This essay is written within the context of a natural (non-steroid), recreational (for fun) lifter. I don’t compete in bodybuilding. I train 3-4 times a week and have been keto since 2012.
What you need to know:
There are many ways to achieve ketosis.
Bodybuilding is possible with a keto diet and has several advantages.
There are disadvantages to keto-bodybuilding - but they might be worth it.
Traditional keto macro ratios will not work for bodybuilding…adjustments must be made.
What is keto?
Keto is a way of eating (or not eating) and moving, that leads to a shift in metabolism to called ketosis (fat burning). Ketosis is a state when the liver produces ketones. Ketones are molecules, made from fat, that flow through the blood stream and can be used as energy. In other words, the keto diet unlocks an additional fuel source for the human body…its own fat stores – aka, your love handles.
For the body to switch into a ketogenic state and begin producing ketones for energy, the liver must be depleted of glycogen. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrate (sugar). Therefore, dietary carbohydrate restriction is an important piece of the keto diet.
Traditionally, the keto diet is very high in fat (75% or more), very low in carbohydrates (5%) and moderate in protein (20%). But there are many ways to achieve ketosis.
Ways to achieve Ketosis
Ketone Supplements – The easiest (and least beneficial) way to achieve “ketosis” is to simply eat pure ketones. Liver glycogen doesn’t need to be depleted. But supplemental ketosis is not the same as nutritional ketosis. Ketone supplements can be useful in specific instances, but like all shortcuts, this one misses the bigger metabolic picture.
Fasting – My highest ketone measurements have always been during multi-day fasts. When we don’t eat food, we burn through our stored liver glycogen (there’s none coming in to replace what we burn) and enter ketosis.
PSMF (protein sparing modified fasting) Eating only protein – Protein isn’t really a fuel source…not like fat or carb. Protein is a lean mass (muscle, bone, organs, cells) building material. By eating only protein, we deplete liver glycogen and enter ketosis. Eating high fat isn’t necessary for this to work.
Glycolytic exercise (high intensity) – Any type of exercise that burns carbohydrate will lead to liver glycogen depletion and thus ketosis. Glycolytic exercise is higher intensity stuff (for longer than 30 seconds), like sprinting, Stairmaster, CrossFit etc. So, those who exercise in this way can eat more carbs and still achieve ketosis.
Caloric Deficit – Like fasting, eating less total calories than you burn, will eventually lead to liver glycogen depletion and thus ketosis…even if your diet was 100% sugar.
My point is, keto is nuanced and context dependent. There are many ways to design a keto diet and how you do, depends on your unique goals, health and lifestyle.
What does a keto diet look like?
A good keto diet begins with nutrient dense, whole, primal style foods. I like the acronym M.E.A.L. Meat, eggs, added fat and leaves. In small portions you can add nuts, seeds, dark berries, dairy, and even dark chocolate. Seafood and shellfish are included in the “meat” category. Added fats can be butter, lard, olive oil, avocado oil, MCT oil, coconut oil…just no canola, corn, vegetable or seed oils. Also, a good amount of salt should be added to meals.
Things to avoid: grains, breads, pastas (basically beige glop), higher sugar fruits and vegetables (apples, squash, potato).
Meal frequency: It doesn’t really matter how many times you eat a day, or when you eat. However, most keto dieters find that intermittent fasting comes naturally. I would guess that most keto’ers eat once or twice a day, like myself. Cravings and hunger just kind disappear.
What does a Bodybuilding Diet look like?
The traditional bodybuilding diet is opposite of a keto diet. Very high carb, very high protein and very low-fat. Also, salt is restricted. Think dry chicken breast on a bed of rice, with steamed broccoli, washed down with a whey protein shake. Lots of egg whites, oats, low fat pastas, potatoes and protein bars.
Meal Frequency: Six or more meals a day, every few hours, is standard bodybuilding protocol. Going too long without eating, allegedly, leads to muscle loss. Plus, low fat, low salt diets make humans incredibly hungry. I’m sure you’ve seen the #MealPrep phenomenon. There’s even luggage designed for carrying meals around all day.
Does Keto work for Bodybuilding?
The average bodybuilder will most likely give you a hard “Hell No!”
First problem - Bodybuilders fuel their training with massive amounts of carbohydrate and sugar. Taking away carbs is taking away the primary energy source. How will we fuel high intensity workouts and daily activities?
Second Problem - Bodybuilders use low-fat diets to achieve lean and ripped physiques. A diet of 70% fat is too damn high to stay lean.
Third problem – The moderate, 20% protein content of the keto diet is far too low to support the muscle growth and repair bodybuilders require.
Solving the Keto-bodybuilding problem
Problem number 1 is solved with fat adaptation (the ability to burn fat for fuel). A bodybuilder must go through the difficult, but simple, process of breaking himself away from carbohydrate dependency and training his metabolism to burn fat and ketones. This takes about a month. Once a bodybuilder is fat-adapted, carbs become unnecessary. The main energy source switches from glucose to fat. Problem 1 solved.
Problem number 2 is also solved with fat adaptation. A carb burning bodybuilder must restrict his fat intake, because his body cannot burn it efficiently. Conversely, a keto-bodybuilder has trained his metabolism to vaporize fat like jet fuel. Keto-bodybuilders can consume large amounts of fat because they burn large amounts of fat. This is how keto dieters drink coffee full of butter and oil and still have abs. Problem 2 solved.
Problem number 3 is solved by breaking away from the traditional keto diet, moderate protein rule. Increase protein intake (think 40% of total calories) and add a high quality essential amino acid before training. Muscles are made of protein…proteins are made of amino acids - if you’re trying to build your body (bodybuilding) you must provide the raw materials. Low protein works great for Karen, the mother of 3 with a desk job – she doesn’t even lift, Bro.
Keto Protein Myth - “But high protein will convert to glucose and kick me out of ketosis”
If you’re training hard as fuck it doesn’t matter. You might fall out of ketosis for a bit, but the goal isn’t to stay in ketosis 24/7…the goal is to build muscle and stay lean. High protein will help to refill liver and muscle glycogen for workouts. The rest is used for muscle building and repair.
What are the benefits of a keto-bodybuilding diet vs traditional bodybuilding diet? Weight loss, mental clarity, elimination of cravings?
How about not getting diabetes – The high carb, high sugar traditional bodybuilding diet can lead to insulin resistance. The inability to manage blood glucose (aka diabetes). Keto, on the other hand, literally cures diabetes.
Inflammation – The ketogenic diet is an anti-inflammatory diet. Sugar is pro-inflammatory. Aside from being linked to virtually every disease known to man, inflammation hurts. Many people switching to a keto diet report their joint pain vanishing. This is HUGE when training like a bodybuilder.
Enjoyability/Satiety – Keto foods are incredibly satiating and satisfying – so much so that it’s very common (and effortless) for keto dieters to eat only one large meal a day. When the body is provided essential fats, protein and sodium, it doesn’t scream at you with cravings.
Convenience/productivity – Meal prepping, lugging Tupperware around and eating 6+ times a day is incredibly inconvenient. Factor in the constant hunger and its amazing people get anything done on a traditional bodybuilders diet. I eat one meal a day, without hunger. At the time of this writing, it’s 3:44 p.m. and I haven’t eaten anything today…and I’m not hungry.
Meal prep is completely unnecessary on keto. I don’t need to constantly stuff my face because I’m fueling myself with a steady stream of fatty acids and ketones from body fat. Which keeps me effortlessly lean. My meal prep is literally attached to my ass. Those love handles you’ve got…yeah, that’s lunch.
Rapid recovery – Keto dieters notice less soreness from training. Fat oxidation (using fat for energy) is a low metabolic stress to the muscle cells. Conversely, glucose oxidation (using sugar/carbs for energy) is highly metabolically stressful to muscle cells and causes free radical formation which must be repaired. In short, when training is fueled by fat there’s less damage to the muscles, thus a shorter recovery window.
Higher training volume and frequency - Because of the rapid recovery on keto, the lifter can increase total training volume and frequency. Everyone knows hypertrophy (muscle growth) is driven by training volume. Keto = higher volumes = more hypertrophy.
Mental Clarity – Brain fog is eliminated on the keto diet because we’re no longer victim to the ups and downs of blood sugar. That crash you feel after a bowl of pasta is essentially your blood glucose dropping after your body releases insulin. On the keto diet blood sugar stabilizes. Mine is generally in the 60’s – 90’s at all times. The brain loves ketones. It sucks them up for fuel.
Fasted training – On the keto diet, food before exercise is optional. In fact, most keto dieters prefer to train in a fasted state. Because the keto dieter is fueled by fat, they don’t need to eat to gain energy…they can simply burn body fat.
Effortless fat loss – Ketosis IS fat burning. Strict and painful dieting or food restriction isn’t necessary to lose body fat. On keto, you’re essentially always “cutting”.
What are the downsides of keto-bodybuilding? Performance loss? Size loss? Is it more difficult?
Glycogen depletion – The very thing that makes keto possible (glycogen depletion) will make your muscles smaller. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrate, remember. And it’s stored in muscles and the liver. If were depleting our muscles of glycogen they will shrink.
But the muscle fibers themselves aren’t shrinking…they’re just deflated of water and glycogen. Re-inflating them is as easy as adding a couple higher carb days. Specifically, carbs that fill muscle glycogen, not liver glycogen…Dextrose.
The downside is that most of the time you will be smaller when on keto…the upside is that you can easily swell back up for the weekend or a pool party in about a day. This is called carb-cycling, carb refeeding, or cyclical ketosis.
I used this method for my recent trip to Cabo, Mexico. I trained on keto in the months prior to my trip, then increased carbs for the beach when I’d have my shirt off. Easy Peasy.
How I carb-refeed
What carb to eat? As mentioned above, Dextrose is preferentially shuttled into muscle glycogen instead of liver glycogen. Other forms of sugar (fructose, sucralose) fill the liver. This is bad for two reasons…liver glycogen turns off ketosis and we don’t want a swoll liver…we want swoll guns.
When to eat carbs? Insulin sensitivity (the ability to store sugar) spikes after training. So…take your sugar after training.
How much carbs to eat? I generally take 10-15 grams of dextrose right after training with a protein shake. Then another 10-15 grams with dinner (in water) and another 10-15 grams before bed, mixed into a bowl of Greek yogurt. Simple. This works for blowing me up in a couple days.
Salt and caffeine have been shown to boost glycogen replenishment too. So be sure to salt your post workout meal (or even your protein shake) and it’s not a bad idea to take a caffeine pill or espresso when training.
Loss in mechanical advantage - As stated above, muscle volume decreases when removing substantial carbohydrate. Many lifts that benefit from increased muscular tension and volume, like the squat, will show a decrease in performance when muscle glycogen is low. Squatting requires the lower abdomen, hips, quads, hamstrings and even calves to by compressed like an accordion. When these muscles are swollen and tight from glycogen saturation and water, the bottom of the squat generates substantially more tension. It feels as if you can bounce out of the bottom of the squat like you’re sitting on an airbag.
On keto, we lose that muscular/mechanical/tension advantage. It’s not unusual to see some lifts suffer at first, which is discouraging, but doesn’t actually mean you’re getting weaker. It’s like squatting with or without a belt and squat shoes…it’s purely mechanical…not muscular. Furthermore, training without this mechanical advantage will make you a better lifter. You’ll be forced to improve bracing and form without relying on muscle volume.
When you want to go big, test your maxes or compete, cycle in some carbs. This is exactly what I do for competitive powerlifting.
As a powerlifter, most of my training is done low carb. A few days before a competition I have a huge refeed day so when I’m on the platform, I enjoy that glycol-swell and extra weight.
Disadvantages (does lack of carbs interfere with work performance)
The beginning of your keto diet you will feel like shit. You will feel weak, irritable, hungry and ravenous for sugar. This is the adaptation phase. Otherwise known as the dreaded keto flu. It lasts about a month. It’s not fun. Your numbers in the gym will suffer…stick it out, it will pass.
Once your metabolism makes the shift to burning fat instead of carbs and sugar, your numbers will return and surpass old personal records. Mental clarity will be phenomenal once the brain learns how to suck up ketones and use them for fuel.
What does a keto-bodybuilding plan look like? What are the macros? What does a breakfast lunch and dinner look like?
Lazy Keto Bulk Method: Higher fat
Focus on fatty meat and keep net carbs under 30 grams per day. Nature has a way of packaging animal foods into perfect keto meals. For example, ribeye is 70% fat. Don’t worry about counting calories. Eat until you’re full…then eat a little more.
Eat as much fatty meat (ribeye steaks, fatty ground beef, bison, salmon, sardines, oysters, whole eggs, bacon etc. **ideally in that order of prevalence**) as possible. Pair your animal proteins with dark green leafy salads (arugula, butter lettuce, spring mix, spinach) dressed with avocado/olive oil and apple cider vinegar and add sides of full fat cheeses, full fat yogurt, dark berries, dark chocolate and small portions of nuts and seeds. Cover everything in butter if you want. Use salt liberally on everything.
Lazy Keto Cut Method: Reduce the fat
Eat as much lean meat (sirloin steaks, New York steaks, tuna, chicken, turkey and egg whites as possible. Switch the full fat cheeses and Greek yogurt with fat free options. Pair your animal proteins with the leafy green salads but use MCT oil instead of avocado or olive oil. Restrict or remove the dark berries, chocolate, nuts and seeds. Don’t cover everything in butter. Continue to use salt liberally.
This cut method might not sound very keto…
fat free?! Lean meat?! Isn’t keto all about the high fat?
Yes, it’s still a high fat diet…but the fat is coming from your body…not your plate. Look, you could be burning massive amounts of fat and producing huge ketone readings…but if it’s all derived from dietary fat (ie. bulletproof coffee) you won’t lose any weight. We must target body-fat if were trying to lean out.
The CUT phase isn’t long term. It’s not sustainable or comfortable. But it’s what shrink wraps your abs and chisels you out of granite. Employ this cut method a month before your pool party. Then go back to eating like a fat emperor.
Here’s a visual of this method: More writing on this concept
Precise Keto Bulk Method: (for those who like tracking)
There is no exact science to calculating macros and calories. Sorry. The trick to dialing your keto diet is learning to adjust your macro percentages based on what you see in the mirror and how you perform in the gym.
A good place to start:
Protein: 1.5 grams of protein, per pound of lean mass per day. (experiment with reducing it to 1g or increasing to 2g)
Carbs: restrict net carbs (total carbs – fiber = net carbs) to 30 grams per day (or somewhere around 5% of total calories)
Fat: Fill the rest of your diet with fat, which will be somewhere around 50-60% of total calories.
Example: If the trainee is 185 pounds and 15% bodyfat, then their lean mass weight is 157.25 pounds.
157.25 lbs. X 1.5 grams of protein = 235 grams of protein per day.
Making adjustments/Titrating fat - How much fat you consume will be dictated by hunger and progress (in the mirror and the gym).
Increasing fat: If you’re hungry all day, not able to fast, feel low in energy/weak or not satisfied with muscle/strength gains…increase your fat intake.
Decreasing fat: If you’re having trouble getting all your protein in, if you’re more full than hungry, if you can easily fast for long periods and if you’re not seeing the fat-loss you’d like…decrease your fat intake.
Intermittent fasting (IF) and keto have a synergistic effect. Once keto adapted, you’ll be able to go all day (or multiple days) without eating. This is great for fat loss because that’s exactly what intermittent fasting does…instead of burning food all day, you burn body fat.
I recommend the 16:8 method. Fast for 16 hours and eat for 8. Wake up, have coffee, go to work, hit the gym, then have your first meal in the afternoon or evening.
You can also flip that schedule. If you train in the morning and want to eat a big breakfast and early lunch, skipping dinner…go for it.
OMAD (one meal a day) is also great. If you prefer eating three square meals a day, that works too – just not as good as IF.
The only rule I have about meal timing is that you eat your biggest meal within a few hours after training. Your body needs the protein for muscle building and repair.
Benefits of keto bodybuilding/competing
With keto-bodybuilding there aren’t HUGE bulk and cut extremes. Yeah, you’ll gain a little more fat when bulking on keto, but titrate the fat back and its gone within a few weeks…mostly effortlessly. Although you will miss ribeye’s drenched in butter and full fat cream cheese.
I compete in the 181.5 pound, RAW powerlifting class…USPA. About a week before the meet I can be 10-15 pounds over. By simply cutting the dietary fat out, my body easily draws from body fat for energy, because I’m keto adapted…my metabolism is trained for it.
After weigh-ins, I refeed carbs (dextrose) and swell back up to around 10-15 pounds over my weight class.
Supplementation you might find useful…and fun
Perfect Amino (essential amino acids) – I pop 10 grams about 30 minutes before fasted training. Serum amino acids boost muscle growth and reduce muscle wasting. This is low hanging fruit guys.
Whey Protein – I take a scoop of whey protein powder immediately after training. Its metabolized very quickly to aid in muscle growth.
L-Citruline – 8 grams 10 minutes before training for the most insane pumps you’ve ever had.
Samples of keto/bodybuilding friendly meals