You may remember last year I wrote a post entitled Ramadan Fitness Plan in which I outlined the program I was following for fat loss, a plan which helped me lose 8 lbs during Ramadan '09. I continued training until my net weight loss was 48 lbs, alḥamdulillāh.
Since that time, I've both trained people in person and online, and I'm continuing my education in nutrition and training. While it's obvious that the majority of people don't train, what is less obvious is that the advice you've received over the years from fitness professionals is better geared towards people who are themselves already in the habit of being active.
What about the rest of us who never work out, who start and stop programs every 6 months, who have families, jobs, and kids to take care of, and now have the additional 'ibadah from Ramadan upon us? I know a lot of you feel compelled to try to lose some weight now because you'll be fasting, and what better time to lose weight than when you're not eating, right?
All wrong. Ramadan is not the time for changing your physical fitness habits. Your focus and priority is 'ibadah, not fat loss. A fit and healthy body is will definitely help you with your 'ibadah, but starting a fitness program on top of fasting and late night prayer is a train wreck waiting to happen. Instead, what I suggest is looking at your level of fitness, and incrementally adding tweaks to your eating and physical activity to begin the process.
The Food Plan
What food plan? You're fasting, right? There's just one problem – you're fasting. Slower metabolism. And then at night, you're eating more than what you normally would to make it back up. And, since we're in Ramadan, every variation of samosa and bakhlava is served before and after the main course. Every night. And then to add insult to injury, you eat again after taraweeh, and then go to sleep.
Without exception, the most important fitness activity you can do this Ramadan is please Allāh by following the Prophet's advice:
On the authority of Al-Miqdam ibn Madiy-Karib who said: I heard the Messenger of Allāh saying, “No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach. Sufficient for any son of Adam are some morsels to keep his back straight. But if it must be, then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.”
Whenever anyone asks me what training regimen they should do, the first question I ask them is about their eating, and it never fails, they're overeating. In most gatherings I've attended, I see well-circumferenced plates with food stacked vertically and horizontally.
What follows is a simple system for you to use, according to your level of discipline
Level 1: No Discipline / Control Over the Menu
For those of you eating indiscriminately throughout the year, let's not talk at all about food quality, and let's focus solely on quantity. You know best-tasting foods will be placed in front of you everyday, you know you won't resist it, and you know if you try to discriminate and eat one item and not another, someone will harass you about it.
Go ahead and eat a little bit of everything, but make sure the quantity stays low. Meaning, take slow measured bites, and keep checking if you have that gnawing feeling in your stomach you had earlier when you were fasting. If it goes away, stop eating immediately and save the rest of your food for later. Snack a little on dessert, and you're done. Have some tea, and eat just a little bit after taraweeh.
Make sure you have suhoor in the morning, and make sure it's simply a normal sized meal, and don't worry about stuffing yourself for the day – it doesn't work. Do make sure you're well-hydrated, though.
Level 2: Some Discipline / Say in the Menu
If this describes you, then focus on bringing some balance to your plate – instead of piling on rice or naan, take much smaller portions of rice and naan, and add more meat and vegetables. Don't worry too much about fat, it'll be out and about. Make sure to keep the quantity of food reasonable, as described in Level 1.
Level 3: Total Control
- Proteins: Lean, complete proteins from chicken, turkey, beef, or whey protein shakes of your choice.
- Carbs: Slow carbs like lentils and hummus, fruits, and veggies. No starchy carbs like pasta, rice, or bread, unless it's within 90 minutes post-workout.
- Fats: Get at least 5 grams of fish oil as well as olive oil (uncooked), almonds, and peanuts. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats.
- No Processed Foods: Foods should come from whole food sources. Salad dressing and twinkies are not whole food sources. Samosas are the enemy.
Before we talk about what to do, let's talk when you do it, and why. I advocate working out one hour prior to breaking the fast because the body is primed and ready for more carbohydrate consumption (from starchy sources). There's debate as to whether whether working out in a fasted state is good or bad for the protein synthesis (meaning muscle loss), but I consider it irrelevant, one way or another.
I say this because the proposal of working out after taraweeh prayers is just a tad impractical – in Chicago, 'Isha prayer starts at 9:30pm approximately, so you're looking at 11pm before you get out of the masjid, and 1am in the morning is around when your work, shower, and post-workout meal are completed and consumed. And then you can wake up for suhoor at…4am, just 3 hours later. As it turns out, studies also show inadequate sleep is also harmful for muscle-protein synthesis and fat loss. I would guess most people would not handle that beyond 2 – 3 days tops before crashing and burning.
So while working out an hour before the fast concludes is potentially not optimal, it is sustainable, and more than idealized tweaks that are optimizations at best, I prefer that a person who's training build a program that's sustainable. A sustainable, consistent program will any day, hands down beat an optimal, impractical program. This is particularly important for those of you who always get going on a fitness program earlier in the year and are then sidetracked by Ramadan. Having said that, let's get to the specifics:
Level 1: Absolute Beginner
Get yourself a pedometer and some Vibram Five Finger shoes (they're funky looking and neat feeling) and work on getting between 6000 – 10,000 steps daily. Climb the stairs, and play with the kids if you have any. Set aside 1 – 2 hours before breaking the fast, and work on making that your “training” hour. If you can build that into your day, and follow what I outlined in Level 1 eating, you can expect to lose a fair amount of weight, provided you're consistent with this on a daily basis.
Level 2: Intermediate
If you want to do cardio, keep the pace moderate on the treadmill. For weightlifting, go with heavy weights, and lift them fast. I would say whatever you can lift 4 – 6 times, aiming for a total of 25 reps on exercises that are compound movements (bench, deadlift, squat, bent over rows, shoulder presses, dips, pull ups, lunges, etc). By lifting heavier weights, you'll help protect your muscle throughout Ramadan. Aim to do this at least 3 times weekly. And make sure you do what the Level 1 guy is doing as well.
Level 3: Advanced
You'll do what Level 1 and Level 2 is doing, but in one of your workout sessions, choose weights you can only lift 2 – 3 times, and aim to lift it a total of 15 reps. Or, if you're feeling a little crazy, you can do an all-out athletic training program like P90x (wouldn't recommend it unless you have a death wish).
You can choose the exercises you want to do like so:
- Upper Body Push
- Upper Body Pull
- Lower Body Movement
- Isolation Movement
- Weighted Dips
- Wide Grip Pull ups
- Hack Squat
- Bicep Curls
All of this can be found in greater detail in Chad Waterbury's book “Huge in a Hurry” (which I've used and benefited greatly from). By the way, the advice above was for sisters as well. If you don't have equipment, then focus on the moderate-paced cardio and at the very least, Level 1 Eating.
I've tried to keep this program as simple and practical as possible for as wide a number of people as possible. However, if you have specific questions you need addressed about the program, the comments section below is a great place to start =) As always check with your doctor first before starting any sort of program.