Most “traditionalist” bodybuilders and weight lifters will say that you need lots and lots of carbs gain muscle mass. Some even say that you should keep your carbs pretty high when you’re dieting and trying to get shredded. But do you really need carbs for muscle mass? There’s a lot more to the story than some trainers and nutritionists let on…
Carbs As Energy?
Without getting too complicated, you can basically think of both carbs and fats as “energy” nutrients. While protein is essential for rebuilding muscle tissue after intense training, it is extremely inefficient for your body to break it down past the amino acid level for use as an energy source. If you want to get bigger, get leaner, or just perform well in the gym, you’ve got to have at least one of the energy nutrients!
Now, most athletic trainers and nutritionists these days still think that carbohydrates are the best source of energy. However, many people find that is not the case! While carbs make some people feel energized and excited to train, they make others feel bloated and lethargic. Some people feel much better and have better training sessions when they focus on healthy fats like nuts, oils, avocados, and fish for their energy sources. See what works best for you!
Everyone who’s lifted weights for a while knows – and loves – the pump! You’re tearing through the weights, breaking personal records, and your muscles are filled with blood and nutrients, looking bigger than they do at any other time. Believe it or not, though, getting a great pump isn’t just about training. The amount and types of carbohydrates you eat can have a drastic effect on how much of a pump you can get in the gym.
The reason for this is that starchy carbs, the kind you find in grains and potatoes, are great for filling your muscles with glycogen. Glycogen is basically cellular energy, carbs stored in your muscles for later use. Glycogen holds many times its mass in water, so when you’re full of carbs, your muscles are already pumped!
So, given all of this info about carbs and the pump, why does any aspiring bodybuilder avoid them? Well, they also have a tendency to be stored as body fat, even when you’re training hard and putting high energy demands on your body. A lot of people’s bodies just don’t handle starchy foods well, and they perform better and get leaner on a lower-carb, high-protein, moderate-fat diet. Again, you’ll have to experiment to see what works best for you.
Putting It All Together – Timing Your Carbs…
You may be realizing that as bodybuilders and weight lifters, we’re in a bit of a stick situation here! On the one hand, carbs are great for muscle growth and great, pumped workouts. On the other hand, those of us without awesome genetics tend to get fatter when we eat even “clean” carbs like oatmeal or sweet potatoes. The trick to using carbs in your diet is to TIME them right!
As you have probably heard, one of the best times to eat carbs is post-workout. Carbs raise your insulin, which is horrible for fat loss, but great for muscle gain. After a workout, your muscles are stimulated and primed to take in tons of nutrients once you raise your insulin. The result is that eating carbs and spiking your insulin levels drives most of the protein and fat energy you eat into your muscle cells, not your fat cells!
However, there is another great way to time your carbs, one that doesn’t necessarily involve that post-workout “window of opportunity.” If you’re trying to get super-lean, or if your body is just the worst at handling carbohydrates, you might want to try going entire days with ZERO starchy carbs. You can still have all the fibrous veggies you want, along with a couple pieces of fruit but NO starch.
Then, on the fourth or fifth day, after a grueling workout, go crazy with the carbs at ONE big meal. Your body will have become more insulin sensitive during that low-carb time, which means that it will be extremely efficient at using those carbs you do eat to rebuild muscle tissue. You might be feeling a little flat and depleted once that “reefed” day rolls around, but after that meal you’ll feel full, tight, and strong, and your workouts over the next few days will kick ass!