The keto diet is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around and in use for over a century. Originally prescribed by doctors to control diseases such as diabetes and epilepsy, the ketogenic diet has become one of the most popular diets in health and fitness circles too.
Thanks to the work of people like Dr. Atkins (The Atkins Diet), Dan Duchaine (Body Opus), Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale (The Metabolic Diet) and Lyle McDonald (The Ketogenic Diet), keto is now a popular if not-exactly mainstream weight loss diet.
But what about a keto bodybuilding diet? Does such a thing exist? Can you build muscle on a low-carb ketogenic diet? The surprising answer is yes! The keto diet and bodybuilding are definitely compatible and gaining muscle on keto means an end to the usual bulk and cut cycle that most bodybuilders follow.
However, because building muscle and getting strong are such taxing physical processes, you can’t use your mom’s ketogenic diet and expect to build muscle. Instead, you must follow a modified keto diet explicitly designed for muscle gain. Of course, this raises the whole “But don’t I need carbs to build muscle” question.
Do you need carbs to build muscle?
The short answer to this question is yes. The long answer is a bit more involving! When you eat carbs, your body breaks those carbs down into glucose, and that glucose is used for instant energy. Unused carbs are stored in your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Liver glycogen acts as a reservoir to keep your blood glucose levels stable while muscle glycogen provides your muscles with energy.
When you exercise or do any kind of physical activity, your body uses fat at low levels of intensity, and glucose/glycogen when the intensity levels are high. Lifting weights for bodybuilding is a very high-intensity activity which means muscle glycogen is vital.
Your body runs on a substance called ATP. ATP can be made aerobically from fat, or anaerobically from glucose and glycogen. In a traditional ketogenic diet, your carb intake is very low which means your body has to use fat for fuel as no glucose or glycogen is available.
Your brain and muscles cannot use fat directly for energy so your body converts fat into a substance called ketones that your brain and muscles can use. This process requires a lot of energy which is why the keto diet is so good for fat loss. On the downside, while ketones are a great source of energy during low-intensity aerobic exercise (cardio), they aren’t so good for bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding is very intense, and the workouts are typically anaerobic. This means that glucose and glycogen are your primary sources of energy when you lift weights. If your glycogen levels are low, as they will be if you don’t eat sufficient carbs, you won’t be able to train as long or as hard as you need to for muscle growth.
Muscle glycogen is stored locally. This means the glycogen stored in your legs is used by your legs, and the glycogen stored in your chest is used by your chest. This is important because it’s the key to making the keto diet and bodybuilding work.
Let’s assume you follow a typical bodybuilding split routine like this:
Monday – chest
Tuesday – back
Wednesday – legs
Thursday – rest
Friday – shoulders, and arms
Saturday – rest
Sunday – rest
Each workout depletes the glycogen stored within the muscles used. Your chest workout depletes the glycogen stores in your chest, leaving the glycogen stored elsewhere more-or-less intact. This means that, while you DO need carbs to fuel your workouts, you don’t need to eat carbs all the time. So long as you restock muscle glycogen before you train the same muscle group, you should have no problem gaining muscle on keto.
How do can you do this? The answer is to eat carbs at specific and predetermined times – enter the cyclic ketogenic diet. However, before we get into the nuts and bolts of that particular topic, we must discuss and establish what the cyclic ketogenic diet is an alternative for: the traditional approach to bodybuilding nutrition.
Bodybuilding Nutrition – The Traditional Approach
Ask most bodybuilders about their diet, and you’ll probably hear the terms “bulking and cutting.” That’s because most bodybuilders alternate between two very distinct phases of dieting. This is the traditional approach to bodybuilding nutrition.
Bulking, which is often a winter activity, involves eating lots of food to increase muscle size and strength relatively quickly. Common bulking foods include high-carb staples such as potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, as well as high-protein foods like meat, fish, and eggs. Bulking is not subtle, and most bodybuilders eat way more food than they need. As a result, many bulkers end up gaining as much fat as they do muscle.
As summer nears, many bodybuilders want to be able to strip off and reveal their hard-won muscle but, unfortunately, it’s now under a hefty layer of fat. To lose this muscle-obscuring blubber, many bodybuilders switch from a bulking diet to a cutting or fat loss diet. Cutting diets are invariably very strict, and while they do result in fat loss, they also lead to muscle loss too.
Cutting diets are quite aggressive and involve a significant calorie deficit. When faced with what is essentially a starvation scenario, your body will take steps to preserve what it views as a vital source of energy – stored body fat. Your body doesn’t know you are dieting and mistakenly assumes you are facing a famine. To protect you from starvation, it takes steps to make your fat stores last longer. One way it does this is by using muscle for fuel.
This approach to dieting means that at least some of the muscle built during the bulking phase is lost during the cutting phase. It’s like taking three steps forward and two steps back which wastes a whole lot of time and energy.
The cyclic ketogenic diet means an end to bulking and cutting, allowing you to gain muscle and lose fat (or maintain your current level of leanness) at the same time.
The Cyclic Ketogenic Diet – the best way to build muscle with keto
There are several interpretations of the ketogenic diet, but most limit your carb intake to 50 grams or less per day. Some are a little less strict, but it’s only by cutting your carb intake that you force your body to produce ketones and burn more fat for fuel.
With the cyclic ketogenic diet, you follow the regular ketogenic diet for 5-6 days per week, and then eat more carbs for 1-2 days per week. The “carb refeed” restores muscle glycogen so you can train intensely, but as you continue on your low carb diet, your body switches back into a fat-burning machine.
Some cyclic ketogenic diets say that you can eat as much carbohydrate as you like on your carb refeed days, but this usually leads to weight gain and makes getting back into ketosis much harder. Instead, you should limit your carb intake to 150-250 grams on your high carb days. This amount of carbohydrate will provide your muscles with plenty of energy, but not so much that you undo the benefit of your 5-6 days of ketosis.
Should you carb up for one or two days per week? That depends on your current body fat status and whether you want to gain muscle or lose fat. The more fat you have to lose, the longer you should stay in ketosis. If fat loss is your primary goal, stick to just one day of increased carbs per week. If you are already quite lean and your primary goal is muscle gain, two days of carbs should be fine.
So, what does a week of cyclic ketogenic dieting look like? Here’s an example of the cyclic keto diet in action:
Monday: <50 grams of carbs
Tuesday: <50 grams of carbs
Wednesday: <50 grams of carbs
Thursday: <50 grams of carbs
Friday: <50 grams of carbs
Saturday: No carbs before your workout but 100 grams of carbs immediately after training
Sunday: 150-250 grams of carbs but no carbs after about 5 pm
The cyclic ketogenic diet is more complicated than the standard keto diet, but that’s the price you have to pay if you want to build muscle while eating less than 50 grams of carbs per day and burning fat in the process. Many top athletes swear by the cyclic ketogenic approach, and it’s good for improving exercise performance.
There are a few downsides to this type of diet. Eating carbs will kick you out of ketosis which means for a couple of days per week you won’t be burning fat as fast as normal. However, this is offset by the fact you’ll have much more energy than usual and will be able to exercise harder and longer during the days immediately after your carb-refeed.
The other main disadvantage is that it’s very easy to go overboard during your carb refeeds. You need to use some self-control to avoid undoing the benefit of your five or so days without carbs. Because if this, make sure you measure the amount of carbs you eat to prevent overconsumption. The more carbs you eat during your refeed, the longer it’ll take to get back to ketosis.
You may also notice some significant body weight fluctuations during your cyclic ketogenic diet. This is to be expected. As your glycogen levels decrease, so too will your weight. Glycogen is a large molecule because it’s bound to water. As your muscle glycogen levels drop, you’ll also lose water too.
When you refeed, you will rapidly restock your glycogen stores and increase water retention too. It’s not uncommon to lose and then regain 5-7 pounds per week. Remember this is just water weight and nothing to worry about. Instead of worrying about your weight, focus more on body composition and leanness. If your waist measurement remains unchanged, you probably aren’t gaining fat.
Training on a cyclic ketogenic diet
When you combine the keto diet and bodybuilding, you need to follow a training program that reflects your undulating glycogen stores. There is no point trying to do your most productive workouts when your muscle glycogen levels are low. Your strength and endurance will take a nose-dive, and your workout will lack the necessary muscle-building intensity.
Instead, you should arrange your week so that you do your most important workouts soon after your carb refeed and when your energy and strength are at their highest. Yes, this does mean you may need to rethink your workouts, but you will get much better results if you do.
Here’s how to align your workouts with your cyclic ketogenic diet:
|Monday||Legs||<50 grams of carbs||Glycogen level + + +|
|Tuesday||Chest & back||<50 grams of carbs||Glycogen level + +|
|Wednesday||Rest||<50 grams of carbs||Glycogen level +|
|Thursday||Shoulders & arms||<50 grams of carbs||Glycogen level –|
|Friday||Rest||<50 grams of carbs||Glycogen level – –|
|Saturday||Full body||100-150g carbs post-workout||Glycogen level – – –/+ + +|
|Sunday||Rest||150-250g carbs, but no carbs after 5 pm||Glycogen level + + + +|
As you can see, the training week has been frontloaded so that you do your most productive workouts when your glycogen stores are at their highest. During the first few days, you should feel energized and strong. Don’t be surprised if you can lift more weight or do more reps than usual. Make the most of this by training harder and even a little longer than usual.
As you approach the middle of your week and as your glycogen levels start to decline, your energy and endurance will start to decrease. You may also feel a little weaker. Thursday’s workout will be a grind but don’t worry; you have already trained your shoulders and arms earlier in the week – albeit indirectly.
The last workout of the week will also be the hardest. The aim of this full body session to completely deplete your muscle and liver glycogen so that the carbs you eat during your refeed will be shunted preferentially into your muscles and liver.
A lot of bodybuilders stopped using full body workouts when they graduated from being a beginner, but they are the best way to deplete your glycogen stores and maximize insulin sensitivity. Here’s an example workout to try.
|1||Leg press||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
|2||Lat pulldowns||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
|3||Bench press||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
|5||Seated rows||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
|6||Shoulder press||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
|7||Barbell biceps curls||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
|8||Triceps pushdowns||3-4||8-15||60-90 seconds|
For even better results, do this workout as a circuit, i.e., do one set of each exercise in order. Rest when you finish the last exercise and then repeat the sequence again. Do 3-4 laps to deplete your glycogen stores fully.
Because of glycogen depletion, you will start this workout feeling tired, and by the end should feel utterly exhausted. Just remember that, as soon as your last rep is done, you are free to eat about 100-150 grams of carbs – a feast! While you should try and make sure these carbs are healthy, it wouldn’t be a disaster if you allowed yourself a treat. After a hard week of dieting and training, you deserve it.
The Importance of Protein
Gaining muscle on keto requires adequate dietary protein. That’s hardly news for most bodybuilders, but it’s such an essential dietary rule that it’s worth reiterating. Protein is vital for your bodybuilding success!
Hitting the gym and lifting heavy weights causes microscopic damage to your muscles, often called microtrauma. That might sound like bad news, but it’s actually critical for triggering the muscle-building process. After a workout, and with adequate rest and proper nutrition, your muscles grow back bigger and stronger than they were before.
This adaptive process means that, a few days later, your muscles are ready and able to deal with another workout. Of course, and assuming you are following a well-designed, progressive program, your next workout will be a little harder than the last one. This results in a slow but steady increase in muscle size and strength. Train hard, rest, eat, sleep, train harder, and repeat! While somewhat simplistic, that’s the process you need to follow to build the body of your dreams.
Your body needs building blocks called amino acids to repair this muscle damage, and you get amino acids from protein. There are 20 amino acids, and they can be divided into two groups – essential amino acids, of which there are nine, and non-essential, of which there are eleven. If you consume the essential amino acids, your body can synthesize the non-essential amino acids.
When you eat protein-rich foods like chicken or fish, your body breaks the protein down into amino acids and then repurposes them according to its needs. After intense training, when your body is in a broken down or catabolic state, those amino acids are used to repair damaged muscle tissue. To protect itself from future workouts, your body doesn’t just restore your muscles to their pre-exercise state, it overcompensates and builds a little more muscle.
If you don’t eat enough protein, your body will not have the amino acids it needs for muscle repair and growth. Gaining muscle on keto is impossible without adequate protein.
So, how much protein should you eat to build muscle?
To make sure you have enough amino acids for the muscle-building process, protein should make up around 30% of your daily calorie intake. For most people, this should come close to the standard protein intake recommendation of one gram of protein per pound of body weight, or about two grams per kilo.
Monitor your protein intake using a macro tracking app to make sure you hit your protein intake goal every day.
Good sources of protein that are also keto diet friendly include:
- Poultry – leave the skin on
- Oily fish – such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- Whole eggs
Foods like dairy, beans, grains, and legumes also contain protein and are good food options for vegetarians. However, most are also high in carbohydrate which means they are not compatible with the ketogenic diet.
What about calories?
One of the most significant advantages of the fat loss keto diet, in the early stages at least, is that you don’t need to count calories. That’s because converting dietary fat into high-energy ketones takes a lot of energy. This creates a sizable calorie deficit which soon leads to fat and weight loss. After all, when faced with a calorie deficit, your body has no choice but to burn sorted body fat for fuel.
However, for the keto diet and bodybuilding, calories are much more important. Training, recovering from your workouts, and building muscle all require energy, and that means you need a calorie surplus. If you don’t provide your body with enough calories, you won’t have the energy you need to train and grow.
Gaining muscle on keto means you need to provide your body with more calories than it needs. You don’t need to create a massive calorie surplus as doing so could lead to fat gain. However, you must make sure your body has more energy than it needs for basic maintenance.
How many calories should you eat? That’s a tricky question to answer. Your daily calorie requirements depend on several factors including:
- Your weight – the heavier you are, the more calories you need
- Your activity levels – the more active you are, the more you need to eat
- Your metabolism – some people have faster metabolisms than others
- Your age – older people tend to need fewer calories
- Your gender – men generally need more calories than women
- Your body type – naturally skinny ectomorphs need more calories than naturally fat endomorphs. Naturally muscular mesomorphs often require more calories too
You could use an app to determine your daily calorie needs or do one of several quite complicated equations – such as the Mifflin-St Jeor equation – but you probably don’t need to. Instead, maintain a reasonably stable diet and workout routine for a couple of weeks and monitor your progress.
If your weight is stable, increase your food intake by about 300-500 calories per day. Increase the size of your meals or add an extra snack or two per day. Monitor your progress for another week or two and then adjust again as necessary.
If you are gaining weight but too much of that weight is fat, reduce your food intake by 200-300 calories per day. Keep an eye on your waist measurement. If the waist of your pants is getting tighter faster than your shirtsleeves, you are probably gaining more fat than muscle!
What to eat for gaining muscle on keto?
A standard keto diet all-but bans foods that contain carbs. With the cyclic ketogenic diet, these foods are back on the menu but only during your carb refeeds.
During the strict keto phase, your diet should be around 70% fat and 30% protein. During the carb refeed stage, you should still consume approximately 30% protein, but your fat intake should be closer to 20%, and carbs should make up around 50% of your calorie intake. This means your diet will be much more mixed than a standard keto diet.
Not sure what to eat? Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. Here are some lists of foods to get you started!
As discussed earlier, protein is crucial for gaining muscle on keto. If you don’t eat enough protein, your body won’t have the amino acids it needs for muscle repair and growth. Make sure you include protein in all of your meals and at least a few of your snacks too.
- Organ meats
- Tofu, firm
- Tofu, silken
- Soy milk, unsweetened
Proteins to avoid: Processed meats, cured meats, cheap burgers, non-organic organ meats, sausage and hot dogs that contain a lot of grain fillers, and deli meats such as pepperoni and salami. You should also avoid fish sticks and chicken fingers as they are coated with high-carb breadcrumbs or batter.
Fats should be the mainstay of your bodybuilding ketogenic diet, with 70-80% of your calories coming from this food group. In fact, if you don’t eat enough fat, your progress will stall, and you will suffer from worse keto flu. The best keto fats are natural fats.
- Lard/beef dripping
- Coconut oil and coconut butter
- Flaxseed oil
- Olive oil
- Sesame seed oil
- MCT oil/powder
- Walnut oil
Fats to avoid: Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils found in packaged and processed foods, corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, and grapeseed oil, all of which are heavily refined and contain unhealthy trans fats.
Nuts and seeds:
Nuts and seeds are great for snacking. Low in carbs but high in fat and rich in protein too, they are a great addition to your keto diet. Be warned; nuts are high in calories so you should limit yourself to about 1-2 ounces per day. Good keto nut choices include:
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Almonds and almond butter
- Unsweetened shredded coconut
- Pine nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Unsweetened peanut butter
Nuts to avoid: Avoid nuts and nut products that are heavily processed, salted, flavored, roasted, or sweetened, e.g., some kinds of peanut butter contain added sugar. Also, avoid cashews as they are quite high in carbs for a nut.
Regular milk contains a lot of sugar and carbs because it has been processed, turning lactose into glucose. However, there are still plenty of dairy foods you can eat that contain fat and protein but next-to-no carbs.
- Blue cheese
- Cheddar cheese
- Goats cheese
- Cream cheese
- Sour cream
- Heavy whipping cream
- Full-fat natural yogurt
Dairy foods to avoid: Low-fat milk, evaporated and condensed milk, flavored milk, artificial creamer, and whipped cream in a can.
You need to include veggies in your meals so that your body gets the vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly and stay healthy. The best keto veggies are those that grow above ground. Here are 30 of the lowest carb veggies around.
- Green beans
- Beet greens
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Green and red cabbage
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Bell and chili peppers
- Pumpkin and squash
- Mung beans
Vegetables to avoid: Potatoes and other starchy below-ground vegetables as well as all grains, beans, pulses, and legumes. Those last few items aren’t vegetables, but they had to go somewhere!
Many keto dieters are amazed to discover that they can eat fruit and stay in ketosis. While you can’t eat apples and bananas and expect to stay keto, you can eat berries and other low carb/low sugar fruits in reasonable amounts. Blunt their blood glucose-elevating effect by serving with heavy whipping cream. Delicious!
- Sour cherries
Fruits to avoid: An apple contains 20g of carbs, a banana contains 24g, and oranges aren’t much better. Also avoid fruit juices, even if you have made them yourself. It takes a lot of fruit to make a glass of juice, and that means a lot of carbs and sugar.
You’ll need to avoid these foods during the strict keto phase of your diet, but they are back on the menu when it’s time to refeed and restock your glycogen stores. Enjoy reintroducing these foods to your diet, but also make sure you don’t consume more than the recommended amount.
- Potatoes – all varieties
Carbs to avoid: Candy, cakes, ice cream, sweets, soda, pastries, pies, and refined high-sugar and high-carb foods in general. Small portions as treats are fine but binging on unhealthy carbs is not.
Hints and tips for cyclic keto diet success
If you follow the information in this guide, you should soon find yourself gaining muscle on keto. Just follow a strict keto diet for 5-6 days per week, and then enjoy a carb refeed for 1-2 days per week. Adjust your training so that you do your most important workouts in the days immediately after you have restocked your glycogen stores. It really is that simple!
But, so you can get even better results from your cyclic keto diet and bodybuilding lifestyle, here are seven tips to supercharge your progress.
1. Count your carbs – we’ve said it before, but we’ll repeat it, you MUST count your carbs in this kind of diet. Use a food tracking app to make sure you eat 50 grams of carbs or less during your strict keto phase and between 150-250 grams a day during your refeed. Don’t try and guess your carb intake – getting the most from keto means you need to be precise.
2. Use some supplements – if you eat right and train hard, a few well-chosen supplements will help you get even better results from your efforts. Proven choices include:
- Creatine – great for boosting strength, endurance, and muscle size.
- Protein powder – a protein shake or two per day makes hitting your daily protein target much easier.
- BCAAs – short for branch chain amino acids, BCAAs are heavily catabolized during exercise. Taking them in supplement form may speed up recovery and boost your gains. Consuming BCAAs during your workout can also help ward off fatigue and may even reduce muscle breakdown and soreness.
- Pre-workouts – as your glycogen levels decline, so too will your energy levels. A high-caffeine pre-workout supplement can give you the boost you need without kicking you out of ketosis. Make sure your chosen product is sugar and carb-free.
3. Watch out for hidden carbs – hidden carbs aren’t much of an issue during refeeds, but they can be a significant obstacle during your strict keto phase. Common sources of hidden carbs include:
- Milk substitutes
- Baked beans
- Salad dressings
- Barbeque sauce
- Sugar-free cookies and candy
- Protein bars
- Liquid eggs
- Sweetened peanut butter
- Skimmed and low-fat milk
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Pasta sauces
- Dried soup mixes
- Carrots, beets, and Jerusalem artichokes
Make sure you read the nutrition labels on your food to make sure you don’t eat carbs by mistake. If you are in doubt, stick with foods you know are carb-free.
4. Drink plenty of water – your body is not much more than a big bag of salty water! Your blood is 90% water, your muscles are 70% water, and your body needs an abundant supply of good old H20 to function properly. This is especially true for keto dieters because your body expels a lot of water during ketosis, and that could lead to dehydration.
Dehydration can make symptoms of the keto flu much worse and can also leave you feeling weak and fatigued.
Avoid all these problems by drinking around 64 oz. of plain water per day. If you aren’t used to drinking a lot of water, increase your water intake gradually over several weeks. Your bladder will thank you for this kindness!
5. Track your progress – this article contains a lot of implementable information but, despite this, it’s still only a guide. To get the most from the cyclic ketogenic diet, you must track your progress so that you can manipulate all the variables to match your individual needs.
Record everything including your workouts, your weight, your diet, your sleep schedule, and your mood. Use this information to establish baselines, and then make changes if you aren’t getting the results you want. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet; customize the cyclic ketogenic diet and your workouts so that they work for you. And don’t be afraid to experiment.
6. Get your sleep – hitting the gym and eating right is only half of the muscle-building process. Muscles do most of their growing when you rest and, in particular, while you sleep. Hard-training bodybuilders need about 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Not just at weekends but every night of the week. Go to bed early, turn off your cellphone, and get plenty of quality sleep. If you are training hard, eating right, but still aren’t seeing the results you want, it’s a good bet you aren’t getting enough sleep.
7. Be determined but be patient too – muscles don’t get bigger by accident. You have to pay your dues in the gym, and also in the kitchen. There will be times when you feel like you want to quit but you can’t; you must grit your teeth and redouble your efforts. You CAN do it!
However, even with all this determination, your progress will often be infuriatingly slow. Don’t worry – this is entirely normal. As well as being determined, you’ll also need to be patient, and be prepared to keep at it for as long as it takes to reach your muscle-building goals.
Take comfort in the fact that every workout you do, every healthy meal you eat, and every keto diet cycle you complete takes you one small step closer to your target.
Have you heard the expression “knowledge is power”? It’s a lie! Knowledge is only powerful when you put it to good use. Until that point, knowledge is nothing but empty words.
If you are tired of failed diets and unsuccessful training programs, doing more of the same is not the answer. In fact, doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is the very definition of madness! Take your courage in your hands and dare to try something new.
The cyclic ketogenic diet is one of the best ways to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. It requires planning and commitment, and you will have to do a few things that may be new to you, but that’s how you make progress. Break out of your current diet and training rut and take the cyclic keto bodybuilding diet for a spin. You will LOVE the results!