Want peak muscle size along with a boost in strength? You’re going to need plenty of carbohydrates.
But don’t stuff your face with every carb-heavy food in your cabinet. You need to carefully craft your carb consumption. Glycogenesis is the process of storing carbs as energy. This energy source (muscle glycogen) is important to athletic performance—the lack of muscle glycogen is the primary limiting factor athletes face in many popular sports. So how do we max-out this carb-storing process? I’m glad you asked.
RELATED: Why Everything You Think You Know About Carbs is Wrong
A case can be made that carbohydrate timing is even more important than its sexier cousin, protein timing.
Insulin (your storage hormone) sensitivity is an important part of glycogenesis, and the body is most sensitive to insulin’s effects 20 minutes after a high-intensity workout. This “anabolic window” is the perfect time for a dose of mixed carbs.
But carb timing goes beyond what you eat after a workout.
If you consume carbs too frequently, your body may become resistant to insulin, which causes high blood sugar. On the other hand, as glycogen levels in the liver are depleted, your body will break down muscle to maintain blood sugar.
Take-Away: Fine-tune your carb consumption to take advantage of insulin, a powerful muscle-building hormone. To do this, consume carbs immediately after a workout. Also, plan to consume carbs two to three hours before training and three hours after your post-workout meal.
RELATED: Build Muscle With the 2-Hour Rule
Carbohydrate is an umbrella term that covers the different types of sugars found in food, and you can use this to your advantage. Even if you flood the body with carbohydrates at the perfect time of day, you still won’t see optimal glycogen replenishment unless the carbs you eat complement one another.
Take-Away: Consume a mixed-carbohydrate beverage and/or food source during your anabolic window. For example: a 100-gram serving of carbs split between lactose, sucrose and dextrose will fill muscle glycogen levels to a greater extent than 100 grams of dextrose alone.
The amount of carbs you eat depends on the type and extent of activity, and the type of carbs being consumed. But you shouldn’t eat more carbs than you need, because extra carbs convert to fat.
So, restrict your carb intake to the times described above, but load up in these windows. You’ll maximize muscle glycogen storage with less sugar.
Your goal should be to eat as few carbs as possible to achieve your desired limit, which is best done by eating carbs during optimum insulin windows. This way you can maximize muscle glycogen storage with less simple sugar.
Take-Away: Calculate your daily carb needs, which should be about 50 to 60 percent of your total daily caloric intake. Then split 90 percent of that number among three meals. For example:
- Three hours prior to training: 30 percent of total daily carbs
- Immediately after training: 30 percent of total daily carbs
- Three hours after training: 30 percent of total daily carbs
Maximizing the Window: A Better Role for Protein
Whether your aim is protein synthesis or not, protein plays another important role during the anabolic window. It’s been reported that adding essential amino acids to carb-rich meals actually accelerates glycogen replenishment. [1,2]
We may debate protein timing as it relates to protein synthesis, but there is a need for protein to maximize glycogenesis. This is extremely important if you train frequently, especially if you exercise more than once per day.
One Last Note
If you’re a weight-restricted athlete, cutting weight may actually be depleting the very energy source you rely on to compete. For this reason, a number of alternative cutting strategies have surfaced, especially for those who have to weigh in the day of competition. MMA fighters normally have a larger window to replenish water and carbohydrates. But wrestlers may want to consider alternative means of dropping weight, such as managing your sodium intake.
1) Ivy JL, Goforth HW, Jr, Damon BM, McCauley TR, Parsons EC, & Price TB. (2002). “Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement.” J Appl Physiol, 93:1337–1344.
2) Ivy JL. (2004). “Regulation of Muscle Glycogen Repletion, Muscle Protein Synthesis and Repair Following Exercise.” J Sports Sci Med, 3(3):131-138. eCollection 2004.
3) Berardi JM, Price TB, Noreen EE, & Lemon PW. (2006). “Postexercise muscle glycogen recovery enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement.” Med Sci Sports Exerc, 38:1106–1113. doi: 10.1249/01.mss.0000222826.49358.f3.
4) Kerksick C1, Harvey T, Stout J, Campbell B, Wilborn C, Kreider R, Kalman D, Ziegenfuss T, Lopez H, Landis J, Ivy JL, & Antonio J. (2008). “International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.” J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 5:17. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-5-17.
5) Poole C1, Wilborn C, Taylor L, & Kerksick C. (2010). “The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis.” J Sports Sci Med, 9(3):354-63. eCollection 2010.