Saturday, March 16, 2013

Update on Ketosis and Weightlifting

Well, that was a really long month. In seriousness, writing frequently is hard for me, not because I'm not constantly brimming with things to say — trust me, I am — but because I have so many other things going on. In, particular, it turns out that raising three children is a lot of work, even when you are well. I also released some software as part of the effort to finish my long-stalled Master's degree. My hobby site, The Ketogenic Diet for Health, which we started as a way to make progress on writing a book about ketogenic therapies, gets almost no love at all.

So, let me briefly tell you what I learned from actively deepening ketosis, and reintroducing myself to weightlifting.

Deeper Ketosis

I had decided not to measure some things that could be informative, such as protein or calorie intake, and just to focus on eating only when hungry. I started making a lot of fatty broths, and drinking that if I felt what I perceived to be a habitual desire to eat, rather than hunger. I took smaller portions to make my clean-the-plate tendencies less detrimental.

This was effective for increasing blood ketones, and as those went up, I lost weight and fat, at least according to my Tanita scale. I lost about 6 pounds over the course of 2 months. That doesn't sound like a lot, but I don't have a lot of weight to lose, and I wasn't in deep ketosis all the time.

Then I ran out of measuring strips, and soon after that I found my scale in a mysteriously broken state.

Odd things

Here are some particular things I noticed during the process:

  • Even though I am already keto-adapted to some degree, I found it hard to stay in the zone I was aiming for (1.5 - 2.5 mmol/L) consistently, because some days eating to hunger meant eating a lot of protein, which drove the ketones down. In other words, staying in deep ketosis for long periods was effortful.
This is strange to me, because theoretically, living off my ample fat stores should allow me to feel satiated indefinitely. As long as I am getting enough protein for body maintenance and blood sugar, why would I ever feel hungry? But I do get hungry, and I do get symptoms like brain fog if I go too long without eating, even when I've been in deep ketosis for days.

This brings me to a second point,

  • The reason I don't like to go higher than about 2.5 mmol/L is that I start to get irritable when ketosis gets too high. I figure this must be a blood sugar effect. I haven't measured blood sugar and ketosis together consistently enough to be sure of a pattern, but other people have reported an inverse relationship, and we found scientific support which we reported here.
Dr. Ede also reported great discomfort in very deep ketosis, although I notice that her blood sugar is not nearly as low as mine gets at similar ketone levels. When my ketosis is above 3mmol/L, my blood sugar gets close to 65mg/dL.

It's possible that I am simply not sufficiently keto-adapted, but I have suspicions that there is more going on. I'll get to that in my next post. With any luck that will be sooner than 4 months from now.


My first idea was to do short sessions every day, rotating parts so that major muscles would get worked a couple of times per week. There were two reasons for this. First, it was very hard for me to get more than 10 minutes of uninterruted time in a day while looking after a 3 year old. Second, sometimes it seems easier to make a habit stick if it is a daily one. Relatedly, missing a day was not devastating.

This worked only okay. I could feel strength gains, but not tremendous ones. I'm not sure why.

Then my schedule changed. Morning preschool sessions started up again after a long winter break, and I found a wonderful person to care for my son on some afternoons, too. I started working out my whole body twice a week, and this seemed to be much more effective. I don't have a good way of measuring the results. I don't even have a scale, though scales don't show recomposition well. Nonetheless, I was feeling stronger, and Zooko seemed to think he could see a difference.

Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, as has happened to me many times in the past, a few of life urgencies resulted in missed sessions, and then I lost the habit.

A new scheduling plan

While reading a post by Cal Newport, my favourite productivity blogger, I realized that trying to make every day or even every week the same for the sake of habit building is not necessarily helpful, and in cases like this, it seems harmful.

So my new plan is to take one week at a time. At the beginning of the week I'll schedule the things I want to get done around all the perpetual idiosyncrasies that make up my life. In other words, instead of planning to work out every Monday and Thursday afternoon, and then falling off the wagon because this week I had to meet the principal on Thursday afternoon, I'm going to be more adaptive.

Ultimately, I need to find ways of operating that promote consistency over a chaotic, ever-changing life situation. I have too much going on to benefit from "bikini bootcamp" style interventions that require me to focus on nothing but getting slim for 10 weeks. This probably means that it will take me more than 10 weeks to reach my goal, though.

Bottom Lines

Although I could see the beginnings of progress in fat loss from deepening ketosis (which for me amounts to eating less), there were serious sustainability issues that I didn't anticipate and don't understand. Some ideas to follow.

Similarly, weightlifting seemed to be having a positive effect, but I need to figure out how to make it happen consistently in the face of constant uncertainty and chaos. This is no different from the struggles I am facing in other arenas of my life, including graduate studies, book writing, and blogging.


  1. > I could feel strength gains, but not tremendous ones. I'm not sure why.

    If i know you right you've probably studied the physiology of weight lifting more than I have, but here's what i think anyway!

    I think that for strength gain you should train to muscle failure in 3-5 reps. In other words, lift the heaviest thing you can handle. It should be so heavy that you can only lift it a very few times before your muscles give out. If you can lift it more times than that, it means you've gotten stronger and you should increase the weight.

    Do a 3 or so sets of that, 2-3 minutes apart, to maximize strength gain.

  2. Hello, Sebastian!

    There is a lot of contradictory advice around, but I think most of the evidence I've seen is in favour of low volume, high intensity.

    At one time I was enamoured of super-slow lifting -- failure in about 6 reps at speed of about 10 seconds per direction. The slow speed means that time under load is high, and so the weight is lighter than you can do when you throw it around.

    I liked it because it was efficient: at that intensity, you are only supposed to do it once or twice a week, and the sessions are short. Various proponents claim it gets superior results and is less injury prone.

    However, it's very, very intense. You have to stay at the burn level for a long time while you get to failure. I'm not sure it got me as good results as it should have. I now wonder if it wouldn't be better to get to failure faster and then just slow down the last bit.

    I don't always work to failure anymore, and my reps aren't that slow, but I still lift on the heavy, slow end of the spectrum. Those last couple of weeks before everything fell apart I was doing 2-3 sets progressively lighter so I could get fatigue in about 8 each time.

    I think I'll take your advice and take it back to failure in fewer reps next time.

  3. Hey, wish I'd found this before we talked on this very subject! If it feels like you have to maintain intensity for a long time to get to failure (and it sounds like you were going slow enough, so it wasn't that), then you may simply have needed to be pushing more weight. When I introduce new exercises into my routine, I start with lowball weights for several reasons, for which the tradeoff is living with that long-slog-to-failure feeling for a while. Eventually you reach weights where you can tell from the first rep that you're going to be done soon. That's when the human and the machine are properly calibrated. :-)

    We also talked about how I've been eating carbs after my twice-weekly sessions and how maybe that's not actually useful (and getting in the way of my weight loss). I wasn't quite ready to stop then, because I was so concerned with building muscle that would aid in all my remaining weight loss, but I am now. Will post on my blog about this soon.

  4. Replies
    1. Hi, Schmonz! Sorry for the delay -- I didn't get notification of your comments for some reason.

      I love that feeling of heavy enough. :-)

      So, have you tried no post workout carbs? How's it working?

  5. Yep, I've been doing it for a few weeks now (modulo 3 skipped workouts while visiting out-of-town friends for a week and a half). Besides coffee, diet is primarily eggs, bacon, steak, ground beef, and butter, with occasional poultry, almonds, sunflower seeds, macadamias, and green vegetables. I feel excellent (as expected) and have backslid slightly on weights (as suspected, though I wonder whether my suspicion has been performative) but have not lost any weight (somewhat surprising). It's only been a few weeks, which isn't a long time in the scheme of keto-adaptation. I'm pretty much willing to stick with it unless I become significantly weaker or don't feel good doing it, either of which would be very unexpected. I'll continue periodically blogging my progress.

    Finally (yay vacation!) got to watch your "Hack cellular metabolism" video. Sounds like people in the room got a lot out of it. Well done.

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