This is often a question I get from people that want to get into the keto diet. Can you gain muscle without carbs? While the answer is yes, you sure can, it’s going to take more than just a quick answer to explain why.
Keto style diets have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. People post dramatic weight loss transformations and now they are shredded. All thanks to keto.
For those that don’t know, the keto diet is essentially just eating no or minimal carbs. The diet is high protein and high fat.
Obviously, it is almost impossible to create yourself a diet that is zero carbs. Even vegetables have carbs. The only real way to go on a zero carb diet is to only eat meat. Which would get plenty old after a while.
Before you commit to a diet of no carbs, let’s try to understand our question, can you gain muscle without carbs? Let’s go.
It might be difficult to eat enough calories
I made a giant mistake for the first 7 years of my fitness journey. Following the advice of the mainstream fitness industry, I tried eating low carb, high protein diets. The problem was that I was super skinny, and I built almost no muscle during that 7 year period.
The way that the fitness industry is set up, is that it is geared towards people trying to lose weight instead of build muscle. Why? Because according to the CDC, 73.6% of Americans are overweight. Therefore you can understand why the industry would design their products and diets around that crowd.
So I bought into the idea that low carb equals ripped body. But in all reality, I wasn’t eating enough calories in general. Most people that struggle to gain muscle are simply not eating enough calories to begin with.
When you take away carbs from your diet, you are now restricting a source of calories that would be there to build your muscles.
A surplus is necessary
The truth of the matter is that if you want to build muscle, you have to be eating at a caloric surplus. For some people, a caloric surplus might be a low calorie amount. For others, that might be a high amount. Personally, I have to eat 3,600 calories per day to be in a caloric surplus.
You can find out what your own numbers are by calculating your maintenance calories. Once you have your maintenance number, start by eating 500 calories per day over that.
Now you can see that it would be extraordinarily difficult for me to eat 3,600 calories per day without carbs. For those with a lower maintenance number, it could be easier. The number 1 requirement for building muscle is to be in a caloric surplus. Therefore if you can eat no carbs and still be in a surplus, you can definitely build muscle.
You cannot build muscle in a caloric deficit. This is a simple truth that people tend to ignore. Most people who are overweight already have a muscle foundation under their layers of fat. So when they end up losing the fat by working out and eating in a caloric surplus, they assume that muscle was built while shedding fat.
More likely, that muscle was built by consistently eating at a caloric surplus for many years. Even if you aren’t working out daily, muscle can still be built just by eating in a caloric surplus and doing your normal daily activities.
How you workout matters
By now, you have realized that eating in a caloric surplus is an absolute necessity for building muscle. But what about your workout routine? There are plenty to choose from. But what really matters in muscle building is weight training.
Lifting heavy weights and putting them down is going to be what builds some solid muscle. But can you gain muscle without carbs? Yes absolutely. Remember that eating in a caloric surplus is a requirement to building muscle. So if you can eat at a caloric surplus while eating no carbs, that is impressive.
Now, back to working out. I will never forget how many years I spent working out with no success. My body was just stuck in scrawny teenager mode, or so I thought. I was working out at least 5 days per week, and sometimes 6 or 7.
I had the mindset that the more I worked out, the quicker I would gain muscle. This mindset would crumble when I realized that the combination of caloric surplus and working out consistently is what mattered most.
In fact, I went from working out at least 5 days per week down to 3 days per week of heavy weight training. And surprise, I built over 20 pounds of muscle in my first year of that type of training.
The exact workout plan that I used is called 3 Day Overload, and it is available exclusively in our app All Workouts: Personal Trainer (iOS | Google Play).
If you are looking for more introduction workout plans, I recommend our beginner bodybuilding routine for mass.
Don’t be fooled by shiny object syndrome. There are tried and true methods of building muscle, and then there are companies trying to make a quick buck. The fitness industry is riddled with false claims.
Keep at it and measure
If there is one thing that you can learn from my experience, it is that you cannot stop pushing forward. As I mentioned in the first section, I spent 7 years trying to figure things out before it all finally clicked.
Lucky for you, if you are reading this article, you don’t have to wait that long. In fact, you can start right now. We have an immense amount of tools at our fingertips in our modern age. There are no excuses for not hitting your goals.
Tools like our app will help you track your workout plan, progression, and muscle gain. Free apps like MyFitnessPal will help you track your calories down to the perfect amount.
Measuring your progress is something that is brushed aside for many who are new to fitness. They just want to get started immediately, which is understandable. But make sure that you take “before” pictures and measurements before you get started.
When you consistently eat at a caloric surplus and workout, you are going to build muscle. It seems so simple, yet so many people struggle with this concept. Don’t be one of those people that gives up too early.
Everyone has a different body, and you might need to do some trial and error before you start seeing results. For example, the caloric surplus that works for me is 500 calories over maintenance.
But that is just a starting point. For you, it might be 1000 calories over maintenance. This is why we measure. When we measure, we can learn.
Main Point: Can you gain muscle without carbs?
By now, you should know the answer to our question. Can you gain muscle without carbs? Absolutely you can. But just remember that in order to build muscle, you have to be in a caloric surplus.
When you avoid carbs, it becomes a lot more difficult to eat enough calories to be at a caloric surplus, especially for someone that has a high maintenance calorie number. So keep this in mind if you are trying to put on size.
Remember that the fitness industry is mostly designed around helping people lose fat. Because of course that is the biggest market in the United States. While I do support fat loss in a lot of instances, I recommend evaluating yourself and deciding what is more important to you. Muscle gain of fat loss.
From there, you can decide if you are going to go for a bulk or a cut. This is the best thing about being educated about calorie intake and body composition. You can bring your body where you want it to be by building good habits.
One thing that I want you all to know is that it is going to take time to build muscle and get where you want to be. And when you finally get to where you want to be, your goals are probably going to change.
When I first started out as a 135lb skinny guy, I just wanted to be able to put on 20 pounds. After I hit that goal, it was another 20, then another 20. Ultimately I got up to 205 pounds and realized I was a little too bulky. Then I cut down to 185lbs.
These are all decisions that you can make when you are in control of your diet and exercise routine,
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