How to Build Muscle on the Ketogenic Diet: An Interview with Luis Villaseñor of Ketogains
Can you build muscle mass on a ketogenic diet? Luis Villaseñor’s results speak for themselves.
The ketogenic diet can produce some amazing results. In my previous article about getting started on the ketogenic diet, I described how ketosis can not only help you burn fat faster than any other diet, but that it can also lengthen your lifespan, improve your productivity, and even reduce your risk of certain forms of cancer.
However, one thing the ketogenic diet is not known for is its ability to put on a lot of muscle mass. In fact, it’s widely assumed to be a terrible diet for that purpose. Standard bodybuilding dogma holds that low-carb diets are ideal for fat loss, while high-carb diets are preferred for bulking up.
Luis Villaseñor begs to differ. A coach and personal trainer who has studied and followed ketogenic diets for years, he finds that the ketogenic diet is in many ways ideally suited for building muscle without gaining fat. And he has the results to back it up.
Passionate about bodybuilding due to a personal interest in improving his own physique and learning the “whys and how’s”, Luis has studied nutrition and practiced strength training since he was 17 years old. Luis has been practicing a low carb/ketogenic diet approach since 2001. He is the founder of Ketogains, and is regarded as one of the most experienced people in the fitness industry when it comes to low-carb dieting for body recomposition and strength training.
I sat down with Luis to ask him how he and his clients are able to build muscle on the ketogenic diet while staying lean and toned year-round. His advice may completely change the way you view low-carb diets.
Notes in italics are by me, not Luis.
Origins of Villaseñor’s Interest in Keto
How long have you been on the ketogenic diet? What made you want to start on it? Do you stay on it constantly, or do you cycle on and off of it?
I started keto around November or December 2001, after researching on the internet and fitness e-bulletins about some old cutting and contest prep diets form vintage era bodybuilders. I found the works of Mauro DiPasquale (The Anabolic Diet), Dan Duchaine (Underground Bodyopus) intriguing, and those eventually led me to Lyle McDonald and his refinements/adjustments for The Ketogenic Diet.
The diet resonated very much with me, and as my dietary preferences really aligned with the main staples (meats, proteins, vegetables, eggs) and it seemed easy to transition.
The main reason for trying the diet was because I wanted to really get a “lean, ripped physique” and I had tried countless diets before, with little success (of course, I knew little about nutrition at the time, as I was just starting college as an 18-year-old).
At first, I did the classic CKD (cyclical ketogenic diet, or carb cycling) protocol as suggested by Lyle, because it sounded appealing to be able to eat “all the carbs” during the weekends due to a “carb up”. The reality was that I felt horrible and bloated, very much because I did the carb load as most people do, but NOT as it should be done: most people treat it as a cheat day where they eat all the high carb (and of course high fat as well) overly processed food that they missed during the stricter days of the week: some pizza, donuts, cake, the usual. A proper carb-load should be done preferably with whole foods, and one should keep fat on the low end during these days. This leaves little room for a “cheat day” per se.
So, I started spacing more and more the “carb load” days from once a week, to once every 2 weeks, to once a month… and eventually just a few times a year, when there was a worthy occasion, say for a planned meal, but getting back on track the next day.
What prompted you to start Ketogains?
I have always been passionate about fitness, due to a personal interest in improving my own physique (I used to be the quintessential fat kid in school).
I like to learn the “whys and the how’s” of things, and so one of the main reasons that got me into nutrition and fitness in the first place, and eventually led me to found Ketogains, was to differentiate between sound, science-based information and “bro science.”
I started Ketogains over 5 years ago, after becoming dissatisfied with the overwhelming amount of misinformation shared among fitness and low carbohydrate internet forums: sometimes inaccurate, sometimes contradictory, and most of the time, just plain wrong, based solely on anecdotes or misunderstood science taken out of context.
It was the usual “it works for me” answer that irked me the most: people that used the catchphrase as a response when I tried to explain why their current approach might not be optimal for their goals.
Due to this, I started to write a comprehensive Evidence-Based Wiki on Reddit (r/ketogains) which would serve as a guide to help people learn more about a Ketogenic Diet in general, as well as its fitness applications.
The site grew from a FAQ and forum with a collection of nutrition studies and resources to an established health and fitness company where we empower, educate, and help people achieve the best shape and health of their lives.
Who Does Best With Ketogenic Diets?
In your experience, which kinds of people do the best and worst on this diet?
The main factor to review is dietary preference. If you like the types of foods that are keto-staples, you will do very well with the diet.
That said, this diet works very well for insulin-resistant individuals, women, and people over 35 years of age.
Do you see much a difference between men and women in terms of either how they feel or how well they adhere to this diet?
Some studies seem to point out that women do better with a higher-fat diet. Added with the satiety effect that keto seems to have on a lot of people, it might make dieting much easier for females.
That said, from my experience with clients, it's very much the same regarding adhesion: the main factor, regardless of gender, would be the diet preferences, which are mostly dictated by habits. If one is really motivated and gives the diet a chance, and does a whole food, protein-rich keto diet, adherence and satiety should be improved. I’ve seen more dropouts where people don’t adjust habits and are mostly using shakes and supplements, rather than whole foods.
Specifics About Eating for Ketosis
What’s your exact process for inducing ketosis?
It’s easy: just eat whole foods and keep the net carbs intake at less than 30g a day, for a few days. One should be in ketosis within 48 hours or so.
How conducive is the ketogenic diet to muscle growth? Is it better or worse than a traditional high-carb bulking diet in that regard, or is it about the same?
For the natural athlete*, I would say it’s about the same. There are some confounders: we are talking about net lean muscle. On a higher carb diet, you would retain more glycogen, more water, which gives the illusion of greater gains — if I carb-load and fill up my muscle glycogen stores, I can gain between 4 to 6 pounds while maintaining a degree of leanness.
A very insulin-sensitive person may do better with higher carbs, while someone who is insulin resistant will do very well with a lower-carb approach (not necessarily keto).
I also don’t like the term “bulking” nor do I use it myself or with clients. I prefer a slower, more controlled approach: “gaintaining,” as I call it, so you don’t have to diet down to show your abs. With keto, this is perfectly doable, as some people experience improved diet adherence (fewer cravings, less hunger) and eating for your macros becomes super easy.
But in the end, the “best diet” is the one you can adhere to, and one that aligns with your taste preferences.
- Note: “Natural” in this context means someone who is not on steroids or other PED’s that aid in muscle growth. Steroid users usually benefit from higher-carb diets than natural trainees.
How much protein should you consume to maximize satiety and/or hypertrophy without compromising ketosis?
There is quite a bit of misinformation regarding protein and ketogenic diets. Most people who hear about a keto diet start doing the more traditional, studied approach, which is the therapeutic version of keto. We need to understand that this approach was developed to treat mostly neurodegenerative diseases such as epilepsy. This therapeutic approach of keto is usually defined as a very high fat, low carb, low protein diet which uses set percentages: 70% of the calories come from fat, 5% from carbs, and 25% from protein.
When one is doing the ketogenic diet for body recomposition, one needs to set protein intake first, then adjust the other macros. For maintaining and building muscle, we have found that using at least 1.0 gram of protein per lean pound the person weights works very well. On days of strength training, it makes sense to increase to 1.2gram per lean pound.
When the person is on a steep caloric deficit, even intakes of 1.5g/lean lb. are good (assuming the protein is from whole foods) for greater satiety. This will not really interfere in any important way with ketosis.
Note that for the purpose of ketosis, carbs would be kept at below 50g net per day, and the remaining of calories should be from fat grams, in accordance with the person’s goals.
How can you optimize the ketogenic diet for greater muscle growth and athletic performance? Do you add carbs around workouts, for instance?
Assuming the training is in check, and the person is at a good body fat percentage that optimizes muscle growth (between 9 to 14% for a male, 19 to 24% for a female), I normally have my clients practice a TKD (Targeted Ketogenic Diet) where we do ingest some carbohydrates in the form of glucose or dextrose pre-training.
Their daily carbohydrate intake may also be greater from a traditional keto diet, from the classic 20-30g net/day to 50-80g net/day, depending on the context of the person (duration and type of exercise, for example).
And as mentioned before, protein should be kept at no less than 1.0g/lean lb.
I also don’t suggest training fasted. You can do intermittent fasting, of course, but its best to move adjust the fasting/feeding schedule as one trains around the feeding windows.
The ketogenic diet seems to have unpredictable effects on blood markers — cholesterol, triglycerides, etc. Do you think this represents individual variation in response to ketosis per se, or does it stem from differences in what people eat on the diet?
It’s a mix of both: cholesterol will increase when you start a keto diet, and it can be due to various factors — if the person is losing a lot of body fat, their cholesterol marker may rise. Also, increased fat intake can raise cholesterol. Now, we know not all cholesterol is the same; there is HDL and LDL, and it is important to monitor triglycerides.
For the most part, even if the total cholesterol rises a bit, if the ratios are within safe parameters (Triglycerides/HDL, Total Cholesterol/HDL) this should be a sign that there is nothing wrong, but we also don’t want continuously high cholesterol levels.
Here is a great video by Dr Jeff Volek, one of the leading researchers on low-carb/ketogenic diets.
- Low carb diets tend to keep overall cholesterol much the same, with subjects fluctuating 5–10% either way mostly.
- Low-carb diets consistently significantly reduce triglycerides by 20–50%.
- Low-carb usually increases HDL-C by 10–20% but often doesn’t move significantly.
- The LDL-C story is the same as the total cholesterol outcome — it varies either way per individual.
There are some people who do very well on keto — me, for example. I present perfectly healthy and normal blood lipid panels, and some other people may be better off with a more paleo or higher carb diet.
For example, there is a subset of keto dieters know as “Lean Mass Hyper Responders”: usually leaner, active people who present substantially high levels of cholesterol. In the cases of clients, after having them increase both protein and carbs, while decreasing fats, they have improved considerably.
And finally, just as in any diet, there are good ways to follow the diet and terrible ways to do it. Just because the diet is in a way labeled as “high fat,” it does not mean one should be adding saturated fat just because. It is best to follow a ketogenic diet based on nutrient density, and have most of the fat be naturally occurring in your food. Whole eggs, salmon, sardines, meats, avocado, olives, and coconut oil are a great resource of high-quality fats, but again, in moderation and applied to a context. Adding unlimited nuts, butter and cheese, bacon, and commercial fats “just because keto” and with no regard to the quality/quantity is not the best way to do this dietary protocol.
I’ve heard mixed reports about water weight on the ketogenic diet, with some people saying it causes you to lose water weight and others saying the effects can be very unpredictable. What’s your take on this?
It really depends on where the person is before starting the diet. Overweight people, or more muscular people who come from a high carb, processed food diet will likely experience a higher initial loss of weight due loss of water and glycogen depletion, while someone who is on the lean side and/or who eats a more whole food, low carb diet (think paleo) will likely experience a more conservative change in weight, if any.
What are the most common mistakes people make on the ketogenic diet? What nutrient deficiencies should people watch out for?
- Eating too little protein for fear of gluconeogenesis, the conversion of excess protein into glucose.
- Fasting irresponsibly (more than 16 hours, not “re-feeding” properly, training fasted). Fasting IS GREAT; and may help improve insulin sensitivity, but when done correctly. Fast well, FEAST better.
- Not minding calories. Energy balance still matters on keto, it’s not just about “insulin.”
- Trying to reach the “fat macro” or keep up with the ketogenic ratio. Don’t use ratios, use grams for each macro, determined with a goal in hand.
- Not minding electrolyte intake, especially when being active. Sodium: 5,000 to 7,000 mg, with 2,000 mg of them before training sessions, the rest distributed along the day. Potassium: 3,500 to 4,700 mg, which you can get from green veggies and salt. Magnesium, 500 mg, which you can get from green veggies and supplements.
- Eating everything that is labeled “keto” — all whole food is mostly “keto” and does not need labeling. Preferably avoid “keto bars,” “keto cookies,” and “keto shakes,” especially when the main goal is fat loss. Again, eat whole foods. A keto diet can be very nutritionally dense if one eats whole foods, and there is not a single nutrient one may miss if one does keto intelligently, for example:
- Protein: Eggs, chicken breast, lean pork, turkey, beef, salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, shellfish, shrimp, etc.
- Carbs: Spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, green beans, Brussels sprouts, mushroom, tomato, swiss chard, etc.
- Fats: Coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, ghee (clarified butter), MCT oil, fats from fish (sardines, salmon), egg yolks, fats from meats (tallow), etc.
If someone has trouble eating enough on the keto diet, what foods would you recommend adding to get more calories in a healthy manner?
The key for a successful keto diet in the context of body recomposition is “nutrient density” — I like to say to my clients that calories/macros are like money; one needs to invest them in where they will yield the best results. So, high caloric foods for keto that meet the “nutrient density” requirements would be:
Salmon (and fatty fishes like cod), whole eggs, avocado, good quality cheeses (think cured, aged ones), fatty cuts of meats.
If the volume of food is the issue, then adding more meals, or some liquid calories in the form of a protein shake, and adding olive oil/coconut oil can help meet extra calories. But I’m not a fan of having people add “oils” just like that; drinking bulletproof coffee or eating gobs of butter is usually not the answer in most cases.
There is an old saying in bodybuilding: “there are no easy gainers or hard gainers, there are more so people who overeat and people who don’t eat enough.”
On Exercise for Building Muscle with Keto
How do you exercise for muscular hypertrophy on a ketogenic diet? How does program design have to be adjusted to account for the diet?
There are some adjustments that need to be considered, of course, especially during the start of the diet and during the induction phase: one will have to lower the volume and intensity of the training and be very diligent on reviewing electrolyte (sodium, potassium, magnesium) intake, especially around training.
After a while, it is very much the same and they will be able to keep exercising as they normally would. I practice “power building” — a mix of traditional bodybuilding and powerlifting — and in my +24 years of training, I have not had any setbacks.
There are also advanced adjustments one can do, such as transitioning to a Targeted Ketogenic Diet if one meets some requirements.
Since keto results in lower glycogen stores in the muscles, do you find that people benefit from longer rest periods between sets, or from keeping sets shorter?
Glycogen stores are not as “low” as a lot of people believe when on ketosis: This is very much a half-truth.
At the start of the diet, and especially for people who go “in/out” of keto (think doing a CKD protocol), muscle glycogen stores are diminished. As people adapt, and the longer they stay on keto, one really does not need to modify their training “as much” — especially with strength training (bodybuilding, powerlifting), as glycogen depletion during strength training is modest and glycogen resynthesis is generally complete within 24 hours regardless of diet composition.
The Cori cycle is responsible for this: the lactate produced by muscles during exercise can be resynthesized into glucose via GNG. Basically, the liver is recycling lactate into glucose, and the energy needed for this process is derived from fat burning.
When people initially switch to keto, the body is still looking for glucose and the rate of resynthesis is diminished. As the body adapts, it increases the rate. During this time, reducing the volume (fewer reps, fewer sets, or less weight) may be a useful strategy, as well as increasing rest times, AND adding and reviewing electrolyte intake helps A LOT, as well as maybe some peri-workout carbs (5–10g of glucose).
Here’s an overview of the literature on the effect of ketogenic dieting on strength training performance — courtesy of the Menno Henselman’s PT Course
Note: The name of this course was recently changed — before 2019 it was called the Bayesian PT Course. Luis is the instructor for the Spanish language version of this course.
Details on Luis’ Personal Program
What are your own stats—height, weight, age, body fat percentage, strength—on the major lifts?
I’m 41 years old (born September 1977) and currently weight 77 kg. I have a BF% of around 9% via Skulpt*, so this translates (for me) to about 12% on DEXA* — I try to keep my BF% between 10 to 13% all year round.
Currently, my heaviest deadlift is at 545 (Here is one at 520 lbs), back squat at 415, bench at 325 and overhand press at 205.
I’m working on improving the form and engaging my weak points via accessory lifts to break some plateaus.
Note: Skulpt and DEXA are devices for measuring body composition. Skulpt is a portable scanner you can keep at home, while DEXA — Dual Emission X-Ray Absorbometry — is something you have to get done at a lab.
Can you share an example of what you personally would eat during a day or two of the keto diet? And your macro breakdown?
I’m a very simple man; I normally do intermittent fasting for 12 to 16 hours.
I drink coffee upon waking and while I do some morning work, then break my fast with what I call the “ketogains pre-workout coffee” — 25g whey protein, 10g MCT powder, 5g glucose, creatine, sea salt and lo-salt in strong coffee; after training, I would normally have a big protein-rich meal of 3-4 eggs, plus some animal protein (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, salmon, shrimp, etc.) and some spinach and avocados.
For dinner, it’s very similar: mostly animal protein and some veggies (spinach, zucchini, chayote). Most of the fat I eat comes from what naturally occurs in the food, but I may add some ghee, coconut oil or olive oil, depending on my macro allowance. I normally avoid dairy and nuts, as they add calories super easily and I prefer to be stricter. If I’m going to go over on a macro, it will be on protein or some form of veggies.
Normally, I eat 140 to 180g protein, 20 to 50g net carbs, and 70 to 140g fat — the distribution really depends whether I’m on maintenance or trying to lose some weight (to lose weight, I increase protein and reduce fat; to maintain I reduce protein and increase fat).
Yes, You Can Build Muscle on the Ketogenic Diet
Luis and his clients are living proof that the ketogenic diet doesn’t have to be relegated to use by epileptics and bodybuilders crash-dieting before a photoshoot — properly optimized, it can support muscle and strength goals about as well as more traditional high-carb diets.