“Leangains” is the coined diet and training methodology of Martin Berkhan, a fitness professional who writes at his website aptly named Leangains.com. Though his long awaited book The Leangains Method came out quite recently, he’s been writing about and espousing his Leangains methodology for many years.
Berkhan is one of the most popular fitness writers today, and his book has quickly become a best seller, but is it actually any good?
The honest answer is, unlike almost all popular diet books, yes it is. Leangains, though it was controversial at it’s inception, is a program that’s firmly grounded in science and hands-on experience that’s corroborated with pretty extensive anecdotal success stories. Berkhan has his own client results page that’s fairly extensive, and a Google search will easily bring up hundreds of legitimate (read: not outlandish) success stories.
Table Of Contents
- A Quick History of Leangains
- An Overview of How Leangains Works
- Leangains Pro #1: Science Supports It
- Leangains Pro #2: No Unnecessary Complication
- Leangains Pro #3: Big Meals
- Leangains Con #1: Annoyingly High Protein Requirement
- Leangains Con #2: Eating Disorder Potential
- Conclusion: Is Leangains Right For You?
A Quick History of Leangains
The initial controversy surrounding Leangains was its basis on a more general dietary method called intermittent fasting, which in fitness parlance has basically come to mean the skipping of any meals in a conventional 3+ meal/day schedule.
Up until somewhat recently, the necessity of eating small, frequent meals was a seemingly ironclad concept not just in the bodybuilding niche, but in the overall general health and fitness discussion – miss a meal, and you were allegedly prone to metabolic slowdown, muscle atrophy, or any other such ill effects.
Not surprisingly, the free market met this fear with meal replacement supplements, because not many people would or even could cook actual meals 5-6+ times a day. But even still, the small frequent meal directive was restrictive and impractical. Berkhan, in an interview, recalls how his own frustration originally compelled him to question it and subsequently explore fasting as a contrary strategy:
…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 … [other] people … can relate. [S]o I started to question the need for regular [meals] and the way it was constantly being pushed as the most optimal way to eat for physique conscious people. (source)
And so, that initial introspection eventually led to a diet and training regimen that incorporated fasting, which he eventually coined as “Leangains.” The system became one of the most popular variants of intermittent fasting, although it uses a so called 16:8 template (16 hours of fasting time, 8 hours of feeding time) which uses a daily fast that isn’t intermittent per the literal definition of the word. Another popular intermittent fasting variant, Eat Stop Eat, is literally intermittent in that you fast for 24 hours at some point once or twice a week.
An Overview of How Leangains Works
It’s actually not very complicated after all, the basics are:
- Count daily calorie and macronutrient (fat, protein, carbs) intake – so as to hit the necessary deficit to lose fat, or to hit the necessary surplus to gain strength and muscle without gaining unnecessary extra fat
- Very high daily protein intake – so as to take advantage of its satiety and thermic effect (meaning: it’s less efficiently metabolized so you can get away with eating more calories of it)
- Lift weights 2-4x a week in a minimalist fashion – so as to not waste any time or energy
- Fast daily for ~16 hours, usually done by just skipping breakfast – so as to maximize dietary flexibility and convenience
And that’s pretty much it – there are no hard rules as to what you must or can’t eat, or when you can or can’t eat, or anything else like that.
With that we’ll now discuss the pros and cons of Leangains:
Leangains Pro #1: Science Supports It
How did the alleged necessity of small frequent meals become so pervasive? Kind of hard to say, but the science pretty extensively shows that neither meal timing, meal frequency, nor meal composition makes a different towards weight/fat loss. Higher protein can be slightly metabolically advantageous, but not by much, maybe to the tune of 100-200 calories/day. Check out Examine’s weight loss page which fully reviews said science.
Leangains Pro #2: No Unnecessary Complication
There are no crazy rules about what foods you can or can’t eat or when you can or can’t eat – singular focus on the one thing that ultimately matters for fat loss: hitting the appropriate calorie target in a way that’s easy and convenient for you.
Same goes for the training – Berkhan calls for a very simple, basic style of weight training that’s easy to follow and allows for plenty of personalization. Most people spend 45 minutes, 3 days a week at the gym or less.
Leangains Pro #3: Big Meals
A major problem with the small frequent meal directive is that it makes things like, say, going to a restaurant unfeasible. With Leangains on the other hand, it’s quite easy to allocate the majority of the day’s calories to a special occasion so you can fully enjoy it.
Now let’s go over some legitimate cons:
Leangains Con #1: Annoyingly High Protein Requirement
Eating 1.5 x your weight in grams of protein every day is not easy to do, especially within the context of calorie restriction if the goal is fat loss. Not only that, it leads to meals that are kind of unpalatable and gross.
We question if the marginal benefits of such high protein intake are actually worth it to most average Joes and Janes who merely want to look lean and decent without going insane.
Leangains Con #2: Eating Disorder Potential
This isn’t so much a criticism of Leangains per say as it is a warning when fasting in general as a dietary strategy – it’s possible that doing so will aid and abet in an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, a warning sign and or symptom of binge eating disorder (which is a legitimate and medically recognized condition) is the “disruption in normal eating behaviors, including…skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals; engaging in sporadic fasting…” (source).
A seeming boon of convenience and perhaps fun with permissably eating large portions might insidiously be (or eventually morph into) into disordered eating. The prerogative here is to just say be careful and recognize the risks of any given strategy, and to, per our disclaimer, please consult a qualified medical profession to help you decide if fasting is or isn’t a healthy strategy.
Conclusion: Is Leangains Right For You?
It’s mostly a matter of preference – most people know right away if the idea of partitioning their calories to a restricted feeding window is appealing or dissuasive.
That said, Berkhan doesn’t actually officially call for intermittent fasting in his culminating book, and for a modest price we definitely say it’s a worthwhile read. You can check it out on Amazon here.