Carbs: The Anabolic Nutrient
Carbohydrates can help you pack on muscle — or bodyfat — depending on when, what and how much you eat. Here’s what carbophobes and carboholics need to know about this important macronutrient for optimal physique gains.
To take advantage of these muscle-building benefits, you should drink a post-workout shake containing a 2:1 ratio of high-glycemic index (fast) carbohydrates and fast-absorbing protein. The best combination is dextrose or maltodextrin and whey protein hydrolysate or isolate. Individuals who are sensitive to dextrose or maltodextrin can use waxy maize as an alternate fast-carb source. If you opt for waxy maize, just make sure to take it 15–20 minutes before your protein powder, as its impact on blood sugar may be slowed when taken at the same time with protein. In any case (depending on your body mass), you should strive to ingest approximately 60–100 grams of fast-absorbing carbs and 30–50 grams of fast-absorbing protein as soon as you finish working out. In general, you should aim to consume 1–1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (divided into six doses throughout the day, with one being 30 minutes prior to training and one being immediately after training).
Carb loading in bodybuilding is primarily used as a strategy to make muscles look fuller and skin appear tighter while onstage, during a photo shoot or whenever you want your physique looking its absolute best. There are numerous diet and workout strategies used for carb loading in bodybuilding, but the common goal among all approaches is to create an environment of glycogen super-compensation in skeletal muscle. This state is achieved by depleting glycogen stores by high-repetition, long-duration workouts for days under carbohydrate restriction. Once carbohydrate depletion is achieved, the diet switches to short-term, high-carbohydrate intake, during which the body restores glycogen in muscle to a higher level than before depletion. From a performance standpoint super-compensation provides more glycogen for subsequent exercise bouts, but (important for bodybuilding) it also results in an increase in muscle cell volume (cell volumization). This boost in cell volume occurs because each molecule of glycogen takes four molecules of water with it into the cell, resulting in less subcutaneous (under the skin) water and fuller-looking muscles, which give the body a leaner/harder appearance.
Here’s an example of a carb-loading strategy: For 3–5 days, deplete muscle glycogen stores by decreasing your carbohydrate intake by 50% or more (replace calories by increasing your fat intake) and train using full-body, high-rep workouts. After glycogen depletion, double your original carb intake for the three days preceding your competition, photo shoot or special event. Since each individual responds differently to carb loading, you should experiment with this strategy in the offseason to know exactly how many days you need to deplete/super-compensate glycogen and look and feel your best.
This is a relatively new strategy that aims at maintaining or building lean mass while losing bodyfat, as it combines the anabolism-boosting benefits of carbohydrate ingestion and the fat-burning advantages of low-carbohydrate diets. In the quest to get lean, many nutrition plans are centered on low-carb strategies to force the use of bodyfat for fuel. However, there are theories suggesting that staying on a low-carb diet for extended periods can lead to a decline in leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that staves off hunger while simultaneously keeping your metabolic rate elevated. By going through alternating periods of low-carb and high-carb dieting, you can prevent drops in leptin levels, maintain hunger control and ensure your metabolism stays revved.
Carb cycling also provides a psychological advantage over strict low-carb diets. Knowing you’ll be able to eat carbs again in a few days makes getting through the low-carb days much more manageable. Another problem with strict low-carb diets is that they force you to limit fresh fruit and whole grains, two food sources that provide a number of health pluses like antioxidants and phytonutrients.
As you can see carbs serve a major role in bodybuilding, from bulking up to the final touches in your contest preparation. The key to using them effectively is to have a basic understanding of how they affect the body based on ingestion timing, amount and impact on blood glucose.