Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you’ve probably heard about a ketogenic diet, and how bodybuilders are using it in order to get shredded, cut away their fat and still gain muscle–not just maintain their mass.
If you haven’t been reading these articles or watching our videos, you’d probably scoff at the idea that a ketogenic diet, which is an extremely low carb lifestyle, will help you gain muscles. After all, how can you gain any muscles if you’re not going to have any energy?
It’s a common belief that your glycogen, as well as your muscle carbohydrate stores, are what fuel high intensity activity. Since last we checked, bodybuilding does indeed count as a highly intensive activity, it stands to reason that you can never gain any muscle while on a ketogenic diet, right?
Absolutely wrong. We actually conducted multiple studies proving how wrong that belief is! Before we dive into them, we strongly recommend watching our “What is a Ketogenic Diet” video or reading the associated article in order to get up to speed with the macro percentages we’re talking about. Your ketogenic diet will break down to about 60%-70% fat, 30% protein, and no more than 5%-10% carbohydrates that come from fibrous sources to keep you full.
The Importance of Keto Adaptation
Previously, studies looking at the effect of a ketogenic diet on muscle gain depleted individuals of carbohydrates for a week, then they looked at their performance, and since they obviously saw a noticeable decrease, they concluded that you can’t gain any muscle or perform high-intensity workouts while on a ketogenic diet.
We did something different. Back in 2015 we took a group and had half of them go on a ketogenic diet and the other half go on a regular carb diet. We put the keto group on what we call a “keto adaptation phase.”
In the keto adaptation phase, you’re essentially transitioning your body from using carbs as an energy source to using fat and ketones. We concluded that this adaptation phase takes a minimum of 2 weeks.
After the ketogenic diet group was adapted to the diet, we had both groups do high-intensity exercises, keeping in mind that both groups’ calorie and protein intake were equal.
After 8 weeks we found that both groups gained the same amount of muscle, and the same amount of strength. At the same time, the keto group lost more fat than the carbohydrate group.
Replenishing Carbs on a Keto Diet
You might be asking yourself, since a ketogenic diet is primarily a high fat and low carbohydrate diet, if you’re on such a low carb diet, then how does your body replenish its carbohydrate stores?
A researcher by the name of Jeff Bullock had the same question. He conducted a study in which he took individuals that were keto adapted for 15 months prior to the study, and had them deplete their carbohydrate stores through cardio and endurance exercises.
Following that, he took a group living on a higher carb diet, and he had them do the same routine until they also depleted their muscles of their carbohydrate stores. After making sure that both groups had low carbohydrate levels, he gave the keto group a high-fat drink and gave the carb group a high-carb drink.
What he found was that both groups replenished their muscle carbohydrate stores to the same extent! That’s because your body can take carbon sources and convert them to other nutrients that it needs.
Think about it this way: if someone’s on a high-carb low-fat diet, how do they gain any fat? It’s because their bodies can create fat from different sources. Similarly, even while you’re in a ketosis state, your body will regulate itself to replenish your carb stores.
The Chemistry Behind Ketosis
Studies have shown that when in a state of ketosis, Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are the more important acids for muscle growth, actually weren’t being burned out. That’s because ketones spare BCAAs, and the amino acids that aren’t anabolic, such as alanine, actually get converted to glucose in high amounts.
Fat molecules are also called triglyceride molecules. They are composed of a glycerol molecule bound to three fatty acids (that’s where the “tri” in “triglyceride” comes from). Those three fatty acids get converted into ketones, while the glycerol molecule gets converted to glucose.
In addition to that, you produce lactic acid when you lift weights, which can also then be converted over to glucose. When you’re on a ketogenic diet, your blood glucose levels are around 80-100, which is normal, and your glucose can still be easily replenished.
Also, since you’re in a ketosis state, your body spares your carbohydrate stores in low to moderate intensity exercises, opting to use fat as its primary source of fuel. This allows you to build up glycogen faster, so you can use it at high intensities.
The bottom line is that you can absolutely gain muscle on a ketogenic diet, but realize that it’s going to take some patience, and you’re going to have to go through an adaptation period. After you adapt to using fat and ketones, ideally within 6-8 weeks, your sense of fullness will come back and you will gain muscle just as easily as on a higher carbohydrate diet.
We hope this answers all your questions about a ketogenic diet and its effect on muscle growth! Stay tuned for the next article, where we’ll be talking about staying full on a ketogenic diet.