The ketogenic diet is a low carbohydrate diet that restricts carbs to the point that the body goes into prime fat-burning mode. In fact, research has shown that the ketogenic diet is so good at helping the body burn more fat that you can experience fat loss without the addition of exercise1. However, that doesn’t mean exercise can’t accelerate your results or help you achieve other goals besides shedding fat. Moving your body is important to your overall health, and adding exercise to your ketogenic lifestyle can lead to even more drastic health improvements. But the question is, what type of exercise is best on a keto diet?
There are many different types of exercise, each of which impacts the body a little differently and relies on different energy systems. The two primary categories of exercise we’ll discuss in this article are resistance training and endurance training, since these types of exercises are most impacted by keto.
Each of these exercise types can be further broken down as follows:
While it was previously thought that muscle and strength gain was not possible on keto, there is more and more research demonstrating that you can improve strength and muscle mass on a ketogenic diet2. Thus, there is no one exercise that is best for a ketogenic diet; the exercise you choose should be based on your goal.
Heightening Overall Strength
If your primary goal is to get stronger, then you should follow a strength program. A strength program will consist of a lower number of repetitions and a greater amount of weight. You will also have more rest time between sets on a strength program to allow your muscles to recover for the next set. On most strength programs, squats, bench presses, and deadlifts are the core three lifts you’ll be mastering.
You may have seen conflicting information regarding improving strength on keto. This is because many exercise performance studies are short. One thing we know about ketogenic dieting is that after the initiation to the diet, there is a period of reduced physical performance. Thus, short-term studies show decreases in exercise performance. However, longer studies typically demonstrate improvements3.
For Greater Muscle Mass
If your primary goal is muscle growth, then you should be following a hypertrophy-training program. A hypertrophy program will consist of more reps, typically 8 to 12, with a shorter rest time. During hypertrophy training the goal is to stimulate the muscle to grow, and this is done through increasing your training volume and decreasing your rest time.
You may have also heard that carbohydrates are required to stimulate muscle growth, but this is not true. What’s more important is getting enough protein in to stimulate the repair and growth of muscle tissue following hypertrophy training.
Endurance training, better known as cardio or aerobic training, is a type of training that relies heavily on your cardiovascular system. Endurance training includes both HIIT training and LISS and should be used when your primary goal is improving your cardiovascular endurance. Endurance training is also a great way to stimulate fat loss, making it a fantastic addition to a weight-loss plan.
Research has shown that the most robust improvement in exercise from ketogenic dieting is endurance performance due to the diet’s ability to tap into stored fat, a fuel source of more than 20,000 calories in even the leanest individuals. This ability to tap into a larger fuel source means more energy to support endurance performance.
For Weight Loss/Better Overall Health
If you’re looking to add exercise to your keto diet to improve overall health, then you should be practicing a variety of strength, hypertrophy, and endurance training, since each provide different benefits. Plus, if you’re incorporating exercise for fat loss, a variety of these exercises will be helpful. Remember, keto makes fat the body’s primary fuel source. If you exercise, you will burn more fat.
For Therapeutic Reasons
If you’re practicing keto for therapeutic reasons, you may need to get even more specific with your exercise selection. According to naturopathic doctor Dr. Nasha Winters, “Folks with high stress/adrenal issues might do better without cardio and cancer patients need to be careful of stimulating too much growth factor so it’s not a time to train for a marathon or start bodybuilding.”
To further drive the point home, exercise should be tailored to the individual and should primarily be based on goal. However, choosing the best exercise also depends on where you are in your ketogenic journey.
Exercising for New Keto Dieters
It’s important to point out that just because you should exercise on a ketogenic diet, doesn’t mean it will be easy, especially for people new to the ketogenic lifestyle.
If you’re new to keto, it’s likely that you will be experiencing at least one of several common“keto-flu” symptoms as your body adjusts to the diet. Common keto-flu symptoms include:
Experiencing any of these symptoms could impair the desire to exercise or the quality of exercise performance. However, skipping exercise is the last thing you want to do because exercising can aid in faster adaptation to the ketogenic diet. Thus, exercise should especially be included while you are adjusting from a high-carb lifestyle to a low-carb, high-fat one.
For this reason, during this time it’s important to select exercise that’s enjoyable to you. It can be as simple as going for a walk, shooting some hoops, or being out in your garden. Just move!
Remember, physical performance is going to decrease for a short period of time after starting keto so do not be discouraged if you are not performing as well as you usually do. Your performance will come back, especially when you incorporate some of these keto exercise tips!
There are many strategies you can take to improve your exercise performance while following a keto diet:
One final note on exercise: It’s important to not push too hard. As Dr. Winters advises, “Many in the keto community are also weekend warriors or ‘over-exercisers,’ which can increase a lot of inflammation and oxidative stress.” Be sure to not push too far and listen to your body when it needs more time to recover.
Choosing the best exercise on a ketogenic diet is dependent on your goal. Whether your goal is improving physical performance, body composition, or overall health, the right training program accompanied by a ketogenic diet can help you get there.
Remember, when starting keto, you may struggle with exercise. Don’t get discouraged, follow the keto tips mentioned in this article, stay consistent, and watch your health transform!
For a more in-depth read on the connection between health, nutrition, and exercise, check out Dr. Marc Bubbs' book Peak: The New Science of Athletic Performance That is Revolutionizing Sports.