Is the cyclical ketogenic diet for muscle gain or fat loss? Both of them, really. It works particularly well for low carb athletes trying to build lean body mass without getting fat. This article delves into doing exactly that.
What is the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet?
Okay, here’s CKD in a nutshell.
- You eat SKD for a week or two, during which you restrict your carb intake close to zero.
- You schedule a refeed day or two, in which you do the opposite – consume high amounts of carbohydrates.
- You return to SKD the next day, during which you eat zero carbs again for some time.
- You have another carb nite after a while and get kicked out of ketosis again.
- You rinse and repeat for a certain period, according to the structure of your cycles.
Sounds good, right? Eat Keto, eat carbs, burn fat, build muscle. Where do I sign up?
I’ve been following the ketogenic diet since 2015 and have managed to build up to 20 pounds of lean muscle, using different variations of it, such as carb cycling.
The cyclical ketogenic diet looks indeed like the perfect human diet for metabolic flexibility, food tolerances and adherence. But it still has its downside.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Muscle Loss
One recent study (Wilson and Lowery et al: 2015) compared cyclic ketogenic dieting to normal ketogenic dieting . They calorically restricted subjects by 500 calories a day, and the cyclic subjects had a normal carbohydrate diet on Saturday and Sunday. All participants did high intensity and resistance training.
Both groups lost 3 kilograms of body weight—but there was a really big catch.
The SKD group lost nearly all fat, while the individuals on CKD lost 2 kilograms of lean mass. What caused this?
The traditional keto group was in ketosis the entire week, whereas the cyclers didn’t establish ketosis until Thursday. Thus, they were only in very mild ketosis twice a week. Additionally, while SKD went up in strength and strength endurance, the CKD group declined.
Does Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Work
Although this study might indicate that long term keto-adaptation might be superior to cycling with carbs, I would still take it with a grain of salt.
- They were calorically restricted, which will result in loss of muscle anyway.
- The refeeds might have been too small for any enhanced anabolic effects to be induced
- Having 2 days of refeeds may affect ketosis more negatively than one big carb loaded dinner.
Doing the cyclical ketogenic diet for bulking would compensate switching between burning fat and carbs by promoting lean muscle growth. In fact, the cyclical ketogenic diet has been used by bodybuilders for decades.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Bodybuilding
Vince Gironda popularized his Steak and Eggs Diet in the 1950s. What does it consists of? You guessed it – a lot of steak and eggs, cooked in butter and heavy cream. Large amounts of fertile eggs, he said, are equal to anabolic steroids in effectiveness.
On the Steak and Eggs Diet, you would eat only 2 meals per day. You guessed it again:
- About ¾ to ½ pounds of steak and 4-6 eggs. For breakfast, and dinner.
- Cook them in butter and season with salt and pepper.
- No carbohydrates, not even vegetables, are allowed.
- Every 6th day you get to eat whatever you want. You can jam down sugary treats or other processed garbage down your throat without even getting fat.
This approach was probably one of the first cyclical ketogenic diets out there.
Another infamous bodybuilder, Frank Zane, followed somewhat of a low carb diet with refeeds, like Gironda.
- He would eat carbohydrates based on how he felt and trained.
- Usually, he did 3-4 day cycles and always kept his carbs lower than his protein.
- His protein intake was around 1g/lb of bodyweight, around 190-200 grams for him, and he never ate more than 3000 calories, staying mainly in the low to mid 2000s.
He said: “I tried bulking up a few times and it was always a disaster. It was just a loss of about a year because you get back to what you looked like originally.”
Avoid Endless Bulking and Cutting
That’s the great thing about the cyclical ketogenic diet. You can burn a ton of fat easily during your keto periods and will promote only lean muscle growth with adequate carb cycles.
This dirty bulking and eating whatever is actually counterproductive. You’ll definitely build muscle, but you’ll also get very fat at the same time. Once you start cutting again, you have to do long hours of grueling cardio and completely drain yourself just to lean down.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Powerlifting
But ketogenic diets haven’t been only used by bodybuilders of the past. Mark Bell is a strong powerlifter, creator of supertraining.tv and owns a gym with the same name. Some of his best lifts are a 1080 lb (490 kg) squat, a 854 lb (387 kg) bench press, and a 766 lb (347 kg) deadlift.
During his competition days, he ballooned himself up to 330 pounds (150 kg) and was dominating everyone. However, in one fateful meet, he collapsed under a 1085 lb back squat. His lifting suit was too tight from gaining too much weight a few days before.
After making the decision to lose fat, he went on a low carb ketogenic diet and lost more than 50 lb. Initially, he used to do the CarbNite and Carb Backloading diet plans of John Kiefer but also had periods of prolonged ketosis during which he still trained hard and felt great.
Build Muscle and Burn Fat
with the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
Here’s how the cyclical ketogenic diet will help you burn fat and build muscle almost simultaneously.
- As you start eating the ketogenic diet, your liver glycogen stores get depleted. This increases the amount of ketone bodies in the bloodstream, which the body begins to use for energy. Eventually, you’ll establish nutritional ketosis.
- Limiting carbs reduces insulin and blood sugar levels. In response, glucagon soars, which converts stored glycogen into glucose and increase free fatty acid utilization. (More fat burning!)
- Once you start eating carbohydrates again, insulin levels will rise dramatically. In response to this exaggerated carb load, the body will firstly shuttle that glucose into muscle glycogen.
- Periods of carbohydrate restriction, followed by overconsumption, causes a super-compensatory effect, which increases the overall levels of your glycogen stores – more so than a regular high carb diet would. Refeeds create an even greater anabolic response by driving amino acids and glucose into the cells. (More muscle!)
- The following day, your body will be topped off with glycogen, which increases vascularity, makes the skin thinner and muscles look fuller. You return to your low carb menu.
- During the first 2 days after the refeed, your body will be running on both that extra glucose and free fatty acids from your keto foods. The consecutive 2 days will limit your glycogen again and you’ll be burning fat exclusively. (More strength!)
As you can see, the cyclical ketogenic diet for athletes is a great strategy to burn all types of fuels effectively. It works particularly well for sports where body composition and body weight is very relevant, like bodybuilding, powerlifting, gymnastics and even CrossFit.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Muscle Gain Meal Plan
Although the study conducted by Wilson and Lowrey showed that the cyclical ketogenic diet causes muscle loss, I would propose it to be a side effect of caloric restriction or improper scheduling.
In my own experience, I have not felt any lean tissue catabolism after proper keto-adaptation. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re doing, how to calculate your cyclical ketogenic macros and what to eat during refeeds.
Other than that, the cyclical ketogenic diet without exercise can still be a sustainable and effective way of burning fat and losing weight, although it’s less optimal for sedentary people. Whatever your goals – bulking or cutting – you can benefit from swapping in between ketosis and carb refeeds.
I’ve created a cyclical ketogenic diet program called Keto Carb Cycle that covers the nitty-gritty of this metabolic magic. It includes 50+ recipes with the exact macros and percentages. Even how many carbs to eat on refeeds. Plus, a 30-day CKD meal plan, both a low-calorie and a high-calorie one. So, you can use it for gaining mass as well as losing that fat.