Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ have gotten a bad rap over the past few years. Being viewed as a main reason for type 2 diabetes and a whole host of other diseases within the developed world. Carbs and their relationship to obesity and diabetes is a whole other topic for another day. But it’s worth mentioning because due to their bad reputation they’ve built up, many ACTIVE populations have gotten into the low carb lifestyle. And many of them, like strength athletes and sadly endurance athletes are misled by this notion and will most likely suffer from performance decrements as a result.
Carbs are largely important for optimizing your workouts during your session and for recovery purposes after training. Many athletes misunderstanding of their multiple uses in sports will often times make their carb intakes be shafted in exchange for a less useful high fat/protein diet.
Carbs and Exercise = Power Couple
For people that train at a high level in whatever their given discipline they should know how big a role carbs play into that equation.
Your body stores carbohydrates for fuel in what we call ‘glycogen’. We store this in 2 places…
- Our Skeletal muscle
- Our Liver
Muscle glycogen’s primary role is to fuel high intensity bouts of training. So anything from sprinting, performing a tough set of 8 on squats, or a shift in hockey will require a substantial contribution from our muscle glycogen. High intensity exercise less than a few seconds long, like throwing a shot put or a performing a 1 rep maximum squat do not use glycogen and are reliant on the phosphocreatine system… aka creatine. I included that for the purpose of the blog to understand where they specifically come into play. Carbs use within most people’s TRAINING is what truly makes them shine in their ability to optimize performance and promote optimal recovery.
Relevance to Strength Training
So as I stated above, much of our strength training sessions use glycogen in order to fuel our workouts to the highest level. Unfortunately many people are misled about carbs and think that since they are not endurance athletes there is a lack of demand to have them. So to the detriment of the lifter, they will up their protein and their fat intakes and keep carb intakes low since they believe they are not “using them” due to the lack of cardiovascular training in many strength sessions. Consequences of low carb intakes can resonate as a few different signs…
- Difficulty recovering set to set.
- Perceived feeling of training volumes being heavier and more grueling than it should be.
- Difficulty recovering workout to workout. Meaning, less progress made in an otherwise reasonably monitored program.
Now in many instances there MAYBE other factors involved here. We do need to make sure our training programs are on point first before we point to lack of carbs as the culprit. But for the sake of this article we are going to assume your training and out of gym recovery is exactly on point. Meaning you never ever go out and party on the weekends and such 😉
More Carbs = Better Recovery
High level strength training taxes the nervous system to a large degree. Your nervous system regulates everything in the body, but from an exercise standpoint, your nervous system will determine your level of readiness for the bout of training and it will determine your ability to recover from the stress placed upon it.
Hard training makes fatigue in the body rise. If your fatigue does not rise from your training there’s a good chance you are not training hard enough. How much fatigue one SHOULD get over a span of days/weeks/ months is an individual endeavor and far beyond the reach of this article. But, if fatigue accumulates too quickly during the subsequent days and weeks you will be diminishing your ability to get stronger overtime. Because the quicker you can recover from your hard training the faster progress you can make!
Want to know more about fatigue and it’s relationship to training? See my article on deloads in training!
Whenever low carb diets/plans come into play with people trying to gain muscle, they are going to have slower progress. As muscles prefer muscle glycogen to energize them during their strength training sessions. If you limit your carb intake overall, your body will have less stored carbohydrate to work with when they are training which therefore will slow progressions.
Can’t We Eat Carbs Before Workouts To Augment The Effects Of Low Carb?
Free floating glucose is good for many bodily functions to a point. But the body does not necessarily use free floating glucose for energy for strength training. It wants stored muscle glycogen over glucose. So simply eating carbs before a bout of training will not mitigate the effects of low carb dieting over a span of weeks and months.
Yes, It’s better than nothing. But unfortunately there is no natural drug-free hack to doing low carb dieting.
More Muscle Glycogen = More Protein/Muscle Sparing
When muscle glycogen is high it will allow for better utilization of amino acids towards repairing and building MORE muscle. So basically if your carb intake is low the body may metabolize muscle more readily to augment the job the muscle glycogen was supposed to do. Muscle burning is basically an active person’s worst nightmare.
If you are trying to lose body fat you will need to be in a hypo-caloric diet. Meaning you need to burn more calories than you take in over a span of time. More than likely, carbs will need to be lowered at some point in order to lose body fat. Protein should not be dropped too low for muscle mass purposes and fat should not be dropped too low for health purposes. So you will eventually need to drop carbs in order to see additional fat loss. This is the unfortunate truth when you are trying to lose body fat. For drug-free athletes, at some point you will see performance decline with continuous low carb dieting.
How Many Carbs Should I Eat Per Day?
If you are sedentary and never challenge your body to adapt physically or metabolically, a low carb approach is best for this population. The low carb fad plays in well with people who have no interest in being active. But for active populations that are stagnating in progress, their carb intake maybe suspect.
Strength athletes should aim for anywhere between 1-2.5 grams per lb of body weight.
Factors that will determine your intake…
- Occupation (do you sit at a desk for 8 hours or do you work construction?)
- Age (The older you are the lower your intake maybe)
- Sex (Men carry more muscle mass per pound of bodyweight so they will typically side with the higher number)
- Training Experience (More trained= better utilization of glucose for muscle glycogen)
- Body Comp Goal (are you trying to lose body fat or gain muscle?)
Based on these factors you can determine which carb intake is best for you. But for a simple basic road map. If you are a strength athlete 50% of your caloric intake should be given for carbs. Based on your personal anatomy & physiology you may need to side with higher or lower numbers from there!
But Carbs Make You Fat Though, Right?
This has been a debate in evidenced (and propaganda) based nutrition circles for several years now. The scoop with carbs is simple. They have been verified to cause greater increases in body fat gram per gram more so than fat or protein. What this means is that if you eat 1000 calories worth of protein or fat you will store less of it as body fat than 1000 calories of carbohydrate due to a variety of metabolic processes(1).
The difference is small, but significant for some. And certainly it is far from the only reason people are over weight in many developed nations today. The issue is overeating of ALL of the macronutrients of protein, carbs, and fat.
Calorie surpluses are what truly make you gain excessive body fat overtime. And although carbs MAY take less to burn than protein or fat, they help quite a bit in the building and preservation of lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass burns fat while at rest. So the more of it you have the more fat you will burn over time.
So no, carbs do not make us fat and that is what we call “Straw-Manning our argument.”
High carb diets plus a sedentary lifestyle is what really allow body fat to be packed on. And THAT will cause a variety of other metabolic disorders that we see everywhere we go!
If you want to reap the full benefits of your strength training, carbs are a must. They are not just for endurance runners. Your muscles use muscle glycogen as it’s primary fuel source and failing to fully utilize this source may leave you unable to fully unleash your potential as an athlete!
- Casperson, Shanon L., et al. “Postprandial Energy Metabolism and Substrate Oxidation in Response to the Inclusion of a Sugar- or Non-Nutritive Sweetened Beverage with Meals Differing in Protein Content.” BMC Nutrition, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, doi:10.1186/s40795-017-0170-2.