Implement these strategies within your training and make training during Ramadan easy!
During Ramadan those who are strength athletes or trying to drop fat don’t want to lose strength and size during this holy month. Understanding the science behind fasting and intermittent fasting, trainers can make large amounts of progress to their health during this period.
So if you are a first timer here, I’m a personal trainer. Cool. The gym I operate out of is located in Western Sydney and the majority of the population are from an Islamic/Muslim background. And I love it. The community here is one of the best I could be apart of and all the members are just so warm and welcoming.. Plus the food is absolutely insane like holy smokes I love Kofta!
Now as a personal trainer the quietest period of the year is Christmas. It’s known as the dark times for all trainers and gym instructors alike as everyone takes time off from training during the holiday season.
But what is unique about my gym is that we experience two quiet periods each year, Christmas and Ramadan. During my first year here I realised that there was an increase in memberships being put on hold in the lead up to Ramadan. Record numbers were leaving due to the holy month. I had to quickly consolidate and get in contact with my clients to find out who would be leaving or postponing their training.
With approximately 85% of my clientele Islamic, I began to fear that I would be out of income for the next 30 days. So I asked my clients..
Two people went on hold. Out of 31 clients at the time.
Phew – it wasn’t as bad as I feared. But then I began to wonder why? Why was it that majority of my clients decided not to cancel or put their training on hold for Ramadan but a large majority of gym members did just that?
I asked my clients and a few of the answers varied from:
- I’ll just train at night
- I’ll go gym before I break my fast
- I know I can still exercise during Ramadan
- I’ll exercise at home
I had concluded that my clients had been educated enough and understood that they could indeed still exercise during Ramadan and if done intelligently, could also help with increasing strength and dropping fat.
Now before I tell you HOW to do exactly that, it is important to gain a bit of background knowledge on Ramadan and Intermittent Fasting (what Ramadan Fasting essentially is).
What is Ramadan?
Watch the video below for a fantastic explanation of Ramadan. If you already know, keep reading.
Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the handing down of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.
It takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and lasts between 29 and 30 days, depending on the sighting of the crescent moon which governs the beginning and the end of the holy month.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is the practice of cutting out something for a period of time. Christians will fast during Lent and will often give up meat as well as something materialistic. In the fitness space, Intermittent-fasting is well known – it’s quite simply restricting your food intake to later in the day. You would eat during a small period of time known as your ‘feeding window’ – this is often 4 to 6 hours and you fast for the 16 to 18 hours. Fasting can be either a food only fast (can still drink water) or a food and water fast (no food and no water – characteristic of Ramadan).
Fasting for Ramadan simply has the individual restricting all food and water intake from sunrise to sunset.
The scientific literature on intermittent fasting is quite extensive, with the protocol heavily researched over the last 10-15 years. Intermittent fasting is a popular method for weight loss due to the restriction of food till later in the day, when they ‘break’ their fast they will often eat a large meal but at the end of the day they would have consumed less total calories and as a result lose weight. Think about it – try and eat your daily calories in one to two meals instead of three to four (without eating McDonalds).
If you’re Fasting already for Ramadan, then you pretty much would know how it feels to fast – but for those who don’t know, what can you expect to experience when you fast for the first time?
I asked my clientele as well as from my previous experiences.
- Headaches early on (24-48 hours) which can be due to low levels of blood sugar within our body. This does subside though!
- Improved alertness in the morning (generally within a day or two).
Soon after the headaches pass it is quite common to notice increased levels of concentration and alertness. This increased alertness however does wear off and can begin to feel lethargic later in the afternoon. Low levels of glucose (carbohydrates) can be attributed to this as your brain runs on the stuff.
- Decreased hunger.
Early on, hunger can spike quite high. But as you continue to fast your hunger level will drop so don’t worry!
- Decreased cardio performance.
If you’re a cardio bunny – get ready for a bit of a hit to your endurance. Both anecdotally (client experiences) and scientific literature (science shit) both state that during Fasting it sucks to do cardio and your endurance levels suck. This is no surprise to be honest as you’re not eating. And who is doing cardio whilst fasted??? If you are – I suggest you pick another method of slow torture.
- You will drop some weight.
This is definitely a case by case scenario but it’s common that during Ramadan or any prolonged Fasting period you can expect weight reduction. As mentioned earlier by delaying your eating time, it’s likely that you will consume less total calories when you do finally eat. This won’t solely be fat (like we all would hope) so expect a little muscle loss. We will go through some strategies to prevent this however.
Okay so that is a small list of things you can expect during fasting.
The biggest issue for those who train and also fast for Ramadan is:
- Losing strength and muscle
- Energy to train
Now I am well aware that Ramadan is suppose to be about sacrifice and empathy for those less fortunate. But there is a relationship between those who take a break or cease exercising during Ramadan and those who do not return after Ramadan.
I would often see gym members who have been away for months and upon asking them where they’ve been the same answer would come back to me:
“After Ramadan I got lazy”
It wasn’t Ramadan but in fact it was not exercising + low energy levels which likely caused people to not return after Ramadan.
Thankfully due to the years of research on the topic of intermittent fasting we now know how to Fast and still increase strength and drop fat. It just takes a little change and smart planning!
Alright mate tell me how!
How do I get lean and strong during Ramadan?!
Firstly we want to break it down into two sections. Each one can then be broken down into sub-sections.
- Intensity (go heavy or go light)
- Volume (lots of sets and reps or few sets and reps)
- Frequency (how many days should you train during Ramadan)
- Before you start your fast
- When you break your fast/pre-training
- After training
Training during Ramadan
Firstly, assuming your goals are either to build strength or burn fat then listen up. If they’re not, stop reading.
Ideally you’re training early in the morning before you start your fast or after you break your fast. If so then you’re okay and normal fed training applies. It is suggested that you have a small meal to break your fast (will go into specifics keep reading), go to the gym, then have a large meal after your workout. If you have ever eaten a large meal (e.g a meal with the caloric equivalent of two large Big Mac meals) and then waited 45 minutes, the last thing you feel like doing is going to the gym and doing some squats.
If you are going to train fasted – it is suggested that your training be set up so that you’re not heavily fatigued. You’re not able to drink water which is a very tricky and quite honestly, not ideal scenario when training in the gym. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Train heavy (80-85% of your estimated 1 Repetition maximum) and keep your volume lower than usual. So if you normally do 4-5 sets of Barbell Bench Press. Drop it to 2 sets. Higher volume work is quite fatiguing and will encourage you to drink water. Also higher volumes of training will deplete glucose levels faster and then you’ll be in the shit if you’ve still got 4-5 hours to go before you can eat or drink.
Intensity wise, as mentioned – training heavy responds well to fasting periods. Lower repetition training (3-4 reps) with loads hovering around 80-85% of your maximum aren’t as fatiguing as sets of 12 to 15 reps. That is not to say that lower rep work won’t be difficult but it won’t dehydrate you like higher volumes will. A research study done by Rebai and colleagues in 2014 found similar results with soccer players, where they reduced their training volume by ¼. Results found that the players were able to make small increases in strength and power during Ramadan.
How long should you exercise for if you’re going to the gym fasted?
Due to the lower repetition work, your rest periods should be longer – it’s not uncommon to rest 3-5 minutes between sets when working with 85% or greater. Resist the temptation to rush your workouts – this can increase rate of fatigue and encourage dehydration.
How many times per week should I train during Ramadan?
Two to three all body workouts should be more than enough during Ramadan for maintaining strength. It would be suggested you follow an all-body workout program during this period. Every workout you would perform 2 or 3 heavy compound movements such as;
- bench press,
- back/front squat
- overhead press
- bent over rows
- pulls up
- weighted dips
Followed by an optional 1 or 2 accessory exercises such as bicep curls, tricep pushdowns or side raises.
And that’s it.
You might be thinking – Chris that’s so little work?!?!
Yup – if you’re training in a fasted state. This is what I would suggest in order to maintain strength and prevent as much muscle loss as possible. The big influencing factor on this would be nutrition.
So let us look into how and what to eat during Ramadan.
What to eat during Ramadan (to get lean and strong).
Upon starting your fast it’s suggested that your pre-dawn meal be your largest. Go high on complex carbohydrates such as rice, wholemeal bread and grains, oats, bran, lentils and other legumes. Plenty of vegetables and a good quantity of lean protein.
Avoid fried foods and heavily salted food for your pre-dawn meal. Fried and salty food can accelerate rates of dehydration and make you feel sluggish (aka you’ll be feeling like crap). So more fresh and whole foods is the way to go.
Upon breaking your fast you’ll have your small meal; 2-3 dates, water and a bowl of soup. After this a source of quickly digestible protein would be ideal; a whey protein powder would be good here. A couple hours later when you have your main meal, we want to be smart here. It’s not uncommon to have large quantities of food for this meal, with borderline binge eating qualities. Aim for lean protein sources such as chicken, fish, lean beef or legumes, beans and lentils if you’re vegan. Fill up on unlimited amounts of non-starchy vegetables, more colour the better! Healthy fats such as coconut butter, olive oil, avocado and fish oils should be incorporated into your meals to assist in satiety and hormone regulation (your body goes through some hormonal responses to fasting).
If you decide that you want to go gym at night, it is suggested that you go after your small meal. In this case I would have a couple more dates as well as the protein shake. You could also invest in a carbohydrate supplement like maltodextrose to help replenish muscle glycogen lost throughout the day and give you the energy for your workout.
Wait 30 minutes or so and you are good to go for your workout. Be sure to keep your fluids up quite high during and after your workout. Aiming for two to three litres of water across the day would be a pretty solid. Even during the winter months when you may not feel thirsty, it is suggested you still chug the water down. So if you are from Australia, specifically the east coast (at the time of writing this it is 6 degrees Celsius) stay hydrated!
Example Meal Plan
1 Cup Oats
½ Cup mixed berries
½ small banana
100g greek yoghurt
20g Whey Protein Powder
Handful of unroasted Almonds
Multivitamin + Fish Oil
4 Glasses of Water
Break Fast/Small Meal
2-3 Dates (more if going gym)
2-4 Glasses of Water
Bowl of Soup
20g Whey Protein Powder
If going gym add in:
2 x Toast
10g of Peanut Butter or Jam
200g of lean protein source (chicken, fish, beef)
1-2 medium sweet potatoes
Unlimited green vegetables such as spinach, celery, lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, asparagus
Handful of unroasted Almonds
100g Greek Yoghurt
½ cup of mixed berries
1 serving dark chocolate
2 glasses of water
20g Casein Protein Powder
2 glasses of water
Now this is simply a list of supplements that may assist in meeting nutritional needs during Ramadan and helping you maintain muscle mass during this period.
- Whey Protein Isolate. Will assist in meeting protein needs and minimising muscle loss.
- Omega 3 Fish Oil (aim for a high EPA/DHA count – 1500-2000mg)
- Casein Protein. A slow release protein powder that would be ideal to consume prior to sleeping to further increase total protein consumption.
So to wrap up this article, I want to say that whilst I am not fasting for Ramadan myself (I am Christian) I undoubtedly understand that Ramadan is a holy month. Now whilst getting shredded or super strong won’t be the priority during this period, I do encourage all to ensure exercise continues throughout. In any capacity. Reason being is that in my experience those who make the small changes to continue to exercise throughout Ramadan will remain consistent long after. This ultimately will lead to success within their health and fitness, so everyone wins. I hope this has been insightful for you and you now have a little more understanding on how to exercise effectively throughout the month of Ramadan. Please share this with someone you know who could benefit from this!
Have a strong, fit and safe month of Ramadan,
Tian, H.-H., Aziz, A.-R., Png, W., Wahid, M. F., Yeo, D., & Constance Png, A.-L. (2011). Effects of Fasting During Ramadan Month on Cognitive Function in Muslim Athletes. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(3), 145–153.
Rebaï H, Chtourou H, Zarrouk N, Harzallah A, Kanoun I, Dogui M, Souissi N, Tabka Z. Reducing resistance training volume during Ramadan improves muscle
strength and power in football players. Int J Sports Med. 2014 May;35(5):432-7.
doi: 10.1055/s-0033-1353216. Epub 2013 Sep 18. PubMed PMID: 24048913
Mirzaei, B., Rahmani-Nia, F., Moghadam, M. G., Ziyaolhagh, S. J., & Rezaei, A. (2012). The Effect of Ramadan Fasting on Biochemical and Performance Parameters in Collegiate Wrestlers. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, 15(6), 1215–1220.
Aly, S. M. (2014). Role of Intermittent Fasting on Improving Health and Reducing Diseases. International Journal of Health Sciences, 8(3), V–VI.