A Guide to Carbohydrates and how they work
Carbohydrates have gotten somewhat of a bad reputation. Low carb and ketogenic diets have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. The popularity of these diets have caused many to shy away from carbs altogether. While most bodybuilders come equipped with truckloads of protein powder and EFAs, carbs tend to get left behind. This is a huge mistake!
If used properly, carbs have the ability to increase muscle growth, prevent muscle loss, and even boost the metabolism. To learn how to best use carbohydrates to your advantage you must first learn about how carbs are used by the body.
Carbohydrates are also known in biochemistry as saccharides. The saccharides are then divided into four chemical grouping: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Generally, monosaccharides and disaccharides are classified as sugars. Sugars are also commonly called simple carbs. Oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are commonly reffered to as complex carbs.
The digestion rate of carbohydrates varies depending on the source. The scale for measuring the digestion rate of carbs is called the glycemic index. The higher rating a carb has on the glycemic index the faster it is digested. The lower it is on the glycemic index the slower it is digested.
So why in the world should you care how fast a carbohydrate is digested? This has to do with the hormone insulin. Insulin is an extremely powerful anabolic hormone that is released whenever carbs are eaten. If a carb is digested quickly, it will cause a large insulin spike.
If a carbohydrate is slowly digested, the insulin spike will be more subtle and steady. As we will discover, this can come in handy come training time when muscle breakdown is a serious threat to gains.
Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the metabolism. While the body is able to obtain all the energy it needs from proteins and fats, this does not allow the body perform and operate at an optimal level. When carbs are consumed there are a few possibilities where they can end up.
The first possibility is that they will be broken down into into glucose and used for energy. Glucose is the preferred source of energy for working muscles and the brain so all carbohydrates must be broken down into glucose before they are used.
If body does not require glucose for energy at the moment then consumed carbohydrates will be converted to glycogen and stored. The body stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen within liver and muscle tissue to be used at a later time. When the body needs energy it can break down this stored glycogen and convert it to glucose and use it for energy.
If all glycogen stores are full in both the liver and muscle tissue then carbohydrates will be converted to fat and stored as adipose tissue (body fat). Obviously, this is what serious lifter want to avoid. This is why it is important to consume enough carbohydrates to fuel training and the metabolism but not so much that it is more than your body can handle.
To understand the effects that carbs have on performance, you must first know how your body uses different forms of energy during a set. To lift a weight your body first requires energy. Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, is the only source of energy that can drive your muscles to contract. Unfortunately, your muscle only stores enough ATP to support muscle contraction for a few seconds, therefore it must be replaced.
If it is not replaced muscle contraction will stop, meaning your set is over. Luckily your body replaces your ATP stores by breaking down creatine phosphate (CP). This releases energy for fast replenishment of ATP. Your muscle stores enough CP for about 8-12 seconds of maximal effort. When CP stores run out our body switches to glycolysis.
Glycolysis is when your body uses stored glycogen (carbohydrate stored within the muscle) and blood sugar to replace ATP stores. Your body repeats this process for every single set that you perform in the gym. Carbs come into play during glycolysis. In between sets, muscle cells use the glycolytic pathway to restore ATP.
If glucose or glycogen are in short supply, not only will strength suffer but sets will be terminated early, and training intensely will be nearly impossible. Consuming carbs will allow glucose to be in the blood stream and available for immediate use for energy. This will spare glycogen stores and allow training to proceed at optimal intensities.
It doesn’t matter if you are a bodybuilder, an athlete, or just trying to make improvements to your physique, your results hinge on how well you perform during your training sessions. This is where growth is stimulated. Carbs ensure that you can train hard from the beginning of a training session all the way until the end. For improved performance, high glycemic carb should be consumed immediately before and during training.
We now know that carbohydrates can improve performance during training. This will definitely lead to muscle growth in the long run, but carbs also have the ability to increase muscle growth though. This is mainly through the actions of insulin. As stated previously, consuming carbs prompts your body to release insulin.
Insulin increases protein synthesis (muscle growth), which is the number one goal of every lifter. One way insulin causes growth is by increasing transportation of amino acids from your blood stream to your muscles. It also binds with the muscle cell membrane that triggers an onslaught of reactions that lead to growth.
Insulin is also anti-catabolic meaning it prevents muscle loss. From an anti-catabolic standpoint insulin keeps the catabolic hormone cortisol at bay. One of cortisol functions is to breakdown proteins (muscle tissue) and convert it to energy. When insulin levels are high cortisol levels are lower. This is the primary anti-catabolic power of insulin.
During training the body is in a catabolic state as cortisol levels are high. Some of this muscle loss can be counteracted by consuming high glycemic carbs before and during training.
After training the body will continue to be in a catabolic state until protein and carbohydrates are consumed. For this reason high glycemic carbs should also be consumed after training. The body is in a unique state immediately after training. It is much more sensitive to nutrients and and protein synthesis is increased beyond normal resting levels. This is yet another reason to mix carbohydrates with your post training protein shake.
One big question is whether you should get your carbs from food or supplements. The answer is….BOTH! Supplements and food both have advantages that make them ideal in certain situations. Supplements have the advantage of being faster digesting than most foods and will therefore cause a greater insulin spike. Whole food will tend to be slower digesting which can help prevent hunger craving and has many health advantages.
For these reasons it is best to consume high glycemic supplemental carbs such as dextrose, maltodextrin, and glucose immediately before, during, and after training. Throughout the day it is best to consume whole food carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Dextrose and maltodextrin are the best carb sources to be used before, during, and after training. How do you know which one is right for you? Both dextrose and maltodextrin are fast digesting high glycemic carbs which will cause a rapid rise insulin.
Dextrose is essentially pure glucose which requires zero digestion. Dextrose is sugar in the purest sense of the word. It also has a very sweet taste. Maltodextrin on the other hand is actually a polysaccharide, meaning that while is digests just as fast as dextrose, it is not technically a sugar. It is also not very sweet, often having almost no flavor at all.
Dextrose is generally the best choice for pre, during, and post training. Maltodextrin works well for those that do not tolerate sugar well or for those that do not like their shakes very sweet.
Waxy maize is a rather new and very popular supplemental carbohydrate. Waxy Maize is a high molecular weight starch that contains zero sugar. It is a very unique complex carbohydrate capable of being absorbed very quickly. This supplement, much like maltodextrin, will work well for those that are sensitive to sugar.
Whereas proteins assist with muscle rebuilding, waxy maize starch is designed to refuel and replenish glycogen stores. Waxy maize can be used before, during, or after training.
When to eat and supplement with carbs can be important for performance. Here are the best times to take in your carbs throughout the day.
Breakfast – After a whole night of fasting, liver and muscle glycogen stores are going to be depleted. It is important to eat whole food carbs at this time to restock glycogen stores. Fruit, oatmeal, or whole grain cereals are good choices for breakfast.
2-3 Hours Before Training – Eating carbs before training will allow carbs to be in your blood stream at the time you are working out. This will fuel training and lead to a more productive, intense workout. Slow digesting carbs from food sources are the best choices. Ideal choices for carbs at this time are sweet potatoes, whole wheat bread, or whole wheat pasta.
Immediately Before, During, and After Training – These carbs will not only fuel intense training but restock liver glycogen stores as they are being depleted by heavy training. These carbs will also serve to protect muscle tissue from breakdown by increasing insulin levels. To get the biggest insulin spike you will want to consume high glycemic carbohydrates in supplement form. Dextrose and maltodextrin are the best choices here. Waxy maize is also a very popular choice.
1-2 Hours After Training – Carbs at this time will serve to keep insulin levels elevated after training. The longer you can keep insulin elevated the more muscle growth you will attain. These carbs will also top off glycogen stores facilitate faster recovery after training. Slow digesting carbs from whole foods are best. Things like sweet potatoes, brown rice, and vegetables are best.
Before Bed – While it is often considered a no no to eat carbs before bed this is a myth. Carbs before bed are important for muscle growth. As you are preparing to lay down for a whole night of fasting it is important to eat carbs to make sure muscle and liver glycogen levels will not dip too low during the night. A slow digesting carbohydrate source such as a piece of fruit will work well here.
Judging how many carbs to eat per day can be tricky. There are many factors to take into consideration. To know how many carbs to eat per day you must first know how many calories to eat and how much protein and fat you need. Here are some general guidelines to get you on the right track.
Daily Calories for Fat Loss
- Ectomorph – Body weight x 16-18 = daily caloric intake
- Mesomorph – Body weight x 14-17 = daily caloric intake
- Endomorph – Body weight x 12-15 = daily caloric intake
Daily Calories for Muscle Growth
- Ectomorph – Body weight x 19-22 = daily caloric intake
- Mesomorph – Body weight x 17-20 = daily caloric intake
- Endomorph – Body weight x 15-18 = daily caloric intake
- Ectomorph – Body weight X 1.0 – 1.2 grams
- Mesomorph – Body weight X 1.1 – 1.3 grams
- Endomorph – Body weight X 1.1 – 1.4 grams
Daily Fat Intake – Ectomorph Bodyweight
- 100-150 lbs = 45-50 grams per day
- 150-200 lbs = 50-55 grams per day
- 200 lbs. and over = 55-60 grams per day
Daily Fat Intake – Mesomorph Bodyweight
- 100-150 lbs = 40-45 grams per day
- 150-200 lbs = 45-50 grams per day
- 200 lbs. and over = 50-55 grams per day
Daily Fat Intake – Endomorph Bodyweight
- 100-150 lbs = 50-55 grams per day
- 150-200 lbs = 55-60 grams per day
- 200 lbs. and over = 60-65 grams per day
Now that you know how many calories to eat per day and how much of that should be protein and fat you can now calculate your daily carb intake. Whatever calories are left over after you calculate your protein and fat should be used for carbohydrates.
Just take the total calories that are left over and divide by 4. This will tell you how many carbs you should eat everyday. Keep in mind that these are just guidelines and there are still many factors that affect carb intake. So start with these numbers and you can adjust up or down to achieve your goals.
Fiber is often left out in typical bodybuilding diets. It is important to not neglect this very important nutrient. Dietary fiber has a whole host of benefits like lowering risk for heart disease and diabetes, lowering cholesterol levels, and maintaining regular bowel movements.
While all of these benefits will not directly affect muscle growth and fat loss, they will improve overall health. A body that is sick or unhealthy will not build muscle or function properly. Besides, we all train and diet hard to look and FEEL good. Dietary fiber will keep your insides working properly.
If you find it hard to get enough dietary fiber through whole foods there are fiber powders that can boost your daily intake. In general, you will want 25-50 grams of dietary fiber per day.
While carbohydrates my not be considered one of the cutting edge supplements it is actually one of the most effective on the market. Carbohydrates are proven to increase muscle growth through multiple pathways and methods. This allows you to take full advantage of every single training session and gain every ounce of muscle within your power.
The next time you go to mix up your post workout protein shake, make sure you throw some carbs in there too. In bodybuilding protein may be the star of the show, but remember that every Batman needs a Robin.