My Leangains Approach

April 12, 2011

On the subject of nutrition, I’m typically most interested in discussions of health and performance, but I openly admit that vanity weighs on my favor as well. Enter Leangains.

Leangains is, at its simplest, a protocol designed by Martin Berkhan to get the dieter to absurdly low body fat percentages (on the order of 5 or 6%!), all the while maintaining or gaining strength. The base of the protocol is intermittent fasting (IF) with a “16/8 split”; the dieter fasts for 16 hours each day and eats all meals within the remaining 8 hour window. This may sound abnormal, but it really isn’t too far removed from the norm. For me, this split has me eating breakfast at around 11am and dinner at about 7pm – pretty standard.

I’ve played with IF in the past, for alleged health benefits and for the sake of convenience. Primal eating has taught me to love cooking real meals, but I still don’t have the desire to do that before 8:00am class. Near the end of last year, I went on a Leangains binge. I read Martin’s blog cover to cover and decided to be more methodical with my IF and training.

Lots more on the other side.

I adopted the 16/8 split rather loosely at first, letting my 8 hr window wander an hour or two either way each day. I also began to move more of calories into the post-workout (PWO) window and started a training log. I can’t believe I didn’t keep a training log in the past. I’ve tracked foot intake and body composition markers but never training. Totally stupid. It was the first time I was hitting the weights hard since my freshman year of college, and as a result I progressed rather quickly. In 8 weeks I gained about 8lbs, and saw my BF% drop (mirror test). [Days 155-210]

I thought that what I was doing could be called a leangains protocol. Boy was I wrong. Martin does direct, private consultation, something I have not been lucky enough to receive. He also plans to write a book on the subject (I’ll buy it the day it’s available for preorder. Get on it Martin! 🙂 ), so he doesn’t exactly lay the whole protocol out in so many words on his site.

He did write a guide for an article on another site with some very good instruction, but I suspect he’s tweaked a few things since then.

It was when I discovered this guide, in concert with FTA’s series on Leangains (Intro, Workout, Diet) that I realized Martin would not approve of my program in the slightest. I had some serious, fundamental flaws in my regimen:

  • I wasn’t training smart.
  • I wasn’t eating enough after workouts (or on training days overall).
  • I didn’t have the macronutrient breakdown right for training days.
  • I was eating too much on rest days.

I listed my “fatal errors” in order, from most to least detrimental to success. Success, in this case, being muscle gains with little to no fat gain. Let’s review what I changed.

Smart Training

For those first eight weeks, I was doing what my high school weight training coach taught me at 14; three sets of 12 of what he considered fundamental movements. Honestly, I think the choice of lifts was pretty good (better than doing the latest abercise pulled from the pages of Men’s Health), but the 3×12 set format is inefficient at best. Martin does a great job on this topic, so I’ll hand off to Leangains.

Now I lift heavy, shooting for 5RM (five-rep-max, the heaviest weight I can lift for five repetitions) for the “Main” lifts, and 8RM for the “Support” lifts in the first set. Then I drop the weight 10% and add one rep each set. This heavy lifting feels like a whole different ball game than my old 3×12 silliness.

My training is Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday for about an hour each time. I alternate between [Main: Weighted Chins, Squats. Support: Weighted Dips, Flys, and Upright Rows] and [Main: Deadlift, Bench. Support: Tricep Ext, Bent Row, Incline Bench]. Shown below is an example training log entry (weight shown is plates only, so that deadlift number is 2x my body weight, up by 1.8x in the last month!). I’ve never kept training logs before and I absolutely love it – it is hugely helpful, especially with a relatively complicated protocol like RPT. Also, it leaves your mind free to focus on intense lifts. When you get to the gym you have already written down what you’re going to do that day, and you can easily compare to previous personal bests to gauge progress.

One of the key facts a training log helped me uncover is that rest is incredibly important, and I wasn’t giving myself enough time between sets. One day I was flipping through my log and it dawned on me just how few sets I fit into each week (and I worry I’m already flirting with overtraining). This impressed upon me the importance of getting the most out of every session, set, and rep. This requires rest between sets.


I have trained fasted since I started living my primal journey (really, even before that), so that part of my regimen required no adjustment for Leangains. I have been using BCAAs (Scivation Xtend 🙂 ) and, after seeing the benefits caffeine had for me, a mild stimulant (Controlled Labs White Flood :/ ) pre-workout.

After discovering the guide, I decided on my maintenance calorie intake (I used 13.5*body weight) and I eat 20% under it on rest days (low-carb) and 20% over it on training days (high-carb, low-fat). I keep protein high all days (~200g). During the first eight weeks, I was eating  my standard low-carb paleo diet all the time, except right after workouts, when I’d have a low-fat meal at about 30g protein and 50-80g carbohydrate.

I arrived at these numbers with the following procedure:

  1. Set calorie intakes (described above).
  2. Set protein high. Min 1g/lb body weight. Since 200lbs is my target weight…eat for the body you want not the one you have I suppose.
  3. I dropped protein on rest days because I wanted to eat more fat.
  4. I set 50 g/day fat for Training day because I figured that was as low as I could go without too much work.
  5. Training day carbs are simply the remaining cals after setting protein and fat.
  6. I set 50 g/day carbs for rest day because that’s about as low as I am willing to go.
  7. Rest day fat is simply remaining cals after setting protein and carbs.
  8. Maintenance numbers are simply what I seem to eat when unregulated. (I’ve been tracking intake for a while).

I think a more relaxed approach like what I had been doing could be pretty successful, but I’ve come to like tracking my intake anyway (I’m a little neurotic in that way). There is a fatal error in what I was doing though – I wasn’t eating nearly enough PWO (calories or carbohydrate). I began eating 60-80% of my training day calories in the hour or so PWO. This made a huge difference. I saw significant muscle growth in the mirror and three new pounds on the scale in two weeks.

Staying just under 1800 calories on rest days is not too trying, but it doesn’t happen all by itself either. I was certainly eating more than that in those first eight weeks.

Why Leangains Works

IF has all sorts of benefits, and is certainly worthy of the complete focus of many blog posts. I won’t get into that now. Besides, it is clear to me that the Leangains protocol owes its effectiveness to other directives in addition to the fasting.

I think another big advantage of this protocol is nutrient partitioning.

Basically, the diet cleverly overfeeds when the nutrients are more likely to go to muscle (PWO or at the end of a long fast) and underfeeds when they are likely to go to fat (evenings, rest days). There are a few specific measures aimed at improved nutrient partitioning and I’ll list them in order of importance (imho):

  1. Low-Carb Rest Days

Otherwise you’ll be storing so much fat that you can’t dump it the rest of the time. This one should be a breeze for you paleo/primal readers.

  1. High-Carb, Low-Fat PWO Meals

The PWO time period has the benefit of increased muscle insulin sensitivity and increased fat oxidation. A big meal of protein and carbohydrate gets funneled to the muscle, and any needed fat will have to come from stored body fat. It’s a neat trick here: in the hours PWO you have a hugely positive energy balance (CV*=body), but a negative fat balance (CV=adipose tissue). Building muscle and losing fat simultaneously = Leangains.

  1. Post Fast Overfeed

Not a hugely beneficial time to eat a lot, but better now than later in the day, so pack in about 60% of your rest day calories here.

The Bottom Line

So far, I’m loving it. I plan to stay with the protocol as I’ve been running it recently until mid-June, at which point I’ll post a full recap with pictures and conclusions.

*CV = Control Volume. You’ll get a chance to learn all about this in my First Law of Thermodynamics post (hopefully publishing this weekend).

Leangains in the brainchild of Martin Berkhan, and obviously he is the authority on the subject. I just want to get a post up about it because I’ve enjoyed it so far, and the science of the nutrition has piqued my interest. This post has not been endorsed by Martin in any way.

I’ll have a post about specific meals I’ve had on this protocol tomorrow.

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