Understanding how the keto diet works is key to using it for your goals. A common misconception is that you can’t build muscle on keto. You’ll hear bodybuilders say things like “Muscles need to be fueled with carbs to get bigger” or “Carbs prevent muscle loss.”
As more studies are being conducted on the keto diet, we realize that filling your body with carbs is not a must. This is important for those who seek to optimize their performance and physique while controlling blood sugar levels.
This guide will teach you everything you need to know.
What Is The Keto Diet?
The ketogenic or keto diet limits carbohydrate intake to 20 to 50 grams a day. Most of your daily calories should come from fat while protein is kept at moderate amounts.
As the term implies, following a keto diet puts your body in ketosis. This is a normal metabolic state in which your body burns fat and produces more ketones that serve as fuel.
Back in the 1920s, the keto diet was used by physicians to treat childhood epilepsy (3). Now, it’s being used to prevent and manage various diseases.
Can You Build Muscle On Keto?
The short answer to this question is yes — gaining muscle on keto is possible if you know how to do it properly. Studies have proved the effectiveness of a low-carb, keto diet for preserving and achieving lean muscle gains without affecting your performance.
Let’s take a look at some of them:
- A study done in 24 healthy males showed that being in a ketosis state reduced fat mass without decreasing lean body mass. The researchers also hypothesized that increasing calorie intake combined with resistance training will lead to gains in lean body mass (4).
- In a randomized controlled trial, gymnasts followed a keto diet for one month while receiving the same training. These subjects didn’t lose muscle and they experienced a non-significant increase in muscle mass. At the same time, they lost weight and fat mass (5).
- Zajac and his colleagues did some research which showed that a 4-week keto diet reduced Creatine Kinase (CK) and Lactate Dehydrogenase (LDH) after a cycling workout that lasted for 105 minutes. Subjects who ate a normal diet had significantly elevated plasma CK (5). For those who don’t know, CK and LDH are indicators of muscle damage and fatigue.
- 18 untrained women aged 20-40 years performed 60-100 minutes of varied exercise twice a week. This was done in combination with either a low-carb keto diet or a regular diet. The researchers concluded that resistance exercise combined with a keto diet reduces body fat without significant changes in lean body mass. Meanwhile, a regular diet may increase lean body mass but not affect fat mass (6).
- Research was done to examine the effects of a 6-week low-carb keto diet and CrossFit program on body composition and performance. Compared to the regular diet group, the keto diet group significantly lost weight and had a lower body fat percentage. The keto diet group also had improvements in performance while maintaining lean body mass (7).
The Targeted Keto Diet is the Best Approach for Building Muscle
There are various ways to do a keto diet depending on your food preferences and what works for your lifestyle. For example, a standard keto diet (SKD) that includes meat, seafood, vegetables, and some fruits will suit many people.
But if you’re looking for the best approach that increases your performance to maximize muscle gains, try the Targeted Keto Diet (TKD). The targeted keto diet is a strategy that entails consuming extra carbohydrates, 20 to 50 grams, before or after intensive workouts (8).
It’s widely used among advanced athletes and bodybuilders to boost their exercise performance, thus enabling them to push harder during their workouts.
A TKD approach is most beneficial for those who’ve already tried a standard keto diet for muscle gains but were often unable to complete their workouts due to feeling fatigued. Whether you’re a bodybuilder, competitive athlete, or a regular person who exercises most days of the week, you may see improvements with this keto diet approach.
How to Build Muscle On Keto
You already know that a keto diet can be effective for building muscle. In this section, we teach you the ten best ways to gain muscle on keto. Keep reading.
Limit your carbohydrate intake
To induce a state of ketosis, carbohydrates should be limited to 20-50 grams in a day. The exact number varies depending on an individual’s activity level, carb tolerance, and goals.
The best way to figure out your carbs is by using a keto macro calculator. At the same time, pay attention to your body’s response. Are 30 grams of carbs per day enough? Are you able to increase that number slightly without getting kicked out of ketosis?
Beware of hidden carbs. A lot of processed meats, salad dressings, and cream-based soups contain carbs. At a restaurant, ask the waiter to substitute lettuce for bread or soup for steamed veggies.
Eat enough protein
When combined with resistance exercises, dietary protein helps increase your strength and muscle mass. During periods of starvation (negative energy balance), protein preserves muscle mass (9).
Virta Health recommends a daily protein intake of 1.2 g/kg of body weight to 2.0 g/kg of body weight. This intake already accounts for illness, stress, and aging (9).
One must be careful not to exceed their protein limit on keto. Going over this recommended range will hinder you from reaching ketosis. Too much protein increases insulin levels and gluconeogenesis — a process in which protein gets converted to glucose.
Too much protein also leads to a keto weight loss stall.
Increase your fat intake
Fat compensates for the reduced carbs in your diet. Dietary fat boosts your satiety and regulates your appetite.
A study that involved 10 overweight adults revealed that a high-fat diet led to greater satiety while reducing calorie intake (10).
Here’s a list of high-fat foods and oils that are healthy and nutritious:
- Whole eggs
- Fatty fish
- MCT oil
- Coconut oil
- Full-fat yogurt
- Grass-fed butter
Stay away from artificial trans fats that increase inflammation and your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Let your muscles rest
Bodybuilding or any sports and physical activity includes rest days. Intense workouts create microscopic tears in your muscles.
Rest periods, together with good nutrition, promote healing. As a result, your muscles grow and become stronger. Rest is also essential to prevent fatigue which can increase your risk of injuries.
If you’re doing weight training, one effective rest strategy is rotating the body parts you’re working on. This gives specific muscle groups a break from movement.
For example, on Monday, you work your pushing muscles — chest, triceps, and shoulders. On Tuesday, it’s going to be your pulling muscles — biceps, back, and abs. Wednesday will be the day where you rest your entire body.
Be sure to hydrate, get quality sleep, and eat nutrient-dense keto foods. See this detailed shopping list for ideas.
Increase your daily calorie intake
A caloric surplus is necessary for building muscle on keto. Try to get between 250 to 500 extra calories on top of your recommended daily caloric intake on keto.
But know that if you eat too much, you could be storing body fat instead of stimulating muscular hypertrophy.
One way to increase your calorie intake is to eat more fats. Get it from healthy sources like avocados, fatty fish, and MCT oil. Fat has the highest number of calories of all the macronutrients. 1 gram of fat = 9 calories.
If gaining muscle on keto is your goal, then lifting heavy weights is the best option. Lifting heavy helps you bulk up and gain more strength in less time, compared to lifting lighter weights with more repetitions.
Heed this piece of advice: Choose weights that you are sure you can lift.
You will know when you’re ready to make weight increases if you’re able to finish all your reps while maintaining proper form. The better your form is, the better the results you achieve.
More importantly, seek the advice of a weight training or fitness specialist who can help improve your results in the safest possible way.
Support your training by taking supplements
Years of research have shown the positive impact of supplements on strength and muscle mass. These supplements include protein, caffeine, medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), and more.
Here are some options:
- Whey protein isolate. This form of whey protein is best since it’s the purest protein source with a protein concentration of at least 90%. It also has less lactose which is beneficial for those who are lactose-intolerant (11).
- Creatine monohydrate. A widely researched and used form of creatine, creatine monohydrate boosts exercise performance and increases lean body mass (12).
- Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil. This is a great way to add fat to your diet. Studies in humans and rodents show that MCTs increase satiety. MCTs also improve skeletal muscle function through mitochondrial biogenesis (13).
- Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Now a popular workout supplement, BCAAs are a great way to enhance muscle retention. Some of the latest BCAA supplements are also formulated for people on a keto diet, which means that they do not contain carbs and won’t kick you out of ketosis.
- Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) exogenous ketones. BHB is the most abundant ketone in your body. When taken as a supplement, BHB helps you enter ketosis, increase exercise performance, and may also suppress skeletal muscle catabolism (14).
- Caffeine. A study showed that caffeine improved aerobic endurance in both male and female subjects. Caffeine supplementation also led to increased power, speed, and greater total weight lifted (15).
Take note that some supplements have hidden carbs. Always check the supplement facts.
Explore keto bodybuilding meals
We’ve talked about reducing your carbs, increasing fat, and keeping protein to moderate amounts. At the same time, increasing your calorie intake.
But what does a healthy keto meal look like for building muscle? Take a look at these delicious and filling options:
- Ribeye steak with buttered mushrooms
- Lamb chops with rosemary, garlic, and parsley
- Baked garlic butter salmon
- Classic bacon and eggs
- Bacon-wrapped meatloaf
- Oven-baked chicken in garlic butter
Try incorporating low-carb veggies too to increase your micronutrient intake.
Maintain healthy levels of electrolytes
Electrolytes are required for muscle contraction, which is why you should be careful not to be low on them. Those who are still transitioning to ketosis may experience an electrolyte imbalance — they lose them via their urine as their bodies drop excess water.
Important electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate.
Replacing lost electrolytes can be done by eating whole nutritious foods. Low-carb foods that are rich in electrolytes include green leafy vegetables, bone broth, nuts, and fatty fish. Add a pinch of Himalayan pink salt to your water too.
Prepare for the keto flu
Expect a temporary dip in your performance days after starting the keto diet. Weakness, fatigue, headaches, and muscle cramps are symptoms of the keto flu.
Being completely unprepared for it is one of the biggest keto mistakes you can make.
While you may be tempted to continue exercising within this period, it’s best to rest or stick to light workouts if you can still handle it. Listen to your body to avoid overstraining yourself and getting injured.
What to Avoid When Building Muscle on Keto
There are certain mistakes that hamper your ability to bulk up. Watch out for these!
Are you a booze person? If there’s one thing that drinking too much alcohol does, it’s that it impairs muscle growth. A study in 8 physically active males showed that alcohol intake reduced myofibrillar protein synthesis (MPS) following exercise, even if protein was consumed (17).
Lack of sleep
Poor sleep is equal to no progress. Plain and simple. Not only does insufficient sleep derail your goals, but it also leads to fat gain. You’ll also feel tired and foggy the next day, which means that you’re likely to skip the gym.
Along with physical exercise, nutrition preserves muscle mass (18). Ideally, you should be consuming whole foods — they pack more nutrients and are free of preservatives that have harmful effects on your body.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Also, it mentions adding moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days a week (19).
But if your goal is muscle growth, it’s best to focus more on resistance workouts. Instead of doing cardio on most days of the week, lift weights.
Doing the same workout daily
If you’re not seeing any changes in your physique or you’re no longer feeling sore, you probably need to change your program. Break a training plateau by going heavier, increasing your reps, and doing compound exercises.
The Bottom Line
Can you gain muscle on keto? Studies reveal that yes — it’s possible. Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are not a must to achieve muscular hypertrophy. Keeping carbs low is especially important for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts who are at risk for hyperglycemia or diabetes.
Know your optimal macronutrient ratio on keto, increase your calorie intake, get enough rest, and invest in self-care. Have you tried building muscle on keto? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
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- Dashti H, Mathew T, Hussein T et al. Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients. 2004
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- Ma S, Suzuki K. Keto-Adaptation and Endurance Exercise Capacity, Fatigue Recovery, and Exercise-Induced Muscle and Organ Damage Prevention: A Narrative Review. 2019 February 13
- Jabekk P, Moe I, Meen H et al. Resistance training in overweight women on a ketogenic diet conserved lean body mass while reducing body fat. 2010 March 02
- Gregory R, Hamdan H, Torisky D et al. A Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet Combined with 6-Weeks of Crossfit Training Improves Body Composition and Performance. 2017 March 18
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- Cooper R, Naclerio F, Allgrove J et al. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update. 2012 July 20
- Wang Y, Liu Z, Han Y et al. Medium Chain Triglycerides enhances exercise endurance through the increased mitochondrial biogenesis and metabolism. 2018 February 08
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- Mielgo-Ayuso J, Marques-Jiménez D, Refoyo I et al. Effect of Caffeine Supplementation on Sports Performance Based on Differences Between Sexes: A Systematic Review. 2019 September 30
- Shirreffs S, Sawka M. Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery. 2011
- Parr E, Camera D, Areta J et al. Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training. 2014 February 12
- Landi F, Camprubi-Roblesb M, Bear D et al. Muscle loss: The new malnutrition challenge in clinical practice. 2018 November 30
- American Heart Association. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. 2018 April 18