As one would imagine, the high-carb paradigm is outdated.
Although, the ketogenic diet requires you to keep carbs to a minimum, in fact, the ketogenic diet can help increase strength and build muscle while minimizing fat gain.
A new wave of bodybuilders are now starting to use the low-carb, high-fat approach to build muscle without consuming excessive carbohydrates.
"The traditional bodybuilding nutrition protocol assumed that carbohydrates were required to build muscle. It’s still common to hear bodybuilders talk about needing glycogen from carbs to spike insulin and create an anabolic response, which helps you build muscle."
FACT: Bodybuilding on a low-carb diet is completely viable when done correctly. But it doesn’t happen overnight.
Getting into what is known as the keto-adaptation phase takes time. This is because you have to teach your body to "make the switch." Your body needs to switch from using glucose (carbs) as fuel to using fat as fuel. Ketosis has muscle sparing benefits, but only if you’re properly keto-adapted.
To get to the delicious point of keto-adaptation, you need to tackle three steps:
Limit the number of carbs you eat
Eat a larger portion of healthy fats
Monitor your intake of high quality protein
To successfully build muscle on the ketogenic diet, you have to go long-term...
Remember, our body is used to burning glucose (from carbohydrates) as its main source of energy nearly our entire life, and we need to give it some time to adjust. When we restrict carbohydrates, our body is forced to find another source of energy. This is when ketones are introduced as our body’s main energy source.
The longer you stay on keto, the more keto-adapted you become and the more efficient your metabolism becomes at burning ketones for energy. As a result, your workouts become killer. By training your keto-adapted body to run off ketones from fat, it improves your mitochondrial density and this allows you to train faster and longer.
In other words, once you become fully keto-adapted, your body synthesizes more energy, also known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), from both your stored body fat and dietary fat to fuel your workouts.
Studies have also shown that the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet has muscle sparing effects. That means, once you’re fully keto-adapted, your body will prevent itself from breaking down muscle even as you’re burning through fat.
There is a process called gluconeogenesis and this is when your body turns excess protein into glucose in your bloodstream. If you're intentionally bodybuilding, you must eat more protein and never fear Gluconeogenesis.
While, the presence of glucose will stop you from producing ketones, one of the biggest concerns with building muscle on the ketogenic diet is that high protein consumption will kick you out of ketosis. But, don't forget, our body and brain need glucose to survive. Even when on a ketogenic diet, you should consume glucose to feed specialized cells (particularly brain cells) that primarily run on glucose.
So why do we do keto if our body and brain needs glucose?
While we need glucose to live, we don’t need nearly as much as we tend to consume. When we over-indulge on carbohydrates, we hinder our body from burning stored body fat for energy. This leads to unwarranted fat gain, chronic high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and systemic inflammation.
When dieting Keto, you are providing your body with just enough glucose (from fats and proteins) it needs to survive. Running off ketones gives you a more efficient energy source and allows you to build muscle through protein synthesis without worrying about gaining excess body fat.
How Much Protein Should You Consume?
Protein intake eat differs depending on your activity level.
Here are the general guidelines for protein consumption on the ketogenic diet:
Sedentary: .8g of protein per pound of lean body mass
Not much exercise: 1g of protein per kg body weight
Moderate exercise: 1.3 g / protein per kg body weight
Heavy exercise: 1.6g of protein per kg body weight
Lean Body Mass Formula = (total weight – body fat % * .8)
It’s common for people on the ketogenic diet to consume less than is needed to build muscle. Probably because you don’t eat as much when you’re simply not hungry.
If you want to gain more muscle while on keto you must consume more calories.
Eat More Calories to Gain More Muscle
Tracking your calories is the fastest way to reach your muscle building or weight loss goals. Consider My Fitness Pal, this site/app will help track calories, macros and more.
For muscle growth on keto, it's as easy as 1-2-3:
Consume 150 – 500 extra calories above your normal maintenance calories
Consume around 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass at a minimum
The rest of your calories should come from healthy fats
Building muscle is a matter of consuming more calories than your body burns daily. Eating at a caloric surplus in addition to adequate protein levels will help you achieve the muscular physique you’ve been working towards.
Use this handy Macro Calculator for further assistance.
The Targeted Ketogenic Diet Approach for Bodybuilders
A targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) encourages up to 20-50g of carbohydrates immediately before or after your training session. This approach works for people who have already followed the ketogenic diet for at least a month and it usually works better for those performing hardcore workouts. In general, the amount of carbs you’ll consume is based on the intensity of your workout.
Take note: that is your entire carb allotment for the day.
This allows your body to use that quick glucose to amplify your workouts. When done properly, your body burns through those carbs quickly and you’ll pop right back into ketosis.
Here’s an estimate of how many carbs you should consume based on activity:
People who do high-intensity training like Crossfit can consume 50g of carbs a day
Competitive athletes can consume up to 100g of carbs a day
An average person who exercises four to five times a week can get by with fewer than 20g of carbs a day
If you are just a beginner with the ketogenic diet and your main goal is weight loss, don’t try the TKD approach.
Here are some actionable tips:
#1 Reduce Carbs
If more than 15-20% of your calories are carbs, you’re likely not in ketosis and likely not helping your muscles. Swap out carbs for healthy fats (like MCT oil, nut butter, etc.) and healthy proteins (like grass fed whey protein).
#2 Eat Enough Protein
Eat more meat, fish, and eggs
Include grass fed whey protein or collagen protein in your smoothie
If you’re vegan, consider hemp or pea protein
Choose high protein, keto-friendly snacks
It’s possible to go keto, yet still be short on protein. Without plenty of leucine in your blood, you can’t synthesize muscle like a champ.
#3 Strength Train
Heavy, compound lifts: pull-ups, squats, bench press, and deadlifts
Yoga or pilates
Bodyweight exercises: push ups, planks, and bodyweight squats
Rowing & Sprinting — increases testosterone
# 4 Supplement Creatine
Creatine helps you synthesize and maintain glycogen stores — and probably should be taken by any keto-adapted athlete. Creatine monohydrate is the cheapest, most-researched, and most widely-available form of this supplement.
The majority of the bodybuilding industry praises the low-fat, high-carbohydrate protocol for gaining muscle. Mostly because that’s been the status quo for so long but more recent science supports the idea that you don’t need carbohydrates to build muscle.
Following the strategies above may ensure that you minimize the time it takes for your body to become keto-adapted.
Remember, wellness is simply a balance of what you eat, drink and do.