Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Nov

Dear Mark: Muscle Building and Carbs

Dear Mark,

I am a loyal Daily Apple reader who’s just begun a full-scale primal + IF + HIIT lifestyle. My only worry is that of muscle loss or impeded muscle growth. As a friend of multiple muscle builders, I’ve been told that carbohydrates are necessary for that muscle growth. While I’m not about to go back to my high-carb ways, I am willing to make an exception for post-lifting meals (within an hour window). I’ve heard this is the optimal time for carb-intake as your muscles are depleted of glycogen stores. I am wondering if you could shed light on this. Is this method actually effective for muscle growth? If so, how many carbs should I consume, and of what kind? And finally, will making this one compromise induce inflammation or impede fat loss?

Thanks to Joshua for the question. It’s a common belief that substantial carbs are required for muscle development. As you say, a post-workout carb boost is often seen as a given. The thinking behind this concept is primarily two-fold. First, as you mention, carbs are touted as essential to refill your glycogen stores – pronto – post-workout so you can be ready to work out again tomorrow. I imagine you’ve also been told that your body will begin to break down muscle if you don’t refuel the glycogen reserves right away. The second element involves the role of insulin. The belief here is that raising insulin levels (as a result of carb intake) will enhance protein synthesis.

I’m here to debunk both of those “truths,” but let me lay out the context for that dispute. First off, let’s be clear that in the Primal Blueprint we are not just trying to build unbalanced, swollen body-builder muscles; we are looking to maximize strength and our power-to-weight ratio while burning off excess body fat. One of the effects of over-filling muscle glycogen beyond what is necessary is that swollen look, since we store three grams of water for every gram of glycogen. And once glycogen stores are topped off, excess glucose (carbohydrate) is readily converted to fat. Here’s the key: as long as you keep your hard resistance workout at or under an hour (and usually under 35 minutes in the PB model), your body won’t need a lot of glycogen to get through it. I’ve said in the past (and another study published this month shows) that our bodies can and will restock their glucose/glycogen stores through the gluconeogenesis process using lactate and amino acids. All you really need is a protein-rich snack post-workout for glycogen refueling. Your body can use it to begin refilling its stores, and your normal Primal eating plan during the rest of the day will finish the job. Meanwhile, you’ll cruise through the day nicely relying on your stored fats for fuel.

And that leads us to the other issue of protein synthesis. It’s true that the time immediately after a weight workout is a prime opportunity for protein synthesis. I usually recommend protein in the 30-60 minutes following a workout. (I fast after a workout once in a while to maximize growth hormone – more on that in a later post). For elder apples, protein-rich food may be more effective than a supplement (e.g. shake). (By the way, I’ll throw out the reminder that a dose of omega-3s post-workout enhances the body’s ability to convert food protein to muscle protein. It’s a good time to pop that fish oil pill!)

As for the common belief that carbs play an integral role in protein synthesis, I hope I can lay that one to rest as well. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands compared subjects’ blood and muscle samples during recovery when participants ingested a protein supplement to when they were given a protein plus “various amounts” of carbohydrate supplement. The results? The carbohydrate intake did “not further stimulate post-exercise muscle protein synthesis.” As long as “ample” protein was ingested, the study found, the presence of carbs made no effective difference in protein synthesis.

On the other side of the coin, carb intake can, indeed, negatively impede fat burning by giving the body glucose to use instead of making it work to burn fat. High carb meals that are not consumed directly after workouts will generate lots of insulin. That insulin will promote fat storage once glycogen stores are full, and it will serve to lock fat inside the fat cells. The extra carbs will also contribute to low-level inflammation. Though your metabolism will remain elevated for a while post-workout, you’re essentially done working and burning the same high level of calories. Adding carbs after the fact isn’t necessary, and they come with a price when the body will just end up storing their energy. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, glucose in the bloodstream has toxic implications unless it’s being stored or burned right away as fuel.

In short, you’re much better off wrapping up your strength workout at an hour or less and staying on the primal track. As long as you go for the protein-rich snack afterward, your muscle growth won’t suffer for it. Of course, any PB-style low level aerobic work can be done for much longer, since you’ll be burning primarily fats anyway.

It’s great to hear from people beginning their experience with the Primal Blueprint. Good luck to you! As always, to everyone, thanks for the great questions and comments. Keep ‘em coming!

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to the Primal Eating Plan

What Happens to Your Body When… You CARB BINGE?

The Context of Calories – 200 Calories is 200 Calories. Right?

Dear Mark: Did Our Bodies Evolve to Run on Ketones?

The Entire Definitive Guide Series

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I would like to address the question near the end asking if eating carbs post-workout will induce inflammation.

    I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve discovered that my own body only reacts negatively to grains. I can eat huge quantities of fruit post-workout, and it makes me feel great and full of energy for the rest of the day without poofing me up. On the other hand, anything grain-related gives a soft, spongy feel to my muscles.

    dragonmamma wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  2. Thanks for this post Mark. I am currently following an IF (a “loose” approach,)WOE.

    I tend to train early, (approx. 40 minutes,) somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 a.m. but eat late. (Somewhere between 1-6, 2-7, or 3-8 p.m. as a “window”.)

    Is NOT having protein replenishment until later in the day potentially problematic/counterproductive?

    Thank you !


    Eddie wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  3. Hey Mark,

    I’m glad that you mentioned workout duration and amino acids together. Since I do my strength training right after my HIIT, I tend to use BCAA (branch chain amino acids) supplements in order to stay primal with the after-workout meal. Otherwise, I feel as though my body is super weak and therefore I’m inclined to eat recklessly, which as you have shown in this article is not a good idea.

    Thanks for the post!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

    Andrew R wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  4. great article. You didn’t end up getting into the post-workout fast and why it would induce HGH.

    Marc wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  5. great post as usual mark!

    i was wondering if you’ve heard of sean burch and his “hyperfitness” program and if so, what you think of it. his program mostly trains the fast twitch fibers through lots of plyometrics and anerobic workload, but on certain days requires some pretty intense prolonged running, (40 min or less) and i’m trying to discern whether its possible to go completely primal if i do his program.
    thanks for the great site!

    casey wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  6. Interesing! You and Robb Wolff (Crossfit guy) answered the same question today, with slightly different results.

    The idea of a PWO meal containing carbs (and protein) is to take advantage of a period of time in which the muscles are particularly insulin sensitiveve. We can fly nutrients into the muscle “under the radar” via a mechanism called “non insulin mediated glucose transport”. Amino acids are also taken in during this time and may play a synergistic role in both glycogen repletion but also decreasing inflammation that accompanies hard training. Said another way, you recover from exertion faster. So, what should ya eat? We actually want a starchy carb as our primary carb. Yams and sweet potatoes are great options as they are also highly nutritious. Fruit should be used sparingly in this meal if one is focused on optimized glycogen repletion as fructose refills liver glycogen first, and once liver glycogen is full we up-regulate the lipogenic activity of the liver and start down the road towards fat gain and insulin resistance.

    Charles wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  7. After a workout i eat protein 5-10 minutes after with a glass of water.
    I’ll eat a handful of nuts, or a hard boiled egg, or a piece of chicken. I love albacore tuna, but, i only eat it once or twice a week.

    Mark, i’m looking forward to reading your upcoming post on occasional fasting after a
    workout, i’m interested on learning more on that.

    Donna wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  8. In addition to sub-cutaneous fat (under the skin) people also store considerable amounts of fat in interstitial muscular spaces and visceral fat around the vital organs. Eating carbohydrates after working out probably does lead to build-up of the interstitial muscular stores as those areas are perfused with blood and hence have the highest nutrient flow.

    Hence eating carbs after a workout will increase your ‘bulk’ at the expense of ‘cut’ and of course will do nothing for strength and power.

    Robert M. wrote on November 3rd, 2008
    • BS. Go ahead and skip your post workout meal and watch your strength and power slip.

      Roly wrote on March 13th, 2012
  9. Great Mark, as always. This post should be required reading for anyone seeking access to a gym — or departure from their gym for that matter. A career gym rat, under 45 minutes strength training and some reasonable proteins (and fats) after a workout, and I feel great and with no sluggishness that the killer carbs give me. Thanks!

    Roy wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  10. I actually have a question about carb counting (sort of off topic). You’ve mentioned before that if one is trying to lose fat, keeping carbs under 80 grams a day is helpful. Assuming one is getting their carbs from veggies, do you count the fiber in the vegetables or not? i.e. Is it total carbs, or net carbs that one counts?

    Kimberly wrote on November 3rd, 2008
    • I think you can exclude fiber

      James wrote on September 3rd, 2011
  11. Great stuff! I don’t believe a blog can get any better than this one! Triple bookmarked!

    Ricardo wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  12. Mark I may be missing something here but that Omega-3 study you referenced is saying that the fish oil works by improving insulin sensitivity. I’m reading that as improving the ability of insulin to shuttle nutrients into the muscle.

    Jonny wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  13. Jonny, that’s correct. O3s improve insulin sensitivity, which means that aminos can get into cells without needing a huge amount of insulin to drive them in.

    Charles, Robb’s answer is also correct, but applies to the guy who wants and needs more glycogen all the time because he or she is working hard all the time. I say let’s accomplish the same thing on less time, less overall output and without requiring a lot of glycogen/carbs.

    Casey, one day a week of 40 minutes of running is totaly within the Primal philosophy. (many days a week is/are not).

    Mark Sisson wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  14. The reference to Omega-3 and protein synthesis pertains to bovines and not humans.

    drpierredebs wrote on November 4th, 2008
  15. that photo of the muscle guy is insane! imo if you’re going to eat some carbs anyway pwo is the best time for sure, personally i’ll have some yogurt & honey or similar without sweating it too much, the omega 3 pwo is new info for me, conventional body building says not to consume fat pwo as it delays protein uptake during the crucial pwo window & can force fat into muscle or storage (rather than protein which is what you want for atrophy)

    JC wrote on November 4th, 2008
  16. Mark;
    More questions 😉
    Does fruit(fructose) hit liver first for the PWO?
    Is it not a good idea to eat the fruit? I usually eat protein and fruit apprx 60-80 min. after workout.
    Can you talk more about GH stimulation in regards to PWO.
    JC’s question; can you share some insight. Does fat delay protein uptake pwo?
    Thank you Mark!!


    Marc Feel Good Eating wrote on November 4th, 2008
  17. I eat only protein after a workout with a fresh squeezed lemon in a glass of water. I have fruit later on with a salad, i like my fruit and vegetables together.

    Donna wrote on November 4th, 2008
  18. I didn’t see you clarify this or maybe I missed it, but a post-workout shake doesn’t need to consist of 200 gram of carbs or anything like that. A good post-workout shake should have around 30-60 grams of carbs. This number is well within the 100’s of studies that show it is beneficial and you aren’t likely to store these carbs as fat because they are being utilized for glycogen replacement. There won’t be any extra carbs leftover.

    Jayson wrote on November 4th, 2008
  19. Mark, thanks for responding to my comment.

    I agree it says it improves insulin sensitivity which means you need less to drive protein into muscles. But surely that means that insulin still has to play the role and is needed to drive protein into muscle. In other words you’ll still need a small amount as Jayson said to raise insulin and shuttle protein into muscle.

    Jonny wrote on November 4th, 2008
  20. Jonny, yes, but unless you are Type 1 Diabetic, you will almost always produce some amount of insulin after consuming a meal with carbs OR protein. Even PWO.

    Mark Sisson wrote on November 4th, 2008
  21. Lots of good info, thanks. But what I really want to know is: Is that photo real!!?!!? Somebody should tell him that he does NOT look good! :0

    new_me wrote on November 4th, 2008
  22. new-me

    That is a genuine, 100% real… fake photo. Ah, the wonders of Photoshop. 😉

    Aaron wrote on November 4th, 2008
  23. OK I get it now Mark – thanks for responding.

    Jonny wrote on November 4th, 2008
  24. Here is a link to an article that agree’s with this line of thinking, it is basically saying that carbs post workout replenish glycogen but may well blunt GH, insulin sensitivity & fat burning, from an evolutionary viewpoint protein only or a small amount of natural carbs should suffice pwo.

    @Marc – another article by John Berardi of the more conventional stand on pwo nutrition,
    the paragraph below relates to my comment about pwo fat slowing digestion & therfore release of amino acids into the blood stream for repair.

    While your post-workout feeding should be rich protein and carbohydrate, this meal should be fat free. The consumption of essential fats is one of the most overlooked areas of daily nutritional intake but during the post workout period, eating fat can actually decrease the effectiveness of your post-workout beverage. Since fat slows down transit through the stomach, eating fat during the post workout period may slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates and proteins.

    As your post workout feeding should be designed to promote the most rapid delivery of carbohydrates and protein to your depleted muscles, fats should be avoided during this time.

    JC wrote on November 5th, 2008
  25. Does anyone know who the guy is in the photo? Unreal.

    Ailu wrote on November 6th, 2008
  26. Ailu,
    I know, just call him Mr.Photogenic…L.O.L.!

    Donna wrote on November 7th, 2008
  27. Didn’t Mark design and advertise the post workout shake for the p90x program. This is a shake of mainly carbs in the form of Fructose I believe.

    Joe wrote on November 22nd, 2008
  28. Joe, I did design the P90X post-workout shake. My main “business” is actually designing supplements, which I have done for several companies including my own. In the case of the P90X shake, I was contacted to design a product line to meet their particular demographic and price specs. At the time of design, the main challenge was to refill muscle glycogen immediately after a relatively longer and harder workout such that you could be ready to go again the very next day, so the main exercise premise deviated from PB. Also, the diet being espoused by P90 staff dietions was a higher carb diet, so I had to create something that would give the carb-burners a continuous source of muscle glycogen. The prevailing technology at the time was to combine 80% carb and 20% protein, wich I did using mainly fructose. I added antioxidants and creatine along with a few other recovery assists and made it the best tasting drink on the market. I appeared in their advertising at first as part of the deal, but I am no longer affiliated with the P90X program. Apparently, my interviews are still being used by P90 and there’s nothing I can do about that. Obviously, technology has changed in the years since that product was designed and I personally don’t follow a PWO carb-loading strategy.

    Mark Sisson wrote on November 22nd, 2008
  29. I have a question is apple good for muscles?

    MAYRON wrote on December 6th, 2008
  30. soooooo no carbs?
    I eat a lot of potato:|..haha..and pasta.. is it bad? I wanna gain muscle and look cut but i dont really want to lose weight because i would look anorexic if i did (seriously:| haha) so do i still need to cut back on carbs? even if theyre good carbs? do they delay muscle growth?

    Lil wrote on January 11th, 2009
  31. Lil:
    No grains means no pasta. Potatoes do you no good either.
    Eat more fish and veggies and you will do fine.

    ian M/32/182/5'11" wrote on January 10th, 2010
  32. When we say post workout carb loading, does that include PB carbs such as vegetables?

    Ben wrote on February 18th, 2010
  33. Great post as always. Grok on!!!

    AppalachianMatt wrote on March 11th, 2010

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