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Carbohydrates for Muscle Growth and Strength

by David Barr CSCS, CISSN
Carbohydrates for Muscle Growth and Strength

The Revelation

The concept of cell swelling for anabolism (ie growth) has been around seemingly forever. Colloquially known as the happy cell theory, this idea states that the more hydrated the cell, the more likely it is to accrue protein. This is because the hydrated state is associated with being fed, such that the energetically expensive process, and subsequent maintenance, of growth is free to occur. In fact, this is much of the basis for the effect of creatine supplementation on muscle hypertrophy.

But what I didn’t understand at first was that the cell swelling effect of creatine that we love so much is largely due to glycogen storage. That is, creatine supplementation increases the amount of glycogen in our muscle, which is likely a large part of the cell swelling. After all, carbs love water and when you store them, the H2O comes along for the ride. Of course, this isn’t the subcutaneous water that’s associated with bloating; it’s the intracellular hydration that looks and feels like added muscle (don’t forget that muscle cells are filled with water –the more the better!).

Striking Balance

More stored muscle carbohydrate (ie glycogen) could result in greater size NOW, as well as an improved signal for growth (recall the happy cell concept). So I began to look for ways to maximize this process while trying to minimize fat gain, and came up with a couple of positive interventions.

Adding table salt to my post-workout creatine was a good first step, but I was wary of increasing carbohydrate intake beyond a moderate level. The reasoning behind this was that resistance training doesn’t deplete muscle glycogen to the same degree as sustained cardiovascular activity, which, at the time, meant that carbs just weren’t important. I was wrong.

Earn Your Sugar Baby

When I finally added more fast carbohydrates after my heavier volume training, I could actually feel the difference. Not only because of the cell swelling (which is a great feeling in itself), but my energy levels were also improved. Overall, since introducing the change in carb intake, my lifts have gone up, recovery improved, and muscle size increased.

The key is to use the right carbs at the right time, and measure the ingested quantity against your actual depletion. In other words, you earn your carbs. For lighter or low volume sessions, your post-workout carbohydrate intake would be much lower than if you had performed a high volume session of heavy squats. For quality, you may enjoy the experience of fast carbs, like dextrose (aka glucose) or Vitargo, following your training.

Key Tip: Adding creatine to your carb-laden post-workout shake may enhance the uptake of this supplement. And based on what you’ve just read, you know that this means greater muscle size.

Practical Application: Use the following chart, based on a lean muscular 200lb individual, and extrapolate your fast carbohydrate quantity.

Glycogen Depletion Level:

Heavy-70g
Moderate-35g
“Biceps day”- minimal


Until next time, Raise The Barr!

For more nutrition information, check out:

M&F’s Muscle Building Food Pyramid

3 Synergistic Gaining Meals

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