How to Burn Fat & Spare Muscle: The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
One of the toughest things to do is to burn fat while sparing muscle. Unless you have a hormonal issue working against you, proper diet and exercise will help you burn off those unwanted inches. The problem arises, however, when all that sweat and effort begins to eat away at your muscle gains, as inevitably happens whenever you begin cutting calories and forsaking the weights for the treadmill. Fortunately, there’s a metabolic trick you can perform that will largely fix the problem.
Anyone familiar with the Atkins Diet has heard of ketosis. Ketosis is a state your body enters when it runs out of free glucose or glycogen for its energy needs and begins burning fat instead. Diabetics try to avoid this state, but bodybuilders, fitness athletes, and anyone looking to get lean gladly invite and, indeed, even work to initiate the condition.
While most doctors will tell you ketosis is something you want to avoid (because it could potentially lead to a buildup of ketones, causing ketoacidosis to set in), the fact is that it is one of the most remarkable feats of metabolic legerdemain you will likely ever find.
Like the Atkins Diet, the ketogenic diet (particularly the one written by Lyle McDonald) relies upon the elimination of most carbohydrates from the diet for a predetermined period of time to allow ketosis to set in, creating an environment where your body burns all the fat it wants.
Now, before you get overly excited and start throwing away all the bread and pasta in the house, there’s a laundry list of rules and directions to familiarize yourself with first. To do otherwise is to invite failure.
First off, there are a number of different ways to follow a ketogenic diet. You can simply stop eating carbs for a few weeks – or even a few months if you’re really gung-ho – but that’s the version of the diet that tends to lead to a loss of muscle. Over time, you’ll notice your muscles losing size and strength due to the lack of regular carbohydrates. They also won’t recover as well from strenuous workouts. To avoid all this, you have to cycle your stints in ketosis.
It’s a little complicated, but I’m going to break it all down for you in a step-by-step process that I myself recently followed. So let’s get started…
THE CYCLICAL KETOGENIC DIET
In a nutshell, what we’re going to do is alternate periods of ketosis with periods of super-recomposition (i.e. carb-loading). But we’re going to do it all in a very specific way.
While Lyle McDonald suggests you can follow this cycle on a weekly basis, my own findings suggest that you’re not going to get enough out of the ketosis portion to really make a go of it. Unless you’re already very lean, you’re just not going to see an appreciable fat loss during what will amount to only about 3 days of actual ketosis per week. What’s worse, however, is that you could potentially store fat from the super-recomposition.
Therefore, my advice here is to do the super-recomposition portion every other weekend. That way, you’ll spend about 10 days in ketosis out of every 14. The other 4 days break down as 2 days of super-recomposition and the 2 days following that trying to get back into ketosis (the fastest I’ve ever done it was 36hrs).
The ketosis portion of the diet is pretty easy to describe. While both Dr. Atkins and Lyle McDonald say you can eat as much as 20-30g of carbs per day and still maintain ketosis, many people will find that high of an intake foiling their efforts. My advice is to eat as close to zero grams of carbs per day as humanly possible. That means eating only uncured meat, eggs and cheese. You can eat mustard, but not ketchup. Even milk has too many carbs, though cream has none whatsoever. Learn to read labels. Also, drink a lot more water than normal. My recommendation is at least 96 ounces (2.8 liters) per day.
To start this diet, you would begin on a Monday with zero carbs and continue that same diet plan for the next 12 days (that is, through the Friday of the following week).
Super-recomposition refers to the 36-48 hour phase of the cyclical ketogenic diet where you force your muscles to basically gorge themselves on carbs. By doing so, they will actually swell with fluid and nutrients, becoming stronger in the process. As you might imagine, this creates something of an anabolic environment in the body, which is beneficial not just for muscle sparing, but for muscle building, as well. Lastly, super-recomposition will also allow your liver to rebuild its stores of glycogen.
The amount of carbs you will eat during the super-recomposition phase is based on your lean bodyweight. In the first 24 hours of super-recomposition, you will consume 10g of carbs per kilogram of lean bodyweight (1kg = 2.2lbs).
If you know your body fat percentage: multiply that percentage by your total bodyweight and then subtract that number from your total bodyweight. Next, divide that number by 2.2. Finally, multiply that number by 10 to get the number of grams of carbohydrates you should eat over the first 24 hrs.
example: If you weigh 175 lbs and have a 15% bodyfat percentage, your calculation would look like this:
175lbs x 15% = 26.25lbs of fat [round to 26]
175 – 26 = 149lbs lean bodyweight
149 / 2.2 = 67.72kg lean bodyweight
67.72kg x 10g of carbs = 677.2g of carbs to consume in the first 24hrs of the super-recomposition
If you don’t know your body fat percentage: you can estimate your lean bodyweight by simply subtracting the number of pounds you want to lose from your total bodyweight. Now divide that number by 2.2 as shown above and then multiply by 10 to get the total number of grams of carbs to consume in the first 24hrs of the super-recomposition.
Now, the math isn’t done yet. On the second day of the super-recomposition, you reduce the number of carbs you’re eating by half. So in the example above, instead of eating 677g of carbs, you’ll eat just 338g.
**Note: These numbers are to teach you how to do the calculations. In real life, you don’t need to be so exact. In the example above, I’d round the Day 1 carbs to around 700 and the Day 2 carbs to around 350. Rounding up is better than rounding down since we really want our muscles to load up on carbs.
THE PLAN: PART 1
Saturday morning you should plan to perform a depletion workout. This is a total-body workout targeting all 7 muscle groups (chest, legs, biceps, triceps, back, shoulders, abdominals) with the intent being not to strain the muscles, but rather to burn up any remaining glucose/glycogen in your system. We want the muscles to be on empty when we begin to carb-load.
The depletion workout should consist of several sets (2-3) of high reps. (15-20) for each muscle group. Personally, I find supersets (i.e. two exercises performed back-to-back) to work best for this. Don’t neglect any muscles because studies clearly show that those muscles not being depleted do not re-compensate as well as those that were. Also remember that larger muscle groups will require more work than smaller muscle groups.
The toughest part of this plan is the timing. I performed my depletion workout at 8AM so that I’d have the entire day and evening to carb-load. Unfortunately, there is a good amount of preparation required before the depletion workout so as to prepare the body for super-recomposition.
At precisely 5 hours before the depletion workout (3AM), you will want to consume 25-50g of carbs with a good portion of protein and/or fat mixed in (to slow gastric emptying). The reason for this meal is to begin to kick out of ketosis and reactivate the liver enzymes required to better process carbs (and avoid storing fat during the carb loading).
Given that at 3AM I didn’t want to set about fixing a meal, before bed I prepared a mixture of 1 scoop of Inner Armour Glyco-Peak (25g carbs) and 1-1/2 scoops of Iron Tek Essential Natural 100% Protein (33g protein, 14g carbs, 4g fat). All I had to do was wake up, pour in some water, shake, drink, and go back to bed.
Next, at precisely 2 hours before the depletion workout (6AM), you will want to consume another 25-50g of equal parts glucose and fructose to help the liver begin to rebuild its glycogen stores. One medium-sized apple and banana perfectly fulfill this requirement.
Your depletion workout should last for around an hour to an hour and a half. Super-recomposition will begin immediately upon finishing your workout. I planned to begin eating promptly at 9AM.
THE PLAN: PART 2
Super-recomposition will constitute eating every 2 hours, starting immediately upon the end of your depletion workout and ending right before you go to bed. On Day 1 of the super-recomposition, your carb sources are going to be high-glycemic. In fact, the first two meals following the depletion workout will be entirely liquid.
After that, the best sources of carbs are sugary and starchy things like cereal, candy, bread (NOT whole grain), rice, corn, pancakes & syrup, potato chips, pretzels, and white potatoes. Eat the highest glycemic foods first and begin to taper back as the day goes on.
Protein and fat will each make up roughly 15% of the day’s diet (70% carbs / 15% protein / 15% fat), though I wasn’t terribly precise in measuring the protein and fat except where noted below. Over these two days, the ratios of fat and protein are less important than eating the full amount of carbs.
Here was my Day 1 schedule based upon needing to consume 700g of carbs:
3Am – 25g carbs from Glyco-Peak mixed with 33g of Iron Tek protein and water
6AM – 1 medium-sized banana and 1 medium-sized apple
8AM – depletion workout
9AM – 125g carbs from Glyco-Peak mixed with 50g of Iron Tek protein and water
11AM – 125g carbs from Glyco-Peak mixed with 50g of Iron Tek protein and water
1PM – 50g of carbs (this was my pancake meal)
3PM – 50g of carbs
5PM – 50g of carbs
7PM – 50g of carbs
9PM – 50g of carbs
11PM – 200g of carbs plus a high amount of protein and fat
On Day 2 of the diet, you switch to lower-glycemic carbs. Your best choices are things like oatmeal, fruit, veggies and whole-grain bread. Eat the grains and fruit during the first half of the day and the veggies in the later half.
Unlike on Day 1 when you ate a large serving of carbs before bed, on Day 2 you want to eat all your carbs during the day and less as the day drags on. By bedtime, you should have just a small serving of vegetables (though some people choose to return to zero carb by their final meal).
Here was my Day 2 schedule based upon needing to consume 350g of carbs:
8AM – 50g carbs
9AM – 50g carbs
11AM – 50g carbs
1PM – 50g of carbs
3PM – 50g of carbs
5PM – 50g of carbs
7PM – 25g of carbs
9PM – 25g of carbs
One other thing that will change on this day is the fact that fat and protein will increase as a percentage of your intake. The new ratio is roughly 60% carbs / 25% protein / 15% fat.
The above areas all cover your food intake. So what about workouts?
The first day following your super-recomposition (Monday), your muscles will be full of glucose and your glycogen stores should be filled to the brim. You’ll feel strong and will likely have the urge to hit the gym like an animal – but don’t do it! Because you won’t be eating any more carbs for another 12 days, you won’t have the nutrients necessary to fully recover from a grueling workout. The goal here is to spare muscle, not tear it down.
Also, it’s important to note that your goal during Monday and Tuesday is to again deplete your glucose and glycogen stores as fast as possible so that you once again move into ketosis. Therefore, you need to spend Monday and Tuesday in depletion mode. Both workouts should be long, but not grueling. Again, high reps are the name of the game, not seeing how much you can lift. You can do an entire body workout both days or divide up the muscle groups between the two days. Just make sure you cover all your bases.
There’s no clear-cut rule on how you need to workout during your time in ketosis. Just remember that you need a liberal amount of cardio interspersed with a modest amount of resistance training. Some people combine the two. The choice is yours so long as you don’t strain your muscles. If you’re sore after a workout, you’ve worked too hard.
Update: For the total body depletion workout I use, go HERE.
Last but not least, there are a couple supplements that can help your efforts along. For a list of my prescribed daily vitamins (which should not change during this program), see My Updated List of Recommended Supplements.
I already mentioned two supplements – Inner Armour Glyco-Peak for your carb needs during day 1 of the super-recomposition and Iron Tek Essential Natural 100% Protein (which I use even when not on this program). If you choose not to use either of these, it will be important to find a good source of high-glycemic carbs. Many people use fruit juice with extra table sugar added to bring up the carb content. I prefer the Glyco-Peak for its varied high-quality carbohydrate profiles.
Other supplements of note are insulin mimickers like Alpha Lipoic Acid and Chromium Picolinate. Vanadyl sulfate is also a potent insulin mimicker, however studies have shown it to prevent people from entering ketosis. Hydroxycitric acid (HCA) is another recommended supplement. Some evidence suggests it may help improve the carb-up portion of the diet. Other excellent supplements are creatine and glutamine, both for their muscle-sparing/strengthening properties as well as ability to help increase glycogen storage during super-recomposition.
Alpa-Lipoic Acid: 400-650mg 3x/day (taken with meals)*
Chromium Picolinate: 70-270mcg 3x/day (taken with meals)*
Hydroxycitric Acid: 750-1000mg 3x/day (taken with meals)*
*I take each of the above supplements throughout the super-recomposition days and the following 2-3 days to help speed my entry back into ketosis.
KetoStix or any other ketone testing strip are an excellent and inexpensive means of testing your level of ketosis. Simply hold the testing strip in your urine stream and within seconds the color of the strip will tell you the amount of ketones in your urine. I absolutely recommend using these.
Follow the above plan and you’re certain to see a dramatic positive shift in your lean body mass. You can continue following this plan as long as you’re still seeing results.