Why Am I Not Gaining Muscle on Keto?

Have you asking yourself this question? Or maybe I need to take a step further back. Are you wondering if it is possible to gain muscle on keto?

The answer is yes. You can definitely gain muscle on a ketogenic diet. This is something that has been shown in the research and has been reported anecdotally by thousands. That doesn’t mean it will happen though.

The truth is that there is a lot of research that demonstrates no muscle gain on keto and plenty of people who have reported the same. One big reason why many studies do not demonstrate muscle gain is because the primary form of measuring muscle mass, the DEXA scan, measures water loss as a loss in lean body mass. We know that on low carb diets, we hold less water which is why we see this reading.

Besides a misunderstanding of the research, the big reason why some studies don’t demonstrate muscle gain on keto is that they are not optimizing the diet or training for muscle growth. In this blog post, I am going to tell you the 4 reasons why I think you aren’t gaining muscle on keto because gaining muscle on keto is very possible!

4 Reasons You're not gaining muscle on keto.jpg

Reason #1- Your Calories Are Too Low

If you want your muscles to grow, you need to provide them with enough energy to do so. Muscle building is an energy expensive demand. If you do not have enough energy coming into your body in the form of calories, your body will be very resistant to muscle repair and building.

Since it is so easy to under eat on keto due to the satiety impact of the diet, I suggest counting your calories to make sure you are eating enough. My go-to app for doing so is the Cronometer app.

Reason #2- Your Protein is Too Low

It’s not just calories that you need to focus on but specifically protein.

The traditional 20% protein keto diet was created for children with epilepsy. Muscle building is a much different goal and it requires more protein.

I know what you’re thinking, isn’t too much protein going to kick me out of ketosis? This is one of the most common keto misconceptions. Gluconeogenesis (GNG) is why you think this. GNG is a process where the body makes glucose out of non-carbohydrate material, like protein. This is a good process that we need because not every cell in the human body can use fat and ketones. Luckily, this process exists so we can get glucose without having to rely on carbs.

While GNG is very real, most people do not fully understand how it works. GNG is a demand driven process, not a supply driven process. This means that your body will activate GNG when it needs glucose. It does NOT mean that your body will just take excess protein and convert it to glucose. This is why the fear of too much protein on keto is a common misconception.

In case you don’t believe me, here are 3 studies to consider

  • Study #1: 50 grams of protein fed to two subjects, one with diabetes and one without.  No change in blood glucose (1).

  • Study #2: consumption of 1.3 pounds of meat did not raise blood glucose (2).

  • Study #3: 50g of beef protein only lead to a 2g increase in glucose production in diabetic subjects who tend to produce glucose at greater rates than healthy subjects (3).  

Now that we debunked that, back to the point. You need more protein if you want to gain muscle, so eat more. If you are having a hard time getting enough protein in then consider protein shakes. If your next question is, “are protein shakes okay?” Then consider this infographic:

Are Protein Powders Okay on Keto?.jpg

To wrap this up, all of this talk about more protein isn’t just for muscle building. Research has shown that too low of protein on keto can lead to muscle loss. A 2018 study found that men eating 20% of their calories from protein and exercising lost muscle (4). It’s simple, their protein demands were higher than what was provided in their diet. An easy fix!

Reason #3- Training Stimulus

Just as important as your nutrition is your training. Don’t expect to gain muscle without providing an exercise stimulus that promotes muscle growth. Many people who aren’t gaining muscle on keto are either not training hard enough or are not working out appropriately. If your primary goal is muscle building then you should be following a hypertrophy style exercise program.

This isn’t to say that you can’t gain muscle on other workout programs. For instance, you will gain some muscle on a strength building program but you won’t be maximizing muscle building unless you are following a program that focuses on this goal.

Reason #4- Electrolyte Deficiency

If you follow me then you know I talk about electrolytes all the time. If you are experiencing a negative side effect on keto, it’s usually because you are deficient in electrolytes. Lack of muscle building is no exception.

Besides the fact that electrolyte deficiency will impair your performance in the gym, which will indirectly make gaining muscle hard, it can also directly impair muscle growth. Potassium, one of the most common electrolytes deficient in keto dieters, plays a big role in muscle protein synthesis. Be sure to replenish electrolytes, especially potassium, if you want to build muscle.

Conclusion

The truth is that you can gain muscle on keto, anyone who says otherwise is being stubborn or does not understand where many research studies come up short. Like anything, you need to adjust your diet in accordance with your goals. Make these adjustments and I am confident you will start seeing more muscle gain on keto!

Resources

  1. Harkness, J. (1962). Prevalence of glycosuria and diabetes mellitus. British medical journal, 1(5291), 1503.

  2. Conn, J. W., & Newburgh, L. H. (1936). The glycemic response to isoglucogenic quantities of protein and carbohydrate. The Journal of clinical investigation, 15(6), 665-671.

  3. Gannon, M. C., Nuttall, J. A., Damberg, G., Gupta, V., & Nuttall, F. Q. (2001). Effect of protein ingestion on the glucose appearance rate in people with type 2 diabetes. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 86(3), 1040-1047.

  4. Mohorko, N., Černelič-Bizjak, M., Poklar-Vatovec, T., Grom, G., Kenig, S., Petelin, A., & Jenko-Pražnikar, Z. (2019). Weight loss, improved physical performance, cognitive function, eating behavior, and metabolic profile in a 12-week ketogenic diet in obese adults. Nutrition research, 62, 64-77.

Christopher Irvin