Powerlifting Nutrition Part 4: Keto Edition

By: Danny Vega

Time for another disclaimer: The purpose of this article is not to debate whether low carb, high fat is a better diet for performance than a low fat, high carb diet. As I have said in previous articles, high carb has been used by me and countless others, and has over 40 years of established research on it. Conversely, the research on low carb, high fat diets for performance is in its infancy (relatively speaking). While I can point you to plenty of great sources showing the keto diet to aid in health & athletic performance, there is still a serious lack of knowledge of the keto diet in the health and fitness community. This article is to share my personal experience and help educate athletes (namely lifters) on its benefits and the nuts and bolts of the diet. If you prefer high carb and think it is the only way, read no further. I am not trying to convince you of anything.

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We have covered nutrition three times in this series. Powerlifting Nutrition Part 1 – A day in the life was just to put some practicality behind what I was doing with my carb cycling. If you track your macros, it is pretty simple to follow and you can adjust your foods to fit those macros. I kept carbs high on training days (40-50% of all calories) and lowered them on off days (15% of all calories). In part two, I was playing with keeping carbs a bit higher even on off days, since I was trying to put on some more mass. Finally, in part three: Nutrition for Powerlifting Part 3: Powerbuilding, Tucker really helped me dial it in and see how bodybuilders cut fat while preserving muscle. We carb cycled at the beginning, but towards the end we kept the carbs moderate on training and off days and lowered the fat more than I ever had before.

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At the end of that last cut I decided it was time to try low carb. I had done it years before while following the paleo diet and felt great, but at the time was not powerlifting. I also had more carbs on paleo; my macro splits were probably 50% fat, 35% protein and 15% carbs, nowhere near as low carb as I am now. My goal this time around was to see if I could cut a bit more fat from lowering the carbs (although I had already reached my bodyweight goal and level of leanness), but mostly I needed a change of pace from the low fat diet. I was noticing that binging was becoming a problem. I would follow the diet to a “T” during the week, and two weekends in a row I binged for two days straight. My initial plan was to lower carbs gradually over a month, but being the extremist that I am, I decided I was going to go full keto, cold turkey and I started on Sunday June 12th. It has been over two months now and it is time to share my results.

What is keto?

This is the first and most important question. First of all, keto is not Atkins, Paleo, or low carb. The ketogenic diet is a low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet. The most important aspect of this diet is lowering your carb intake low enough to reach a state of nutritional ketosis. Nutritional ketosis is what happens when your carb intake is low enough to signal your body to draw its energy from other non-carbohydrate sources such as fat and ketones (which are converted from fat in your liver to supply your brain and muscles with the fuel they need). So carbs have to be low enough for your body to make this switch, otherwise you feel like crap because you are giving yourself just enough carbs to stay dependent on glucose, but your fat cannot be mobilized like it would in ketosis. Secondly, your fat intake needs to be high enough. If you are removing the primary source of fuel your body has learned to use your whole life (glucose), and not replacing it with enough fat, again, you are going to feel like crap. Thirdly, your protein needs to be moderate, because if you consume too much in a sitting, or over the course of a day, you can stimulate gluconeogenesis (your body’s way of creating glucose for energy), which again you do not want because you are trying to signal your body to produce and use ketones. Have I lost you yet?

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Some Specifics

Finally, here are the specifics of my macronutrient breakdown: I have consistently averaged 73-77% fat, 19-22% protein, and 3-5% carbs over the last two months. I have not done carb refeeds, carb loading or cheat days once. For me, what that amounts to in grams is about 290g fat, 180g protein and 35g total carbs on training days and 265g fat, 165g protein and 35g total carbs on off days. I realize that macro counting is not for everyone so to keep it simple, monitor your carbs the closest and the other two are not as important. Total calories are also a bit less important; you will notice that you can eat 500-1000 calories more and maintain your current weight or drop a few pounds. If you really want to do it right, buy some ketone strips at your pharmacy and start testing your urine. They are cheap ($10-15 for 50-100) and easy to use. If it is not showing dark, then something you are doing is off. On the ketone strips, usually the unit of measure is mg/dl, and an ideal range would be 15-60 mg/dl, which converts to about 0.5-3.0 mmol/l on the blood ketone meter. This is the ideal range according to the 30 years of research of Dr. Phinney and Volek. On the ketonix breath ketone analyzer, you should be in the 40-70 range to see the most benefits. You can also monitor your energy levels and brain function. If you are in ketosis, you will feel sharper and energized. Later on, when you become keto adapted, you will also notice your cravings will disappear (more on this later). Here is a good acronym I picked up from a book called ‘Keto Clarity’: Keep carbs low, eat more fat, test ketones often, and overdoing protein is bad.

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How, Why & When to Use the Keto Diet

I have outlined a bit of the “how” for this diet above. In my experience, the “why” has been the most compelling reason to change to this way of eating. As I was starting to feel much better as early as the first week, I was also reading articles and books, and listening to podcasts that were reinforcing all of the benefits I was already feeling. I learned about how doctors have used this diet for a century to treat epilepsy and more recently diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as other preventable diseases. I learned about the research of Dr. Dominic D’Agostino and others in the use of the ketogenic diet in cancer patients, and how endurance athletes had reached the pinnacle of performance (Ironman world champions and other pro triathletes) while on this diet. In my own experience, I noticed that my joints felt 10 years younger and my bad knee was not bothering me anymore. After a few weeks I noticed that my insatiable hunger was just not there anymore and I did not have to snack every couple of hours to stave off the feeling of “hanger” I would always get. So in a nutshell, “why” should someone consider following a keto diet (taken from the research of Dr. Phinney and Volek as well as personal observations):

  • Lower levels of inflammation and less oxidative stress from exercise
  • Greater reliance on fat vs. glucose means you do not need to worry about eating every couple of hours to keep your energy levels. There is also a lot more fat available in your body (40,000 calories vs. a maximum of 2,000 calories of glucose) so you can tap into a much bigger tank
  • Becoming fat adapted (or keto adapted as some put it) allows you to consume a much higher amount of fat (including saturated fat) without risk
  • Becoming fat adapted will aid in your athletic performance (most athletes would benefit regardless of the type of sport) while maintaining muscle and burning more fat
  • Increased control over appetite and cravings

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“When” should someone use this diet? Personally, I have decided to switch to this lifestyle permanently. For my goals, the keto diet is the perfect solution. I realize that many people out there aren’t thrilled about the idea of just removing carbs from their lives permanently, so I will narrow it down to a few times when you would really benefit from this diet: off-season/injury, and fat loss phases. For a powerlifter (or any other athlete with an off-season of several months), the time to experiment with nutrition and training variables should always be the off-season. If you do decide to try it, keep a few things in mind. First, there will be an adaptation phase. Depending on the person, this can be a few days or as long as a month. During this phase you may feel weak or foggy; this is called the “keto flu”. This is what I think of when I hear people say “carb depleted”. Your body doesn’t yet know what to do; you have cut out its main fuel source. If you still “need” carbs, cutting them out is going to deplete you of energy. Once you are fat adapted, carbs become irrelevant as you are mostly using fat and the little carbs you need can be produced in your body without you consuming them (that’s right—carbs are not essential macronutrients, unlike protein and fat).

I recommend the “rip off the Band-Aid” approach. Cut the carbs immediately and put yourself through some glycolytic workouts like high intensity interval training, sprints, or any workout that is going to demand high amounts of glucose as fuel. This will drain your glycogen stores and may help speed up the adaptation process. Also, make sure to increase your sodium and water consumption as you will be dumping a lot of it during this phase. Manage your expectations during this period. If you only try the diet for a few weeks, you will most likely be putting yourself through the hard part without realizing all of the benefits. This would be similar to someone saying, “I quit heroin for 3 days and felt terrible. Being sober doesn’t work and it’s unsustainable.” It’s the off-season. You aren’t going to get weaker in a month so if you start it, stick with it. One thing I should mention is that Dr. Jacob Wilson has noticed that this process tends to take longer in females in his experience, so keep that in mind. A ten week off-season is a sufficient amount of time to really see how this diet works for you. Similarly, if you are injured, you can follow this diet. The two benefits are that it may help in your recovery and you can burn more fat, even during a period of much lower activity. During a fat loss phase, cutting carbs is also extremely effective for many, if not most people. Bodybuilders have been using this for decades with success. There are several examples, anecdotally as well as clinically, of people maintaining muscle mass while burning more fat on a low carb ketogenic diet, plus, your quality of life does not suffer since fat is much better at providing that feeling of satiety. An added benefit is an improved strength to weight ratio. If you are just as strong in a lighter weight class, that can give you an extra competitive edge.

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My last observation on the “when”…some friends have asked me about doing this short term and that is great. But my only confusion is with the follow up question—“Can I go back to the old way I was eating after I reach my goal?” Whether it’s fat loss or lower inflammation and increased recovery, if you accomplished those goals on a keto diet, why would you go back to the old way of doing things? Why not just stay in ketosis and continue to reap those benefits? Personally, I have not seen a decrease in strength or endurance. I am now lifting and running quite a bit and feel great. As the months go by, I will continue to experiment with different tweaks (for instance, maybe a sweet potato the night before a heavy training or test day to top off my glycogen a bit) and see if they help my performance. But overall, I am no longer a friend of carbs and I am a huge fan of fat as my primary source of fuel. The only way to figure out if this approach works for you is if you to try it yourself.

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Danny Vega

Danny Vega

Danny Vega is a 220lb raw powerlifter with meet bests of 640 squat in wraps (610 raw), 400 bench, and 700 deadlift. A native of Miami, Florida, Vega received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 2004, where he was a member of the football team and a three-time Dean’s List recipient. Vega earned his masters of science in human performance from the University of Florida, where he worked with the national championship men’s basketball team along with women’s basketball, tennis, and golf programs. He then went on to become the Strength & Conditioning coordinator for VCU basketball. The Rams were 2007 conference champions and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
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