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Carbohydrate consumption is often associated with weight gain. So, it’s not uncommon for clients to want to follow a low carb diet. Yet, reducing carb intake could negatively impact a client’s ability to achieve optimal muscle gain. Why?
Cells use glucose for energy production. When glucose is stored in the body, it is called glycogen. If the body doesn’t have enough glycogen available, getting through a resistance training workout can be a struggle. Carbohydrates help top off glycogen stores, supporting a more intense exercise session.
When a client’s glycogen stores are low, you may notice that they have a hard time pushing their muscle to the max. Powerlifters may hit failure more quickly or have a lower one-rep max. Those engaging in a less intense strength training routine may find it more difficult as well.
Having adequate glycogen stores is also critical for muscle recovery. This can be a major issue for bodybuilders and other clients intent on increasing their lean muscle mass. Of course, protein intake is also important, but if they want the best results, an increase in carbohydrates may do the trick.
Speaking of protein, research further reveals that carbs are required for proper protein metabolism (1). Thus, eating low carb can potentially limit the body’s ability to use the protein consumed.
One of the reasons carbs have a bad name within the fitness world is that not all carbohydrate sources are healthy or support increases in muscle mass. Educating clients about the different types of carbs is the first step to helping them make healthier dietary choices.
The two most basic types of carbs are simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are broken down by the body more quickly, giving the body a faster dose of energy. They can elevate blood glucose levels quickly, which can cause large swings in blood glucose levels that are not seen as intensely with complex carbs. These spikes may lead to increased food cravings and more mood variations. If too many simple carbs are consumed, it can lead to type 2 diabetes, worsening a client’s health.
Complex carbohydrates create a much different effect on the body. They take longer to digest so they deliver energy slowly over time. Complex carbs also tend to be higher in nutrients. That makes them a better source of nutrition than their more simple counterparts. They also typically provide a good source of fiber which is helpful to digestive health.
The best type of carb to consume depends on each person’s goals—fast energy or sustained energy. Foods that generally fall into the “healthier” carb category include:
Whole wheat bread
Whole wheat pasta
Sugary drinks, foods made with white flour, and most sweets are common examples of simple carbohydrates. Crackers and cookies often fall into that category as well. Simple carbs aren’t always unhealthy and don’t always have to be avoided. However, limiting these types of processed or junk foods can be beneficial to clients working toward weight loss.
Does this mean that clients can never enjoy their favorite foods if these items fall into the simple carb category? Not all. It simply means that most of their carbs should be complex if their goal is to increase muscle mass.
The number of carbs a person should consume to promote muscle growth can vary greatly from one person to the next. This can increase a client’s frustration as they try to figure out the best intake for them. Clients can also be turned off by having to count their carbs. This limits your ability to identify the appropriate intake level.
To make this process easier, it may be helpful to talk in terms of portion sizes. Typically, an active male needs 6-8 cupped handfuls of carbohydrates daily. An active female needs 4-6 cupped handfuls. If they aren’t achieving the muscle growth they want, adding 1-2 additional cupped handfuls per day may be necessary.
Research further indicates that consuming a carbohydrate supplement “as soon after exercise as possible” is helpful in replenishing glycogen stores (2). This ensures that the muscle tissue worked has the energy it needs to recover and repair. This study further recommends consuming 1.2-1.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per hour during longer exercise sessions.
Consuming protein at the same time can improve the storage of glycogen and promote muscle gain. This can be accomplished easily by having clients add fruit to their protein shake. Eating a slice of whole wheat toast with peanut butter is an alternative for those who don’t like the taste or texture of protein powder.
Another way to boost strength training results is to engage in carb cycling. This involves consuming more carbs on high-activity days, lowering carbohydrate intake by as much as 25 percent on rest or low-activity days. One benefit of this approach is that it supplies more carbs on days when the body can use it most. Carb cycling also prevents your body from adapting to a low carb intake, which can inhibit fat loss.
What do you do if a client is on a ketogenic diet or other low carb diet and doesn’t want to increase their carbohydrate consumption? Certainly, you can’t force them to eat more carbs. However, you can educate them as to the benefits of increasing their carb intake, especially if they are struggling to get through their resistance training sessions.
Talk to them about how carbs can increase their energy, making it easier to tackle their workouts. It might also be helpful to aim for small carb increases. Ask them to eat just one more serving daily and see if it makes a difference. If they see that they feel better but their weight doesn’t change, this may be enough. Also, remind them that complex carbs are good for the body and can be part of a healthy diet.
A good muscle building diet considers all of the macronutrients within a client’s total calorie intake. This includes also paying attention to their intake of protein and fat.
Protein is the building block for muscle cells. Muscle needs it to get stronger and bigger. Ensuring that clients are eating enough protein, in conjunction with carbs, makes it easier to achieve their desired physique. If they struggle with this, adding a protein supplement can help increase daily intake.
Consuming healthy fat foods also supports the body as it works to grow muscle. Plus, essential fat is important to overall health—omega-3 fatty acids are good for the heart (3).
In the end, it’s all about eating a balanced diet. Carbs, protein, and fat all contribute to optimal bodily function. When the body is given the nutrients it needs, it is able to respond more effectively to exercises performed.
Want to learn more about how nutrition can affect your ability to reach your weight loss and muscle building goals? The ISSA offers Nutritionist certification. This course provides a deeper dive into dietary protein, carbs, and fat. It also covers dietary guidelines, and how to make changes that support optimal body composition and function.
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.
Bisschop, P., de Sain-van der Velden, M., Stellaard, F., Kuipers, F., Meijer, A., Sauerwein, H., & Romijn, J. (2003). Dietary Carbohydrate Deprivation Increases 24-Hour Nitrogen Excretion without Affecting Postabsorptive Hepatic or Whole Body Protein Metabolism in Healthy Men. The Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology &Amp; Metabolism, 88(8), 3801-3805. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2002-021087
Ivy J. L. (2004). Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 3(3), 131–138.
Chaddha, A., & Eagle, K. (2015). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health. Circulation, 132(22). https://doi.org/10.1161/circulationaha.114.015176