How To Build Muscle On A Keto Diet

For those who’ve been living next door to Patrick Star for the last five years, keto or a ketogenic diet is a meal program where you exclude carbs. It has proven its effectiveness in fat burning and mental clarity (oh somebody please tell it to Patrick), and now it’s time to break it down in terms of muscle gains.

Muscle damage has been traditionally proposed to contribute to muscle hypertrophy; however, the most recent scientific hypotheses suggest that it is no more than a side effect of repeated muscle contractions.

Breaking muscle hypertrophy down requires writing a book. Luckily, getting into a decent shape doesn’t take reading it. Actually, training can be funny, just look at these tweets! But anyway, it’s nice to get a brief idea of how it works to leverage the benefits of a keto diet for your muscle growth pattern.

4 Factors of Muscle Growth

Ask an average gym dweller of the main hypertrophy factors — “You gotta train hard and eat hard to be like Arnie” — this is what you’ll hear.

I’m not going to diminish that piece of advice, because working out and tracking your keto macros are important, but they are secondary factors to muscle growth. Genuine muscular chemistry lies beneath the surface.

What are the primary factors? Four items are crucial for your muscle growth: amino acids, phosphocreatine, hydrogen ions, and anabolic hormones like testosterone and somatotropin.

Amino acids are the building blocks of life; you get them when your body breaks down proteins, so eat healthily and you’re fine. Phosphocreatine, or creatine phosphate, is present in every human’s body; in simple words, it is your energy reserve. Hydrogen ions make your muscles hurt when you work out; an increase in their concentration literally tells you to stop an exercise.

Last but not least, and actually the first in importance is the hormonal factor. Without hormone production, any attempts to build muscle are doomed to fail. (That’s why bodybuilders use hormonal therapy.)

Training aids in natural hormone production and helps transfer them throughout your body to the target muscle. Training aids in breaking down creatine to assist in protein synthesis. Hydrogen ions make the target muscle more susceptible to those hormones and creatine.

That makes training essential for muscle growth but not the only factor for building great muscles. The key to success is to understand how to adapt training chemistry to a ketogenic diet for the best possible results.

How To Train on Keto

But first, let’s add one more pinch of science to the training.

You get the best results when your muscles receive a short but powerful impulse. How short? About 20–40 seconds. How powerful? During this time you have to completely run out of fuel.

Speaking of fuel, this is the major difference between keto and other diets. During a ketogenic diet, you deplete your body of muscle glycogen, a traditional source of power for an intensive workout.

That means classic training schemes with 8–12 repetitions are not suitable for you. Why? You simply won’t be able to pick up weights big enough to boost hormone production and perform those reps.

That happens because different training types require different energy sources. You’ve probably heard of aerobic and anaerobic training systems. Keto excels at aerobic or so-called cardio workouts of low intensity. Building muscle requires anaerobic high-intensity exercise, and here a ketogenic diet has certain issues.

When you lift light weights, let’s say light enough that you perform 50 or more reps, you might work on ketones. But when you lift heavy, this is what happens. During the first few seconds, you work on creatine phosphate. That’s an entirely different system in your body, which requires no oxygen, no ketones, no glucose; depending on lifting speed, you are usually able to perform about 1–4 reps using this system. Then your creatine storage is depleted and it’s time to use glycogen, which you don’t have enough of. It’s not down to zero, you still have small carb storage in your muscles due to vegetables and gluconeogenesis, but not nearly enough to push that bar 7–8 more times.

Does that mean that building muscle on keto is impossible? Hell no.

3 Tips To Build Muscle on Keto

Let’s be honest, keto is not optimized for building muscle. But not optimized doesn’t mean impossible. Here’s what you’ve got to do to get a muscular body.

Keep anaerobic training short. You don’t have much glycogen, therefore leverage it in the most beneficial fashion; you may be surprised, but even a 30-minute intensive workout can do magic to your body.

Stick to 3–4 repetition range with heavy weights. Heavy means that you wouldn’t be able to perform more than one additional rep with it. This approach will allow you to stress your hormonal system to produce anabolic hormones.

Combine heavy with light reps. Once you pushed big weights with your creatine system to boost hormones, it’s time to pump your muscles with a number of light-weight reps. Depending on your preferences and muscle groups, perform about 20–40 repetitions to secrete hydrogen ions; as you remember, they provide better muscle susceptibility to those hormones and thus contribute to hypertrophy. But don’t go hardcore, too many hydrogen ions are also bad, stick to the recommended range.

The Takeaway

Building muscle on a keto diet is difficult. It takes dedication, devotion, and a little bit of knowledge. It’s harder than on a traditional western diet but pays off with lean muscle mass. After all, why would you need all that bulk if layers of fat are covering it?

For all the rookies who have just started their training program — building initial mass will be easier for you for quite some time. At the very beginning, muscle grows even after thinking about going to the gym. Well, being serious, you might not be concerned about combining heavy and light weights (because unless your personal trainer is crazy, he’s not making you lift a mammoth). After years of physical inactivity, you will be making progress no matter what you do.

And then, when you’re brawny and lean, you can implement these tricks to make it to the next step. A step to a better you, a step to a bigger you.


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He's a self proclaimed fitness advocate who devotes a majority of his free time catching up with the latest fitness trends in the wellness industry (when he’s not traveling the world!). He aims to curate results-driven content through his hands-on life & fitness experiences to power your health goals.

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