How to stay in shape during Ramadan lockdown

How to stay in shape during Ramadan lockdown: Five tips from an IFBB professional bodybuilder
5 min read
01 May, 2020
The New Arab caught up with IFBB Pro Bodybuilder and world record-holding powerlifter Greg Doucette, who has trained Muslim athletes for many years during Ramadan, including those preparing for competitions.
Ramadan can be a challenge to Muslims striving to maintain their optimal physique year-round [Getty]
For those who are sedentary, one of the well-known health benefits of fasting during Ramadan is autophagy - a 'self-eating of cells' process which otherwise occurs during high-intensity cardiovascular activity.

Autophagy cleans up the body’s used, worn-out cells to make newer, healthier ones. Studies have shown that this can increase life-expectancy.

At the same time, Ramadan can be a trying time for Muslims who are physically active and strive to maintain a lean and muscular physique year-round. Sleep, hydration, nutrition and training comprise the all-too-familiar roster of challenges which professional and amateur athletes and bodybuilders contend with during the holy month. 

But this year’s coronavirus lockdowns, affecting nearly a quarter of the world’s population, jeapordises progess even more.

Here with five handy pointers is IFBB Pro Bodybuilder and world record-holding powerlifter Greg Doucette, who has trained Arab and Muslim athletes for many years during Ramadan, including those preparing for competitions taking place during the fasting month. The New Arab caught up with to shed much needed light on the topic and clear up any misconceptions.

Tip #1 – Avoid training close to Iftar

After a long period of fasting, our bodies are depleted, Greg says. Glycogen, carbohydrates in the form of stored energy readily available in the muscles, is low and the body is in a state of dehydration. Not only does this affect athletic performance, but it also significantly increases the risk of injury during training.

To get around this, Greg advises his clients to train after having eaten, i.e. a few hours after the sunset meal at iftar, or a few hours after the pre-dawn meal at suhoor.

Tip #2 – Focus on building muscle, not building strength

Now is not the time for one-rep maxes, Greg affirms. While there is nothing wrong with striving to set personal records, hurling around the heaviest weight you can find in your house under lockdown in a fasted state is asking for injury. "If you want to be a powerlifter or a strongman, there plenty of time to do that when Ramadan is over," Greg says.

Read also: Yusuf Islam to lead BBC Ramadan spiritual reflections series

Instead, focus on lifting moderately heavy weights slowly and using optimal form, he advises. The eccentric portion of the lift, the lengthening of the muscle - going down in the squat or the bench - should be slower than the concentric, or the contraction of the muscle. Increasing rep range, somewhere between 10-15, will increase the time a muscle is under tension (TUT). When the resultant micro-tears in the muscle are followed by adequate recovery, the muscles will grow, even while fasting.

Tip #3 - Prioritise sleep

For Muslims this Ramadan, night-time worship and waking up for suhoor add to the already substantial impact lockdowns are having on regular sleeping patterns.

One of the direct consequences, Greg explains, is the parallel increase in two hormones, cortisol, or the "stress hormone" and ghrelin, known as the "hunger hormone". Numerous studies have demonstrated the link between inadequate sleep and obesity – it is precisely the elevated levels of these appetite-regulating hormones that lead to increased hunger throughout the day.

Sleep is therefore crucial to keeping Ramadan hunger under control. Short naps throughout the day are the way to get around this, Greg advises, while continuing the use of any natural sleeping aids. Greg singles out Melatonin, available over the counter in US but only through prescription in the UK and the rest of Europe.

Tip #4 - Go easy on the food intake

NEAT, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or total calories burnt outside of exercise, is lower when fasting. By not eating or drinking, your body has less energy throughout the day, driving down metabolism. Evident in the fatigue all who fast can identify with, Muslims subconsciously move less in the month of Ramadan.

Read also: Indonesian YouTuber offered Muslims $600 to break their Ramadan fast early

A fasting person is not only less bothered to walk around the house, but also less likely to bob their heads or tap their feet, all activities – however trivial - which contribute NEAT caloric expenditure. "Bulking" in the holy month, particularly during the lockdown, will cause significant fat gain, and little benefit for muscle growth.

Tip #5 – Eat between two to three meals

Two scenarios are possible here: For those who stay awake all night, Greg advises three meals, spread out over the eating window. For those who sleep during the night, they should eat both at iftar as well as during suhoor.

For the iftar meal, Greg advises eating carbohydrates and proteins which digest quickly. Eggs and whey protein are good, as well as fruit - including dates and bananas – and rice. Lean sources of animal protein – such as white fish and chicken – are preferable to those with higher fat content, such as steak or salmon, which typically digest more slowly.
Vegetables with a high-fibre content, such as broccoli or green leafy salads, should be avoided for the same reason.

Keto-style, low or very-low carb nutrition would be a poor choice during Ramadan, Greg adds, because of hydration. Plenty of water should be consumed and carbs should not be avoided. It is carbs which store water - every gram consumed hold three grams of water, Greg explains.

The pre-dawn meal on the other hand should have an opposite nutritional composition, he says, with the emphasis on slow-digesting protein and carbs. A steak, for example, will sit in the stomach far longer and continue to release protein in the form of amino acids throughout the day. A meal which is higher in fibre, fat and protein, will ensure the slow release of energy throughout the day.

Greg Doucette is an IFBB Pro Bodybuilder and world record-holding powerlifter who has competed in over 100 bodybuilding and powerlifting competitions. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram

He has recently published two ebooks, one on nutrition and another on training. They are available here.

Kamal Afzali is a journalist at The New Arab

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