It has long been believed to be near impossible to gain muscle on a ketogenic or low-carbohydrate diet.
Because carbohydrates, as a macronutrient in an appropriate context with respect to exercise and energy, have a clear anabolic function in muscle tissue (as well as in adipose tissue).
Which is why bodybuilders’ tupperwares are always full of rice and potatoes.
This idea has been relayed generation after generation, from one person to the next, in one gym after another, and until not so long ago, it was never questioned.
If you want to grow, you’ve got to consumer carbohydrates.
- But is that really true?
- Or better put, can muscle be hypertrophied without an exogenous supply of carbohydrates?
Keto Diet as a Lifestyle
This aims to generate the so-called nutritional ketosis, an elevation of the ketone bodies in plasma in concentrations of around 0.5-3 mmol/l.
The principal reason for following a keto diet is still weight loss, given its anorectic effect.
But in recent years many followers have turned “keto” into a lifestyle.
Some people follow the keto diet extra strictly, either for the physical or psychological benefits (we can talk about this in another post).
Ketogenic Diet and Sport
What’s more, in recent years studies have started looking at the keto diet in sports.
Many theories have been put forward:
- Can you gain muscle with keto?
- Is there a decline in physical performance?
- Which sports would benefit from ketogenic nutrition?
- Does it affect high intensity work?
In which sports could it be useful?
- Sports that depend on a certain weight, such as certain contact sports or martial arts.
- Climbing, where it is important to be strong but light.
- If you want to lower your body fat % without compromising your amateur sports performance.
- Resistance sports.
Is it possible to Gain Muscle on the Keto Diet?
For this, we’ll look at the following study (1) (one of the many conducted in recent years).
During the study, a conventional Western diet was compared with a keto diet in 25 male university students (many of these studies are done on either women or men to achieve greater homogeneity).
The principal outcomes (which are want you want to measure) were:
- An increase in fat-free mass (muscle, bone mass).
- Sports performance.
The results can be summarised as follows:
- Fat-free mass increased in both groups. 2.4% with keto and 4.4% with the Western diet, by the tenth week.
- However, in weeks 10-12, the ketogenic diet group increased their fat-free mass to 4.8%, ending up with a larger increase than the Western diet group.
- All results were statistically consistent..
There are two lessons we can take from this study:
- Lesson 1: yes, it is possible to gain muscle mass on the keto diet.
- Lesson 2: in the first weeks of the keto diet, the gains can be lower than a conventional diet.
If we look specifically at hyertrophy, studies (like this one (2)), show that sports performance and overall strength do not decrease on a well-planned and long enough (essential) keto diet.
But just because it doesn’t get worse doesn’t mean it gets better. It’s a very important distinction.
Tips for gaining muscle mass on a keto diet
Being on an anorectic diet, it won’t be easy.
That’s to say, a diet that reduces appetite. You should know your approximate calories intake level well and increase them by at least 10-15%.
At least every 3-4 weeks, recalculate your calories maintenance levels, as weight changes are sometimes rapid and abrupt.
A surplus maintained over a log period of time can cause a resistance to insulin and lipotoxicity.
Remember, a surplus is not for life.
A ketogenic diet is high in fat, not protein.
This means that including very high protein figures will displace the star macro in keto: fat.
You will realise that increasing the amount of protein will prevent you from reaching a 80-85% kcal from fats, which is what the keto diet prescribes.
Don’t worry about neoglycogenesis, when you adapt to the ketosis those amino acids will be used to create muscle, not glucose.
In theory, you shouldn’t go over 50 grams.
I say in theory, because as you’ll see, this target depends on a number of variants: your body weight, your level of physical exercise, the type and quantity of your workouts, etc.
We’ll discuss the Targeted Ketogenic Diet another day, which is particularly interesting for athletes wanting to benefit from carbs, but at the same time go on a keto diet.
- Whey protein: a classic you can increase your use of if your goal is gaining lean mass
- Chromium picolinate: great for body recomposition as it supports lean mass preservation and fat loss.
- Creatine monohydrate: essential to maximise your workouts and gain muscle.
- Mineral salts: especially when used at the beginning of a keto diet
As always, beginners will have a much easier time gaining muscle mass, on keto or any other dietary approach.
However, let’s be honest, it’s not something that, in view of the available evidence, adds any advantage to the process of muscle hypertrophy.
For certain people, is can be counter-productive (difficulty in generating surpluses, difficult keto adaptation, poor adherence due to social issues, etc.).
Have patience, as a drop in performance is expected at the start of a keto diet. The real benefits don’t come until after the first 4-6 weeks, and sometimes even later.
If you liked this post, don’t forget to share it. We’ll be back soon with even more interesting topics. Best regards, and keep on improving!
- Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Roberts MD, Sharp MH, Joy JM, Shields KA, et al. The Effects of Ketogenic Dieting on Body Composition, Strength, Power, and Hormonal Profiles in Resistance Training Males. J Strength Cond Res. 2017.
- ACTRN12618000035224. Keto-lifting: the effect of a ketogenic diet on strength performance. 2018.
- We’ve already spoken about the nutritional aspect, click here and to find out about volume training on keto.
- Everything you need to know about the Keto Diet in this post.