It’s that time again. Here is Version 4 of our Ramadan strategy: optimised for maximum muscle retention with minimum intrusion to the spiritual aspect of Ramadan.
If you would like personalised coaching to help you guide diet and training through Ramadan please contact us to enquire about coaching services
A period for mental resolve and spiritual benefit.
A couple of years ago I would have read the words:
A period for catabolism and sickening amounts of cottage cheese.
If you’re in the same situation and faced with the question of how to train in Ramadan, this article is definitely for you. If not, you can still learn from it by taking the principles of adapting your diet and training to atypical circumstances.
The physical requirements of Ramadan are simply no food or water during daylight hours.
Fasting in Ramadan can also have several benefits:
– Improved mental discipline.
– A chance to allow training/diet to run in the background and to focus on higher priorities.
– The potential for restored insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning.
– Higher growth hormone output during the fasts.
Over the last 5 years I have tried different (and stupid) strategies to train during Ramadan, and have arrived at an optimal solution for any buff Muslims.
Ramadan during the past 3 years has fallen mostly during summer, meaning much longer fasts:
Failed Strategy – Year 1
Training: Stop training with weights altogether and attempt a bodyweight circuit once per week after your evening meal.
Diet: Eating according to appetite. (Very low during Ramadan, remember you stomach capacity reduces).
Feel sick at night. Major strength loss and regression (20kg loss on all lifts)
Failed Strategy – Year 2
Training: Train fasted at the gym in the evening before it closes – high volume and high intensity. Wait an hour until you can eat.
Diet: Attempt to eat ‘clean’ – choking down masses of cottage cheese, avoiding late-night carbs (casein brah, don’t want to go catabolic during the fast!).
Dehydration and feeling terrible while training – while at greater risk of injury. 8kg weight loss and some strength losses. Food stops being enjoyable.
Failed Strategy – Year 3:
Training: Go mental in the opposite direction and do a 5-day-a-week shoulder specialisation program, training at 2am at a 24-hour gym.
Diet: Masses of calories, lots of junk food and cheesecake in a blender. Rice and Meat Curry, 1kg of chips and a whole chicken every night. Fit taraweeh somewhere in between it all.
Gain 10kg on your overhead press, some size in your delts, and completely miss the point of Ramadan. Feel so bloated you have to lie down at night, and feel sick and thirsty during the day – genuinely dreading having to eat at night. Overly food-focused and total loss of focus on Ramadan itself, including a reversed sleeping pattern. Fail.
Years 4 & 5: Finally getting the hang of this business
Reduced training volume, ate at maintenance, implemented the advice described in this article and continued to progress while minimally impacting on time and Ramadan-commitments.
– Ramadan is a time to focus inwards. You should not be training 5x per week and stuffing yourself at night, nor should your mind be too occupied with things concerning diet/training. Ideally, these should take a back seat while doing the bare minimum to maintain your strength. Equally, you don’t want to lose all your hard work by losing too much strength/size. So here it is:
The Optimal Ramadan Strategy:
1 – Forget trying to eat clean, and eat with the following two purposes in mind:
There are two types of people in this world. Those who gain weight during Ramadan, and those who lose weight. This mainly depends on appetite, although the more common outcome of a short eating window and stomach-shrinking is that people tend to undereat and get run-down as a result.
Therefore: aim for more calorie-dense foods and avoid foods that might normally bloat you up, e.g. overdoing the oats or dairy.
Rice, whey, chicken, fatty cuts of meat, pastries, sweets, fruit, ice-cream, whatever you need.
However, if you’re the type that can tend to overeat: begin your suhoor with lean protein and fibrous vegetables to curb appetite before moving on to the direct carbohydrate sources.
b) Getting sufficient protein: Eat your protein first, aiming for 2g/kg bodyweight daily, followed by carbs, then fat, to satiety.
c) Protein goal, calorie goal: Don’t aim for specific macros during the month – hit a protein goal (2g/kg) and calorie goal (maintenance) made up from any combination of carbs and fats.
d) Prepare a tray of food and a multivitamin during the day with a ready made protein shake to cover your bases. Don’t be afraid to rely on whey to hit protein targets.
2– Don’t deliberately aim for a calorie deficit.
If calories are too low, you’ll be worn down and under-recovered from the training program below. The only fitness goal you should realistically aim to pursue is maintenance during this month. You may find that you naturally eat a deficit from the restricted eating window, but this is not the time to try to force it. Remember, portions can be misleading when eating a day’s worth of food over a short period.
3 – Stay hydrated at night. Aim for at least 2.5 litres.
– Try to spread this out throughout the evening, so you don’t flush it all and end up thirsty the next day.
4 – Forget the ‘no carbs at night’ claptrap.
If you’ve been reading this website for a while, you’ll know by now that carbohydrates at night is actually more muscle-sparing and fat burning than having a larger breakfast.
5 – You won’t ‘go catabolic’ during the fast.
The potentially catabolic part is too large of a WEEKLY CALORIE DEFICIT and INSUFFICIENT PROTEIN. This won’t be a problem if you follow the above guidelines. While fasting is technically a catabolic process, you’ll offset any muscle loss by eating sufficient calories and signalling your body to retain muscle with the training program.
6: Train at night, 2-3x/week with the low volume strategy given below.
Ideally you can find a 24 hour gym nearby, which are surprisingly busy 11pm-2am in Ramadan! You should avoid training fasted: the dehydration increases risk of injury and will inhibit performance + recovery.
Even if you train after iftar, train at a slightly lower percentage of your max: you will not be optimally hydrated. Avoid deadlifts during the month, as it is the movement that carries the highest risk when dehydrated.. I’m speaking from experience unfortunately.
7: Intra-workout nutrition:
7am: Awake – fasting until 10pm
6pm: Depending on your working hours, 6pm-8pm might be a good time to catch some sleep.
Serving of rice & chicken, and dessert. 1 litre water
Midnight: Begin training, sip intraworkout drink (See below)
1am: Suhoor (pre-fast meal). Should be similar to your iftar, but with more fibre and fat. This will slow digestion and help to maintain satiety during the fast.
Dehydration is catabolic and increases your risk of injury, so be sure to stay hydrated during your workouts. I use 1 scoop of whey or MP Exceed (BCAAs and electrolyte blend) in 2 litres of water and (optionally) up to 50g maltodextrin or haribo. Adequate fluids, electrolytes, blood glucose and aminos, will improve cellular hydration and performance.
The goal of training during Ramadan is strength maintenance/gain,. We advise a low to moderate volume split that can be done 2x/week, using straight sets.
By treating Ramadan as an extended deload, you can increase your training volume and intensity in the weeks leading up to the month, using this time to recover and restore anabolic signalling.
A) Seated press: 5×3 @80% 1RM
B) Bench: 5×3 @80% 1RM
C) Weighted chin ups: 4×6
D) Hanging leg raises: 2×12
A) Squat: 5×3 @80%
B) Close grip bench: 5×5
C) Seated V-bar row: 3 x 10
D) Rope face pulls: 3×12
E) Calves/Abs 3×12
Make sure to spend slightly longer warming up hips and lower back before squats. Kelly Starrett’s hip opener is a personal favourite:
- Daytime: Fast
- Sundown (Either after Maghrib or Isha): Begin training while sipping your intraworkout drink. Do not train dehydrated.
- Iftar: Serving of protein, followed by carbohydrates/sugars, then fat. 1 litre water.
- Suhoor: Higher fat + fibre meal with 60-100g protein
Q – Should I do cardio?
A – No. Don’t be silly! Unless you’re training for endurance, the only use for cardio here would be to offset a calorie surplus eaten during the night, in which case remember the Hadith ““Enough for a human being to have luqaymat (a few mouthfuls) that prop up his spine and, if he must have more in his stomach, then one third of food, one third of water, and one third of air.” Use the opportunity to exercise self control instead.
Cardio to deliberately create a calorie deficit is a recipe for fatigue. The only training goal during this period is the minimum stimulus to maintain muscle mass. See this paper if you’re interested in how ramadan affects sports performance.
Q – Will BCAAs break my fast?
A – Yes, they will. No food or water must pass the lips during the fast.
Q – My gym shuts before maghrib (sundown), so I can’t have whey/BCAA and then train. What can I do?
Another option would be pushups and chinups at home in the evening, or to train early in the morning, preferably when your gym opens.
However, keep the rest periods LONG to reduce sweating and dehydration. Remember the goal of the training is strength maintenance, not to run yourself into the ground.
Q – How should I train after Ramadan ends?
A – Because of the probable calorie restriction you have undergone during Ramadan, there’s a fantastic opportunity to rebound and gain some good size and strength in the few weeks following Eid, should you so wish. Gradually increase calories and volume to a higher level to take full advantage, perhaps using this template. You will experience decent muscle and strength gains and potentially loss of bodyfat at the same time if you time this correctly.
Gradually increasing calories and training volume after a deload period creates a favourable metabolic and hormonal environment for muscle gain. Bodybuilders take advantage of this brief rebound after competitions to make their best gains of the year.
So, enjoy Ramadan this year, maximise your spiritual benefit, and use these guidelines to take a load off your mind when it comes to training and diet. Don’t fall into the same traps that I did.