Carbs have been demonised in the fitness industry for over a decade.
Lots of nonsense has been spouted about them causing fat gain. To be honest, way back in 2009/10 I bought into this propaganda. I used a low-carb diet to prep for a photoshoot, got shredded and boom I was a low-carb advocate.
For several years after this I tried to bulk up on a low-carb diet. Most of the time I felt grumpy and irritable. My gym numbers didn’t improve much at all. The scales did steadily climb but at the end of each mass gaining phase I just felt fatter. I think that despite repeated bulking and cutting cycles over a couple of years I did NOT build any muscle. Certainly not any noticeable size gains.
Eventually, I began to move away from the low-carb dogma. I researched nutrition in greater detail and applied it to my own goals rather than being swayed by the fat loss industry. I wanted size and strength gains but the vast majority of the diet industry is talking to people who want to lose weight. I was the exact opposite. I’m a tall, naturally skinny guy, with an active lifestyle. As a result, I needed to take a different to the plans that are pitched to overweight sedentary people.
Once I started eating carbs I finally saw progress in the gym and in-time my physique.
If you want to pack on muscle mass carbs are your friend. In fact, they are a huge advantage. That’s why I call them the skinny guys swolemate.
More and more research is emerging highlighting the benefits of carbs to hard training athletes that want to build lean mass.
Here is a quick overview of why you should be eating plenty of carbs if building muscle and performing better is high on your list of priorities…
Carbohydrates have a positive impact on hormones. They come in the following three main categories:
The carbohydrates you eat are converted to glucose and either stored in the liver or sent out in the bloodstream. Most of this glucose is, however, actually taken in and stored by the muscle as glycogen.
Carbohydrates are the dominant source of energy for the central nervous system (CNS) and athletic activities. They help to fuel gruelling training and aid recovery by replenishing muscle glycogen. Stored muscle glycogen is the primary and preferred fuel source for intense exercise. Approximately 80% of your weight training is fuelled by glycogen stores, therefore a low glycogen state will compromise your ability to train hard. Carbohydrates are a huge advantage to hard-training individuals. Especially those looking to add size. Your carbohydrate needs are, therefore, based on your activity levels.
During dieting phases dropping carbohydrate levels has become popular. This is not entirely without merit as a reduction in carbohydrates can help to create a calorie deficit. In a mass gaining phase, however, keeping carbohydrates low is a terrible mistake. You need to eat enough carbohydrate to allow you to push through overloading training sessions. If you are low on glycogen then you risk muting the anabolic response to weight training.
The body’s glycogen levels are linked to muscle growth signalling through a feedback loop. If levels are chronically low, then muscle growth won’t be priority for the body. Essentially this means gaining appreciable muscle growth on a low carb diet is making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. I should know. I’ve tried. Guess what? I hit a sustained plateau and made no size gains for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually I realised my mistake and increased my carbohydrate intake which got me progressing again. Do yourself a favour and fuel training sessions and muscle growth by eating sufficient carbs.
Lyle McDonald states that,
“to be optimally anabolic, you need a few things (and there are assuredly more than this):
- Proper hormone levels (meaning sufficient insulin but more isn’t necessarily better, low cortisol, etc., etc.)
- Sufficient protein
- Sufficient cellular energy to support protein synthesis (this ties into E)
- You want to maintain liver glycogen
- You want to at least maintain muscle glycogen”
Eating sufficient fats (0.6-1g per kg) and high amounts of carbs will take care of point A. Eating 2 grams of protein per kg satisfies point B. Taking on adequate levels of carbohydrates contribute to point A and are vital to C, D, and E.
Eating sufficient carbohydrates allows for a higher intensity of training, higher volumes of training, quicker recovery between sets and between sessions, has an anti-catabolic and anabolic effect. These are all essential to your ability to build muscle. So, carbs are your muscle building friend not the foe so many diet “experts” would have you believe.
Carbohydrates cause an increase in insulin. Insulin is one of several important hormones. It is anti-catabolic, anabolic, and is a storage hormone. Low carbohydrate diets aim to keep insulin low. This is not optimal for muscle building.
Insulin lowers cortisol. The extent to which cortisol is suppressed correlates quite well with muscle growth. This has led some experts to state that the role of controlling catabolic influences like cortisol may be underestimated when it comes to the big anabolic picture. Carbohydrates are an extremely effective method to reduce cortisol levels.
All in all, this stacks up to a pretty compelling argument that carbohydrates should be kept high during a mass gain phase. In fact, carbs are your muscle gain soulmate, or should that be, swole-mate?
How much carbohydrate should you consume?
Almost all of my clients have between 3-7g of carbs per kg of bodyweight. Most of them are on 4+g per kg when bulking. The exact amount depends on multiple factors. Everyone I an individual with different needs, but the range listed above gives you a decent scope to work within.
For some of you the suggested carb intake might be a significant increase in the carbohydrate you’ve been consuming. So, rather than jumping in at the deep end you might find it an easier transition to gradually work up to this. If that is the case then I suggest you aim for 2-4g per kg of bodyweight on training days. If you had previously been eating fewer than 2g/kg/BW then start at this bottom range. Over the course of several weeks aim to climb up to the upper end of this range. For many of you an intake of 5-6g per kg/BW will be the sweet spot during periods of very high-volume training.
As a rule of thumb, if you train hard with weights 4-5 days a week, consume at least3-3.5g/kg/BW of carbs per day (if you weigh 70kg then that means eating 210-245g of carbs).The figure of 3g/kg/BW is a minimum and a recent review recommend that carbohydrate intakes for strength sports should be between 4–7 g/kg.
In terms of making adjustments to your carbohydrate intake use your progress on the scales as a guide. Not gaining weight? Then bump it up. If you train multiple times a day you may need to go right up to the 7g/kg threshold.
Still Concerned About Eating Lots of Carbs?
Scared to jump in on a high carb bulking diet? I have a solution. It’s a kind of stepping stone approach to dip your toe in the water. Once you try it and see the benefits I’m sure you’ll soften your stance and consider eating more carbs.
Carb-Timing – The First Step:
If you don’t eat carbs, your liver will turn your precious muscle into carbs for your brain to survive through a process called gluconeogenesis. Training hard on a low carb diet increases the risk of muscle loss because carbohydrates have a protein sparing affect.
Consuming carbohydrates before and during exercise can also boost performance during moderate to high-intensity exercise as well as exercise lasting more than 30 minutes (e.g. weight training).
Whilst increasing your daily intake of carbs is probably better for hard training and muscle gain, just having carbs pre- and post-training has been shown to be beneficial. In fact, benefits have been seen just by RINSING YOUR MOUTHwith carbohydrate drinks and spitting it out before exercise!
The same effect was not seen if rinsing your mouth with artificial sweeteners! It seems that your body can decipher the difference between sugar and artificial sweeteners.
So, here is the 3-step process to go from Carb-Phobic to Carb-Loving Musclehead:
- Rinse you mouth with a high-carb sports drink pre- and during training
- Eat a high carb meal pre- and post-training
- Eat ALL OF THE CARBS (ok in reality just follow my per kg of bodyweight guidelines from above, but if you’ve been on a low-carb diet this WILLfeel like you’re eating a week’s worth of carbs in a day at first – FUN TIMES!!!)
Long story short, enjoy your carbs! And remember that while they are good you can have too much of a good thing. Overeating any macronutrient (protein, fats, or carbs) can cause fat gain because it is too many CALORIES that will make you gain weight at the end of the day.
Want me to write your training and diet plans and coach you through the process of transforming your body from skinny-fat to big and lean?