KETO BODYBUILDING DIET TIPS FROM AN EXPERT, PLUS MEAL IDEAS
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Wondering if it’s possible to build on muscle on a keto bodybuilding meal plan? Good question. After all, some people think the way to bigger, bulkier biceps means eating a high-carb diet. That line of thinking contradicts the standard keto diet, in which you typically aim for less than 50 grams of net carbs per day.
So, how do you do it? We spoke with Tara Garrison, a trainer, nutritionist and ketogenic diet expert, for insight. Get started with these keto bodybuilding diet tips, then check out delicious ideas to bulk up your keto bodybuilding meal plan for muscle gain.
BUILDING A STRONG FOUNDATION FOR KETO BODYBUILDING
On the ketogenic diet, you want to eat the right proportions of food that will put you in ketosis— the metabolic state in which you burn fat for fuel. We’ll dig into more specific guidelines for a keto bodybuilding diet below. But before you start building muscle, you have to start with a strong foundation so your body is in a place to build muscle first—regardless of the type of diet you follow.
TRAIN FOR STRENGTH
Eating all the steak in the kitchen won’t build muscle unless you’re putting in the work to stimulate muscle growth.
Broadly speaking, you should follow a strength program with progressive overload—a method of strength training in which you gradually increase the stress placed up on your muscles in order to trigger muscle growth (aka hypertrophy).
How do you trigger hypertrophy? Increase the weight you lift over time, to start. It’s a good idea to work with an experienced trainer to develop a well-planned muscle building program that works for you.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR KETO BODYBUILDING
“For weightlifting, keto pairs best with strength work, meaning lower rep ranges, heavy weight and longer rest intervals,” Garrison says—for example, you might lift three sets of six to eight repetitions of heavy weight with 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
Heads up if you train for muscular endurance and lifting at higher rep ranges, like 12-15 reps per set: Don’t be surprised if you gas out when you’re first transitioning to keto bodybuilding.
At higher rep ranges, your body converts muscle glycogen into ATP for energy. Glycogen is a form of fast-burning energy from glucose (carbohydrates)—but on keto, you’ll have less glycogen available (because…carbs). If this happens to you, try increasing your dietary fat intake to create more available energy for your cells. You can also experiment with upping your carb intake.
EAT TO BUILD MUSCLE
In order to increase muscle mass, you need to eat more food. There are a two key reasons for this:
- 1Your muscles need protein in order to grow: Protein is the building block of muscle. Without enough protein in your diet, your muscles won’t have the material they need to bulk up, and your body won’t have the energy it needs to perform optimally. Focus on protein sources that have all nine essential amino acids (think high-protein foods like meat, fish, eggs, as well as supplements like Bulletproof Complete Daily Energy Collagen Protein).
- 2Your body needs more fuel: Muscle is a metabolically active tissue, which means your body uses a lot of energy to maintain those gains. You need to eat more calories so your body has all the nutrients it needs. On the keto diet, your primary energy source comes from your dietary fat intake.
“Calories in vs. calories out” is a common concept in weight management. We view this model as too simplistic because it ignores the fact that all calories are not created equal. You’re going to get more nutritional value out of a plate of grass-fed protein and greens than you would highly processed foods. So, when we say “eat to build muscle,” we mean you should focus on eating more nutrient-dense whole foods that agree with your system, and they should be as high-quality as possible.
Resistance training is stressful, but it’s the good kind of stress. Strength training literally tears your muscle fibers. Muscle growth happens when your body repairs that tissue. And like any form of stress, you have to give your body the time, care and nutrients to properly recover.
Chronic stress—whether it’s stress from overtraining, lack of sleep or mental overload—can interfere with your regular hormone function, sleep quality and energy. And if you want to trigger muscle growth, you need your body to feel safe and equipped to build metabolically active tissue. Too much stress and your body will stay in fight-or-flight mode, which is bad news if you’re looking for fat loss: Stress can cause your body to hold onto body fat, impairing your ability to see results from exercise and feel your best.
How do you prioritize recovery? Eating enough food is one way. But you also want to focus on lifelong habits for overall wellness like drinking plenty of water, getting enough quality sleep and managing your stress. Dieting doesn’t work if your body doesn’t feel safe and fueled.
KETO BODYBUILDING DIET TIPS
Let’s pivot back to keto, specifically. It’s possible to build and maintain a strong physique on the keto diet. In fact, studies focusing on resistance training men show that the keto diet can be used to build muscle and burn fat, without interfering with strength performance.
One caveat for women: A 2020 study of 21 strength-trained women found that the keto diet helps burn fat, but may not be as effective in increasing lean body mass.
If you’re a woman who struggles to gain muscle on keto, you may want to experiment with a higher-carb style of eating, like carb cycling or targeted keto, which we’ll talk about below.
Generally speaking, keto bodybuilding diet principles still follow the basic guidelines we outlined above, but with a greater emphasis on your macronutrient breakdown—aka the ratio of protein, fats and carbohydrates in your diet.
EAT MORE OF WHAT YOU ALREADY CONSUME
You want to keep carbs low to maintain the fat-burning state of ketosis—but you also want to eat at a caloric surplus to build muscle. We recommend using a food tracker to understand how much food you’re actually eating and whether you’re hitting your macronutrient goals.
To build muscle on keto, Garrison recommends that at least 30% of your total calories should come from quality proteins like whole, unprocessed animal proteins.
The standard ketogenic macro ratio is 75% fat, 25% protein and 5% carbs. Garrison recommends a slightly different ratio for keto bodybuilders to create a high-protein keto diet. “Start at 65% fat, 30% protein and 5% carbs, keeping carbs under 20 total grams to begin with the first week, and then slowly titrating up in carbs until you find your optimal level where you feel best while still maintaining ketosis,” Garrison says. “Your carbs should mostly be from vegetables.”
Treat keto macro ratios as starting points. Diets are incredibly individualized, and you might need to adjust your calorie intake and macro breakdown, depending on how you feel. For instance, if your energy is tanking during your workouts—and you’ve already gotten through the keto flu—your body might be asking for more energy.
Here are two possible solutions:
Curious about eating more carbs while staying in ketosis? Garrison is a fan of a style of keto called the targeted ketogenic diet, which can help fuel exercise performance and enhance muscle growth.
On targeted keto, you eat 20-30 grams of quality carbohydrates after lifting—possibly even up to 50 grams of carbs for people with very fast metabolisms. “This is best paired with lean protein to create an insulin response that refills muscle glycogen and sends amino acids into the muscles to begin muscle recovery,” Garrison says. “Then, eat a normal ketogenic diet for the rest of the day.”
UP YOUR PROTEIN INTAKE
On a keto bodybuilding meal plan, get sufficient protein to increase muscle mass through a process called protein synthesis. A 2011 review of research found that the ideal amount of protein for bodybuilders was 0.82 grams per pound of body weight.
That news might seem surprising if you associate bodybuilding with lifters pounding protein shakes after exercise. In reality, you want to aim for a more moderate protein intake and prioritize quality fat.
Finding your ideal protein intake will require some self-experimentation. The “right” amount of protein is different for everyone, depending on factors like your lean muscle mass, weight and gender. As a rule of thumb, start with 0.82 grams per pound of body weight—so if you weigh 150 pounds, you would want to consume at least 123 grams of protein per day.
You might have heard that eating too much dietary protein on a keto diet can actually kick you out of ketosis through a process called gluconeogenesis, in which your body converts protein to sugar. The good news: This issue isn’t as significant as once thought, Garrison notes.
Preferably, your protein intake comes from whole foods, and supplementation fills in the gaps. Find out what to eat on keto with our complete keto food list.
To better understand your protein needs on a keto diet, we like Precision Nutrition’s Ultimate Macro Calculator, which has specific recommendations for keto dieters. For a more personalized macro breakdown, connect with a keto nutritionist.
KETO BODYBUILDING MEAL PLAN IDEAS
To support your performance with the best nutrients, we recommend bulking up with the highest-quality sources of fat and protein you can find. That means foods like:
But how do you put it all together in a keto bodybuilding meal plan filled with low-carb, high-fat, protein-rich meals? Below, you’ll find a template for a day of eating, based on Garrison’s recommendations. Use this as inspiration and adapt to your dietary needs—for example, hold the cheese and sour cream if you aren’t friendly with dairy.
Spinach omelet: 4 large eggs, 1 cup spinach, 1 oz. feta cheese, cooked in 1/2 Tbsp. butter
Taco salad: 2 cups chopped romaine, 8 oz. 85/15% taco-seasoned ground beef, 4 Tbsp. salsa, 1 Tbsp. sour cream, 1/3 cup shredded Mexican-blend cheese
Steak and vegetables: 8 oz. New York strip steak, 6 oz. asparagus, 1 Tbsp. butter