Leangains is the coined diet and training methodology brainchild of Martin Berkhan, a professional fitness writer and coach who blogs at Leangains.com. In the last five or so years, the branded moniker has grown from relative obscurity into something that’s become quite popular.
This post is an introductory primer to Leangains written for beginners – for those who know little to nothing about it, but are interested in learning about it and deciding if it’s something worth trying.
I’ll also share my personal opinion on things where it’s pertinent, insofar as the discussion relates to the bare effective minimum modus operandi of this blog – I’ve used Leangains myself and it has worked well for me.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- Preliminary Section: My 1 Year Leangains Results – A Fat Loss Cut With Before and After Pictures
- Section 1: Understanding The Landscape Which Led to Martin Berkhan Creating Leangains
- Section 2: What is Intermittent Fasting, Exactly?
- Section 3: An Overview How Leangains Works
- Section 4: A Summary of The Leangains Diet Plan and Basic Leangains Macros
- Section 5: A Summary of The Leangains Workout Plan
- Section 6: Putting It Together – The Leangains Schedule
- Section 7: Is Leangains Right for You?
- My Personal Overall Opinion and Review of Leangains
- Wrapping Up
- Section 9: Useful Resources, if You’re Interested in Trying Leangains
Preliminary Section: My 1 Year Leangains Results – A Fat Loss Cut With Before and After Pictures
The initial burning question is, obviously, does Leangains actually work? And of course that’s fair to ask – there are too many branded health and fitness programs out there that are bogus.
The answer is yes, it does.
You can see some of Martin’s client results here.
Leangains was also my set up of choice for losing fat. I don’t use the program anymore, but it certainly did work. I’ll let my progress pictures speak for themselves:
The extended answer to the question, with a caveat, though, is that yes, Leangains does work, but that no, it’s not magic.
At its core, like every other effective body composition improvement program out there (lose fat, gain muscle), Leangains works because it utilizes the fundamentals. If you’re hoping to have found an underground black book program that exceptionally enhances fat loss and/or muscle gain… well, those don’t exist.
Section 1: Understanding The Landscape Which Led to Martin Berkhan Creating Leangains
For the longest time, the dogmatic norm in bodybuilding was to eat small and frequent meals. Eating every 2-3 hours and always being in a “fed” state was purportedly necessary to maximize metabolic rate, fat loss, and/or muscle gain. But, the major practical downside of the traditional bodybuilding style of dieting is that, one, it’s totally incongruent with convention, and two, it’s a rigid pain in the ass to adhere to, for many reasons.
Martin’s negative experience with these issues was significant enough to compel him to question the dogma and eventually go on to create Leangains:
… I didn’t like how my life became centered around my diet, and I was starting to get fed up with my own behavior. The constant meal preparing, the obsessiveness about eating the perfect meals at the right time, and the way I sometimes made excuses not to participate in social gatherings in order to meet my calorie and macronutrient goals for the day. I’m sure some of the people reading this can relate. I wanted to stop this pattern cold turkey, so I started to question the need for regular feedings and the way it was constantly being pushed as the most optimal way to eat for physique conscious people. (source)
I can personally relate, absolutely, as many of you probably can too. What’s more, and not mentioned therein, is that eating small/frequent meals like a bird and being halfway hungry all day long sucks for the big eaters out there like myself.
Martin is one of the few people who can rightfully call himself a fitness industry disruptor because he, along with a few other notable individuals, scrutinized the actual pertinent science and showed that the restrictive small/frequent meal schedule, one of the most ironclad tenets in health and fitness culture, is totally unnecessary.
You don’t need to eat breakfast first thing when you wake up.
You don’t need to eat every three hours to stoke the metabolic fire and prevent “starvation mode.”
You don’t need to dose protein every 2 hours or else face muscle wasting catabolic mayhem.
You can eat big meals at night with a lot of carbs and still lose fat.
Point Being – All in all, as long as your overall calories, nutrition, and training are on point over the long run, fat loss, muscle gain, and body composition improvement can and will work.
* Further Reading:
The Leangains methodology rejects the small/frequent meal ideology and concurrently utilizes a burgeoning style of dieting called intermittent fasting, which introduces a massive and much needed boon of dietary flexibility to the overly restrictive traditional bodybuilder’s diet.
The reason Martin is a disruptor is that he was primarily responsible for spearheading intermittent fasting into bodybuilding culture.
Section 2: What is Intermittent Fasting, Exactly?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) has become a somewhat loose and informal term to describe various styles of fasting. The basic idea is that, in contrast to the traditional bodybuilding style of eating every 2-3 hours, you fast and abstain from consuming calories for extended periods of time, usually anywhere from 14-36 hours. It’s possible to fast for longer, but probably not ideal – I’ve never seen a program (in fitness at least) that calls for a fast longer than 36 hours.
Leangains uses a daily fast of around 16 hours, meaning you eat food between, say, 12-8pm, then you fast from 8pm until 12pm the next day. It’s not technically intermittent in the literal sense of the word’s definition.
An alternatively popular IF regimen is the Eat Stop Eat program by Brad Pilon, which uses one or two fasts during the week that last 24-36 hours, with no restrictions otherwise – this is true intermittent fasting in the literal sense of the word.
* Further Reading:
- Does An Intermittent Fasting Diet Actually Work for Weight Loss?
- A Review of Eat Stop Eat by Brad Pilon
The important point is this: By utilizing fasting strategically, it’s orders of magnitude easier to fit a bodybuilding diet into real day to day life – for many, it can make the difference between sustainable success and unsustainable and inevitable failure.
Section 3: An Overview How Leangains Works
Leangains is a bodybuilding program. The purpose is body composition improvement – lose fat, gain muscle, and improve lean mass to fat mass ratio. Besides the use of intermittent fasting, Leangains is not actually much different than a regular run of the mill bodybuilding program:
- Primary training focus on lifting weights, done 3 (or so) times per week.
- Eating a diet with overall calorie and macronutrient (fat/protein/carb) targets, depending on whether your priority is fat loss or muscle gain.
- Cardio is done sparingly, and is secondary to the weight lifting.
- A daily fast of 14-18 hours, usually by skipping breakfast in the morning.
Section 4: A Summary of The Leangains Diet Plan and Basic Leangains Macros
The Leangains diet is fairly similar to your standard carbohydrate cycling bodybuilding diet. There are no hard food restrictions – you can eat whatever you like, provided you hit your daily calorie and macronutrient targets, which is in fact the only hard restriction.
Here are the distinguishing traits of a Leangains diet and macro ratios for fat loss (cutting) specifically:
- Eat (around) 30% below your caloric maintenance on non-training days.
- Eat (around) maintenance calories on training days.
- Significantly higher carb, and lower fat on training days.
- Significantly lower carb, higher(ish) fat on off days.
- High protein intake on all days, to the tune of 1.5g per lb/bodyweight.
For example, here were my calorie and macro targets for the first 8 months of my long cut:
- Training Days – 2300 kcal; 200g protein, 50g fat, 275g carbs
- Off Days – 1500 kcal; 200g protein 50g fat, 60g carbs
It’s essentially a rotating cut/refeed cycle that lines up with your training. If you’re bulking, not much changes except that you increase your calories across the board. For me, those macros might look something like:
- Training Days – 2800 kcal; 200g protein, 60g fat, 375g carbs
- Off Days – 2400 kcal; 200g protein 70g fat, 250g carbs
There have been a lot of wild claims regarding intermittent fasting from those riding the faddish coattails, but understand that intermittent fasting doesn’t confer any magic – it merely makes adhering to one’s calorie and macro targets easier to do, both from a standpoint of hunger and of practicality.
The reason Leangains works is the same reason any effective bodybuilding program works – you hit the appropriate calorie and macro targets, and you train.
Understand: If you want to lose fat, you have to create a running calorie deficit, no matter what, and there’s little to nothing else beyond that which you can do to exceptionally expedite fat loss. That’s the unsexy truth.
* Further Reading:
- The Straight Dope: Do Calories Matter For Weight Loss? (spoiler alert: yes, and little else matters much besides that)
- How to Calculate Your Calories and Macros For Fat Loss Dieting (this is of primary importance, if you’re not aware)
Section 5: A Summary of The Leangains Workout Plan
Though Martin doesn’t outline an explicit protocol on his site – those are reserved for his private clients on a case by case basis presumably – he does offer rough guidelines:
- Minimalist focus on the compound and power lifts: squats, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, pulls/chins, and other accessories as needed.
- Low rep and heavy weight ranges
- Reverse pyramid for 2-3 sets – 1st set to near failure, 2nd set is slightly lighter and also to near failure, ect.
- Default recommendation is three 45-60 minute sessions per week, with at least a day of rest in between
Here is my program that I used for around 8 months:
|Day 1 (lift: sets x reps)||Day 2||Day 3|
|Squats: 2 x 5-7||Inc DB Press: 2 x 5-7||Deadlifts: 2 x 3-5|
|Bench Press: 2 x 5-7||Rows: 2 x 5-7||Shoulder Press: 2 x 5-7|
|Curls: 2 x 5-7||Weighted Dips: 2 x 5-7||Weighted Chin Ups: 2 x 5-7|
|(Optional) Box Jumps/Cleans: 2 x 5-7|
Here is another 3 day/week program sourced from an actual former client of Berkhan’s who did an “ask me anything” thread on Reddit.
|Day 1 (lift: sets x rep range)||Day 2 (lift: sets x rep range)||Day 3 (lift: sets x rep range)|
|Deadlift: 2 x 3-5||Bench Press: 2 x 6-8||Squats: 2 x 6-8|
|Shoulder Press: 2 x 6-8||Incline DB Press: 2 x 6-8||Hamstring Curls: 2 x 6-8|
|Weighted Chin Ups: 2 x 4-6||Barbell Curls: 2 x 6-8||Leg Extensions: 2 x 6-8|
|Rows: 2 x 6-8||Tricep Extentions: 2 x 6-8||Calve Raises: 1 x 12-16|
|Close Grip Chins: 1 x 6-10+|
Leangains training is, essentially, heavy power lifting oriented programming.
Section 6: Putting It Together – The Leangains Schedule
The only significant decision, really, is whether or not you want to train fasted. Practically speaking, it will most likely depend on your personal preferences and schedule.
I personally like to break the fast with a small meal before I train, but I’ve trained fasted plenty of times and have felt perfectly fine.
Martin recommends BCAA supplementation if you do train fasted.
Section 7: Is Leangains Right for You?
Though Martin is inarguably an innovator and a disruptor in the world of health and fitness – the small frequent meal myth seriously needs to die already – Leangains, in all honesty, is nothing remarkable in and of itself. It’s basically like any other standard body composition protocol out there: you hit your calories and macros and lift weights a few times a week. It’s only slightly nuanced in that you skip breakfast, carb/calorie cycle, and maybe train fasted.
Whether or not Leangains is “right” for you is primarily a function of whether or not you find intermittent fasting appealing or not. I’m never hungry when I wake up, I like to eat big dinners, and I absolutely hate going to bed hungry, so when I first learned about Leangains I was immediately on board with it. Other people might not be so much if they can’t stand the idea of skipping breakfast first thing in the morning. If that’s you, don’t worry – you’re not missing out on any amazing benefits if you decide not to do intermittent fasting. All IF does is provide a degree of freedom with dietary flexibility, that’s it. You could even, alternatively, fast sometimes and not others.
The second consideration for whether or not Leangains is “right” for you is if you can get on board with calorie and macro counting. You’ll have to do that if you want to do Leangains proper. However, understand that counting is in no way *absolutely* necessary for successful fat loss and body composition.
I’ve written a lot about the respective pros and cons of calorie counting vs intuitive eating, and I really don’t like it when people paint one or the other (or any viable strategy for that matter) as the unilaterally “best” strategy. The “best” strategy for you, practically speaking, will depend on your situation, preferences, and goals.
* Further Reading:
- The Straight Dope: Should I (Or Do I Have To) Count Calories to Lose Weight or Not?
- The Guide on How to Actually Lose Weight Without Counting Calories (if you’d rather not or simply can’t)
My Personal Overall Opinion and Review of Leangains
Leangains is one of the few and far in between branded protocols that’s decent, as being substantiated by legitimate science backed analysis and author integrity – a combination of which, unfortunately, is exceedingly rare in the world of health and fitness.
And I can’t deny that it worked for me when I used it. The camera doesn’t lie, after all
I also think I speak for a lot of people when I say I owe serious gratitude to Martin for the work he’s put into his Leangains blog, and in making the great and important information it contains freely available to the public.
That said, I don’t do Leangains anymore. There are a few aspects of the protocol which I no longer “agree” with, or rather I should say I no longer prefer – there’s rarely an absolute “right” or “wrong” in health and fitness, after all. It’s ultimately a function of choices that are conducive to certain outcomes, whatever you hope those outcomes may be.
Here’s where I now diverge from Leangains:
1 – The Restrictive(ish) Calorie and Macro Partitioning
With Leangains, you have fairly tight ranges for overall daily calorie targets and macro ranges that, in my opinion, are unnecessarily restrictive for the average person. The potential benefits of deliberately aggressive carbohydrate cycling and very high protein intake are not worth the hassle.
Thing is, I’m not a fitness competitor looking to get stage ready shredded – I’m just an average lazy guy who wants to be decently strong, to be decently healthy, and to decently fill a fitted t-shirt. For me and other like minded individuals, obsession over fine tuning daily calorie and macro targets just isn’t all that important. Overall running calorie balance and getting *enough* protein is 95%+ of the battle. I’d rather keep things as simple and flexible as possible, getting to eat what I feel like or what’s convenient, rather than milk out those final few potential percentage points of efficacy with a restrictive diet.
2 – The High Protein Intake
Sort of an extension of point #1, but worth mentioning on it’s own. Eating 1.5+ grams/day per lb/bodyweight is just excessively high and unnecessary. Hitting a certain minimum of protein does *slightly* help with fat loss and lean mass retention in a caloric deficit, but that figure is more around .8g/lb bodyweight.
High protein intake is certainly fine, if you prefer it, but not necessary. I find that trying to hit that high a level of protein is a pain and renders food into being unpalatable and gross. That’s just me.
* Further Reading:
- The Straight Dope: Is There a “Best” Macronutrient Ratio (Carb Protein Fat) for Fat Loss? (spoiler alert: no, not really)
- High Protein Intake for Weightlifting is Overrated
- A Guide on How to Make Calorie/Macro Meal Plan That’s Maximally Simple and Feasible in Real Life (simpler, more relaxed, and less restrictive guidelines than those of Leangains)
3 – Low Rep Heavy Lifting, In a Caloric Deficit, While Lean
Heavy power lifting is all the rage these days, but my honest experience is that I bottomed out pretty hard with chronic low rep, heavy lifting as I started to get fairly lean. My joints hurt, My lifts dipped, I got weaker, and I generally felt listless and worn down. This style of training is neither optimal nor appropriate for everyone, all the time.
Here are the summarizing points:
- Martin Berkhan’s Leangains methodology spearheaded the important and overdue trend of debunking the small/frequent meal dogma as being necessary.
- Leangains’ distinct trait is that it combines intermittent fasting into a traditional carbohydrate cycling bodybuilding diet.
- Intermittent fasting is a dietary tool of increased flexibility, convenience, and ease of compliance. That’s it – fasting does not inherently confer any magical fat loss or muscle gaining benefits.
- Leangains, just as any other viable diet does, facilitates fat loss by establishing a running calorie deficit.
- To do Leangains proper, you do have to count calories and macros and hit relatively tight fat-protein-carb ratios on a day to day basis.
- The Leangains workout regimen is minimalist compound/power lifting done ~3 times a week, with minimal to no cardio.
- The strict(ish) daily calorie and macro targets of Leangains are arguably unnecessary for an average person.
- The heavy and low rep Leangains style of lifting is neither optimal nor appropriate for everyone, all the time.
- Whether or not Leangains is for you is largely a matter of personal preference – does fasting and eating big meals sound appealing, or not?
I still do a daily fast per the default Leangains eating schedule, as it makes controlling calorie intake very simple and easy to do, but that’s about it. I train 2x a week, but my programming is much more lax and variable. I haven’t counted calories in a year. Overall, my current pseudo Leangains-Lite allows me to maintain my results quite easily.
Section 9: Useful Resources, if You’re Interested in Trying Leangains
Start by reading the Leangains FAQ hosted on examine.com, which Martin has endorsed. There’s probably some redundancy from here to there, but that should get all the important bases covered.
Then read Martin’s official Leangains Guide – it’s fairly general, but you’ll get a solid understanding of how the regimen works on a day to day basis. He has said a major update is coming to this guide though, which is now six years old.
Then, use this calculator to figure out your Leangains macros.
Then, go to the r/leangains subreddit and go learn. You can ask questions there too. Most of the community is pretty cool, helpful, and to the point, but there’s impatience for basic questions that are clearly answered in the FAQs, so be warned. I’m occasionally active there.
Also, browse Martin’s site at your leisure. there’s a lot of great stuff to be learned there.