Depending on your goals and activity levels, you may need to experiment with different variations of the ketogenic diet to get the best results.
If you train at high-intensities regularly, for example, you may struggle to keep up with your workouts after you start restricting carbs. In this case, it may better for you to use carbs as a tool to boost your performance, and the best way to do this is by using a cyclical ketogenic diet or a targeted ketogenic diet.
However, before we find out which dietary approach would be best for you, let’s briefly go over each one.
The Three Main Variations of the Ketogenic Diet: SKD, TKD, and CKD
There are three main styles of the keto diet:
- Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
- Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
- Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
Each one serves a specific purpose for particular groups of people. Depending on your goals, your workout regimen, and your exercise experience, you will benefit from one variation more than the others.
The Standard Ketogenic Diet
The Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD) is what most people think of when a keto diet is mentioned. This is a diet that is very low in carbs, moderate in protein, and high in fat. If you are looking to lose fat quickly and you only do low to moderate intensity activities (e.g., walking, cycling, yoga, and light weightlifting), then the SKD may be the ideal diet for you.
With this dietary approach, carbohydrates have to be restricted greatly. An intake of 30g or fewer of carbohydrates a day is typically required to induce and stay in ketosis (which is one of the primary purposes for restricting carb consumption so much). Keto carb limits will vary from person to person, but the general rule is to avoid fruits, starches, added sugars, and other foods that are high in net carbs.
Your primary sources of carbohydrates on the SKD will be low carb vegetables, nuts, seeds, and high-fat dairy products. For a more in-depth look at what you will be eating on the SKD, check out our keto food list.
The Targeted Ketogenic Diet
The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) consists of eating carbs around workout times (usually 30-60 min before) and following the SKD at all other times. The TKD provides us with a simple way to maintain high-intensity exercise performance and promote glycogen replenishment without interrupting ketosis for long periods of time.
This dietary strategy is typically recommended for two specific groups of people: (1) Individuals that need carbs to fuel their exercise performance but cannot or will not partake in long carb loads of a CKD or (2) individuals that are just starting an exercise program and are not ready to perform the amount of exercise needed to optimize a CKD diet.
If you are only doing cardio type exercises or any activity that is low to moderate in intensity, then the TKD (and CKD) is not for you — stick with the SKD instead.
The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) is a dietary approach that combines carb loading day(s) with the standard ketogenic diet. It is typically used by people who are more advanced in terms of high-intensity exercise. Bodybuilders and athletes are a prime example of people that should use the CKD, since a high volume and intensity is needed in their training to optimize their performance. With this much volume and intensity, it is nearly impossible for them to train at their best without the help of carbohydrates.
For this reason, it is best for them to implement carbohydrate refeeding days once or twice a week to fully replenish glycogen stores so that they have an adequate amount of sugar to fuel their training bouts.
Unlike the TKD, where the primary goal is to maintain blood sugar and muscle glycogen at a moderate level for training, the goal of the CKD is to completely replete glycogen during carb loads and deplete glycogen and increase ketone levels between the carb loads. However, both dietary approaches will allow you to reap the benefits of carbohydrates and ketosis.
Which Diet Should You Use?
When it comes to selecting the right keto diet for you, there are some simple rules you should follow.
If you rarely do high-intensity exercise and just want to lose fat, stick with the SKD. Adding more carbohydrates in your diet will only slow your progress and keep you out of ketosis.
For those of you who do train at high intensities regularly, you may benefit from the CKD and the TKD. Typically, we recommend that exercise beginners (i.e., people who have been training at high-intensities for less than a year) should try the TKD, and they should only experiment with it if they notice a significant decrease in performance while they are on the SKD. All others who are more advanced with their training and train at higher volumes may fare better with the CKD.
Keep in mind, however, that these are not strict guidelines. When it comes to figuring out whether CKD or TKD is best for you, experimentation is key. No individuals are the same, and you have to see what works best for you. Some people find different variations of a CKD are best, while others find the TKD to help them more consistently. This allows you more freedom to choose what works the best.
Another option that you can try is to stay on the SKD and adjust your workout program. Training at high-intensities without needing extra carbs for performance is possible. To learn how to do this without losing any strength or muscle, check out our guide to keto bodybuilding.
The only strict guideline you should follow is this: If you are not exercising at high-intensities regularly, then you should stick to the SKD. Most people need nothing more than an SKD diet.
The CKD and TKD should only be used to fuel high-intensity exercise performance, and should NEVER be used as an excuse to eat something sweet before a workout.
If you are not “hitting the wall” on a weekly basis with your training, there is not really a need to add carbohydrates to your diet. CKD and TKD are for people who are pushing their body to the limits, and not to just for craving suppression.
Chasing Ketosis: A Potential Downside of CKD and TKD
There may be some points throughout your diet where you feel like you are chasing ketosis. You may find that you are training hard and following the suggestions in our in-depth diet articles perfectly, but your ketone levels are still negligible.
Don’t get discouraged and give up. There are a couple of simple variables that you can adjust to reliably get into ketosis. Here are some of the factors that influence your body’s ability to produce ketones:
- Too much protein = can knock you out of ketosis
- Too little protein = lose muscle mass
- Too many fats = gain body fat
- Too little fats = low energy levels
- Too many carbohydrates = will knock you out of ketosis
- Too little carbohydrates = more ketone production, but less fuel for high-intensity exercise
- Not enough intensity or training volume = less ketone production
- High-intensity exercise with adequate training volume = glycogen depletion and more ketone production
Whether or not you will struggle to get into ketosis while on a CKD or TKD varies from person to person. If you find that you are chasing ketosis after upping your carb intake, use the list above as your guide. Experiment with this information by making minimal adjustments every week until you’ve created your ideal keto diet and workout routine.
Which Diet Will Give You The Best Results?
Usually, people that are interested in other variations of a keto diet ask which will give them the best results – The SKD, CKD, or TKD. There is no straight answer for this, as it’s based mostly on your genetics, training program, macronutrient intake, and calorie intake.
Ultimately, an SKD, CKD, and TKD will result in similar fat loss under the same calorie intake. Also, the amount of muscle mass that you will gain (or keep) depends on your protein intake, genetics, and your workout volume.
For example, if following the SKD is preventing you from working out with as much volume as you did before, then a CKD or TKD will be a better option for you if you want to gain muscle and strength. However, none of these diets will be beneficial for you if you don’t meet your nutritional needs first and foremost.
The Most Important Part of Any Ketogenic Diet: Your Nutritional Needs
One of the first, and most important things to consider with any diet, is meeting your nutritional needs. To do this, you will want to make sure you are eating the right amount of calories and macronutrients. The easiest way to find out what your needs are is by using our keto calculator.
In general, if you want to lose weight, subtract 10-15% of your calories from your Total Energy Expenditure (TEE) calculation. If one of your goals is to gain muscle, increase your calories by 10-15% of your TEE. Easy enough, right?
Well, it’s a little bit more complex than that. You have to bring your macronutrients into play and make sure you are hitting the targeted amount.
In terms of percentages – you will want to do:
- 40-60% fat
- 35-40% protein
- Remainder (10-25%) carbs
If you are trying to gain muscle mass with your workouts, then your protein intake will end up being in the higher end of the range (and, for some people, it may be higher than that). As long as your protein consumption isn’t interfering with ketosis, you are on the right track. Conversely, if you are struggling to get into ketosis, then dialing down your protein intake a bit may work for you.
You can eat once a day, twice a day, or ten times a day – just be sure you’re hitting your macros and drinking enough water. Meeting your water and macro needs are much more important than nutrient timing. (To learn more about how you can time your nutrient intake for optimal results, check out our post on the subject.)
Once your body enters ketosis, it will start using ketones as your primary source of energy (instead of glucose). While studies show that ketones and fats are more efficient for the body to use, most people find that they never reach their peak performance without consuming enough carbs (this is the whole premise behind using the CKD and TKD). If you would like to learn why we need carbohydrates to fuel certain exercises, check out our guide to keto and exercise.
Putting It All Together — How Do You Start?
Since most of the people here are going to be using the SKD, here are four basic steps to successfully start:
- Calculate your caloric needs (TEE), and subtract or add calories based on your goals.
- Set protein levels according to your goals. 0.8 – 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass is a good starting point.
- Set carbohydrate levels. Generally around 20-30g of net carbs per day (lower than 20g for the first few weeks is best if you are not exercising).
- Set fat intake levels based on how many calories you have left.
Remember, fats are 9 kcal/gram, proteins are 4 kcal/gram, and carbs are 4 kcal/gram. Or you can use our keto calculator, and it will do all the math for you.
Once you know your macronutrient needs, use our keto food list to help you figure out what to eat.
For those of you who train at high-intensities regularly and notice a substantial decrease in performance while on the SKD, you will benefit most from one of these three suggestions:
- Following the targeted ketogenic diet (TKD). This typically works better for high-intensity exercise beginners.
- Implementing a version of the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) that works for your schedule. This typically works better for high-intensity athletes or bodybuilders that have been training for a couple of years.
- Sticking with the SKD and adjusting your training sessions so that you aren’t doing high-intensity exercises that require too many carbs for fuel. For more specific recommendations, check out our guide to keto bodybuilding.