I’ll start with two words you might already be familiar with: ketogenic diet. The words “keto” and “macros” have been floating around in the bodybuilding community a lot recently. If you’re familiar, you probably know keto as a way to get shredded: the basic mantra is "eat fat to lose fat."
Now you’re thinking… “Wait, this is a keto article? There’s no way to add muscle while in ketosis.” You’re mistaken, and I can prove it because I’ve done it. Ketosis for shredding is only half the story. If you get systematic about the way you eat, cycling off of keto weekly for about 24 hours to refeed, then you can absolutely add lean mass AND stay shredded while you’re doing it.
A brief keto overview: (You can skip ahead to the tips if you already know the basics)
In a nutshell, a ketogenic diet requires switching your metabolism from glycolysis (burning glucose, a byproduct of carbohydrates) to ketosis (burning ketones, a byproduct of fat). To accomplish that switch, you have to deplete your body of glycogen and keep your blood glucose levels incredibly low. That means eating a high percentage of fat, a moderate amount of protein (too much protein and it can get converted into glycogen), and an extremely low amount of carbohydrates.
We all know high protein as a bodybuilding essential and we’ve been talking about carb timing for decades. But flipping into ketosis basically requires that you look at that all-important third macro: fat. And more importantly, ketosis requires looking at all three of those macros in relationship to each other. To stay shredded while getting big, you actually have to lower your protein calories a bit and replace those calories with fat.
There’s a lot of research being done on the benefits of operating in ketosis: inflammation reduction, cancer prevention, the list goes on. But for our purposes, we’re going to focus on shredded mass gaining. Why even bother with a bulking season if you can build muscle and be ripped year round?
Here’s how to do it:
1. BE STRICT
Here’s the brutal truth: you can’t cheat. Period. You must stick to those ratios: high fat, moderate protein, low carb. If you down some sugar, even accidentally, and spike your blood glucose levels, your body will immediately flip back into glycolysis. Unfortunately, the flip back into ketosis isn’t so immediate. For me it takes at least a day, and I’m keto adapted. The first time it took 3 days. So you can’t cheat.
Luckily, once you’re in it, it’s a lot easier to stay compliant in keto. You can eat out. You can go to brunch. Hell, breakfast is easy: bacon, eggs, avocado, they all fit. You can find an omelet at almost any restaurant. You don’t need to deprive yourself, you just need to be very strict about the ratios of macros you consume.
Stock up on fat powders to make it simple and convenient to keep your fat ratios high in a pinch.
2. WAIT IT OUT
When you first make that switch from burning glucose to burning ketones, there’s a 3-4 day period where you feel like crap as your body builds up the right enzymes. In the meantime, your blood gets overloaded with ketones, and your body freaks out a bit as it’s forced to adapt. You’re going to have 2-4 foggy days. Just face that fact and deal with it. Get potassium and magnesium. Take a multivitamin. It helps a lot with the “keto flu." Once the transition happens you’ll feel great, you start running well on ketones.
The best way to get into ketosis the first time: start with a 3-day fast. That means ONLY water for three days. No calories whatsoever. Obviously, do this on a rest week, and preferably on a weekend so you don’t become a calorie-deprived monster at work.
3. TIME YOUR MEALS
You’re going to need a few carbs to put on mass, to give your body the building blocks it needs. But you have to be incredibly careful about the amount of carbs you ingest. Common wisdom is under 50 net carbs (under 20 is the real sweet spot). Fiber doesn’t count toward your carb totals, so go wild on the spinach. I’ve found an exception to the Net Carb rule--and this is totally anecdotal, so I expect others might have a different experience, but it works for me:
I have a cup of white rice immediately after my workouts. If I eat carbs within the hour, they don’t knock me out of ketosis. I imagine this is because the high glycemic index carbs in white rice digest quickly and go straight into the muscle and get stored as muscle glycogen. Since muscle glycogen is depleted immediately after the workout, and needs to be replaced immediately, muscles suck up the ready carbs and they don’t end up floating around as blood glucose.
If you don’t want to eat a cup of rice in the morning, try adding brown rice powder to your post workout protein shake to get that carb boost.
But that’s it. Basically, those are your carbs for the whole day.
4. PLAN YOUR NUTRITION
This is a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. Know what you’re going to eat, and when. Here’s what my basic breakdown looks like:
They don’t add a lot of flavor, actually. They’re sort of like powdered creamer, and they get you all the healthy fats you need to jumpstart your day. I stir it up with some cinnamon and down it before I hit the gym.
MEAL TWO: After my workout, there’s a short window of time (about an hour) where I can get carbs in. I have a cup of white rice right away, plus a protein shake: a scoop of high P-Cal Protein Powder (high percentage of calories from protein), plus another scoop of MCT Oil Powder, and Coconut Oil Powder.
MEAL THREE and FOUR: I make a few high-fat, low carb/protein treats with Quest bars that I can take with me. They perfectly fit the macros I am aiming for, plus they taste amazing and make it easy to stay compliant.
MEAL FIVE: Kale salad with olive oil and about 8oz of salmon. (Vinegars and lemon juice are usually pretty safe for dressing, just beware balsamic. It’s a sugar bomb).
MEAL SIX: Another protein shake before bed, with a scoop of high P-Cal protein powder, MCT Oil Powder, and Coconut Oil Powder.
5. DON’T WORRY ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS
I don’t use them myself, but as long as they’re not full of carbs and messing with your insulin levels, you should be able to keep taking the supplements you like: creatine, BCAAs, they should all be good.
DO worry about artificial sweeteners that contain maltodextrin. A lot of low or zero-calories sweeteners use maltodextrin as a substrate, and it’s a high-glycemic index carb that can spike your insulin, knocking you out of ketosis. That's one of the reasons I like Quest powders, they use fiber as a substrate instead.
This is the most important one. You need to cycle off ketosis periodically. This is the real key to actually gaining muscle while you’re getting all the benefits of a ketogenic diet.
I prefer to do it once per week, which means from about noon on Saturday to 4pm on Sunday, I pig out. It’s not a cheat day so much as an intentional carbohydrate binge. I DO NOT restrict what I eat at all. In fact, I actively seek out tons of carbs to replenish my glycogen stores and more importantly, to spike my insulin production. Most low carb dieters associate an insulin spike with a complete halt to fat burning. However, when insulin gets temporarily spiked, it boosts other important fat burning hormones, which remain elevated for days. Not only does this reefed allow me to eat normal meals on a Saturday with friends and family, it also helps me to add lean muscle while leveraging a ketogenic diet.
Just to give you an idea… here’s what I usually eat from Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning:
BREAKFAST: 2 cups oatmeal with bananas, cinnamon, the whole deal.
LUNCH: I’ll have a sandwich in the afternoon, pretty basic, turkey, cheese, and bread. But I’ll have this with a pecan chew, which is basically just nuts held together with maple syrup and brown sugar.
DINNER: This is where the real fun starts. I have about 3/4 of a deep dish pizza, which is about 3x more than a regular person needs, but remember, you’re stocking up. I don’t finish it because I’m saving room for ice cream... 3 or 4 pints of it. I kick back on the couch, watch some UFC and just… consume.
Arnold talks about how he and some of his buddies used to go binge on cherry pie the night before a competition. It makes sense. You look at me on Sunday morning, after all those carbs, and I look twice as big. I have a flood of glucose getting stocked away in my muscles. They’re so pumped up. A lot of bodybuilders make the mistake of cheating the day after competition. But you look at them after their cheat day, and they look better than they did on competition day.
Now, the refeed also means it’ll take a day or two to flip back into ketosis at the beginning of your work week. Plan for this. You’re going to feel sluggish again, but the longer you keep at it, the faster you’ll get into ketosis each time.
7. STICK WITH IT
You don’t have to go on keto forever, but it is a nutritional program with longterm potential. In order to be this lean in the past, I needed to do a ton of cardio, a ton of HIIT (high intensity interval training), a ton of deprivation. Now, I’m doing ZERO cardio, I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself at all, and I’m leaner than I’ve ever been. Plus I’m getting stronger every week.
The only thing holding you back now is your skepticism… and a culture that tells you that you can’t bulk and cut at the same time.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. I think you’ll find I’m right.
Yemeni “mindspin” Mesa is a former bodybuilding competitor (NPC Mr. Huntington Beach, Light-heavy weight & overall winner, 1994) and has over a decade of experience working in sports nutrition at companies like MET-Rx and Quest.