The overwhelming priority of most people during Ramadan is to decide what to eat and when. However, for those with an active lifestyle, food is just half of the equation. Professional athletes have long balanced Ramadan and training – from Kareem Abhdul Jabbar and Zaid Abdul-Aziz (basketball), to Husain and Hamza Abdullah (football), to Kulsoom Abdullah (weightlifting), to Ibtihaj Muhammad (Olympic fencing). In fact, Mrs. Abdullah wrote a guest post here at City of Brass a couple years ago discussing the challenges for the athlete in Ramadan.
However, what about us normal folk who aren’t athletes? Let’s leave aside cardio and consider weight training. The bottom line is that during Ramadan, if you don’t binge (which is very common, due to large post-iftar meals and fat/carb-heavy suhoor, coupled with a general sense of abandon), you are going to lose some muscle due to catabolism. Ramadan is the perfect time for a cut – (reducing caloric intake below TDEE to lower bodyfat percentage) and lends itself well to a “leangains” philosophy. The biggest problem is figuring out when to workout, juggling the requirements of real life (jobs and family) and the additional burden of our ibadat (going to masjid, extra prayer), not to mention the fact that we are fasting during the majority of the day (especially right now, while Ramadan falls squarely in summer, at least in the Northern hemisphere).
Unfortunately, most of the workout advice for Muslims who fast in Ramadan is flawed in this regard. Nabeel Azeez, founder of the Becoming the Alpha Muslim motivational program, has a great writeup about Ramadan workout recommendations, and critiques most of the better-known versions you see. In a nutshell, most of the advice out there is not applicable to someone who is not a professional athlete, has a normal day job, and also wants to actually prioritize ibadat in Ramadan. Further, most of the nutritional advice out there is “broscience” or anecdotal. My friend Aamer Jamali MD (a frequent contributor to City of Brass) has been lecturing for years about nutritional requirements in Ramadan, which can insufficiently be summarized as: complex carbohydrates good, simple carbs bad, protein good, sugar bad.
Here are a set of recommendations for weight training in Ramadan, based on Nabeel’s guidelines, nutritional advice from Aamer, and my own research. In general: stretch before training, and train before breaking your fast. Eat, pray and sleep at night. Eat complex carbs and protein for suhoor, drink a lot of water and get enough sleep.
- Workout window: The ideal time to train is around 2 hours before breaking your fast. You will be working out in the fasted state – this is essentially a modified Lean Gains routine. In most of the United States, Maghrib is around 8pm, so this means you’d be working out around 6pm. This is compatible with coming home after work and hitting the gym (or the garage, as the case may be).
- Stretch: You are dehydrated, which means you are at higher risk of injury. Therefore, stretching out is critical. Get a decent foam roller and roll your joints, especially your hamstrings, glutes, and back. Do some basic flexibility stretches every day, pre-workout or just after you awake in the morning to get blood flowing. If yoga is your thing, keep it up. Note, core exercises do not count. If you are going to train during Ramadan, this is not an optional step.
- Workout routine: Dial back. You are aiming for maintenance; hypertrophy is out of the question. Drop cardio. Aim for 75% of your usual weight, higher volume (3×5 or 5×5). Supersets of opposing groups (antagonists) is the most time-efficient, since you don’t have energy for a long workout. I also would recommend focusing on bodyweight exercises rather than free weights, since there is less chance of injury. Examples: Dips and chinups (for biceps and triceps), pushups and pullups (for chest and back), squats and lunges (quads and hamstrings). As usual with supersets, there is no rest period between the exercises, but you must rest at least 3 minutes between supersets. Add some dumbbell accessory work to round things out.
- Iftar: Keep this small, with full meal to follow an hour later. Dates are favored for iftar because they are high in fiber and glucose (the form of sugar that requires least processing for use). Some fat intake is ok here to replenish stores, but avoid sugars. Drink water!
- Dinner: Eat a healthy meal but do not binge. Concentrate on complex carbohydrates and proteins. Avoid processed and fried foods due to high fat and simple carbohydrate contents. Fats should be from healthier sources like avocados, nuts, and olive oil. Drink water!
- Water: Too much at once can overwhelm the kidneys, so it is best to drink water in small, regular doses, especially with food. Obviously, during Ramadan the water window is shortened, which is why it is critical that you don’t neglect water during iftar, suhoor, and dinner.
- Sleep: Maximize your sleep at night. Moving the workout to pre-iftar keeps your evenings open for ibadat and rest. Remember that muscle isn’t built during a workout, it is built during the recovery period, which is why adequate rest is an essential component of fitness. If you have time and opportunity, get a nap in during the day as well.
- Suhoor: Avoid simple carbohydrates (sugars, white bread, baked goods). These will cause fatigue in the late morning/early afternoon, and hunger starting at noon. Also, too much fat will fill you up, but not provide the energy you need during the day, and will simply be diverted to storage. Avoid fruit juices, which have high acidity and sugar; water is best. Favor whole wheat and whole grain bread, minimize syrups and jelly. Maximize complex carbohydrates (fiber) and protein for maximum sustained energy and minimum hunger during the day.
The above should not be considered medical advice, but is probably the best distillation of the good advice out there, and provides a simple and reasonable outline for weight training during Ramadan. Of course, modify as needed with what works for you.
This is a guest post by Taher Suratwala.
Ramadan is here and life is turned upside down. No breakfast, no coffee in the morning, strange and totally different sleep schedule, falling asleep at work, fasting breath, no working out and lots of sitting. It’s as if someone picked up my routine and gave it a vigorous shake.
I love it.
All the changes are to accommodate the fasting and to ultimately get in touch with a more spiritual side.
Eleven months of the year, I’m stuck in my ways and pretty stuck to my routine. If I don’t have coffee in the morning it’s a tough day! But Ramadan comes and I’m reminded I am capable of changing everything to meet some goal. I even quit coffee (for Ramadan) to convince myself I can.
People are capable of so much with the right motivation. Here’s to a good shake up this year!
Taher Suratwala is a husband to his beautiful wife, a father to his two wonderful children, and a son to his wise parents. During the day, he makes use of his math, statistics and economic background as an actuary and occasionally writes on his blog, B Like Water.
The day after the Orlando shooting, my friend Wajahat Ali addressed a crowd of mostly professional, fairly religious Muslim Americans in Houston. Here is a transcript of his remarks, a call to action for the Muslim community. Reprinted with his gracious permission.
So, yes, things are really bad for Muslims right now. But writer Willow Wilson reminded me of a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Even if the day of judgement is coming, plant the seedling.”
It might seem that a orange skinned man with wavy, interesting hair and a permanent scowl on his face named Trump is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and that qiyamat (Judgement Day) is around the corner…
But have faith. Have faith. And have hope. And do good. Continue doing good. Our Creator commands it.
My job, your job, our job is to expand and stretch America to realize its full potential, challenging her to live up to her professed ideals. Pushing the boundaries of the Constitution and our American freedoms as to accommodate all the diverse communities that live within it.
How do we do that? Through service, through living our faith with humble swagger, pride, an open heart and generosity. By bum rushing the show and refusing to be spectators and victims.
And by sharing our story. Because if you aren’t sharing your story, your story will always be told for you by others.
There is tremendous power in the ability to share and tell a story, especially someone else’s story.
And to quote Spider-Man who quotes Uncle Ben who quotes Voltaire – with great power, comes great responsibility.
Each community is tested with challenges. Our father’s generation had their challenges as did our grandparents before them. We are currently facing severe challenges. We are not unique.
Our real test is NOT if we fight for our own freedoms, that’s a given. Our real test is not If we fight against the Islamophobia Industry, that’s a given. Or if we mobilize a Muslim Get out the Vote campaign to make our presence felt in swing states – that’s a given and the least we owe America after we gave the world Bush for 8 years. Thank you Florida and California Muslims — no, I did not vote for him. Yes I am judging you.
Our real test is if we turn around and extend our hand and make sure we uplift those who are marginalized and downtrodden as well.
Earlier today, a 29-year-old man, Omar Mateen, walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, carrying a handgun and assault rifle. At 2 am he opened fire and killed 50 people and wounded at least 53 others.
Law enforcement is saying the shooting was “well planned” and “organized.”
This is the worst mass shooting in US history.
You want your leadership challenge? You want your fork in the road? You want your test? You want your choose your own adventure? HERE IT IS.
What choice will you make?
Will you sit by silent, idle and complacent?
OR will you disrupt the narrative?
Will you empower and uplift our LGBT Muslim brothers and sisters, who often suffer in silence and have been ostracized and demonized by multiple communities in America for their sexuality, religion and ethnicity? People who are at the cultural fault lines – blasted for being both gay and Muslim in an America that often uses them as pawns for an absolutist cultural war.
Will you call out ignorance that creates an atmosphere which tolerates and breeds hate?
Will you sincerely assert our solidarity with the LGBT community, not for sake of politics, talking points and expedient alliances, but around shared values and visions of creating an America where no one is hazed, victimized, brutalized or murdered simply for “being” ?
Will you denounce the draconian and unnecessary anti LGBT legislation that is being introduced in several states around the country just like LGBT members have routinely denounced Trump’s anti Muslim bigotry and anti Sharia legislation for years?
If so, then congratulations, you are writing a new chapter in the evolving rough draft of America. Because that’s what it means to be American.
Remember- disagreement does not become grounds for lack of compassion or lack of humanity or lack of empathy and solidarity.
Pluralism and respect is a two way street. It requires reciprocity. That’s the test. You can’t demand rights and compassion and dignity for Muslims while denying it for other groups. It’s hypocrisy and morally inconsistent.
Let’s develop and reflect our real Islamic ethics of pluralism and DECENCY.
I challenge and invite us to write a new story for American Islam and Muslims.
One that is not isolated, angry, victimized, bitter, miserly, insular, racist, sectarian or homophobic.
One instead that stretches and accommodates America using our Islamic values to ensure that these vast freedoms are enjoyed by all communities, not just our own.
We must be like Musa and throw down our stick. We must be like Muhammad Ali – and dance and float and sting as participants in the ring, no longer as spectators. We have to throw down – and throw down hard. And ball out of control — right now.
These are urgent times, but also moments of opportunity and growth.
So thank you to all of you, especially for investing in service, in hope, in helping our AMERICAN communities, for investing in our religious values and freedoms, for investing in the future of America, for investing in us being the best versions of ourselves, and for planting a seedling, so the next generation can emerge and write a new chapter for our communities where we become the protagonists of the American narrative.
Wajahat Ali is the Creative Director at Affinis Labs.
This is a guest post by Aamer H. Jamali.
You’d think I’d know better by now. I’m not new at this, after all, having observed Ramadan for the past thirty years. And yet every year I fall into the same trap. Shabaan comes around, and it seems every day, every meal, every workout taunts me. A silent (followed by a not so silent) countdown commences. In my mind, Ramadan becomes a big black box, a month erased from my life, a page ripped off of the calendar. The end of the world, for a month anyway; when nothing can be expected to be accomplished.
I anticipate with dread the hunger, the lack of energy, the perpetual “hangry” feeling coupled with the lack of sleep and the expenditure of most of my free time at the masjid. Life takes on a new urgency during Shabaan. I need a new car, I’ve got to shop now, Ramadan is coming! Remodeling the kitchen? Need to choose tile now, Ramadan is coming! Patients to be seen, surgeries to be done…Schedule them now, Ramadan is coming! Taxes need to be prepared (I know, I’m late). Better do it soon, Ramadan is coming!
And then, before I know it, Ramadan is here. And only half of my superhuman to-do list has even been attempted. And yes, I’m hungry (and at times hangry), and tired. And yes, I go to the masjid. But it is always amazing to me–the sun still rises, the sky is still blue, the birds still sing. Life generally goes on, unabated.
Much to my surprise, my work schedule which I had lightened in anticipation of my reduced energy, seems too light as I sit at times with nothing to do. I still find time to meet with my contractor, or go for a test drive. And I always, always seem to find time to procrastinate even further on my taxes. Somehow, this big black box is not actually that. The page was never torn off the calendar, it is just another month in life. It has its own challenges and unique routines, to be sure. But life is able to be lived despite these fasts I was dreading so much.
This year, I choose to reflect on crux of this disconnect. Because despite concrete proof and experience saying otherwise, Ramadan in many ways continues to feel like a black box, like the end of the world for a month. The feeling is not born of dread. Despite the fasts, the lack of sleep, and the busy schedule, I don’t actually dread Ramadan. After all, I observe it of my own volition every year; if I truly dreaded it, I could easily stop and in many ways nobody would be the wiser. I do dread aspects of Ramadan, I would be lying if I said I actually enjoyed fasting. But I also look forward to aspects such as the renewed spirituality and the camaraderie.
Perhaps Ramadan feels like a black box because in many ways it is–just not in the ways I anticipated. It is a month erased from my life and torn off the calendar and given to Allah (SWT). All of these feelings are markers for the importance, the azamat, that I grant Ramadan. I will go test driving during Ramadan, I will talk to my contractor. And I will work. Just not if it interferes with namaaz time. At least for this one month, I will give ibadat the prime priority it deserves, insha-Allah.
Aamer H. Jamali, MD, FACC is a cardiologist in Los Angeles.