The question a lot of low carb athletes want to get answered to is: “How does a ketogenic diet affect performance?” Secondly: “How to build muscle on keto?” Can you even do it? Well, in my experience, YES you can. Let me give you my story and secrets…
What I’ve Found Out
When I first heard of nutritional ketosis I didn’t immediately try it out. Being into resistance training, I figured that it couldn’t possibly ever work. Sounds familiar, right?
If you’re physically active then you’ve probably been told about the importance of proper nutrition, post-workout glycogen synthesis, recovery, etc. etc. And that you need CARBS to do it. In the athletic community, carbohydrates are being held at the pillar stone of success. But you don’t need them.
I’ve never been into this dogmatic belief so eventually, I decided to try out the keto diet. Let’s see what happens and if I lose strength, so be it… I can always get it back. It was meant to be a short experiment, but…
After a month of eating less than 30 grams of carbs a day I was in ketosis. I’m not going to lie that some of my performance had suffered, but only temporarily. Other than that, I felt amazing and loved the keto diet. I thought to myself: Why hadn’t I tried it out before? The answer to that was fear of losing my gains – all in vain.
Why I Want to Stay Keto
I didn’t want to sacrifice the health benefits of low carb and how amazing it made me feel. But I also wanted to regain my performance and continue getting stronger… all while staying on a ketogenic diet. To me, it sounded like a challenge, which I was more than willing to accept
My training consists of mainly bodyweight exercises, such as calisthenics, Yoga, and gymnastics. The keto diet is perfect for that and I’ve learned how to build muscle on ketosis. It’s doable. In fact, after about 2 years I feel like I’ve gained strength and lean mass while losing fat. At least the numbers on the scale and my performance say so.
What You Need for Muscle Growth
What are the required conditions to build muscle? There’s 4 of them. First I’m going to go through them and then I’ll provide the solutions on a low-carb approach.
1. Adequate stimulus (Train hard enough)
The body will always try to maintain as LESS muscle as it can possibly get away with. It’s too expensive of a tissue to be carried around just for vanity. Every function of an organism is there out of necessity. If you don’t condition your body to be stronger, then you won’t be able to build muscle either.
2. Protein synthesis (Eat enough protein)
Secondly, you need the essential amino acids to build new tissue. They’re the building blocks of our body and with the essential fatty acids required for life. Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient we don’t need for survival. Even the brain will keto adapt and start to use ketones for fuel.
3. Energy (Be in a caloric surplus)
You need to have enough calories to increase in size. Without the training stimulation that excess energy would be directed into the adipose tissue. However, because of your body being under different conditions, those nutrients will be used for muscle growth.
4. Hormones (mainly testosterone and human growth hormone)
To conduct these anabolic processes, you need to have adequate hormonal output. The two most important ones for muscle growth are T and HGH. Insulin is responsible for shuttling nutrients in the body but not essential for building new tissue. Protein synthesis can occur even without it.
“But You Need Carbs!”
It takes time to overcome this dogmatic belief and fear of losing your gains.
Carbohydrates are not as much anabolic as they are simply anti-catabolic. They assist the recovery process but aren’t detrimental. In conjunction with insulin, they can quickly replenish your glycogen stores and shuttle amino acids into your muscle cells.
But you don’t need carbohydrates to build new tissue and be anabolic. They’re not essential to any of the 4 requirements I’ve listed here. Once you’ve become fat adapted, your body’s biochemistry, gene expression, and enzymatic processes will have been completely altered.
Let’s now see how low-carb eating can cover all of these conditions and how to build muscle on keto.
#1 Can You Train Hard Enough on Keto?
Well, of course, you can. During the initial adaptation phase, you may have a slight decrease in performance but that’s because of your brain is in an energy crisis. It’s still dependent on glucose and doesn’t know how to efficiently use ketones for fuel.
To train hard you need to have:
- Willpower to push yourself past your body’s comfort zone to experience growth. It’s going to be difficult if your brain doesn’t have fuel. Once you know how to utilize fat for fuel, your mind will always have enough energy and you won’t be lethargic or bonk mentally.
- Muscle glycogen to reach your physical limits. This is your body’s backup fuel source which is used only in emergency situations (like squatting 400 pounds or sprinting from a lion). When in ketosis you use your glycogen stores even less often because your overall demand for glucose decreases.
Do You Need Carbs to Restore Muscle Glycogen?
The body can produce glycogen without the consumption of exogenous carbohydrates.
During a process called gluconeogenesis, the liver will convert amino acids (protein in food) and glycerol (the backbone of triglycerides) into glucose. The minuscule amounts of carbs from vegetables will also contribute to this.
Because you don’t need glucose to feed your brain and give energy to your body, then you’ll be able to store it in your muscle cells. You become more efficient with your glycogen reserve.
#2 What About Protein Synthesis?
Here carbs are definitely not required.
Leucine – found in abundance in egg yolks – is the primary essential amino acid that drives protein synthesis. Studies have shown that protein synthesis can occur without carbohydrates (1-3).
Also, just eating carbs won’t trigger protein synthesis. There needs to be enough stimulus caused by resistance training for it to occur in the first place.
#3 Surplus Energy
As crazy as it might sound, you don’t actually have to be at a significant caloric surplus to build muscle on a ketogenic diet.
When your body is fat adapted it can constantly derive any energy it needs from the adipose tissue. This puts you into an anabolic state almost always. The extra calories that are needed for muscle growth will come from your stored triglycerides.
You can get stronger, build lean muscle and lose fat at the same time while being keto-adapted. This was shown by a study on elite level gymnasts who train a lot harder than anyone else in the world (4).
#4 Muscle Building Hormones
Testosterone and HGH are not negatively affected by low carb eating. Essential fatty acids control hormonal output a lot more than carbohydrates do. In fact, one of the best T-boosting foods are rich in omega-3s and cholesterol, such as eggs, fish, and beef.
- HGH gets stimulated by exercise, fasting and gets released the most during the first hours of sleep. That’s when your body conducts its repair mechanisms i.e. builds muscle, burns fat.
- Insulin is not needed for protein synthesis or to activate the mTOR pathway, that causes cellular growth. It’s synergistic with amino acids.
However, increased intracellular concentrations of leucine can stimulate protein synthesis independent of mTOR (5). Those eggs again – one the best source of protein in the world.
How to Build Muscle on Keto Blueprint
I think we’ve covered all that’s needed and proven that you can gain muscle on a ketogenic diet. Carbs aren’t essential for any of the required conditions, although they may assist the process.
So how to do it?
- Train hard enough. You won’t be able to do this initially, but afterwards, you’ll have more than enough energy to push your body beyond its limits. The longer you stay in ketosis, the better you adapt to using fat for fuel.
- Eat enough protein. How much protein to build muscle on keto? Not as much as a typical bodybuilding diet would prescribe. There are no significant benefits to going over 0.7-1.0 gram per lean body mass. Quality amino acids are a lot more important than quantities.
- Be in a caloric surplus. You can derive those extra calories from your body fat but it’s a very difficult process. You would have to be very fat adapted to be able to do this effectively. Other than that, on a ketogenic diet, those extra calories would come from dietary fat intake.
- Take care of your hormones. Resistance training, adequate nutrition, essential fatty acids and proper sleep should be your main focus to increase your testosterone and HGH. Cortisol counteracts against anabolism and too much stress makes you actually more catabolic.
It’s possible to build muscle on keto. What’s even greater about this is that it can happen while maintaining your current body composition and not put on any fat.
The main driver of muscle building on a low carb diet is training.
Muscle is a by-product of strength that is caused by a necessity for it. Carbs have an enhancing effect on hypertrophy but it’s almost like an illusion. You’ll hold onto more water weight but that doesn’t mean your lean body mass has increased.
You will be able to go beyond what your body’s capable even without having to eat carbs to replenish your glycogen. However, it takes slightly longer to do so with gluconeogenesis. Unless you’re a professional athlete who trains more than twice a day you don’t need to carb-load all of the time.
Building muscle on keto and getting stronger may take slightly longer but the gains will be QUALITY lean body mass. The other benefits of low carb eating make it worthwhile.
Who Should Do the Ketogenic Diet?
Keto’s not suitable for anyone. For most, it mainly has to do with psychological carb dependency.
A low-carb diet is perfect for those who want to maximize their health while still performing at high levels. If you plan on going to the Olympics, then you may be better off with eating more carbs.
For those who love the ketogenic diet but still want to increase their performance then they can still do so. If you want to put on lean muscle while losing body fat, then keto is a great option for that.
In addition to the standard ketogenic diet, there are also advanced protocols that are specifically designed for athletic performance.
I’ve written books about all of them and they can be used to build muscle, lose body fat, get stronger, faster all while staying in ketosis. Check them out!
My Book KETO BODYBUILDING is a training manual for low carb athletes wanting to build muscle and burn fat at the same time. It’s an Amazon bestseller.
P.S. If you want me to give you 101 ketogenic and nutrition coaching, then contact me.
- Norton, L.E., et al., The Leucine Content of a Complete Meal Directs Peak Activation but Not Duration of Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Mammalian Target of Rapamycin Signaling in Rats. The Journal of Nutrition, 2009. 139(6): p. 1103-1109.
- Millward, D.J., Knowledge Gained from Studies of Leucine Consumption in Animals and Humans. The Journal of Nutrition, 2012. 142(12): p. 2212S-2219S.
- Paddon-Jones, D., et al., Exogenous amino acids stimulate human muscle anabolism without interfering with the response to mixed meal ingestion. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2005. 288(4): p. E761-E767.