works for me and others…
Are there any alternatives to the I.F. method for cutting and preserving?
In short, yes. But they probably don’t work quite as well. You can try the Lyle McDonald method of Ketogenic diet and keep a big deficit plus low carbs during the week and carb and calorie up on the weekend, but there are two significant downsides to this:
1: It doesn’t work for everyone, some people (me included) just don’t work well when having a low or very low carb intake. On the other hand, some people really get along with this style of diet, and those who do will also do even better when combining Intermittent Fasting with Ketogenic diets.
2: You can lose significant muscle mass if you can’t maintain your training intensity (and you’ll almost certainly be in this category if you were in the first).
In summary, if you want to lose fat you are better off creating a deficit with calorie restriction plus Intermittent Fasting, and training for muscle gain, not for calorie burning. Use your diet to create the calorie deficit
(not lots of cardio), add in training to maintain muscle mass (I recommend myo reps), and then top off with Intermittent Fasting to maximise the effects of both.
At this point I hope you have questions about all this, and I am more than happy to answer them in the comments section, just ask away. Plus, if you liked reading this, please share this using the buttons below.
Yours in health and happiness (and low body fat)