Should you eat carbs right after training?

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After training, your body must be able to absorb enough protein for the recovery and building of muscles. But how important are carbohydrates immediately after training?

Key points:

1.   Eating carbohydrates immediately after training, whether or not in combination with proteins, is not strictly necessary for muscle growth. As long as you eat enough carbohydrates throughout the day. The latter means that you should not eat too much protein and not too much fat.

2.   Intake of carbohydrates immediately after training is only recommended if you have trained on an empty stomach, and if you train a second time later in the day.

3.   If you still like to eat carbohydrates immediately after training, choose a nutritious source, for example a banana or some form of complex carbohydrates.

CARBOHYDRATES AS AN ENERGY SOURCE

Carbohydrates are your main source of energy, both for your everyday activities and for your training. How exactly do they work?

After digestion, the carbohydrates we eat mainly end up in our blood as glucose. Then the tissues take up glucose where it can be burned. This creates energy for the body. Unused energy is initially stored in the muscles and liver. This occurs in the form of glycogen. Think of it as an energy supply that is used when your body needs energy. During your training for example.

Carbohydrates are a much more efficient source of energy for strength training than fats xviii ] . That is why as a bodybuilder it is best to eat as many carbohydrates as possible. This with due observance of the minimum required amount of proteins and  fats. For proteins, you need about 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (round up to 2 g/kg/d) and for fats you do not need more than 1-1.5 g/kg/d (in the cut 0.5-1 g/kg/d) xix ] .

For optimal training results, it is therefore best to divide your macronutrients as follows:

  • protein: 1.6-2 g/kg body weight
  • fat: 1-1.5 g/kg body weight
  • carbohydrates: the rest

CARBOHYDRATES BEFORE TRAINING

Should you consume a lot of carbohydrates around your training? Instinctively you would say yes, and it is also what has been preached by coaches for years.

We just saw that carbohydrates are stored as energy in your muscles. If you consume enough carbohydrates on a daily basis, you will in principle always have a supply. As a result, it is not necessarily necessary that you consume a lot of carbohydrates before your training.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with eating a bit more carbs before training than at other times to make sure your glycogen stores are fully filled xx ] . It is even recommended when you are cutting.

If you mainly eat complex carbohydrates before training, make sure that there are a few hours between the meal and the training, so that the main part of the digestion process is already done before the training.

If you didn’t have a large meal before your workout, you may want to eat some quick-digesting carbohydrates, such as a banana, right before your workout. These provide you with immediate energy.

POST-WORKOUT CARBOHYDRATES

But what about carbohydrate intake immediately after training? For example, does it make sense to add a scoop of dextrose to your protein shake? Or to get (fast) carbohydrates in a different way? There are traditionally two arguments why you should do that. Let’s see if they are correct.

“REPLENISHING GLYCOGEN STOCKS”

The first argument is that you need to replenish your glycogen stores immediately after training. And you need carbohydrates for that.

However, this argument has long since been debunked: your glycogen stores will not be so depleted from a single hour of strength training a day. For example, it has been found that even during extremely hard training the body uses only 20-30% of the glycogen in a muscle iii ] xxi ] .

If you eat enough carbohydrates throughout the day, your glycogen stores are always sufficiently replenished. Hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld:

Contrary to popular belief, consuming post-exercise carbohydrate does not meaningfully enhance anabolism. (…) Glycogen replenishment will not be a limiting factor in those who consume sufficient carbohydrates over the course of a given day. iv ]

“ANABOLIC EFFECT”

The second argument lies in the anabolic window of opportunity, the period after training in which muscle protein synthesis (the repair and building of muscle mass) is increased. Because that synthesis may increase the fastest immediately after training, it seems useful if your body has sufficient protein available at that time. That is why many bodybuilders reach for a protein shake after training.

A frequently heard statement is that you need not only proteins, but also carbohydrates after your training to optimize the repair and building process. The theory behind this is that carbohydrate intake increases levels of the hormone insulin. And insulin ensures that proteins are transported to your muscles. It is precisely the interaction between proteins and carbohydrates that contributes to muscle protein synthesis, which is why it is often recommended to take a shake after training with both protein powder and quickly absorbing carbohydrates, such as grape sugar.

However, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this theory. In fact, it has been explicitly refuted in two studies xvi ] [ xvii ] [ viii ] .

And also in other ways, post-workout carbs don’t seem to work miracles: no studies have shown that adding carbohydrates to protein after exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than protein alone x ] [ xi ] [ xii ] .

Brad Schoenfeld again:

No chronic study has addressed the effects of adding carbohydrate to protein compared to protein alone on muscle hypertrophy. ix ]

And in a 2017 review article on timed nutrition for athletes, which articulates the official position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) on the matter, we read:

(…) If total protein needs are met, the importance of adding carbohydrates (and even more so in a timed fashion) may be limited. ii ]

Intake of 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 (whether or not cardio after strength training) i ] .

IF IT DOESN’T HELP, THEN IT WON’T HURT

The foregoing does not mean that you should not take carbohydrates after training. You may be most hungry after your workout; then that is a great time for a protein- and carbohydrate-rich meal.

However, many bodybuilders have the habit of consuming fast (simple) carbohydrates, such as dextrose, sugary energy drinks or even cookies, in addition to ‘fast’ proteins immediately after training. A shame, because that way you get a lot of sugar without nutrients, while we have seen that it does not matter how quickly your body can absorb carbohydrates immediately after training.

If you want to consume carbohydrates after your workout in addition to protein, choose a nutritious source such as a banana or other fruit. But feel also free to choose the ‘slow’, complex carbohydrates, which are also available in powder form.

CARBOHYDRATES AND FAT STORAGE

Carbohydrates are known to many as fatteners, more so than proteins and even more than fats. That is not right.

Indeed, a high carbohydrate intake increases the insulin level in your body and insulin stimulates fat storage. But storing energy as fat is not a bad thing in itself. It ensures that you have a stock of energy for later moments.

Temporary fat storage does not make you fat. You get fatter if you take in more calories than you burn over a long period of time. Gaining and losing weight is mainly about energy balance.

CONCLUSIONS AND ADVICE

1. Eating carbohydrates immediately after training, whether or not in combination with proteins, is not strictly necessary for muscle growth. As long as you eat enough carbohydrates throughout the day. The latter means that you should not eat too much protein and not too much fat.

2. Intake of carbohydrates immediately after training is recommended if you have trained on an empty stomach, and if you train a second time later in the day.

3. If you still like to eat carbohydrates immediately after training, choose a nutritious source, for example a banana or a (powdered) form of complex carbohydrates.

Last updated on November 7, 2021.

REFERENCES

  • i ] https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5
  • ii ] https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
  • iii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3758035
  • iv ] http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/post-workout-nutrition-2/
  • v ] http://www.voedingscentrum.nl/encyclopedie/energie.aspx
  • vi ] https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/calcarbs.htm
  • viii ] https://mennohenselmans.com/optimized-workout-nutrition-carbs-protein-revisited/
  • ix ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3850644/
  • x ] https://insights.ovid.com/crossref?an=00005768-201107000-00004
  • xi ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17609259
  • xii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10658002
  • xiii ] https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/japplphysiol.00622.2016
  • xiv ] https://www.t-nation.com/supplements/tip-low-carb-no-more
  • xv ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27511985
  • xvi ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21131864
  • xvii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12618575
  • xviii ] https://youtu.be/NQS-bhb_vk8?t=2145
  • xix ] https://idealnutrition.com.au/mike-israetel-interview/
  • xx ] http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/pre-workout-nutrition/
  • xxi ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16369816/

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