Research has started to show how to optimize keto for athletic performance, so if you’ve been trying to build muscle on a ketogenic diet, here are the top tactics for success.
Eat enough protein
Gaining muscle is a matter of tipping muscle metabolism away from breakdown (catabolism) to building (anabolism). Simply put, if you are exercising often, your body needs extra protein to repair and rebuild your muscle tissues.
For example, if you’re getting the recommended 2.5 – 5 hours of moderate physical activity or 75 – 150 minutes of intense physical activity per week, you need to be getting enough protein for your muscle to heal and build back stronger.
The amount of protein you need depends on how much you are exercising. For that amount of exercise, aim for 0.6–0.68 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.3–1.5 g/kg) per day, spaced evenly throughout your day.
To minimize muscle loss during weight loss, some research suggests 0.73 grams protein per pound bodyweight (1.6 g/kg body weight) may be the ideal daily target. Avoid going higher than 1 gram protein per pound bodyweight (2.2 g/kg) unless you exercise at an extremely high level every day.
If you’re getting your protein from a supplement, always read the label for carbohydrate content. You might be surprised how many carbs are in your typical protein powder.
Eat enough calories (from fat)
If you’re trying to gain muscle, make sure you’re getting enough calories to do so. On a ketogenic diet, your body produces ketones for energy by breaking down fat. In turn, those ketones fuel your brain and your muscles.
If you don’t have enough ketones to burn, then your body starts to break down your muscle protein in order to meet the energy demands of your exercise.
If you’re having trouble planning out your meals to get enough calories with the right macronutrients, check out the top keto meal delivery services so you can focus on building muscle instead of cooking.
Replenish your minerals: calcium and magnesium
Magnesium and calcium are essential for muscle function. Along with certain electrolytes (covered next), a lack of these two minerals is usually the source of debilitating muscle cramps and poor recovery.
Your body does a decent job of holding on to calcium by recycling it within your cells, but most people don’t get enough calcium in the first place. Low-carb calcium sources include fish canned with bones, dark green leafy vegetables, most nuts and seeds, and cheese.
Magnesium is a different story. Exercise has a particularly depleting effect on your magnesium levels. To replenish your stores after a workout, eat foods high in magnesium—pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, green leafy veggies, and canned fish are the top keto sources—and consider a supplement if your levels are especially low.
Hydrate and pay attention to your salt intake
Everyone knows that you lose water and sodium in sweat. You might not know that both are critical for muscle function, so a targeted hydration strategy is key to performing at your best. On top of the normal sodium-depleting effects of exercise, ketosis depletes sodium even further because of the way your kidneys work on a ketogenic diet.
If you’re feeling dehydrated even though you’re drinking plenty of water, or if you’re having digestive problems, muscle cramps, or low blood pressure on a ketogenic diet, salt your food to taste. Consider talking with your doctor or dietitian about your optimal sodium intake. Even though most people on a standard American diet get more than enough sodium in their diets, getting supplemental salt is necessary for some keto dieters.
Get enough potassium
On a regular diet, chances are that you are not getting enough potassium. A ketogenic diet — which limits some of the best natural sources of potassium available — makes the issue worse. Eat lots of green leafy vegetables, moderate amounts of nuts and seeds, and consider a potassium-fortified “light salt” to get both potassium and sodium at once.
Pro-tip: to prevent muscle cramps, focus on hydrating and getting extra calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium. This helps regulate the fluid’s electrical properties inside and surrounding your cells, so they don’t short circuit and leave you writhing with a painful muscle cramp.
Train for hypertrophy
No matter how you do it, pumping iron is a sure-fire way to build muscle (“hypertrophy”). Without a strategy, though, you may end up undertraining, overtraining, or just not using your time and energy effectively.
A recent analysis of 25 resistance-training studies answered how often you have to train to maximize muscle gains. The results? It doesn’t matter how often you train; you just have to exercise enough and progress to a higher exercise volume.
To put that into perspective, you can do five sets of 10 repetitions three times on one day of the week, or you can do five sets of 10 reps once per day for three days of the week, and your muscles won’t notice a difference.
The trick to gaining muscle is to add on weight, speed, frequency, or duration of the exercise every week so that they adapt to that new level (called “progressive overload”). Find the exercise regimen that works well for you, and stick with it.
Train hard, but recover harder
Not getting enough sleep contributes to inflammation and chronic disease, increases your risk of injury, limits the gains you get from exercise, and might even make it harder to stick with your diet and build muscle.
Even if you don’t get injured, sleep deprivation programs your muscle metabolism to favor catabolism (the opposite of growth) and may prolong your recovery time and the soreness and pain from a workout.
Although most people focus on the numbers of their weights and the size of their muscles, if you add the volume of rest to your measurements, you’ll start to notice benefits for your mood, your diet, and your appearance.
Time your training with maximum ketone levels
Most people who take ketone readings throughout the day find that their blood levels are highest early in the morning. Since your body makes ATP—the currency your cell uses to “buy” energy—from ketone bodies when you're on a ketogenic diet, training when your ketone levels are highest means that your body has the most energy possible to maximize your workout.
If you don’t have the luxury to train whenever it’s most convenient for your ketone levels, you can consider an exogenous ketone supplement. These supplements provide you with a quick source of ketones, which translates into a keto-friendly energy boost.
Support your connective tissue
You can build muscle rapidly, but your collagen connective tissue—that actually supports the load and transmits force through your body—takes much longer to remodel and strengthen. Just focusing on building muscles with keto-friendly protein rich in leucine like animal meat or whey protein doesn't support your connective tissues to the same extent.
Connective tissues like cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and bone are primarily made up of collagen protein; if you don’t support these tissues nutritionally, you are asking for an injury.
Your body can make its own collagen from other types of proteins, but your ability to do so declines with age and may be limited by your nutrition. Plus, clinical research shows that the unique peptides in collagen protein support the strengthening of connective tissue, bone, and muscle alongside exercise.
Because the amino acids in collagen can be easily turned into glucose, time your collagen protein before or after a workout so that any excess that is converted to glucose is burned by your muscles before bumping you out of ketosis.
Don’t take high-dose anti-inflammatories or antioxidants
NSAIDs are the go-to for pain relief, but emerging research suggests that these over-the-counters actually delay healing time and hurt your connective tissue strength long-term. Taking 1000mg of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E has been shown in multiple clinical studies to decrease the adaptive process of exercise.
Since ketosis decreases lactate levels and increases the availability of fuel for extended exercise, you might not even reach for those antioxidants anyway.
This research shows that the inflammatory process is actually necessary for muscle adaptation. With that in mind, athletic coaches and sports dietitians recommend getting your antioxidants from fruit and vegetables, focus on low sugar berries like wild blueberries, and high-fiber vegetables like dark green veggies.
- Eat the right amount of protein for your level of exercise and spread that protein throughout the day. A collagen protein may have unique benefits for your connective tissues.
- Dark green leafy vegetables are rich in key nutrients to optimize exercise: potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Try to get them with every meal or mix them into your post-workout recovery smoothie. If you want to spend your time working out, not calculating the optimal ketogenic diet, have your work cut out for you with these top keto meal delivery services.
- Drink lots of water and get enough sodium. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about how much sodium you should be eating.
- Train hard and progressively increase your exercise volume, but don’t forget the importance of recovery and sleep for preventing injuries and maximizing your gains.
- Avoid painkillers and high-dose antioxidants if you can. These limit the anabolic processes necessary for muscle growth.