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February 16, 2023
Picking a diet can be stressful. And when you're a bodybuilder trying to find an ideal plan, it can be even more difficult to decide which to follow.
Choose the right diet and you can successfully pack on muscle or lose weight. But pick the wrong one, and you're putting your hard-earned muscle and physique at risk.
One such diet that has the ability to spark both fear and curiosity in lifters is, perhaps, one of the most controversial diets around. We're talking about keto, a low carb, high fat diet that has gained attention in both the fitness world and biohacking sphere.
The ketogenic diet has several very promising benefits, but the main question many lifters' have about it is whether you can gain muscle on it. And that's what we're about to answer!
This article will look at how well the ketogenic diet is for building muscle and discuss strategies that will help lifters make gains while on it.
Table of Contents:
The big question on every lifter's mind is: Can you build muscle on keto?
Taken at face value, the answer to this question is yes, you can build muscle on keto. But, when you think about it, you can build muscle on just about any diet, so perhaps that's not the best question to ask.
The real question to ask is: Is the keto diet good for building muscle?
And the answer to that question is: No, similar to other elimination diets like the carnivore diet, keto isn't the best diet for building muscle. While we all know that protein intake is crucial for optimal muscle growth, carbs have been found to also play a pivotal role in the anabolic process and muscle protein synthesis.
Interestingly, researchers still aren't entirely sure why resistance training stimulates muscle growth to a lesser degree when following keto.
Studies have shown that when bodybuilders follow an ultra-low-carb diet such as keto, there tends to be a disruption during the anabolic process. As a result, muscle growth is attenuated and blunted¹.
Now, this doesn't mean bodybuilders shouldn't use keto. It just means they shouldn't use it to build muscle during a bulking phase. But, for lifters following a cutting workout, keto may actually be the best diet around².
Building muscle on keto is challenging. As we just discussed, the lack of carbs disrupts the muscle growth process. Therefore, following the standard keto diet can make building muscle an uphill battle.
In an effort to circumnavigate this issue, some people have tweaked the traditional keto diet to optimize it for bodybuilding and athletes. One of these versions is known as the targeted ketogenic diet.
The targeted keto diet will allow slightly higher carbs, as long as they are consumed no more than 30 minutes before intense activity. The idea is that you eat more carbs but then burn them off immediately with your activity. As a result, you have more fuel for your workout split, increasing your chances of adding mass, without being kicked out of ketosis.
While this theoretically makes sense, no studies exist that fully prove this. But, it's certainly worth trying. If this is something you'd like to experiment with, utilize keto strips to test your blood levels to ensure you remain in ketosis.
Start slow when you increase your carb intake to see how your body reacts.
If you do decide that something like the targeted keto diet is the right choice for you when trying to build muscle, here are some helpful guidelines and tips to follow.
The main rule of the keto diet is to keep your carb intake very low so that you can stay in ketosis. This is generally around 5-10% of your total calories, and athletes should be safe toward the upper end of that range.
Your fat and protein intake then make up the rest. Protein intake has traditionally been set at 20%, with fat at 70-75%3. However, as a bodybuilder, you may make it more of a high protein diet by increasing your protein up to 35% and dropping your fat as low as 60%. Again, you will need to experiment with these numbers, and consistently check whether you are in ketosis as you do so.
If low carb isn't something you can stick with, keto likely isn't the best diet for you. Check out our article on keto vs paleo to see how the two compare and get a perspective on another potential diet option available to you.
It's crucial to know that you can not cheat on keto! Keto is unique in that for it to work, your body must make a metabolic shift.
Being on a keto diet means that you're in ketosis. If you are constantly being kicked out, you're not really on a keto diet, and you won't see the benefits.
In addition, try to consume most of your carbs around your workout. You may even want to consider using a targeted keto diet. This allows you a few more carbs but requires you to eat them within 30 minutes of high-intensity workouts.
There are many awesome foods to eat on the ketogenic diet. Some of our favorites include:
As the ketogenic diet almost completely removes an entire macronutrient, you'll need some special supplementation. Here are some of the most important supplements you'll need to take when on the ketogenic diet.
Other vitamins you'll also need to keep a close eye on include potassium, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and iron.
Use supplements for muscle gain and overall health as needed. You may even want to check your blood work regularly at first to measure your vitamin levels and identify issues with your current regimen. You can then adjust as necessary.
The one truth that remains, regardless of what diet you're on, is you must control your calories. If you were to compare multiple popular diets in terms of calories consumed and weight loss, they're not that much different from one another6.
In other words, if you get in a caloric deficit of 500 calories a day for one month, you're going to see the same weight loss if you're following the ketogenic diet, the paleo diet, or any other weight loss diet.
Step one is to calculate your total calorie expenditure, which is how many calories you burn in a day. It's easiest to just use one of the many calorie calculators you can find online. From here, you have three options, depending on what you want to do with your weight.
To maintain weight, keep your calorie intake as is. To increase lean mass, get into a 300-500 caloric surplus. And, for fat loss, aim for a 300-500 caloric deficit.
Now that you have your total calories, it's time to touch on counting macros. You'll need to determine your macro split. Your 3 macros and their accompanying calorie count are as follows: Fat: 9 calories, Protein: 4 calories, and Carbs: 4 calories.
The following can be the possible range for your percentage of calories. For example, if a macro says 5-10%, this means you should get 5-10% of your total calories from that macro.
As an example, let's use a 70/25/5 breakdown with a 3,000-calorie intake.
Effective training on the ketogenic diet won't look like your traditional bodybuilding training. Under normal circumstances, most of your training should be in the 8-12 rep zone, which is ideal for muscle hypertrophy.
However, this ventures into the glycolytic system, which studies have shown are impaired on keto due to the lack of carbs7. Therefore, you won't be able to train hard enough at this level.
Instead, you should focus on working in the strength spectrum with loads >85%, performing 5 reps or less.
During these lower rep counts, your body uses the phosphagen system, which relies on creatine stores 100%. In other words, your energy level shouldn't be affected, especially to the same degree as the glycolytic system.
In addition, stick to bigger compound movements. Remember that your main goal should be to build strength, as hypertrophy is much more difficult. Therefore, concentrate on compound exercises that allow you to safely use these heavier rep ranges.
We like the concept of training for hypertrophy off keto (with carbs) and training for strength while cutting on keto (preserving muscle).
Sleep! You need to focus on muscle recovery regardless of what type of diet you're on, as you place a great deal of stress on your body with weight training. Do not skimp on rest, as sleep is the most important factor when it comes to recovery.
In other words, it doesn't matter how much you stretch or how long you sit in an ice bath if your sleep sucks. Nothing is going to make up for poor sleep.
The first thing you need to do before you even start a keto diet is to buy keto strips and become familiar with using them. As you'll likely be maximizing your carb intake, you need to know if you're getting kicked out of ketosis.
Increase your sodium intake to help avoid any keto flu symptoms, and remember to train for strength, as opposed to muscular hypertrophy, when you're following a keto plan.
In terms of a training split, we like the 4-day split best as it gives you the most amount of recovery available. At the same time, you can maintain sufficient frequency for training.
In terms of food, one trick is to save most of your carb intake for pre and post-workout. This could potentially help with muscle growth.
Just because you're drastically reducing your carbs, doesn’t mean you can’t have delicious meals. Here is a day's worth of muscle building meal options to consider when trying to add mass on keto.
For an entire week's worth of eating ideas, check out our Complete Keto Bodybuilding Guide & Meal Plan!
3 Egg Omelet w/ Cheddar Cheese, Spinach, & Bacon
Salmon Filet w/ Avocado & Cream Cheese
Bell Peppers Stuffed with Grass-Fed Beef
Pro Tip: To ensure you're hitting your protein goals, we highly recommend investing in a good low-carb protein powder.
For any remaining muscle building keto questions you may have, here are some frequently asked questions and their answers.
Yes, you can follow a keto diet without losing muscle tissue. Studies have shown that the ketogenic diet can preserve muscle mass better than a traditional western diet.
No, you cannot build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Building muscle and losing fat simultaneously is a very difficult process, and typically the only group who has luck with body recomposition in this way are beginner trainees. And as building muscle is very difficult with keto, losing weight at the same time is likely impossible.
Yes, you can get ripped and shredded on keto. Since your body is highly fat-adaptive in ketosis, your body's ability to break down body fat into fatty acids for fuel shouldn't change. As a result, you can lose body fat while you maintain lean body mass for a chiseled physique.
Simply following the keto diet and being in ketosis preserves lean body mass. In other words, if you're in ketosis, it doesn't seem you need to take other steps to avoid losing muscle. Consider also increasing your protein intake, but be sure to check the level of ketone bodies in your blood as you increase your protein.
Yes, you can improve your muscular strength on the keto diet. Strength works with a completely different set of physiological symptoms than muscle growth. Apart from the initial period where you adapt to keto (the keto flu), there's a better possibility of getting stronger on keto rather than seeing muscle growth.
Over the past few years, the keto diet has started to be used by bodybuilders during their cutting phases. However, it's not a popular year-round choice as it's more difficult to gain muscle mass when following low carb diets.
The time required to see weight loss results when following the keto diet varies greatly. But, followers have reported changes in their body weight after just one week. Keep in mind this typically refers to losing weight rather than gaining muscle.
Even though the ketogenic diet offers several solid health benefits, if you're looking for significant muscle growth, this is probably not the best diet for you.
Alternatively, if you simply want an effective way to maintain muscle mass while losing weight, ketogenic diets have shown promise in mitigating the loss of lean muscle mass while in a calorie deficit.
Keep in mind that if you decide to try keto, you'll need to fully commit. You can't half be in ketosis. You either need to be fully in, or it's not worth doing.
But if you do go all in and your goal is to get lean and shredded, keto will definitely deliver.
For lifters looking for more information on the keto diet, be sure to check out our Complete Keto Bodybuilding Guide & Meal Plan. Packed with tons of useful information, the best foods to eat, and a week's worth of meal ideas, this comprehensive guide will help kick-start your keto regimen.
Johnston BC, Kanters S, Bandayrel K, et al. Comparison of Weight Loss Among Named Diet Programs in Overweight and Obese Adults. JAMA. 2014;312(9):923. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2014.10397
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