Can You Build Muscle without Carbs?
So we know that the keto diet offers a whole lot in terms of fat loss benefits. We also know that it can make you feel pretty darn good while you’re burning fat – especially if you’re fat adapted.
But what about building muscle?
I can hear the meatheads slapping their foreheads as I write this. Whenever I talk about building muscle with keto, I get so much hate.
That’s probably because most people who write about this subject take on a real pretentious tone. They’ll cite this article by Rauch et al. and this one by Manninen that show that science definitely says it’s possible to build muscle mass on a very low carb diet, and they’ll leave it at that.
How dare you question the all encompassing power of the ketogenic diet?
I’m being sarcastic of course. I love the keto diet but I hate diet cultism, whether that be from vegans, paleo people, or fat loving keto enthusiasts.
Don’t get me wrong, writing enthusiastically about how much you love the keto diet is completely ok, but citing obscure studies and simply asserting that the keto diet will help build muscle is not enough.
Think about it, you’re trying to convince a bunch of meatheads to reduce their carb intake. You’ve got to give them more than that!
Looks like I’m trying to offend everyone in this article. Meatheads, I use that term lovingly. I promise that I will keep the scientific posturing and preaching to a minimum in this article. If you want to get all of the fat burning and brain powering benefits of ketosis, while still being able to build muscle then read my tips for building muscle with the ketogenic diet below.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO BUILD MUSCLE WITHOUT CARBS?
Before we get into the tips, I do need to mention how it’s possible to build muscle without carbs. A lot of people in the bodybuilding world think of insulin as the most anabolic hormone next to testosterone, and it is.
Many bodybuilders have made it a near religious practice to spike their insulin after a workout, and I put myself in this category. In fact, I’ve spoken about the ways in which simple carbohydrate consumption post workout can help with muscle building. So yes, carbs can definitely help greatly with building muscle mass.
Nevertheless, their impact is often inflated by the fact that they also help to fill cells with water. Much of the weight that bodybuilders put on during their “bulk” seasons is, in fact, water weight and not muscle. This is why so many of them shrink when it comes time to slim down to step on stage.
In fact, even though it can definitely help, insulin is not required at all for muscle protein synthesis. Leucine, an amino acid, actually regulates protein synthesis independently of insulin in the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway (1), making sufficient Leucine intake far more important than carbs in building muscle.
Additionally, anabolic hormones are derived, not from carbohydrate or protein, but from omega 3 fatty acids and cholesterol (2).
Finally, growth hormone (HGH) is antagonistic with insulin, which means you do not secrete high amounts of it when you have insulin in your bloodstream (3). It’s precursors are amino acids. So the best way to ensure adequate growth hormone production is to avoid eating for periods of time while ensuring that you are getting adequate protein intake when you do eat.
If you’re looking to add on lean muscle, and looking for great sources of leucine, cholesterol, and Omega 3 fatty acids, you can find them all in low-carbohydrate foods like whole eggs, grass fed beef, and fatty sources of fish.
Basically, what all this means is that intermittent fasting combined with a low carbohydrate, high fat, and moderate protein diet can be a great way to put on lean muscle mass.
SHOULD EVERYONE BE GOING VERY LOW CARB?
Again, I’m not saying that everyone should be on a low carb ketotic diet. We really need to get rid of these cookie cutter approaches.
My point is that ketosis and intermittent fasting can be great tools for many people if they are seeking to put on lean muscle mass while burning fat. Many people may benefit more from a very low carb diet than a moderate or
high carb diet for putting on muscle and vice versa.
How can you tell who could benefit from a low carb diet?
Well if you can pinch one inch of fat or more from your waistline, your arms, and your upper back, then it’s a good rule of thumb that you probably should not be binging on carbs even if you’re trying to increase muscle mass. For many people in this situation a low carb-moderate protein-high fat diet in conjunction with intermittent fasting would be a great bet because it would maximize GH production for fat loss, provide greater raw materials for anabolic hormone production, and adequate protein for muscle growth.
Additionally, ketosis induced by periods of fasting in the absence of glucose, would allow people in this category to burn through their fat stores while protecting lean body tissue (4).
The macro breakdown for this would be between 40-50% of your calories from fats, 30-40% of your calories from protein, and 20-30% of your calories from non-starchy fibrous carbohydrates (green vegetables).
If you are leaner, you could probably benefit from doing something similar with a few tweaks.
First, leaner folks should consider putting some properly timed carbohydrates into their diets. The best timing for this would be 2-3 hours after you’ve done a workout for the day. This way, the carbs that you’re eating can be used for what they are meant to do: replenish your glycogen stores. Delaying them for 2-3 hours will also maximize growth hormone output after the workout has been completed. Depending on your size and the amount of activity you’ve done, this could be anywhere between 50 and 150 grams of carbs during that day.
Second, I would raise the protein level up to around 50% of total calories. This is because leaner folks will benefit from some gluconeogenesis, where amino acids get converted to glucose, in order to help replenish liver glycogen.
Finally, you could still fast, but you could benefit from raising your ketone levels earlier in the day by consuming some MCT oil or exogenous ketone salts. This will increase your energy for your training sessions and keep your brain running through the work day.
None of this is to say that a very high carb diet will not work for building muscle mass. There’s too many high-carb vegan bodybuilders and power athletes out there to say that no one could benefit from that way of eating.
My only point here is to say that many people could benefit much more from a low carbohydrate diet for putting on muscle depending on their body type.
As I said before, we need to get away from these cookie cutter diet cults. Diets are tools not religions, and finding the right tool for the job is half the battle. The other half, of course, is sticking with the diet once you’ve chosen it.
If you think you could benefit from a keto diet, and you’re interested in learning more about how you can implement a keto diet in your life, check out my new FREE training series Starting Keto at http://www.startketoright.com. I’m giving away a free Keto Cookbook and a lot more bonuses to anyone who signs up!