OR……Stop Focusing On The Minutiae – Simplify Your LeanGains Diet
Ok, so for some of the readers of my blog, the title of this post will have you scratching your heads. “WTF is LeanGains??” I’ll explain a little more on that, but if you are working to lose body fat and improve your physique with some weight training, this article could be just what you are looking for. I’m not providing anything new, no ‘this is the one way that works’ ideas, in fact, it’s kinda simple. But having spent a lot of time reading forums, getting a few emails from people who can’t seem to work their daily dietary intakes out, I think it is important to start a bit of a conversation about macro-nutrient and calorie setting as they appertain to the LeanGains 16/8 intermittent fasting protocol.
None of this is rocket science, you don’t need a degree in maths to work this stuff out. So what are so many people spinning their wheels, changing from one eating style to another, adding calories, here, taking them out there, and with no real basis for doing this.
The essentials of this post will be:
- Set an arbitrary TDEE calorie intake
- Set a target calorie intake for training days
- Choose how much fat you want to lose per week
- Set rest day calories to meet that deficit
- Track progress
- Adjust as required
I could probably just end the post there, but being a charitable sort of guy, I think it is worth expanding on, with some background, some examples, and how YOU can, and SHOULD do it. No smoke and mirrors, no underhand trickery, no special supplements that get delivered in a brown paper bag. Just simple math, an ability to track your progress, the ability to stick with the plan for 2-3 weeks, and the sense to stick with it, or change it if it’s not providing the results you require.
What Is LeanGains?
This is probably a question that can be skipped by some people. If you are one of them, don’t skip it. This part is only a couple of paragraphs, but it might even give you a little insight into how simple the system is, and why, perhaps, you have been over-complicating it. I’d like to say, right at the start of this post, is that I am a big fan on LeanGains, and follow it myself, having some really good success with the system. But that is what it is, a simple system, a tool, an eating ‘strategy’, that provides some really good benefits to the strength trainer, the person working on physique enhancement, and even to the ordinary person on the street who just wants to shed a few pounds of fat, whilst maintaining their muscle mass. Although Martin Berkhan, the Swede who built the blog and rose to fame with the ‘system’, was really into the science of intermittent fasting, spent a lot of time analysing the research and putting little tweaks into it, in reality, it’s a pretty simple approach, made a lot harder by human nature 🙂
So, back to it. Martin Berkhan is a Swedish nutrition coach and trainer who rose to prominence by developing an intermittent fasting system that was largely created for the strength training community, those who lifted weights, were trying to enhance their physiques, to get strong, to build muscle and to find an eating style that supported growth, recovery, and also fat loss. The reality is, intermittent fasting has been around for many thousands of years, but Berkhan really was the leader when it came to the 16 /8 fast (16 hours of fasting, with an 8 hour eating window). The template involves eating within an eight-hour window during a 24 hour period. For ‘most’ people, this tends to mean eating a lunch sometime around noon, followed by one or two large meals in the evening. Fasting takes place overnight, and into the next day, until lunchtime when the first meal of the day is eaten.
Leangains involved the cycling of calories and carbohydrates between rest days and training days, assuming a 3 times a week strength training program. Higher calories and more carbohydrates are eaten on training days to support muscle growth, aiming to maintain, or even increase muscle on these days, with rest days aimed at promoting fat loss. There is quite a lot more to it than this, with the use of branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s) to prevent catabolism (breaking down of muscle tissue) for those who do their training in a fasted state, as well as macro-nutrient timing to take advantage of insulin sensitivity and non-insulin mediated glucose uptake, a process that is enhanced after strong muscular contractions (as experienced whilst lifting heavy weights)
That said, the LeanGains 16/8 fasting system can work really well for non weight lifters, it can be used by people involved in calisthenics (bodyweight exercise based training), and even as a meal timing system for the ‘average joe’ who wants to shed some fat. 16-8 fasting works well as a strategy to prevent binge eating, which I wrote about recently here. Obviously, carbohydrate intake needs to be adjusted for activity levels, but many of the key principles can certainly be used by anyone just looking to improve their body composition. That said, if you are not lifting heavy weights 3 times per week, calorie and carbohydrate cycling, intermittent fasting, you aren’t really doing Lean Gains, but take what you can from it and make it yours.
Why Do People Make Things SO Complicated?
As human beings, I think we all over-analyse, try to fit things (including ourselves) into little boxes where none of us really fit. Although from a physiological standpoint, we are all quite similar, each of us has physical, hormonal, metabolic, and let’s face it, emotional and mental intricacies that make us unique. What works for you, ‘could’ work for me, but if my mindset, lifestyle, free time, work/life balance aren’t the same as yours, your plan will fall flat on its face when I try to implement it.
Back to LeanGains! As I’ve discussed in previous articles, and what most people do, or should know, is that energy balance, calories in vs. calories out is the most important factor in weight loss, weight maintenance or weight gain. People will argue the toss until they are blue in the face, but research has shown time and time again, that if someone is put on a calorie deficit, they will lose weight. That doesn’t mean that lower and lower calorie intake is a good thing, metabolic slowdown is a very real thing, and is why many people who eat super low-calorie diets for a prolonged period of time experience a slowing, or stalling of their fat loss. They then have nowhere to go, they can’t afford to trim calories even more, and in the end, they end up overeating and piling all the weight back on, that well know yo-yo dieting approach.
With intermittent fasting, and in particular, calorie cycling, you can have the best of two worlds. Reduced calorie intake on rest days, when you are doing little more than walking or lounging around. This will support fat loss in those 4 days per week. Increase calories, and carbohydrates on your 3 training days, and you support muscle retention, and perhaps even muscle growth, depending on whether you are in a fat shedding (cutting) phase, or a muscle growth (bulking) stage of your training. Many people suggest that it is impossible to do both at the same time, the classic ‘recomposition’, but some people certainly have been seen to get good results with the recoup, but it is probably fair to say it works better if you are starting at a lowish (10-12%) body fat level.
But back to setting calories. This is the area where people spin their wheels all the time, going round and round in circles. “Which is best, -30% (calories below maintenance intake), or would -20% be better, or -35%??” “Should I eat at maintenance on training days, or -10% OR +10%?” The variations are endless, and the confusion seems to be self-perpetuating.
The Real Lowdown On Setting Daily Calories
This is simple, get when you start, you will not know if things are set correctly, how could you? There are a ton of online calculators out there that will help you assess your basal metabolic rate (BMR), and this number, multiplied by an ‘activity multiplier’, will give you an estimate of what your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is. So if you are sedentary, your BMY is multiplied by 1.2. If lightly active, multiply BMR by 1.375 and so on.
A lot of people miscalculate their TDEE by overestimating (or under, but usually over) their actual level of activity. BUT, it doesn’t really matter, because, as I said in the previous paragraph, the TDEE figure is no more than an estimation, and for two people, doing equally exercise per week, and of the same hight, weight, age, and gender, their TDEE’s will vary to some degree.
SO, how do you get around this issue, how do you ensure that your TDEE is right for now (it will change as you lose weight, gain muscle, change exercise habits etc). It’s simple, takes a little tracking and light number crunching, but you can get a much more solid estimation if you follow this simple process.
1. Use a TDEE calculator like this one to get a ballpark figure. So, if it comes up with 2232 calories per day, choose either 2200 or 2250 and call it good. A few calories here and there is really going to make no significant difference.
2. Use a calorie and food recording app like My Fitness Pal, and eat at that calorie level for two weeks, trying to keep your macros (protein, fat, carbs) approximately the same each day. Eating similar foods but just rotating meals makes it quick and simple to get close to your daily targets without too much fuss.
3. Weigh yourself daily, at the same time and under the same circumstances (in underwear after using the toilet in the morning) and record this, combine these at the end of the week and divide by 7 to get an average weight loss for the week.
4. Do this for two weeks (three is better), and at the end of the period, calculate your average weight loss per week, over the 2/3 weeks.
So, you have a definitive record of your calorie intake over 2/3 weeks, and you have a definitive, averaged weight loss over the same time period. What does this tell us? Well, we know that to lose 1 lb of fat, we need to expend (or not take in) 3500 calories less than we expend. If we take in equal calories to those we expend, we stay in a neutral position, we neither gain, nor lose weight. Overeat by 3500 calories, and we gain 1 lb. Things are not quite so straightforward in the human body, hormones, metabolism, stress, and a host of other factors ‘could’ impact on this, but for the most part, we are pretty much ‘on the money’ if we use these numbers.
So, you get to the end of the period, having eaten 2200 calories per day for 3 weeks, giving you an average weekly intake of 15,400 calories. The scales have shown, that on average, per week you lost 1.5 lbs. We know that a loss of 1.5 lbs per week would require a calorie deficit of 5250 calories in the 7 day period. So what could be happening, you set TDEE at 2200 calories, which should have allowed you to maintain your weight over the trial period.
It tells us a lot. It tells us that to maintain your body weight, you would need to actually consume 20650 calories per week, rather than the 15400 you were consuming. Break that down into a daily number 20650/7 and you get 2950, your actual TDEE for your current metabolism and activity levels. If you wanted to maintain weight, you would have to either:
- Reduce activity levels until energy balance was equal
- Increase food intake by 750 calories per day to allow energy intake to match energy expenditure
This is a simple yet somewhat long-winded way to get a good idea of your TDEE. It involves a couple of weeks of careful counting and recording, but it will allow you to pinpoint how many calories you need to maintain weight, and from that figure, you can extrapolate the numbers required to lose weight accurately. Things change, but when you are recording data effectively, and are able to analyse results, changing things up becomes very easy.
Back To Lean Gains Calorie Planning -A Simple Approach
I hope that previous section clarified some things on finding TDEE. As a regular visitor to the Reddit Leangains message board, a massive percentage of the questions on there are about ‘how do I set my calories/macros’, or ‘someone please check my macros for me’. It’s the same on almost any forum topic, people desperately trying to get someone to tell them that what they are doing is right.
If you are a bit like me, eager to crack on, not eager to spend a couple of weeks eating the same calories each day to find an accurate TDEE for yourself. The simplest way to get your lean gains macros in order is this, remembering to track calories, track weight, the same as in the previous paragraph.
Ok, you took an arbitrary figure from a calculator and found that your TDEE for your approximated activity level is 2200 calories per day. You are essentially and office bod, and just lift weights 3 times per week. For this example, and because we want to do our best to maintain strength, we will set our workout day calories at the maintenance TDEE of 2200 calories per day.
Calculations so far:
- Weight maintenance would be 2200 calories per day x 7 days = 15400 calories per week to maintain current weight.
- Maintenance calories on 3 training days per week = 6600 calories
- Remainder calories for week = 15400-6600 =8800 calories
The amount of fat that is considered appropriate to lose varies on a number of issues: your current weight, and/or your current body fat %. The more you need to lose, the faster it is safe to lose it. So a person with 40% body fat, could probably lose 2-3 lbs (perhaps more) per week. When you are at 10% body fat, you rate looking at closer to 1/2 lb (or less) per week.
The next step in calculating rest day calorie intake is ‘how much weight (fat) do we want to lose. Now, considering that you are, in this example, eating at TDEE on 3 days per week, you have but 4 days to cull calories to lose the fat you want to. In this case, let’s keep it simple, and say we are looking for a 1 lb fat loss per week OR more accurately,we need to manipulate rest day calories to create a 3500 calorie deficit.
SO………..out of those 8800 calories we have for the 4 days of rest (remember 2200 per day is TDEE), we need to take 3500 off this number.
8800-3500=5300. We then need to divide this number by 4 to get our rest day intake for the 4 days. 5300/4=1325 calories per day.
This might seem very low, particularly for a male, but we have to remember that average weekly calorie intake is important, and the fact we are fluctuating calories up and down on an ‘almost’ daily basis, the body has no need to go into a metabolic slowdown, it is being very well fed 3 days per week.
Some people do very well eating at maintenance on training days, with a pretty low-calorie day on rest days. If that’s not you, there are other ways to slice and dice it. You could cull some calories from training days, say 200, down to 2000 per day giving you 600 extra calories for the rest days, allowing you to up rest day numbers from 1325 to 1474, and still get the same 3500 calorie per week deficit.
Some people like the idea of trying to out-train their poor eating habits, and this is one strategy that often goes really, really wrong. Something along the lines of,”I walked for 45 minutes today, so eating those 3 extra biscuits won’t do any harm”. Not a great way to approach your body recomposition, or your attitude to food and exercise in general.
The moral of this story is, if you want something incredible, you have to do incredible things. Want the body of a Greek god, you have to make some ‘small’ sacrifices, and plan carefully. That old saying ‘what gets measured gets managed’ is a truism that more people should get familiar with, and come to terms with. Our eating habits are out of control, and without a bit of discipline to reel things back in, and we are going to get fatter, and more unhealthy.Who wants that?
So, whether you are a lean gains practitioner, or someone who just wants to get your head around the numbers, I hope this article has helped you. Please share it with your friends or online community if you think it’s worthy. If you need more help, or are considering using an online coach to set up your Lean Gains plan, then drop me a quick message via the consultation page. No pressure of course, but the offer is there.
Still Confused Or Not Sure?
I created a free ebook for you that covers everything you need to know to make a decision on whether intermittent fasting will work for you.