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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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November 03, 2008

Dear Mark: Muscle Building and Carbs

By Mark Sisson
78 Comments

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

TAGS:  Aging, dear mark

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78 Comments on "Dear Mark: Muscle Building and Carbs"

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dragonmamma
dragonmamma
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Eddie
Eddie
7 years 10 months ago

Thanks for this post Mark. I am currently following an IF (a “loose” Fast-5.com 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

Andrew R
7 years 10 months ago

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

Marc
7 years 10 months ago

great article. You didn’t end up getting into the post-workout fast and why it would induce HGH.

casey
casey
7 years 10 months ago

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

Charles
Charles
7 years 10 months ago
Interesing! You and Robb Wolff (Crossfit guy) answered the same question today, with slightly different results. http://robbwolf.com/?p=272 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… Read more »
Donna
Donna
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Roly
Roly
4 years 6 months ago

BS. Go ahead and skip your post workout meal and watch your strength and power slip.

Roy
7 years 10 months ago

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!

Kimberly
Kimberly
7 years 10 months ago

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?

James
James
5 years 24 days ago

I think you can exclude fiber

Ricardo
7 years 10 months ago

Great stuff! I don’t believe a blog can get any better than this one! Triple bookmarked!

trackback

[…] but let me lay out the context for that dispute. Read the rest of Mark’s reply here: Post Workout Carb Loading and Muscle Building | Mark’s Daily Apple __________________ WE ARE WHAT WE EVOLVED TO EAT, DIGEST & ASSIMILATE. RESISTANCE IS […]

Jonny
Jonny
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Mark Sisson
Mark Sisson
7 years 10 months ago

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).

drpierredebs
drpierredebs
7 years 10 months ago

The reference to Omega-3 and protein synthesis pertains to bovines and not humans.

JC
JC
7 years 10 months ago

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)

Marc  Feel Good Eating
7 years 10 months ago

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

Donna
Donna
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Jayson
Jayson
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Jonny
Jonny
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Mark Sisson
Mark Sisson
7 years 10 months ago

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.

new_me
new_me
7 years 10 months ago

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

Aaron
7 years 10 months ago

new-me

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

Jonny
Jonny
7 years 10 months ago

OK I get it now Mark – thanks for responding.

JC
JC
7 years 10 months ago
Here is a link http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/md92.htm 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, http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/berardi4.htm 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… Read more »
Ailu
Ailu
7 years 10 months ago

Does anyone know who the guy is in the photo? Unreal.

Donna
Donna
7 years 10 months ago

Ailu,
I know, just call him Mr.Photogenic…L.O.L.!

trackback

[…] follow up on the issue of post-workout nutrition from a couple of weeks ago. I mentioned in Dear Mark: Muscle Building and Carbs that I fast once in awhile after a workout. I’ve gotten a lot of comments and messages about […]

Joe
Joe
7 years 10 months ago

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.

Mark Sisson
Mark Sisson
7 years 10 months ago
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… Read more »
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[…] Dear Mark: Muscle Building and Carbs – Nov. 3 […]

MAYRON
MAYRON
7 years 9 months ago

I have a question is apple good for muscles?

trackback

[…] the soup scum, ideas for coconut, primal snacking, Mark holds court on the (lack of) need for carbs, food pr0n from Dr. Eades, liquid calorie bombs, another magic pill wannabe (note the last line of […]

Lil
Lil
7 years 8 months ago

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?

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[…] deixo-vos dois artigos inteligentes, um pouco provocativos ? certo, sobre estes assuntos: Dear Mark: Muscle Building and Carbs Dear Mark: Post-Workout […]

trackback

[…] C/E paper doesn’t it? Some more research on the subject of post-workout carbs led me to this excellent post by Mark Sisson, which was followed by this equally interesting post. At this point, a lot research […]

ian M/32/182/5'11"
ian M/32/182/5'11"
6 years 8 months ago

Lil:
No grains means no pasta. Potatoes do you no good either.
Eat more fish and veggies and you will do fine.

trackback

[…] Mark Sisson on Muscle Building and Carbs […]

Ben
Ben
6 years 7 months ago

When we say post workout carb loading, does that include PB carbs such as vegetables?

Matt Forrester
Matt Forrester
6 years 6 months ago

Great post as always. Grok on!!!

fixed gear
6 years 3 months ago

For me it’s not the weights that get me, it’s surfing. If I do a hard surf in the one hour+ range, I have to eat non-primal, simple carbs right after or I lose muscle. 30-45 minutes of lifting doesn’t really create a need to deviate from the PB plan.

trackback
6 years 2 months ago

[…] C/E paper doesn’t it? Some more research on the subject of post-workout carbs led me to this excellent post by Mark Sisson, which was followed by this equally interesting post. At this point, a lot research […]

trackback

[…] Post Workout Carb Loading and Muscle Building | Mark’s Daily Apple. Building Muscle « 15 Muscle Building Rules for Skinny Guys and Gals!    Free […]

trackback

[…] Muscle Building and Carbs […]

trackback

[…] Keep it Paleo people! I find a quick protein shake is about all I can handle after a workout, although sometimes if it is super intense and I get the mean shakes  i’ll down a handful of grapes and a dried fig. Usually the protein shake does its job sweet and is super easy to digest especially when you to sick to eat! Check out some reading on mark’s daily apple […]

Alexey
Alexey
5 years 7 months ago
Mark, I did a search on your website for glycogen in hopes to find out whether I have to consume primal carbs. pre/post work out (muscle building for me) and came across two article, this one and (Dear Mark: Primal Compromises for Athletes). And now I’m confused. This article says that carbs. post work out are not necessary while the other article talks about eating honey and sweet potato an hour after work hour. So which one is it? I’m a person is lifting heavy for 40 min at the gym and my goal is muscle gain, do I eat… Read more »
Gary Deagle
5 years 7 months ago

Very interesting article Mark. I have always shoved massive amounts of cards down my pipe post workout, but have recently switched to. A protein shake with a spoonful of coconut oil and seen nothing but positives.

John
John
5 years 5 months ago

From the article you cite: “However, as muscle glycogen content can be reduced by 30–40% following a single session of resistance-type exercise (17), carbohydrate coingestion would be preferred when trying to accelerate muscle glycogen repletion.”

Why do you misrepresent their conclusions?

Jeremu
Jeremu
5 years 2 months ago

Mark you made a fortune off creating P90Xs post workout shake which is loaded with carbs. You even did an interview marketing your product as the ideal post workout food. Now you tell us only protein after a meal. In your product per 2 scoops servings it contains 10 grams of protein and 40 grams of carbs of maltodextrin and dextrose. I think we are owed an explanation.

Mark Sisson
Mark Sisson
5 years 2 months ago
@Jeremu, be careful with your assumptions. Not only did I not make “a fortune” on the P90X deal, I made close to nothing on it. They basically plead poverty and asked me to end my relationship with them about five years ago – after I had designed many of their supplements. They still run my interview and there’s not much I can do about it. I certainly don’t get paid for it. I designed that Recovery Drink nearly nine years ago to their specific workout requirements, which meant having a product that tasted great and allowed you to recover enough… Read more »
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