Gaining Muscle On A Zero Carb Diet
This is a side of carnivore that doesn’t get touched on enough, and that’s been more than understandable. In the grand age of obesity epidemics, most people are searching for ways to climb down the bodyweight ladder. So you’re left with a small section of people crazy enough to try and scale that ladder. In the special niche of bodybuilding, we’re constantly in the business of cultivating mass. Dieting down just ends up being the exclamation point stamped at the end of five years of heavy slogging. Muscle gain is slow, torturous at times, and not quite as flashy. But it is a necessary part of building a yoked physique, so there’s that.
The carnivore marketing campaign hasn’t quite touched on the bulking phase, and I think it’s high time we fixed that. All while conceding the fact that carnivore is, at its beefy heart, a weight loss specialist.
And why is that? There are a ton of factors on a zero-carb, meat-based diet that play into your favour when shredding down. The unusually high protein count is incredibly satiating, physically preventing you from eying up dessert. The lack of carbs robs you of a ticket on the daily energy roller coaster, and the hunger rebound that follows in its wake. Saturated fat is highly thermogenic, causing you to literally waste calories in the aftermath. All this doesn’t get you past the first page. There’s much more going on under the hood, culminating in a diet that’s ludicrously easy. If tough times breed tougher people, then maybe we shouldn’t be weighing up a diet that lets you coast through. But maybe we all need the occasional walkover.
With those misgivings aside, carnivore is a special way of eating that makes sense from all angles. It’s the diet of choice for a stress-free, charged-up lifestyle. It worked perfectly well in our mammoth-chasing heydey, it’ll do just as well now. But when you choose to pass on the beach-body Benidorm hype, and shift your sights towards mass cultivation, the game suddenly becomes a lot harder. Those benefits I reeled off now get recast as villains. When you’re looking to put the boosters on your calorie tally, you don’t want profound appetite suppression in your corner.
The Speedbumps On A Carnivore Diet
On the standard western chicken-and-rice diet, powering through three large meals won’t be a problem. Those carbs will get rapidly chewed up by the body and you’ll have an empty hole in your stomach within a few hours. A plate of steak gets treated to a much slower process. If you start with a big pile for breakfast, you’ll still be burning that off well into the afternoon.
And the difficulty of carnivore bulking doesn’t start and end with the appetite block. While you may be able to get by with ribeyes during a low-calorie diet, attempting the same with 3000 calories might put you in a sticky situation. Fine dining with giant-sized portions can be expensive, compared to just bulk-buying rolled oats and chicken breasts from Costco.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, the question of the missing carbs. And as most bodybuilders would say, the necessity of those carbs. At least in the bulking process. There’s no reason anyone can’t get through a weight-loss programme while keeping it keto. Carbs do produce more insulin, which is anti-catabolic and muscle sparing. But the body has workarounds to enable it to thrive during times of starvation, and that’s exactly what a ketogenic state is. By slotting the amino acid leucine into insulin’s role, the crisis is averted and your hard-earned mass can survive the keto experience.
And as for glycogen, the body adapts over the course of several months to the point where it preserves its stores just as well as on a high carb diet. So there’s no real downside to ditching your sugar supplies in the weight-loss angle.
The bulking phase isn’t so airtight, since it’s hyper-focused on getting stronger. Without strength, you can’t expect mass. The lack of carbs can mean less water retention in the muscle, reducing the surface area, and therefore the force you’re able to output. And given that carbs are a fast-burning fuel, you can expect a slight drop in explosiveness. These are marginal differences, but in the context of the slow grind of strength gain, every pound counts.
So at this point in the meat-gains template, we’ve got a vastly suppressed appetite, a small drop in explosive power, and I haven’t quite touched on the biggest caveat. That would be carnivore’s ability to waste extra calories. The saturated fat effect I danced around earlier, that only goes up exponentially when you decide to scale up the steak and butter consumption.
Being a long-chain fatty acid, it creates ROS signalling that causes the mitochondria to start uncoupling and being used up as heat. Protein itself is highly thermogenic, with a third of it being burnt off during digestion. When you put those two macronutrients together, you end up with a near-physical inability to put on weight. Try as you might, the body just burns up whatever you’re throwing at it.
This spells out a magic formula for avoiding the classic and inevitable post-diet weight rebound. It just doesn’t bode as well when you’re looking to put on muscle. Having tried it out for myself, a pure carnivore diet tends to cap off your weight after a point. You’ll start with a sustained spell of easy mass accumulation, then the body decides you’ve had enough fun, and you start soaking the bed at night during the middle of winter.
The Dirty Fix
All this is completely fair game within the evolutionary lens I keep turning on carnivore. The body evolved for millions of years around the primal cuisine of woolly mammoths and giant sloths. A whole lot of fat and protein. The body found the means to counter excessive weight gain, by wasting calories and inducing nausea. This is a defense that simply doesn’t exist with carbs, which has only been a major feature of the diet for 12,000 years, a tiny fraction of human existence.
The hunters of the cave-dwelling era wouldn’t have been able to compete on the Olympia stage. Extra mammoth meat would have come with diminishing gains. They were muscular by the standards of our modern normies, but some of us have just become a little unrealistic, and are now stuck with those expectations. That’s absolutely fine, because there are a few ways to modify the carnivore diet to shift back into the never-ending quest to be swole enough.
You may be happy and content to settle with that setpoint, in which case I’d highly recommend you continue to keep away from Instagram. But for the rest of us, I’ll suggest something that might sound a little drastic. We could always bring back the carbs. Which is heresy, because that destroys the definition, the sanctity of carnivore. So perhaps I’ll tweak the phrasing.
We’ll titrate the carbs back in.
It’s not a diet-breaker, it’s a splash of science. A means to an end. And while that might break the carnivore contract, it doesn’t have to abandon the core principles that mark this way of eating.
When you picked carnivore out of the hat, a bunch of things may have appealed to you. The lack of inflammation, an abundance of bioavailable foods, and the complete range of essential human nutrition. It primes you to live a lifestyle that isn’t weighed down by the usual modern hiccups. It’s a home run on all fronts, and none of this has to change with some careful and methodical carb titration.
Placing low-toxicity carbs in and around your workout hour is going to let your blood sugar and ketones come through relatively unscathed. Just as long as you can press on the gas and lift with some intensity. The muscles will transform into energy sinks that eagerly gobble up any carbs entering the bloodstream. You’ll be back to being the same master fat burner when the post-workout window begins to settle.
And in the meantime, you’ve got that little boost to your explosive power, and extra glycogen to give some extra spring behind heavy lifts. Weight gain itself will be easier, as the body doesn’t have the same evolutionary defences as it would mount in a zero carb diet. That’s a neutral force that gets split between fat gain, and lean mass.
Where that ratio gets skewed is going to depend on a host of factors, with the biggest being how clean and sparkling your calories are. That’s not really worth worrying about on a carnivore, or carnivore-esque diet. There will inevitably be some fat accumulation regardless of how grandiose your nutrition is, and that’s just part and parcel of the bulking scene. That can be dealt when you finally figure it’s time to book a holiday and fetch the baby oil.
Plates of steaks and carbs might start to sound a lot like The Vertical Diet, because it also happens to contain steaks and carbs. But here’s the difference-maker. We’ll only be using a pinch.
I’m simply framing carbs here as a performance supplement, as it will enable you to reach levels of intensity higher than that of fat burning, even the holy-grail ketones. And you won’t need much to get there. 20-50 grams during the workout, with another 80g in the post-workout meal, and you’re done for the day. That’s a nothing number when you weigh it up against a standard diet.
Assuming you did that on a 4000 calorie diet, with a 1:1 fat to protein ratio, that’s not far over 10% of your total. By any definition, that’s low carb. In the context of the day where any sugar spike gets quickly quelled by carb-hungry muscles. it’s keto. That’s a pretty fair deal for getting that extra strength kick. All you have to do is make sure you don’t use your carb allocation to take your pick from the tasty, inflammatory sources.
Just a small dose of carbs would be enough to push your bodyweight back into a slow climb. In effect, you’d be eating up to maintenance on meat, and tipping the scale with a few hundred extra calories from sugar.
As an example of putting this theory into practice, I take 50g of dextrose during the run of a workout, followed by an 80g serving of white rice within a 1-2 hour window. I can’t say my brain lights up and rainbows stream across my eye-line when the carbs kick in. It’s a reluctant process taken on for the greater good.
And it’s worked, because in some shape or form, I’ve managed to tip the scales and reach my highest ever bodyweight. Having spent four months on the pure carnivore version, I can say fairly conclusively that weight gain stops altogether at a point, and ramping up the calories just turns me into a heat bomb. Waking up after a well-rested night becomes a fantasy. If an optimal diet allows you to reach your goals without feeling lousy, that just isn’t it.
With power carbs on the menu, I’m steadily gaining weight with fewer calories. A couple of months back, I was eating 5000 calories worth of brisket, butter, and suet. While staying completely still on the bulk ladder. Now I’ve scaled down the operations to 4000 calories, and I’m gaining at a good pace. Just not so fast that I should be worried about tacking on an extra year to my next cut.
For the record, I don’t feel like you can throw honey and bananas into this situation, as they’re loaded with fructose rather than glucose. Fructose bypasses the muscles and heads straight for the liver, and that’s not going to bode well for our goals of glycogen repletion.
Turning Carnivore Into The Perfect Bulk
So that’s the big talking point covered. Beyond bringing carbs back into the fray, there may still be a few adjustments worth making before you can set this mass-gain programme on the highway to Olympia. And once you get through these, you may finally see why this is worth the hassle.
Don’t Worry About The Wasting Effect
While you will end up feeling your cheeks flushing when you dial up the carnivore calories, the addition of power carbs should be enough to counter that effect. You should really be able to gain muscle on fewer calories than on a conventional bulk. When the vast portion of your food is highly bioavailable and friendly on the digestive tract, that incoming nutrition stands more of a chance of reaching the right places. And in the meantime, the carbs will help you inch past the anti-weight gain evolutionary defence scheme.
The likes of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium dance around your bloodstream in a delicate and critical balance. They also tend to suffer during a low carbohydrate diet, as the lack of insulin prompts an excessive amount of water loss, and these electrolytes get flushed out in the process. The side effects vary in relation to which electrolyte is lacking, but to sum it up you can expect to go through lethargy, brain fog, anxiety, irregular heartbeats, and an array of other excessive uppers and downers.
All of which means you can’t afford to sleep on this one. Picking a decent mineral salt for your meals will most certainly help reinforce flagging levels, but it may be worth going a step further and picking up an electrolyte powder. These products will contain a much better range compared to salts, which would usually be mostly sodium and a pinch of the rest. Adding a scoop before a workout, potentially even before bed, can provide a big boost for performance and recovery.
Cool Off On The Sirloins
If you make the effort to nail the fine dining experience with every meal, racking up 3500 calories on this diet might well cripple your bank account. Cheaper cuts like brisket are richer in fat content, and just as delicious with a decent air-fryer in your kitchen toolkit. If you want to scale the budget down even further, ground beef is completely fine, as long as you don’t have histamine sensitivities.
The 1:1 Fat to Protein Ratio
3500 calories worth of sirloin won’t just hurt your finances, it’s a miserable way to get there. A 100 gram cut of sirloin typically has 12.7 grams of fat and 21.6 from protein. If you were to eat that all the way to that arbitrary 3500 count, that’s 222 grams of fat, and 378 protein.
And I’ll tell you why that’s a giant problem. Protein works best as a building block, while really failing expectations as an energy source. On any diet, you’re best served honing in on one of carbs or fats to sate your performance needs. Excessive amounts of protein will just invite feelings of lethargy throughout the day.
Meanwhile, fat is the thing that can unlock your evolutionary caveman tastebuds, and drastically upgrade your appetite for all things meat. Despite all the suppression going on. Fat makes the flavour in the carnivore diet, just like added sugar drives the standard western cuisine.
The sweet spot tends to be around the 1:1 fat to protein ratio. Brisket, ribeye, eggs and 20% mince tend to hover around that area. To make things even easier, there’s nothing stopping you from adding a half-stick of butter to even out the ratio. Just keep in mind that rendered fats don’t digest as well with people who lack stomach acids.
Add Organ Meats
While many long-term carnivores seem to be sticking around on steaks alone, muscle-meat does lack in a few micronutrients. And barring calcium, these holes can be easily plugged with a few portions of beef or lamb liver. Organ meats certainly seem to be in line with our whole vendetta of ancestral eating. When Vilhjalmar Stefannsson lived for several years amongst the Inuits, he took note of their fondness for liver, kidney, and most of all, the brain of the caribou.
I’m not saying you necessarily have to go that far, but you’ll stand to net a host of critical micronutrients by dipping into nose-to-tail eating. Topping up on these nutrients will erase any imbalances, and that spells out a bonus for performance and recovery. Since bodybuilders take pride in being dieticians on the front line, this looks like an obvious step to take.
Incorporate Light Fasting
All that meat can still be intensive on digestion, although not quite in the way that blended spinach can twist your stomach in painful knots. Given that they take far longer to digest than carbs, potentially pushing over into the sacred sleeping window, it’s still worth treating the body to some time off overnight. Carnivore is already a form of low-level fasting, even with those power carbs being slotted in. So it will be effortless enough to add in 14-16 hours of plate-waving in and around bedtime.
There are a few more benefits in doing this. For one, carnivore meals are extremely dense in calories, and those plates won’t stack too high. You just won’t be eating most of the time, even on 4000 calories. Fasting would be a sensible and seamless addition to the routine.
As a second, fasting provides an antidote to the MTOR switch that will be getting persistently smashed during a bulk.
MTOR is the main trigger for anabolism, which bodes well for your biceps, but can also lead to fat gain and has been linked with cancerous growth. While I wouldn’t play that carcinogen risk up too much, a fast can reverse the process by activating AMPK, that which sparks the burning up of tissues.
And third, along the same lines, the fasting window will spark a moderate amount of fat burning. Preventing you from going too happy on the winter coat.
Putting It All Together
There’s enough goodwill being generated by this diet, for you to put with its speed bumps. Carnivore will suppress your appetite more than any other way of eating, but that can be fixed easily enough by dialling up the fat and injecting a small dose of power carbs around your workouts. That leaves you with a successful bulk that also happens to have all the ingredients you’d want for peak performance and recovery.
If you’re curious to try out a carnivore-based strength programme, you’re in luck. The Fit Awakening Online Membership takes you through the complete coaching experience, with customised plans across training, nutrition, and lifestyle. Even better, it starts with a free 7-day trial.