If you’re trying to build muscle on a carnivore diet, then congratulations on entering the most niche of niches in the nutritional landscape. Carnivore is first and foremost held up as a weight loss diet, closely followed by autoimmune relief, with mental wellbeing left straggling in the distance.
Gaining weight barely fits in the frame, and that’s where we all get to play our part in changing the paradigm. Because framing it as a diet that supports muscle gain gives carnivore the legs to survive into the long term.
Weight loss has a sell-by date. At some point, you’ll reach your goal weight, and will have the choice of transitioning into holding onto that weight or stacking on some muscle. The former would be a fair choice, if a little boring. If you’d prefer to go for the latter, then that’s a process that is much more of a grind compared to fat loss.
But despite being slower to deliver, bulking is the state that primes you to improve across strength and shape. The muscle you build in a deficit is insignificant compared to what you can put on in a surplus. The same goes for strength, because force and mass are inextricably intertwined. As such, in the quest to build an impressive physique, we want to spend twice as much time bulking as we do cutting.
As fun as it is to have deep cuts in your abs, it’s unsustainable, often miserable, and lifting heavy weights and filling out your clothes is much more fun.
But that’s just me.
- The Downsides Of Using Carnivore For Muscle Gain
- 1. Maintain At Least A 1:1g Fat To Protein Ratio
- 2. Use More Butter And Heavy Cream
- 3. But Increase Fat Gradually
- 4. Ease Off The Fasting
- 5. Eat At Least Three Meals
- 6. More Ground Beef And Burgers
- 7. Drink Your Calories When Possible
- 8. You’ll Probably Need More Calories Than You Think
- 9. Use Dextrose During Workouts
- 10. Don’t Do High Reps / High Volume
- 11. None Of This Works Without Training To Failure And Progressive Overload
- 12. Train In The Morning
- 13. Be Prepared To Take Your Sweet Time
- 1. Maintain At Least A 1:1g Fat To Protein Ratio
The Downsides Of Using Carnivore For Muscle Gain
So in order for carnivore to have staying power, it needs to be conducive for building muscle not just fat loss. Otherwise the temptation’s just going to be there to return your old diet just so you can finally score a three plate bench press.
This can be a challenge for many, because carnivore has a few features that put an asterisk on its bulk potential.
1. Insane satiety – A slow-cooked brisket can be delicious at first, until you smash through a couple of pounds and suddenly lose any desire to keep eating. The level of nutrient density is unmatched on this diet, and this means that the body’s satiety signals will work the way they’re meant to, neutering your ability to overeat.
2. Highly thermogenic foods – Protein and saturated fat both get burnt up as heat in large amounts during the digestive process, leading to less of it being actually absorbed as muscle or fat. That’s a blessing if you want to hold onto your weight, not so much if you’re looking to bump it up.
3. Fat overload – While loading up on the fats is the sensible solution for working your way into a surplus, there is a point where you’ll exceed your body’s fat-digesting capacity, leading to the extras being passed through undigested and potentially leading to the dreaded disaster pants.
But there are ways around these roadblocks, and as someone who’s walked the walk by spending the majority of his three carnivore years in gain mode, here are some essential tips for setting the stage for an apex diet that maximises muscle.
1. Maintain At Least A 1:1g Fat To Protein Ratio
The key lesson for anyone on carnivore, is realising that you can only utilise so much protein, with the limit being somewhere in the region of 35-50% of total calories. That means the remainder of your energy needs has to be supplied by fat, since carbs are out of commission.
Going over that limit will just result in wasted protein, and won’t count towards any calorie targets you might have.
Fat itself is actually designed to be an energy source, since the body can simply burn it as triglycerides or split them to make ketones. Whereas protein is first and foremost a building block, and utilising it for energy is a costly and lengthy process.
So if you want to hatch up an energy surplus, it makes perfect sense to focus on getting the fat percentage up over 65% of calories. You’ll get a stronger state of ketosis, you’ll absorb more of what you’re eating, and your food will actually taste delicious.
2. Use More Butter And Heavy Cream
For anyone who isn’t intolerant to all forms of dairy, they’re your best friends for overcoming the shortage of addictive foods. The presence of casomorphins, coupled with the delicious creamy textures, makes full-fat dairy a convenient way to pile on the calories and get past the satiety block.
Take your time teasing out which dairy products your body can handle, and make the most of them.
Lactose intolerance – There can still be traces of lactose in butter, so if you’re sensitive, you can try ghee instead.
Casein intolerance – If you have issues with the casein in A1 dairy, you can try goat cheese instead, since it’s made from A2 dairy.
Histamine intolerance – Aged and fermented cheeses will be higher in histamine content due to the exposure, but you can sidestep that by opting for mild or creamy cheese instead.
Milk intolerance – Pasteurised milk will be a no go for most, but raw milk has much more of the requisite enzymes for breaking down problematic compounds, it’s just a case of finding a supplier.
Including dairy in the carnivore cuisine will give you plenty of ways to flesh out the caloric content of a meal without requiring any extra chewing.
You can make a sauce with cream and cheese, or simply add butter as a condiment like I do.
You could snack on some creamy blue cheese.
Or you could swig some heavy cream or raw milk whenever you feel like it.
3. But Increase Fat Gradually
While jumping on the added fat train is the surest way to go anabolic, you do have to tread patiently. Hiking up your fat intake overnight by 200 grams is a surefire way to overwhelm the body’s digestive capacity and sign yourself up to brain fog, heartburn, and eventual diarrhoea.
So rather than opting for brute force, increase your fat intake slowly while keeping an eye on your postprandial response. If it’s still a struggle, then add in a few caps of Betaine HCL at the beginning of your meal, and avoid drinking much water for 30 minutes before and after.
4. Ease Off The Fasting
Fasting is easy when you’re on carnivore, because you’re using the same fuel system across both modes, and that makes for a seamless transition with no bumps in energy.
But that doesn’t mean you should fast. Since carnivore is a ketogenic diet, it places the body in a fasting mimicking state, which lends many of the same benefits that fasting.
Yes, that includes autophagy.
In fact, combining carnivore with fasting can be to your detriment.
Both elevate cortisol – Leading to potential overload and issues with heightened stress lingering into the evenings and sabotaging sleep.
Narrowing the eating window can lead to undereating – Due to the highly satiating effects of meat. This defeats the primary objective of carnivore, which is provide the body with a surplus of total nutrition, and definitely undermines a bulking programme.
This doesn’t mean you should avoid fasting entirely, since keeping a fasting window around bedtime will allow your digestion to function optimally and sleep to be untroubled. 14-16 hours does that job perfectly fine, while still leaving plenty of room to get the calories in.
5. Eat At Least Three Meals
One meal a day is a terrible idea to begin with, and it gets even worse when you attempt it on carnivore. Even two meals doesn’t quite cut it. You need to give the body more opportunity to utilise all the protein you’re throwing at it.
And there is a big difference between absorbing protein and utilising protein. If you pack 200 grams of protein into one meal, your body can absorb all that protein. The problem is that most of it won’t go towards muscle protein synthesis, making it effectively ‘wasted’.
Whereas if you share that 200 grams across three meals, then more of it is going to go towards muscle protein synthesis, and as a result you get a much better anabolic effect.
At the same time, you’ll definitely improve your capacity for digesting fats, as well as your ability to sidestep the satiety block.
6. More Ground Beef And Burgers
Whether you’re trying to balance the books or cut down on your chewing hours, focusing on ground beef and burger patties can be a game changer. Not only are they stacked in collagen, they are as high in fat as beef gets, and you can get through a couple of pounds without breaking a sweat.
Ground beef might be the cheapest cut, but it’s also the best cut. Give it the respect it deserves.
7. Drink Your Calories When Possible
Any bulk is made much easier if you can drink some of the 4000 calories you’re aiming to get in the day. Even if you’re full to the brim and nauseous at the thought of steak, you’ll still be able to drink a little more.Unfortunately, milk isn’t well tolerated by most, so relying on it too much can be a disaster. That leaves us with two options.
Heavy cream – Also known as double cream, this concoction is deliciously high in fat and virtually devoid of carbs. If you’re brave enough to swig 200ml, that gets you to nearly 900 calories in one hit. Just keep in mind what I said about increasing your fat load slowly. I rarely have issues, but fresh-faced initiates have followed me too readily and found out the hard way.
Raw milk – It’s not particularly difficult to get your hands on some raw milk these days, just make friends with a local dairy farmer or do a quick google search. But you may be concerned about the potential for ingesting harmful bacteria, hence why the sale of raw milk is strictly limited.
That’s where we should underline the fact that raw milk that’s intentionally produced for human consumption is a whole other category to raw milk that’s due to be pasteurised and zapped of pathogens. The latter is the product of dairy cows that wallow in their own filth, while the former comes from cows raised in lush pastures. Because the former cares about meeting safety standards, and predominantly sells to folk in the local vicinity, so rely entirely on reputation.
Funnily enough, we do have a study in Cambridge showing that intentionally produced raw milk met the hygiene standards with flying colours. I wouldn’t be too squeamish.
And as for why you’d want to try raw milk instead of the regular pasteurised whole milk, that would be the fact that pasteurisation zaps most of the beneficial bacteria and enzymes present in milk, especially the ones that help break down lactose. By opting for raw milk, you’d be getting more nutrition, and you’d also be better able to tolerate it in big quantities.
Which helps when you’re attempting to get another 1000 calories.
8. You’ll Probably Need More Calories Than You Think
As for what sort of surplus you should be aiming for, it’s a tricky one. There’s a side you can argue where you need fewer calories to bulk on carnivore, due to the fact that everything you eat is highly bioavailable.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you’ll be absorbing all the energy you’re shovelling in. Protein and fat are highly thermogenic, with 20-30% being burnt off during the digestive process. Then you add in other inevitable effects, like mitochondrial uncoupling (meat sweats) and the limits placed on your ability to break down protein (nitrogen detoxing) and fat (lipase production).
With all that in mind, I’d argue that you actually need more calories than the standard online formula will throw out at you. Especially considering the steepened challenge for extra energy to be stored as fat, thanks to reduced insulin action.
Try tacking on an extra 10% to your target calories, and be prepared to go higher if the scale goes three weeks without shifting upwards. Slow progress is good, but if there’s zero movement that’s a sign you should step on the gas and become best buds with your local dairy farmer.
9. Use Dextrose During Workouts
First up, dextrose is basically just sugar without the fructose, and that makes it very un-carnivore. But if we make an arbitrary set of rules that we have to abide by, no matter the context, then we’re not much better than the vegans.
I’m happy to step out onto a limb and say that carbs aren’t a glaring issue when they’re moderated and when you’re already metabolically healthy. The latter is a huge caveat that cancels out the majority of the planet, but if you’re plotting a bulk after already spending months dieting down on carnivore, then chances are you are metabolically healthy.
This even includes plant toxins. The dose makes the poison, and a rejuvenated gut will stand a better chance of tolerating suspect plant foods as long as you’re treading gently.
Dextrose in the meantime is absent of plant toxins, you just have to worry about spiking blood sugar, creating glycation, and wrestling yourself out of ketosis. Things that aren’t like if you’re sugaring up during a workout and directing it to the muscle sink.
As for why you may want to risk it all, that’s perhaps the most pertinent question. Carbs in an unhealthy metabolism have the potential to be toxic. Carbs in a healthy metabolism have the potential to be an ergogenic aid, a superpower of sorts. Having carbs intra workout while in a ketogenic diet will ultimately aid performance by preventing localised glycogen depletion, which can otherwise inhibit motor fiber recruitment.
So a dose of 30-50 grams in your workout drink can work wonders, without kicking you out of ketosis for long.
You just need to be able to rise above the dogma.
10. Don’t Do High Reps / High Volume
Bodybuilding wisdom has long espoused the virtues of adding more volume to climb past a rut and spur hypertrophy back into action. And if you squint, it makes sense. If the muscles respond to stimulation, and you get bigger when you’re pumped, then why not throw the kitchen sink in by adding more reps and sets?
The issue here is that the pump has nothing to do with the mechanism of hypertrophy, and stimulation sits on a bell curve. Meaning that going over the ‘optimal dose’, the peak of the bell curve, will result in rapidly diminishing returns.
The case for low volume is markedly stronger on a ketogenic diet, due to the fact that glycogen depletion impairs motor unit recruitment, and that athletes who train in ketosis might be protected from overall glycogen depletion, but can still suffer from some localised areas getting severely drained.
This can be attenuated by ingesting workout carbs, like I’ve already suggested, but you could also maximise your chances of sidestepping this mess by avoiding high rep work (8+ reps), which naturally causes more glycogen depletion.
Whereas low rep work (3-5 reps) is perfectly adequate for maximising hypertrophy, and is a much smaller drain on your glycogen due to the preference for the creatine phosphate system at that rep range.
By focusing on 3-5 reps, and keeping the workload down to 6-8 hard sets per muscle group per session, you’ll keep the glycogen relatively untouched and ensure that stimulation is consistently high. Work smarter, and only once that’s assured, harder.
11. None Of This Works Without Training To Failure And Progressive Overload
This is how you create the stimulus that’s needed to build muscle, and ensure that all that steak goes to the right places. There is one driver of muscle growth: mechanical tension. You create mechanical tension by training in close proximity to failure. You stop mechanical tension from being nullified by adaptations, by increasing the load on the bar, week by week.
This is where the best laid nutrition and training plans can fail. If you can’t bring the intensity, then all this bluster is going to amount to very little.
You have to be able to crank up the heat.
12. Train In The Morning
A carnivore diet can raise your cortisol. But don’t think of that as a bad thing. This means you can magnify that morning cortisol pulse and supercharge your workouts with unmatched alertness and vigour.
This is why my preference in my three years of carnivore has always been to train fasted, and as early as possible. That’s when I feel the best, and that’s when I’m the strongest. My 290kg deadlift PB came in at 6am.
Training later in the day can be an issue for several reasons. For one, you’ll have eaten a metric ton of meat by then, and that invariably will make you less explosive. Digestion is a nervous suppressant.
As a second point, ketosis can bestow you with a mellow high that makes it harder to be explosive. You’re just a bit too chill. Great for work and dealing with vegans rationally and calmly, not so great for mustering all your energy to rip a barbell off the ground.
So for those reasons, training fasted and in the early hours is the practical choice.
13. Be Prepared To Take Your Sweet Time
You shouldn’t expect rapid results on a carnivore bulk, unless you’re also engaging in pharmaceutical warfare. Compared to the steady stream of fat loss that you’ve likely already experienced on this diet, muscle gain happens at a glacial pace.
And that’s not down to the lack of carbs, it’s simply the nature of the bulking process. That’s why I’d make sure you spend at least twice as much time bulking as you do cutting. Preferably three.
So enjoy the golden opportunity you have to eat as much steak and butter as your heart desires. Don’t baulk at the idea of staying in a surplus for a whole year. Don’t get second thoughts the moment your waist goes up by a quarter inch. You’re in it for the long haul.
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