Intermittent fasting has been a popular dieting technique for a while now, and many fitness professionals recommend it to their clients. But do bodybuilders intermittent fast?
Some natural bodybuilders may use intermittent fasting during a cut. However, pro bodybuilders are unlikely to follow intermittent fasting as it has no real benefits while making it more challenging to hit their calorie targets. Intermittent fasting may help you burn fat, but it’s quite a tough diet for most bodybuilders to follow.
Now that we know what the professional bodybuilders are doing, let’s take a deeper look at intermittent fasting, why some bodybuilders use it, and why most don’t.
I’m sure that several bodybuilders employ intermittent fasting, at least at some point during their contest prep. But a better question is, why would they bother? Many benefits are supposedly linked to intermittent fasting, but they can be achieved by regular dieting.
Intermittent fasting’s major strength is that it is simple to follow and helps people who struggle with regular diets. But the majority of bodybuilders are perfectly capable of following a regular diet. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be bodybuilders.
You have to remember that most Pro bodybuilders consume 2-3 x as many calories as a regular person. For example, in my article on what foods bodybuilders eat, I learned that Ronnie Coleman ate 5,500 calories per day.
Fitting 5,500 calories into a regular day is hard enough, but only allowing yourself to eat for 6 hours may feel impossible. Even if you aren’t eating anywhere near Ronnie (let’s face it, who is?), you still have issues around training times and pre/post-workout nutrition.
If you usually train in the morning, you would have to do so without any pre-workout meal, and your post-workout meal might not be for several hours. This can affect muscle protein synthesis and inhibit post-exercise muscle growth and recovery.
You may struggle to train at a high intensity if you haven’t eaten for several hours. So, why not train during your eating window? This makes sense, but it also means that your eating window is now pretty busy. Do you have enough time to digest your first meal before working out? Then, how long after your workout do you wait before your second meal?
None of these issues is a dealbreaker, but they are certainly something that you need to consider when weighing up the pros and cons of intermittent fasting as a bodybuilder.
Intermittent fasting is a funny diet to define. Technically, we all follow a form of intermittent fasting. That is to say, we all have periods of our day where we avoid eating and periods of our day where we eat. For example, if you only eat three meals per day and consume zero snacks, you are intermittent fasting. Likewise, if you frequently skip breakfast, you are following intermittent fasting.
The difference between intermittent fasting and regular diets is that you follow a prescribed period when you are not supposed to eat. There are different forms of intermittent fasting, but you can split most of them into two groups:
As you can imagine, alternate day fasting will not work for Pro bodybuilders, as they train nearly every day. Trying to perform a 2-hour workout when you’ve only eaten 500 calories that day will not go well for you.
But daily intermittent fasting could work. You would need to time your meals and your workouts perfectly. This is not much of an issue if you are a Pro bodybuilder and have the luxury of not needing a 9-5 job. But for new bodybuilders, this could prove an insurmountable challenge.
Here are four health benefits of intermittent fasting that can be applied to bodybuilders.
Anyone who has been around the bodybuilding world for a while will know how susceptible bodybuilders can be to heart disease. Check out my article on bodybuilding and heart disease here. Several animal studies have found that intermittent fasting can help protect your heart and reduce disease risk.
“The IF diet limits many risk factors for the development of cardiovascular diseases and therefore the occurrence of these diseases.”
We should note that the above study could not say whether the heart-protecting benefits were due to the IF diet specifically or its ability to help with weight loss. Any successful weight loss diet should also see improvements in heart health and reduce disease risk.
This benefit is the one that will appeal most to bodybuilders. Studies have repeatedly shown that fasting can lead to significant increases in human growth hormone secretion. Higher HGH levels can help with muscle protein synthesis and greater muscle mass.
However, Pro bodybuilders are taking such high HGH levels that the benefits of intermittent fasting pale in comparison. So if you think that intermittent fasting will significantly affect your muscle mass, you will be disappointed.
Natural bodybuilders may benefit from this. But again, they would benefit from any diet and would probably see more significant HGH gains from sleeping better. That’s not to say that IF isn’t a handy tool for increased HGH, just that there are many other ways to optimise your HGH production.
There certainly appears to be a link between intermittent fasting and improved fat burning. However, many websites claim that IF is superior to calorie reduction (CR) when it comes to weight loss. I’m not sure that this is true.
A 2014 study found that calorie reduction (CR) led to more weight loss than intermittent fasting (IF) or alternate-day fasting (ADF):
“Results reveal superior decreases in body weight by CR vs IF/ADF regimens, yet comparable reductions in visceral fat mass, fasting insulin, and insulin resistance.”
Barnosky et al. (2014)
In other words, fasting can effectively burn fat but may not be quite as effective as traditional calorie reduction diets. This makes perfect sense, as weight loss is about creating a calorie deficit. If your IF diet creates a calorie deficit, you will lose weight. If your regular diet creates a more significant calorie deficit, you will see better weight loss results.
Inflammation is helpful for bodybuilders as it forms part of the muscle-building process. However, too much inflammation can cause muscle soreness and overtraining. This can affect future workouts, increase the risk of injury, and prevent you from training optimally.
Intermittent fasting may reduce inflammation, allowing you to recover better from workouts. In addition, studies have shown that it can suppress pro-inflammatory hormones and prevent what is known as inflammatory response cascades.
Is IF better than a regular diet and good sleep for reducing inflammation? Probably not, but there is a lot of evidence that it can be beneficial in this regard.
You can build muscle while intermittent fasting, provided that you are consuming sufficient protein and carbohydrates to allow muscle protein synthesis to occur. Nothing stops you from doing this, provided you are timing your meals and workouts correctly.
If you are trying to burn as much fat as possible, building muscle may not be likely, but this is as true of any diet as intermittent fasting. The increases in HGH and the reduction of inflammation may make it easier for natural bodybuilders to build muscle. But it is unlikely to be a significant difference from regular diets.
If you can follow intermittent fasting properly, you will find it highly effective for fat loss. Some people find the rules make IF diets more straightforward than regular calorie restriction diets, while others struggle.
Thanks to the increases in HGH and the simple rules, I’m going to say that IF is effective for fat loss, but only if you are the kind of person who can follow it properly.
Pro bodybuilders should not use intermittent fasting, as it would make training and hitting the ridiculously high-calorie targets too tricky. Without offering any real benefits. Natural bodybuilders could probably fit intermittent fasting into their lives. It’s up to them whether it is worth doing or not. If you love the concept of IF, then, by all means, give it a go. It shouldn’t affect your training much either way.
My intention in writing this article was not to convince you whether to follow an intermittent fasting diet or not. I, unlike many people, have no strong opinions on intermittent fasting. I wouldn’t personally follow it because I don’t enjoy fasting. But I have had clients in the past who enjoyed it and got better results from it than they would from a regular diet.
However, I don’t think that intermittent fasting and bodybuilding are the best mix. Bodybuilders have to eat more calories than regular people to maintain their muscle mass and fuel more intense workouts. I feel that fitting 3,000+ calories into an 8-hour eating window would be pretty challenging.
If you are a natural bodybuilder and want to give it a go, please do. As I have said, I don’t think that it will negatively impact your results. But, I think it may make your training a little more challenging.
It is no better or worse than regular dieting. But it won’t give you a competitive advantage. So follow intermittent fasting if you feel it suits your goals, but don’t expect it to transform your weightlifting abilities.
Yes, though it is, of course, a little more complicated. Ideally, you would want a high-protein snack as a post-workout. Muscle protein synthesis requires protein and carbohydrates to function optimally, and if you haven’t eaten for several hours beforehand, your body may struggle to fuel your recovery.
Yes. Protein shakes are a decent source of calories and would trigger insulin release. They would break a fast.
Yes, though, unlike protein shakes, you could probably get away with having them. BCAAs are very low calorie, but they are still a fuel source.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.