The debate over when it’s best to train during the day has continued ever since Eugene Sandow first hosted the first “physique shows” in the late 1800s. A common question you will always hear is:
Is it good or bad to train on an empty stomach first thing in the morning?
Wars have been waged over the Internet regarding the controversial views that some have with respect to this inquiry. Fed trainees versus fasted trainees. It is time to end he madness! While it may be impossible to reach a final verdict on this seesaw topic, it is important to note that different people operate best under different conditions. Deciding what time of day a trainee should work out is almost as nonsensical as telling him what color shirt he should wear and how much shampoo he should use for his hair! The best time to day of day really does depend on the individual and, unless you are a top tier IFBB professional bodybuilder, you should have a life outside of fitness! And heck, even those guys are running around building companies and traveling in their limited spare time. Whether you have jobs, kids, classes, extracurricular activities, or relationships with significant others, you should learn how to balance bodybuilding into your existing commitments and schedule. At the most macroscopic level, if you are consistent with your dieting and training over long periods of time, you will get better! I will include the disclaimer that I choose to train in the evenings because it works best for me. However, I will also include the disclaimer that if I am fortunate to line up a date in the evening, I will train in the morning on that particular day. Balance! Let’s look at some of the good in fasted training.
An empty stomach triggers a cascade of beneficial hormone changes throughout your body that are very conducive to both muscle building and fat burning. “Wow! That is exactly what I’m trying to do!” Exactly. There are two significant effects worth noting here.
- Insulin sensitivity is improved in a fasted state. The body releases insulin (a very powerful anabolic hormone) when you eat that assists in nutrient absorption. The hormone takes the sugars from your bloodstream and directs them towards your liver, muscles, and fat cells so that the body can use them as energy at some later point in time. When you eat too often (or too much), your body begins to demonstrate insulin resistance. This makes it harder to lose body fat! So, many trainees have adopted the policy of eating very infrequently, sometimes even only once or twice a day, so that they can have increased insulin sensitivity, which makes it easier to lose fat and gain muscle.
- Growth hormone (GH), simply put, is a hormone that allows your body to create more muscle tissue, burn fat, and improve bone quality, longevity, and functionality. Even more simply put, GH is awesome! Two ways to increase GH levels in your body are to sleep well and weight train regularly. A third way to increase the amount of this magical elixir in your body is to (drumroll) fast! This increased growth hormone effect, however, ends once your fasting period does, which is why some trainees (who fast regularly) eat infrequently. It helps the to keep their bodies’ GH levels as high as possible around the clock.
Many studies have found that training in a fasted state is a great way to build mass and boost insulin sensitivity not just because of the aforementioned hormonal responses, but also because it allows the body to absorb the post workout meal with much more efficiency. This deals with specific nutrient absorption. Since your body, in a fasted state, is insulin sensitive, the high insulin spike you induce by taking your first bites of your post-workout meal will ensure that all of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) are directed to the appropriate parts of the body and are stored minimally as body fat. So, exercising fasted can be a good way to program a fat loss program.
Don’t care about your physical composition? Train for endurance sports? No problem! There are potential benefits of training fasted for endurance athletes, as the practice can improve muscle glycogen storage efficiency. What this means (in English) is that running/swimming/biking can make the body better at using its energy stores! The implementation of occasional fasted workouts can improve the quality of fed workouts (or competitive events) later on. The rational for this seems to be fairly intuitive. When the body learns how to exercise and push itself without any supply of food, it gets better at performing when it does actually have some fuel in the tank. Some studies have also shown that fasted workouts can improve the endurance athlete’s VO2 max, which measures a person’s ability to take in and utilize oxygen during exercise (it’s a pretty good way to measure how fit a person is).
Are there some studies that show that fasted training can impair performance? Will eating before training still work for me if I want to build muscle and burn fat? If your hunger pangs during fasted training don’t allow you to get through my workouts and provide a huge distraction, should you stop? Yes. Yes. And yes. However, there is certainly evidence that shows that there are great deals of potential benefits to be reaped from fasted training.
Wrapping it All Up
Eating is a very ingrained habit in the human mind and, as we all know, humans tend to be creatures of habit. Skipping meals can be hard! Some people can’t do it. And for some people it certainly does take a great deal of time to get used to the practice. If fasting is not for you, by all means, do not feel obligated to keep it up! However, if you do prefer to train fasted, perhaps due to your lifestyle choices, then understand that there are certain benefits that you do get to enjoy. This article set out to dispel some prevalent myths regarding fasted training and, hopefully, you have taken away this: it is not NECESSARY to eat before training. If you feel better when you do (and I certainly belong to this group), then stick with your current regimen. However, if you simply cannot eat before training or have a schedule that only permits you to train minutes after to smash your alarm clock off for the morning, then relax! Different things work for different people. Listen to your body, think about the big picture, and have some fun.