If you’re one of the millions of people on a low-carb diet and you work out, you might know these symptoms all too well: tired, sore, unable to focus, and/or not enough energy to muster to rumble through your usual lifting and cardio sessions.
I’m not here to argue the pros and cons of this type of diet. I’ll admit, I had great success with a low-carb strategy for the better part of two decades while I competed as a bodybuilder. So let’s just say you’ve gone low-carb and you want to continue to train hard, drop bodyfat and build muscle. Here’s how to manipulate your workouts to do just that.
Revamp Your Training
While the low-carb diet can help you get ripped by cutting your bodyfat levels, it also can cost you valuable muscle size. That’s because stores of glycogen (stored glucose from carbohydrates) inside your muscle tissue and liver are compromised when your carb intake is too low. And with low stores of glycogen, it’s difficult for your muscles to exert the sustained, high-intensity effort required to lift weights.
Essentially, you suffer a decrease in strength, your training poundages drop and your muscles get less stimulation, which leads to muscle loss.
In addition, when you diet (whether a low-carb diet or otherwise), you’re almost always in a hypocaloric state (you take in fewer food calories than you burn). In this environment, your body looks for the “missing energy” it needs to function, usually breaking protein structures into amino acids, which can then be used for energy. Because of those factors, you need to structure your resistance training so that it’s brief, heavy and intense.
Brief workouts consume fewer calories than longer workouts. For those of you who don’t feel like you’ve had a good workout until you’ve spent the entire afternoon in the gym, remember this: There’s an inverse relationship between training volume and training intensity.
You can train hard for a short period or not-so-hard for a longer period, but you can’t train hard for a long period! In fact, if you truly give it your all on every set of every exercise, you won’t last longer than 20-30 minutes per bodypart.
You want to also go as heavy as possible as quickly into the workout as possible after a warm-up. This is important, because when a muscle is fresh, ATP (the chemical responsible for energy and contraction) and stored glycogen in the muscle are at their highest. That’s when you can generate really big power output.
Think of training your bodyparts this way: You should be exerting as much force as you can in as short a time as you can. Make maximizing the stress during your workout your first goal.
Because of the intense nature of this type of training, warming up becomes more crucial to avoid injury. Always start with a couple of light sets of your first exercise.
Let’s say you want to adjust your biceps routine to ensure you’re training at a high intensity. Follow these four steps:
- Start with a major mass-builder, like the barbell curl. Do two light warm-up sets to 10 reps. Increase the poundage to a weight with which you can do no more than eight reps with good form. Decrease the weight by about 10% on your second set, pounding out another 6-8 reps. On the third and final heavy set, drop the weight another 10% and go for broke, hammering out 6-8 reps before you absolutely cannot do another rep. Elapsed time: 6 minutes.
- Next, pick an isolation movement, like concentration curls. Do your first heavy set with a dumbbell with which you can do no more than 6-8 reps. For the second set, drop the weight by about 10% for another 6-8 reps. For the third and final set, drop the weight another 10% and go all out, doing as many reps as you possibly can. Elapsed time: 6 minutes.
- Finish off your biceps workout with a movement that targets the muscle group somewhat differently. Here, I’d choose the hammer curl, which better focuses on the brachialis and brachioradialis. Pound out three hard sets of 6-8 reps – and your biceps are toast! Elapsed time: 6 minutes.
- In this example, I’ve allowed one minute for the completion of a set and one minute for rest, so your workouts are indeed shortened. Limit your rest between sets to about as much time as it takes to catch your breath, perhaps as few as 45 seconds when training smaller bodyparts to as long as two minutes when training larger muscle groups like legs. Short rest periods keep training intensity high during your workout.
Cardio on Low Fuel
Following a low-carb diet encourages fat-burning, and adding cardio to the equation can really rev the process up. Do 30 minutes of stationary bicycling, stair-stepping or jogging on the treadmill immediately following your workout 3-5 times per week. While on a low-carb diet, keep your cardio intensity level to 70%-80% of your maximal heart rate. (You can roughly calculate your target heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 and multiplying by 0.7 and 0.8 for your target range in beats per minute.)
By doing your cardio when you’ve used up a good deal of your body’s glycogen, your body will gradually switch to burning stored fat for energy. If you can’t do your cardio after your training, try doing it in the morning, before breakfast. Because you’ve been fasting during the night, you’re already burning a greater percentage of fat for energy. That makes this an ideal time to do cardio, enabling you to burn even more stored fat.
Speaking of energizing, there’s no reason you have to feel tired when you’re on a low-carb training regimen. The idea is to balance your carbs so you have enough to fuel your activities, but no more. With the advice provided here, you can forge a leaner, more muscular body while kicking that low-carb fatigue to the curb.
Lee Labrada is a former IFBB Mr. Universe and Pro World Cup winner. He placed in the top four at the Mr. Olympia seven consecutive times.