Still think low-carb is the kingpin of building muscle? According to the actual science of it, this old-school mantra is more than outdated. It could effectively be slowing down your progress. In this article, we’ll go into why grains can mean gains, or how starches might get you swole. Keep reading to find out – this it our guide to Carbohydrates for muscle building.
What are carbs and why do you need them?
Carbohydrates – aka carbs – are a macronutrient food group and also your body’s preferred energy source. Where there’s carbs, it’ll use or store them for fuel first. Ever noticed how a bowl of oats or a handful of dates make perfect pre-workout food? This is why.
Carbohydrates can be broken down into glucose, which is then stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen to be used for fuel. Fact – this glucose is also used for energy by the brain and central nervous system too . When your muscles need to work stored glycogen is then transformed back into glucose for fire power.
Hitting a hard session carb depleted is no fun for this reason. You’re most likely to be both hangry and weaker than a low-carb kitten.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
“Moderate to high intensity (e.g., 65–80% VO2max) endurance activities as well as resistance-based workouts (e.g., three to four sets using ~ 6–20 repetition maximum [RM] loads) rely extensively upon carbohydrate as a fuel source; consequently, endogenous (liver: ~ 80–100 g and skeletal muscle: 300–400 g) glycogen stores are of critical importance.” – ISSN, 2008 
Put simply, carbs can be the backbone that holds your high-intensity workout together. As you’re using these workouts to build muscle, this applies to you. Keep reading to find out how they’re good for the gains in other ways.
Tell me what carbohydrates actually are
More specifically though, carbs are a collection of starches, sugars, and fibers. You can find them naturally in the likes of fruits, veggies, gains and dairy – and unnaturally too in processed food like cake, candy, and soda.
Super intense post-sugary cereal energy rush followed by a hard crash by 10 am? That’ll be those processed sugars for you. Warm feeling of fullness and steady energy stream after scranning a slice of wholewheat toast? That’s the kindness of complex.
It’s important to know that your body needs these macronutrients in large amounts as they’re how it gets calories. Macros can also be essential for proper body functioning too, which is just another reason why you shouldn’t cut them out completely .
Yes, keto is big right now and has shown many benefits especially in the realm of cognitive diseases and fat loss – but the evidence isn’t long-term just yet. We’re not hating on the keto diet, we’re just being honest.
Complex vs simple carbs – which is better?
Everybody has heard there’s a war going on between complex and simple carbs. Which is better? How do you choose between the two and what do you need to eat? Won’t simple sugars just make me fat? The answer to all these questions is simple – it’s all down to their use.
The difference between the two types is mainly how fast they’re broken down and digested. Timing is the key to success here – especially for building muscle.
Keeping it complex
Complex carbohydrates are what’s known as polysaccharides, long complex chain of sugar units linked together. Technically anything with over three sugars is considered complex, but you get the picture. You’ll find these in unrefined grains such as;
Yup – that’s your sweet potato right there Mr. and Miss. Bodybuilder.
You’ll hear these foods referred to more as starches rather than sugars. Complex carbs like these take much longer to break down, meaning they provide less of a spike in blood sugar levels, and a slower, more sustained energy release. This is why a bowl of oatmeal can sustain you well past your morning workout while a cheap bowl of sugary cereal has you chewing the lifting chalk after the first set.
When to use complex carbohydrates? Make the most of these steady release starches by eating them around two hours before your workout. This will give your digestive system time to break them down properly before you hit that first rep. Eating them later on will still have an effect, but you’ll be working hard to actually digest them, taking valuable blood and energy away from your working muscles.
Eating a big meal just before training can make you tired and sluggish for this reason. Keep the complexes for around two hours before.
Simple carbohydrates on the other hand have two or less sugars – hence the name monosaccharides and disaccharides. As you can imagine, these guys are broken down super fast by digestive enzymes.
You can taste their sweetness almost right away and may even feel your saliva dissolve them. It’s almost as if mother nature evolved humans to gorge on these whenever they could. Who knew when you’d find the next fruit free or honey hive?
Single sugars can be found in;
Dairy products (galactose).
Other two-sugar carbohydrates also include;
Table sugar (sucrose)
Beer and veggies (maltrose)
Processed food/some supplements (dextrose).
Consuming simple sugars can provide a quick rush of energy by rapidly increasing blood sugar. This can be beneficial before and during exercise – but too much can result in a sugar crash as blood sugars fall back down.
Need a fast blast before hitting the squat rack? Gummy bears or a palm full of dates can do the trick. What’s also good to know is that fast acting carbs like white potato or white rice are easier on the stomach post-training, and because they’re digested quicker are awesome for recovery (see the relationship between carbs and protein synthesis below). Try swapping out your complex carb for a simple alternative after your kettlebell workout to help your stomach and muscle gains.
So to answer the original question won’t simple sugars make me fat? – it all depends. Use complex carbohydrates for slow, sustained energy. Save your simple sugars for fast fixes and short time frames. Spiking your blood sugar isn’t always the best idea for your health, especially if you’re finding yourself low on energy already. Also note that simple sugars in sweet treats and high-processed food are considered empty calories as they offer hardly any nutritional value. Life’s all about balance, so try to keep these treats in check.
How do carbs work?
But what do carbs even do to provide energy? First, enzymes inside your digestive system need to break down the chains binding carbohydrates until they’re reduced to glucose. Your body can use pure glucose for energy by converting it into glycogen, which is then used to fuel muscle.
Glycogen can also be stored in the muscle to be used later if it’s not needed right away. Ever hit a carb-depleted workout and wondered why you had the strength of a sleeping kitten? You’re all set up on the bench but can’t seem to hit your usual numbers? This could be why. You may find employing progressive overload a lot easier if you’re full of fuel for your muscles.
Carbohydrates provide energy so you can train.
Not only that, but carbohydrates are also influential when it comes to brain function. They can actually influence your mood and memory, not just whether or not you feel energized.
Apparently this is to do with carbs aiding the non-essential amino acid tryptophan in entering the brain. As tryptophan makes its way into the brain, extra serotonin is synthesized, which helps to regulate mood. In short, carbs can make you feel good – who knew?
Carbs can help protein synthesis and improve recovery
One thing to remember is carbohydrates are a king in the court of building muscle. Protein is the almighty god of thunder, but carbs are there to fuel the storm.
Experts think this is because when the body detects sugars there’s an insulin release to help push them into the muscle. Amino acids, however, seem to hang on for a ride and get pushed into the muscle too thus speeding up the regeneration of protein. They literally hitch-hike to make you hench.
Key point – Carbohydrates can speed up the process of muscle regeneration
Let’s not forget carbohydrates provide calorific energy too, something necessary for fueling the forging of lean mass post-workout. By throwing your body into a steady calorie surplus there will be extra energy lying around for important things – building! Your body begins to register that there’s an abundance of fuel coming into it regularly, so feels safe enough to let some of it be used for muscle stacking fuel.
Key Points – Carbs:
Increase protein synthesis
Supply muscle building energy
Don’t go to sleep hangry – aka carb depleted
We all understand sleep is integral to performance, right? According to researchers, carbohydrates could help with that too.
Studies have linked high-carbohydrate diets with improved REM sleep in men . Interestingly enough, it’s this state of Rapid Eye Movement that’s linked to increased production of proteins and learning.
Achieving a better night of shut-eye should translate into bigger lifts, better times in the box, faster fight reflexes, and ultimately more anabolic muscle building (testosterone included) .
Let’s not forget about mood and mindset either. Sleep is your greatest ally in fitness – make it a priority. Enjoy your carbs without simple sugars too close to bed and set a tranquil, relaxing sleeping environment. Try to shut off all screens within an hour of going to bed, keep your room cool, and get rid of the clutter. We find having a mind-dump and writing tomorrows to-do list on a piece of paper outside of the room helps clear the mind too. A tired athlete is a poor athlete.
Summary: Carbohydrates are your bodies preferred energy source. They can also be beneficial for mood, recovery, and muscle building.
Carbs are protein sparing
Remember the bit about carbohydrates supplying your muscle with calories? Well, fats and proteins can too. If you’re on a super low-carb diet, you’re going to start looking elsewhere for calories. Fat will come first but if they’re not available your body will turn to protein.
Protein should only ever be used for calories as a last resort! After all, you need those amino acids for reforging and swelling slabs of lean mass, right? Not to break down into energy so you can walk to work or hit another calorie-depleted session.
Muscle wastage is a more serious side effect to deal with. A diet low in both carbohydrates and proteins can be dangerous – literally catabolic. When looking for calories for fuel your body can turn on itself and break down muscle mass for energy. If it had carbs, it wouldn’t need to do this.
Bottom line – carbs don’t just help build gains, but protect them!
Last lift on carbohydrates for building muscle
For years the low-carb diet was the chow of choice for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts. It promised a lean physique without the extra bits of fluff hanging off the side. But, does the major macro really deserve the bad press it gets? When used in the right way – absolutely not!
You can certainly use a low-carb diet to lose weight. Hell, you can use any diet so long as you’re in a calorie deficit. But we’re not here to just lose fat – we’re talking about building muscle!
It’s important to remember though that carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source. They’re also MVPs in certain biological functions, some of which we’ve looked at above. If you want to be bigger, stronger, sleep better, and recover well – probably don’t cut out those sweet starches and sugars. Science says it might be a bad idea.
Good luck out there and embrace the muscle mindset.
More mind food for your gains:
- Macros Matter – How to Count Your Macronutrients & Why You Should Try It
- What Is CBD Oil? – Use, Benefits, Risks, & Legality Explained
- 5 Hacks for Higher Testosterone – How to Boost Testosterone Naturally
 Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., & Kreider, R. et al. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 5(1). doi: 10.1186/1550-2
 Wang W, Ding Z, Solares G et al. Co-ingestion of carbohydrate and whey protein increases fasted rates of muscle protein synthesis immediately after resistance exercise in rats. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(3):e0173809. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173809
 Figueiredo VC, Cameron-Smith D. Is carbohydrate needed to further stimulate muscle protein synthesis/hypertrophy following resistance exercise?. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):42. Published 2013 Sep 25. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-42
 St-Onge MP, Mikic A, Pietrolungo CE. Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):938–949. Published 2016 Sep 7. doi:10.3945/an.116.012336