You’ve heard it, you know it, you live it. Train hard. Eat a lot. Recuperate. Grow. Arguably the most lifestyle invasive aspect of becoming a top bodybuilder is the nutritional part of the equation. The goal of a bodybuilding nutritional program is to meet your momentary nutritional demands. That takes calories, the right ratio of proteins to carbs to fats, meal timing, supplements all varied according to what training cycle you are in. Often that gets translated to simply: Eat, eat, eat. Grow, grow, grow. It’s a ritual.
And God forbid a bodybuilder misses a meal. But wait, let me get this straight, there are actually a growing number of bodybuilders who are not eating…for days? Have they lost it? Nope. Bodybuilding legends like Larry Scott (the first Mr. Olympia) and Bill Pearl where amongst the first to lead what is becoming the “hot new trend” amongst today’s top contenders. The simple, although hard to swallow – pun intended – fact is: fasting should be a regular part of almost every bodybuilder’s program if they want to maximize gains.
The challenge is that bodybuilders have had it pounded into their heads that in order to get big muscles, you have to eat lots of food. Not eating sounds like insanity. But the truth is that when you fast, the energy normally used for digestion can concentrate on rejuvenating and healing your digestive systems and help your body get rid of accumulated toxins – and, a brief, intermittent, well planned, controlled fast can greatly improve the body’s ability to assimilate nutrients afterward, thereby delivering more nutrients to cells, helping to accelerate gains in muscle mass. To make a long story short, fasting is worth a closer look, whether you’re into getting huge, fit, or healthy.
What Does It Mean To Fast?
Fasting refers to any restriction of food and or drink. There are obviously many different methods and degrees of fasting. Fasting may mean the elimination of one kind of food or it may mean the complete abstinence from all food along with selective fluid intake. It can last for hours, days or even weeks in a controlled environment.
Typically, fasting means staying away from solid foods and consuming only liquids. Sometimes vitamins and minerals will be ingested as well, as directed by a health care professional. This becomes even more important as the fasting period extends to days or up to a week. Extended fasting, lasting more than a few days should not be done without a doctor’s supervision. More on who should and should not fast follows shortly.
It’s interesting to note that as far as essentials for the body are ranked, food isn’t top on the list. Air and water are much more important. You can live only minutes without air before brain damage occurs. Three of four days without water can be fatal. Yet there are extreme cases of people going 60 days without food with no lasting ill effects.
Who Needs It?
Fasting has been around for thousands of years and has been used as a means of preventing, improving or curing certain diseases. Some experts even believe it can reduce the risk of cancer. When sick or injured, animals will instinctively refuse food “knowing” that healing will be more rapid without solid food burdening its digestive tract.
Body builders are in the habit of consuming large amounts of food, so their digestive and cleansing systems are often subjected to an uninterrupted workload. Environmental pollutants also add insult to injury. While I firmly believe that bodybuilders require more protein than those who don’t train, some people over do it. If you consume huge amounts of protein (more than your body can completely digest and assimilate for tissue repair, growth and other functions) this “extra” protein can cause a buildup of acidic byproducts. This may be associated with muscle stiffness, joint pain and organ dysfunction.
Many “average Americans” subsist on refined foods and animal products which contain large amounts of fats, few nutrients and little fiber. If we add a sedentary lifestyle, excess body-fat, stress, toxins and environmental pollution to the equation, we come up with the situation wherein the body is often unable to rid itself of all of these stored waste products which are poisonous. If this condition continues long enough, it can lead to various forms of disease.
Why Bodybuilders Really Need It
Want to build muscle? The fact is that it’s not about what you eat, it’s about what your body absorbs at a cellular level. First you have to ingest the right nutrients at the right time, then you have to digest them, they you have to absorb and transport them into cells where they can be metabolized. To accomplish the above, requires mechanical digestion (which means chew your food very carefully – and much more than you are probably doing), chemical mixing with acids (parastalsis), enzymatic excretion, bacterial digestion, followed by active and passive transport. With the intense workload bodybuilders put on the gastrointestinal tract, it needs to rest, recuperate and replenish – otherwise nutrient delivery at a cellular level takes a dive.
Your intestines are rarely given the credit they deserve. They comprise a complex, metabolically active series of systems that require a delicate balance of bacterial processes. The primary function of a fast is to allow the stomach and intestines to heal and rejuvenate as well as allow the organs of the body to rest and go through a general cleansing and healing process. Fasting facilitates the excretion of organic and inorganic poisonous substances such as iodine, arsenic, mercury, etc., as well as acids, viral agents, oxalates and son on. All of these substances can hinder growth, impair body function and cause illness. They are also tough for the body to eliminate under normal circumstances. Their expulsion is greatly facilitated during a fast, since the activity of many internal organs becomes altered. The carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, trace elements we ingest are modified by the internal organs through a complex series of metabolic reactions before they can be used by the body. But the majority of these reactions such as intestinal digestion, nutrient transport and excretion via the liver, kidney, lungs and skin continue even when you are not eating. The liver alone can store proteins up to a 72 hour supply of glycogen (stored carbohydrates) which can offer cells nutrients for growth and maintenance. Typically, after energy and protein reserves have been depleted, the body may break down cells to provide the missing nutrients in a process called autolysis. Fat will be broken down, thereby reducing stored body-fat levels. Proteins requirements will be met first with proteins found in the bloodstream and later from the breakdown of inferior tissues such as old, damaged, or abnormal cells.
Fasting for Mass
For the hardcore bodybuilder I can just feel the paranoia creeping in. You’re probably thinking “How much weight will I lose? How much muscle will I lose? Will I lose all my strength?” Rest easy – when done properly, the benefits of an intermittent fast far outweigh any temporary (and minor) loss in mass or strength.
As you fast, you may drop a pound or two every few days, but much of that will be due to glycogen (which is bound to water) depletion. This is often noticed in the form of having to make a few more trips to the bathroom as glycogen is broken down and the water is liberated. (Low carb diets do the same thing). People who are overweight often lose weight more quickly. Almost all of the weight you will lose will be excess body fluids being expelled as urine. The fluids you are consuming are intended to flush your body clean of various waste products, thus resulting in this weight loss. Regular training throughout the fast helps stimulate anabolic pathways and protein synthesis in muscle cells and prevents loss of lean body mass. Before training, make sure that you drink natural fruit and or vegetable juices rich in carbohydrates since this will supply your muscles with energy, minimizing catabolism of muscle protein to supply workout energy needs.
We’re not talking about killer workouts here. When you train, you should be using light weights and high reps. No forced reps and no training to failure! You might want to train your whole body each day with only one or two exercises per muscle group. Dress warmly and stay dressed throughout your session in the gym. Dressing warmly encourages sweating, which opens the pores and helps your body excrete waste products. Combine your weight training with long walks or light jogging. After your fast, you can gradually go back to your regular training routine and progressively increase your weights. You’ll l find that you have not lost any significant amount of strength after your fast. Any “loss” in muscle mass will soon be reacquired thanks to more efficient organ function and better nutrient absorption.
“Side Effects” Of Fasting
The curtailed supply of nutrients during a fast may sometimes lead to certain “side effects.” The side effects you might experience are a result of the changes in your body. Your blood pressure and blood sugar level will go down, your metabolism changes, and stored toxins will be released into your bloodstream so that they can be excreted. These changes can give rise to certain symptoms during the first days of fasting, such as anxiety, sleeplessness, and feelings of cold, hunger, nausea, fatigue, nervousness, headache, muscle ache and constipation. Empirical evidence suggests that those who experience the most discomfort during a fast are those in most need of this cleansing. The most common symptoms are feelings of cold, fatigue and hunger. The hunger, incidentally, usually disappears after the second or third day of a prolonged fast. The best cure for these symptoms is fresh air, daily light exercise, a relaxing environment, a warm bath and soothing teas. Herbal teas (possibly with a little honey) work well against fatigue and hunger, rest soothes headaches, and Chamomile tea is helpful when you can’t sleep.
If you are interested in trying a fast there is no law that says you have to be an extremist – in fact intermittent fasting is not going to an extreme. You may want to try a modified fast first. Maybe just take in lots of water, juices and vegetables for a day. That alone can help ease the burden on your system.
Top medical experts and the bodybuilders I have worked with recommend a daily fast for about 14 hours to rejuvenate your system on a regular basis. You might eat dinner at 6:00 p.m. and touch no solid foods until breakfast at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. This type of fast makes good sense metabolically as well and could be a good start to dropping body-fat without reducing calories. Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper is always a good rule to follow as it meets your body’s metabolic demand for nutrients and minimizes the possibilities of storing bodyfat.
Next you could try a one day juice fast. (See sidebar). Try it on the weekend when you are at home and relaxed. You can nap when you want, kick back and pamper yourself but be sure to include at least a walk as exercise. Later work up to something a bit more serious; This will help get your body, and your mind, adjusted to the idea. The object here is to intermittently, but regularly fast to optimize gastrointestinal functioning, digestion, absorption a cellular delivery of nutrients.
Water or Juice?
A number of health and nutrition authorities agree that fasting with fresh raw vegetable juices, along with clear vegetable broths and herb teas, will result in a quicker rebuilding of the body and more effective cleansing of toxic wastes from the system than with water fasting. Raw juices (especially cucumber, celery, carrots) are rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes and intrinsic sugars. These vital nutrients are easily assimilated without undue stress upon the body, helping to accelerate the regeneration of cells and the overall rejuvenation of the body. Vegetable juices in particular are also alkaline-forming (as opposed to acidic. Alkaline juices may accelerate the excretion of accumulated toxins. Remember to juice and drink immediately (if possible) as the potency of the nutrients and enzymes decrease over time.
There is a great variety of vegetable juices from which you can choose. Carrot-celery-parsley is an excellent combination. The ideal proportion is five parts carrot to two parts celery with a sprig of parsley. Parsley is used in such a minute quantity due to its very high iron content. Carrot-beet and carrot-apple are two other popular combinations. Use a variety of juices during the day so that you supply your body with the many diverse nutrients found in the various vegetables.
Vegetable broths can be made from cooking various vegetables (potatoes, carrots, string beans, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, turnips, cabbage, onions) in spring water in a large covered pot for about 30 minutes on a low flame. Strain and drink.
Herbal teas also make an excellent addition to your fluid menu. Peppermint, rose hips and chamomile all taste pleasant. Chamomile makes for a fine non-alcoholic nightcap. Rose hips has vitamin C which is used in detoxifying processes. Peppermint is refreshing and is great after a workout.
When you are thirsty, drink spring water, your total juice and broth intake should be about two quarts a day. Water should comprise about another two quarts. Don’t chugalug. Enjoy your drinks. If the hunger pangs hit, try a cool glass of ice water to settle the rumbling.
In order to facilitate your fast, it is important to prepare and give your body a chance to adjust to the coming changes. Your body will do better in adjusting to the beginning of a fast with a two or three day break in period. During the adjustment period, raw vegetables may be best. Consume juices and herbal teas between meals and decrease the size of your meal portions during this time. It is best to completely eliminate caffeine sources a few days before you start fasting to avoid any withdrawal symptoms once the fast is underway. Avoid eating bread during the preparatory period, since it is acid forming. Also, avoid drinking regular tea during this phase, since it also contains caffeine and can cause constipation. A carefully executed preparatory period enables your body to start discharging acid toxins or neutralize them even before the fast itself starts. If you have decided to begin a fast, you will have to stock up on a supply of fruit and vegetable juices. Making your own fresh juice at home or at work is of course the best option. If this is not possible, you can buy your juices and pure bottled water at your local health food store. It is often recommended that you dilute your fruit juices so that you mix equal parts of water and juice. It is also recommended that certain “strong” juices (such as those from beets and spinach) be diluted with two parts of water to one part of juice. Carrot juice can usually be diluted the same as fruit juice. Some health food stores carry already packaged kits with fluids designed specifically for anyone intending to fast.
After a fast, there will be great demands for protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, resulting in a significantly improved capacity for your body to absorb and assimilate these nutrients. A benefit from this improved capacity will be that your body will respond better and faster to training and diet. The transition from solid foods to fluids, however, will subject your body to certain strains which it needs to once again gear up for. Breaking a fast correctly is even more important than preparing for one. Breaking it abruptly and in the wrong manner can cause serious stomach cramps, constipation and other digestive problems. But by breaking your fast slowly and carefully, you let your body gradually grow accustomed to successively increased servings of solid foods during a two or three day period, avoiding any post fast problems such as indigestion or constipation.
Your food selection should lean heavily toward vegetarian, consisting primarily of raw foods such as fruits and vegetables, and perhaps whole grain foods. After two or three days, you can gradually reintroduce foods you are normally used to eating. Continue to drink fruit and vegetable juices during this transition period. Many people experience a decrease in cravings for sweets and junk foods after a fast, and this makes the post fast period an excellent opportunity to wipe the slate clean and get a fresh new start on your eating habits.
To fast or not to fast is an individual decision. But if you believe that your body deserves as much consideration as your car does when it gets an oil change you might want to give it a shot. It will also likely optimize nutrient absorption leading to better muscular gains!
Fasting: Not Quite For Everyone (But Almost)
A note of caution. Almost any healthy individual can fast, but should always consult with their physician before beginning, since there are some conditions during which a fast is not advisable. For example, during infections; in individuals with gall bladder, liver or kidney problems, insulin-dependent diabetes or certain heart problems. Fasting is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women fast, and of course, not for children. Always follow the advice of your physician before fasting.
One-Day Juice Fast Menu
Here is a sample one-day juice fasting menu:
Large glass of freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice, or 1/2 lemon squeezed into a glass of spring water.
Cup of herbal tea with a small amount of honey if desired.
Large glass of freshly extracted vegetable juice.
Bowl of warm vegetable broth or glass of fresh vegetable juice.
Large glass of fresh vegetable juice.
Cup of herbal tea with a small amount of honey if desired.
Suggestions: Try this program at home on a weekend when you are relaxed and comfortable. In addition to the above drink about another two quarts of water. Check with your doctor before beginning.
About the Author
Dr. Tom Deters, DC is he former Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness Magazine; Founding Editor in Chief, Muscle & Fitness Hers Magazine; Publisher, Natural Health Magazine (acquired by Weider Publications); Founding Editor in Chief, Prime Health & Fitness magazine.
Dr. Deters has had hundreds of articles published covering numerous aspects of strategic business development, profit and loss management, nutrition, sports, weight loss, dietary supplements, exercise, physiology, health care, injury prevention, rehabilitation, motivation, psychology, anabolic steroids, and practice management. He has authored a syndicated newspaper column and has been published in peer review journals.
Dr. Deters has conducted dozens of seminars to corporations, professional associations, military special operation groups, conferences and expos. He has spoken to groups as large as 9,000. Topics include strategic business development, sports injury, performance nutrition, diet strategy, nutritional supplements, anabolic steroids, diet and exercise, exercise and arthritis, exercise and fitness and motivational topics. He is a Doctor of Chiropractic and a B.S. in Human Biology from the National College of Chiropractic, Lombard Illinois and a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.