22nd Oct2010

Diet and Training Lessons from IF Guru Martin Berkhan

by Tom

Martin Berkhan, the master of intermittent fasting

By now, a number of people in the Paleo community and beyond have probably come across Martin Berkhan and his site, Leangains. Martin is a fitness writer, personal trainer, and nutrition consultant in Sweden. You can see from his client results page that’s he’s done some amazing work with his trainees, not to mention himself. It’s an immediate attention grabber when I come across someone who has phenomenal success practicing what they preach. If you take a look at this series of posts on Martin’s transformation, you’ll get a firm idea of what I’m talking about. From his teenage years through late 20′s, Martin ran the gamut from a chubby 225lb high schooler to 160lb waif-skinny model, finally settling at 195lbs and a staggering 6% body fat with a 600lb deadlift.  For a number of reasons, you should take notice when you hear a story like this and absorb the pertinent messages:

  1. His before picture shows that by no means is Martin genetically predisposed to be incredibly lean. A lot of people consider single digit body fat to be an elusive haven for people who’ve won the genetic lottery, but that simply isn’t true. Genes can help, but in the end it comes down to diet + lifestyle factors + exercise.
  2. Being overweight, excessively skinny, and finally lean and powerful at different points in his life, Martin has a unique take to offer on what factors caused him to move the scale in either direction for both good and bad. No matter what your goals (cutting fat, building muscle, etc), there are likely to be a few gems in his writing that will apply to you.

With those reasons in mind for pulling up a chair and paying attention to this guy, the following are some of Martin’s points that really resonate with me.  The thing about all of these takeaways is that they’re incredibly simple and foundational.  But like so many simple, foundational concepts, they tend to get glazed over VERY frequently or turned into cliches which becomes off putting. The beauty of getting these messages from Martin is that the proof is right there in the pudding.  He’s put these simple concepts to work in an intelligent way and in the process was able to change his life and the lives of his clients.

The Importance of Protein

  • In this post on maintaining low body fat, Martin talks about the importance of a healthy dose of protein every day. In simple terms, a lot of good protein is crucial for synthesizing muscle, has a high thermic effect, is incredibly satiating, and reduces muscle loss during a fat loss diet.

Fat Loss Should Be Slow and Tempered

  • Martin’s best success came when he started to take a long term view of fat loss. His dip into mid single digit body fat came from slow fat loss with barely noticeable caloric deficits.  Not only does this make a diet easier to stick to since you’re not ravenously hungry, but it also makes for a very smooth transition into maintaining your body composition once you hit your goal.  Additionally, losing fat at a slower rate will let you retain much more muscle mass than if you try to cut fat quickly. If you’re serious about getting leaner and healthier, make it a long term project and try to maintain absolute strength and increase relative strength while you lose fat over time. This will keep you motivated with some short term goals while your long term fat loss goals will tend to work themselves out over time with little stress.

Training Should Be Simple and Heavy

  • Another impressive takeaway is Martin’s approach to training. He trains classically, prefering heavy compound lifts like the deadlift, squat, and press instead of isolated bodybuilder training. While I’ve found some success mixing in 8-10 rep hypertrophy work for assistance, there’s no doubt the most effective program for strength and body composition should be based around lower rep compound movements. In contrast to conventional wisdom, Martin does not do cardio to maintain a low body fat. He chooses to use his time more effectively in the weight room with strength training and manage his diet and lifestyle to stay lean. Many people think they can exercise away a poor diet.  This may be true to some degree, but you’ll feel a little bit like crap and waste a hell of a lot of time on the treadmill.

You CAN Maintain a Single Digit Body Fat %

  • Martin torches the notion you can’t maintain a low body fat percentage over time. While I think I’d be miserable at 5-6% body fat, he certainly shows that you can live at less than 10% very comfortably and still hold on to an enormous amount of strength. Pure and simple, this comes from intelligent nutrition and strength training. If you intelligently refeed your body after hard training sessions for recovery and keep your insulin and leptin sensitivity tight, there is no doubt you can make gains in the gym while hanging out around 8-9%. And as Martin says, it’s helpful to have some goals revolving around relative strength. If you track something like a weighted pullup or weighted dip PR over time, you’ll see big jumps in these numbers by keeping the BF% down.

You Don’t Have to Deprive Yourself Forever

  • Martin has a famous love for eating cheesecakes whole. He also drinks booze when the occasion calls for it and eats large meals regularly. In other words, he can still maintain a fun, social lifestyle complete with good food and drink while still staying in phenomenal shape. Many people (ahem, CrossFitters) think a perfect physique and perfect performance can only be gained through dietary perfection at all times. First of all, there is no perfect, so stop chasing it. Second of all, it has been repeatedly shown that the body responds favorably to variation. Eating the same number of calories at the same time every day may work at first but it will eventually lead you straight into a brick wall. The concepts behind intermittent fasting, the anabolic diet, and Tim Ferriss’ cheat day protocol all involve varying when and how you eat and have been shown to be tremendously successful. Not only do they allow you to cheat occasionally and give you a mental break from dieting, but these diets are also wonderful ways to build muscle while losing fat and improving nutrient metabolism and hormone expression.

One thing I enjoyed about reading Martin’s content when I first came across it is that I realized I was personally very close to a number of the things he was talking about in terms of fitness and nutrition. The reason is that a lot of these concepts are simple, intuitive, and they just plain work. I’d encourage you to apply some of Martin’s principles for a while and then take a Robb Wolf plan of attack and see how you ‘look, feel, and perform’.