Building muscle on keto, is it a good idea?

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Are you looking to build muscle on a keto diet but you’re worried that it may affect your muscle gains?

It is a very low carb, high fat diet that’s commonly used for weight loss but it has also shown a number of other health benefits.

Over the past number of years, people believed that it was impossible to gain muscle on a ketogenic diet. This is because of lack of insulin. Insulin is an important hormone that pushes sugar and nutrients into tissues like muscle replenishing the glycogen stores which help muscle growth and recovery.

What is a ketogenic diet? 

The ketogenic diet also referred to as the keto diet, is a low-protein, low-carbohydrate, and high-fat diet. This diet is designed to transform the body into a fat-burning machine. Your body will typically use glucose from carbohydrates to fuel everyday tasks and exercise. The keto diet, on the other hand, is focused on consuming very little carbohydrates, forcing your body to rely on fat stores for energy. This happens when the body enters into the state of ketosis. The state of ketosis occurs when your body begins to act on ketones rather than glucose from carbohydrates.

To enter into the state of ketosis, the ketone levels must reach 0.5-3.0 millimoles per litre of blood. You can take a look at the ketogenic diet and the keto adaptation here.

Gaining muscle on keto diet

The current investigations into the link between a ketogenic diet and muscle mass can be a little conflicting.  Let’s go over some studies and see what we can determine.  

One study done by WiIlson et al (2017) examined the effects of a ketogenic diet on muscle growth and lean body mass maintenance over 11 weeks. The results were quite surprising. From week 0-10 the male participants were assigned a ketogenic diet and at week 10-11, carbohydrates were reintroduced back into their diets. During weeks 0-10 (Keto dieting) the study reported: 

  • no significant increase in muscle mass compared to the group on a traditional diet. 
  • both groups lost the same amount of fat and gained roughly the same amount of strength and power.  
  • Increase in testosterone levels  

Whereas in week 10-11 (carbohydrate reintroduction), the study reported: 

  • The keto group gained some weight back and also experienced a muscle mass increase  

This research helps to show how a ketogenic diet influences muscle growth. According to the study, testosterone levels increased from week 0 to week 10. An increase in testosterone levels usually supports muscle growth but dspite the increase in testosterone, muscle growth was still impaired.

More Ketogenic diet cases studies

A 2018 study investigated the correlation between a ketogenic diet and muscle mass increase during resistance training as well. The participants also ate in a caloric surplus. This study included 24 healthy male participants who performed an 8-week resistance training program. Over 8 weeks the study reported:  

  • A great reduction in fat mass  
  • No increase in weight or muscle mass 

So, this study also shows loss in fat mass but little to no muscle gain.  

Moving forward, another 2018 study examined the effects of a ketogenic diet on 14 powerlifters. It was found that the powerlifters lost lean body mass but somehow managed to maintain their power.  

Likewise, another study conducted in 2010 included 18 overweight women. The study found that women who consumed a ketogenic diet maintained lean body mass and also lost weight. On the other hand, those who were on a regular diet increased lean body mass but didn’t lose as much fat.

Other studies also show that the keto diet may be just as effective as the traditional high-carb diet [1] [2]. So, as you can see the results are very controversial.

Tips and tricks on how to build muscle on keto

Whilst the studies are very controversial, there are some nutritional approaches you can incorporate to optimise your muscle growth and recover.

2. Eat enough calories

One of the best ways to obtain muscle gains and help them recover is by eating enough calories. The amount of calories you should eat is different for everyone as the calculations are based on your body composition. However, you can use our online calculator to help you or use these manual calorie calculations.

2. Make sure to eat enough protein

Your protein intake should be adequate in order to optimise muscle recovery which helps them grow in long term. Your protein intake also depends on your body weight. According to the UK government, an average person should consume 1g of protein per 1kg of bodyweight but if you perform weight training then you should consume 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight.

A word of warning though, don’t overeat on protein because the amino acids can convert into glucose (sugars) through a process called gluconeogenesis. This totally defeats the purpose of the keto diet.

3. Limit carb intake appropriately

To ensure your body enters into the state ketosis, make sure that you eat no more than 50g of carbohydrates per day. However, it may be a good idea to eat these carbs within 1-4 hours prior to your workout to optimise the glycogen stores. This will boost your energy levels and help you exert more strength during your workouts.

4. Adequate fat intake

The keto diet is very high in fat, and the body will primarily rely on the intake of fat for its energy. The rule of thumb is to ensure that 75-95% of your total daily calories come from healthy fats. This includes eggs, avocado, and nuts. It may be worth taking a look at our post on mastering your macronutrients to help you get these calculated.

5. Exercise regularly

To maintain muscle or to increase their size, you need to exercise regularly. Try to workout at least 3 times a week using weights.

Our recommendation

If you are considering the keto diet, it may be worth having a look at the beginner’s keto diet cookbook to help you get started! This book is one of our personal favourites, with so many delicious keto recipes! Every day, easy and quick whilst also being nutritionally impressive.

Conclusion

Considering all these studies, it is fair to conclude that a ketogenic diet doesn’t really affect the muscle mass, it seems to limit its growth but it is muscle sparing. All those studies have one thing in common, participants were able to maintain their muscle mass but failed to grow their muscle mass even in a caloric surplus. So, a ketogenic diet seems to have muscle protective effects rather than muscle growing properties.   

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References 

Greene, D., Varley, B., Hartwig, T., Chapman, P. and Rigney, M. (2018). A Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet Reduces Body Mass Without Compromising Performance in Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting Athletes. [online] 32(12). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30335720 [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019]. 

Jabekk, P., Moe, I., Meen, H., Tomten, S. and Hostmark, A. (2010). Resistance training in overweight women on a ketogenic diet conserved lean body mass while reducing body fat. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20196854 [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019]. 

Paoli, A., Pancellara, P., Pompei, P. and Moro, T. (2019). Ketogenic Diet and Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Frenemy Relationship?. [online] pp.233-247. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6724590/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019]. 

Vargas, S., Romance, R., Petro, J., Bonilla, D., Galancho, I., Espinar, S., Kreider, R. and Bonitez-Porrez, J. (2018). Efficacy of ketogenic diet on body composition during resistance training in trained men: a randomized controlled trial. [online] 15(1). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29986720 [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019]. 

Wilson, J., Lowery, R., Roberts, M., Sharp, M., Joy, J., Shields, K., Partl, J., Volek, J. and D’Agostino, D. (2017). The Effects of Ketogenic Dieting on Body Composition, Strength, Power, and Hormonal Profiles in Resistance Training Males. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28399015 [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019]. 

 

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