Siraaj’s Ramadan Fitness Plan Updated

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, alhamdulillah.

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 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 Allah by following the Prophet’s advice:

On the authority of Al-Miqdam ibn Madiy-Karib who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah 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

Ramadan Fitness: Training Regimen

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.

An MM reader, Amy suggestions for the absolute beginner: getting 6k-10k steps a day, some ideas: walking around the block, in shopping malls, taking 15 minutes during lunch or breaks to walk (especially since you won’t be eating in Ramadan) can add up at the end of the day.

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).

Workout Template

You can choose the exercises you want to do like so:

  1. Upper Body Push
  2. Upper Body Pull
  3. Lower Body Movement
  4. Isolation Movement

For example:

  1. Weighted Dips
  2. Wide Grip Pull ups
  3. Hack Squat
  4. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Nezro, a commenter had the following suggestion:

Another way for people to control quantity is to use smaller utensils and plates and drink some a decent amount of water with your meal. This is the first Ramadan that I’ve been following the Paleo diet (no sugar/wheat/gluten) and I feel awesome. Suhoor consists of a 2 egg omelette with some chicken and sunflower seeds for extra fat along with a protein shake. Dinner is usually something similar (protein+fat source) and I’ll have a nectarine/peach with some walnuts as a snack. So far I\’m able to maintain close to my regular workouts (Olympic lifting and crossfit) though I’m paring down the heavier conditioning days. Working out close to iftar is key and works pretty well. I’ll supplement my dinner on workout days with sweet potato to help replenish glycogen levels.

 

Reader question: For a sister on level 1 what is the best thing to eat during suhoor? What is the best thing to eat when you open your fast- after the date and water? Should it be fruit, carbs, protein etc?

Siraaj: I just don’t want you filling up so much that you\’re bloated. If you can control your dietary choices, a couple of scrambled eggs and a slice of whole grain toast, and a few dates to keep it Sunnah style :)For dinner, after the dates, I think a scoop of whey protein mixed in a bit of skim milk is a great start (I go with Optimum Nutrition Whey). If shakes aren’t your thing, though, a little bit of everything is ok, just don’t overdo it, pray, and then come back looking for more for the ‘actual’ dinner, if you know what I mean.

Sally, a reader asked : My challenge so far has been getting full quickly and not being able to eat enough to support my metabolism. With only 3 hrs of active eating possible for me, getting in all the water and proper nutrition is a chore! I eat clean and would appreciate any tips!

Siraaj : If intensity is too high, try decreasing it and using Ramadan as the time you work out to keep yourself in maintenance mode. For eating, you might try waking up at night and having protein shakes and BCAAs throughout the night (bodybuilder’s qiyaam ul layl to prevent muscle loss:) ) At the very least, have a good dose of protein, maybe even a serving and a half, before bed.

Question from a  sister who is a level 2 as far as controlling quantity but not having enough quality foods, and recently started cardio in the evenings after work, when would you suggest is the best time for me to continue doing that during Ramadan?

Siraaj: There’s this raging debate among fitness enthusiasts about fasted cardio- essentially, some of the most successful gym enthusiasts wake early in the morning, don’t eat anything, and do their cardio first thing, essentially on an empty stomach.

Some claim that it’s going to burn fat more than other times due to being in a fasted state, others claim it makes your ripe for muscle loss. Somewhere in between is a group that says it’s beneficial provided you don\’t go too hard and supplement with some BCAAs to mitigate muscle loss.

And then, how does all this apply to someone who’s fasting and awake? The only way to really know for sure is to pick a particular way of doing it, measure your bodyfat  girth and other essential markers for your specific goals, and see how it works out over a two week period. Then change the variable of eating before the workout, and measure that effect for two weeks (assuming intensity remains the same), eating with your regular eating pattern (because you’ll probably not change that pattern).

Most people don’t care enough to do this (including me). The best way to choose your workout time is choosing one you can do while still prioritizing your worship. The good news for you is that if you pray isha at home, you get more reward.  I prefer the time before iftar because practically speaking, the time between iftar and isha is about an hour and a half, which isn’t enough time for me to eat, relax, then go to the gym and workout, shower, and then hit isha at the masjid (and the gym and masjid about 5 and 10 minutes away, respectively).

So bottom line, decide what you want out of Ramadan worship first, and fit the work out into a spot that will accommodate that, and which you can do consistently. If it ends up that working out before isha and taraweeh is best for you and you can’t catch the isha prayer on time, maybe pray at home and do taraweeh on your own, and use it as an opportunity to read more Qur’an, insha’Allah.

Suggestions for a male reader who has been overweight all his adult life:

If you’re willing to spend money (about $99 / month), I would recommend precisionnutrition.com’s lean eating program for men. They’ll teach you how to eat, provide you with the work out plans to do in the gym, and you’ll have a coach to answer all your questions.

The most important factors in fat loss programs are two: consistency and intensity, and those are both on you ;). You must consistently get to the gym or do your program, and you have to be sweating bullets in the first 10 minutes all the way to the end of the hour, otherwise, yo\’re a cardio bunny on a treadmill / elliptical / exercise bike.

Every weight loss program and eating program will have it’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t get caught up in all that, you’ll just give yourself a headache pick one, follow it to the end, and make sure to be consistent and intense, and insha’Allah you’ll see the benefits.

As far as programs go, I recommend Men’s Health Book of Muscle (no nutrition program here), P90x (also comes with nutrition program), and Lean Eating from Precision Nutrition. If I had to recommend a diet program to choose that’s separate from the weight training, I’d go with the Zone’s recommendations:

http://www.zonediet.com/RESOURCES/ZoneDietHints/tabid/79/Default.aspx

Reader suggested audio: How to have a healthy Ramadan by fitness expert Mubarakah Ibrahim