Do Carbs Build Muscle? Simple or complex carbs for bodybuilding

Written by Tihomir Stefanov, M.S.(C), PT

| Published on

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If you’ve ever been interested in weight training and fitness in general, chances are that you’ve heard a thing or two about carbohydrates. 

Whether it’s from your workout buddy or one of those clickbait headlines on the internet, carbs often get a bad rap as something that should be avoided while trying to get fit. 

But what is the truth? Do carbs build muscle? Is the gym Joe who says “carbs build muscle not protein” right?

Can you build muscle without carbs? And if not, what’s better, simple or complex carbs for muscle building?

In this blog post, we’ll take an in-depth look at these questions and what role carbs play in your fitness journey.

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What Are Carbs?

Carbohydrates are a fundamental source of energy and can be found in a wide variety of food sources such as grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and other dairy products. 

Carbs come in two forms: simple and complex. 

Simple carbs include sugars such as glucose, lactose, and fructose. 

Comparatively, complex carbs are made up of long chains of sugar molecules which are much slower to break down into energy for the body to use. 

They are found mainly in whole-grain starches like pasta, bread, cereals, and legumes.

Complex carbs can also be found in root vegetables, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Functions Of Carbohydrates

For the longest time, carbs have been seen as the devil… But the truth is that they provide the body with its primary source of energy and power our muscles, tissues, and cells – glucose. 

Carbohydrates’ energy is used for all sorts of activities, from intense exercise to everyday mental activities. 

Not only do they play a major role in physical health, but they also impact your mood and behavior by stimulating hormones associated with alertness and happiness. 

Ultimately, though not essential by definition, carbohydrates can be just as viable to our overall well-being as proteins and fats… all while tasting great!

Now let’s get to the meat of this topic, no pun intended.

How Do Muscles Grow?

Muscle growth, scientifically known as “muscle hypertrophy,” happens when the body undergoes and endures a previously unknown load.

Basically, in order for muscles to grow, it is essential to challenge them with progressive overload. 

It can be done through resistance training such as weight lifting, utilizing machines, or bodyweight exercises. 

Now, when it comes to the question of “do carbs build muscle,” it is important to understand some mechanisms.

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During resistance training, our muscle fibers are subjected to immense stress, which can cause micro-tears. 

The muscles then need to recover by undergoing a process of ‘muscle protein synthesis’ whereby nutrients are used to develop bigger and thicker muscle fibers that are better able to withstand future exertion. 

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Muscle protein synthesis, therefore, plays a vital role in recovery from resistance training by providing us with an efficient pathway for improved strength and size of our muscles that have been damaged during exercise.

The Crucial Nutrient

Protein is often overlooked as an essential nutrient in a healthy body in the effort to cut out carbs.

But when it comes to muscle growth, protein intake is critical. 

Numerous studies have indicated that an optimized protein intake leads to an increase in muscle mass. 

Therefore, protein should be viewed not only as an important nutrient for overall health and well-being but also as a key factor for successful muscle growth.

It is, in fact, the most critical out of all 3 macronutrients – protein, carbs, and fat.

Do Carbs Build Muscle?

With this in mind, it is fair to say that if you had to prioritize one nutrient for the goal of building muscle, that would be protein.

But where in the equation are carbs?

Carbohydrates may not be a necessity in terms of muscle building, but they do play an important role. 

Carbohydrates are one of the primary sources of energy, meaning they provide glucose.

During digestion and absorption, some of the glucose is used right away for whatever functions necessary, while the leftover is stored in the form of glycogen.

Glycogen is essentially the stored form of glucose, found mainly in muscles and secondarily in the liver.

This glycogen is then used during activity, and more specifically, during high-intensity activity, such as weight lifting.

Carbs & Performance

When it comes to creating energy for muscle performance, carbohydrates (or carbs) are the best type of fuel, especially when compared to fats. 

This is because carbs provide a ready supply of glucose in the form of glycogen stored in muscles and the liver.

Glycogen has a much simpler structure, meaning that your body can break it down rapidly and use it for energy.

This is not the same for energy from fats.

Overall, when exercising or engaging in intense physical activities, carbs will always be your go-to source of fuel rather than fats. 

The conclusion is this – while carbs do not directly impact muscle protein synthesis, they are prerequisites for better performance.

Better performance means a better stimulus, and therefore, it is fair to say that carbohydrates can indirectly impact muscle growth.

Simple VS Complex Carbs

As you learned, carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy, so when working out, it is important to ensure that our bodies are fueled properly. 

But the thing is, not all carbs are the same.

That is why there has been much debate about simple vs. complex carbs for muscle growth. 

Generally speaking, complex carbohydrates should be relied on as they can release energy gradually without spiking and dropping your blood sugar. 

However, simple carbs are not really an enemy – they can give us a boost of energy when we need it most, such as right before or after a workout. 

This can be especially useful if you are also trying to gain muscle mass, as having an extra energy boost can help you work muscles intensely and see results faster.

So what do you need, simple or complex carbs for muscle building?

The answer is – mainly complex carbs, but you can throw simple carbs and sweet snacks here and there!

Can You Build Muscle Without Carbs?

For those looking to maximize muscle building, it is important to note that you can still build muscle without carbohydrates. 

This is due to the body’s ability to break down proteins into amino acids and convert these into glucose molecules for energy needed for muscular work. 

However, little to no carbs in your nutrition simply means you will be performing sub-optimally.

Besides, without carbs, your muscles will be rather flat, preventing your muscles from reaching their full potential and ultimately resulting in a lackluster appearance. 

To achieve more dynamic gains while maintaining good form and definition, it is advisable to include moderate amounts of carbohydrates in your diet. 

The resulting energy will help you push beyond your limits and sculpt the physique you desire.

So, do carbs build muscle or not?

I heard the other day a guy saying, “Carbs build muscle not protein” and to be honest, at that moment, I knew the guy had no idea what he was talking about.

But do carbs build muscle? Or can you build muscle without carbs?

Well, yes and no.

The important takeaway from this article is that your muscle growth primarily depends on three factors – training stimulus, total protein intake, and total caloric intake.

Carbohydrates are not mandatory for gaining muscle, but their performance benefits are so significant that including them in your nutrition plan is a no-brainer.

Asking “can you build muscle without carbs” is like asking, “can you live if you only take shallow breaths.”

The answer is – most likely yes, but your functioning will be suboptimal!

So, hey, boil some rice, and lentils, pick some fresh fruits, get some potatoes out of the ground and start cooking!

It might just be the best decision you’ve made for your nutrition plan.

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