Strategic Carbs for Building Muscle

These days, everybody is always picking on carbs. Athletes, in particular, are extremely likely to avoid carbohydrates in fear of packing on all sorts of unwanted pounds.

The truth, though, is that this is a gross oversimplification of the nutritional reality. Carbs aren't bad; they simply need to be used strategically. So, how can you do that? How can you use carbs for muscle building?

How Your Body Gets Fueled

To really understand the important role of carbohydrates – and how they can be used properly – it's important to first understand how your body stays fueled.

Each macronutrient, whether you're talking about protein, fats or carbs – contain calories. Another oft-maligned aspect of nutrition, calories are simply a measure of energy.

Graphic showing the three different groups of macronutrients and examples of foods within the groups

While all three macronutrients carry calories, though, the fact is that your body prefers and depends on glucose as its primary source of calories. In fact, those macros that you take in from your food need to be converted into glucose before they can be of any good for fuel.

Here's the thing: glucose is a carbohydrate. So, it's vastly more simple for your body to use carbohydrates than fat or protein for fast, ready-to-burn fuel.

Fast and Slow Carbs

But not all carbohydrates are the same. When you ingest a carbohydrate, your body senses a rise in blood sugar and, in response, releases the hormone insulin. This chemical messenger runs around your body and lets all of your cells know that there are tons of glucose ready to be used.

Like the obedient, hungry little things that they are, your cells then absorb that fuel. The severity of this response, though, depends entirely on the speed with which that glucose can be absorbed. So, a fast carb causes a dramatic change in your blood sugar – leaving you slow, tired and hungry.

A slow carb, however, will keep your blood sugar and your energy levels much more stable. It's also important to point out that insulin causes your body to absorb all of the nutrients in your blood stream, not just carbs.

Image of strawberries on a white plate

For the purposes of hypertrophy, this means that any protein you recently ate will also be rushed off and used to rebuild your muscle fibers.

Putting It All Together

So, how does this help us practically when it comes to using carbohydrates to build muscle?

Well, in order to stimulate hypertrophy and get big, impressive muscles, your workouts have to be intense enough that your muscles are adequately challenged. Keeping your energy levels high, then, is absolutely vital. Those carbs are also needed to ensure that your muscles can properly recover for your workouts – which is when that sought-after growth actually happens.

The idea, then, is to consume adequate levels of healthy, slow carbohydrates before your workouts and at most meals during the day. Immediately following your workouts, however, you can break this pattern and indulge in faster carbs – which are generally more... indulgent.

Since you need protein and other nutrients to quickly make their way to your hungry muscles at this point, those fast carbs are going to provide exactly what you need.