Complete Guide to Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Bodybuilding on the keto diet is an effective way to improve your body composition (i.e. leanness).

If you’ve had the chance to peruse our catalog of content, you likely know how great the ketogenic diet can be for fat loss. However, few articles seem to address the potential of the keto diet for bodybuilding.

Thankfully, you’re in the right place; this guide will walk you through everything you need to know about bodybuilding on the keto diet and how to set up your own personal keto bodybuilding plan for building muscle and burning fat.

Major topics we will cover in this article:

 

What is Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet?

Something that, for whatever reason, seems to fly right over the head of many gym-goers when they embark on a bodybuilding journey is that using body weight measurements alone isn’t sufficient for assessing progress.

There are practically no circumstances where your only objective should be to gain or lose weight merely to change the quantity of your total body weight. Instead, it’s more apropos to focus on increasing your leanness, which can be done in several manners.

One way of improving your body composition (leanness) is to build muscle while minimizing body fat gains. Another way is to cut body fat while retaining as much muscle as possible.

You may be able to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, but the process is exceptionally slow and typically only applies to beginners and people who have little-to-no prior bodybuilding experience.

Therefore, for most people, it’s best to focus on either building lean mass or losing body fat at any given time.

For instance, if you’re currently 15% body fat and you build 10lbs of lean body mass (LBM) over the course of four months while only adding half a pound of fat tissue, then your leanness (body fat percentage) improved.

Similarly, if you were to shed 10lbs of fat while only losing half a pound of LBM, your body fat percentage will have also improved.

The Goal of Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Thus, the primary objective of bodybuilding on the keto diet for the vast majority of people should be to improve body composition; this is most efficiently done by alternating between periods of:

  • Maximizing muscle growth (while minimizing fat gain)

and

  • Maximizing fat loss (while minimizing muscle loss)

With that understanding of the main goal of bodybuilding on the keto diet, let’s take a look at how you calculate your dietary needs for both building muscle and losing fat.

Calculate Macronutrients for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

  • For building muscle: consume 30% protein/65% fat/5% carbs as percentages of total calorie intake
  • For fat loss: consume 25% protein/70% fat/5% carbs as percentages of total calorie intake

Example for a highly active 165lb individual looking to build muscle on the keto diet:

  • Calculate BMR 165lbs x 13 = 2145 calories
  • Calculate Total Daily Energy Expenditure 2145 x 1.6 = 3432 calories
  • Multiply Total Daily Energy Expenditure by 1.25 for muscle building  3432 x 1.25 = 4290 calories per day for building muscle mass
  • Determine Keto Diet Macronutrient Intake:
    • 4290 x 0.30 = 1287 calories from protein = 322g protein (since protein has 4 cals/g)
    • 4290 x 0.05 = 214 calories from carbohydrate = 54g carb (since carbs have 4 cals/g)
    • 4290 x 0.65 = 2789 calories from fat = 310g fat (since fat has 9 cals/g)

Therefore, this person should aim to eat 4290 calories per day, coming from 310 grams of fat, 322 grams of protein, and 54 grams of carbs (or less).

Example for a moderately active 165lb individual looking to lose fat on the keto diet:

  • Calculate BMR 165lbs x 13 = 2145 calories
  • Calculate Total Daily Energy Expenditure 2145 x 1.3 = 2789 calories
  • Multiply Total Daily Energy Expenditure by 0.75 for fat loss  2789 x 1.25 = 2091 calories per day for fat loss
  • Determine Keto Diet Macronutrient Intake:
    • 2091 x 0.30 = 1287 calories from protein = 322g protein (since protein has 4 cals/g)
    • 2091 x 0.05 = 214 calories from carbohydrate = 54g carb (since carbs have 4 cals/g)
    • 2091 x 0.65 = 2789 calories from fat = 310g fat (since fat has 9 cals/g)

Therefore, this person should aim to eat 4290 calories per day, coming from 310 grams of fat, 322 grams of protein, and 54 grams of carbs (or less).

Nutrition Adjustments for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Note that the calculations given here are simply meant to serve as a general starting point for the majority of people.

Due to the myriad factors that go into determining your actual energy needs and metabolic tendencies, you will likely to need to adjust your diet after some trial and error.

If you find that you’re gaining excessive body fat while trying to build lean mass, then cut your calorie intake by 10% and reassess after 2-3 weeks.

If you’re not losing fat at an efficient rate (e.g. 1-2lbs per week), then try reducing calorie intake by an extra 10% and see if that helps get the scale to budge. If you’re still not seeing results, you may want to try implementing a Fat Fast.

Food Choices for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Since you’re on the ketogenic diet, your food selection will be primarily:

  • lean & fatty animal proteins
  • full-fat dairy
  • eggs
  • fruit (in moderation)
  • low-carb vegetables
  • nuts & seeds
  • food oils
  • calorie-free liquids

For a comprehensive list of foods that keto-friendly, check out our Ultimate Keto Foods List!

Sample Diet for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Meal 1: 3 egg whites, 4 whole eggs, 2 tbsp peanut butter
Pre-Workout: Bulletproof Keto Coffee
Post-Workout: 2 scoops whey protein, 5g creatine monohydrate
Meal 2: 8 oz lean ground beef/turkey, 32g almonds, 2 cups steamed spinach
Meal 3: 6 oz chicken thigh meat, 1 avocado, 1 cup steamed broccoli
Meal 4: 8 oz steak or fish, 2 tbsp peanut butter, 1 cup grilled asparagus
Meal 5: 6 oz chicken thigh meat, 1 avocado, 3 cups steamed cabbage

Nutrition & Training Tips for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Eat More if You’re Not Building Lean Mass

Hopefully, this tip is quite obvious to most readers. It’s an exercise in futility to try and build an appreciable amount of lean body mass without giving your body the calories it needs to synthesize muscle tissue.

Intuitively, if you’re not building much muscle each week, then you need to either increase your calorie intake or reduce the amount of energy your burn (e.g. do less cardio, reduce your lifestyle activity factor, etc.).

Eat Less if You’re Not Losing Sufficient Body Fat

Contrarily to the previous tip, you should be in a calorie deficit (consistently) to lose body fat. (Sorry, there is no way around this.)

Hence, if you want to lose body fat, you’re going to need to burn more energy than you consume on a regular basis. We will help you determine just how many calories that is later in this guide.

Maximize Your Nutrition Before & After Training

Due to the short-term benefits that weight training has on your metabolism, it behooves you to maximize what you eat both before and after you hit the gym.

For bodybuilding on the keto diet, this means eating both protein and fat about two hours before heading to the gym and then again within one hour after you finish working out. 

Nevertheless, if you happen to miss a meal before training or can’t eat until two hours after you finish your last set on leg day, don’t worry; the highest priority is to meet your energy and macronutrient needs at the end of the day, not the food that you eat directly before and/or after exercising.

Try to Eat Between 3-6 Meals/Snacks Per Day

Evidence seems to suggest that meal frequency isn’t quite as important as traditional bodybuilding wisdom will have you believe. After all, you’ve likely come across an article at some point that tells you to eat at least seven times per day in order to “stoke your metabolism.”

Scientifically, that advice is hogwash.

Your main goal should be to simply meet your energy and macronutrient needs every day, regardless if you only eat three times per day or six times per day.

Stick to a meal pattern that best fits your schedule so you can be consistent with your diet.

For Fat Loss, Keep Cardio As Low As Possible (While Consistently Dropping Weight)

In order to maximize muscle retention, you should only perform as much cardio as necessary while you consistently drop body fat.

Cardio should essentially be an adjunct to the main focuses –  weight training and diet – for when you’re aim is to cut off those love handles. 

Prioritize Compound Exercises 

It should come as no surprise that compound movements, like barbell squats, presses, rows, chin-ups/pull-ups, and deadlifts are the most bang for your buck in terms of muscle building exercises.

After all, your body off killing two (or more) birds with one stone – metaphorically speaking – when it comes to weight training. 

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t incorporate isolation exercises in your training routine;

Rrather, your bodybuilding regimen should focus primarily on heavy compound movements and secondary focus should be on single-joint/isolation exercises, like tricep pressdowns, dumbbell front raises, etc.

Never Stop Progressing (In Some Manner)

Isn’t it crazy how so many gym-goers routinely lift the exact same weights for the exact same number of reps and sets, week-in and week-out? Does it really come as a surprise that they are usually the ones who look the same (or worse) now as they did 10 years ago?

If you don’t want to make any improvements to your physique, then the best way to achieve that goal is to never progress in the gym. Albert Einstein put it best: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

However, if you actually want to see visible changes in your body, you’re going to need to go into the gym with the attitude that you’re going to be better than yesterday. The most tangible way to progress is to simply challenge yourself with heavier weights.

For example, maybe last week on “Chest Day” you were able to bench 185lbs for 10 reps. Then the next time you train chest, you should aim to perform 190lbs for 10 reps.

The great thing about progression is that it keeps you motivated! Even if you’re not lifting heavier weights, you can increase the number of reps you complete, sets to perform, time under tension, and many other variables; all of those are still ways to progress.

The main thing is that you don’t simply repeat what you were doing last week. At that point, you’re just going through the motions, which is surely not going to help you improve.

Rest Is Crucial

Make no mistake that you have to stimulate your muscles and body fat to make them grow and shrink, respectively. However, your time in the gym is not when your body is truly growing, nor is it the only time of day that your body is burning fat.

Naturally, the recovery process mostly happens in your downtime outside of the gym. You should be aiming for between 7-8 hrs of sleep each night.

If you are able, think about taking a “power nap” or in the middle of the day to help you recuperate and refresh your mind.

Don’t make the process more complicated then it needs to be. Bodybuilding is quite simple: Sleep, eat, train, repeat.

Emphasize Nutrient-Dense Foods for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

For people who tend to easily overeat and/or put on body-fat rapidly, the best thing to do is emphasize foods that are rich in nutrients (especially micronutrients and fiber) but not excessively high in calories.

Essentially this means eating mostly whole foods that are more satiating, such as lean animal proteins, full-fat dairy, eggs, fruit (in moderation), and of course low-carb vegetables.

Cardio when Trying to Build Muscle on the Keto Diet

Most people who are looking to build muscle totally neglect cardio. While doing excessive cardio is certainly not a good idea for bulking up, some cardio is actually quite beneficial.

Reason being is that cardio, specifically high-intensity interval training (HIIT), has been shown to increase oxygen consumption when at rest and the process of mitochondrial biogenesis;

In turn, your body experiences a phenomenon called “the afterburn effect,” meaning you expend more calories throughout the rest of the day (even when you’re on the couch watching TV). This will help you stay lean while you work to build muscle.

Incorporate 1-3 HIIT sessions weekly based on how quickly you are gaining size. A HIIT session can be as quick as 20 minutes if done properly and intensely.

For example, try starting out with a simple, effective HIIT workout like hill sprints:

  • Find a steep hill (preferably 35% incline or more) that is around 40-50 meters long
  • Starting from the bottom of the hill, sprint as fast as you can to the top (depending on length, this shouldn’t take more than 20 seconds)
  • Walk/jog back down to the bottom of the hill as your “active recovery” between each interval
  • Catch your breath for 10 seconds if necessary at the bottom of the hill, then repeat the entire process between 5-10 times

If you want to incorporate some low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardio, such as walking on an incline to burn a few extra calories, then have at it. However, don’t go overboard with LISS cardio as it can actually decrease your BMR and impede the muscle building process. 

You should be doing no more than two or three half-hour sessions of low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardio or HIIT per week when trying to build lean muscle.

Use Intermittent Fasting to Accelerate Fat Loss on the Keto Diet

If you’re looking to get very lean, it may be more beneficial to implement intermittent fasting rather than drastically reducing your calorie intake; otherwise, there may likely come a point where you have to practically starve yourself to keep shredding fat.

Training for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

In this section, you will find a simple, effective workout routine for bodybuilding on the keto diet; it can easily be tweaked for losing fat or mass building by increasing or decreasing the amount of cardio you do each week.

Multi-phase Training Routine for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

During this training routine, you will progress through three different phases (microcycles) that adjust your workout intensity by incorporating various training protocols, such as drop-sets and rest-pause sets.

The specific protocols to follow for each phase are as follows:

  • Phase 1 (Weeks 1-3)—Regular sets
  • Phase 2 (Weeks 4-6)—Final set for each assistance exercise is a drop-set
  • Phase 3 (Weeks 7-9)—Final set for each assistance exercises is a rest-pause set

Using Reverse Pyramid Progression for Compound Exercises

This bodybuilding routine revolves around what is known as a “reverse pyramid” progression scheme for compound movements. This entails working up and then back down in weight for multi-joint (compound) exercises during each workout.

Multi-joint/compound exercises are movements that engage multiple muscle groups; thus, these exercises recruit more muscle fibers than isolation (single-joint) movements like dumbbell curls.  

Moreover, compound movements inherently allow you to lift heavier weights since you’re using multiple joints and muscles; hence, you’re able to put more tension on the working muscles, which is conducive to muscle growth.

Essentially, you will start compound exercises by performing a few warm-up sets to get your blood pumping and muscles loose.

After your warm-up sets, you will methodically increase the weight until you reach a maximum-effort set where you perform “as many reps as possible” (AMRAP) with good form.

The following 2-3 sets after that, you will drop the weight by about 5-10% per set and again perform AMRAP.

Here’s an example of what the reverse pyramid rep scheme should look like for someone who can flat barbell bench press 275lbs for 5 reps maximum:

  • 135 x 10 (roughly 50% of 5-rep maximum)
  • 175 x 5 
  • 205 x 3
  • 225 x 3
  • 250 x 2
  • 275 x AMRAP
  • 245 x AMRAP
  • 220 x AMRAP

The goal on AMRAP sets?

Push yourself until you are just one rep shy of absolute failure. As such, be careful and learn the proper exercise techniques when you are performing max-effort sets.

Always be safe and use a spotter when performing movements like barbell squats, bench press, and shoulder press in case you do reach failure and can’t complete the final repetition.

Assistance & Isolation Exercises

Once you’ve completed the primary compound exercise for a given workout, you will move onto the assistance/isolation exercises.

These are comprised of a selection of movements targeting the supporting muscles of whatever primary exercise you just performed. For example, a common assistance/isolation exercise for the pecs is cable flyes.

Conventional Progression Scheme for Assistance & Isolation Exercises

For assistance exercises, you will perform three sets starting at 12-15 reps and work up in weight so that your reps drop to the 6-8 range on the final set. Start with a weight that allows you to perform about 10-12 reps.

For set two, increase the weight 5-10% and perform as many reps as possible. Add another 5-10% for set three. When you are able to perform 15 or more reps for set one, add weight to each of the sets.

For example, let’s say you are using 40 pounds on dumbbell curls and are able to perform 15 reps for your first set:

  • First Set – 40 pounds x 15 reps
  • Second Set – 45 pounds x 11 reps
  • Third Set – 50 pounds x 7 reps

Because you reached 15 reps for your first set, you will add 5 pounds to each of your sets the next time you do dumbbell curls.

Training Routine for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

The following workouts are to be performed in two days on, one day off fashion (not including cardio). So your weekly training regimen might look like this:

  • Monday—Workout A + LISS Cardio
  • Tuesday—Workout B
  • Wednesday—HIIT Cardio
  • Thursday—Workout C
  • Friday—Workout D + LISS Cardio
  • Saturday—HIIT Cardio
  • Sunday—Complete Rest Day (don’t perform cardio or weight training)

Workout A

Exercise Sets Rep Ranges (**adjust to fit each Phase)
Barbell Bench Press 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Incline DB Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Standing Cable Crossover 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Lat Pull Downs or Pull-Ups 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Skullcrushers 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Cable Rope Pressdowns 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8

Workout B

Exercise Sets Reps Ranges (**adjust to fit each Phase)
Barbell Back Squat 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Leg Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Stiff-legged Deadlift 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Calf Raises 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Weighted Sit Ups 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Planks (add weight if you can hold it for more than 30 seconds) 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8

Workout C

Exercise Sets Reps (**adjust to fit each Phase)
Barbell Overhead Press (Standing) 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Barbell or Dumbbell Rows 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Seated DB Shoulder Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Close Grip Bench Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Bent-Over Reverse DB Flyes 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Barbell or Dumbbell Curls 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8

Workout D

Exercise Sets Reps (**adjust to fit each Phase)
Deadlifts 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Barbell or Dumbbell Lunges 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Leg Curls 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Seated Calf Raise 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Reverse Grip Barbell Curls 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Reverse Hyperextensions 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8

Phase Adjustments for Training

Here’s a template of what a chest, back, and triceps workout (Workout A) may look like during Phase 1:

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Bench Press 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Incline DB Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Standing Cable Crossover 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Lat Pull Downs or Pull-Ups 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Skullcrushers 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8
Cable Rope Pressdowns 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8

 

During Phase 2, Workout A will look like this:

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Bench Press 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Incline DB Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Drop-set to failure
Standing Cable Crossover 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Drop-set to failure
Lat Pull Downs or Pull-Ups 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Drop-set to failure
Skullcrushers 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Drop-set to failure
Cable Rope Pressdowns 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Drop-set to failure

 

During Phase 3, Workout A will go like this:

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Bench Press 3-4 4-6, then AMRAP x 2
Incline DB Press 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Rest-Pause Set
Standing Cable Crossover 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Rest-Pause Set
Lat Pull Downs or Pull-Ups 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Rest-Pause Set
Skullcrushers 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Rest-Pause Set
Cable Rope Pressdowns 3 12-15, 10-12, 6-8–>Rest-Pause Set

 

Be sure to make the appropriate phase adjustments for each workout of the week!

Supplements for Bodybuilding on the Keto Diet

Supplements will never override poor diet and training habits. However, they are certainly an important component of bodybuilding on the keto diet when training and nutrition are dialed in.

Creatine Monohydrate

  • Creatine monohydrate is indubitably the most effective sports nutrition supplement; it works by bolstering ATP synthesis in muscle tissue.
  • Boosts strength, power, endurance, and hydration.
  • Research corroborates that 4-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day is plenty for sustaining saturated intracellular levels.

L-Citrulline 

  • L-citrulline is an important amino acid that helps synthesize nitric oxide (NO).
  • Research shows that L-citrulline significantly enhances endurance, blood flow, and muscle anabolism.
  • Start with a daily dose of 6-8 grams, taken about 30 minutes before exercise. You may also take it post-workout to encourage better nutrient partitioning.

Caffeine

  • Caffeine has been shown to enhance cognitive function and athletic performance when taken before exercise.
  • It’s best to take about 1-3 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight  (1 kg=2.2 lbs).
  • There is roughly 100mg of caffeine in a strong cup (8 oz) of black coffee.
  • It is best to take caffeine on an empty stomach, about 30 minutes before exercising.

Exogenous Ketones

  • Exogenous ketones (BHB salts) are ideal for those who want to get into ketosis rapidly and support their ketogenic diet.
  • It’s best to consume exogenous ketones about 30 minutes prior to exercising.
  • Aim for about 12-14 grams of BHB salts per dose.

MCT Oil & MCT Powder

 

Protein Powder

  • Protein powders are useful when you need a quick, high-quality source of protein.
  • Use protein powder as necessary to meet your daily protein demands. 
  • Casein protein powder digests exceptionally slow, making it great for before bedtime.   

Multivitamins & Electrolytes

  • Using a multivitamin and electrolytes will help you stay hydrated while on the keto diet; these micronutrients also provide a bounty of benefits and reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies. 
  • You can also make bone broth to increase your electrolyte consumption.

Fish and Krill Oil (Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids)

  • Omega-3 EFAs are crucial for myriad functions in humans, especially cardiovascular health.
  • If you don’t eat much freshwater fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel), then you should consider a fish or Krill oil supplement.
  • Aim for roughly 3-5 grams (providing around 2 grams of EPA and 1.5 grams of DHA) of fish or Krill oil daily.

Consistency is Key!

Many people don’t stick to a plan because they get upset with the short-term results (or lack thereof). They completely forget that improving health/fitness and body composition is a lifelong endeavor; you can’t rush the process.

It will take a concerted effort and consistency on your behalf to achieve the body and level of fitness you desire.

If at any point you feel like you’re not making progress, take a step back, assess your long-term goals, and make any necessary changes to your current habits to continue your journey of bodybuilding on the keto diet.

Whatever you do, if you’re passionate about bodybuilding then do not give up! Setbacks will happen, but you can overcome them. In fact, getting through all the trials and tribulations is what gives meaning to triumphs; you create your own success.

This guide is meant to give you the tools to start on that path toward your goals.

Related:

The Ketogenic Diet For Athletes: Carb Intake, What Works, & What Doesn’t

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Elliot received his BS in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and has been a freelance writer specializing in nutritional and health sciences for the past 5 years. He is thoroughly passionate about exercise, nutrition, and dietary supplementation, especially how they play a role in human health, longevity, and performance. In his free time you can most likely find him lifting weights at the gym or out hiking through the mountains of Colorado. He will also host the upcoming BioKeto podcast. You can connect with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/elliot.reimers) and Instagram (@eazy_ell)

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