can you build muscle on keto

Can Build Muscle On The Keto Diet?

Pro bodybuilders like Robert Sikes and expert coaches like Menno Henselmans use and even recommend keto for bodybuilding. These guys, however, are a rare few to took the leap and give up carbs almost entirely. Most of their peers would actually consider going low-carb counterintuitive. Unfortunately, they may be missing out on some major keto benefits.

Truth is that the keto diet can transform your metabolism to rely on its own fat stores even during workouts. There’s evidence the diet helps shed body fat while sparing muscle – essentially every bodybuilder’s dream. And what’s even better, this diet was found to help people bulk up.

If you are interested in trying keto for yourself, then there are rules you need to follow and facts you need to know. Being well informed also helps prevent mishaps. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know before getting started.

The Ketogenic Diet (aka Keto Diet)

So, what exactly is the keto diet?

The word “keto” is short for ketogenic. And the word “ketogenic” means ketone generating. Ketones (aka ketone bodies) are acidic molecules that work to replace glucose as fuel and they include the following three:

  • Acetoacetate,
  • Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB)
  • Acetone

Of these three, BHB is the most abundant ketone and the one you get most benefits from.

But how exactly does a keto diet generate these molecules?

Well, keto hacks into something your body was designed to do during starvation and illness. That something is ketosis, a change to your metabolic functioning in which the body starts to run on ketones that it makes from fat. Normally, ketosis happens during starvation and severe illness, i.e. when carbs are not available to fuel the body. But the keto diet does the same and without the risks associated with starvation.

Another important thing to note is that not all low-carb diets are ketogenic, but all ketogenic diets are low-carb.

To stimulate fat burning and ketosis, the keto diet relies on a couple of strict principles:

  • Restricting carbs to less than 50g per day
  • Getting 65-80% of your daily calories from fat
  • Eating moderate/adequate amounts of protei

All of these rules are drastically different from what your average bodybuilder’s diet looks like. And that’s the main reason why so many are skeptical about going keto.

Can You Gain Muscles on A Low Carb Diet?

There’s this widespread misconception that you cannot gain muscle on a low-carb diet because carbs, their effects on insulin, and insulin’s anabolic action are necessary for bulking up. However, this is not entirely true. A study published back in 2011 compared the effects of a post-workout meal containing carbs and protein to a meal only containing protein on muscle protein synthesis. The results show that there is no difference in effect between the two meals.

However, it is true that insulin as an anabolic hormone can significantly contribute to muscle growth. But it’s also true that it’s not as necessary as once thought. There’s even scientific evidence that insulin does not induce muscle protein synthesis but rather helps with muscle growth by inhibiting muscle protein breakdown.

And as far as research examining  keto on muscle growth goes, a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition compared keto to a traditional Western diet on 26 resistance-trained men. The study found that muscle mass increased to a greater extent in the keto group as evident from dual x-ray absorptiometry (DXA). Studies also repeatedly show that keto preserves muscle mass while burning fat.

Keto Bodybuilding Principles

To reap the muscle-building benefits of keto, you need to follow some basic principles. Keeping these principles in mind at all times helps keep you on track and prevent you from making major mistakes. It also helps with motivation and knowing what to expect and what not to expect.

  1. Increase Training Intensity

Working hard and training hard is key to successful bodybuilding, and that’s a rule that’s been around since forever and that’s indisputable. The American College of Sports Medicine state that when training at a specific RM load, a 2-10% increase in load should apply when you can perform your current workload for one to two reps.


And as far as training frequency goes: 2-3 days a week if you’re a novice, 3-4 days if you’re intermediate, and 4-5 days if you’re advanced. Of course, higher volume and multiple set programs are best for maximizing bulking. But in general, a linear increase in workout intensity is necessary for hypertrophy.

can you build muscle on the keto diet bench press

  1. Consuming Enough Protein

Carbs and insulin are not as necessary for muscle growth as already explained. But protein definitely is. After all, it is the substance your muscles are made of. Eating around 20-25g of high-quality protein around workouts and around 1g of protein per pound of body weight is ideal. Don’t go overboard though. Too much protein on a keto diet leads to gluconeogenesis, which is the conversion of amino acids into glucose.


And when talking about high-quality protein, what most mean is complete protein containing all 9 essential amino acids. Most animal proteins fit this definition. Whey protein is known to be among the best for muscle hypertrophy. Choose your protein according to your preferences.

  1. Don’t Neglect Your Carbs

In theory, you could survive with absolutely no carbs. Carbs are not defined as an essential nutrient, unlike fat and protein. Yet, we need to eat food containing carbs to function and avoid illness. Carb-rich foods are the only sources of fiber and vitamin C. They’re also important sources of potassium and magnesium, which you need for normal muscle functioning. You also need a bit of carbohydrates to optimize muscle glycogen recovery and for cells that cannot function on ketones (liver, kidney, and red blood cells).


While different people can eat different levels of carbs and still maintain ketosis, the 50g/day works for most. A low-carb limit also works better when you’re a bodybuilder since resistance training depletes 36-39% of muscle glycogen compared to 36-64% during endurance training. And if you’re afraid of not getting enough carbs for muscle recovery, don’t be. Once in ketosis, gluconeogenesis will provide adequate levels of glucose to keep your muscles healthy and your blood sugar stable.


So, to wrap it up, eat around 50g of carbs a day for foolproof ketosis. You can try eating up to 150g per day and check if you’re in ketosis the next day. Finding your own personal limit is always best but it can be tricky. And as far as carb quality goes, choose nutrient-dense or fat-rich low-carb food like avocados, nuts, seeds, cabbage, spinach, watercress, and broccoli.

  1. Hydration

Even mild dehydration leads to brain shrinkage, decreased neuromuscular functioning, and fatigue. Another thing to note is that dehydration always accompanies electrolyte imbalances, and electrolytes are extremely important for a healthy muscular response. Furthermore, dehydration means less nutrients reach your muscles and glycogen gets compromised (glycogen is 3-5 parts water).


For these and many other reasons, hydration is just as important as protein intake for bodybuilders. On keto, it becomes crucial since early ketosis leads to greater urine output due to rapid glycogen depletion. Taking 70-100 oz of water and up to 4g of sodium during the first week of going keto helps prevent this.

Things to Expect While on Keto Bodybuilding

Starting a low-carb diet and transitioning into ketosis is no picnic. There are things you need to be prepared for when making such a drastic change, but the short-term discomfort and effort will prove to be worth it. Here’s what awaits those who start keto to boost their workouts.

  1. The keto flu

Although not really flu, the keto flu feels like the real thing. Muscle cramps, headache, fatigue, and brain fog are common symptoms of keto transitioning and they’re caused by electrolyte imbalances and, sometimes, short-term hypoglycemia. Luckily, these symptoms go away after 3-7 days on the keto diet and are preventable with adequate fluid and sodium intake.

  1. Decrease in performance

Studies repeatedly show that short-term low-carb diets decrease anaerobic exercise performance. That’s a simple fact we need to accept as such. If you continue to work out at your usual pace when starting a keto diet, expect to hit the wall. Your glycogen levels will be low and your body is still not efficient at using fat and ketones for energy in the first few weeks of going keto.

  1. Keto-adaptation

On the bright side, if you persist with your keto diet, you’ll go through what is known as keto-adaptation or fat-adaptation. Keto-adaptation refers to a metabolic shift that takes place after long-term ketosis (usually around week 6). During this metabolic shift, your body becomes adapted at using fat for fuel and easily switching between burning fat and burning carbs.

  1. Better body composition

When you want to decrease your body fat percentage, keto works like a charm. You can reduce your fat intake to lower your total calorie intake on this diet while not compromising muscle gain through adequate protein intake. When you reduce fat intake on keto, the body is more likely to turn to its own fat stores to produce ketones.

  1. Better health

Another “side effect” of going low-carb is better health and well-being. You’ll find your physical and mental energy skyrocket after a while on the keto diet. This diet is also known to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which will help you feel better and reduce your risk of many diseases.


Targeted vs Cyclical Approach: Which Is Better for Keto Bodybuilding?

When talking about keto in a general sense, most people are referring to the standard keto diet (SKD). This approach works best for your average person looking to trim a bit of fat and boost health. But for athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters, two versions of keto seem to work better:

  1. The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)

The TKD is your standard keto diet but that involves timing your carb intake around workouts. Generally, the TKD approach suggests eating 20-50g of carbohydrates half an hour to an hour before or after your workouts. This is meant to boost glycogen production and increase post-workout recovery. These carbs, however, are your total allowance for the day. It’s also a good idea to go for easily-digestible, high-GI foods like rice or donuts.

  1. The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)

The CKD involves eating a SKD for 5-6 days a week followed by carb-loading for phase lasting 1-2 days a week. During the carb-loading phase of this diet, up to 70% of your daily calories should come from carbs. In this way, the carb-loading phase is essentially eating as you would on a typical Western diet. This diet temporarily kicks you out of ketosis and keeps ketone levels lower than on a SKD. Other benefits of this approach include:

  • Breaking weight-loss plateaus
  • Increasing anabolic hormone production
  • Reducing carb cravings

Both of these approaches are good for bodybuilders, but the CKD was found to be effective for building muscle likely due to its effects on anabolic hormones. The TKD will work best if your goal is better post-workout recovery.

7 Supplements for Keto Bodybuilding

Supplements are not really necessary on keto, even when you’re a bodybuilder. But they can make things easier and improve your outcomes if you choose them wisely. Below the top 7 best supplement options for easier keto bodybuilding.

  1. MCT Oil

MCT is short for medium-chain triglycerides. This oil is a purified source of these fats and that’s very effective in raising ketones. These fats are very different from long-chain fatty acids, which are the most common types of fats in our diet. MCTs are easily digested without enzymes and bile salts, heading straight to the liver from the small intestine to be converted into ketones. If your goal is to get into ketosis quickly and stay there, then MCT oil is for you.

  1. Fish Oil

Fish oil is a well-known source of quality omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids reduce inflammation and are essential for cardiovascular and brain health. Bodybuilders on keto also benefit from fish oil as a source of fat. Besides omega-3s, fish oil contains lots of vitamin D, which you need to maintain strong bones.

  1. L-Citrulline

L-citrulline is a non-essential amino acid that converts into L-arginine in the body. The latter is important for nitric oxide production, and nitric oxide is a gas important for dilating blood vessels and improving blood flow to your muscles. The better your blood flow, the better your post-workout recovery and anabolic response.

  1. Creatine

Another amino acid that’s well-known in fitness communities. Creatine is converted into phosphocreatine and stored in the muscles where it is used for energy. It’s an ideal supplement for those relying on short bursts of energy during workouts, but bodybuilders can benefit from creatine when experiencing bonking on a keto diet.

  1. Ketone Salts

Ketone salts are also called exogenous ketones. They are supplements containing laboratory-made ketones that are molecularly just like the ketones your body makes. Studies show taking these supplements raises ketone levels for hours. They’re great for returning into ketosis after carb-loading on a CKD or after eating too many carbs. They are also great for mental clarity.

  1. Beta-Alanine

Another amino acid found to improve exercise performance. It works by increasing the production of carnosine, a molecule known to reduce acidity in muscles. If you’re experiencing sore muscles on a keto diet, then this supplement may help.

  1. BCAA and EAA Supplements

Protein supplements are the most widely-used among bodybuilders. They’re a convenient way to get your protein just when you most need it – after your workouts. Essential amino acids (EAAs) are found in whey and egg protein supplements, among many others. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) such as leucine, which is also an EAA, are known to be powerful in stimulating muscle protein synthesis.


While carbs do help boost insulin and, in that way, stimulate muscle growth, they’re not as essential as some well-meaning people may have you believe. Our bodies are incredibly adaptive, and evidence shows that we can maintain and even build muscle mass relying on protein and fats alone.


However, careful planning is still necessary to make low-carb diets such as keto work for bodybuilders. Make sure to learn everything you can about keto for bodybuilders before taking the leap into low-carb living. Hope this simple guide has helped give you an idea of how and why keto works even when everyone else would say it doesn’t.

About the Author

Driven, dedicated and team-oriented professional with more than 6 years of experience providing wellness and nutritional support in various capacities. After Sofia learned about "food deserts" as a kid, she became determined to devote her life to like to making healthy foods accessible to everyone, regardless of income or location. Sofia has traveled around the world, teaching nutrition to communities in extreme poverty. In her spare time, Sofia loves long bike rides and exploring local farmer's markets. Learn more about Sofia on her Linkedin profile and website.