Does the world need another diet book or fitness routine? Check the news and you see obesity levels rising globally, ever more new and weird diets, and a lot of people wanting to improve their health but failing, lacking the tools, gumption, or know-how to do it.
Think about this: we have two popular diets right now that are both, on the face, downright extreme. One is based on eating big ribeye steaks every day with no fruits or vegetables (The Carnivore Diet). Another is based on eating fat and little fruits, veggies, and a little protein to maintain a constant state of ketosis (The Keto Diet).
This isn’t diet innovation, it’s flail. And with flail comes failure. So while we may not need another “new” diet, we do need a method in the madness. A method that works.
Today, August 16, 2018, after nearly a decade of waiting, Martin Berkhan has put to words a system—a method—backed by research, practiced successfully by thousands, and “perfected.” It’s called The Leangains Method: The Art of Getting Ripped ($10, Amazon Affiliate Link).
For the unfamiliar, Berkhan is the Polish-German Swede who originated 16:8 intermittent fasting over ten years ago. He’s deadlifted 700+ lb. (315+ kg) at over 3.5X his bodyweight and is, well, shredded. It’s ridiculous how lean and strong the guy is.
I’ve followed Martin via Leangains.com for years and have come to know him better than most—I even get a shout in the Acknowledgements to the book. Aside from him (now) being a friend, Martin has been my coach and teacher, often in ways that I’m not sure he realizes. Martin’s greatest strength isn’t his deadlift, it’s his focus and no-bullshit attitude. Through it, he’s acquired clarity of mind on how to be strong and lean—and then shared that clarity with us.
Before and after photos may be cheesy, and, well, when they are yours, they make you squirm. A lot. But publishing them is proof: The Leangains Method works. It worked for me first when it was in it’s infancy almost a decade back—after trying and failing at low-carb, Paleo, CrossFit, and more.
The Leangains Method still works for me to this day.
If you’re interested in The Leangains Method and want to know more, well, read on.
Navigate this review:
- TL;DR: The Leangains Method Works
- Proof: Before and After The Leangains Method
- What’s in The Leangains Method?
- Conclusion (Get the Book)
- Leangains vs. Other Diets
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) of a Long-Term Leangains-er
TL;DR? Leangains Method Works
At a few thousand words, this book review of The Leangains Method is definitive. And while no TL:DR; could do this book justice, if you read just one thing, make it this:
The Leangains Method is a diet and fitness system you can put into practice for life in order to accomplish your fat loss goals while maintaining if not increasing strength.
“Researched. Practiced. Perfected.” It’s the book’s byline and it fits. The Leangains Method gives you proven, actionable information based on what has worked for the long-haul.
With Berkhan’s Method as your guide, your hard work can finally pay returns in excess of the hard work you put in.
Now let’s get into the details.
Proof: Before & After The Leangains Method
Who am I to tell you the Leangains Method works? Well, a diet review is only worth it’s weight loss with “before and after” photos—skin in the game. That’s why, despite significant feelings of abashment, after my book review you’ll find an exhaustive set of before and after photos, including before and after shots having dieted and/or losing weight through chronic cardio in the “fat burning zone,” intermittent fasting (24-30 hour fasts) and paleo, and CrossFit / HIIT.
I’ll provide more of these before/after comparison shots in the addendum to this review. For now, let’s get straight to before and after The Leangains Method:
On the left is me, mid-April, at 193 lbs. On the right, me as of yesterday at 173.8 lbs. What’s that look like on paper?
This is my daily weight loss chart over the last 20 weeks. I started dieting according to Leangains right after Spring break. Every sideways move represents some summertime plateau: two week-long vacations, one long weekend vacation, and a handful of detours including Mother’s Day weekend, Father’s Day weekend, and the 4th of July.
Did I mention I’m 37 and have 3 kids? Life happens—some things are more important than your diet, but even still, when you want to go “off diet,” you can be smart about it. And for that,The Leangains Method has some advice for damage control, too.
Estimating I “lost” 3 weeks of progress due to summer vacations and holidays, my weekly weight loss averaged out to 1.3 lbs./week. 💥
The proof is in the protein pudding:
The Leangains Method works.
So What’s in The Leangains Method?
The Leangains Method is a comprehensive body recomposition system for fat loss and muscle and strength preservation, if not gains that includes:
- The science and research behind the system,
- The diet strategies to apply the science,
- The calculations to customize your diet plan (calories, macros, food choices),
- The way to track weight loss progress,
- The workouts/weight-lifting routines,
- The recipes and meal plans,
Plus Martin’s personal story—a page-turning, autobiographical recount of Martin’s personal path to mastery and a good number of supplementary materials—mostly what you might call “best of” Leangains.com. These are useful to have handy but, really, only great if you haven’t read it before. I’ll go into detail on these book components throughout this review, and again, you can navigate around via the handy menu.
What else? In addition to a diet and strength training program, The Leangains Method is a raw look at the fitness industry as well as a walk on the path toward mastery, as learned “The Hard Way” by Berkhan over years of research.
We readers get to live vicariously through Berkhan, experiencing his struggles, revelations, and ultimately, his insights. We feast on Berkhan’s signature writing style through an account of how 16:8 fasting and Leangains was born while learning applications for nutrition and diet research.
The book is not without moments of tragedy. Berkhan doesn’t put a pretty bow on the realities of weight loss and strength conditioning—not by a long shot. Remember: this is the guy who wrote the must-read article Fuckarounditis. Thankfully, the book doesn’t rely on anecdotes, just-so stories, or appeals to intuition. You’ll find no legerdemain. It’s not in Martin’s blood. Which is a perfect segue into talking about the scientific research of The Leangains Method.
What is The Leangains Method not?
The Leangains Method is not an anecdotal, one-trick diet approach nor is it “do 16:8 fasting,” surprisingly enough (Though read the follow-up on getting started with 16:8 intermittent fasting on Leangains). It’s not yet another hack on insulin. And it’s definitely not a ketogenic diet. Finally and thankfully, it’s not just what you’ll get on Leangains.com though long-time readers will see some supplementary materials that are old favorites.
Actually, this section of the book is the one thing I’d probably change about it—kick out the stuff that’s on the website. But it’s there if you need it. 🤷♂️
Science | The Leangains Method
Berkhan’s determination when it comes to searching for answers is the reason Leangains exists. Instead of accepting the prevailing “wisdom”—that is, the popular dogmas, “bro science,” and diet mythologies—of the diet and fitness community, Berkhan devoured the scientific papers and abstracts to synthesize a systemic approach to diet and fat loss. That’s what you get in the science of The Leangains Method.
The scientific references in the The Leangains Method all but littering the footnotes. Martin went to school for public health and made the consumption of research papers and abstracts a hobby that fueled his evolving understanding and application of nutrition for optimizing fat loss while preserving muscle mass.
The Leangains Method shares what Martin learned. Discerning readers and armchair nutritionists, alike, will lean in when Berkhan explains why a calorie is not a calorie—not via the same tired argument about insulin—and why not all food is created equal.
Berkhan accomplishes this by distilling research around thermogenesis explaining concepts like DIT—which stands for diet-induced thermogenesis—as well as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Yes, you can expect The Leangains Method to throw some terminology your way. These concepts are critical puzzle pieces in understanding the “processing fee” that comes with consuming food for energy. There’s always a cost associated with our body’s ability to extract energy from our food. Understanding that cost, how it varies by macros and foods, can be used to your advantage in your diet—and it makes up for a critical part of the diet strategies in The Leangains Method.
Beyond discussion around thermogenesis, The Leangains Method makes recommendations around meal-timing and talks about the “magic bullet” of intermittent fasting. To veterans, The Leangains Method‘s discussion of intermittent fasting will be especially surprising: Martin reveals how he went through over 300 recent research studies regarding intermittent fasting, paying close attention to the findings and benefits. What did he learn? For that surprising insight, you’ll have to read the book.
Having read the science in the book, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. Why has our understanding of calories not improved over the years? Why is our understanding of the thermic effect of food so underreported?
Perhaps The Leangains Method will snowball awareness, leading to clarity when it comes to calories and nutrition. Looking around at my fellow Americans—and skyrocketing obesity around the world—we all need it.
Diet Plan and Setup | The Leangains Method
When it comes to the diet plan, at the core, The Leangains Method is a system that combines caloric intake/restriction (Yes, counting calories is important), macronutrient composition, and food choices.
Aside (rant) on calorie counting and CICO
These days, counting calories has never been easier. There are lots of apps that make food entry simple (I’ve used Fat Secret on Android for years). I’ll save a rant about calories-in-calories-out (CICO) for another day, but suffice to say that caloric restriction is a critical part of weight loss (or weight gain), regardless of whatever some diet guru is trying to sell you. Is it the end-all, be-all? No. Is it massively important to body composition, both literally and figuratively? Yes!
While you might bemoan the idea of counting calories and (sometimes) measuring out your portions as extreme, we live in “extremistan.” Think about how many other “extreme” diets exist today—e.g. not eating anything but meat. Or limiting your macros to almost entirely fat.
You may find all of these things extreme, but counting calories? Let’s assess it realistically. We live in an age of abundance, particularly when it comes to food. We are hardwired from millions of years to take advantage of available energy sources and store away for times of scarcity. Artificially controlling the abundance by counting is a simple tactic to help control our nature. It’s not that CICO is the end-all, be-all: but it is a powerful means to the end in mind: shifting energy needs away from diet to stored energy in our bodies.
And you ignore that means at your own peril. Remember: Human beings are complex systems, and when it comes to diets, complex systems require multi-dimensional processes—or methods—to manage. CICO is a powerful weapon in your arsenal. Take advantage of it. Or at least, give it a fair shot before becoming a ditto head about not wanting to be “extreme” as you limit your food to only meat or only fat in order to fit your preferred narrative.
The caloric intake in The Leangains Method (Chapter 6, Crunching the Numbers) is a simple, client-tested calculation you run in order to construct your custom diet plan. The calculation is based on your sex and weight (in kilograms) and applies a handful of modifiers. I can’t give you the math, but here’s the basic setup:
1. Calculate your base metabolism:
Start by calculating the calories you’d require to stay weight stable using process outlined in The Leangains Method. This requires taking a base multiplier that Martin gives you and then modifying it for height (only if you’re particularly short or tall), muscle mass (only if you’re a very muscular guy—I’m borderline), and activity level (e.g. how much walking you do in a day).
If you’re already weight stable and already count calories, you might already have a good sense for this number. Regardless, start with the calculation.
2. Calculate your daily caloric limit based on the diet:
Once you have your number (E.g. mine is 2,250 calories/day), you’ll then subtract a daily amount—your caloric restriction—to get your adjusted, diet intake (e.g. mine is 1,750). This restriction in calories will, by itself, drive a 3,500 calorie/week deficit, which should net out to about a lb. of weight loss per week. Of course, you’ll amplify this weight loss thanks to the high protein aspect of The Leangains Method diet—the “wasted” energy of processing protein for fuel.
Note: How much you subtract is only impacted by your sex (male or female). Women have a tougher go on diets not only because they have lower caloric needs and can “cut” fewer calories in total, but their bodies seem to fight against weight loss. This makes biological sense given their role in reproduction.
3. Figure out your macronutrients:
From there, you’ll determine your macronutrients. You apply Martin’s recommended protein intake, which is much, much higher than you’re likely used to (and for very good reason). This drives your macronutrient composition—and protein is the critical driver here. This is because in order to consume the amount of protein you’ll require, you’ll have to make smart protein choices. That is, you’ll want to focus on lean sources of whole protein (e.g. lean cuts of meat). Otherwise, you’ll blow your total caloric intake due to tagalong fat. Protein is king.
Here’s a look at a handful of screenshots from counting calories via the FatSecret app on Android:
When it comes to food choices, Martin explains how it’s less about knowing precisely what foods to eat and more about knowing how different foods have different effects on thermogenesis (and satiation). You can use this knowledge as a powerful tool in your diet and re-learn how to eat so as to take advantage of how food choices impact you physiology.
Don’t Lose Focus on the Big Picture | Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good
Success (or failure) on The Leangains Method will depend on average compliance and overall adherence to the diet and training protocol. Having tracked calories for a long, long time, I recommend using an app like Google Keep (or Evernote) and tracking your average daily deficit and looking at your weekly total one day per week—say on Sunday. If you’re at all like me, life happens often on the weekends and while it’s always been relatively easy for me to run the diet on a weekday, it can be harder to hit complete compliance on the weekends. Alcohol, in my experience, doesn’t play nice with hunger or will power—but Leangains doesn’t require you to become a teetotaler.
It’s easy to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and one of the easiest diet pitfalls is to ride the slippery slope of blowing your deficit a little and then suddenly saying, “Screw it!” And next thing you know, you’re feasting in the pantry. Don’t do this. However, if you do, count the calories to the best of your ability. Then, add it into your weekly deficit totals. What I think you’ll find is that while you might have done some damage, all is not lost. Part of succeeding on a diet is having compassion for ourselves but staying committed. You will have setbacks. You will make mistakes. Your will power will fail. But failure one day does not require failure the next. Tracking your intake across a week can bring you much-needed piece of mind that you are, in fact, still committed and working toward your goal.
Tracking Progress | The Leangains Method
Here, again, Berkhan gives you a way to measure your progress that works. In short, you take daily measurements of your weight, average them on a rolling basis, and compare the averages week over week. Assuming you’re adhering to the program, your progress will look a little up and down day to day. Be sure you understand the connection between water retention and glycogen while dieting (what drives “water weight” swings on the scale). Regardless of the blips, on a rolling seven-day average basis, the trend line will move the right direction (down).
Let’s take a closer look at my daily weight and rolling seven day average over the last 4 months:
While stalling is something everyone faces on a diet, here, too, The Leangains Method helps provide you a light in the darkness, explaining what to do, if anything, when you hit a stall.
Knowing how to measure your success—apart from looking in the mirror—going into the diet is reassuring and build confidence that you’re on the right track.
Workouts & Training Routines | The Leangains Method
I am not a big fan of cardio—not because I don’t like activities that happen to be cardiovascular (E.g. biking, sports)—but because I don’t love them enough to figure out a way to fit the large amounts of time they require into my life.
Thankfully, if you’re like me, and you want to look and feel strong while also being lean in as maximally efficient way as possible, The Leangains Method is for you. Berkhan’s workout protocol is simple and devastatingly effective. It orients around training 3x/week focusing on compound, heavy lifts with lots of rest in between sets. That is, The Leangains Method workouts are about dead lifts, squats, rows, chin-ups (ideally weighted once you’re strong enough), bench presses, and overhead presses.
No cardio. No HIIT. No!
Like the lean cuts of meat you’ll be eating, the fat has been trimmed from your workouts so that you get what works.
If you’re new to deadlifts, squats, and presses, that’s okay. Aside from bench press and having even done some weight lifting at various times in the past, most of the lifts recommended in Leangains were new to me—even though they are some of the oldest lifts around.
You can learn them. You should learn them.
Here, again, the approach in The Leangains Method is based on research. The weight lifting movements recommended activate the largest amount of muscle mass, which is critical for growing muscle and preserving it. Not to mention we’re talking about the most fundamental weight lifting movements of all time. Quit flipping tires and stop doing random ad hoc workouts designed to make you feel like crap. Unless pushing yourself to the physical limit is your thing (and hey, for many, it is). If you want to maximize your strength, get maximal results by lifting heavy in dead lifts, squats, rows, and presses. ‘Nuff said.
Berkhan also explains how to set up reverse pyramid training, which is the approach he recommends for maximizing your results. Martin has done a public service by explaining reverse pyramid training (RPT) on his website.
Can you do The Leangains Method without weight lifting? No. Training is not optional on this diet. Are olympic-style lifts required to get the most out of the diet? Yes. Does that mean that if you can’t do dead lifts, squats, presses, etc., you’re out-of-luck? Probably not. More on this in the FAQ.
Diet Strategies — The Thermogenic 7 | The Leangains Method
In Chapter 5 of The Leangains Method you’re introduced to the Thermogenic 7, which are specific diet strategies to help you succeed.
The biggest, and by far most important strategy is protein intake. You’re going to need a lot of protein—much more than you’re accustomed to—to execute The Leangains Method successfully, and probably the steepest learning curve will be to figure out how to get your protein prioritizing whole foods over protein powders or bars—all while still staying within your allotted daily caloric intake. Meaty salads might be your best friend on Leangains, but there are many other options. Like any worthwhile pursuit, you have to learn, it takes work, and it takes practice.
Others include recommendations around caffeine, vegetables, junk food, meal timing, and strategies for damage control regarding alcohol, which should be paid special attention. They all matter to varying degrees and will help provide ways to ensure your success.
What I’ve observed after years of experience applying some of the “Thermogenic 7:” coffee should be a key “supplement” in your daily regiment. And learn to love it black: it’s just easier! Your brain will adapt to the taste in time. Berkhan provides a fairly intense—probably too intense for many—caffeine regiment in LGM because of the boost in metabolism you get from caffeine, which apparently is a linear That means a higher dose will result in a greater metabolism boost. Because even coffee lovers will “burn out” on the taste after a couple large cups, you might need to turn to alternative sources of caffeine. 100mg pills are an option that are less scary in practice than on paper. Confession: I’ve come to like Monster Zero (140mg caffeine) and Rockstar Zero (240mg caffeine).
Important note on caffeine: your tolerance for caffeine is pretty important! Based on my genetics, I’m a “fast caffeine metabolizer,” which basically means I can drink a cup of coffee and go to sleep.
Junk food. IIFYM can rapidly lead you astray and its recommended you stick to whole foods whenever and wherever possible. This kinda goes without saying, but while I enjoyed things like Quest bars while I was trying to gain weight (prior to cutting on Leangains Method), I completely stopped eating them while on The Method. There are just better, more nutritionally dense food options out there.
As for greens, which help satiation in addition to having a TEF windfall, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and green beans all make for great sides. Baby carrots also work. There are many ways to make these vegetables more enjoyable, even if you just eat them raw. Additionally, leafy greens and big salads give you a lot of chew work without the caloric load.
Regarding alcohol, all I can say is that Martin’s advice in “Damage Control” is spot on. If you intend to party, make smarter choices when it comes to alcohol, don’t binge when your will power has collapsed due to a buzz, and really, learn to exert some restraint.
What to eat? Meal Plans & Recipes | The Leangains Method
The 9th and 10th chapters of The Leangains Method are about recipes and meal plans, respectively. You’ll find a recipe for “protein fluff,” which is awe-inspiring if you’ve never made any before.
There are also a few other meals that are easy to throw together. The meal plans just show how different food combinations come together to achieve your total caloric intake and macronutrient goals.
The most useful section, for me, in Chapters 9 & 10 were the 10 Quick Food Tips. I’m always looking for different tips when it comes to making food work toward your goals. If you’ve never heard of or made “protein fluff,” Martin shares a recipe—I’ve yet to try it as I’ve made lots of fluff in the past and while I enjoy it, I got lazy about making it. Plus, I’ve come up with other really tasty, high protein and berries options for my late night, before bedtime, macro-reaching snack-tivities.
I’ve done high-protein so long that I forget it’s really hard to learn how to eat a ton of protein without tagalong fat. This may be one of the biggest “gaps” in the book. Then again, the foods that would work in Sweden don’t always translate over to the United States.
Because I’ve been a Leangains-er for years now, which is to say that I’ve got a lot of experience around how to eat more protein while being mindful of calories. For that reason, I am considering doing some follow-up writing to this review that share some ideas that might help you. If this is of interest, follow me on Twitter (@justinowings) or comment on this post to let me know.
Martin’s Personal Story & Motivation | The Leangains Method
Woven throughout The Leangains Method, but especially in Chapter 2, “The Hard Way,” Berkhan shares his personal journey from the time he was a fat teenager to his adventures in European modeling to going deep on nutrition at school. It all leads to the emergence of Leangains, but it also includes his disappearance in the early 2010s and reemergence to finally complete his life’s work (to date)—that is, this book.
I’ve known Martin for years but it was only in recent history that he went from being a coach to a friend. And while I’m honored to call him a friend (and still a coach), I didn’t know nearly as much of his personal story until I read this book.
And it’s a fascinating to read. Both informative about his life and motivating to read his struggles. For anyone who has encountered Martin, you know he can be pretty rough around the edges. He is not one to soften advice or soften anything. Both the sharp edges of his physique and his record-setting strength are figuratively represented in his personality.
But in the book, you do see a softer side of him—reading between the lines. This Man of Steel has made his share of mistakes, but he’s also done his best to learn from them.
Reading those mistakes is motivating because it reminds you, the reader, that you’re going to hit significant speed bumps, potholes, and detours on the road to achieving your goals, whatever they may be. The key is to learn from these experiences—”The Hard Way”—and keep going. Be dogged in your pursuit. As Martin shares in the same-named chapter:
I lost years, relationships, and opportunities thanks to diet fallacies and mundane rituals that came with the territory. When I finally uncovered the truth, I lost nearly as much by spreading the word and beating myself up over the people who plagiarized my work.
But for everything lost, I find some consolation in the paradox of adversity. On one hand, adversity is best avoided and never invited. Who wants to expose themselves to unpleasant and difficult moments? No one. How about a show of hands for seven years of yo-yo dieting? No hands.
Whether we like it or not, adversities make it into our lives anyway. They come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from inconvenience to trouble, chaos, and mayhem. Each of them unique, but everyone’s a pain in the ass.
That’s the damn truth. And it’s great motivation.
So is Martin’s affinity and complete lack of control with regard to cheesecake.
I first started studying IF and Leangains back in 2010 and have lost hundreds of hours reading articles, blogs, and books on nutrition and fitness. I even know Martin personally and have read Leangains.com for years.
It wasn’t until reading The Leangains Method that things fully and finally clicked for me. You can skip all that effort for $10 and some time and maybe you don’t have to learn the hard way—like Martin. Or me. Take The Leangains Method, study it, put it into practice, and persevere toward achieving a physique you never thought possible.
Armed with tried and tested knowledge, perhaps together we can not only turn the tide on the world’s growing waistline, we can look good and be strong while doing it.
It’ll take discipline, but as Jocko Willink says, “Get after it:”
“But Wait!” There’s Even More “After”—and “Before” 👇
I’ve gotten so much from Martin having practiced Leangains for nearly a decade—and most recently successfully executing a Leangains “bulk” that was followed up by my near 20 lb drop from applying The Method. Prior to “seeing the light” and executing Leangains, I had tried and failed doing everything from Body for Life to paleo, much of which I’ve chronicled below, including various “before and after” shots, much to my embarrassment. Maybe I can save you from making the same mistakes as me.
As should be obvious, I’m sharing lots of opinions and perspectives based on experience—yes, anecdotal. So don’t take it as medical advice, science, or fact. I don’t take it that way and you shouldn’t either.
If you have questions, please comment below or hit me up on twitter @justinowings.
Leangains vs. Other Diets
Leangains vs. Cardio (Running, Cycling/Spinning, Rowing, etc.)
Back when I was much younger (2005) and engaged to be married, I realized I needed to lose some weight so I could look presentable for my wedding and wedding photos. I had free access to the gym at my apartment complex, which included a handful of very basic machines and as many, if not more, stationary bikes and treadmills.
Running just wasn’t for me. I got knee pain about a quarter mile into any run. Seems I just never learned how to run with low impact. Plus, my footwear at the time wasn’t doing me any favors (This was 3-4 years before the advent of minimalist footwear and the rise in popularity of barefoot running).
Despite some history of basic, bro-informed weight training in high school and college, I didn’t bother even with the machines, choosing instead to wear a heart rate monitor and do stationary bike for 45 minutes to an hour or even an hour-and-a-half, 5 times a week, all in the “fat burning zone” for my heart rate.
Over the course of almost five months, I must have spent some 80 hours sweating my brains out with a heart rate of 170-180 bpm, dripping all over this apartment gym floor, and getting a reputation as “that crazy guy on the stationary bike.” Thank God my wife still married me.
And hey, I did lose the weight. Only thing was that at the end, I just looked like a skinnier version of the fat me. That is, I was skinny fat. I was pleased—and blissfully ignorant to how much effort I’d wasted.
💪 Leangains Advantage vs. Chronic Cardio (Running, Spinning/Cycling, Rowing, etc.)
I’ll never forget when I got to take a tour of a gross anatomy classroom. I was 13 and it smelled so bad. The professor took my dad, brother, and me around the formaldehyde soaked and dissected human bodies. It was a gruesome experience.
While I have a few memories of this experience, one stands out. It was when the doctor lifted out the heart from the chest cavity of a cadaver. It was enormous—much larger than normal. What was going on? “This one must have been a runner.”
I don’t know if he was or not, but from what I’ve observed, most folks who do loads of cardio with no weight training either end up skinny, skinny fat, or just not very strong. There are definitely exceptions. Probably most of them are runners who lift weights.
Without putting my finger on it, research suggests that cardio is a terrible way to lose weight because our appetites rise to the occasion, increasing hunger, and offsetting (sometimes more than offsetting) whatever calories we burned through cardio.
Which, by the way, won’t be all that much. I’m highly skeptical of any cycling machine’s caloric burn calculations. A thousand calories in an hour?
I just don’t buy it.
I forget where I read this, but there’s some research suggesting you burn about one calorie per kilogram bodyweight per mile traveled regardless of whether your run or walk. Run 4 miles? For me at about 79kg (174 lbs.) that would take me 40 minutes (cuz I’m slow) and burn less than 320 calories: a big bagel with a tiny dab of cream cheese.
Show me the research otherwise.
“Abs are made in the kitchen.” While not strictly true, this expression is one you should ingrain on your brain. It’s so, so easy to out-eat your hard work in the gym, on the track, or on the bike. This is probably why in The Leangains Method the modifier for activity level is tiny.
Get off the hamster wheel and work hard where it counts. The Leangains Method is your guide. Zero in on your diet. Work hard on lifting weights for a few sets, three days a week (as prescribed in the book). That 30 seconds per set of compound movements will have your heart racing, giving you that cardiovascular health, and you’ll get results.
Leangains vs. Paleo/Low-Carb and Intermittent Fasting
Fast forward 3 years. While today you could write a book defining what “Paleo” and “low-carb” mean, “paleo” in 2008 was primarily about avoiding grains and processed foods. Paleo meant no sugary, “modern” fruits like apples and bananas (Sticking to berries). Also, dairy was a “no-no.”
For my varietal of Paleo, I glommed together ideas from folks like Richard Nikoley, Art De Vany, Mark Sisson, Stephen Guyenet, Peter/Hyperlipid, and Erwan LeCorre, among others I’m assuredly forgetting.
I read Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. I had previously read up on and failed at Atkins some 5 years prior, so the low-carb angle of Paleo was also top of mind. I also picked up Michael Eades Protein Power for good measure^.
Do all the things!
Though I haven’t practiced Paleo in years, this was a pivotal time for me. It’s when I learned about intermittent fasting from Martin via Leangains. I also read through Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat for good measure and enjoyed anything I could get my hands on by Art Devany.
Paleo and IF seemed highly related given humans—nay, most living things—evolved during periods of high variability in food availability. As was presented, research supported fasting as being just fine for humans if not potentially good. We are clearly biologically wired to accommodate not eating for awhile.
Anyway, I wrote about Better Health via Intermittent Fasting and a Low-Carb Diet in May 2008 which is the best snapshot I can offer for covering my thinking at the time. The short of it: I’d fast for around 30 hours# about 2.5 times/month. When I ate, I ate low-carb and what I saw as Paleo.
Here’s where I ended up:
I lost 15 pounds. A pretty amazing, satisfying body composition change. Granting that some of that weight was water weight, I probably lost about 2 lbs/week and went from fat to markedly skinnier.
Fasting so often wasn’t something that I wanted to do in perpetuity, and CrossFit had just caught my eye as a way to channel my workout efforts. Next thing I knew, I found the sole CrossFit gym in my area and began doing CrossFit and Paleo/IF together.
Overall, while Paleo and IF made for a sensible combination of diet approaches, there was no rigor to the approach. What’s more, Paleo could mean just about anything you wanted. It was an interesting strategy that wasn’t without merit but also quickly stalled out on me for my diet goals. I wanted to be strong and lean and eating more whole foods in between periodic long fasts just wasn’t going to get me there, no matter how hard I tried.
Read the follow-up post to this review on Getting Started with 16:8 Intermittent Fasting on the Leangains Method Diet.
💪 Leangains Advantage vs. Paleo+Intermittent Fasting
Leangains is a fully baked approach. Importantly, it requires you pay attention to your caloric intake. It makes you track your progress and can course-correct if you start stalling. It has a weight-lifting routine to measure your strength. Applying Paleo and IF without rigor will only get you so far. And while “so far” could mean “a long way” for many who are grossly overweight, if and when Paleo stops working, what are you going to do? The tried and tested tool—the Paleo narrative—won’t help you progress further by understanding it better.
You’ll need a system. So when that time hits, try Leangains. Or just cut out the middleman and begin The Leangains Method right from the start.
# Eat breakfast and lunch before beginning a fast and then eat nothing until a Paleo-minded dinner the following day, usually after some sort of workout.
^ Eades’ has always been an influence as I appreciate his thoughtful perspective—and great book recommendations—I can’t say I ever adopted or applied learnings from Protein Power.
Leangains vs. CrossFit (or HIIT) + Paleo + Intermittent Fasting
What about CrossFit? I see much merit to CrossFit from a community standpoint. It’s great to go hard on a workout with peers. The competition can be encouraging and fun. There are also some serious physical feats that you’ll encounter doing the WOD.
But CrossFit while intermittently fasted is a bad idea. I recollect doing more than a few CrossFit workouts fasted. If you’ve never tried this, don’t. It’s just as dumb as it sounds.
As someone who hadn’t trained much going into CrossFit—and having recently lost a good bit of fat from applying paleo and intermittent fasting—I did get some strength gains on CrossFit. I don’t know how my weight changed but here was the before and after:
While my foray into CrossFit stopped after about 3 or 4 months, I continued doing CrossFit-inspired workouts at home, mostly with pull-ups, a couple 53 lb. kettlebells, and whatever else I could manage.
And stalled for about two years. I tried adding workouts and doing longer fasts. But the only place I got fast was nowhere. Flailing ain’t fun.
It was after this long period that I finally did what I should have done in the beginning: reached out directly to Martin for his coaching advice and customized Leangains plan. I had a goal: to get lean by the time I turned 30 and had about 5 months to do it. Martin said, “No problem, plenty of time.” Just how fast I accepted his plan and executed it is a story for another day, but when I finally did execute, everything clicked:
After a few years of effort, I finally succeeded—thanks to Martin and Leangains. From the photo on the right, I just kept on with the workout program. There were ebbs and flows in my weight as my eating habits didn’t always favor being super lean, but by and large, I stayed lean and very, very slowly gained muscle mass and strength. Why so slow? Because I was “maintaining.” (More on “maintenance” in the FAQ.)
Regardless, here’s where I was three years later—a couple pounds larger, still lean and mean, and a hair stronger:
Leangains worked for me back in 2011 just kept working. Fast forward from May 2014 to August 2018 (as seen above in my headline before/after) and I’m just as lean as I was in 2014 but 10 lbs. heavier. How did I add all that lean mass? Leangains, of course! Via Martin’s mass gains coaching.
But that’s a story for another day.
💪 Leangains Advantage vs. Paleo+Intermittent Fasting+CrossFit/HIIT
Again, Leangains is a system that takes into consideration the entire picture. It’s been set up from the start to optimize for results: losing fat and maintaining or even gaining strength.
You will change your body through high-intensity interval training (or CrossFit) as it adapts to the stress. But it’s so, so easy to conflate working hard with working effectively. Dieting is hard. Exercise is hard. HIIT like CrossFit or P90X is exceedingly hard. It’s so damn easy to make the mental leap that your incredibly hard efforts doing WODs and pushing your body to the physical limit will show up on the bottom line via a better body. And it very well might.
But it also very well might not. And the lack of rigor to this approach means achieving your goal is going to take longer than it needs to, and at a greater cost to your time and sanity.
Leangains vs. Low-Carb/Keto
Low-carb’ers gonna low-carb. Having been one, myself, I remember clearly the bias against carbs trickling into everything. Leangains is not low-carb.
Case in point, here’s a snapshot of my macronutrient breakdown from last week.
The grey block represents my carb intake and is conveniently averaged at 28% per day over the course of the week. For me, that amounts to anywhere from 115g to 150g (or sometimes higher, I don’t worry about it) carbohydrates per day. Last week was a typical week while on The Leangains Method. Carbs are important on The Leangains Method because they help refuel your muscle glycogen as it’s sapped from lifting very heavy things.
(While you’re here, note the average protein intake is 59% per day.)
If anything, you might argue Leangains is low-fat. But it’s not low-fat by design. Rather, it’s more a consequence of consuming so much protein from whole foods (primarily meat and dairy) that must necessarily be lean protein sources. However, even the leanest cuts of meat have fat.
Some of my go-to non-protein foods are Greek yogurt, strawberries, blueberries, and of course, vegetables.
That means that probably half of my carb intake comes in the form of sugar and maybe a quarter are fiber.
Other sugar sources? Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt have some tagalong carbs that are almost entirely sugar.
How is it possible to lose fat without tyrannically paying attention to carbs and insulin? Tell me why insulin must be the tyrant for weight loss. Yes, insulin is a powerful hormone and if you’ve got some metabolic problems (obese, pre-diabetic, diabetic, other things), which you may well have, controlling for insulin might make sense to fix yourself—for a time. Once you’ve gotten your insulin situation under control, you’ve leaned out a bit (like I did when I first started intermittent fasting and paleo) your weight has stabilized, you should consider—if only for a moment—that carbs may not be the villain they once were.
Same goes for fruit. I can’t imagine not eating fruit on the regular. Fruit is almost always packed (nutrient dense foods) with things that are good for you.
💪 Leangains Advantage vs. Low-Carb/Keto Diets
Let’s face it, avoiding carbs in perpetuity is not a sustainable strategy. The few people you see online who have done low-carb for years are the exception, not the rule.
The doubling down on low-carb that we see today—that is, the Keto Diet—is just working harder, not working smarter. I’d argue that if you’ve done low-carb, you’ve had some success, and now you’re stalling or even losing ground, it’s high-time you try something different. Get off that butter eating hamster wheel.
(Yes, you can get fat eating fat even if you control your insulin. This is covered, in part, in The Leangains Method, as well.)
It’s a lot more fun over here.
Finally, I know what you might be thinking: can I just do The Leangains Method and low-carb? (I remember thinking something similar years ago.) You can do whatever you want, but if you’re low-carb’ing, you’re not doing Leangains.
Frequently Asked Questions of a Long-Term Leangains’er
If you're unfamiliar, this is Martin Berkhan—the guy on the left:
Over the last ten years, Martin has gone from sage to coach to friend. I became aware of Martin over ten years ago when I first experimented with low-carb and intermittent fasting. It still took me over two years of fumbles and failed attempts to finally ask Martin to create a Leangains plan for me. After some initial resistance from not trusting the clearcut system Martin provided, I embraced Leangains and watched as I dropped fat, got stronger, and ended up in the best shape of my life—right in time for me to turn 30.
While I got the 1-to-1 help of Martin years ago, the system Martin gave me so many years ago has been refined and distilled into the ideas presented in The Leangains Method.
E.g. deadlifts, squats, presses, rows, etc.
Yes and no. Let's start with "No." If you want to be true to the spirit of Leangains, as articulated in the manifesto above, lifting heavy weights in the major movements—deadlifts, squats, presses—is the answer. If you can't get access to the equipment, gym, or training know-how to do this properly, it's worth it to figure out how to solve that problem because in the long run, you'll wish you had. And if you're going for maximizing results with minimal effort and needless complexity, lifting heavy in the main weight lifting movements is the way to go.
But "Yes." There are ways to lift heavy via less optimal exercises that can, nevertheless, help further you on the path to being stronger. I believe something, when it comes to lifting weights, is better than nothing. So don't be afraid to start Leangains right away with what you have, all the while knowing what's ideal and short- or mid-term (or even long-term) planning to get to a place where you can do those movements.
Truth is, for me, I didn't have access to the equipment or gym (or time, as I saw it) to do Leangains properly when I first got started back in 2010. I made due with the office gym I had—play the sad trombone and imagine a Smith machine and dumbbells. I couldn't really do squats. I couldn't do deadlifts. My presses were limited to a single plane of motion. It wasn't ideal.
However, I still got results that blew my mind. I even got stronger. Don't pass on Leangains because you are either incapable of or afraid of these major lifts.
It's only been in the past year- to year-and-a-half when I've finally gotten set up to do deadlifts (in my garage), true bench presses, and honest to God squats. Let me tell you: there was a way too long delay in getting to this point. Sure, I've been busy, didn't have the scheduling freedom (I have three kids aged 3, 6, and 9) to make it work. But damn if it didn't cost me a lot of potential strength.
I'm happy that I'm as strong as I've ever been now, at age 37, while being lean, but I'm also a lot older now and the cards aren't in my favor for recovery and growth like they were when I first went down this path 8 years ago.
Get started however you can because starting now is the best time. Just don't put off doing "true" Leangains forever.
Let's clarify some differences between Leangains (the website) and The Leangains Method (i.e. the book).
Leangains (leangains.com) is an applied approach to being strong and lean that incorporates an array of tactics—including intermittent fasting—to achieve the holy grail of fitness: be strong and look good.
Additionally, take a spin through the Leangains "manifesto" (Ch. 2, The Leangains Method):
The Leangains Method is formulated for lifters who want to shed fat as fast as possible while maintaining or increasing muscle mass and strength, with a minimum of effort and needless complexity. That is, effort and complexity that cannot be scientifically, logically, or behaviorally justified shall hold no place in the diet, or dominion over the individual.
Leangains is best exemplified by Martin Berkhan, himself. Here's Martin's own before/after shot:
Leangains was created over a decade ago: Martin Berkhan first conceptualized the combination of 16:8 intermittent fasting and weight training in 2006 when he started practicing it on himself, n=1.
That means that whether acknowledged or not, every diet program that uses 16 hour fasts and 8 hour eating windows was inspired by Leangains.
Unfortunately, studying Leangains.com for the purpose of creating a clear, coherent, and cohesive plan you could apply to yourself was a challenge, if not impossibility. Which is why for the last ten years the easiest way to understand Leangains was to win the lottery and become one of Martin's clients.
For the lucky few clients—and I was one way back in 2010—you got Leangains in all it's glory though you still might not have understood it. For everyone else, Leangains.com gave you a solid start.
Which is why newcomers to Leangains are in luck: you get a book.
Because it works. And once I went Leangains, I gave up for good all the other approaches I'd tried previously (Paleo, Crossfit, straight intermittent fasting, low-carb, Atkins, Body for Life, HIIT, cardio, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting).
Importantly, your diet will only work so long as it's a lifestyle. This is because the way you eat and the way you live are the primary inputs to how you'll look, feel, and function. If you're wishing on a star for a diet you can use to lose weight and then magically keep it off without keeping up the diet, I've got a bridge to sell you.
It depends, a bit, on your objective. Martin lays out what to do as you transition out of the diet in the book. In short, you'll need to figure out your weekly caloric intake that keeps you weight stable. This will be highly dependent on your body. For me (and for many, I gather), there's a marked difference in my appearance depending on my recent carbohydrate consumption. The connection between "water weight" and carbohydrates is so important that I've blogged about it at length.
Unfortunately, it's incredibly easy to get caught in this "yo yo" trap of gaining and losing weight on the scale that is almost entirely due to water weight, as an outcome of your carbohydrate consumption and glycogen stores.
So if you're angling to look maximally lean forever and don't have absurdly low bodyfat (like 6-7%), be prepared to monitor carbohydrate consumption and/or cycle a bit in your appearance. Or just know that you can't be carb-depleted all the time—and that's okay.
Once you've successfully applied Leangains, you might be sorely tempted to stay in the lean mode and "maintain." If it's taken you years to get to this point, you might have a fear it's some kind of one-time mistake or that you could "lose it" by gaining all that weight back. And you might be right.
Except there's a better choice: switch to a program whereby you add a little more volume to your weight lifting schedule as well as take in a calculated, tracked amount of calories above your maintenance.While Martin doesn't go into his mass gains program in The Leangains Method, he's provided his reverse pyramid training protocol on his site. Your overall goal should be to add about 1500-2000 calories to your weekly base metabolism intake. Relative to what you've been eating while on Leangains, this will feel like an awesomely large amount of food. It's so much more fun to eat when you're not trying to lose fat. Track your weight like you do in The Leangains Method. Most importantly, train hard. Do this for as long as you like and as long as you're gaining strength. This could be for anywhere from 12 weeks to a year depending on your goals and how much you need to lose.
With a recommendation of over 50% of your caloric intake on The Leangains Method coming from protein, don't you risk damaging your health?
What's likely a very common question for folks who haven't come close to eating this much protein, in short, unless you have existing health conditions (like kidney problems), research suggests the answer is "No."
Having said that, I try to diversify my protein sources a bit so they aren't all from the same places. You can do this, too, and it might help ease your mind.
For example, I try to get about 20g/day of protein from gelatin, which is what your body uses to make collagen. There's some research that might suggest that glycine might offset some of the negative effects of methionine (some discussion from Denise Minger on this here). It might even help with longevity. And who doesn't like a huge bowl of sugar-free Jell-O?
Try eating a lot of protein and see how you feel. My hunch is you'll be surprised to find it's not a problem. Do bear in mind that some protein might not sit well with you—e.g. some folks have a hard time with whey. But that's not a protein problem so much as a we're all different problem—work within the macros to find the protein sources that work best for you. Just don't make it all protein powder, k?
That would be a gross oversimplification of the system: high protein is a critical ingredient as it plays to the dual advantages of satiation and high TEF, as covered in the book. But that doesn't mean it's the end-all, be-all. The Leangains Method will only work if you cut calories, do the training, and work the Thermogenic 7 as best as you can. High protein has an important part in that and will speed up your results (explained in the book).
Interestingly, you could argue that Leangains is high-fat, at least from an energy-burned perspective. For me, while dieting in accordance with Leangains, I might be taking in 1800 calories, of which a bit over a thousand are from protein (say, 50% for easy math). But because of the combination of TEF and the caloric deficit of 500 calories, my body is grabbing energy from fat stores in my body to the tune of approximately some 750 calories (or 80g) of fat per day. Assuming I eat about 30g of fat in my diet, that'd make fat about 110g/day, or of the 2300 total calories required 43% of my energy requirements.
Something like that. Every diet wherein you lose fat is a high-fat "diet" in this sense. It's just that the fat comes from your body instead of your food.