Why almost everyone is wrong about carbohydrate and muscle growth

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Most people wanting to build muscle pay special attention to the amount of protein in their diet. However, very few realise how important it is to get enough carbohydrate - especially during periods of hard training. The current crop of low-carbohydrate diets (such as The Atkins Diet) has left a lot of people confused about whether or not they should be eating carbohydrate. It’s true that controlling your carbohydrate intake is important if you want to lose fat. However, if you want to gain muscle at the fastest rate possible, it’s important to make sure that you’re getting enough of the right carbohydrate in your diet at the right time.

Rather than bore you with a massive article, we’ve answered five of the most common questions about carbohydrate and muscle growth.

Q. Why is carbohydrate important?
A. When you train hard, carbohydrates stored in your body (this is called glycogen) is used for energy. When you train hard on a regular basis, your glycogen stores start to run out. In the same way that a car only stores a limited amount of petrol, your body can only store a limited amount of glycogen. Once glycogen runs out, your body then starts to use more protein and fat for energy. It gets this protein from the only place in your body that stores it - your muscles!

Use a carbohydrate drink during your next workout, and your body will use the carbohydrate in the drink instead of the carbohydrate stored in your body. This means you'll have more energy left for your next workout and you'll be preserving muscle also. If you normally feel tired and lethargic towards the end of the week or half way through a training session, you'll notice a big difference.

Q. How does carbohydrate help me build more muscle?
A. It’s a fact that carbohydrate and protein work together to stimulate muscle growth. If you use one without the other, you will never make the kind of progress you deserve. One way in which carbohydrate promotes muscle growth is to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as a stress hormone. Although it has many roles in your body, one of its main functions is to break down muscle and burn it for energy. In short, if you’re trying to build more muscle, a lot of cortisol isn’t a good thing!

Japanese researchers have shown that when blood sugar levels drop during exercise, cortisol levels go UP! However, when blood sugar levels are maintained (which you can achieve by drinking carbohydrate during exercise), cortisol levels remain normal [5]. More interesting still, research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine shows that carbohydrate taken during exercise strengthens your immune system [2]. This means there’s less chance of an illness or infection interfering with your training programme.

Not only that, carbohydrate during exercise allows you to train harder. Try it, and you’ll see for yourself. And the harder you can train, the more muscle you build! You might have noticed that the muscles you work at the end of your workout don't grow as quickly as the ones you train first. The main reason is that you're exhausted. It’s almost impossible to apply the same level of intensity or effort to calves or forearms as you do to your arms and chest (the parts of the body most people train first). Drink carbohydrate the next time you train, and you'll feel as strong at the end of the session as you did when you started. Why not give it a try during your next leg workout?

Q. Doesn't carbohydrate get stored as fat?
A. Not if you take it when you train! Your body releases various hormones when you eat food high in carbohydrate. These hormones can turn excess carbohydrate into stored fat. However, when you exercise, the release of these fat-storing hormones is blocked. In short, it is highly unlikely that drinking carbohydrate during exercise will lead to fat gain. In fact, one of the easiest ways to increase your carbohydrate intake is to consume a carbohydrate drink while you train. This will give you the energy and power to lift more weight for more reps, or maintain far higher levels of intensity (during aerobic exercise such as running or cycling), especially toward the end of the session.

Q. Why can't I just use the drinks in my gym?
A. Check the ingredients label on many sports drinks. You'll find they contain large amounts of fructose (which converts easily into fat via the liver and is digested too slowly during exercise) and sucrose (table sugar), which is also not digested quickly enough during exercise. “Fructose might be ‘natural’ but large quantities are not,” cautions Dr. Eric Newsholme, a Reader in Cellular Nutrition at the University of Oxford. He adds that, “too much fructose is probably best avoided.”

So, what’s the best drink to use?

Look for a drink that contains quickly-digested carbohydrate (not fructose), a small amount of protein (preferably from BCAA’s) and minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium. You can make up one of these drinks yourself, using various ingredients found in health food shops. Alternatively, Viper (by Maximuscle) contains everything you need, and also tastes good.

1. Haff, G.G., Schroeder, C.A., Koch, A.J., Kuphal, K.E., Comeau, M.J., & Potteiger, J.A. (2001). The effects of supplemental carbohydrate ingestion on intermittent isokinetic leg exercise. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 41,216-222
2. Henson DA, Nieman DC, Parker JC, Rainwater MK, Butterworth DE, Warren BJ, Utter A, Davis JM, Fagoaga OR, Nehlsen-Cannarella SL. (1998). Carbohydrate supplementation and the lymphocyte proliferative response to long endurance running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, 574-580
3. Bassit, R.A., Sawada, L.A., Bacurau, R.F.P., Navarro, F., & Costa Rosa, L.F.B.P (2000). The effect of BCAA supplementation upon the immune response of triathletes. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, 32, 1214-1219
4. Blom, P.C.S., H'stmark, A.T., Vaage, O., Kardel, K.R. & Maehlum, S. (1987). Effect of different post-exercise sugar diets on the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, 19, 491-496
5. Tabata, I., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Shibayama, H. (1991). Effect of low blood glucose on plasma CRF, ACTH, and cortisol during prolonged physical exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 71, 1807-1812

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