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

muscle mancopyDear 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. Mark,
    I really appreciate that answer. I meant no disrespect, and this was much needed info. Sorry if I came across as confrontational. This subject, is very confusing I think for everyone, and it can’t be ultra frustrating in knowing what to do exactly PWO. There is no doubt after pounding weights for even 30 minutes, you want to replenish yourself and you want to do it fast. What to grab when we get home from the gym is tough. Am I understanding correctly that not only was your P90X PWO shake for a demographic working a lot harder than you recommend on PB, but at that time, you also assumed more carbs than protein PWO was the correct choice?
    This subject should be further explored. What to eat exactly PWO for maximum benefit and how much is still not clear

    Thanks Mark!

    Jeremu wrote on August 17th, 2011
  2. the guy in the photo is not real you dweebs.

    kam wrote on January 11th, 2012
  3. Hey question for anyone (though this topics old) but what do you do when your sport / workout cant be done in under an hour? I boulder abouts 3 x a week and climbing is very mental as well as physical. My hands and grip would never become strong enough working out for 3 hours a week. What should my plan of attack should I have? It seems that all of this is geared towards the weight room, understandably so.

    Jboulder wrote on February 14th, 2012
  4. I think it would make sense to apply a HG analogy to this. My idea is that our ancestors probably ate a lot of fruit before they went hunting to have energy for sprinting and wrestling sabertooth tigers. Then after the hunt they would ofcourse eat the poor sod, getting a big load of healthy grass-fed fat and lots of protein post-workout. Makes sense, no?

    Anders Emil wrote on July 25th, 2012
  5. Mark, I have read that when bodybuilders are trying to get bigger, that it is important to avoid ketosis, this right out of Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding. They say that ketosis will cause the body to cannibalize muscle tissue. Arnie was one of the best at the sport and I respect just advice, but I like the PB too, so is this something that is true and do I need to worry about going into ketosis. My Carb intake is already under 70-80, should I up this?

    Jake wrote on January 22nd, 2013
    • Jake, arnie was juiced to the max. Normal rules simply don’t apply when using anabolic steroids. Plus, imagine his daily calorie requirements – 000s above average.

      Rhys wrote on March 28th, 2013
  6. Hey Mark,

    Big fan of the PB and the Paleo movement.

    I am a competitive rock climber and have competed at World Cups internationally for some time now.

    I have been using the PB strategies for just over 4 years with great results, but I have always wanted to pick your brain regarding my sport. The training that I engage in is very similar to gymnastics training (and many times I am incorporating ring, weights, etc). Our sport is mostly anaerobic with a huge power component combined with low intensity rests – a route will have hard climbing movements with some easier movements in between where one can recover for the next hard section.

    Training sessions can go anywhere from 1.5 -5 hours depending on the micro and macro cycle that I am in. Those hours are not spent continuously climbing but the longest rest period even in a long session would be 5 minutes or so. While I understand that longer training session can be detrimental but my sport really requires short and long session alike.

    I am wondering your recommendation for fueling for this type of training. In past I have used some a post workout shake (endurox, ultragen, etc) to help replenish muscle glycogen and encourage muscle protein synthesis, however some of the information above makes me think twice about the carbs postWO.

    Let me know your thoughts and considerations as I value your advice.

    Feel free to email me with additional questions regarding this all.

    Thanks so much

    Gregariously
    Greg

    PS: what would be your recommendations and considerations for creatine supplementation. We are a strength to weight ratio sport, similar to that of gymnastics. Some of our efforts are only 5 seconds long while others are longer (mainly hard or moderate efforts of 10-15 secs broken up with much lower intensity moves).

    Greg Padovani wrote on April 7th, 2013
  7. Hi Mark! I first have to say that I absolutely love this site, and by the end of the week will be ordering the new line of books you’ve just released…and I can’t wait! This is one of those gray areas for me though, and I find myself in constant search between these types of other posters questions and the “chronic Cardio” questions because I’m still confused on what actually is classified as chronic cardio and what it does do against your weight training sessions. For instance for me, I’ll train with weights at the gym and usually finish my weight training session with an hour of cardio, usually broken up between 2 or 3 pieces of equiptment like stair mills, and various eliptical machines, and yes usually when I’m finished I’m pretty damp and gross in sweat, then off to the showers and home to eat. I follow low carb, high fat and my carb sources are what ever I get in my veggies like brocolli or mixed sallad greens etc. I train like this 6days a week and take a full day off completely per week. Is this training going against me then? Would I do better to split my cardio from my weight training say first thing in the morning and only use the treadmill and walk moderately on an incline, then do my weight training in the afternoon?
    I don’t eat any grains and hardly have any starchy veggies or carbs. So I don’t do any carb loading or add any extra carbs post workout either. I don’t think I’m classified as endurance athelete by any means, although I’ve had many people comment at the gym that my endurance with cardio is impressive, I guess I go quite quickly compared to them and they seem to take notice while I’m there for what ever reason.. Are these all signs this is too much? Is an hour of any kind of cardio moderate, high or low to much for 6 days a week? I don’t play sports and aside from house cleaning or playing with my kids, I’m sitting the rest of the day. I’ve been tossing the over training or chronic cardio around because I’d like to have a more figure I guess, like the one’s who do chose to compete in bodybuilding or fitness competitions, I just don’t want to do their diet recommendations and not sure I could follow something that percise..any suggestions or comments? I can and will handle all the truth and hard answers you may throw my way, I’d rather get the truth then fluff and fat around my waist line if you catch what i’m getting at. Thanks so much and i can’t wait to get your books and continue on this wonderful path! Thanks in advance for your respone

    Miranda wrote on April 8th, 2013
  8. OK, there’s some annoying misinformation here. First of all, not EVERYONE is the same… in fact we’re ALL different in terms of our carb tolerances. Some people can’t so much as look at carbs without putting on weight, whereas others can pound down hundreds of grams post workout and not put on an ounce of fat. Carbs more than any other macro see MASSIVE variation in this regard. Fact is, some people WILL need them PWO… the science backs this up, and having them PWO has proven to have beneficial effect for many people. To issue a blanket statement, “don’t have carbs PWO” is simply wrong. It’s individualistic and ultimately comes down to how hard you work out.

    Furthermore, do you know what Grok looked like? Of course not, but he was probably quite skinny, albeit with good muscle tone and strength. Fact is, he probably didn’t look like most people want to look today. He sure as hell didn’t go to the stone gym or bench press a sabre tooth tiger! The desired look in modern society is for a more athletic muscular physique, whether you like that or not, that’s just how it is. Which leads me on to the most ANNOYING aspect of this article, the fact that when most people here the word ‘bodybuilding’ they think that if they so much as look at the free weights in the gym they will end up looking like that obviously Photoshopped picture at the top of this article! I know that wasn’t serious, but please stop perpetuating such absurdities! Do you have any idea how hard it is for the average male (nevermind woman) to put on a 1lb of pure natural muscle?!

    A 30 minute session by the way isn’t really going to help in that regard, and again doesn’t fit in with how MOST people work out nowadays anyway. A good quality chest/arms routine will take around 60 minutes, or a bit longer. If you’re working out for 30 mins 2-3 times a week, yeah by all means skip the carbs because you’re simply NOT working hard enough!

    Carbs (the right ones of course) can be tremendously useful to the modern gym goer and aid in them putting on lean mass, if they’re working hard. There is a wealth of research that backs this up, but as I mention, every individual is different, so you must find out what works best for you.

    Olly wrote on July 16th, 2013
  9. so if i understang good i don’t need to eat extra carbs after my workout?
    i train generaly around 45-50 minutes of bodyweight training 2-3 times a week
    and do stationnary bike 2 time for 30-45 minutes.
    i usually train at 1610-1620 and go dinner at 1700-1720 and i eat generaly 6 oz of meat 2 cup or the half of my plate of vegetables ,1 apple ,15 almond and 5 tsp of olive oil on my veggis so is enough?

    AJA144 wrote on July 21st, 2013
  10. Great post Mark. I was wondering if you or anyone here could post their thoughts on Carb consumption as it relates to working out twice a day. I do Crossfit to supplement my Jiu Jitsu training. As such I am constantly on the prowl for a few bananas or pieces of fruit right after. Im thinking this wouldnt have such a huge impact on my insulin response as I am constantly working out twice a day or have intense 1 day Jiu Jitsu sessions. Thanks in advance

    ALasalle wrote on October 2nd, 2013
  11. Hi Mark,
    You mention testosterone in this article as it obviously serves as the foundation upon which consistent muscle gains can be made. However, several peer-reviewed studies have shown how a low-CHO diet suppresses testosterone production.
    Christopher Walker, of Nogym.net, managed to raise his T level from 11 ng/dl to 1192 ng/dl over 18 months, and he attributes much of his endocrine optimisation to a balanced macronutrient intake.
    I think most health-conscious men would attest to this from a anecdotal point of view too, when performing heavy resistance training ~3 times a week.

    I agree with you on everything but such a low CHO recommendation Mark, so please don’t see this as an undermining of your expertise. I am just confused as to why you believe minimising starchy carbs is conducive to testosterone production. I would greatly appreciate if you could shed some light on your stance.

    Thanks,
    Jonny.

    Jonny wrote on April 12th, 2014

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