Using Variable Resistance to Bust Through Plateaus

Variable resistance training, or VRT, has been a fixture in powerlifting for decades. In this context, VRT specifically refers to resistance training with elastic bands or chains attached to a barbell, mostly in the squat, bench press, and deadlift exercises. These are not thera-bands or machines with lumpy cams; we’re talking about real-deal exercises with bands or chains creating load in addition to the traditional plates. It is referred to as VRT because the resistance changes throughout the movement, increasing as the lifter approaches the lockout. VRT can also be called accommodating resistance, as the resistance is accommodating the “strength curve,” meaning the resistance is greater in the range of motion which the lifter is usually stronger.

You might be thinking, “but if I’m already stronger in that range of motion, why the hell am I training it? I don’t get stuck at the top!” There are two components to power generation, force and speed. We all know force is necessary for moving serious weight, but speed, and momentum, is often overlooked. If you get stuck about 3 inches off the chest in the bench press, then that 3 inches can be used to generate momentum to help press through the sticking point. VRT emphasizes maximal power generation through the entire range of motion – you have to work harder at the bottom to get through the top. This can be achieved by working both sides of the power equation, force and speed.

Speed training, or dynamic effort training a la Westside Barbell, uses submaximal loads with the goal of fast bar speed, and it is an underutilized tool for many intermediate level lifters. Everyone knows lifting heavy can make you stronger, but few realize lifting fast can make you stronger too. The first research study I ever conducted compared a traditional 6-week strength and conditioning program to the exact same program with bands added to the squat and bench press exercises once per week on the dynamic effort day. The group with added bands had greater increases in strength than the traditional training group.  More recently, Soria-Gila et al. found that in 10 out of 11 studies researching VRT, the VRT group experienced greater improvements than traditional training.

So how do we use bands or chains? First, load is important. Somewhere around 30% of 1RM from band tension currently seems ideal for speed training with 40-60% 1RM as traditional free weights. When I say 30%, I mean 30% at the top, or at the bands longest length during the lift. At the bottom of the lift, the band or chain ideally is providing very little to no tension. However, you do not want the band to go slack more than 1/2 inch from the bottom of the range of motion. If you do not know the tension of your bands at particular length. You can pull a MacGyver and figure it out by hanging a weight from the band and measuring its length with a tape measure. To fine tune the tension, you can wrap the band around the bar a few times. Second, great gyms will have squat racks and benches with band pegs, but other times you can secure them to a dumbbell or the bottom of the rack. Make sure it’s a heavy dumbbell; if it comes off of the floor, that’s called crazy bells, and that’s fun, but it’s not what we’re doing – get a heavier dumbbell. On the bench press, you can also wrap the band underneath the bench. It’s a bit more precarious and awkward, but it gets the job done. Third, always remember that this is SPEED TRAINING. Move the freaking bar like you mean it. For 2-5 reps, 3-8 sets.

For strength training (i.e. max effort method) with accommodating resistance, add 10-25% 1RM as band/chain tension to 80-95% free weight. 3-5 sets. 1-5 reps. This is the same setup, just a different application. For strength adaptations, both bands and chains are great, but I favor chains or chains with a light band. Conversely, I will always use bands over chains for speed training due to their multiplicative nature. Let me explain. Bands will get harder faster, and chains will get harder at a constant rate. For example, for every inch a band is stretched, it will increase in resistance by 1lb for the first inch, 1.5lbs for the second inch, 2.5lbs for the third inch, 4lbs for the fourth inch, etc. but chains will always add 2lbs per inch it is raised from the floor. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers, but you get the point. I also like bands because you can use them against gravity as well as with gravity.

What I’m talking about is called reverse bands. Not only does this get your ego yoked, but it’s a great tool for getting mentally and physically comfortable under near-max loads as well as work on power development out of the hole in a manner more akin to heavy lifting. It similarly accommodates a strength curve, but instead of adding variable resistance in the concentric, it variably removes load as you descend. For reverse bands, it should be obvious from the name, but you attach the bands to the top of the rack instead of the bottom. Then you toss another plate on the bar and legally change your name to Billy Badass. Use bands this way if you fail in the hole, off the chest, or off the ground. This means you suck at changing direction in the squat/bench or at initiating the pull in the deadlift and can help fix it with the reverse band exercise. That being said, if you have bad technique, then reverse bands will not help you much – fix your technique! The reverse band exercise is also great for improving bar speed with heavy loads, and leading up to a 1RM test or meet for building comfort with heavy, supramaximal weight.

Now we know VRT can help you get stronger and more powerful, but what about bigger? I’ll change the exercise here to meet a bodybuilding application and discuss the leg press. We all had a friend or classmate growing up that thought it was awesome to half-rep a few hundred pounds on the leg press. If you didn’t have one, you might need to check your range of motion next time you leg press. Anyway, the point is that the top half of a leg press is easy-peasy. As a result, we don’t really need to keep pressing very hard once we get out of the bottom to complete the lift, and in fact it is discouraged to press so hard that the sled flies off of our feet. What can we do? I think you know. We can accommodate the strength curve. Using bands, we can increase the load selectively at the easy range of motion to make it harder at the top and get a better contraction in the quads.

In short, bands make you faster, stronger, and bigger, and you should really start using them in your training.


Joy, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Oliveira de Souza, E., & Wilson, J. M. (2013). Elastic bands as a component of periodized resistance training. J Strength Cond Res.

Soria-Gila, M. A., Chirosa, I. J., Bautista, I. J., Chirosa, L. J., & Salvador, B. (2015). EFFECTS OF VARIABLE RESISTANCE TRAINING ON MAXIMAL STRENGTH: A META-ANALYSIS. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association.

Concurrent Training

Concurrent training is inclusion of both resistance and endurance training within the same training program. For example, if you lift weights on Monday and run a few miles on Tuesday, then repeat this pattern throughout the week or in the same day, you are training concurrently. This can be advantageous for reducing body fat compared to resistance or endurance training alone, as strength training typically does not yield decrements in body fat, and endurance training reduces lean body mass, strength, and power in trained individuals. However, concurrent training does not produce as great of an increase in muscle mass or strength as resistance training alone, nor does it produce as great of a loss of body fat as endurance training alone.

Progress may be halted by the large volume of work necessary to perform both modalities simultaneously by pushing the athlete into an overreached or overtrained status. However, those accustomed to higher workloads should be able to handle high volume. Therefore, it is more likely that stalled progress is due to competing adaptations. Wherein, resistance training adaptations (i.e. increased muscle mass, strength, power, and maintained oxygen consumption) compete with endurance training adaptations (i.e. reduced muscle mass, strength, power, and increased oxygen consumption). Much of this difference can be attributed to muscle size. It is advantageous for strength and power athletes to have large muscles, as larger muscles have higher force output, yet they also increase the diffusion distance for oxygen, making it more difficult for the mitochondria to receive oxygen to produce ATP (energy). Thus, it is beneficial for endurance athletes to have smaller muscles to oxygenate, and the longer duration you perform steady state cardio, the more muscle and strength you lose! Reduced muscle also reduces basal metabolic rate, making long term fat loss more difficult. At this point, you might be wondering, “what the hell do I do then? Concurrent training is bogus!”

For primarily anaerobic athletes such as football players, or those who just want to be huge and ripped, it is not worthwhile to perform much steady state cardio for the reasons listed above. Instead, cardiovascular activity for these sports should be primarily of very high intensity (90-100+ %) and short duration (10-30 sec) with fairly long rest periods (2-4 min). This type of cardio (also known as HIIT, or high intensity interval training) will impede resistance training adaptations less than steady state cardio. Of course, these athletes should weight train often, 3-7 days/week depending on training status.

For anaerobic and aerobic athletes such as basketball or soccer players who are active for a long duration, but also intermittently sprint, limited steady state cardio can be helpful. Although keep in mind that it will blunt increases in power from resistance training – don’t overdo it; once per week is sufficient for most individuals. The cardio train doesn’t stop there. Perform HIIT 2-5 days/week in addition to the steady state cardio depending on your sport and training status… then run through people like a train (this requires 3-5 days/week of resistance training).

For purely aerobic athletes such as marathoners, concurrent training is highly preferred! Rejoice! However, long duration steady state cardio should still only be performed once or twice per week with a focus on technique. HIIT, and other forms of higher intensity training such as fartlek and pace training, alone is very capable of increasing endurance, not only via increased oxygen consumption, but increased lactate threshold and/or lactate clearance. The maximal lactate steady state (MLSS) is arguably more important than maximal oxygen consumption for endurance athletes. MLSS can also be positively influenced by resistance training. Moreover, resistance training increases muscular tone. Increased muscular tone, when running, reduces energy lost to “rebounding” off the pavement, for example. In lax muscles, energy is required to absorb the force of contact with each step, yet tense muscles will absorb the force without expending as much energy. Weight training will also not blunt endurance adaptations if performed at a high intensity with low volume (i.e. without inducing muscle growth).

In summary, concurrent training reduces increases in strength, power, and muscle associated with resistance training. On the flip side, it enhances strength, power, muscle, and basal metabolic rate for endurance training alone. HIIT is recommended to reap the benefits of concurrent training without the drawbacks associated with steady state cardio.

Alabini, C. P., Psarakis, C. H., Moukas, M., Assiliou, M. P., & Behrakis, P. K. (2003). Early phase changes by concurrent endurance and strength training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(2), 393-401.
Dolezal, B. A., & Potteiger, J. A. (1998). Concurrent resistance and endurance training influence basal metabolic rate in nondieting individuals. Journal of applied physiology, 85(2), 695-700.
Hickson, R. C. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 45(2-3), 255-263.
Lowery, R. P., Joy, J. M., Brown, L. E., de Souza, E. O., Wistocki, D. R., Davis, G. S., … & Wilson, J. M. (2014). Effects of static stretching on 1-mile uphill run performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(1), 161-167.
Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Rhea, M. R., Wilson, S. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Anderson, J. C. (2012). Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.

Creatine Monohydrate and Creatine Derivatives

Creatine Monohydrate is a naturally occurring organic acid. It is the original and likely the most effective form of supplemental creatine on a gram-for-gram basis compared to creatine malate, creatine hydrochloride, creatine ethyl-ester and others. Those other forms are sexy though, huh? Ethel and Esther were the best looking ladies at the senior strip tease last week. Creatine is stored primarily in muscle tissue, and it is used for rephosphorylating ADP into ATP [1, 2]. This means that when our muscles use up our energy stores, creatine helps to replenish those stores in a fairly rapid manner. Obviously, you can imagine the benefits creatine may present for athletes just from that information alone.

From that mechanism of action (how we nerdy scientists like to complicate the phrase “this is how this works”), it is no surprise that creatine improves repeated sprint performance, strength, and relative lifting volume [3]. This increased strength and training volume leads athletes to not only use creatine for quick performance enhancement but also to aid their off-season training. In addition to performance benefits, creatine supplementation increases muscle mass [4-6]. Whether creatine increases muscle mass via increased strength and training volume or increases strength and training volume via increased muscle mass can be debated. It cannot be debated, however, that creatine positively augmenting anabolic hormone status [7] increases muscle gain. Following 8 weeks of resistance training, Saremi and colleagues confirmed creatine’s beneficial effects on body composition, and they also determined that creatine contributed to decreased levels of myostatin [8]. Have you ever seen dogs or bulls deficient in myostatin? They are legitimate genetic freaks.

Clearly, one side effect of creatine is weight gain. That is, if you consider weight gain a side effect as opposed to a primary or desired effect. Apart from that, the claims that creatine is unsafe are largely fallacious.  A connection between creatine and kidney, liver, and/or heart complications has not been affirmed [9]. However as creatine may cause muscles to retain water, appropriate water consumption is encouraged, just as it would be in the absence of creatine supplementation. Although, even water retention has been contested in the research [10].

Thus, athletes in weight restricted sports may desire to be selective in timing their creatine relative to weigh-ins. For pretty much all other athletes, creatine is going to be the number one to number four choice for supplementation depending upon whether or not protein powder is classified as supplement or food and the endurance component of the sport. If we consider protein powder a food, creatine would be my first recommendation for supplementation for athletes such as football players, hockey players, body builders, sprinters, powerlifters, baseball players, and others performing activity in short bursts. For more endurance oriented athletes, I would recommend creatine after caffeine, nitrates, and maybe beta-alanine in some cases; these athletes would be soccer players, cyclists, runners, and others performing exercise in prolonged bouts.

Standard dosing for creatine is 5g/day following a loading phase of anywhere from 10-20g per day for 1-2 weeks. In actuality, creatine doesn’t need to be front loaded, as it will accumulate over time with the 5g/day dose, but loading will get your muscles to the “saturation point” faster. The saturation point is when the muscles are full with creatine and cannot hold any more of it, and the saturation point is different for different people. For example, your 130lb younger brother needs less than 250lb linebacker Clay Matthews. Timing of creatine ingestion is unclear, but it may be best consumed post-workout [11] with some protein and carbohydrate [12]. Additionally, creatine does not need to be cycled. Previously, it was believed that it must be cycled to ensure the recuperation of the body’s own natural, endogenous production. Since, new information has emerged confirming that creatine supplementation will not interfere with the body’s maintenance of creatine levels, so once you’re on it, you can stay on for life. Or not, without consequence.


  1. Chanutin A: The fate of creatine when administered to man. Journal of Biological Chemistry 1926, 67:29-41.
  2. hultman E, J. Bergstrom, L. L. Spriet, and K. Soderlund.: Energy Metabolism and Fatigue. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1990.
  3. Earnest CP, Snell PG, Rodriguez R, Almada AL, Mitchell TL: The effect of creatine monohydrate ingestion on anaerobic power indices, muscular strength and body composition. Acta physiologica Scandinavica 1995, 153:207-209.
  4. Becque MD, Lochmann JD, Melrose DR: Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 2000, 32:654-658.
  5. Kreider RB, Ferreira M, Wilson M, Grindstaff P, Plisk S, Reinardy J, Cantler E, Almada AL: Effects of creatine supplementation on body composition, strength, and sprint performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 1998, 30:73-82.
  6. Vandenberghe K, Goris M, Van Hecke P, Van Leemputte M, Vangerven L, Hespel P: Long-term creatine intake is beneficial to muscle performance during resistance training. Journal of applied physiology 1997, 83:2055-2063.
  7. Hoffman J, Ratamess N, Kang J, Mangine G, Faigenbaum A, Stout J: Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 2006, 16:430-446.
  8. Saremi A, Gharakhanloo R, Sharghi S, Gharaati MR, Larijani B, Omidfar K: Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on serum myostatin and GASP-1. Molecular and cellular endocrinology 2010, 317:25-30.
  9. Buford TW, Kreider RB, Stout JR, Greenwood M, Campbell B, Spano M, Ziegenfuss T, Lopez H, Landis J, Antonio J: International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007, 4:6.
  10. VOGEL RA, Webster MJ, ERDMANN LD, CLARK RD: Creatine supplementation: Effect on supramaximal exercise performance at two levels of acute hypohydration. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 2000, 14:214-219.
  11. Antonio J, Ciccone V: The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013, 10:36.
  12. Cribb PJ, Williams AD, Hayes A: A creatine-protein-carbohydrate supplement enhances responses to resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 2007, 39:1960-1968.


Low Carb Performance

What if I were to tell you that you’ve been lied to about carbs and fats for probably your entire life? Would you call me a liar? Would you say show me the data? Would I be a zealot of some form? Or would you be open to a paradigmatic shift in your thoughts about nutrition? There is a nutrition revolutionary storm a-brewin’ and it is high fat, very low carbohydrate, ketogenic dieting.

First, let’s address the immediate, visceral feelings you may be experiencing. “Won’t fat give me heart disease, diabetes, blahblah?” Yes. Of course it will… IF you eat fat AND carbs. “Well what if I eat carbs without fat?” It’s better than eating both, yes, but head-to-head, a ketogenic diet appears to be favorable for markers of metabolic syndrome and most preventable diseases. Carbohydrate inhibits fatty acid metabolism. When blood glucose and insulin are elevated, such as after carbohydrate ingestion, it is more difficult for our bodies to break down fats. Coupled with elevated insulin, this promotes fat storage, and in the absence of exercise, prolonged insulin elevation can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. “Aren’t ketones bad for you?” Not necessarily, no. The level of ketone bodies induced by nutritional ketosis are much, much lower than with diabetic ketoacidosis, for example. Ketones are used as fuel, once the body adapts to using them in that manner.

“What exactly can you eat on a ketogenic diet?” Anything cut from an animal (yes bacon. yes 80/20 beef. yes chicken thighs. yes pork sausage. yes cow tongue… maybe not cow tongue), non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, kale, and others of the green variety), unsweetened yogurt, cheese, coconut products (especially coconut products) such as oil/butter/manna, nuts, avocado, seeds, full-fat salad dressings, butter, eggs, you can put cream in your coffee (REAL CREAM!), pork rinds, and mayonnaise. You can even work in chocolate and wine, ladies! I find one of the most fun things about keto is adapting your favorite recipes into a ketogenic version. Baked goods do not need to be ruled out, but you will most likely have to make them yourself with almond flour and artificial sweeteners. I find this to be highly advantageous over a high carb, low fat diet, since replacing carbohydrates in meals seems to be much easier than replacing fat. It’s also much easier to eat out, since most places cook their food in some form of fat. Just practice these words, “No bun, please.” Moreover, there are a ton of websites available that provide tasty “keto versions” of common recipes. Vegetables are also much more fun to eat when wrapped in bacon.

“What can you NOT eat?” Pretty much all fruit, desserts, breads, juice, beer (this one we can’t replace with fake hops, sorry Jimbo), grains of any variety (cereal, rice, quinoa, barley, wheat, etc.), starchy vegetables like potatoes, and pasta. “But I don’t think I can give up pizza.” Well you don’t have to, you just have to change it. Almond flour or cheese or meat (Meatza!) crust, low carb pizza sauce, cheese and meat/veggie toppings. Done (see the resource below). The best part is, if you really, just really can’t even, you can time carbohydrates near exercise without falling out of ketosis. In sedentary individuals, carbohydrates are typically capped at or before 50g per day or 5-10% of total calories while fat composes ~60-70% and protein the remainder. Athletes have a much higher carbohydrate tolerance already, and obviously, use more energy than some lump on a log. “Wellll how much can I have then?!”

It will vary based on activity level and other individual factors, so you need to determine it for yourself. You can do this via urinary ketone sticks (cheap option) or blood ketones (less cheap option, but better). First make sure you are in ketosis, then after you have your peri-workout carbs, test yourself again a few hours later. Though if you want the free option, I wouldn’t recommend trying to figure out how many carbs you can have, but you will feel generally lethargic while, and only while, adapting to the ketogenic diet. Athletes should be somewhere around 10-20% total calories from carbs, ~100g but I’ve seen some individuals between 150-200g and remain in ketosis, if carbs can be timed correctly and a high activity level is maintained. However, the idea of “maxing out” on how many carbs you can take in without losing nutritional ketosis is a bad one. Try to stay firmly in ketosis for the most benefit.

“So about that performance thing you mentioned…” Everything in this field of nutrition and athletics comes down to energy systems. The long duration system is the aerobic energy system, and it is a BEAST on the ketogenic diet. That is because the aerobic system can metabolize fats, and fats have the highest energy density. Marathoners and ultra-marathoners are already adopting the diet and setting records in the process because they are not running out of their preferred energy source of fats. But if you’re like me and don’t give a rats tail about running, cycling, or any other form of cardio, how can keto be beneficial?

The medium duration energy system is the anaerobic system. This energy system primarily uses carbohydrates. “Woah! Wait a minute. How do we fuel the anaerobic system if we’re not eating carbs?” Well the body makes carbs from fats and proteins. A person on a ketogenic diet won’t ever be devoid of glucose or glycogen. Muscle glycogen will be lower, but it will not be gone. Thus, anaerobic activity should not be grossly affected unless performed intermittently for a long time. So if you’re an athlete who does perform intermittent anaerobic activity for a long duration in a competitive setting, see two paragraphs ago and drink some carbs during your activity if you’re feeling weak or slow. The intermittent nature should allow for at least some carbohydrate replenishment through the body’s own process of gluconeogenesis, or formation of new glucose, but if you’re feeling as though some is needed, don’t deny it. Although, MCT’s are probably better (see coconut products).

In professional MMA fighters (intermittently anaerobic sport), they have reported equal or improved performance AND a cognitive benefit since they don’t experience hypoglycemia, they just use fats instead. No big deal to the keto-adapted body. However, so far, this has been anecdotal information (official investigation to be completed by the winter, hang tight!). “What about my gainz, bro?” In a resistance training clinical trial, the ketogenic diet actually INCREASED muscle gain MORE than high carb dieting, and AT THE SAME TIME reduced body fat. Strength was also unaffected compared to high carb. Too good to be true, right? Nope. It makes sense. The diet is known to be protein sparing and to have a beneficial effect on body fat from several other studies.

If you’re thinking of trying a keto diet, you must know three important things. First, do NOT be scared of eating foods that you previously believed to be “bad” like butter or bacon. Second, do not eat too much protein. Remember, the diet is fat based, do not be ket-bro-genic. Third, make sure you try the diet for at least 4 weeks before saying it is too hard or miserable or ineffective. It takes time to make the shift, but your body will thank you for it in the end. Finally, check out the sources below to gain some more information and for help on your journey.

Pragmatism in Low-Carb Athletics



Starting at an early age, I had already begun internally challenging nutritional rhetoric. As a kid, breakfast cereal was my jam, but I still remember that while I sat at the table, slurping down all that soggy goodness that is unique to breakfast cereal, I would read the cereal box and ironically wonder about the validity of the food guide pyramid.

Yes, the now-regrettable food guide pyramid. I would think, “11 servings of bread?!” or, “only 2 servings of meat/eggs?!” Needless to say, I was destined to be a muscle-head. Although, it did not occur to me at the time, my enjoyment of drinking half-and-half, licking mayonnaise off the knife after making a sandwich, or eating the individually-wrapped butters at the diner while waiting for our food would come to help me realize the full-extent of our errors in the nutritional guidelines.

Wait... How many bagels?!

Wait… How many bagels?!

Obviously, I am a supporter of high-fat, high-protein diets, and at this point, nearly all nutrition professionals agree that dietary fat was inappropriately demonized in our recent history. While evidence mounts for carbohydrate-restricted diets for health outcomes, there are still those who are not convinced and continue to support the fat-restriction model. Neither is “wrong.” Both diets “work.” However, while someone like myself very much likes dietary fat but does not really like foods that predominately contain carbohydrate (sugary stuff aside), there are those who love potatoes even if they’re devoid of all the fixin’s.

The point here is, if you can’t follow the diet, don’t bother. That being said, “good” diets should contain 1) appropriate total calories, 2) moderate to high protein, 3) plenty of vegetables, and 4) inverse intakes of fat and carbohydrate. The last criterion there has to do with something called the Randle cycle.

Long-Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA) inhibit glucose metabolism, and glucose inhibits LCFA metabolism.

Long-Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA) inhibit glucose metabolism, and glucose inhibits LCFA metabolism.

Essentially, the Randle cycle states that fats inhibit carbohydrate metabolism while carbohydrates inhibit fat metabolism. In part, this is why eating high amounts of fat and carbohydrate leads to increased body fat. Moreover, high amounts of either fat or carbohydrate in isolation, will also slow the metabolism of these substrates and lead to the accumulation of body fat. From an evolutionary standpoint, this was advantageous in case the person could not find food for a few days. In today’s society, this is almost never the case, highlighting the first criterion – appropriate total calories.

In the low-carbohydrate realms, it is often said that calories don’t matter, as if once low-carb dieters reach their daily caloric needs, all the extra calories disappear. This is absolutely false. In trying to popularize low-carb diets, I think we made a mistake with this statement, as too many subscribers to carbohydrate-restriction now say this as if it is validated fact, and it deters the rational from giving the diet a chance. The statement was initially made to highlight a believed metabolic advantage and satiety advantages of fat and protein over carbohydrate. Here’s what we actually know.

The touted “metabolic advantage,” is not so robust that it can make up for eating far too many calories, but it does certainly exist, as energy is lost in various metabolic endpoints of protein and in gluconeogenesis. In 5 studies currently available comparing low-carbohydrate diets to standard diets under conditions of equal protein intake, 4 seem to support minor beneficial effects of carbohydrate restriction on body composition. As a brief overview, Noakes [1] found greater lean mass retention of Mediterranean-style carbohydrate restriction versus both high saturated fat carb-restricted and high-carbohydrate diets. Paniagua et al. [2] reported a seemingly beneficial redistribution of fat mass with high unsaturated fat carbohydrate restriction compared to a high-carbohydrate diet, but changes in total fat mass were not different. Shai et al. [3] observed a 2kg greater loss of weight with Mediterranean carbohydrate-restriction versus a high-carbohydrate diet. In this study, a third group followed a ketogenic diet and also lost more weight, but they had a higher protein intake (criterion 2!). Gardner [4] found no differences between high- or low-carbohydrate diets. Finally, Douris et al. [5] found that mice eating a carbohydrate-restricted diet over the lifespan had a leaner body composition than mice eating a carbohydrate-rich diet, but the low-carb mice also ate low-protein, and while the mice were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, it is possible that calories differed between groups. Collectively, it would appear that carbohydrate restriction either produces favorable changes in body composition or no changes compared to diets with higher carbohydrate intakes.

Finally, the third criterion, eat plenty of vegetables, is not in contention in any circles, so we need not discuss the matter at length. Fiber is good for you for a multitude of reasons, and the same holds true for the micronutrients and phytonutrients found in plants. Actually, about half of ingested fiber becomes short-chain fatty acids through fermentation in the gut, so if you’re low-carb and trying to reconcile with fiber counting as carbohydrate, don’t worry about it.

When it comes to carbohydrate counting, traditional ketogenic diets limit total carbohydrate intake to 30-50g. I have an issue with this for several reasons, one of which concerning net carbohydrate and vegetable consumption. Although, the most pressing issue is that this does not account for activity level or fueling requirements of exercise because nearly all research on ketogenic diets has been conducted in clinical population samples with individuals who are typically sedentary and only moderately active at best.

One of these men, even if keto, can still benefit from carbohydrates.

One of these men, even if keto, can still benefit from carbohydrates.

Keto diets are popular for weight loss and endurance performance, and we’ve discussed weight loss a bit already. Endurance performance absolutely can be enhanced with the assumption of a ketogenic diet. However, this doesn’t really kick in until the duration of exercise begins to exceed about 15-25 miles of running depending on fitness level. That is about the time that muscle glycogen is significantly depleted (even with loading), and that is one reason why the diet is most popular with ultra-endurance athletes, but let’s take a closer look.

Ketogenic diets make perfect sense for ultra-endurance athletes because they just run or cycle somewhat slowly for hours on end – there is no real sprinting or intermittent high intensity activity that would be common in pretty much any other sport. Higher intensity activity can only utilize carbohydrate to create the energy needed to perform, and without that carbohydrate, an athlete will be unable to maintain high-intensity activity for very long. That is just how our metabolism is set up. However, our “normal” diets are so plentiful that we are always able to use carbohydrate as fuel (it is the preferred energy source), so the body “forgets” how to efficiently metabolize fat – we lose a degree of metabolic duality. This is evidenced by an unpleasant adaptation phase to ketogenic diets due to the withdrawal-like symptoms after nearly eliminating dietary carbohydrate.

Obviously, you can see that performance can be negatively impacted without sufficient carbohydrate. Conversely, being unable to tap into our fat storage can also limit performance, as we may need to do so as glycogen decreases and using fat at lower intensities preserves muscle glycogen. In a study published earlier this year, Dr. Volek found that keto-adapted endurance athletes can maintain higher intensity activity using fat instead of carbohydrate [6]. While this can certainly aid in glycogen sparing, it only extends benefit up to a certain point. Specifically, ~70% VO2Max vs. ~55% VO2Max in carb-based athletes. Thus, exercise intensities exceeding 70% VO2Max in keto-adapted athletes might be impaired due to inadequate carbohydrate availability.

Although, this study also found equal levels of muscle glycogen and glycogen changes in response to exercise. This might be due to an extended period of assuming the diet (20 months) permitting a greater degree of adaptation, but the fact that their diets contained double the carbohydrate content of a traditional ketogenic diet must be at least partially responsible for these effects. Despite carbohydrate composing 10.4% (82g) of the athletes’ total energy intake, these athletes maintained nutritional ketosis.

This is not unexpected – active individuals have greater carbohydrate tolerance than sedentary individuals. Moreover, recent work from our laboratory has found professional MMA athletes to maintain ketosis until the diet is composed of 9-11% carbohydrate [7]. Even the sedentary models indirectly support greater carbohydrate allowance in ketogenic athletes. A limit of 30g carbohydrate on a 1,500 Calorie diet corresponds to 8% of energy from carbohydrate. Therefore, we can conclude that athletes need not adhere to the strict confines of traditional ketogenic diets.

So what should a ketogenic athlete do, exactly? First, get keto adapted. During this phase, it is still a good idea to keep carbohydrate intake sufficiently low, in the <30-50g range for 4 weeks. Then, begin working in more carbohydrates. It is highly unlikely that this amount will exceed 15% of total energy [8], although it may be possible with high activity levels and/or proper carbohydrate timing. With moderate activity levels, a safe bet is 8%. To accurately determine how much carbohydrate an individual can tolerate will require playing with carbohydrate levels and frequent testing of blood and/or urine ketone levels. Blood ketones should be greater than 0.3mmol/L.

Low-carbohydrate performance may best be enhanced with a targeted ketogenic approach. This is purely anecdotal, but it makes sense to increase blood glucose when glucose is needed most – before and during exercise. This can help to increase exercise volume for greater lean mass adaptations to resistance exercise and benefit overall athletic performance, which likely features some high intensity work. Even the ultra-endurance athlete can benefit from a carbohydrate gel taken a few minutes before an uphill section of the course. Our observations of a ketogenic diet in recreational bodybuilders found that for some athletic adaptations, such as anaerobic power output, the ketogenic athletes made the adaptation, but without having the carbohydrates available, they were unable to realize their potential [9]. Once given carbohydrate, their performance increased. However, if the main goal is fat loss, fat oxidation may be interrupted by increasing blood glucose just before or during exercise (remember the Randle cycle?). In sum, carbohydrate content of the diet may need to be adjusted after weighing the relative importance of each athletes’ individual goals.

I know if you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in low-carb dieting, and I’m very passionate on the subject myself, but we can’t let that override a few existing principals. Right now we can say with some confidence that there are health benefits to low-carbohydrate diets. There is little we can say with confidence about low-carbohydrate athletics. Personally, I do well with a ketogenic diet and, as a powerlifter, perform great. There are similar anecdotal reports, but it’s not science. It’s also not exactly scientific that I know I can eat 75-100g of carbs/day and maintain ketosis, but science does say with certainty that carbohydrates aid athletic performance, and I am not about to deny that, nor should anybody else at this juncture.




  1. Noakes, M., Foster, P. R., Keogh, J. B., James, A. P., Mamo, J. C., & Clifton, P. M. (2006). Comparison of isocaloric very low carbohydrate/high saturated fat and high carbohydrate/low saturated fat diets on body composition and cardiovascular risk. Nutrition & metabolism, 3(1), 1.
  2. Paniagua, J. A., De La Sacristana, A. G., Romero, I., Vidal-Puig, A., Latre, J. M., Sanchez, E., … & Perez-Jimenez, F. (2007). Monounsaturated fat–rich diet prevents central body fat distribution and decreases postprandial adiponectin expression induced by a carbohydrate-rich diet in insulin-resistant subjects. Diabetes care, 30(7), 1717-1723.
  3. Shai, I., Schwarzfuchs, D., Henkin, Y., Shahar, D. R., Witkow, S., Greenberg, I., … & Tangi-Rozental, O. (2008). Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or low-fat diet. New England Journal of Medicine, 359(3), 229-241.
  4. Gardner, C. D., Offringa, L. C., Hartle, J. C., Kapphahn, K., & Cherin, R. (2016). Weight loss on low‐fat vs. low‐carbohydrate diets by insulin resistance status among overweight adults and adults with obesity: A randomized pilot trial. Obesity, 24(1), 79-86.
  5. Douris, N., Melman, T., Pecherer, J. M., Pissios, P., Flier, J. S., Cantley, L. C., … & Maratos-Flier, E. (2015). Adaptive changes in amino acid metabolism permit normal longevity in mice consuming a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Molecular Basis of Disease, 1852(10), 2056-2065.
  6. Volek, J. S., Freidenreich, D. J., Saenz, C., Kunces, L. J., Creighton, B. C., Bartley, J. M., … & Lee, E. C. (2016). Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism, 65(3), 100-110.
  7. Joy, J. M., Vogel, R. M., Tribby, A. C., Preisendorf, J. C., Falcone, P. H., Mosman, M. M.,… & Moon, J. R. (in press). A Ketogenic Diet’s Effects on Athletic Performance in Two Professional Mixed-Martial Arts Athletes: Case Reports. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
  8. Zajac, A., Poprzecki, S., Maszczyk, A., Czuba, M., Michalczyk, M., & Zydek, G. (2014). The effects of a ketogenic diet on exercise metabolism and physical performance in off-road cyclists. Nutrients, 6(7), 2493-2508.
  9. Wilson, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Roberts, M. D., Sharp, M. H., Joy, J. M., Shields, K. A.,… & D’Agostino, D. (in press). The Effects of Ketogenic Dieting on Body Composition, Strength, Power, and Hormonal Profiles in Resistance Training Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.