Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Guide: The Best Muscle Building Diet Plan? | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Guide: The Best Muscle Building Diet Plan?

If you’re looking for a way to gain lean muscle mass, then I highly recommend Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Guide.  While my work and family schedule prohibit following all of Martin’s recommendations, I’ve recently tried to implement as many as possible from the Leangains Guide.  Most people will have a hard time believing that a diet centered around intermittent fasting constitutes the best muscle building diet plan, but I’ve seen excellent fat free muscle mass gains when pairing the Leangains approach with the Visual Impact Muscle Building workouts.

The Best Muscle Building Diet Plan

Most muscle building diet plans focus on eating a lot of calories.  However, this subjects you to potential fat gain.  Whenever I’ve previously tried this approach, I always ended up eating too much and adding a good deal of fat to go along with muscle mass.  Then I would have to work really hard to eliminate the fat while trying to preserve muscle.  Generally known as the bulk and cut method, I personally hated this approach.  I prefer an overall lean look and bulking up by adding both fat and muscle just doesn’t appeal to me.  That’s why I think the best muscle building diet plan focuses on adding lean muscle without adding fat.  The Leangains approach utilizes a number of advanced strategies to optimize this.

Leangains Guide

You could spend hours reading the Leangains site but here’s a brief overview of the strategies I try to implement from Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Guide:

  • Intermittent fasting: 16 hour daily fast followed by 8 hour feeding
  • Fasted training
  • Calorie and macronutrient cycling
  • Majority of calories ingested in post workout meal
  • Mostly clean eating
  • No set number of meals during feeding window: 2-3 meals generally preferred

Delving deeper into some of these recommendations, you’ll find that a 16 hour daily fast is great for fat burning.  Ensuring that you get high quality calories during the 8 hour feeding window, especially after training, is great for muscle building.  So you have a “best of both worlds” scenario where your body is in a fat burning state when it’s less active and a muscle building state after exercising when it needs nutrients the most.

Ideally you’ll eat more carbs on days that you exercise to optimize mass gains.  Furthermore, it’s best to eat your biggest meal after working out when your body is most anabolic.  Shifting gears, exercising in a fasted state results in a greater level of fat burning.  Ingesting BCAAs prior to fasted training will help preserve muscle mass while still allowing you to remain in a materially fasted state.

Martin Berkhan of Leangains

The great thing about the Leangains approach is that you can tailor it to fat burning or muscle building.  You can simply increase or decrease your caloric intake while sticking to these core principles.  Ideally you’ll be able to get really lean without losing muscle mass or gain a good deal of muscle mass without gaining fat.  The best part is that it’s a perfect maintenance approach as well since it’s relatively lenient as far as a diet plan goes.

My Approach

I utilize a hybrid of the protocols laid out in Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Guide.  In general, I fast from 6pm to 9am or 10am (15-16 hours).  I like to have my largest meal at dinner since that’s family time.  On weekends, my approach involves eating a light breakfast at 9am or 10am, training around 1pm, and then having my largest meal around 5pm.  Weekdays are more challenging because of my work schedule.  Two days per week, I do early morning fasted cardio after ingesting BCAAs.  Two other days I do nighttime resistance training after dinner.  On those two nights, the eating window is extended to 9pm so I only end up fasting 12-13 hours after.  I also employ calorie cycling and carb cycling where I eat the most on days that I exercise.  Combining this approach with the Visual Impact Muscle Building workouts provides an optimal way to gain lean muscle mass.  In fact, I’d argue that these programs respectively constitute the best muscle building diet plan and the best muscle building workout routine.

26 Responses to “Martin Berkhan’s Leangains Guide: The Best Muscle Building Diet Plan?”

  • Nice review of leangains. I have my doubts that fasting will ever become mainstream. Not because it’s not effective, but because there is no money to be made by recommending people fast.

  • There is money to be made in the sales of BCAA, whey proteins and whole foods during the non-fasting part. However nowhere near as profitable as saying eat 6 meals a day, you must eat this much protein (ridiculous amount). I can personally say I follow a 13-16 hour part of lean gains, I do fasted training but none of the car recycling stuff, just generally eat whatever I feel like which happens to be clean foods alot of the time. Good post

  • I incorporate several of Martin’s theories into my own program. Namely eating most of my calories around my workout, fasted training, and eating clean of course. He has some good ideas, but as another commenter said, I don’t know if his ideas on fasting will ever become popular. It’s just too hard for the mainstream population to go that long without eating. They want an easy fix.

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I noticed you didn’t mention any cheat meals. How does that necessarily work with the holidays and a toddler in the house? I can see eating “cleanly” pre- or post-holidays but not the month of December. That seems too hardcore for the normal person to follow IMO.

    And from a female perspective, while I applaud Martin’s ability to get that ‘ripped’, I don’t personally think most guys look good being that uber-lean, sorry to say (Ryan Reynolds happens to be the one exception). I much prefer a guy to have ‘slightly’ more meat on his bones…but that’s just me.

    Majority of calories ingested in post-workout meal, I doubt that would work for me. I’d have to drink most of it as the amount of calories I’m eating would be enormous in volume if eaten as solid food. If you can do it, go for it as everyone’s different.

    I guess what works for one person doesn’t always work for another yet you could incorporate key elements from this into your diet, I suppose.
    ~Toni

  • Dave,

    Great overview of Leangains. I do a lot of 12-16 hour fasting especially around the holidays when cheat meals are more prevalent, but I’ll admit I haven’t examined the Lean Gains approach in detail. I plan on doing this and trying it out in full force over the coming weeks because from past experience, I’ve found that a lot of my best fat loss results have come from more frequent fasting periods.

    Is there any type of calorie restriction during the 8 hour feeding period? I ask because I know many people, including myself, can easily eat way more than they should in a day in one sitting, although this is more difficult to do when eating “clean” foods.

    Alykhan

  • Niko,
    Good point about the lack of money to be made…guess it’s hard to rationalize promoting a diet that’s not profitable.

    Michael,
    Sounds like you’re incorporating a lot of the key points.

    Coach,
    It’s true that many in the mainstream want an easy fix but people are also fixated on things like celebrity diets. If a couple celebrity’s said that intermittent fasting worked, I think there could be a huge pickup.

    Toni,
    Martin does find time to enjoy himself (especially with cheesecake)…that’s why it’s mostly clean eating. Check this out: http://www.leangains.com/2010/11/cheat-day-strategies-for-hedonist.html
    And you’re absolutely right about low body fat and looking too lean. As for eating large portions, I’ve always been a light eater earlier in the day and bigger eater at dinner so eating a lot after exercise is no problem for me.

    Alykhan,
    There is a calorie component. Martin recommends 20% above maintenance on training days and 20% below maintenance on resting days. The excess calories is a common problem for people who have a feeding window though.

    Dave

  • melissa:

    what form of BCAA are you suppose to take before a fasted workout? and how long before you workout do you take it?

  • Melissa,
    I use Xtend. I generally take it 5-10 min before a workout and then have it after as well. More details about BCAAs in this post if you’re interested:

    http://www.notyouraveragefitnesstips.com/muscle-building-supplements/bcaa-benefits-fasted-training-branched-chain-amino-acids-effective-for-losing-fat-and-gaining-muscle

    Dave

  • Looks like a great program. Thanks for sharing!

  • melissa:

    Thank you Dave! I ll give it a try!

  • Kris:

    Any word on Martin’s book?

    I remember reading his blog many years ago and he was working on a book, whenever he publishes it I’m certainly going to buy it.

    I think his approach is very interesting, I have tried it in the past (mainly the 16-8 fasting part) and it worked well. Never used BCAAs though.

  • Melissa,
    Hope the approach works well for you. Just FYI, Martin usually recommends closer to 14 hours for women to fast.

    Kris,
    I think Martin’s book falls into the banned topics category on his Leangains site. I keep waiting around as well. Fortunately there’s plenty of great knowledge on his website.

    Dave

  • My body works well with carbs and with some HIIT cardio I stay relatively lean, so there really isn’t any need for me to fast. My weekly calories tend to be a little above maintenance level because I do want to be making gains, but I cycle my carbs throughout the week (low days on non-training days, high days on weaker body part training days, med days on stronger body part training days). Like some commenters, the majority of my calories (and carbs) are concentrated around the training window, with a pretty even amount of protein per meal. Will definitely give Martin’s website a read though – it’s important to be open minded.

  • melissa:

    Ok thanx a bunch!!

  • Joe:

    Dave,

    Thinking about working leangains in to my routine to change things up a bit. My only concern is that I work out at 5 am and as I understand it I should be eating my largest meal within 2 hours of working out – which would be breakfast for me. Not really a big breakfast eater plus this complicates family dinner times, etc. Any suggestions?

  • Joe,
    Sometimes you can’t always follow an exact protocol. I have a similar problem in that I like dinner as my biggest meal. In your case, since you perform strength training in the mornings, I’d have BCAAs after exercising to prevent muscle loss. Then have a good sized late morning breakfast or early lunch. That could begin your eating window and you could end just after dinner.

    Check out the early morning fasted training section here:
    http://www.leangains.com/2010/04/leangains-guide.html

    Just realize that even though Martin and others have success with eating the biggest meal after a workout doesn’t mean you won’t have success by eating a regular meal after the workout and bigger meal later in the day.

    Hope that helps.
    Dave

  • Jay:

    What I got from LeanGains.com is that the post workout meal is very important.

    What if my schedule only permits me to train after the feeding period (12pm-8pm)? I could not seem to find anything about 3 pre-workout meals.

    How should I spread out my caloric intake for those days that I have to start my fasting period with training?

    Is it not a good idea to train after the feeding period?

  • Jay,
    I can’t speak entirely for the LeanGains method but from my personal experience, eating after exercising is critical to avoiding muscle loss. I’ve exercised at night before and not eaten until the following morning and it’s led to pretty poor results. I would try to either exercise first thing in the morning or adjust your eating window to allow you to eat something after your training. Alternatively, you may not be able to follow the protocol every day. On training days, extend the eating window. Obviously it’s ideal to have your biggest meal after training, but if you can’t do that, then I’d probably spread things out relatively evenly. The pre-workout meal will depend on how you train…if you exercise immediately after eating, you might want to avoid too many calories. If you wait 2-3 hours, it wouldn’t be as bad to have a big meal. Ideally you’d be in a fast state for 3-4 hours though if possible. Do the best with the time you have available. I have similar restrictions and eat at 9pm some nights after exercising.
    Dave

  • Like you, I don’t like the idea of bulking and cutting. It’s not really efficient, it’s not good for your health, and it’s far better to stay in good shape year round.

    So I think carb cycling is an essential part of what it takes to do this, as you can build muscle whilst staying lean (or even losing some fat at the same time). Intermittent fasting also has great benefits, and I’ve been doing 24 hours once per week for some time now.

    I haven’t really done Leangains, and I’ve certainly never done fasted training, but may give this a go at some time.

  • David,
    Great insights. Thanks!
    Dave

  • Lana:

    Can you please share more of your opinion on the female version of leangain approach. I couldn’t find it myself on Martyn’s website.

    Thanks Lana

  • Lana,
    It’s really the same general protocol for men and women. Martin just prescribes a 14 hour fasting period and 10 hour feeding period for women. The rest of the rules around exercising and meal timing still apply.
    Dave

  • Ashley:

    Based on my math, I’d have to consume 848.5 calories for my first meal on non training days and the same meal as my third meal on training days. The other two meals will be at 424.25 calories a serving. How the hell am I to eat a meal at one sitting with that many calories? My daily caloric goal is 1697. I weigh 136lbs and I am 5’2, I strength train 3 times a week. What clean foods/meals can I eat that have all these calories for each sitting. I’m used to spreading these meals throughout the day. Am I to eat 2-3 of my meals in one sitting instead, in order to pack in the set amount of calories?

  • Ashley,
    You can still spread out your meals if that’s the best way for you to eat. If you’re struggling to find enough foods to eat, that’s probably a good thing because most people find it hard to cut foods. There are plenty of calorie dense foods like nuts that you could have. Otherwise, you could eat larger portions of protein like chicken, fish, meat, or eggs. Remember that everyone is different and you might react better (or find it easier) to eat 5-6 meals rather than 2-3.
    Dave

  • Dave:

    Dave,
    We have chated before about diet and nutrition about a year or so ago. I’m curious about lean gains (i really wish he published a book on his approach) do you think that if followed his exact guidelines that it would work really well? I’m fascinated in nutrition (declared myself as a nutrition major for college) and am almost certified as a personal trainer but have a hard time achieving my results. I’m 5 7 170 pounds and last time I checked my body fat i was 14 percent. Which was about 3 weeks ago. I know that’s not bad but I still don’t feel confident taking my shirt off and such at a pool or locker room. I lift now about 3 times a week with limited time as I go to school and work full time (not a lot of time to lift about 30-60min a workout) moral of the story would this help me? If I fasted throughout school and trained then ate after would that help my results. Like I said I’m really into nutrition. Any comment or motivation would help. Thank you.

  • Dave,
    A lot of people have pushed Martin for a book but as far as I know, he hasn’t gone down that route yet. The goods news is that most of his principles are nicely laid out on his website. You have to piece a couple things together but what I’ve outlined above covers the majority of the approach. Personally, I think this is the ideal way to eat. Bottom line, done correctly this should help you gradually gain muscle mass and/or lose fat.
    Dave

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