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 write up 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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.