While the carnivore diet is a slam dunk for alleviating autoimmune disorders and releasing the brakes on fat loss, not much is made of its ability to help stack muscle. There are good reasons for this.
For one, most people getting into a diet will favour weight loss over weight gain. That’s the nature of the business. We have a bit of an obesity problem. As a second, carnivore contains extremely satiating foods and takes out all the junk that are specifically engineered to stimulate appetite.
But while the carnivore bulk certainly paints an imposing challenge, that hasn’t stopped me from giving it my best shot over the past couple of years. Bar a couple of short-term cuts, I’ve spent the vast chunk of that time in a caloric surplus.
When I stepped into carnivore, back in July 2020, I was down at 80kg. At this point, nearly 30 months on, I’ve ground my way up to 97kg. That’s a monumental swing, but it is a little deceiving.
In July, I was four months into the lockdown with only resistance bands for company, and I’d made the terrible decision to slog through 23 hour fasts while on a mostly ketogenic diet. Naturally, I’d lost a bit of muscle, which I’d have quickly piled back upon regaining the ability to lift heavy weights.
Regardless, it’s still an impressive margin, and I’ve accomplished that while enjoying the many benefits of the carnivore diet. Such as continuous mental clarity, indefatigable energy, the absence of anxiety, and zero digestive issues. I’ve spent months at a time making no progress in the gym and with no movement in the scale. I’ve tried two different spins on the ancestral diet.
My Additions To Carnivore
This was actually pretty effective, five days of straight carnivore followed by a couple of servings of white rice over the weekend. That would normally amount to about 240 grams of carbohydrates across Saturday and Sunday. There wasn’t much of a sugar crash, and since white rice is pretty low in toxins and fiber, there weren’t any gut issues.
While carnivore with a splash of white rice ran pretty smoothly, I still prefer staying ketogenic across the weekend, just so I can preserve the mental bliss that comes with it.
At this point, I rarely go through a workout without a serving of cyclic dextrin and electrolytes. I’m not concerned about the blunting of fat loss or ketosis, because the effect never lasts past my workout.
Besides, lifting itself should always be done with anabolism in mind. By focusing each workout on muscle building, you encourage greater fat loss, optimise your hormones, and ensure there’s some actual shape underneath the blubber.
Whereas if you’re trying to run yourself into the ground with high reps and cardio, you’re losing muscle and jacking up cortisol, all while raising the caloric burn by an irrelevant smidgen.
Besides, there are several good reason to mix carbs into carnivore. Just keep in mind that I’m writing this from the context of someone who first spent months in full carnivore, while lifting heavy, and with real intensity. So by the time I decided to experiment with carbs, I’d already become fully fat adapted, and my body was extremely competent at utilising fat at higher intensities.
Glycogen Repletion – While muscle glycogen levels are never fully depleted on a fat-adapted carnivore diet, some fibers will get depleted enough to cause performance decrements. In other words, if you lift a bunch of weights, and your glycogen tank is still up at 70% capacity, it can still cost you. The glycogen tank doesn’t work like a battery. At 70%, some areas will be at 100%, others will be 0%.
Higher Intensity – And then there’s the fact that you’re adding carbs to a system that’s highly competent at utilising fat for energy, and has been primed through insulin sensitivity to extract the maximum potential from glucose. A small injection of fast digesting carbs will be received like a dose of rocket fuel. You’ll be more explosive, aggressive, and you’ll be able to maintain that high level of intensity for longer without starting to cave.
You can read deeper into those points, along with a few other choice benefits of carbs for carnivore, in my guide below.
Are Workout Carbs Ancestral?
In case you’re wondering what justification I have for including white rice and cyclic dextrin in the ancestral diet, I unfortunately don’t have one. There’s little to suggest that our stone age forebears had figured out mass cultivation.
However, there’s also scant evidence of them cutting tree trunks into something resembling barbells. Bodybuilding is always going to deplete glycogen, and it makes perfect sense to use carbohydrates as a performance aid.
As long as you’re using small doses of low toxicity, low fiber carbs, then they’re not going to outlast their welcome and mess with your carnivore bliss point. You’re going to go right back to ketosis within a few hours.
So while it isn’t technically ancestral, and certainly isn’t carnivore, it doesn’t prevent you gleaning the benefits of a carnivore diet. I wouldn’t even call it carnivore-esque, because it’s very much carnivore for 90-95% of the week.
It certainly doesn’t get filed under omnivory. It’s still far off in the extreme, and I strongly believe that the carbs make a positive addition when bodybuilding is involved.
Why You Need To Be Fat Adapted
I’ll stress again what I’ve mentioned before: you should only look to add workout carbs or carb cycling once you’re already fat adapted, which means you need to have already spent at least three months in a carnivore or ketogenic diet while engaging in intense training.
Being fat adapted means you’ll be able to use fatty acids and ketones at greater intensities, allowing the body to become far more efficient at producing energy. Then you have the chance to push a small amount of carbs into the system, and glean the performance-enhancing effects on top of what you’re already receiving from fats and ketones.
What Dosage Should You Use?
You might be wondering whether a helping of carbs will cancel ketosis, and the answer is, not really. As long as you don’t go crazy with the doses. While rising blood glucose and liver glycogen can shut off the production of ketones, this won’t be an issue when you’re titrating in a bunch of glucose during a weight lifting session.
The muscles will suck up whatever’s on offer, the liver won’t see any of it, and you won’t see the effects linger past the workout. Any disruption to ketosis will be quickly resolved.
This is very much what I’ve found using doses from 30-60 grams sipped across workout. However, having experimented with servings as high as 90 grams, there’s definitely a bell-shaped curve. Too much sugar can definitely upset ketosis and cause energy swings in the aftermath. So I’d recommend starting on the low end, with 30 grams per workout.
What Dosage Should You Use?
There is really no need to get fancy about this. Just don’t munch on a banana, or any fruit for that matter. Fructose is metabolised by the liver, and thereby doesn’t go towards glycogen resynthesis, which is the whole point of adding workout carbs. The addition of fiber would only work to slow down delivery and add digestive discomfort. What you want is glucose.
- Cyclic dextrin
These are just a few options you can use as a source of glucose. Right now I’m using cyclic dextrin, which is the more expensive option, and provides a steady breakdown of glucose that is less likely to upset the blood sugar controls. But there isn’t much to suggest that it’s a superior product to something like dextrose, which is incredibly cheap.
Start with dextrose, and you still have issues with energy crashes, lower the dose or take a chance on cyclic dextrin.
If you add carbs on top of a fat-adapted carnivore diet, you’ll be gaining a decent performance aid that can improve explosiveness and aid glycogen repletion, all without messing with the state of ketosis that you’ve been enjoying so much. I see it as a no lose situation. You can train for as hard and as long as you want, thanks to your ability to extract the maximum potential from glucose, ketones, and triglycerides.
But workout carbs can always get messed up, so just keep the following tips in mind.
- Make sure you’ve spent at least 12 weeks in ketosis
- Use a glucose supplement rather than fruit or processed junk
- Drink those carbs either before or during the workout
- Keep the dose to around 30 grams
- Don’t use it if you’re just doing low intensity cardio
- Don’t lose sleep over the implications of using carbs in an ancestral diet
- You’re eating, and drinking, for function
- Workout carbs are purely for function, and they don’t have downsides