I want to talk about supplements that are useful for fasted training, with particular emphasis on training in the morning. Fasted training seems crazy to most people, they cannot believe that it’s possible to get through a decent workout without lots of carbs and protein. But the main concern is that fasted training is catabolic, and will erode away your hard-earned muscle. It is certainly true that increased catabolism occurs during fasted training. However, I am going to suggest a few strategies that will allow you to lose fat, spare muscle, and improve performance, particularly if you train in the morning like I do.
What Will Work
Fat cells that are hydrated can release fatty acids more easily into the bloodstream. Protein breakdown is decreased in muscle cells that are hydrated. Dehydration results in a higher cortisol peak after training, and reduced testosterone and growth hormone levels. Therefore it’s important that you drink enough water before and during training. It’s is even more important if you’re training over Ramadan.
You should drink according to thirst, you don’t need to aim for an arbitrary amount like eight glasses. If you get thirsty during training, just bring a bottle of water with you and sip on it while you train.
Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are the following essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Both leucine and isoleucine increase metabolic rate and fat burning by activating uncoupling proteins. Isoleucine also increases fat burning by stimulating PPAR-alpha in the liver and muscle cells, and deactivating it in adipose tissue. (PPAR-alpha is responsible for the uptake, utilisation, and catabolism of fatty acids.)
Leucine stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis, and it is far superior to any other amino acid in this respect. It works by activating the mammalian target of rapamycine (mTOR) pathway. Free form leucine is quickly absorbed and causes a spike in plasma leucine levels. This means that BCAAs are superior to whole proteins, like whey, where the leucine must be liberated before it can be absorbed.
BCAAs are not metabolised in the liver, they are free to circulate and compete for absorption with tryptophan for uptake across the blood-brain barrier. An increase in the ratio of BCAAs to tryptophan in the blood stream will lead to a decrease in the amount of serotonin synthesised. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, and studies show that serotonin activity is increased during prolonged exercise, and it is hypothesised that this response is associated with fatigue. Assuming this hypothesis is correct, BCAA supplementation may reduce the level of fatigue.
Note that insulin promotes the uptake of BCAAs, but not tryptophan. Therefore although fasted training forbids you from improving performance by ingesting carbohydrates, it allows you to take full advantage of any fatigue reducing effects of BCAAs.
A possible concern when training fasted is gluconeogenesis. This is the metabolic pathway that generates glucose from non-carbohydrate sources, including glucogenic amino acids. It occurs during periods of fasting, low-carbohydrate intake, and intense exercise. Assuming that you consume adequate protein during your feeding window, it is unlikely that amino acids from muscle will be used for energy. Ingesting BCAAs before fasted training at the very least provides additional aminos for this purpose. But leucine is not glucogenic and therefore cannot be converted into glucose, so you will still benefit from an increase in protein synthesis, and a reduction in protein breakdown. In fact, studies show that BCAA intake prior to fasted training increases phosphorylation of p70s6k, which is a signalling pathway, including mTOR, that increases protein synthesis.
Martin Berkhan recommends taking 10g shortly before (5-15mins) your training session. I would agree with this, although I prefer to have 5-10g of BCAAs about 30mins before training, and an additional 5-10g during the workout. Flavoured BCAAs are a great way of making water more palatable, not to mention that many people can’t stand the taste of unflavoured BCAAs. I can recommend Myprotein’s The Pump, which contains additional glutamine, beta alanine, and citrulline malate. MyProtein in general are the company we trust for supplements: No hype, good quality control (many online supplement shops have been busted recently for selling as low as 2% protein, but MP quality control has always been solid).
Caffeine is thermogenic. It improves performance in resistance training. And even better, a dose of 800mg taken before training has been shown to boost testosterone, with a moderate increase in cortisol. The literature supports a dose of 3-9mg/kg bodyweight for performance enhancement. I would recommend starting with a low dose and gradually increasing it over time to assess your tolerance. Note that stimulants tend to be more potent when taken in the fasted state, and you should bear this in mind.
Anhydrous caffeine in caffeine pills exerts a greater ergogenic effect, but coffee has other benefits. Waking up and making a fresh espresso or pot of coffee as part of your morning ritual is more enjoyable than popping a few pills before training. Caffeine enhances the release of acetylcholine: acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that induces skeletal muscle contractions in the peripheral nervous system (PNS). In the central nervous system (CNS) it is believed to be involved in learning, memory, and concentration. But roasted coffee also contains a compound that acts like acetylcholine.
Remember that coffee is not a diuretic! In fact, it is hydrating, so count it towards your water intake.
(If you want a more potent stimulant, you could try using a pre-workout product like jack3d or Quake.)
What May Help
Testosterone levels are highest in the morning, which is favourable if you train early in the day. But cortisol levels are also higher. Phosphatidylserine (PS) lowers cortisol levels in response to exercise induced stress. It also increases testosterone levels. As a supplement I would experiment with taking 200-300mg about an hour before training and then 200-300mg in the evening. The lowest effective dose for weight training is unknown.
The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin has many potential benefits: it’s an antioxidant, and it may have anti-aromatose properties. It inhibits the production of fat tissue, accelerates fat metabolism, and makes fat cells absorb less fat, according to one study on mice. The mice were given food supplemented with 500mg of curcumin per kilogram of bodyweight. That translates to a dose of 40mg per kilogram of bodyweight in humans.
More importantly, curcumin may inhibit gluconeogenesis. (Note that this study was on liver cells, and not human subjects.) This is particularly relevant to fasted training if it is true.
Curcumin inhibits mTOR according to in vitro studies (joining a list that includes EGCG, caffeine, and resveratrol). This is a potential concern, given that we have emphasised BCAA intake in order to activate mTOR. But remember that these are cell culture studies, and there is no evidence that curcumin has this effect as a dietary supplement.
If you want to try curcumin, look for a curcumin supplement with piperine, which may enhance the bioavailability of the curcumin. (Note that absorption was only increased during the first hour, and after that the piperine curcumin and ordinary curcumin had comparable absorption rates.) I use Doctor’s Best Curcumin C3 Complex from bodykind.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as those found in coconut oil (which is approximately 65% MCTs), are metabolised differently to longer chain fats. They do not go through the lymphatic system, instead they’re metabolised in the liver and oxidised or converted into ketones.
Some studies show that MCTs have a thermogenic effect and promote fat oxidation. However, the benefits of MCTs for bodybuilding are not clear, and many of the claims put forward by supplement companies are not supported in the literature (for example, it is not clear that MCTs spare muscle glycogen).
If you would prefer to follow a modified fast, or carb backloading scheme, then I would suggest having a teaspoon of MCT/coconut oil in your morning coffee before you train, and a small amount of fat and protein throughout the day. I can recommend Myprotein MCTs.
Note that MCTs/coconut oil may cause gastric upset. Add them into your diet gradually, starting with 1 or 2 teaspoons a day. Do not exceed a dose of 1g/kg bodyweight a day.
When training during modified fasts, particularly if you’re sweating a lot, you’ll want to ensure you are replete with electrolytes. Our favourite blend is hydrant – be aware these have sugar included so they will break a ‘strict’ fast.
Stay hydrated, and take in some BCAAs before you train. Have your morning coffee or pre-workout caffeine. Don’t worry about the catabolism monster!
6.30am – Wake up. Drink an espresso or two; I might add 1-2tsps of MCT or Coconut oil.
7.00am – Take 200mg phosphatidylserine with water, coffee, or green tea.
7.30am – Mix 3g beta alanine, 3-6g citrulline malate, 5g creatine, and 10g BCAAs in about 1 litre of water and consume. Optional: add a scoop of jack3d or Quake.
8.00am – Train. Sip on 10g of BCAAs mixed with about 1 litre of water.
10.00am – Take 10g of BCAAs with about 1 litre of water.
6.00pm – Meal with 200mg phosphatidylserine, 1g curcumin extract, fish oil, vitamins, and green tea.