It appeals to us that something as simple as changing the timing of things can have a potent effect.
People go mad for any short cut to actually putting in some effort and marketers take advantage of this (flash a little bit of science while conveniently not talking about the bigger picture) to sell us on something new.
Any time someone presents you the nutritional importance pyramid upside-down, your BS detector should go off.
The truth: Getting the timing of things right most certainly has favourable effects on body composition, however, if you gloss over the most impactful, foundation levels of your nutrition plan (calorie intake, the macro composition, and the micronutrition) you are wasting your time, money and effort.
Consider the first three stages of the nutrition pyramid the big picture. Now we’re going to look at the fourth stage while trying to not get lost in the meaningless details. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Notice the wording.
As with this series as a whole, this article is written in the order of importance that each addition will likely benefit you.
This is important to bear in mind because as I mentioned at the very start of this series, adherence is the most important factor in all of this – the best diet is the one you can keep – so please balance the additional complication as you work through each step, with your ability to stick to it.
And by no means feel that you have to implement all of it.
‘A meal‘ in this context refers to anything from a snack (protein shake for example) to a real food meal (protein, veggies, fats and carbs). I am not including a low-calorie pre-workout supplement such as Jack3D (whatever is the trend these days), or BCAAs in this definition.
The number or meals you will want to consume is related to the volume of food you are consuming and what time of day you will train.
I suggest you eat the minimum number of meals that you can get away with without compromising your goals.
This makes things simpler, both in terms of food preparation and in terms of macro counting for the day. Simpler -> higher adherence rate -> higher long-term success rate.
For those cutting, it can be beneficial psychologically to have fewer meals because you can eat more at each meal. This is one of the benefits of skipping breakfast – enabling larger lunches and dinners. One meal a day is simply not going to be optimal for lean mass retention and also forces people to make poor, calorie dense/highly palatable food choices in order to cram enough calories in a single meal.
For those bulking, it can get to a point where it is not comfortable or practical to eat just two meals a day because of the volume of food that needs to be consumed. Consider splitting your meals into three or four meals, or having liquid meals/snacks. Though there are no likely benefits to eating more than four meals a day, it is perfectly fine to eat more if you wish.
Note: Other than the added complication of it, there are no likely drawbacks to eating more frequently than these recommendations, so if you wish to eat more meals in a day then feel free to do so.
Professionals Looking For An Edge
Skipping breakfast can make it easier to burn stubborn fat when dieting, but also marginally increases the risk of muscle mass losses when getting exceptionally lean. This is especially true on a rushed cut, which these guys might need to do if they find themselves on a deadline but not leaning out quickly enough.
Also, there may be marginal benefits to a higher meal frequency (greater spacing of meals throughout the day) for mass gains for these advanced trainees.
Thus, as competitors are looking for every advantage they can get on the stage, they should consider a higher meal frequency and more even spacing throughout the day than the bottom end recommendations above, assuming they have the time to do that.
We’ll come back to this topic later, but you can use this jump link to skip down and read it now if you prefer:
Athletes Training Multiple Times A Day
Running around on a full stomach isn’t fun. So even for non-athletes, if you’re going to have a kick around in the afternoon then it makes sense to eat less at lunch and have a snack later on that day.
Glycogen depletion requires roughly 90-120 minutes of continuous work on a single muscle group, and you must use those same muscles competitively within the same day need to worry about maximal speed of glycogen restoration.
If you are an endurance athlete, then some quick carbs* after your first workout of the day is a good idea. (*A sports drink or other easily digestible carb.)
If you’re not an endurance athlete there is no need to worry about it.
Anyway, bearing in mind the above, let’s move onto the next section.
‘Training‘ refers specifically to purposeful weight training, not random exercise.
‘Post workout’ refers to the timeframe between when you train and the time you go to bed.
‘Not completely fasted’ refers to training carried out in the state where there have been one or more meals consumed earlier in the day. BCAA consumption immediately prior to ‘training’ counts as not completely fasted and is a viable option.
There are multiple ways you can set things up, but as long as you keep to these principles then you will be fine. I’ve expanded below with specific suggestions but when it comes to examples, for the sake of brevity, I’ve given the simplest set-up option for that training time only.
Early Morning Training
Take 10g BCAAs ~10minutes pre-workout, then 10g BCAAs every two hours until you eat your first meal of the day.
Breakfast-skipping example (2 meals):
– A slightly larger dinner than lunch is fine, and vice versa. If you’re eating three meals, a snack in the afternoon with a big lunch and dinner is fine also.
– The meals don’t have to be split into thirds, so if you prefer to have one bigger then the others then please feel free to shift around your meal split.
– Reasons for the BCAAs (and BCAAs vs whey) explained here by Martin Berkhan, who was pretty much the key man in bringing fasted training to the main stream by justifying it with science™.
Breakfast-skipping example (2 meals):
– A slightly larger dinner than lunch is fine, and vice versa. If you’re eating three meals, a snack in the afternoon with a big lunch and dinner is fine also.
– NB: I’m suggesting a lower calorie intake for breakfast so that you don’t have to train on a full stomach.
With late afternoon training the time between the end of training and dinner is greater then 2 hours, so we have a snack.
With early afternoon training the time between the end of training and dinner is considerably greater then 2 hours, so we have a meal.
– NB: The time between the end of training and dinner is considerably greater then 2 hours, so we have the meal.
There is no need to have a snack or shake post workout as the evening meal comes within two hours of the end of training.
Avoid Extreme Macro Partitioning
In the above examples you’ll see that I have suggested generally that you split your macros in the same ratio that you spit your calories. This is because it doesn’t really make any difference.
Despite this you’ll find some fancy ideas out there such as: only eat fats and protein earlier in the day, and only carbs and protein later. – This is not likely to have any nutrient partitioning benefits, and will threaten adherence by making your diet more complicated and restrictive. Refer to the ‘if it ain’t broken…‘ rule.
Some people find that carbs make them sleepyIf this is you, you can use this to your advantage by positioning your final meal of the day nearer to bed time, or increasing the proportion or carbs in this meal.
Large Meals Make You Sweat?
The increasing popularity of Intermittent Fasting has led to a flood of new gurus looking to profit from it and the proliferation of nonsense such as:
“Calories don’t matter as long as you eat within an 8 hour window,”
“Your body actually wants you to gorge on junk food in the evenings after your workouts as it will shuttle the nutrients into the muscle and not be stored as fat!”
These people who make a living by selling books and e-books don’t live in the real world where they are actually held accountable to client results, so it’s very easy for them to talk utter bullshit.
I often use IF with my clients in helping them get very lean because I think it has advantages for achieving this. However, as the order of this series of articles should tell you, the IF wasn’t the deal-breaker, they would have likely gotten good results without it.
Why You Might Consider Skipping Breakfast
1. Simplicity with meal planning and counting macros.
2. Increased control over hunger, and greater satisfaction from bigger meals. If you have previously been eating breakfast it will take around 4-7 days for your body to get used to the new meal pattern and hunger pangs in the morning to subside.
3. Potential to help oxidise more stubborn fat. – This is only relevant to those that are (or have gotten) lean to the point of visible abs, and a looking to get completely shredded. (This is why cardio is rarely needed with a well executed IF protocol in my experience, though I must point out that there is little clinical evidence to support this yet.)
Further reading: Intermittent Fasting and Stubborn Body Fat – Leangains.com
Why You Might Not Want To Skip Breakfast
1. IF increases the risk of muscle losses.
This is only really a concern when looking to get to exceptionally lean levels of body fat like you see below or even leaner. As long as you have your calorie intake and macros set up right as per this guide.
The leaner we get, the greater the potential for muscle loss with a reduced meal frequency. It’s important to put this in perspective and weigh up the pros and cons.
If you eat a greater meal frequency and spread your meals further across the day instead of skipping breakfast, your risk of muscle mass losses is minimised, but you add in more complication to your diet. – Meal preparation takes more time, macro counting is incrementally harder, and you likely have to add in cardio earlier to get shredded lean.
The greater the calorie deficit and the leaner you are, the greater the risk of muscle loss. But if you take things slow and steady then the risk is small.
I’ve coached over 1000 people with the majority of them choosing to skip breakfast and I can’t say I have noticed it causing any lean tissue losses.
Consider also that the clients you see in the picture above skipped breakfast, ate twice a day, and did not use any cardio to get into that condition. I can’t say that we detected any muscle mass losses there either.
However, it’s important to consider that they were recreational trainees without a deadline, not professional or serious amateur competitors looking to get any potential possible edge over the competition. In that case it would be better to go with the more conservative approach and have a higher meal frequency (assuming they have the time and will to do it). Also, if someone is in a rush to get into stage ready condition the deficit they will need will be higher than ideal, so a greater meal frequency should be considered so that they stand a better chance of holding onto the muscle mass.2. Greater meal frequency/meal spacing throughout the day may lead to more muscle growth when bulking
I’d emphasise that this is marginal, and most people naturally find themselves forced to eat more then just two meals a day when bulking anyway.
Final Points On Breakfast Skipping
If you try skipping breakfast a few times and either don’t like it, feel good doing it, or simply feel much better when eating breakfast… then eat breakfast!
If you have a history of disordered eating then you probably shouldn’t be doing any form of fasting as it can be used as an excuse legitimise your behaviour.I’ll end this with a quote from Alan Aragon, as I think it sums up the attitude most people would benefit from taking when it comes to their nutrition:
“In the process of obsessively seeking out the “perfect” foods, food timing, food combinations (and separations), and food avoidance, the big picture gets buried in the meaningless details.” Alan Aragon, from the AARR, Feb 2009.
We are now getting into the realms of the hypothetical – there is little solid evidence of the benefits to calorie and macro cycling, as there is very little research on this topic at all.
One clear benefit of calorie and macro cycling is that it can bring greater adherence by increasing variety in our diets. However, for some people this will be a distinct disadvantage, as the additional complication will threaten their diet adherence. (A stressed-out, overwhelmed beginner would do well to skip this part for now until the more important habits are established.)
I do think that there are some benefits to calorie and macro cycling beyond just the adherence factors, but as this is another complication to sell people on, you’ll find the supposed benefits of macro cycling completely overblown in many articles on the internet.
‘Calorie cycling’ is the purposeful increase and decrease of calorie intake relative to the days that you train, while maintaining the calorie balance for the week.
‘Macro cycling’ is the purposeful repositioning of certain macronutrients across your training week – with a goal to improve body composition, training effect or performance – while maintaining the macronutrient balance for the week.
Put another way, calorie cycling is eating more on your training days than your rest days, when your energy demands are higher.
Macro cycling has two common forms. The first being eating more carbs and less fat on your training days, and less carbs and more fats on your rest days (as with Martin Berkhan’s Leangains). The second being strategic carb refeeds, usually every 4-10 days, with general low carb dieting (the most famous/pure example being Lyle Mcdonald’s cyclical ketogenic diet CKD).
The idea is that by strategically increasing or decreasing the intake of certain macronutrients on certain days of the week relative to training one can get nutrient partitioning benefits that will positively impact recovery and growth, as well as having favourable hormonal benefits that will aid in fat loss.
The difference is mainly in the extent of the carb refeeds. The Leangains style calls for a more controlled carb refeed every training day, Lyle’s for more of a splurge, with the tradeoff being heavier restrictions on carbs at other times. For a more in-depth look here is an article with a section on the benefits of carb/macro cycling.
We’re going to put aside Lyle’s CKD aside for now and focus on the less restrictive style.
You want to give yourself more calories on your training days, less on your rest days. How much? Try anywhere from a 25% to a 50% difference between the two days. Don’t go over this or you’ll negatively impact recovery due to the especially low intake on the rest day.
Training 3-4 Days A Week? – Use This Easy Math Version
If you’re fine with not getting too hung up on the actual percentage, and follow Martin’s general guidelines of training three days a week, then here’s a simple way of going about this.
Step 1. Decide how much you’d like the calorie split to be.
Let’s say we choose ~40%.
Step 2. Add calories to the daily energy intake (calculated in #1 Calories)for the training day and subtract for the rest day.
If energy needs were calculated to be 2500kCal, then a good approximation is to take half of the 40%, (20%) and add that to get your training day calories, 3000kCal (2500×1.2), and subtract that to get your rest day calories, 2000kCal (2500×0.8).
Step 3. Adjust to maintain the calorie intake target for the week.
With fewer training days than rest days, with the above simplified calculation you’re going to be a little under calories for the week. We must maintain the energy balance for the week so we need to adjust.
Our target energy intake for the week is 17,500kCal (2500×7).
With three training days we only consume 17,000kCal (3000×3 + 2000×4), which is short by 500kCal. So the easiest thing to do would be to add ~71kCal (500/7) to your training and rest day calorie targets and not worry about the slight gap in the percentage math.
Training Day Target Intake: 3071kCal, Rest Day Target Intake: 2071kCalTraining More Or Less Frequently?
In this case the math above isn’t going to work very well.
Training More Than 4 Days A Week?
I often get asked how people can adjust their intake based on more or less training. And though I don’t generally recommend this amount of training for anyone that is not an advanced-intermediate trainee, I want to make this guide accessible to anyone, so here we go.
The catch is that you’ll need to do a little math. But I spent a couple of hours reverse engineering these formulae for you from what jives with my experience.
We know: Number of training days a week (N), average daily calories (A), target percentage difference expressed as a decimal (D).
We want to find: Training-day calories (y), Rest-day calories (x).
1- x/y = D Ny + (7-N)x = 7A
Example: Three days training a week, 2500kCal calculated energy requirement per day, 30% target split. (N = 3, A = 2500, D = 0.3)
1- x/y = 0.3, 0.7 = x/y, x = 0.7y 3y + 7-3x = 7(2500)
Resolving for y: 3y + 4*0.7y = 17500, 5.8y = 17500, y = 3017 Resolving for x: x = 0.7(3017) = 2112
So, Training day intake = 3017kCal, Rest day intake = 2112kCal
Continuing the example from above,
Let’s say that the minimum average fat intake is 60g, which is 540kCal. That leaves us with 455g of carbs for the training day, 230g for the rest day.
The problem with that is that food choices can get quite limiting with such a low fat intake. You can swap out a good portion of those carbs on the rest day for fats as fits your taste preferences. Some guidelines (not rules):
|Training Day Macros – Protein 160g, Carbs 455g, Fat 60g Rest Day Macros – Protein 180g, Carbs 97.5g, Fat 110g|
Note: It is normal in most instances to consume significantly fewer carbs when cutting due to the lower energy intake.
Putting That All Together – Continuing Our Two Examples
Cut/Moderate Calorie Deficit – 90kg, 20% Body fat. Daily Calorie Intake: 2152kCal. Daily Macros: 180g Protein, 80g Fat, 180g Carbs
Tom’s Training Day Macros: 180g Protein, 60g Fat, 330g Carbs Tom’s Rest Day Macros: 180g Protein, 100g Fat, 25g Carbs*
(*From starchy sources. Fibrous sources like the majority of vegetables are being purposefully ignored.)
BobBulk/Calorie Surplus – 75kg, 10% Body fat Daily Calorie Intake: 3141kCal Daily Macros: 150g Protein, 87.5g Fat, 440g Carbs
Bob’s Training Day Macros: 150g Protein, 65g Fat, 645g Carbs Bob’s Rest Day Macros: 150g Protein, 110g Fat, 230g Carbs*
Bob’s Modified Training Day Macros: 200g Protein, 75g Fat, 575g Carbs Bob’s Modified Rest Day Macros: 150g Protein, 110g Fat, 230g Carbs
So you don’t think that IF and calorie/macro cycling is important then?
That is not what I am saying. Importance comes with context, there is no blanket black and white statement that can be made. Please go back and re-read the above.
Researcher and nutrient timing specialist Alan Aragon in his monthly Research Review suggested a minimum of 3 meals a day as optimal. Why do you say two is fine?
This recommendation ignores the option of fasted training with BCAAs. It was based on a meal being eaten sometime before working out, some time within a couple of hours after, and one more meal either earlier or later in the day as being the minimum optimal nutrition & protein spacing/frequency.
Recently (14th January 2015) Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld, and James Krieger’s, ‘Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis‘ was published. I’d encourage you to read it all, but here are the concluding comments, the bolding is mine:
Although the initial results of the present meta-analysis suggest a potential benefit of increased feeding frequencies for enhancing body composition, these findings need to be interpreted with circumspection. The positive relationship between the number of meals consumed and improvements in body composition were largely attributed to the results of a single study, calling into question the veracity of results. Moreover, the small difference in magnitude of effect between frequencies suggests that any potential benefits, if they exist at all, have limited practical significance. Given that adherence is of primary concern with respect to nutritional prescription, the number of daily meals consumed should come down to personal choice if one’s goal is to improve body composition.
There is emerging evidence that an irregular eating pattern can have negative metabolic effects, at least in the absence of formal exercise. This gives credence to the hypothesis that it may be beneficial to stay consistent with a given meal frequency throughout the week.
As for fasted training with BCAAs, is this more or less optimal than fed training?
For the same reasons as with the morning fasts it can help get through to stubborn fat for sure, this time by increasing blood flow to those stubborn fat areas.
Alan tends to constrain his thoughts by what has been proven/shown in the research, which when it comes to fasted training there is little and frankly, more is needed. I would guess this why Alan made no direct recommendation or condemnation of fasted training.
If there is anything to the added “anabolic sensitivity” of fasting, the IF strategy may well be taking advantage of it. It’s really too soon to say if the IF approach to eating is really superior or just a convenient way of dieting, but it does get results. (December 2009 issue of the AARR, guest analysis of the study ‘Increased p70s6k phosphorylation during intake of a protein-carbohydrate drink following resistance exercise in the fasted state‘.)
Why do you say keep an even split of macros across the meals?
At the moment I don’t feel that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that there are any benefits significant enough to make the additional complication worth it. Exceptions are covered in the ‘Special Considerations for Nutrient Timing‘ section.
You’ve given a range of figures for the calorie split between training and rest days. Is there an optimal figure?
From reading through old forum posts on Bodyrecomposition.com (probably the best nutrition information website in the world) we know that Martin Berkhan experimented with very large differences in his rest and training day energy intake initially when forming his Leangains system. I don’t know if he actually formulated specific guidelines, I’d imagine they’d depend on body fat percentage, calorie deficit/surplus relative to maintenance, diet history, carb tolerance, preference and recovery.
Regarding that last point on recovery, it is easy to imagine that having too large a difference in your training day and rest day intake would not be optimal.
It’s quite geeky topic that isn’t worth worrying about to most, but I’d find a roundtable with thoughts from Alan, Lyle, and Martin fascinating, particularly for the latter’s extensive client experience with such narrowly controlled variables.
Why the recommendation to eat a meal within two hours of ending your workout?
There is a definite window of opportunity for nutrient partitioning in the post workout window. This is not merely an hour as once thought (see “The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis,” Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon and James Krieger), and while there may be an effect lasting 48 hours that you have read about, this is likely going to be on a sliding scale rather than any set cut off point. (Kind of like if I kick you in the nuts, the pain will fade over time.)
The recommendation of two hours is a precautionary one. It can be a full meal or a snack.
Early-morning fasted training is the exception, where you can delay eating with BCAAs post workout.
Layne Norton’s talks about advantages of more frequent meals/BCAA supplementation between meals. What are your thoughts?
Firstly, let me just say that Layne Norton seems to me to be one of the good guys in the industry, highly knowledgable, and with a very good track record with clients. It’s important to note that Layne works with competitive bodybuilders as his recommendations should be taken in that context.
Someone pointed out that he has said that 1-3 meals is not optimal. Of course, it depends on how one defines ‘optimal’. I would define it as getting a balance between simplicity and complication so that the non-competitor can stick to their nutrition plan long-term, but still reap >95% of the benefits without going fully anal about things.
Layne has also invested a lot of time and effort researching into the effect of BCAAs so it’s natural for him to be a little biased towards their use. The results of the research he has done so far, in the end, showed that the effect of BCAA dosing between meals was small/negligible. More on this here.
Are you claiming the timing of carbs post-workout or pre-workout doesn’t make a difference?
It’s not quite as blanket a statement as that, but in general I don’t believe it matters a great deal for recreational trainees.
The exceptions being in the “Special Considerations for Macro Timing” part, and by definition, athletes, which I have spoken about briefly above also. There will be some individual response of course, some people will find that they perform better in their workouts with more or less carbs pre workout. There is not a one size fits all answer.
When I train fasted in the morning I don’t feel as strong/powerful. Is this a sign that I should eat something before I train?
I’m going to assume here that you have come to this conclusion based on observation of your energy in multiple, successive training sessions, under the same conditions (time, sleep, diet, stress) with sufficient sleep and no extra-stressful events recently. – I mention this because some people have a single bad session and jump to the conclusion that it’s the training time rather then something else.
I’m also assuming you are a recreational trainee, not an athlete, are not having multiple training sessions a day, are not heavily restricting carbs (relatively speaking), and are not in a highly active job (hence the word relative).
Your muscle’s fuel stores (glycogen stores) are like a gas tank in your car – you fill them up and if you come back even a day later, the energy is still there. Assuming you’re not on a highly carb restricted diet and you’re not highly active outside of your gym work (job or otherwise), then training fasted shouldn’t be a problem.
Some people find that they feel stronger when they have had something to eat before they train, some find exactly the opposite, likely due to the increase in catecholamines – epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and dopamine – in the system when training fasted. In some of these cases it’s going to come down to the placebo effect, i.e. “I worry that I can’t, therefore, I can’t.” The placebo effect is very real and needs to be taken into account.
To have any non-placebo, real physiological effect we’re talking a carby meal at least 2 hours before the training, or a sugary drink ~1 hour before. Adjust the rest of your macros throughout the day accordingly.
Some people just can’t do well with fasted training however. So try it out, see how you feel.
Onto the final and most overrated part of the pyramid importance then.
Prefer to keep with the web version? #5 Supplements →
Questions welcomed in the comments. Please keep them on topic so that people can read through to find relevant answers. Kindly refrain from requesting that I calculate or confirm your own personal calculations, they will be deleted. – Andy