Above: October 2017. Working hard as a horse to maintain 3% body fat.
The ber months are my favorite time of year. Each year, all of us wait with great anticipation for them to arrive. There are many joys – parties, reunions, holidays, chilly weather, planned vacations, Christmas lights – it’s literally an endless happy hour; a time associated with comfortable temperatures, big events, and festivities. However, it is also the period of the year most commonly associated with dietary pitfalls and expanded waistlines, even for the most disciplined gym rats. As I write this, I’m already dreaming of all the honey glazed ham and warm cups of hot chocolate that I am going to have in the coziness of my kitchen on slow December mornings. Of course, who can resist the temptation to eat nutritional landmines like artisanal pastries and savory dishes during feasts and night-outs? It makes sticking to a diet seem like a struggle, but it’s definitely still preferable to the usual stressful chicken breast and tuna. Basically, there is a very fat chance that you will be indulging in comfort food more often than not during the next few months, but you should not use it as an excuse to stop caring about your health and succumb to a flurry of overeating.
This season, drop your breakfast plate of sausages and eggs. Pop out for a workout first. The real secret of perpetually good fitness levels during the next few months is an approach that consists of pre-breakfast workouts. Nothing more, nothing less. So instead of having to conjure up more reasons as to why pre-breakfast workouts should be weaved into your mornings, here are the hard whys:
1. Accelerated metabolism all day long
This is the biggest advantage of working out before breakfast. Metabolism is the chemical process that occurs within a living organism in order to maintain life. Consequently, your body gets the energy it needs from food through this process as well. The truth about working out in a fasted state is that you burn fat not just during the workout session itself, but your body’s fat-burning mechanisms will also put the pedal to the metal all day long. After a pre-breakfast workout session, muscles are naturally activated all over your body, raising your average daily metabolic rate. We all know well by now that boosting resting metabolic rate is the holy grail of bodybuilders and anyone who is looking to lose weight. In contrast, working out at night will not give you the same benefit since, for obvious reasons, the body’s metabolic rate is at its lowest when you’re sleeping. If you’re working out to lose weight or to get ripped, it’s obviously a no brainer. Who doesn’t want to burn more calories in less time? Once your body becomes fat-adapted (after consistently going through fasted workouts), your metabolism becomes proficient at burning fat.
2. Instead of carbohydrates and protein, fat is used as fuel
The common perception is that eating a hefty, carbohydrate-rich breakfast before exercising is the most efficient way to begin your day. However, when you have food inside of your stomach, the body is wired to use carbohydrates (glycogen) as its preferred energy source. Therefore, its reserve energy sources become muscle and body fat. To make it simple – if you exercise immediately after eating Sausage McMuffins or sometime during the day after having gotten in your lunch and dinner, you’ll burn less fat because your body will prioritize torching all the carbohydrates you took in before targeting unwanted fat. If your body is happy with those Sausage McMuffins before training, it has no reason to use body fat for energy to get you through your workout because it has enough junk to burn beforehand. Working out before breakfast forces the body to instantly torch fat for fuel instead of depending on the usual carbohydrates. With glycogen stores depleted and low morning insulin levels due to the long, overnight fast, your body has to turn to other energy sources. During a fasted state (which begins about six hours after your last meal), the body breaks down fat tissue into free fatty acids, which is then converted into energy. Insulin regulates the breakdown of fat; once you eat, insulin levels rise in your body. Subsequently, higher insulin levels have been shown to suppress fat metabolism. Therefore, the notion that you need food to fuel your workouts is not entirely correct.
3. Your performance during the workout improves
It may sound cheesy or cliche, but I was hooked from the first time I tried a fasted workout. Ever since then, I have been training before breakfast whenever I have the chance. It has turned into an almost non-negotiable thing. It is easy to assume that exercising on an empty stomach will not help when it comes to improving workout performance. After all, toiling muscles have easier access to carbohydrates than body fat. People think that if they do not eat, they are not going to have the energy to train at full capacity. While this is partly true, training on a full stomach will only make you feel heavy and lethargic. I’ve always believed that workouts should be performed in the least performance-enhancing situation in order to guarantee the most powerful training stimulus – like doing bench presses at the end of a long workout or sprinting under the scorching Manila sun instead of a treadmill. It makes bench pressing for the first exercise or running in a colder environment easier the next time around. During starvation mode, you are also granted the opportunity to push your body to the absolute edge of its physical ability because you are subjected to extreme physical demands. It also feels pretty good. Which brings us to number 4.
4. Yeah, it feels pretty good
There have been times when I just stood in the middle of the gym after disgusting 3-hour workouts, bent at the waist, hands braced on my knees to keep me from tumbling over into my own puddle of sweat, wishing for a bigger pair of lungs, thinking, “this workout wouldn’t have been as intense if I decided to have my morning dose of pork and beans.” At times, it’s dizzying, but afterwards, you feel strong. You feel tough. You feel like you have just evolved. You feel like you got more out of yourself than your body wanted to give, and the rest of the day feels like a walk in the park in comparison to the gut-wrenching workout you conquered. It’s a feeling that lasts all day long. The idea is to be absolutely obsessed with your training during your session. Focus exclusively on every exercise and every set. Forget the breakfast you could have had and forget your fear of getting tired. Fatigue is usually indicative of having worked hard. And working harder will help you remain lean and get to your goals faster. Training under tough conditions just feels right to me, and because of that, I suppose I have come to form some strange association between dedication and grinding on an empty stomach. Your training must provide overload. In layman’s terms, it means that whatever training approach you are using, it has to be something that your body is not currently adapted to. Every workout has to be gut-busting. From an evolutionary point of view, it also makes perfect sense. During the devastating Ice Age, food was not readily available. Living on stored body fat was necessary for the survival of our ancestors. Mankind, not being totally stupid, somehow managed to find a way, and they achieved some pretty amazing feats while running solely on body fat as energy. That’s the beauty of the human body: it communicates with the external environment through adaptation. When outside forces imposed stress upon the bodies of our ancestors, their bodies responded by adapting in order to increase their chances of survival. The humans who survived the longest on the hunt without food supplied us with the wonderful genetics we have today. You must keep that in mind if you think you’re not already genetically gifted. The next time you think your body needs more fried chicken from the KFC near your office, just remember the scientific fact that humans have always been built to last a long time between meals and that you probably don’t need that cheat meal you’ve been thinking about all day.
5. You guessed it right: it will make you ripped to shreds
After about a layoff from training because of getting hospitalized due to Dengue last March, I was at my lightest. I lost whatever muscle I had gained during my previous years of training and I was no longer happy with myself physically. Before getting hospitalized, I was in the middle of a bulking phase, so you can imagine how disappointed I was to emerge out of the hospital with lanky arms and soft muscles. I hated feeling skinny and weak. But something had to change if I wanted to get my body back. My motivation to start over despite the circumstances came from loving what I do. I have an unwavering passion for training and I love seeing how I can transform my body. It’s a continual self-experiment, so I decided to try out something new: fasted workouts on a daily basis. At the time, I was not doing any form of cardio, but I knew I had to start somewhere and do some form of cardio to drop the junk I had accumulated from the layoff, the holidays and a long vacation abroad. I pushed myself to run and lift weights before breakfast almost daily. I spent all my mornings training and running. I was able to slowly build my way up to 7.5 kilometers a day. By July 2015, I had made myself conditioned enough to run 10 kilometers a day. Today, I run up to 15 kilometers before breakfast and it no longer feels like a chore, even if it comes before or after a heavy weightlifting session. It’s a beautiful feeling – unintentionally, fasted cardio allowed me to enter the world of subterranean body fat levels without having to pay greater attention to my nutrition or using useless supplements, and I absolutely loved it!
Everything about the ber months is simply magical. Smell the breeze at night, it’s crisp and fresh. In the city, the lights of the malls sparkle like jewels, drawing gleeful shoppers in. Come December, buildings are transformed with mesmerizing illuminations. Little stalls will be dotted around the roads, selling local delicacies and Christmas ornaments. Along the streets, hotels and bars will fill the air with the aroma of fine food and delicious wine. Laughter will echo from every corner. It’s going to be a wonderful feast for the eyes. No country lends itself to Christmas better than the Philippines. While the whole country will warm hearts with food, drink and entertainment, blood sugar levels will rise and potentially severe weight gain will take place. Everyone will be at risk of blowing up body fat levels, not muscles. So, as troublesome as the idea may be, set your alarm after a long night to get you out of bed early enough that you can get a solid workout in before sitting down to your favorite plate of bacon and rice. It does call for a change of habit, but it is worth it. It’s easy to try and it won’t cost you money. Late nights and dirty meals will try to throw you off your regular exercise routine, but if you are like me and you would rather not pass up the delicious food in Grandma’s house because you hate being rigid and inflexible, then make sure to hit the gym every morning before breakfast. If you can be consistent in doing so, then you can become a fat-burning machine and still have a holiday that is jolly enough to make Santa jealous. Yeah, it will suck at times, but this is the fountain of youth when it comes to maintaining a good body during the ber months. Staying fit through the ber months doesn’t have to mean joylessly battling through temptation and skipping out on the good stuff – that’s all doom and gloom. There is nothing more important than soaking up the Christmas atmosphere. All you have to do is work a little harder despite the unbeatable festive feeling so that you can live without the unerring sense of dread that accompanies holiday weight gain. As always, the hardest part is just getting started. So, move over, afternoon and evening sessions. It’s time to combat unwanted weight gain. I can promise you that I myself will run every morning like a lunatic running from imaginary zombies before digging into my honey glazed ham and hot chocolate.