Can you build muscle on a ketogenic diet? Yes. Is it the fastest way? Not for most people.
In fact, there’s no compelling evidence to show that keto offers any muscle-building benefits that you don’t get with a higher-carb diet providing adequate amounts of protein and fat.
If you’ve got some fat to lose, and want to maintain (or even gain) some muscle at the same time, a low-carb, high-fat diet is certainly a viable option.
There are several studies out there to show that ketogenic diets do just as well as their higher carb counterparts when it comes to preserving muscle while you lose fat.
However, you don’t have to go full keto to get the benefits of restricting your carb intake.
Many people do just fine with a moderate intake of carbs, cutting out the sugary snacks and replacing some of the starchy carbs with fruit and vegetables.
But restricting carbs even further leaves them feeling tired and mentally fuzzy, the quality of their workouts suffers, and they don’t stick with it for very long.
What if you’re relatively lean, training hard 3 or 4 times a week, and your main goal is to build muscle as fast as humanly possible? If so, there’s little point in being so restrictive.
There are some studies that appear, at first glance anyway, to show that keto diets work better than their high-carb counterparts for adding muscle.
Today, I want to take a deep dive into some of that research, to see if the claims being made stand up to scrutiny.
What is a Ketogenic Diet?
A ketogenic diet is one where your intake of carbohydrate is severely restricted, usually to no more than 50 grams per day.
This leads to a drop in both insulin and blood sugar levels. The amount of carbohydrate stored in your body, known as glycogen, is also reduced.
To compensate for the reduction in carbs, your body uses fat to form ketone bodies, which serve as an alternative fuel source.
Ketones are produced when fat is broken down in your liver. The build-up of ketone bodies in your blood stream is known as ketosis.
When ketone levels rise sufficiently, they end up in your urine. Although Ketostix (small strips of card that you pee on) can be used to detect ketosis, they’re not totally accurate.
In other words, you can be in ketosis, but there might not be enough ketones in your urine to indicate ketosis. One other sign you’re in ketosis is when your breath smells fruity.
When they cut out carbs, many people will also increase their intake of sodium, potassium and magnesium, as these electrolytes can be depleted as the body drops excess water.
Can You Build Muscle on a Keto Diet?
Google around for information on keto dieting and muscle growth, and you’ll come across the many great and wonderful things that happen when you make the switch to a low-carb, high-fat diet.
Fat will be lost.
Muscle will be gained.
You’ll recover more quickly, feel less sore, and get stronger faster.
Critics of the diet say the exact opposite.
Keto diets limit your ability to train hard. Trying to build muscle without carbs is like Tony Stark trying to save the world without his Iron Man suit.
There’s absolutely no way, they say, to add muscle while you’re in ketosis.
As it turns out, both sides can bring data to the table to support their point of view.
Fans of keto dieting point to research showing that low levels of muscle glycogen, which refers to glucose stored in your muscles, don’t have an adverse effect on your performance in the gym .
That lifting weights with low glycogen stores doesn’t impair the anabolic response to resistance exercise .
And that carbs have no effect on muscle protein synthesis above and beyond the consumption of protein alone .
And that carbs are anti-catabolic, playing a key role in preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue .
Research that looks directly at the impact of keto diets on muscle growth is relatively rare.
However, there are a few studies out there to compare the muscle-building effects of low and higher carb diets.
And some of them appear, at first glance at least, to favor a low-carb, high-fat diet for muscle growth.
Building Muscle on Keto: The Research
My focus here isn’t on how short-term carbohydrate restriction and low glycogen levels affect exercise performance.
Rather, I want to look at the effect that keto diets have on lean body mass (which serves as a reasonable proxy for muscle mass) over a period of 6-12 weeks.
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Back in 2002, a group of researchers from the University of Connecticut tracked changes in body composition in a group of healthy, normal-weight men .
Of the 20 men taking part in the study, 12 switched from their normal diet to a keto diet for six weeks. The other eight men continued with their normal diets.
Foods eaten on the low-carb diet included beef (steak and hamburgers), cheese, eggs, peanut butter, various nuts and seeds, vegetables and whey protein powder.
Subjects were also told to avoid fruits and fruit juices, dairy products (except hard cheese and heavy cream), breads, cereals, rice, beans, and sweets.
The men kept a food diary each day of the study (seven days during baseline and 42 days during the low-carb diet) and the control group kept seven-day records during weeks one and six.
Here’s what daily nutrient intake looked like in both groups during the final week of the study.
Total calories 1,949 calories
Protein 80 grams (16% of total calories)
Carbohydrate 283 grams (58% of total calories)
Fat 56 grams (26% of total calories)
Low carb diet group
Total calories 2,334 calories
Protein 176 grams (30% of total calories)
Carbohydrate 46 grams (8% of total calories)
Fat 157 grams (62% of total calories)
And the result?
The men on the low-carb diet gained just over two pounds of muscle. The high-carb diet group, on the other hand, gained just under one pound.
However, while the keto dieters gained twice as much muscle as the control group, this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a diet is the best way to pack on size.
The first problem is the big difference in protein intake between the two groups.
A closer look at the food records reveals that subjects on the low-carb diet ate TWICE as much protein than those in the high-carb diet group (176 grams versus 80 grams per day).
The extra muscle growth in the low-carb group was most likely down to the fact they were eating more protein.
This brings me to the subject of exercise.
In an ideal world, both groups would have done the same workouts. But that doesn’t appear to have happened in this study. The only information about the type of workout routine used in the research was this:
“Subjects were moderately active performing a variety of different aerobic and weight-training routines, but none were competitive athletes. In the carbohydrate-restricted diet group, 1 subject was sedentary, 5 performed regular exercise (2 to 4 times per week for 20 to 60 minutes) and 6 performed a combination of aerobic exercise (3 to 5 times per week for 15 to 90 minutes) and resistance exercise (2 to 6 times per week for 45 to 120 minutes). Subjects were required to maintain their current level of physical activity during the study.”
What this means is that all subjects in the low-carb group were following a different workout program, and we have no idea what sort of exercise the control group was doing.
In other words, any differences in muscle growth between the two groups could have been due to a better training program rather than diet alone.
The high fat intake also had no effect on total testosterone levels, which remained unchanged for the duration of the six-week study.
More recently, a team of Florida researchers ran a similar study . But this time, protein intake was matched between the two groups, and everyone in the study followed the same training program
A group of 25 college aged men, all of whom had been training for an average of 5.5 years, were divided into a ketogenic or traditional Western diet group.
The Western diet consisted of 20% calories from protein, 55% from carbs, and 25% from fat. The keto dieters got 20% of their calories from protein, 5% from carbs (including fiber), and 75% from fat.
Protein intake was matched at around 130 grams per day, and all subjects lifted weights three times per week for 11 weeks.
From weeks 1-11, the keto group gained roughly twice as much lean mass as subjects on the standard Western diet. Gains in muscle thickness, measured using ultrasound, were also significantly greater in the keto group.
On the surface, this study appears to provide strong evidence that keto diets are the way to go if you want to build muscle.
But only until you take a closer look at the way it was done.
The keto group “carbed up” in the final week of the study, which led to a gain of 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms) of lean mass. In other words, much of the gain in lean tissue came from glycogen and water.
If you look at the results from weeks 1-10, before the keto group bumped up their carb intake, there was no significant difference in the rate of muscle growth between the two groups.
Even the researchers write that it’s “likely that both groups gained similar amounts of muscle mass throughout the entire study.”
Doubts have also been raised about the independence of various researchers involved the study, as some of them had potential conflicts of interest that weren’t disclosed in the research paper.
The lab also has a reputation for publishing results that seem a little too good to be true, and other researchers have questioned the veracity of their previous findings on HMB and muscle growth .
Personally, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that the results from this study have been tampered with. However, there are claims that the data used in the research is fraudulent. In any case, the whole thing sounds a bit fishy to me.
There are also various studies to show that combining resistance training with a keto diet leads to a loss, rather than a gain, of lean body mass .
DEXA scans show that they lost a combination of fat and lean body mass, while their counterparts in the high-carb group ended up gaining almost three pounds of lean mass over the same period of time.
When the researchers ran a similar study, this time using trained women rather than men, the results were much the same . While the women lost fat, they didn’t gain any muscle.
Low-carb, high-fat diets also failed to offer any muscle-building benefits following 12 weeks of Crossfit training . In fact, DEXA scans show that lean mass in the legs dropped by 1.4%, while ultrasound scans show that vastus laterals thickness decreased by around 8%.
However, we don’t know how much of these losses were down to a drop in the water content of muscle, rather than changes in contractile protein.
When you cut carbs from your diet, the amount of glycogen and water stored in your muscles is going to drop.
Problem is, pre-study measures of body composition were performed when glycogen levels were high. But the post-study measures were done in a glycogen-depleted state for the keto groups.
Given that each gram of glycogen stores several grams of water, this could skew the results, as body water is incorporated into DEXA-derived estimates of body composition.
Are Ketogenic Diets Protein Sparing?
To build muscle as fast as possible, most people will need to be in a caloric surplus, which means eating more than your body needs to maintain its weight.
But what if you’re in a calorie deficit and trying to lose weight?
One of the arguments in favor of the keto diet is that it has a “protein sparing” effect, which allows you to preserve more lean muscle mass during weight loss than if you hadn’t been ketogenic.
To put the idea to the test, a team of Brazilian researchers took a group of 21 overweight men and women, and got them to train with weights three times a week for eight weeks .
Half the subjects were told to restrict their carbohydrate intake to less than 30 grams per day during the first four weeks. Afterwards, they were allowed to add 10 grams of carbohydrate each week until the end of the study.
The other half followed a more conventional diet, where 55% of their calories came from carbs, 15% from protein and 30% from fat.
Both groups ate a similar amount of protein – roughly 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.7 grams per pound).
There was very little difference in results between the low carb and high-carb diet groups. They both got stronger, lost fat, and reduced their waist size.
There was also no significant difference in muscle growth – measured with ultrasound at the biceps, triceps and quadriceps – between the low and high-carb groups.
To quote the researchers directly:
“The main result of this study was that, irrespective of carbohydrate content, the hypoenergetic diets did not impair strength gains, and the volunteers were able to maintain muscle thickness during resistance training. Furthermore, significant similar reductions were observed in body mass and body fat in both diet groups.”
Pairing resistance training with a ketogenic diet had no beneficial (or adverse) effects on the preservation of muscle mass during weight loss compared to the same training program paired with a conventional diet.
Even in a group of competitive bodybuilders, a low-carb diet led to a reduction in body fat while muscle mass was maintained, despite a significant reduction in anabolic hormone levels (testosterone and IGF-1) .
Some bodybuilders like to restrict their intake of carbs to help them drop fat in preparation for a contest. However, they’ll make the switch to a higher carb intake once the bodybuilding show is over and it’s time to focus on gaining muscle again.
What about the Gymnast Study?
For the first 30 days, the gymnasts followed a low-carb diet and continued with their regular training. They also performed a series of strength tests to see how well their performance held up.
Three months later, they switched to their normal diet, and went through the same battery of tests.
During both periods, the men could eat as much food as they wanted. However, during the keto phase of the study, they ended up eating 300 fewer calories each day.
As a result, they lost weight.
What’s more, all the lost weight (4 pounds or 1.9 kilograms) came from fat. There was also a small non-significant increase in muscle mass.
In other words, when they were on the keto diet, the men lost fat and gained a bit of muscle.
And, other than during the first couple of weeks, when the gymnasts complained that they couldn’t finish all the exercises, restricting carbs had no adverse effects on performance. They performed equally well on both the normal and low-carb diets.
What’s not to like?
When you dig into the study, there were several problems with the way it was done that limit the conclusions we can draw.
For one, there was a big difference in protein intake between the two diets.
During the low-carb phase of the study, the gymnasts averaged 201 grams of protein per day. That compares to just 84 grams during the normal diet. So, we don’t know if the benefits of the diet were down to the extra protein rather than the reduction in carbs.
In fact, we don’t even know if the gymnasts were in ketosis or not, as ketone levels weren’t measured in the study.
But that’s not all.
During the keto diet, the gymnasts took a supplement containing various herbal extracts. But they didn’t use the same supplement when they were on their normal diet.
What impact did the supplement have on the results?
We don’t know. But it could have skewed the results in favor of the low-carb group.
In short, there were several problems with the way this study was set up, and it’s a long way from the ringing endorsement for ketogenic diets that some like to claim.
How Much Protein Can You Eat and Stay in Ketosis?
Many advocates of low-carb, high-fat diets believe that too much protein ends up being converted into glucose, which can kick you out of ketosis. As a result, a lot of keto dieters will also restrict their protein intake, worried it’ll knock down their ketone levels.
So, if you’re trying to build muscle on keto, is a high-protein diet something you need to avoid?
For therapeutic ketogenic diets, where relatively high levels of blood ketones are required, both protein and carbohydrate intake need to be restricted.
Diets designed to treat children with intractable epilepsy, for example, typically derive 6 to 8% of their calories from protein .
However, while amino acids can be converted into sugar, most studies show that you can get all the protein you need to build muscle without kicking yourself out of ketosis.
In one study, a group of highly-trained ultra-endurance athletes were still in ketosis despite eating a relatively high-protein diet – around 1 gram of protein per pound (2.1 grams of protein per kilogram) of body weight per day .
Similar results were seen in a study of elite race walkers on a ketogenic diet eating 1 gram of protein per pound (2.1 grams per kilogram) of bodyweight during three weeks of intensive training .
Despite the relatively high protein intake, blood ketones (beta-hydroxybutyrate or bhb for short) were around 1.2 mmol/L at the end of the study, which indicates a state of ketosis .
In a group of guys lifting weights three times a week and eating a ketogenic diet providing 0.7 grams of protein per pound (1.6 grams of protein per kilogram) of bodyweight, blood ketone levels were around 1.0 mmol/L after six weeks .
In short, given that the muscle-building benefits of protein have been shown to plateau at around 0.7 grams per pound (1.6 grams per kilogram) of bodyweight per day, it’s still possible to remain in ketosis while eating enough protein to support muscle growth.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
It’s also worth pointing out that no two people respond in exactly the same way to a ketogenic diet.
Australian researchers discovered as much when they rounded up a group of intermediate and elite strength athletes, and got them to follow one of two different diets for three months .
The lifters were split into two groups. One group followed their usual diet, while the second cut their carb intake to 50 grams or less per day.
After three months, they switched diets. That is, lifters on the keto diet started eating more carbs, while the group who’d been eating their usual diet went full keto.
On average, lifting performance didn’t differ between the two diets. Whether the lifters followed a ketogenic or a regular diet, strength gains were virtually identical.
However, the problem with looking at group averages is that they mask individual changes in performance. Drilling deeper into the results shows large differences in strength gains from person to person.
Check out the figure below, which shows the change in lifting performance on the usual diet (UD) and ketogenic diet (LCKD).
The black dots represent individual strength gains after three months of training, while the horizontal bars represent the group average.
Three of the subjects made better strength gains on the ketogenic diet. Two saw exactly the same results no matter which diet they followed. But the rest saw their gains take a dip when they cut back on carbs.
That is, the low-carb diet worked better for some people. But for most of the athletes, their results got worse.
In other words, individuals can respond very differently to the same diet.
Some folks seem to do just fine when they cut back on carbs, and you may be one of them. If the diet is delivering the goods, then stick with it.
On the flip side, if it’s not working, you feel like crap and your workout performance is tanking, you may well be better off with a diet that’s less restrictive.
Frequently Asked Questions
Building muscle on keto isn’t going to be any easier than building muscle on a non-ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet has no special properties that make it inherently easier to gain muscle compared to other diets providing a similar level of calories and protein.
The same way you gain weight and muscle on any diet – you lift weights on a regular basis 3-5 times a week, you eat sufficient amounts of protein, you get plenty of rest and recovery, then rinse and repeat.
It is possible to gain muscle on a low carb diet. However, ketogenic diets don’t any muscle-building benefits that you don’t get with a higher-carb diet providing adequate amounts of protein and fat.
It is possible to gain muscle while in a calorie deficit, meaning you can gain muscle and lose fat on a ketogenic diet. And there is research to show that ketogenic diets do just as well as their higher carb counterparts when it comes to preserving muscle while you lose fat.
Eating just one meal a day, keto or not, is far from ideal if you want to gain muscle. You’ll see better results by spreading your protein intake out throughout the day, rather than getting it all in one big meal.
No, you’re not going to gain muscle without doing some form of resistance training, irrespective of whether you’re on keto or not.
As long as you’re getting enough protein, doing some form of resistance training on a regular basis, and your calorie deficit isn’t too severe, there’s no reason why you’d lose muscle on a ketogenic diet.
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