Can You Build Muscle On A Low Carbohydrate Diet?

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Meet my brother Zach Greenfield.

He’s been following my Superhuman Food Pyramid for the past 6 months.

For anyone who doubts that you can build muscle on a low carbohydrate diet because you don’t have enough “fuel”, my brother is living proof that you can.

And no, it doesn’t require shoving a bunch of acidic, ammonia-producing proteins down the hatch. Instead, all you need is a high fat intake (and nothing over 0.7 grams per pound of protein).

In a moment, I’m going to show you some more pictures of Zach, and give you a sample daily diet of what he’s been eating.

But first, I want to give you a few additional resources, since I haven’t been shy lately about the fact that I also eat a low carbohydrate diet, as do many of the clients I advise and athletes I coach.

For example, a few weeks ago, I released the podcast: Is It Possible To Be Extremely Active and Eat A Low Carbohydrate Diet?

I’ve also written the book Low Carbohydrate Diet For Triathletes, and produced these articles about how to avoid typical recommended carbohydrates dosages and instead eat a higher fat diet:

-Should You Eat Carbohydrates Before Exercise?

-How I Ate A High Fat Diet, Pooped 8 Pounds, And Then Won A Sprint Triathlon.

-The Hidden Dangers Of A Low Carbohydrate Diet

-10 Ways To Do A Low Carbohydrate Diet The Right Way

Want more proof that you can build muscle on a low carbohydrate diet? Here’s a few more pictures of my brother:

 

Zach Greenfield

Zach Greenfield

Zach Greenfield

So what kind of low carbohydrate diet has this beefcake been eating?

Here’s a sample daily meal plan (Zach is 6’5″, about 230 lbs):

Breakfast: 4 eggs cooked in coconut oil with side of spinach and a piece of fruit

Snack: Half a can of full fat coconut milk with 20-30g protein powder and tablespoon almond butter

Lunch: Huge bed of greens and vegetables with sprouts, sardines, avocados, olives, olive oil/vinaigrette dressing

Snack: 16oz coconut water with handful of raw almonds

Dinner: 6-8oz grass-fed beef with big side of steamed vegetables and a boiled, salted sweet potato

There you have it.

Moderating carbohydrate intake is not only effective for fat burning efficiency and fueling long endurance events, but is also good for building muscle.

Questions, comments or feedback? Leave them below.

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120 thoughts on “Can You Build Muscle On A Low Carbohydrate Diet?

  1. You’d probably make a lot of $$. I was impressed before with the low carb plan, now I really like it ;-)

      1. You all seem to be endurance athletes. I used to be however now I enjoy training with weights, 3 sprint workouts a week and moderate jogging with my dog 7 days a week for 30-40 min. Is this enough training or can someone even do less and still eat high fat, moderate protein, low carb and still lose fat?

        1. Hi Sherri…definitely not all endurance athletes! My brother (above) is a Crossfitter, for example. I train several folks who are not endurance athletes, and just want improved aesthetics or more strength/power/speed. What you have described sounds like enough (although I don't have details)…

          1. Do you or can you train someone who wants to get ready for competing in Bikini? It seems when it comes to weight training for Bikini or Figure, they keep the fats very low and carbs pretty low. If yes, how do I get a hold of you for more info? Thanks!

          2. Hi Ben.

            Amazing stuff you put out there..

            I’m a prof. badminton player, practicing two times a day with badminton and strength training combined..
            Do you think a High fat diet would fit an athlete in a sport like badminton?

  2. yea, let's see a pic of your sister…. or, just the meal plan for a 120-130 pound female

    Love your podcasts!

  3. Damn, that IS IMPRESSIVE! My question is, How do you satisfy a screaming metabolism? Like, what kinds of foods do you then eat?

  4. How many grams of carbs would you estimate your brother is eating? Low enough in comparison to fat to be ketogenic? Or getting the benefits of non-ketogenic low carb?

    And in light of your recent book: could you say what his body type is?

  5. It is pretty impressive. I'm also on a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet following your pyramid for a couple of months now and getting some results. I'm curious as to what was your brother's body composition (fat % and weight) when he started 6 months ago vs now? We can probably use the results as benchmark :)

      1. Okay so the difference in the lean mass is really this: (I'm not sure if this equation is right way of calculating)

        (244 * .87) – (230 * .92) = 0.68 lbs

        Which means he eventually didn't gain extra lean mass but cut down the body fat by 5% which is actually an amazing thing to achieve.
        I'm still wondering if it is actually possible to gain a lot of muscle mass on a low carb diet or a traditional bulk up and lean down bodybuilder style is the only way to go about it.

  6. Seriously ? Is that ALL that Zach eats ? That’s like 2100 Calories… I would drop weight like crazy with that intake (actually I am doing that right now 4 days a week and drop weight) and I’m nowhere near 250 (more like 185). Even someone who is not training needs at least 2500 Cal tot maintain his weight (and 250 lbs is hyoooge at that bodyfat% (I need at least 2750 to maintain my weight)

    I find it all totally unbelievable to be honest.

        1. Breakfast: 4 eggs cooked in coconut oil with side of spinach and a piece of fruit – 650 calories

          Snack: Half a can of full fat coconut milk with 20-30g protein powder and tablespoon almond butter – 600 calories

          Lunch: Huge bed of greens and vegetables with sprouts, sardines, avocados, olives, olive oil/vinaigrette dressing – 800-1000 calories

          Snack: 16oz coconut water with handful of raw almonds – 200 calories

          Dinner: 6-8oz grass-fed beef with big side of steamed vegetables and a boiled, salted sweet potato – 800-1000 calories (he does use butter and coconut oil with dinner also)

          Talked to him earlier and sometimes he does do two of the coconut milk, protein powder type of snacks. Also has typically a higher cal refeed day 1-2x/week.

  7. To follow up on MKHG's question, can you give some general guidelines of how many carbs/calories a smaller women should eat. I'm only 5 ft tall, 105 lbs but still 18% BF and would like to drop that a little for my summer tri's by trying a lower carb plan like yours.

      1. I just had a mechanical aortic valve replacement. There is an FDA trial going on for one particular mechanical valve that allows only for plavix and asprin but the results won't be out for several years.

  8. Ben, this is amazing stuff. I have listened to your podcasts, and esp on low carb. I am using ucan super starch now on my rides and post ucan protein after. I have been paleo for 2+yrs, last few months lower carb and lower protein since listening to you. I did my first 100 mile ride last weekend on ucan and did okay till mi 75 when i used “chomps”. In july i do a monster 550 mile, over 7days through 4 states in new england. I want to stay low carb..and use ucan products without having to carb up or live on sugar on the bike…do you have suggestions? I used to use hammer gels..heed..on the bike but want to get away from that…i use race caps…have good suppliments..etc..what is your suggestion on how to manage day to day ..hard riding?

    Thanks—Barbara

    1. During these rides, I'd include A) amino acids (like Master Amino Pattern) at 5 capsules every 2-3 hours; 2) nut butter (there's a brand called Pocket Fuel that is really good); and then use a few servings of NutraRev at beginning of each session, which has acetyl l carnitine and alpha lipoic acid to assist with enhancing fat burning.

      1. Okay Ben …thanks. It is possible to be low carb and get the benefits of fat burning without being fully keto adapted right? I got your book on low cycling low carb and liked but wish you had more info on how to get into it…and manage it …is there another book of yours that you would suggest i get?

        Barbara

  9. Ben, I am curious what modifications you would make to Shape 21 meal plan regarding going more low carb. Would you eliminate the oatmeal or some of the grains? Mindy

    1. Yep. And I'd replace those with the fat-based foods off the "EAT" section of the Superhuman Food Pyramid. I'll eventually rewrite the meal plan in Shape21 to include a low carb option….

  10. I also added up what he’s eating and came up
    With 2100 calories give or take. 3500 makes more sense. What else does he eat?

    1. Breakfast: 4 eggs cooked in coconut oil with side of spinach and a piece of fruit – 650 calories

      Snack: Half a can of full fat coconut milk with 20-30g protein powder and tablespoon almond butter – 600 calories

      Lunch: Huge bed of greens and vegetables with sprouts, sardines, avocados, olives, olive oil/vinaigrette dressing – 800-1000 calories

      Snack: 16oz coconut water with handful of raw almonds – 200 calories

      Dinner: 6-8oz grass-fed beef with big side of steamed vegetables and a boiled, salted sweet potato – 800-1000 calories (he does use butter and coconut oil with dinner also)

      Talked to him earlier and sometimes he does do two of the coconut milk, protein powder type of snacks. Also has typically a higher cal refeed day 1-2x/week.

  11. "… a bunch of acidic, ammonia-producing proteins …"

    I cringe when I see things like this. But I also enjoy doing the research to rip it apart…

    Protein doesn't change the ph of your body. Blood pH, you'll find, is very tightly regulated by the body (between 7.39 and 7.41)…so claims relating to “acidifying the blood”, including cancer and bone loss, are also bunk. The body maintains blood pH primarily via CO2<->carbonic acid. (See this article for a long biochemistry excursion: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/242975-over… and this article for more on the bicarbonate buffering system: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicarbonate_bufferi

    1. This is dealt with very well in the book Perfect Health Diet…on p 25. At a protein intake of 230 g/day (920 calories), the body’s ability to convert ammonia to urea is saturated and this means the nitrogen from every additional gram of protein lingers in the body as ammonia, a toxin.

      [3] Rudman D et al. Maximal rates of excretion and synthesis of urea in normal and cirrhotic subjects. J Clin Invest. 1973 Sep;52(9):2241-9. http://pmid.us/4727456.

      1. The upper limits of protein intake are debated hotly amongst professionals. So far there really isn't much evidence to support the idea that there even is an upper limit.

  12. And yes, protein causes ammonia to be produced. That's a normal healthy part of protein metabolism. Recent research suggests that people without prior or developing kidney or liver impairment do not experience any kidney or liver issues with a higher protein intake (1.3 g/kg/day). People most at risk for this kind of kidney stress include those who have a personal or family history of kidney or liver problems or those who have high blood pressure or diabetes.

    you saying high protein is bad? As far as the science is concerned, as long as you are a healthy individual, high protein does not cause problems.

  13. Thanks for all your great podcasts and info, you are the best!! Which one of your books do you suggest for an endurance athlete trying to convert to ketogenic diet? I’m already grain free (except buckwheat).

  14. I just clicked…. just multiply .7 times 2.2 and one can make sense of this concoction of units of protien to weight recommendation. So its about one and a half grams of protien to kg of body weight. Got it.

  15. I don't think the question in your title has been answered. It seems like your brother lost a good bit of body fat during the past six months (from reading Keerthi's comment and your reply), but wasn't his muscle already there? Wouldn't you need muscle percentages before and after and before and after pictures to make the case you want to make according to your title? Just because your brother is a good-looking guy with nice muscles and has been on a high fat diet for the past six months doesn't mean that he gained that muscle during the past six months. Do you have more information to offer? Might your brother have gained more muscle on another diet? With regard to aesthetics and performance, the Rich Roll vegan approach is more appealing to me, especially after seeing the before and after pictures.

    Also, the Dr. you had on discussing his ketogenic diet and the sample menu of your brother's diet (which are similar) both have one thing in common: a lack of variety. I'll die a year or two early for a regular calzone.

  16. Hi Richard – this certainly wasn't mean to be a peer-reviewed journal article – just an example of a guy who maintains beast mode, keeps body fat low, does intense Crossfit workouts and at least maintains muscle (although I do think he has built some lean muscle mass) in the relative absence of what many say is necessary for muscle building: carbohydrate.

    Ultimately the goal here is to point out that you DON'T have to be a potato and whole wheat guzzling fiend to get strong and muscular.

  17. Ben do you have a sample diet anywhere on the site of your wife or a 125-130 lb endurance athlete? Im trying to go keto and curious how many carbs I can safely consume. Just ordered UCAN and can't wait to try it instead of glucose during runs. Thanks for all your knowledge!

  18. oh my!! Can I just eat him and be healthy lol!

    Seriously, I've gone lo/no carb and eating more healthy fats, my new favorite is Macadamia oil and I'm finding I'm less hungry, have less carb cravings and keeping weight off. About every 4th day I have some sweet potato.

    Still trying to wrap my head around overdoing protein…..high protein has been working for me…

  19. who cares about the diet – dang…haha…Thanks for the info – I just started back on low carb and people hound me but it is how I lose weight but I need to make sure I build some muscle…

  20. Thanks for this nice article Ben.

    I think that it's easy to build a daily Low Carb diet but for a whole week I find it more difficult because it's hard to put variety on this kind of diet.

    Do you brother eat each day the same thing ?
    Or can he share with us a variant of this day ?

      1. thanks for that Ben, I didn't know this course.
        I saw the videos and I will try it.
        I'm an ectomorph and a gluten-free/low carb/healthy addict. Not always easy to find good tips for my case.
        Do you think your daily diet and your others advices in this prog can help me to gain weight and more energy ?

        1. or do you see an other ressource for me ? Helping me to gain weight and reinforce my body in a gluten-free, low carb, healthy way.

          Thanks for all Ben, you make a great job

  21. o come on. That dude does not have that much muscle, it's obvious he is lean and naturally has great genes, what we are seeing is a human with low body fat that has great aesthetics; so I am not convinced that this diet builds muscle on a guy like this with his results, you put this guy on any low cal diet with high protein and he is going to look like this. Now, if he had some obvious muscle on that frame then I would buy it a lot easier. But again, good genetics on a dude that is athletic and eats sensible, whatever sensible thing he eats, he is going to look this good.

    1. Same thing with you Ben. You're a guy with good genetics, naturally aesthetic, who is skinny. A skinny guy with good genetics, mesomorph, is always going to look good skinny, even without muscle. Case in point: Brad Pitt fight club. No muscle, just skinny and everyone wanted to look like him; trouble is, few have those kind of genetics to just naturally look athletic and in such good proportion. Not that you're not probably giving good information though, just don't sell your bro or yourself as "you can look like this" if you do this diet.

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  23. im 30 years old and have recently lost 120 lbs doing low carb high protien, i currently weigh 310. i have been off low carb for aproxx 30-45 days. i've gained about 6 lbs from my lowest weight. mostly from heavy weight lifting 5 days a week. being an endomorph how many calories should i eat to lose body fat and maintain as much muscle as possible. and if my goal is maintaining and building muscle how much protein should i eat. i was going to do try your approach but am wondering how many calories i should consume a day. thx

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  25. I'm female, 100 lbs 5'8", trying to gain 10 lbs without fat; would I see any improvement if I keep my hour of cardio to first thing in the morning with a protein shake to burn fat, and then eat carbs afterward, wait and do weights? – Or would it be better to eat carbs, and then have my workout be weights first and cardio after?
    Also, should my postworkout shake contain carbs? [16 grams from milk too much?]
    I just want to coordinate my cardio and strength training with food consumption in such a way that won't reduce muscle mass, but still keep fat at bay.
    Thanks.

  26. I have been trying to gain muscle for years I tried different bodybuilding diets but they never worked. I ate alot of carbs and ended up gaining fat around my waist. This discouraged me from doing anything. Right now I take whey protein with creatine as a supplement. Do you think your high fat, moderate protein, low carb work for me? I also do p90x along with weight lifting.

  27. I'm happy to meet with your brother Zach. Indeed, he is looking incredibly fit on those pictures and completely convinced me that by following carbohydrate diet strong muscles building is possible. Thanks.

  28. Very impressive… I bought your book "the lowcarb diet guide for triathlete" and I literately "eat it in a low carb style" !
    I would like to know which kind of fruit Zach eat in the morning and how many;
    More, when does Zach train : does he train in the morning or in the afternoon / evening : is there any impact or differences for the moment to take the snack of the morning (Coconut cream/Protein) and the snack of the afternoon (coco water) ?
    Last, what about the combo of sugar/carbs sweet potatatos and the fat of 8oz of beef at night ? any argue ?
    In even case congratulation, good job !

  29. Hi, how many grams of fat do you recommend per kilo of body weight if trying to build some lean muscle?

    Also how many grams of protein, fat and carbs is Zach on each day? tks

    1. We didn't really approach it exactly that way… but here is a sample of what he ate:
      -Breakfast: 4 eggs cooked in coconut oil with side of spinach and a piece of fruit – 650 calories
      -Snack: Half a can of full fat coconut milk with 20-30g protein powder and tablespoon almond butter – 600 calories
      -Lunch: Huge bed of greens and vegetables with sprouts, sardines, avocados, olives, olive oil/vinaigrette dressing – 800-1000 calories
      -Snack: 16oz coconut water with handful of raw almonds – 200 calories
      -Dinner: 6-8oz grass-fed beef with big side of steamed vegetables and a boiled, salted sweet potato – 800-1000 calories (he does use butter and coconut oil with dinner also)
      -Sometimes he did two of the coconut milk, protein powder type of snacks.
      – Also has typically a higher cal refeed day 1-2x/week.

      1. Hi Ben,

        Can the same protocol be used for powerlifting 3x/week? I'm thinking of using macro ratios like the Perfect Health Diet with carbs 10-20%, fat 60-70% and protein 20-30%. Isn't that also how you eat at the moment?
        I'm underweight (anorexic) and want to gain muscle. Should I have even more carbs in that case?

  30. Hello, I’m 6’2, currently at 212 lbs and 19% body fat. I’m intaking 2300-2500 calories and between 230-260g of protein per day. 4 months ago I switched my diet to low carb (under 100g per day). I look skinny but my chest and ab area are still flabby and jingly (i'm a skinny fat guy lol). All my other areas are lean (Arms and legs) and I’m starting to see some real nice definition. I'm also doing Cross Fit (sorry) and I’m doing total body weight lifting about 5-6 days a week . I’m hitting every muscle group twice a week. My goal is to get to about 13-14% body fat or somewhere close to a 6pack. My gym buddies and trainer friends are recommending that I stop doing a lot of cardio and go more intense with my weightlifting but most of them are naturally small guys that are bulking up. I am naturally a big guy trying to get lean and ripped and the same time so I’m afraid that if I stop doing cardio or change my eating to include carbs I will get fat again (I seem to gain weight quick). Most experienced people I have talked to are recommending that I do no more than once or twice a week of intense cardio, tops. When I started working out 11 months ago I was 315 lbs and about 30% body fat. At this point I need advice on which way I should go. Should I change my workout to more intense weight lifting and limited cardio? Should I change my diet to include more carbs or carb cycle? Is it possible to burn fat and gain muscle at the same time without killing myself?

    Thanks in advance

    PS… sorry i'm late but I just found your post by googling "Can You Build Muscle On A Low Carbohydrate Diet?" .. I'll be checking in regularly from now on.

  31. Great article.
    Iv'e been lifting heavy for 3 years and counting, after a while on a zero carb diet for a cut I decided to stay on low carb to bulk and gain lean muscle as well.
    I plan on 100g net carbs every day, 2g per 1kg of protein, and the rest from high quality fats.
    Do you think this is a good plan for a person who lifts heavy and works out intensely 3-4 times a week?

  32. Great post, Ben! Trying to piece together the macros/percentages for a 125 pound woman. Does 25% carb, 25% protein and 50% fat sound about right? I think the calories would be around 1400.

  33. I really appreciate your writing Ben. This post somehow is an odd-duck though against the others.

    I've come back to it several few times and after reading the others that link to it, I think Zach's mesomorph body type should really be added as a disclaimer in the post contents, not deep in the comments. As a mesomorph he has a huge advantage over 70-80% of everyone else before he ever starts reducing carbs or doing any exercise.

    The photos, and minimal detail provided create a sort of sensationalized "do this and you'll look like that" affect. That really discredits everything else covered in your writing. Zach looks great, and the diet and 5 day/week workouts in his lifestyle are obviously an important part of that. But he has a massive advantage that most people should save themselves the trouble of dreaming about. For them different workouts and much more aggressive carb cutting will be necessary, and they still probably wont pull off the polish he achieves.

    Sorry to be a troll. I just think people deserve to know. In the end they will be less disappointed.

  34. Hi Ben,

    First, Im from Germany and i really love your Website! I read it a lot and its easy to understand! Great work!

    Im Doing a low carb diet and im Not sure how often i should Drink a protein shake! I do a lot of Sport: monday/wednseday boxtraining 1 1/2 Hour, tuesday/thursday Morning One Hour Running / Late: i go to the gym for gaining muscles, friday and saturday i do freeletics normally strengh workouts or go to the gym (depending on my mood)!

    Now im drinking one at your Brothers first snack time in the morning , and one After my Sport (boxing,gym of freeletics) and one before i sleep (casein). I Take bcaa Too. Normally i ate about 200gr protein at a day ( im 185pounds, and 6’2 tall)

    Im loosing still a lot of fat and gain decent muscles but wanna try to Get more and still loosing some body fat!

    So can you give me an advice or a tip when your Brother takes the protein Shakes? Before training, After Training ?

    Im sorry if you are having sone Problems with my english.

    Best whishes from Germany!

  35. I have just embarked on a low carbohydrate high-fat moderate protein diet. It’s only been 12 days. But what I’ve noticed is I haven’t lost any weight. And more disturbingly (sorry TMI alert) my M cycle is late. My carbs are very low 10 g per day. And there are no sneaky ones sliding in there that I don’t know about! have been very very anal about that!

    (Btw, NOT PREG!)

    So what gives? Is it because of the drastic change in my eating? I’ve never been a carboholic I have no idea here what’s going on. So if you could help me out on this one if you have any knowledge of it , I would be greatly appreciative . thank you so much!

    Btw your brother is smokin hot! ;)

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