Whether you’re a regular gym enthusiast focused on building muscle or an athlete looking to maximize your performance, there always seems to be a new “magic bullet” solution that promises excellent results for fitness.
One such concept that has curiously gained traction is the use of ketones for muscle building. While this may seem counterintuitive, especially for athletes that focus on high carbohydrate consumption for performance, some evidence suggests that ketones may help with exercise, and even muscle building.
So, how effective are ketones for building muscle, and how do they create these benefits? In this post, we’ll dig into the connection between ketones, exercise, and muscle growth to determine whether ketones are indeed a new trick, or just hype.
How Your Body Builds Muscle
First things first: there are a few key factors that can influence the growth of your muscle mass. These are protein intake and muscle inflammation due to training, which are crucial for optimal muscle building to occur.
While ketone bodies may potentially support muscle growth, muscle building can’t occur without proper protein intake. Similarly, interfering with natural inflammatory processes can reduce your muscle growth rate.
You Need Protein to Gain Muscle
In the simplest of terms, your body builds muscle through amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential.
Unlike non-essential amino acids, essential amino acids are those that your body cannot produce, so you must get them from dietary sources. To grow muscle, the rate at which your body builds muscle fibers must be greater than the rate at which your muscles are broken down.
So, if you’re doing strength training while making sure to eat sufficient protein, you’ll speed up the rate at which your muscle fibers are growing. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that you can only build muscle if you have enough of all essential amino acids to finish the process and create a complete protein for muscle tissues to use.
To figure out how many grams of protein you should consume for optimal muscle growth, you’ll need to consider your current weight, goals, and activity levels. Your dietitian can help determine how much is enough protein for your unique goals.
Of course, you’ll also want to ensure you‘re working on building muscle through resistance training and regular exercise.
Inflammation and Muscle Growth
Along with protein, BCAAs, and essential amino acids, inflammation plays a significant role in muscle growth. Your body actually needs short term (or acute) inflammation for optimal muscle building.
Acute inflammation increases levels of ROS (or reactive oxygen species) in the body, and can increase muscle growth and force and help muscles adapt to exercise. This is a short-term increase in ROS in response to exercise.
While chronic high levels of ROS can damage muscle and decrease performance of muscles, other research suggests that low levels of ROS are required for increasing skeletal muscle force and adaptation.
All in all, you need a good balance of inflammation from activities such as weight lifting as well as consuming adequate amounts of protein for optimal muscle gain.
Ketones and the Keto Diet
Most people associate ketones with the ketogenic diet (a low-carb diet which restricts carb intake). After all, following this high-fat diet is what leads to higher levels of ketones in the blood and urine.
Let’s dig into how ketones are created so you can understand how they can help with muscle growth and exercise performance.
What is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet was originally created and used as a treatment for those with epilepsy, or more specifically, for intractable epilepsy. However, over the years, keto has become a popular diet to balance blood sugar, lose body fat, and improve fitness.
This low-carb, high-fat diet requires that 60 to 80 percent of the calories you consume should come from fats. A high fat intake, along with restricted carb intake, puts the body into a state called ketosis, in which your body starts using fat as fuel, and this is where ketones come in.
What are Ketones?
On the surface level, you know that ketones (or ketone bodies) are what we use to indicate whether you’re in ketosis or not. Ketones are produced by your liver as it goes into the ketosis state.
Usually, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and used for energy production. However, when you reduce your carbohydrate consumption on the keto diet, your body re-routes its energy production methods. Instead of using glucose to make ATP (the energy molecule), your body breaks down fats into fatty acids.
These fatty acids undergo a process called beta oxidation in which they are then converted into a molecule called acetyl CoA. Then two additional things happen: this molecule is used to produce ketone bodies and it is also used to produce ATP.
That’s why ketones are almost always used as an indicator of whether an individual is in ketosis or not. Ketones are an alternative fuel source for your body, and when the body begins burning fat, muscle growth, skeletal muscle performance, and exercise performance can all be altered.
Using a CGM for fitness can help you monitor ketones and see that you are properly fueling your body for optimal performance.
Building Muscle on Keto and Ketones
Some research suggests that ketones can affect skeletal muscle performance.
While a high-carb diet has typically been considered the gold standard for better performance and replenishing muscle glycogen stores, ketones function as another fuel source. As a source of energy, ketones can amp up everything from heart function to muscle performance.
However, while adopting a low-carb diet can increase ketone body levels, research has found that ketone body supplementation can also create a state of the body called hyperketonemia, or ketone levels in the body higher than one mmol. This condition can have potentially harmful side effects.
Ketoacidosis is another condition that can result from ketone levels that rise adobe three mmol and usually occurs in individuals with type 1 diabetes. Ketoacidosis occurs when the body has higher levels of both blood sugar and ketones and not enough insulin. If you’re in a state of ketosis and take ketone supplements, you may have a higher risk of developing ketoacidosis.
One study illustrated that ketones can also prevent muscle breakdown (also known as muscle atrophy), finding that a specific component of ketones, abbreviated as 3HB, actually prevented the breakdown of muscle.
This is something to keep in mind or bring up with your dietitian if you’re trying to boost blood ketone levels for enhanced performance. You may want to make sure that if you are aiming for higher ketone levels to support muscle growth, your muscle tissues can absorb this nutrient properly. You’ll also want to make sure you’re taking the correct dose to prevent hyperketonemia.
Ketones and Exercise
There is some evidence supporting the idea that exercise can increase ketone production. If you’ve tried restricting your carbohydrate intake, logging your meals to see which foods may be hindering your progress, and are already intermittent fasting, exercising may also be helpful.
So exactly how does exercise affect ketone levels?
One study demonstrated that exercise did appear to increase blood ketone production. However, the increase observed did not result in greater beta oxidation, suggesting that while exercise can boost ketone levels, it’s not a long term or effective solution to moving the body into ketosis.
Physical exercise while fasting may even boost ketone levels even more. Research has found that exercising for an extended period of time in the fasted state can stimulate ketogenesis during exercise, resulting in increased ketone levels..
These studies have found that ketone body concentrations in this fasted state can go up to 0.5–1.0 mmol/L after a two hour workout done in an overnight fasted state. Interestingly, after that workout, ketone levels can go up to 1–4 mmol/L in the post-exercise recovery phase.
Other studies suggest that ketones can improve exercise performance, post-exercise recovery, and muscle growth by acting on the inflammatory pathways that are so important for the muscle building process.
Do You Need Ketone Body Supplements for Muscle Growth?
As we’ve discussed, adequate protein, regular exercise, and inflammation are crucial for muscle protein synthesis and performance.
If you’re a bodybuilder or have fitness goals such as building muscle, improving body composition, or fat loss, you will want to focus on a high-protein diet. Your muscles will also need certain amounts of acute inflammation to aid the muscle building process, and increase lean muscle mass.
Finally, ketones can also boost muscle growth and performance by improving physical performance. However, ketone body supplements are not necessary to reap these benefits, and have not been proven to be effective for muscle growth.
Besides ketones, there are many other health hacks you can use to boost muscle growth and performance, such as adjusting macronutrient ratios to consume more protein and doing progressive overload training at the gym.
Other Tips to Increase Ketone Levels
Here is a quick summary other tips (some of which we’ve already discussed throughout this article) to help your body boost ketone levels:
- Try a fasted workout. Note however that this may not work for everyone, as some people may find they have lower energy and lower performance when working out in a fasted state.
- Adopt the ketogenic diet and adjust your macronutrient ratios accordingly.
- Try intermittent fasting.
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With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.