Can You Build Muscle On A Ketogenic Diet?
The other day, I was on a phone call with a good friend and fellow strength coach, Joe Dowdell, CSCS, of Peak Performance in New York City. I told him my current deadlift personal record stood at a respectable 420 pounds but that I aspired to pull a 500.
He told me it was "doable."
Great. Then I threw him a curveball worthy of Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw.
I wanted to add 80 pounds to my deadlift … while following a ketogenic diet. Joe let out a big sigh. Staying on a ketogenic diet means eating so few carbohydrates that when your glycogen stores empty, your body cashes-in on a process called 'ketosis' for energy. The carbohydrate threshold to stay in ketosis will vary by individual, but the guideline for most folks is fewer than 50 grams of carbs.
I was dead-set on eating fewer than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day. How low is that? One medium banana would place you over your daily limit!
Wait, don't carbs stimulate muscle growth? How could this work in the long term? More important, can I add 80 pounds to my deadlift without eating much carbs? These questions and more piqued the scientist in me.
So I set out to find the answers not only by poring over the scientific literature but through real-world application on the gym floor as well.
Now before you rush down to the bottom of the article to see if I did it, I want to preface the grand finale by explaining the anabolic capacity of carbohydrates. Let me walk you through several key areas of anabolism in which carbohydrates and insulin play a role.
Carbohydrates, Protein, and Insulin
Carbohydrates create anabolism largely by setting off a cascade of hormone-driven events. (Just so we're clear, you also get an insulin response from protein as well.) Chief among these events is secretion of a hormone called insulin from the pancreas. Many people realize that insulin regulates blood glucose levels, but insulin is not a one-trick pony.
It is so multifunctional that many experts believe it to be absolutely integral to muscle synthesis—among other things. For example, one of insulin's many roles is driving amino acid uptake; in other words, it gets amino acids out of your bloodstream and into your muscles.
Thus, carbohydrates and the ensuing insulin response obviously have a great deal to do with muscle growth.
Carbohydrates and Protein Synthesis
When looking specifically at protein synthesis, carbohydrates are not required. Leucine—found in egg yolks, for example—is an essential amino acid and is the primary driver of protein synthesis. That means protein synthesis can occur in the absence of carbohydrates1-3.
So back to the pressing questions at hand: Is insulin anabolic? Does it help build muscle?
First off, anabolism is often incorrectly used as a synonym for muscle protein synthesis. I encourage you to take a broader view of anabolism beyond the mere combination of amino acids for building muscular tissue.
Anabolism encompasses the entire physiological process that supports muscle building! In that sense, yes, insulin is most definitely anabolic.
Carbohydrates, Insulin, and Recovery
Recovery from muscle breakdown is an oft-overlooked cog in this muscle-building machine. After all, the better you can recover from workouts, the more frequently you can train. Training frequency is a major key player for hypertrophy. Carbohydrates enhance recovery and thus your muscle-building capacity.
While the carbohydrate-mediated stimulation of insulin does not lead to protein synthesis per se, it does reduce muscle breakdown4. In essence, the anti-catabolic nature of carbohydrates in turn makes them anabolic. Whaaaat? Remember, you're working to divorce your association of anabolism from protein synthesis.
In that light, carbohydrate indeed is anabolic; it contributes to the whole muscle-building process. The addition of insulin exerts beneficial effects on the dance between protein synthesis and breakdown, called nitrogen balance5,6.
Carbohydrates also enhance the speed of recovery. During intense exercise, the strength of your immune system is temporarily compromised, but carbohydrates reduce the impact of this immunosuppressive effect7 and help restore depleted glycogen stores. Whether you should immediately shove a sweet potato down your gullet after training depends on the type of training you're doing, training frequency, and your overall goals.
If you train only three days per week, cramming carbohydrates into your muscles immediately following a workout isn't a priority; your regular carbohydrate consumption throughout the day will help with glycogen replenishment. If you're trying to gain a ton of muscle mass, it probably doesn't hurt to inhale a couple of bananas post-training, independent of nutrient timing.
In my opinion, creatine is a must-use supplement. Whether it is due to its well-known ability to increase strength9 or its lesser-known ability to potentially improve cognitive function10 and insulin sensitivity11, I recommend you use it every day.
It's known that taking creatine along with carbohydrates increases intramuscular creatine levels due to insulin's effects on creatine transport12,13 and enhances muscle's creatine storage capacity13.
In addition, insulin can enhance electrolyte build-up in cells which, like over-packing the muscle's creatine stores, increases cell volume14. Increased cellular hydration and volume both facilitate the kickstart of anabolism15.
Anabolism Without Carbohydrates?
After all I've discussed here, it's clear that carbohydrates are anabolic. It's time to circle back to my original deadlift conquest. Was building strength and muscle possible while on a ketogenic diet? Dowdell's sigh notwithstanding, I found that the answer is an emphatic yes!
Don't get me wrong, being ketogenic while training hard was no cakewalk. In three and a half months, I packed 80 pounds into my deadlift and pulled a new PR of 500 pounds on my first attempt.
It turns out that while carbohydrates are anabolic, I am still able to achieve an anabolic feat in the nearly complete absence of carbohydrates. The human body is an amazing machine, possessing the ability to make intelligent adaptations to a variety of situations.
In a chronically low-carb environment, the body doesn't follow the normal biochemical rules because it has to change. It becomes much more efficient with muscle glycogen, it up-regulates gene expression of certain enzymatic machinery needed for maximum performance, and it adapts as needed to excel in the presence of far fewer carbohydrates and much less insulin.
Quite simply, my adventure in carbohydrate-less anabolism was to prove that you can perform at a high level on minimal carbohydrate—at least in the short term. Carbohydrates are not required to flip the protein synthesis switch, but perhaps there are other ways to make the overall anabolic process more efficient and effective.
Does that mean everyone should adopt a ketogenic diet? I don't think it is for everyone (and perhaps not for the long-term), but it's still interesting to see what your body can achieve through thick and thin.
What are your thoughts on achieving feats of strength while on a ketogenic diet? I'd love to know, so share your comments below!
- 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.
- Chow, L.S., et al., Mechanism of insulin's anabolic effect on muscle: measurements of muscle protein synthesis and breakdown using aminoacyl-tRNA and other surrogate measures. American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2006. 291(4): p. E729-E736.
- WALSH, C.H., et al., Studies in Whole Body Potassium and Whole Body Nitrogen in Newly Diagnosed Diabetics. QJM, 1976. 45(2): p. 295-301.
- Valarini, R., et al., Anabolic Effects of Insulin and Amino Acids in Promoting Nitrogen Accretion in Postoperative Patients. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 1994. 18(3): p. 214-218.
- Gleeson, M. and N.C. Bishop, Modification of immune responses to exercise by carbohydrate, glutamine and anti-oxidant supplements. Immunol Cell Biol, 2000. 78(5): p. 554-561.
- Jentjens, R. and A. Jeukendrup, Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Med, 2003. 33(2): p. 117-44.
- Rawson, E.S. and J.S. Volek, Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. J Strength Cond Res, 2003. 17(4): p. 822-31.
- Benton, D. and R. Donohoe, The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores. Br J Nutr, 2011. 105(7): p. 1100-5.
- Eijnde, B.O.t., et al., Effect of Oral Creatine Supplementation on Human Muscle GLUT4 Protein Content After Immobilization. Diabetes, 2001. 50(1): p. 18-23.
- Steenge, G.R., et al., Stimulatory effect of insulin on creatine accumulation in human skeletal muscle. American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1998. 275(6): p. E974-E979.
- Green, A.L., et al., Carbohydrate ingestion augments skeletal muscle creatine accumulation during creatine supplementation in humans. American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1996. 271(5): p. E821-E826.
- Schliess, F., Call volume and insulin signaling. International review of cytology, 2003. 225: p. 187-228.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(10): p. 2857-72.
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From my experience I hate going on a ketogenic diet of the sorts. Tried it last summer and will not be doing it again. I always felt tired, couldn't think straight, and eventually lost all energy on the weekends. I'm not saying that taking a near carb-free diet is bad, but like Mike said. It's not for everyone.
I think there are definitely people whose physiology is not optimal for ketogenic diets. The headaches can often be due to low sodium levels as insulin causes the kidneys to retain sodium so going into nutritional ketosis causing the release of a lot of sodium.
mroussell is correct- when i first started ketosis i had the same feeling and ended up making a nice chicken broth based soup which upped my sodium level and i felt great. didnt even need to do it again. ketosis for a full year now almost
Sometimes on sundays (non training day for me) i consume less than 50g of carbs and i don't feel low energy levels, because i believe it is a very short term approach. It helped me a lot in losing body fat. However, during the week, when i went low carb (around 150g), for about 4 months, very slowly a was losing strenght and energy, even with higher carb days. Now that i am reverse dieting, i feel my strenght coming back. In my opinion carbs help a lot in performance. I would be curious to know how better Mike's performance got after having carbs back in. Maybe he can deadlift 600lbs!
I've made some of my biggest strength gains while on a relatively low carb diet. I increased all my PRs in the main lifts over a 3 month period while ingesting less then 50G of carbs a day, with one or two "carb lenient" days in the week. This helped me to stay incredibly lean throughout my strength and muscle building process. I had a very clean and healthy diet outside of the low carbs, and I ingested quite a bit of protein and fats. I utilized the fats as energy store instead of carbs. It worked well for me. Just like this article indicates, the human body is still light years ahead of our understanding, and it's adaptability is often overlooked.
Ketosis lowers blood pH, making the blood more acidic than it should be. One of the bi products of ketosis is acetone, which can often be smelled on the breath. In diabetics Ketosis can lead to Ketoacidosis which can be deadly. Studies have also shown that certain hormones are negatively affected by long term Ketosis.
Yes but these is a big different between dietary ketosis and ketoacidosis. I haven't seen research showing adverse effects of dietary ketosis. While expensive, it is interesting to to monitor dietary ketosis via blood (like a diabetic does their blood glucose). You quickly see how hard it can be to get your ketone levels up.
What was your body weight when you deadlifted 420 compared to 500. You can't increase your deadlift 80 lbs without gaining some weight and do you think you gained a higher percentage of muscle than fat by going on the Ketogenic diet?
I put on ~5lbs of body weight. Got leaner in the process. I didn't track body changes as I should have though.
I find it hard to believe you built muscle and lost fat at the same time unless you were either new to lifting or using steroids.
i found when on a ketosis diet you are still able to build muscle mass while dropping bodyfat. your body essentially uses the fat as fuel to build more muscle is the way i like to look at it. ive been on ketosis for the past year and have only made gains in terms of size measurements and lowered bodyfat. sometimes my calories hit around 3k - 500 and thats enough for me to consistantly improve in size and strength. everyones different
I know for a fact that building muscle on a ketogenic diet is possible, because i maintain a ketogenic diet almost year round currently and continue to progress in my lifts. My raw powerlifting total is now over 1200 thanks to this method and I have not even been forced to bulk while increasing my strength! I am seeing great lean mass gains and strength gains on a ketogenic diet and plan on maintaining this diet for as long as possible.
I know i will get stronger after a while regardless of what diet i'm on. I probably need to make sure i stay fully hydrated and eat my meals on time. also get some veges in atleast.
But I do find that i am low in energy and my body needs time to get used to it. So my lifts may possibly not be at full capacity like with moderate carbs.
So I prefer to have complex carbs for breakfast, pre and post workout. If not atleast have carbs fro breakfast and lunch unless I seriously need to limit for important health reasons.
This is actually how I lost about 25 pounds of fat in 3 months. It was rough, but you get used to it quick. However, now since I am trying to up my carbs to 200g a day I have found that any carbs I eat don't get processed well because my body isn't using them how it normally does from being so low carb for so long, so that is one thing to consider. You may not be able to successfully go back to a higher carb diet afterwards if you want. I tried a week of 250g of carbs a day and gained fat (total calories were 2300 a day), this week I am trying 200g a day (still around 2300 total calories a day), and so far it's ok, but I think sticking around 150g to 175g a day or less is the most I can tolerate to stay lean... So in other words it worked great for losing weight, but now my carb metabolism is all messed up.
same here- when i have a week or so of having a "regular" high carb diet i dont feel well at all. doesnt work so well when im having alcohol as im a super lightweight drunk now lol
try upping your carb intake slowly- if you were at less than 50g of carbs a day on ketosis hit 100g for a week, then 150, and so on. i didnt do this tho- i just started implementing a TKD (targeted ketosis diet). carbs befoer and after a workout.
also remember your carb days while on ketosis are very important theya re done right for your metabolism so you dont gain a bunch of fat when you do hit carbs again and go off ketosis
I have pulled my heaviest (545lbs) eating keto. I have more energy when utilizing fats for fuel, as would be expected (fats =9kcal/g vs carbs at 4kcal/g). But I've never put on muscle mass eating keto. Its just not really optimal for making IMO (maintaining them and getting lean and strong its amazing for though).
It is impossible to gain significant strength without gaining weight. The strength gains would be a result of improved technique. The simple fact of natural bodybuilding is you must be calorie positive to gain muscle and calorie negative to lose fat, noobs excluded. Any article not discussing calorie position is incomplete.
Thats not necessarily true. Powerlifters purposely do not gain extra weight or size, but they do get stronger over time. A lot of this does have to due with improved technique of course, but you don't absolutely need to put on more weight to move more weight.
Thank you! This article was right on time for me! I just thought the other day (actual day that this was posted) that i wanted to try ketosis, again. I know I struggled when I went low carb for Shortcut to Shred, but that was a far more intense workout. What are your suggestions for the type of lifting one should do on this kind of diet? Some good heavy lifting with reduced cardio?