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Can You Build Muscle on Keto?

Can you build muscle on the keto diet?

Yes, you can build muscle on keto and lose fat at the same time. However, a modified or targeted ketogenic diet is recommended if building muscle is the priority over losing fat.

What is the macronutrient ratio for a muscle-building keto diet?

Fat: 334 grams, 76 percent
Protein: 190 grams, 19 percent
Carbohydrates: 50 grams, 5 percent

How do you maintain muscle while fasting?

Resistance training of the specific muscles you want to spare suppresses mTOR in the muscle and prevents catabolism (breaking down) of the muscle.

Use moderate to heavy weight (resistance) on the muscle with 80-100% maximum effort in the 6-10 repetition range. Rest one to two minutes in between sets and then perform anothother set. Depending on your fitness level, 3-4 sets per muscle should be sufficient to preserve muscle.

How do you build muscle?

Performing progressively difficult resistance training using moderate to heavy weights is the secret to building muscle on keto. The diet plays a lesser role than conventional wisdom would dictate.

The above keto muscle-building macro-nutrient ratio is a generality. For example, someone young and healthy and wants to gain muscle faster could increase their protein and carbohydrate intake. The ratio will need to be adjusted up or down based on various factors like:

  • Age
  • Body fat percentage
  • Activity level
  • Fitness level
  • Level of insulin resistance
  • Health levels
  • Goals
  • weight lifting history

The four varieties of the low carbohydrate ketogenic diet are:

  • Very low-carbohydrate (< 10% carbohydrates) or 20-50 gm/day
  • Low-carbohydrate (<26% carbohydrates) or less than < 130 gm/day
  • Moderate-carbohydrate (26-44%)
  • High-carbohydrate (45% or greater)

How to maintain muscle on keto:

It’s not easy but there are ways to minimize muscle loss. I’ll talk more about bodybuilding supplements later, but one in particular is BHB or exogenous ketones. They have been shown to preserve muscle glycogen and increase protein synthesis.

“Exogenous ketone supplementation may provide both a fuel source and contribute to protein sparing and recovery during training.”

Metabolism of ketone bodies during exercise and training: physiological basis for exogenous supplementation
Exogenous BHB Capsules

One of the best ways to build muscle on keto is to take exogenous ketones before you workout. I have found that when I take them I can workout longer, harder, and my muscles appear fuller. My intensity and focus is much better when I workout with exogenous ketones.

The body will find what it needs in order to adapt to the stimuli and build muscle.

Gluconeogenesis and ketogenesis are examples of the body utilizing the substrates that it has, in order to create the substrates that it needs. For example, if the body needs glucose it can make its own through gluconeogenesis. The liver can also make its own ketones through a process called ketogenesis.

When first starting out on keto, building muscle is difficult.

When you initially switch to keto, your muscles are still expecting glucose and the rate of glycogen resynthesis (replenishment) is reduced. Once you become ket adapted your glycogen resynthesis is much faster and more efficient.

The Cori cycle is the reason you can still build muscle on keto

When you lift weights you get that burning sensation in the muscle, that is from the lactate produced by the muscle. The Cori cycle is the metabolic pathway in which lactate produced by anaerobic glycolysis in the muscles moves to the liver and is converted to glucose, which then returns to the muscles.

Here is an example of a 4-day keto muscle building workout program:

It’s broken down into push and pull exercises. The type of exercises should be varied to introduce stimuli to the muscles (muscle confusion). Try to do 3 to 5 sets per exercise (based on fitness).

Keep the repetitions between 8 and 12. If you can’t do at least 8 repetitions without assistance, the weight is too heavy. If you can do more than 12 repetitions before failure, the weight is too light.

Day oneChest and tricepsBench or barbell press, flies, dips, incline press or flies, cable crossovers, close grip bench press, triceps push-downs or triceps extensions. Do abdominal exercises all three days.
Day twoBack and bicepsPull-ups, pull-downs, close grip (palms in) pull downs, barbell bent over rows, cable rows, T-bar rows, preacher curls, reverse curls, standing barbell curls, seated dumbbell curls.
Day threeShoulders, legs & lower backCable or dumbbell lateral raises, military press, barbell shoulder press (behind head), upright row. Squats, front squats, hack squats, leg press, lunges, bench jumps, dead-lifts, calf raises.
Day fourRest and re-feedDo not conduct intermittent fasting, increase protein intake and get plenty of sleep.
Example of a keto muscle building workout plan

Joe Weider and Arnold building muscle on keto
The father of bodybuilding: Joe Weider and Arnold (no last name necessary)

The history of bodybuilding and building muscle

The terms: weight-lifting, bodybuilding, weight training, muscle building, and resistance training will be used interchangeably throughout this article.

I have been weight lifting, researching bodybuilding and building muscle on keto on and off for the last 45 years and have seen all the fads come and go. From steroid abuse in the 1970s and 1980s to synthetic growth hormone in the 1990s.

I watched the rise and fall of the Joe Wieder body-building empire (Muscle and Fitness Magazine) and admired Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Colombo in the 1980s.

I watched Arnold set a record with seven Mr. Olympia wins, and then watched Lee Haney win his eighth consecutive Mr. Olympia title in 1991.

Milk and egg protein powder and desiccated liver tablets were the supposed “secret” supplements to their success. However, we know today that anabolic steroids were the primary reason for their massive muscle growth.

Speaking of supplements, here is an updated list of the best keto bodybuilding supplements. They have been hand picked to give you a little nutritional boost while building muscle on the keto diet.

The “Building Muscle on Keto” theory has been around longer than the Keto Diet itself.

In 1983 a book authored by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw came out called, “Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach.” It was pretty groundbreaking in its day. The book professed that taking the amino acid combination of arginine and ornithine on an empty stomach could stimulate growth hormone (GH).

Original keto muscle building guide
The original keto muscle building guide

It is sometimes speculated that increased growth hormone secretion in humans would work as an anabolic signal to increase muscle mass. However, this study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine refutes that claim.

Anabolic Mega Packs

I even remember saving up my money to buy Joe Weider’s Anabolic MegaPacks thinking they would help me build muscle. They, along with most other muscle building supplements are not effective.

So what does all that have to do with building muscle on keto?

Well like most things dietary related, we had it all wrong all those years. To build muscle on keto you don’t need all those supplements and high carbohydrate glucose loading energy/sports drinks. You also don’t need a pre or post-workout meal or protein powder.

So, can you build muscle on a keto diet?

Yes, but depending on your current stage in life and goals it might not be the best diet for muscle gain. I will categorize three different people with different ages and goals as an example:

A young, healthy person trying to build muscle quickly before football season.

No, keto is not for him. He’s in his teens or early 20s and needs to eat more complex carbohydrates and complete protein. The extra fat is fine, but he shouldn’t restrict his complex carbohydrates.

He should eat eggs, cheese, nuts, whole milk, butter, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, lentils, natto, unsweetened oatmeal, beans, beef, fish, chicken, avocados, milk kefir, fermented foods, fruit and a lot of green leafy vegetables.

Even though he’s not on the keto diet, eating keto superfoods would benefit him greatly. Because then he wouldn’t need to take any vitamins or supplements.

Focusing on the main muscle groups and lifting heavy in the 4-8 repetition range.

Using free weights (barbells and dumbells) and compound movements like bench press, dead-lifts, sprints, box jumps, squats, pull-ups, and shoulder press would give him the most bang for the buck to build muscle the fastest.

Simple sugars, sweets, Gatorade, sports drinks, juice, pop, candy, cookies, cakes, crackers, donuts should all still be avoided. This young man should still watch his body fat percentage and if he is getting chubby then he needs to lower his carbohydrate intake.

No matter what stage you are in, eating dirty keto foods will slow down muscle building.

The keto millennial man

He’s in his 30s or 40s and just wants to build muscle. Might be a little chubby and probably mildly insulin resistant and has the initial stages of metabolic syndrome but probably doesn’t even know it yet.

Keto would be a great way for him to build muscle and lose some fat at the same time. He could experiment in the 50-80 grams range of carbohydrates a day and adjust as needed. His goal would be to eat just enough carbohydrates to initiate a glycogen resynthesis within 24 hours.

If building muscle on keto is his goal then taking the supplement Forskolin could help as it has been shown to increase testosterone production.

Working out heavy in the 6-12 repetition range would be beneficial, but he could also do circuit training, high-intensity training (HIT) and even some cardio along with his weight training.

He should try to get each major muscle “sore” twice a week with the muscle having time to fully recover between workouts. 72 hours is the approximate rest time between working out the same muscle again.

Middle-aged keto and bodybuilding

This is the perfect time to start keto and muscle building. This person is usually in his 50s or 60s, overweight and either pre-diabetic or already type 2 diabetic. He should get a physical from his doctor first and if medically cleared, jump right into strict keto and bodybuilding.

This is the phase I was in when I started keto in June 2018. After 8 months I lost 70 pounds, reversed my type 2 diabetes and feel better than at any time in my life. Now I am focused on keto muscle building. Here is an article to my keto transformation story.

Building Muscle on Keto
My Keto Diet Transformation

The middle-aged keto muscle builder can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. The workout program is basically the same as the keto millennial man except with a little higher repetition count. He also might need a little longer recovery between sets and workouts.

Initially, he will definitely lose strength and feel drained while lifting, but that’s OK. He should just fight through it because at this point in his life health is more important than strength.

Keto muscle building is not only possible but probable, because resistance training is a method to Speed keto. The strength will slowly come back after a few months of consistent keto bodybuilding

Don’t be afraid to work out in a fasted state

The middle-aged ketogenic bodybuilder can start fasting and eating one meal a day (OMAD.) He can take some MCT oil before his workout for energy and definitely take steps to prevent the keto flu. Taking extra electrolytes is a must.

An Interview with a Ketogenic Bodybuilder

I interviewed 46-year-old Travis Creston (AKA Keto Creston) for this question and answer segment. I wanted a unique perspective for keto and bodybuilding. Keto Creston is from Palm Springs California and can be found @ketocreston.

From chubby to thin with keto in 10 months

Q- How long have you been doing Keto & how is it working in the long term for your bodybuilding goals?

A- I’ve been on a pretty amazing journey with Keto. I’ve been living the Keto muscle-building lifestyle now for a little over a year & a half. From Jan ‘18 to Nov ‘18 I went from 214 pounds to 127 pounds. Losing 87 pounds as a 5’4” man was pretty amazing.

Since November of last year, I’ve actually been using keto and bodybuilding to gain muscle. Staying deep in ketosis has been more challenging. I definitely know from personal experience that Keto is incredible for weight loss. Keto muscle building has been more tricky.

Q- Did you feel like you lost muscle when you were initially losing weight so quickly?

A- Not at all. Beta Hydroxy Butyrate, the main ketone body, actually preserves muscle tissue. Therefore when you’re running your body on ketones, instead of glucose, you’re literally sparing muscle tissue. I also practiced Intermittent Fasting (IF) with a daily eating schedule of about 20hrs fasting with a 4hr eating window. (OMAD)

This increases the natural production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) by as much as 2000% in men, as well as increasing the natural production of Testosterone. These two elements are vital to performing optimally in the gym environment. Practicing intermittent fasting (IF) also tells the body to increase muscle & burn fat, so it’s a win-win.

It’s how our ancestors would have had the energy to hunt for food after having potentially gone several days without a big meal. When you’re fat-adapted, you can go long periods of time without food & without feeling hungry because your body will use its own stored body fat for fuel.

This is the paradigm shift that so many people need to be aware of to start their own Keto journey. The concept of “starving” just goes completely away while living a Keto lifestyle & your energy level significantly increases.

Q- So this is the state of ketosis that we hear about with the Keto Diet, correct?

A- Exactly. Our bodies have two types of fuel it can burn, glucose or ketones. Whenever we eat, we spike insulin. Refined carbohydrates & sugars are the glucose form of energy/fuel & have a massive impact on insulin levels & blood sugars.

Glucose as a fuel system for the body burns up very quickly, therefore you’re constantly hungry. Eating a high fat super low carb, moderate protein diet, literally causes the mitochondria in our bodies, the cells that produce energy, to use fat for fuel. This is the state of ketosis.

This magical place where your body is utilizing fat for a fuel source and you’re able to go long periods of time without feeling like you’re starving. Our brains need fuel to function and research has shown that cognitive ability is greatly increased during a state of ketosis.

Q- I know Keto is a moderate protein diet, but in the gym environment, don’t you need a lot of protein for keto muscle building?

A- That’s a myth, straight up. I still don’t even eat a lot of protein & I’m growing beautifully, and relatively quickly in the gym. Keto and bodybuilding is a match made in heaven. The average person only needs about 0.5 to 0.7g of protein per lb of bodyweight for their daily protein intake.

Because the Ketogenic macro ratio is so clear, 75% of calories from fat, 20% from protein & 5% from carbs, it’s quite easy to assess how many grams of protein you need in a day & then adjust the consumption of good quality healthy fats to determine roughly how many grams of fat you should consume. If you stay within that ratio you will easily stay in ketosis and still achieve keto muscle building.

Q- So, ultimately, that’s the ratio you suggest as a Ketogenic bodybuilder, to encourage new lean muscle mass?

A- Actually, I honestly implemented a hack to the Keto diet to build muscle more quickly than I had been. My weight loss from Jan to Nov was surprisingly easy for me. I mean ridiculously easy, relatively. Once I dropped all the weight I wanted to start increasing muscle & I found that very difficult to do.

At the beginning of 2019, I began altering the first meal that I eat of the day. I go to the gym every morning in a fasted state. So within about an hour of getting home from the gym, I have my first food of the day. What I’ve learned is that a very controlled amount of high-quality glucose & fructose, high-quality protein, with a low amount of fat, as that first meal after the gym, significantly aids in protein synthesis and boosts keto and bodybuilding.

Q- Doesn’t that knock you out of ketosis though?

A- It’s my belief that since I’ve been doing Keto for such a long time, I’ve very clearly reformed my mitochondria to use fat for fuel, so the small amount of glucose & fructose that I eat then goes right where it’s supposed to go. This metabolic flexibility is only possible because of my longevity maintaining strict Keto.

keto and body building transformation
Proof that building muscle on keto is possible

To be more clear, when we’re in a fasted state, our bodies are very insulin sensitive. So whatever you eat to break your fast, your body utilizes that food very efficiently. If you give it fat, it’s going to be more likely to push that fat into your cells, which is not exactly what you want to do for that eating window, if you want to increase lean muscle mass!

So I eat about 30g of carbs in the form of an organic wild rice cake with some sunflower seed butter & some MCT oil on it. I have two whole pasture-raised eggs with some organic egg whites and like 1/2 an organic orange or 1/3 of an organic mango.

This is a relatively low-fat meal as well & it’s very different than what I would suggest for someone who is looking to lose weight on the Keto diet! This is for the person who’s been in ketosis for a while & is looking to hack the system to build lean muscle mass.

Q- So you don’t eat carbs & lower fat during the rest of your day?

A- Absolutely not! The rest of my food consumption is built around good quality nutrient dense organic veggies, especially cruciferous veggies, with grass-fed meats/animal fats, grass-fed butter, nuts & seeds, avocados, coconut oils, etc. All the basic Keto food staples.

In fact, I think haven eaten the way that I do after the gym, motivates me to even eat fewer net carbs the rest of the day. I think to increase lean muscle mass it’s important to give your muscles that glycogen immediately after your workout & then stay strictly Keto after that.

I’m very happy that I can say I’ve added almost 20 pounds of muscle while doing keto and bodybuilding, and maintained the same low % of body fat, since last November!

Keto Creston

Robert Bryant
Robert Bryant

What works to build, maintain and preserve muscle while on a low carbohydrate diet? My goal was to answer these questions with a scientific, fact-based approach. I love to dissect scientific studies and consider myself a keto diet researcher.

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