When to switch up your training, how keto affects muscle growth, and why your chest stopped growing even though you can bench a ton.
In this Q&A column, coach Christian Thibaudeau answers all your burning questions. In this installment, he tackles how often to change your workouts, keto, and chest growth.
Q: How often do I need to change my workout?
That’s a good, but somewhat complex question. Changing your workout can mean different things to different people. Are we talking about using all new exercises or methods, or simply modifying a few elements like the number of reps per set or the tempo used?
I plan small changes weekly. My clients rarely repeat the exact same week of training. We can add or remove sets, change the rep schemes, or even alter the tempo a bit. But within a training phase, this is done without changing the exercises or the zone of training.
For example, we can change the set/rep scheme to something like this:
- Week 1: 8/6/4/8/6/4
- Week 2: 7/5/3/7/5/3
- Week 3: 6/4/2/6/4/2
- Week 4: 5/3/1/5/3/1
Or we can change how the reps are performed:
- Week 1: 3 sets of 6 with a 5 second hold at the position of greatest tension
- Week 2: 3 sets of 6 with a 6 second eccentric/negative phase
- Week 3: 3 sets of 6 with a 3 second hold at the position of greatest tension
- Week 4: 3 sets of 6 normal reps
Or we can even add intensification methods:
- Week 1: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, 1-2 reps short of failure
- Week 2: 3 sets of 8-10 reps to failure
- Week 3: 3 sets of 8-10 reps to failure, rest 15 seconds, then as many extra reps as possible (rest/pause)
- Week 4: 2 sets of 8-10 reps to failure, rest 15 seconds, then as many extra reps as possible (rest/pause), then hold the position of highest tension for as long as tolerable
But if you’re talking about changing the whole training program, 3-4 weeks works best for most. That doesn’t mean you need to change everything though.
For example, let’s say that you want to use a 5/3/1 plan. Each training phase lasts 4 weeks (5-3-1-deload).
After your deload, you’d start a new phase on the big basic lifts, but with adjusted weights. And you go on like that until death do us part.
I personally would plan changes in assistance exercises with every new phase. In other words, keep up the four main lifts of the 5/3/1 plan, but change the assistance movements every 4 weeks.
I believe that the longer you stay with a certain workout, the less effective it becomes. That’s why I always have some elements of change from week to week.
But changing the exercises too often can also limit your gains because you never become efficient in a movement. To make it simple, change some of your exercises every 3-4 weeks and alter the way you do your sets or reps weekly.
Q: I’ve been on a keto diet for 8 weeks and I’ve lost fat, but now I’d like to build muscle. Can I do that while on keto?
It depends on how much time you have! If you eat enough protein and you’re in a caloric surplus, you can gain some muscle while on a ketogenic diet.
However, several things make the keto diet inefficient at maximizing muscle growth. First let’s look at the positives of a keto diet when it comes to muscle growth:
Many would say that a true keto diet isn’t that high in protein. A lot of people are on a very low carb diet, but actually not in ketosis because they consume too much protein, which gets converted to glucose. But keto normally provides an ample amount of protein to support muscle growth and contribute to triggering protein synthesis. This is especially true if you’re ingesting a caloric surplus.
While you don’t have to be in a caloric surplus to build muscle, it makes the process easier and faster. And it’s absolutely possible to eat a surplus when on a keto diet. After all, fat is energy dense (it provides a lot of calories per gram).
Diets too low in fat normally lead to lower testosterone (and estrogen) levels. This obviously won’t be a problem with a keto diet, which will provide more than enough fats for sex hormone production. However, once your body has sufficient fatty acids to support hormone production, eating more fat won’t lead to an equivalent increase in testosterone.
A keto diet tends to lead to higher dopamine and adrenaline levels than a diet higher in carbs. This is partly because of the higher protein intake, which is needed to fabricate both neurotransmitters, but also because of the high cortisol level that comes with a keto diet.
Cortisol increases the conversion of nor-adrenaline into adrenaline. The more cortisol you have, the higher your adrenaline will be. A keto diet leads to a higher cortisol level (all other things being equal) because one of the main functions of cortisol is to mobilize stored glycogen and break down muscle into amino acids (to be able to make glucose from them) when blood sugar is low.
Since blood sugar is lower on a keto diet, cortisol is higher. In fact, that’s why a lot of people have more energy (initially) on a keto diet: more adrenaline. That adrenaline can help you train harder which helps stimulate more growth. But as you’ll see in a second, it comes at a price.
Here’s what makes keto suboptimal for building muscle:
Insulin facilitates the production of IGF-1 by the liver (for optimal IGF-1 production, you need growth hormone and insulin). IGF-1 is the most anabolic hormone in the body. When you go keto, insulin release is so low that it will automatically lead to lower IGF-1 levels, which decreases how much protein synthesis you can trigger.
mTOR is an enzyme involved in cellular growth, including muscle growth. The more activated it is, the more muscle protein synthesis you can get, and the more growth you’ll stimulate. mTOR is mainly triggered by mechanical factors (stretching a muscle fiber while it’s producing a lot of tension) but nutrition also has an impact. Specifically, insulin and certain amino acids (like leucine and glycine) can increase mTOR activation. While you can get the amino acids from a keto diet, you don’t really get much insulin, so you’ll also miss out on some mTOR activation.
However, lower IGF-1 and mTOR levels on a keto diet are actually a positive of that diet when it comes to potentially slowing down aging and even the growth of cancerous cells. It’s just not good for muscle growth.
Insulin is often seen as the big bad wolf of body composition. It’s really not. In fact, if you want to maximize growth, insulin can be a solid ally by increasing nutrient uptake (including protein) by the muscles, increasing protein synthesis, and reducing protein breakdown. Again, you get less insulin production from a keto diet due to the very low carb intake.
All things being equal, you get a higher cortisol production from a keto diet than from a diet containing carbs. The reason? One of the main functions of cortisol is to help the body bring blood sugar up when it’s too low.
Keto advocates like to talk about glucagon as the hormone that’ll bring blood sugar up when it’s too low because it doesn’t have the bad rap that cortisol does. But in truth, both work together. Cortisol is the main “breakdown” hormone in that it’ll break down stored energy when it’s needed.
You may need to mobilize energy either because you’re in a deficit or if blood sugar is low (it can be even if you’re in a caloric surplus, especially on a low carb diet).
Because you’re not eating as many carbs on a keto diet, you need to rely on stored glycogen or on amino acids to regulate blood sugar levels. This will lead to higher cortisol levels. Obviously, if you need to break down muscle tissue into amino acids to maintain stable blood sugar levels, it’s not great for muscle growth.
This is something I noticed with bodybuilders. If they spent a lot of their contest prep on a low carb diet, when it was time for them to carb up for the competition (to fill the muscles with more glycogen, making them look bigger) it just didn’t work!
It seems liked the muscles remained flat and they just got bloated. By studying this phenomenon, I found out that a low carb or keto diet leads to peripheral insulin resistance as a way to try to protect the body against hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Essentially, when you don’t eat many carbs, blood sugar will tend to be low. If it’s too low (hypoglycemia) it’s dangerous. One adaptation to a very low carb intake is to make the muscles resistant to insulin. This means that the muscles stop responding to it.
So when you do release insulin on a keto diet (there is some insulin release even when you eat protein) the glucose in your blood will tend to stay there instead of going to the muscles, reducing the risk of hypoglycemia. That peripheral insulin resistance makes it hard benefit from carbing up, and makes it harder to bring amino acids into the muscles – which makes muscle growth difficult.
A pure strength workout (low reps, long rest periods) isn’t affected that much by keto, at least not on the energy front. But there can be some strength loss due to lowered passive stability.
Heavy lifting doesn’t rely on glucose for fuel. It uses mostly phosphagens. As we saw, a keto diet tends to be high in creatine. However, traditional hypertrophy training (higher reps, longer time under tension, shorter rest intervals, more volume) will absolutely work better when using glucose for fuel.
YES, ketones can work too, but they’re less efficient than glucose for that type of work. If your training involves more volume and longer sets (anything from 20 to 120 seconds per set, or more), a keto diet will hurt your performance.
Caveat: Your lifting performance might increase at first because of the higher adrenaline level. This can somewhat compensate for less efficient fueling. But it won’t last, as you’ll see.
I explained how a keto diet leads to higher adrenaline levels. This can be cool at first because it gives you the illusion of more energy, drive, and motivation. But it comes at a risk: downregulating the beta-adrenergic receptors.
When adrenaline is elevated too much or for too long you can quickly desensitize its receptors (beta-adrenergic) which makes you respond less and less to adrenaline. And if you reach a point where downregulation is too pronounced, you’ll start to suffer from the following:
- A decrease in muscle strength and power
- Less muscle tone
- Loss in coordination
- A decrease in endurance due to lower heart contraction strength potential
- A drop in motivation, drive, and energy
- Less mental acuity
This is what I call a “training burnout” and a keto diet is more likely to lead there because of the higher adrenaline and cortisol release.
Furthermore, it’s harder to “calm the brain down” after a workout when you’re on a keto diet. That’s because carbs, by increasing blood glucose levels, are very effective at lowering cortisol and thus adrenaline. Post-workout carbs can help you bring cortisol and adrenaline down after your session. You obviously don’t get that on a pure keto diet.
Some people call it “joint packing.” I call it passive stability. Normally the tissues around a joint create pressure on that joint, and that pressure helps to stabilize the joint. Muscle volumization is one of the main elements in passive stability. If you fill up the muscle as much as possible, it expands and puts more pressure on the joint nearby.
Glycogen and water are the two main elements involved in muscle volumization. Both will decrease on a keto diet. In general, a keto diet can lead to strength loss, especially in pressing exercises involving the shoulder joint. Being the most unstable joint, it’s the most at risk of performance decrease from less stability.
Can you prevent that from happening? Sure. If you do lots of exercises to improve your shoulder active stabilization and if you consume a boatload of electrolytes to try to minimize water loss. Consuming creatine will also help, since it too can volumize muscle cells. But it’s an uphill battle.
Here’s a video for more on that topic:
You can build muscle on a keto diet, but it’s not ideal. At the very least I’d include some carbs around your workout to get more IGF-1 and mTOR activation (and lower cortisol). One dose of Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon) intra-workout is not likely to kick you out of ketosis if it’s already established and it can go a long way in helping you build more muscle on a keto diet.
Q: I’m a former powerlifter turned bodybuilding-style lifter. I’m a strong bench presser but can’t get my chest to grow. What’s going on?
That’s clearly an indication that your triceps and/or delts are taking over the brunt of the work. They’re receiving most of the growth stimulus instead of your chest.
There are several reasons why that can happen. Here are the two main ones:
- You may have a body type that puts either the triceps or delts (or both) in an advantageous position when pressing.
- You may have emphasized triceps and/or delts over the pecs for a long time.
Because of the influence of Westside Barbell, many powerlifters put a lot of emphasis on the triceps during assistance work. That’s likely the best way to train when you either compete in geared powerlifting or use a very large lower back arch when bench pressing.
A bench shirt gives you a lot of help in the bottom half of the range of motion, the portion when the pecs are typically doing most of the work. The sticking point with a bench shirt is often at the end of the ROM, where the triceps are the key muscle. For that reason, geared powerlifters put a lot of emphasis on getting the triceps stronger, causing the pecs to receive much less attention.
As for the large arch under your back, this technique is often used to shorten the pressing range of motion and give you better leverage. Powerlifters will often lower the bar more toward the lower portion of the chest, then press up in a straight line. Again, to shorten the ROM.
This will help you lift more weight, but it’ll also reduce the action of the pecs. And once again, powerlifters who lift like this usually emphasize the triceps in their training.
If you’ve been training like this for a few years, it’s quite possible that your triceps became dominant and your nervous system “learned” to rely on the them more than your pecs. So now, every time you’re doing a pressing exercise like bench press, incline bench, or dips, you’ll rely more on the triceps than the pecs. This will make the problem even worse over time.
Body type also plays a big role in which muscles are dominant and what will be the optimal exercise strategy. When it comes to pressing muscles, people with longer limbs will be more effective at stimulating the pecs and the triceps will be the hardest to develop. In order:
- Easiest: Pecs
- Middle: Delts
- Hardest: Triceps
As such, they don’t require as much direct work for the chest or modifications to put it in a favorable position.
On the other hand, when you have shorter limbs, the triceps will be at a mechanical advantage when pressing. Depending on shoulder width, the delts can also be at an advantage. The pecs are thus the hardest to develop. In order:
- Easiest: Triceps (if narrow clavicle) / Delts (if wide clavicle)
- Middle: Delts (if narrow clavicle) / Triceps (if wide clavicle)
- Hardest: Pecs
Compared to the long-limbed lifters, they’ll need more targeted work for the chest.
If you have short limbs (wingspan similar to height), relying on big pressing movements as your main chest work will simply not be very effective.
If you have short limbs and a narrow clavicle, I’d recommend one main pressing movement and 2-3 isolated exercises for the pecs. Pick either a wide-grip bench press, the Nilsson press or a dumbbell press (keeping the elbows out, almost in line with the shoulders) as the pressing movement.
The wider grip reduces the mechanical advantage that the triceps have and promotes a larger pec stretch (the muscle being stretched the most is the muscle being recruited the most). Then add 2-3 of the following:
- Power Flye
- Pec Deck (with hands at shoulder or mid-chest level)
- Incline Cable Flye
- Squeeze Press
- Dumbbell Flye Press
If you have short limbs and a wide clavicle, you need to take both the triceps and delts out of the movements as much as you can. I’d still go with one pressing movement and 2-3 isolated exercises.
Use a slight decline for your pressing movement to reduce delt involvement. So either a wide-grip slight decline bench press or a slight decline dumbbell press. As for the isolation exercises, pick from these:
- Cable Crossover
- Decline Cable Flye
- Decline Dumbbell Flye
- Decline Squeeze Press
- Peck Deck (with hands at lower pec level)
You can also use pre or post-fatigue to emphasize the focus on your pecs. This means combining your pressing movement with an isolated exercise as a superset.
Here are three potential strategies:
Start by doing an isolated pec exercise and then go to your pressing movement. Don’t push the isolation exercise anywhere near failure. If you push too hard, you’ll fatigue the pecs too much and will actually use them less in the pressing movement. Use the isolated movement as contraction practice. Focus on squeezing the pecs and stop 3-4 reps short of failure.
Start the superset with an isolation exercise for the triceps, going to failure. Then do your pressing movement. By weakening the triceps, you’ll force your body to rely on the pecs more. Of course, you’ll use less weight at first, but see this as a re-programing superset you do for a few weeks to learn to rely on the pecs more when pressing.
This is the most straight-forward approach. Start with your pressing movement and then immediately go to an isolated exercise for the pecs and train it to failure. This ensures they’ll have been fully stimulated by the combo. It’s important to rest longer between sets (3-4 minutes) to avoid having too much residual pec fatigue that would diminish the use of the pecs in the pressing portion of the next set.