One question I’m often asked on different forums and social media platforms is how to best use a ketogenic diet for performance and to build muscle.
While you can build muscle and perform well on a standard ketogenic diet, most bodybuilders and athletes I know who live a keto lifestyle implement a targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) or a cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD).
I’ve used variations of both over the last 15+ years, so here is how I can best explain what and how you can implement a targeted keto diet to maintain high-intensities in the gym or your sport.
What is a targeted ketogenic diet?
Simply put, a Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) is nothing more than the standard ketogenic diet (SKD) with carbs around your workout.
A quick reference:
- SKD – Standard Ketogenic diet
- TKD – Targeted Ketogenic diet
- CKD – Cyclical Ketogenic diet
Who is a targeted ketogenic diet for?
The primary goal of a targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) is to strategically consume carbohydrates at specific times around exercise to allow you to lift heavier, do some extra reps, and help promote muscle growth while minimizing fat gain.
If your goal is to maintain a ketogenic lifestyle while improving performance and body composition, I would recommend trying a targeted ketogenic diet.
That being said, it is a very specialized and advanced approach. I would only recommend a TKD to athletes and individuals who exercise regularly at high-intensities for extended periods of time.
Another caveat before starting…For the best results, I would suggest you become keto-adapted (fat adapted) before implementing either a targeted ketogenic diet or a cyclical ketogenic diet
You can accomplish this by eating a strict ketogenic diet for 3 to 5 weeks (preferably longer). This gives your body time to upregulate the enzymes to burn fat and ketones as fuel.
But if you’ve already been doing this, you’re ahead of the game.
Benefits of a targeted ketogenic diet
Unlike a cyclical ketogenic diet where you would implement a full one to two days of carbohydrates, a TKD is a compromise between an SKD and a CKD.
Improve immediate performance without interrupting ketosis long if at all
The TKD is aimed at allowing you to perform high-intensity exercise without having to interrupt ketosis for long. You may even stay in ketosis despite your carb intake pre and/or post-exercise.
The TKD is more anecdotal 1 than anything because weight training isn’t really limited by the availability of blood glucose. This is another reason a standard keto diet and bodybuilding is more than doable.
To build muscle, one doesn’t require the consumption of carbohydrates.
Building muscle is mostly the result of resistance training, adequate protein intake, and enough energy. Whether that energy comes from high fat, carbohydrates, or even stored body fat really doesn’t matter.
Improve your NEXT workout
While pre-workout carbs may improve performance during that specific bout of exercise, especially for those who perform quick and explosive movements. Another aim of pre-workout carbohydrates would be to promote post-workout glycogen synthesis.
Loosely translated, the carbohydrates taken before today's workout would be an attempt to set your body up to perform well during your next workout by maintaining glycogen levels.
But why carbs if they are unnecessary?
While there have been a few studies these past couples of years related to a low carb high-fat diet and performance, there’s still little research on the effects of a true ketogenic diet and weight training.
While carbohydrates are unnecessary, they have shown as little as 5 grams of carbs to raise blood glucose to normal levels. This means better muscle fiber recruitment and even a delay in fatigue, which may translate to an improvement in performance.
Studies show that ingesting carbohydrates before endurance activities, think an hour or longer, can improve performance and reduce perceived exertion.
That said, individuals on an SKD, including myself, report not only improved strength but also increased endurance. I’ve used a keto diet for CrossFit at a competitive level and even set my best times in the half marathon and marathon distances using a targeted keto approach.
As I am writing this in 2019, I am using a hybrid of a TKD and a CKD while preparing for a bodybuilding show. Even with the ingestion of carbohydrates prior to my races and workouts, I still register ketones in my blood and normal blood glucose levels post workout.
How to do a targeted ketogenic diet
As mentioned previously, a TKD is simply your standard ketogenic diet with carbs strategically implemented before and/or after your workout. This section will be aimed at describing the amounts, types, and timing of carbohydrates.
How many carbohydrates
How many carbohydrates to take in on a TKD diet will vary, but you don’t need as much as you would think.
While I would highly suggest experimenting with the number of carbohydrates that best works for you, most people will find that 10 to 50 grams of carbohydrates is ample to enhance your workout.
If you migrate towards the upper half ~50 or above, I would suggest splitting the intake between pre and post workout.
What dictates how many carbohydrates you should consume ultimately comes down to how long and intense your workout will be.
What types of carbohydrates
When it comes to what carbohydrates to consume on a TKD, not all carbs are created equally. For our purposes, we want to focus on high GI 2, easily digestible carbohydrates, preferably liquids.
Our goal with the pre-workout carbohydrates is to have them absorb rapidly. We want the carbs available for use immediately while also avoiding stomach upset during training.
I would recommend a glucose source like dextrose or highly branched cyclic dextrin (HBCD). 3 If you want to get fancy or rather chew your carbohydrates, they make candies like smarties out of pure dextrose.
HBCD is a fairly new form of carbohydrate that provides a sustained increase in energy levels without causing a spike in blood glucose or insulin levels. While dextrose is perfectly acceptable, and cheaper, HBCD is my new go-to for pre or intra-workout carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates I recommend:
- Muscle Feast Dextrose
- Muscle Feast Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin
- NutraBio Super Carb – Another HBCD alternative with added electrolytes, I personally use this one most of the time and love the orange mango flavor.
Carbohydrates to avoid
You want to avoid fructose and sucrose since they primarily refill liver glycogen and can disrupt ketosis. This means that things like fruit, honey, and table sugar are not ideal for our purposes.
When to take in carbohydrates
It is preferred that you take in carbohydrates thirty minutes before a workout for enhanced performance. Some will also prefer to consume additional carbohydrates post-training to help with recovery.
With post-workout carbs, you want to consume those as soon as possible following a workout. While I don’t think post-workout carbs are necessary, experimenting to see what is optimal for YOU is the best course of action.
Another variation I’ve experimented with is ingesting carbohydrates intra-workout by sipping my carbohydrates at the beginning of the workout and finishing it right before my workout is complete.
Personally, I will take in ~30g of carbohydrates with ~10g of essential amino acids during or before my workouts. In addition, I may add MCT oil or caffeine for an added boost.
I usually consume my carbohydrate beverage before my first set and finish up close to the end of my workout. This gives me plenty of energy to sustain high volume workouts and recover well enough for my next session.
How does a TKD affect ketosis?
For many, just the act of working out causes blood sugar levels to rise due to the stress upon the body. However, as blood glucose is shuttled into the muscles, insulin levels will begin to drop and ketogenesis will resume.
If you stick to the tips I’ve laid out above and don’t overdo the carbohydrates, you might very still be in ketosis following your workout.
At the worst, you’ll transiently knock yourself out during your workout, but you find that you quickly re-enter ketosis shortly after.
Summary and guidelines for a TKD
- Become keto-adapted by using a standard ketogenic diet for 3 to 5 weeks prior to implementing a TKD protocol.
- Experiment with as little as 10 grams of carbohydrates pre-workout and adjust up or down as necessary.
- If consuming upwards of 50 grams of carbs or more I would suggest splitting it up half pre-workout and the other half post-workout.
- Stick to glucose based carbohydrates such as dextrose or clustered dextrin.
- Whether fat loss or muscle gain is your goal, a targeted ketogenic approach is effective at accomplishing both through consistency and hard work.
Are you interested in giving a targeted ketogenic diet a try? Let me know down below if you have any questions or what your results have been giving on a TKD.