If You're Following A Keto Diet With The Aim Of Building Muscle, You Might Want To Rethink Your Strategy
Jamming a stick of butter in your morning coffee seems all the rage these days. But is the low carb, high fat approach compromising your gains in the gym? If you're on a keto diet and strength training in the hope of building muscle, you might want to pause, put down your no-bread bacon sandwich, and read on.
When it comes to the keto diet, there's some evidence that endurance athletes, performing at relative low intensities, may experience some benefits. But for those of us wanting to lift more weight in the gym and build a fuck-ton of muscle, the evidence isn't there.
So is the keto diet and building muscle a complete no-no?
In this article you'll discover why carbs and strength training are a match made in hypertrophy heaven. And why you might want to ditch the keto diet if your primary goal is to build muscle.
And if you'd prefer to listen to the audio version of "Is The Keto Diet Good For Building Muscle?", click the play button below.
New Research On The Keto Diet, Strength Training, And Power Output
Plenty of data exists highlighting that carbs support improved performance during higher intensity anaerobic training. But just in case you still need convincing, here's a more recent study you might not have seen.
This study took 16 men and women and tested them over 4 days under both low carb (<50g per day) and high carb (6-10g/kg/d) conditions.
Exercise performance was analysed using the Wingate cycling test and a yo-yo intermittent recovery test.
If you're unsure what a Wingate test is, imagine cycling along at a steady pace, then some evil MOFO jacks up the resistance. 10-20 seconds later your legs have turned to mush and they're laughing at you with sadistic glee.
And the yo-yo test? Well, this simply alternates between sprint intervals and rest periods.
So what were the results?
Those following the low carb, keto diet saw a comparative 7% reduction in peak power output and 15% less distance covered in the intermittent sprint test. Quite the difference!
"But this is cycling, not getting jacked!"
It's a fair point, but think about it like this. Regardless of the activity, the methods used in the study measure the short-term recruitment of muscle fibres associated with strength, power, and force production. So while not a direct match for the exercise you might be performing in the gym, there's lessons to be learned.
Essentially, even though specific research in keto diets and strength training is lacking, we enough enough about the body's energy systems to draw logical conclusions.
Why The Keto Diet Sucks For Building Muscle
Depending on the exercise being performed, the body uses different energy substrates, ie carbs and fat, to fuel activity. This is known as the Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER). Generally, healthy, well-trained individuals will have the ability to efficiently switch between burning carbs or fat for fuel.
Typically, fat will be the priority fuel-source during low intensities and at rest. Carbs will be preferentially burned during high intensity exercise.
When you set foot in the gym and start throwing weights around, you are tending towards the high intensity end of the spectrum. As a rough guide, anything above 6 reps is likely to shift you into this bracket.
So if you're following a keto diet with the primary goal of building muscle, arguably you're leaving gains on the gym floor. And the same goes for strongmen and CrossFit athletes. These types of exercise primarily use the glycolytic energy system (ie glucose). Consequently, your performance potentially suffers if you follow a low carb diet, as this energy system isn't used effectively.
Why Is A Keto Diet Inefficient For Building Muscle?
Impaired training performance on a keto diet isn't down to you having a lack of stored glycogen. In fact, your stored glycogen is probably normal. You just can't tap into it, as efficiently, when needed.
Why? Because of your metabolic flexibility (or inflexibility as the case may be).
It's all related to the down-regulation of the PDH enzyme and the subsequent down-regulation of carbohydrate oxidation. Technical talk for training being a bit "meh" when you're on a keto diet, even if you try a strategic carb-load.
Think of it like this...
There's a truck delivering fuel to a petrol station. But on the way there, the truck itself runs out of fuel. There's a huge amount of fuel waiting to be used, but there is no means to access it. (Analogy credit goes to Dr. Mike T Nelson).
Essentially, that's you when you're on a keto diet, trying to build muscle, and having consistently shitty workouts.
A Word On Insulin
Keto diets are popular for fat loss. For some, they are a simple strategy for reducing calories and losing weight. But when it comes to building muscle, the keto diet falls short. Partly, related to insulin.
On a low carb diet, your insulin production, is significantly reduced. Keto diet supporters will tell you this is a good thing, but when it comes to building muscle, insulin is anabolic and supports the muscle building process. So while a low carb diet might be suitable for some people during a fat loss phase, if your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, you might want to go on the hunt for some carbs.
Bring on the Pop Tarts and cereal!
Is It ALL Bad News For The Keto Diet And Building Muscle?
When it comes to building muscle, including carbs in your diet has clear advantages. But if you're not training at these higher intensities, a keto diet might be a valid approach for you to use.
For example, we know from research that you can build muscle with as low as 4 reps per set. Therefore, you have less reliance on glucose and carbohydrate to fuel that activity.
So could you build muscle on a ketogenic diet? Yes. Of course.
And if you're a beginner, you can get away with doing pretty much anything in the gym and you'll build muscle.
But it's unlikely your training will exclusively use 4 reps for every set, unless you're focusing on pure strength. Arguably, you could build MORE muscle if your diet contained carbs, for all the reasons stated above.
The Bottom Line On The Keto Diet And Building Muscle?
When it comes to strength training and building muscle, the Keto Diet pretty much sucks. Removing carbs from your diet doesn't translate to improved performance in the gym. In fact, It's likely to impair it. Although, if you don't care one iota about your training, fill your boots and coffee with butter until your skin glows yellow.
It might seem obvious, but removing the primary fuel source for anaerobic training from your diet, is not going to improve your anaerobic performance.
If your goal is building muscle, a keto diet is likely to bring sub-par results. Outside of improvements in certain disease conditions, there's little evidence to show that a low carb diet will improve your gains.
If your foray into the low carb lifestyle was an attempt to improve your body's ability to burn fat, consider some form of fasting instead. This may improve your body's ability to burn fat, while not impacting the need to utilise carbs for fuel when you're trying to get jacked.
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