Bodybuilders are traditionally advised to eat a lot of carbohydrates, especially around training. But why actually? And what does science say about this?
1. Carbohydrates are important for muscle growth. They are the primary source of energy for strength training, they stimulate the release of the hormone insulin, which is important for muscle growth, and they reduce the release of the catabolic stress hormone cortisol.
2. In the bulk, you eat 10-20% above your maintenance level (calorie requirement), that you eat 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily (protein requirement) and that you eat 1 to 1.5 grams of fat per kilogram eat body weight (fat requirement). What remains are the carbohydrates, which usually amounts to 3-5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
3. In the cut you eat 20-25% below your maintenance level, 1.8 to 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and 0.5 to 1 gram of fat per kilogram of body weight. What remains are the carbohydrates.
4. Timing of carbohydrate intake is not that important, as long as you eat enough throughout the day. Although it is fine to plan your training between two protein- and carbohydrate-rich meals.
THE ROLE OF CARBOHYDRATES IN MUSCLE GROWTH
Carbohydrates are important for muscle growth. And for the following reasons.
In the first place, they are the main source of energy for strength training. Strength training is an anaerobic activity that primarily uses carbohydrates as an energy source, namely in the form of glycogen that is stored in the muscles and liver. Carbohydrates are therefore more important for strength training than fats, which are only used a lot during aerobic (longer-lasting) activities.
In addition, carbohydrates stimulate the release of the hormone insulin, which, according to coach and author Mike Israetel, has a positive effect on the recovery of your training and on muscle growth. In addition, full glycogen stores promoted recovery and the presence of (a lot of) glycogen in itself also has an anabolic effect, according to Israetel.
Finally, carbohydrate intake reduces the production of catabolic cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone’. And that also has a beneficial effect on the recovery of your training.
Despite the importance of carbohydrates, as a natural bodybuilder you do not have to eat too much of them. Coach Menno Henselman was at the helm of a major review, which includes no fewer than 49 studies. In it he came to the conclusion that high carbohydrate intake offers no benefits with regard to muscle growth and strength gain, apart from a few specific situations (see below). This is as long as you consume enough calories.
HOW MANY CARBOHYDRATES IN THE BULK?
Despite the importance of carbohydrates, as a natural bodybuilder you do not have to eat too much of them. According to a large review by coach Eric Helms, among others, you can suffice in bulk with 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day. Helms’ colleague Schoenfeld speaks in an interview with Men’s Health of a minimum of at least 3 g/kg/d.
According to Helms, as well as according to his fellow coach Mike Matthews, the best way to calculate the amount of carbohydrates you need is to look at the other macronutrients first. In the bulk, you eat 10-20% above your maintenance level (calorie requirement), that you eat 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (protein requirement) and that you eat 1 to 1.5 grams of fats per kilogram of body weight (fat requirement). What remains are the carbohydrates.
It’s also important to distribute your protein throughout the day, making sure your workout falls right between two protein-rich meals. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins cannot be stored and preserved until the moments when they are needed most (such as during the anabolic window). Proteins should be spread evenly throughout the day in ‘shots’ of 20-40 grams.
- calories: maintenance level+10-20%
- proteins: 1.6-2.2 g/kg/d (distribution: 20-40 kg/meal, spread evenly over 3-6 meals)
- fats: 1.5-1 g/kg/d
- carbohydrates: the rest
Most important in this list are your calories and proteins. The division of fats and carbohydrates does not seem to be so strict for muscle growth. As long as you make sure you’re not low on carbs, someone on a carnivore, keto, or paleo diet may be deficient in glycogen and not maximize muscle growth, according to Schoenfield.
HOW MANY CARBS IN THE CUT?
You should also continue to eat enough protein in the cut , even more than in the bulk, as explained in this article . Aim for 1.8 to 2.7 g/kg, depending on how ‘dry’ you are. The rest is reserved for carbohydrates and fats.
Although a matter of personal preference, we recommend consuming as many carbohydrates as possible. This is because in a calorie deficit , the role of carbohydrates, including as an energy supplier for your workouts, is even more important. Therefore, do not eat more fats than necessary (between 0.5 and 1 g/kg/d is sufficient for most, see this article ).
- calories: maintenance level -20-25%
- proteins: 1.8-2.7 g/kg/d (distribution: 20-40 kg/meal, spread evenly over 3-6 meals)
- fats: 0.5-1 g/kg/d
- carbohydrates: the rest
WEIGHT LOSS AND CARBOHYDRATES
The idea that carbohydrates are fatteners is probably mainly due to the popularity of low-carb weight loss programs such as Robert Atkins’s several decades ago. And yes, if you cut a lot of carbohydrates in your diet, you will undoubtedly lose weight. But that’s not because of the carbohydrates, but because you eat fewer calories.
After all, extensive research and numerous other studies show that for fat loss it does not matter whether you go low-carb or low-fat. Neither carbohydrates nor fats will make you fat as long as you keep your calories at or below maintenance levels. So it makes no sense that cutting out bread from your diet burns more fat than cutting out cheese, assuming they have the same number of calories. You do burn slightly more calories when you eat protein-rich products, because proteins in our body offer the highest thermal effect.
In short, fat loss is mainly about energy balance — calories in, calories out — and consuming enough protein. The distribution between carbohydrates and fats is not so important for fat loss. However, for muscle maintenance, like several renowned coaches, we prefer a minimal intake of fat, so that you have a relatively large amount of carbohydrates.
TIMING OF CARBOHYDRATES (BEFORE TRAINING)
Nutrition timing is still a hot topic in the bodybuilding scene. And yes, it is advisable to time your protein intake somewhat, as we have already seen, namely by distributing it over three to six meals daily. Because unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins cannot be stored and preserved until the moments when they are needed most.
Timing plays a much smaller role with fats and carbohydrates. With fats, you should especially ensure that you do not eat them too close to training, because of the slower digestion of fats. Use them preferably after training.
And carbohydrates? You don’t have to worry too much about timing. Many bodybuilding coaches recommend having a meal high in carbohydrates before training. However, the aforementioned meta-analysis by Menno Henselmans concludes that a high intake of carbohydrates before training does not lead to better training performance than a low intake. And probably not to more muscle growth, although the latter has not often been specifically researched.
A second meta-study, by coach Eric Helms, shows that nevertheless that carbohydrates are important for muscle growth, especially eaten before training, but according to a review of the study, by Henselmans, not as important as often suggested.
Henselmans concludes on the basis of both meta-analyses that carbohydrate intake before training is only important in specific situations:
- with very voluminous workouts (more than 11 sets per muscle group);
- if you train twice in one day;
- if you haven’t eaten yet.
Henselmans acknowledges that training on an empty stomach is sub-optimal and recommends eating 15 grams of carbohydrates at least three hours before training, along with proteins (0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight).
Although there are studies that show better training results and more muscle growth with a high carbohydrate intake, usually there is also a higher total calorie intake. The better results are therefore not necessarily due to a specific macronutrient, such as carbohydrates.
Of course there is nothing wrong with eating a protein and carbohydrate-rich meal two to three hours before training. As long as you eat enough carbohydrates throughout the day, the times when you consume them make little difference.
TIMING OF CARBOHYDRATES (POST WORKOUT)
Eating carbohydrates immediately after training, whether or not in combination with proteins, is not strictly necessary for muscle growth. In this article you can read why. As long as your total intake in one day is sufficient.
Taking carbohydrates immediately after training is recommended if you have trained on an empty stomach, if you train a second time later in the day, and if you do endurance sports (with or without cardio after strength training).
From a health perspective, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains (such as whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and sweet potatoes) are the best sources of carbohydrates (so-called complex carbohydrates). They are also very filling and contain a lot of fiber, making them ideal for during the cut.
In the bulk, however, you will also need to use less filling and fiber-rich sources, such as bread, potatoes and white rice (the so-called simple carbohydrates).
Simple carbohydrates are also found in snacks, drinks and ready meals, but it is better to avoid these from a health point of view. Although you are allowed to sin during a firm bulk, especially if you find it difficult to eat a lot.
Published February 22, 2022, revised August 20, 2022, last updated on October 1, 2022.