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Can You Build Muscle On A Ketogenic Diet?


Few topics in bodybuilding seem as divisive as the keto diet. Some love being in ketosis and believe ketones to be a superior fuel source to glucose while others claim that following a keto diet is unnecessarily restrictive and even dangerous. The truth is that the ketogenic diet is perfectly safe for almost everyone and even has therapeutic uses. It is very effective at treating epilepsy after medicine has failed and has been shown to help mitigate the symptoms of dementia caused by alzheimer’s disease. There is even evidence that when combined with a relatively high caloric restriction, a ketogenic diet can shrink tumors and may possibly kill off cancer cells. But what about ketosis for the average healthy individual? Is the ketogenic diet appropriate for a bodybuilding lifestyle, in particular for gaining muscle?

First lets delve into what ketosis really means and the variations of the ketogenic diet. Take a peek at the ketogenic food period.

Ketosis is the process your body goes through when glycogen stores are depleted and you are not consuming carbohydrates to replenish them. Typically, after a few days of being in this glycogen-depleted state your body will get the picture that no more glucose is coming so it better find a new fuel source. This is when the liver begins to produce ketone bodies from fatty acids which will enter the bloodstream and be used much the same way glucose would be. Once carbohydrates are reintroduced into the diet and glucose enters the bloodstream the body will stop producing ketones and resort to using the glucose for energy once again. There are a few different approaches to take when it comes to ketogenic diets.

Standard Ketogenic Diet

SKD is the traditional low-carb ketogenic diet. You consume high amounts of fats, moderate amounts of protein, and under 50gs carbs daily. Fats should make up about 60% of caloric intake. People often consume too much protein when attempting to get into ketosis. The body attempts to convert amino acids into glucose if protein intake is too high and the body will never reach the state of ketosis, so aim for no more than .8g/lb of daily protein consumption.

Cyclical Ketogenic Diet

CKD is the same as the SKD except you have a refeed where you consume high amounts of carbs and low fats once every 4-7 days.  Aim for 2-3x your bodyweight in carbs while lowering fat to 10% of total intake. Your fat intake needs to be low because insulin levels will be spiked due to the increase in carbs, which will promote fat storage. This refeed serves to replenish glycogen stores so that you can have glucose ready for use if needed like during an intense workout.

Targeted Ketogenic Diet

When following TKD you schedule 30-60gs of carbohydrates before and immediately after resistance training. This allows you to use glucose as the primary fuel source during your workout and to partially replenish glycogen stores post workout. Following this protocol allows for more intense workouts but much less time spent in ketosis.

Building Muscle On A Ketogenic Plan

Most people don’t restrict carbs enough to reach ketosis while cutting, much less during a bulk. And why would you? How can you possibly bulk and not enjoy pizza or pasta? Honestly in most cases your performance in the gym will be better with a higher carb intake and you will likely put on size faster. But there are a few reasons why someone may want to focus on building muscle while still maintaining ketosis:

  • You may simply feel better running on ketones. Some people claim to think clearer and maintain a better mood when not dependent on carbohydrates. It appears to provide a “cleaner” energy without the crashing you may experience consuming carbs.
  • You only want to bulk for a short period (4-8 weeks) before cutting again. This will keep you keto adapted so you don’t need to spend 3-10 days transitioning from burning glucose to burning ketone bodies when start your cut.
  • You have above average blood glucose levels. If you fasting blood glucose levels are above 100 or you are prediabetic than your insulin sensitivity may benefit from higher fat intake over carbs.
  • You want to add as little fat as possible during your bulk, even if it means growing muscle at a slower rate

Regardless of your reason for wanting to bulk while on a ketogenic diet, it will happen as long as you are training hard, eating enough protein, and consuming a caloric surplus.

SKD may not be the most optimal approach for building muscle in the gym. During a bulk you are going to get the most out of your training sessions if you have glucose in your body and intense workouts will ultimately help you grow the most. TKD or CKD will allow you to train harder and longer. Let’s look at a couple examples of how to set these up using a push/pull/legs routine in a 3 days on and 1 day off format.

Option 1: Bulking With CKD

If you are trying to gain muscle using the cyclical keto diet approach, you will be full of glycogen stores for the first part of the week so schedule your most stubborn bodyparts the day after your refeed. This will allow you to target your weak area with the most possible intensity and volume. For this example we will use legs as our weak spot..

Day 1- Pull day: Refeed with 2-3x your bodyweight in carbohydrates, drop fats to under 10% of total intake, You can also lower protein slightly as long it you are still taking in at least .6g/lb.

Day 2- Leg Day: You will be stock full of stored energy from your refeed so really push yourself this session to bring up your weak area. Supplementing with a potent pre workout like Sheer Platinum Pre-X will provide more endurance and help you reach a higher intensity level to get the most out of your workout. Consume under 50g’s of carbs and high fat. 50-60% of total calories should come from fat with about .8g/lb of protein.

Day 3- Push Day: You may start to feel a little sluggish around day 3 as your body is adjusting to ketosis. Follow the same macronutrient breakdown as the day before.

Day 4- Off: On this day try to consume under 30gs of carbs since it is an off day from the gym. If you are successfully in ketosis energy levels should be ok. Keep fats high and protein the same.

Day 5- Pull Day:  Stick to lower carbs and higher fat the first part of the day. Start consuming carbohydrates in all meals post workout (unless you workout early in which case hold off on carbs until about noon). Total carbs should be between 1-2x your bodyweight. Keep protein around .8g/lb and total fat intake should be under 30% of total calories.

Day 6- Leg Day: Energy Levels should be high after your “mini refeed” so you are ready once again to attack your weak area. Return to 50g of carbs max with high fat.

Day 7- Push Day: On this day you are finishing depleting all remaining glycogen stores so energy levels could dip. Once again consume 50g carb max, 50-60% of calories from fat, and about .8g/lb of protein.

Day 8- Off Day: Stay under 30gs of carbs on this day. You should be back into ketosis at this point. Start back at day 1 the following day.

Option 2: Bulking with TKD

If using the TKD approach you will have glucose available for fuel during all workouts. If gaining mass is your main priority the TKD may be more beneficial than the CKD approach. Lets use the same push/pull/legs split with the same emphasis on legs.

Day 1- Push Day: This is your refeed day. It’s a little different than the refeed followed during CKD because your glycogen stores are somewhat replenished after every workout using TKD. Instead of having carbs in every meal, have them only in the first meal pre workout and in all meals post workout. If you workout first thing in the morning schedule carbs only starting immediately post workout. Total carbs should be between 1.5-2x your bodyweight. Protein will need to be around .8g/lb with total fat under 20% of caloric intake

Day 2- Leg Day: Glycogen levels are full so you should be able to endure the most grueling workout of the week Consume 30-60gs of carbs both pre and post workout. The pre workout carbs can be simple or complex but make sure the post workout carbs are simple with a high gi. Protein will be at .8g/lb and fats should be at about 50% of total caloric intake.  

Day 3- Push Day : Follow the same macronutrient pattern from the previous day.

Day 4- Off Day: Since you are not working out this day aim for under 30g of total carbs and 60% of total calories from fat. Keep protein around .8g/lb. Energy levels could waiver as you should be adapting to ketosis at this point.

Day 5- Pull Day: At this point you should be in ketosis up until your pre workout meal. Treat this as a typical TKD day with 30-60g of carbs pre and post workout.

Day 6- Leg Day: Follow the previous days macronutrient breakdown. If you are sufficiently keto adapted you will likely get thrown out of ketosis after your pre workout meal up until about 12 hours after your post workout meal. So essentially you are only spending a couple hours in ketosis most days..

Day 7- Push Day: Same protocol as the day before.

Day 8- Off: Treat this off day identical to day 4. Start back at day 1 the following day.

In Conclusion

If you are new to ketosis, spend 7-10 days doing the standard ketogenic diet to get your body properly adapted to running off of ketones prior to starting TKD or CKD. The above protocols will work to help you build muscle as long as you are taking in a 500-1000 calorie surplus. It will likely be at a slower rate than with a high carb consumption but it may help you add less fat in the process if you tend to have troubles regulating carb intake.

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