Fitness Expert Proves You Can Gain Muscle on Ketogenic Diet

Fitness expert Mike Roussell, PhD, recalls, ‘The other day, I was on a phone call with a good friend and fellow strength coach, Joe Dowdell, CSCS, of Peak Performance in New York City. I told him my current deadlift personal record stood at a respectable 420 pounds but that I aspired to pull a 500. He told me it was “doable.” Great. Then I threw him a curveball worthy of Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw. I wanted to add 80 pounds to my deadlift … while following a ketogenic diet. Joe let out a big sigh. Staying on a ketogenic diet means eating so few carbohydrates that when your glycogen stores empty, your body cashes-in on a process called “ketosis” for energy. The carbohydrate threshold to stay in ketosis will vary by individual, but the guideline for most folks is fewer than 50 grams of carbs.’ But how can you eat so few carbs and still build your muscle wellness?

‘I was dead-set on eating fewer than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day,’ Roussell details. ‘How low is that? One medium banana would place you over your daily limit! Wait, don’t carbs stimulate muscle growth? How could this work in the long term? More important, can I add 80 pounds to my deadlift without eating much carbs? These questions and more piqued the scientist in me. So I set out to find the answers not only by poring over the scientific literature but through real-world application on the gym floor as well.’ The question is, then, did he do it?

‘Carbohydrates create anabolism largely by setting off a cascade of hormone-driven events,’ Roussell explains. Chief among these events is secretion of a hormone called insulin from the pancreas. Many people realise that insulin regulates blood glucose levels, but insulin is not a one-trick pony. It is so multifunctional that many experts believe it to be absolutely integral to muscle synthesis—among other things. For example, one of insulin’s many roles is driving amino acid uptake; in other words, it gets amino acids out of your bloodstream and into your muscles. Thus, carbohydrates and the ensuing insulin response obviously have a great deal to do with muscle growth.’

Roussell comments, ‘It’s clear that carbohydrates are anabolic. It’s time to circle back to my original deadlift conquest. Was building strength and muscle possible while on a ketogenic diet? Dowdell’s sigh notwithstanding, I found that the answer is an emphatic yes! Don’t get me wrong, being ketogenic while training hard was no cakewalk. In three and a half months, I packed 80 pounds into my deadlift and pulled a new PR of 500 pounds on my first attempt. It turns out that while carbohydrates are anabolic, I am still able to achieve an anabolic feat in the nearly complete absence of carbohydrates. The human body is an amazing machine, possessing the ability to make intelligent adaptations to a variety of situations.’

So how did Roussell’s body adapt? ‘In a chronically low-carb environment, the body doesn’t follow the normal biochemical rules because it has to change,’ Roussell notes. ‘It becomes much more efficient with muscle glycogen, it up-regulates gene expression of certain enzymatic machinery needed for maximum performance, and it adapts as needed to excel in the presence of far fewer carbohydrates and much less insulin. Quite simply, my adventure in carbohydrate-less anabolism was to prove that you can perform at a high level on minimal carbohydrate—at least in the short term. Carbohydrates are not required to flip the protein synthesis switch, but perhaps there are other ways to make the overall anabolic process more efficient and effective. Does that mean everyone should adopt a ketogenic diet? I don’t think it is for everyone (and perhaps not for the long-term), but it’s still interesting to see what your body can achieve through thick and thin.’

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