Is the low carb diet for bodybuilding any good and does it lead to better muscle gains?
Low carb dieting is one of the most talked about concepts in modern day training and nutrition.
In the last decades, bodybuilding concepts got further and further away from the fundamentals, that have been proven to work.
This led to many misconceptions and needless to say, a TON of fad diets that grab the regular trainee’s attention, because they promise quick results.
However, what remains unchanged is the body’s response to certain types of conditions.
For today, we will discuss one specific topic – Low carb nutrition for bodybuilders.
And so, is a low carb or even a ketogenic approach to bodybuilding the best way to go?
Well, before we give you a definite answer to that question, let’s see what are the primary goals that bodybuilders focus on:
- Muscle size
Now let’s see where low-carb dieting can fit well, by first analyzing the process of gaining mass & strength.
Gaining muscle size & strength
Is the low carb diet for bodybuilding good? Let’s find out by first breaking down the possible outcomes of our training.
When it comes to developing muscle mass, there are two types of growth (hypertrophy) that we can achieve:
- Myofibril hypertrophy
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
Myofibril hypertrophy is the growth of the musculature’s contractile elements, namely the myofibrils, otherwise known as muscle fibers.
This type of growth is also referred to as “Functional hypertrophy”.
That is because it is mainly linked to increases in maximum strength.
Though this type of growth will still make you bigger, muscle size is not the primary adaptation.
The primary adaptations with myofibril hypertrophy are related to the development of the nerve paths that lead to the myofibrils, as the training approach implies more intensity and hence, strain.
We can achieve myofibril hypertrophy by training in the strength range (1-5 repetitions).
On the flipside, we have sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which is related to the increase in volume of the sarcoplasm.
This “sarcoplasm” is the jelly-like fluid that surrounds the muscle fibers and it contains non-contractile elements like water, protein and glycogen.
The best stimulus for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is achieved by training in the bodybuilding rep range (6~12 repetitions)
Glycogen is the end product of carbohydrate metabolism and it is in fact, the stored form of blood glucose.
The body stores glycogen in the liver, as well as the muscles and uses it upon demand.
Now, we need to note here that in the strength range (1-5 reps) we primarily use the body’s most powerful energy substances – Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) & Creatine phosphate (CP).
That is to say that the high-intensity range (85%+ of our max. strength capabilities) does not really utilize glucose and glycogen.
What this means for you is that if your MAIN goal is related to powerlifting and/or gaining relative strength, then a low carb diet won’t really have a big impact on your performance.
If your goal is optimal visual muscular development, then a low carb diet would hinder your performance.
ATP & CP storages of the body are relatively limited, and so, after about 10-15 seconds of intense training, intensity naturally decreases and the body starts looking for means of regenerating ATP to sustain activity.
To do so, it taps into the glycogen storages of the musculature, throwing them into the energy-releasing processes and regenerating ATP via a process called “glycolysis”.
And so, if you are a bodybuilder who is looking to achieve visual results, then a low carb approach will not be your best friend.
Ketones for energy
“B-but bro, the body can adapt! You can use fats as fuel for muscular activity, have you never heard of ketones?”
Yes, of course we’ve heard of ketones!
It is true that the body can use fat and protein to sustain muscular activity.
This often leads to the question – Is the low carb diet for bodybuilding, or even no carbs at all, any good?
Well, it has been proven times and again that glycogen (carbs), is the ONLY source that can be broken down into energy RAPIDLY enough.
In other words, if you’re mainly utilizing the 6-12 rep range to stimulate bodybuilder hypertrophy (sarcoplasmic), keto & low carb diet may work, but will more than likely be SUBOPTIMAL!
Simple as that.
Check out our in-depth article on Keto for bodybuilding.
Low carb diet bodybuilding cutting
What we’ve said up until now is that when it comes to pure muscle growth in the off-season, then low-carb is a BIG NO!
Heavy, intense, muscle-building workouts require LOADS of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates & glycogen remain the KING of high-intensity training bouts. Period.
However, the low-carb approach DOES have its place in the bodybuilder’s training cycle.
If you’re more advanced, then odds are you have now separated your yearly training cycle, in order to target specific goals.
Those two periods are:
- The bulking period
- The cutting period
In the bulking period, as we already mentioned, the goal is to gain as much muscle mass as possible, with as little fat as possible. This is where carbohydrate loading comes into play, to optimize our workouts.
During the cutting period however, the goal is to lose as much fat as possible with as little muscle loss as possible.
THIS is the exact period where decreasing carbohydrates CAN work. However, we’re not talking keto.
Let’s dive into the cutting period.
How to cut body fat
When it comes to bodybuilding, gaining muscle isn’t really the only part of it.
The second most important part is actually losing the excess fat and showcasing the leanest version of your body.
Though our weight comes down during a cutting phase, if we do it correctly, we will actually look BIGGER, at a lesser weight.
And so, let’s list out the most important aspects we should consider during the shredding period.
If you don’t yet know, in order to let the body tap into the fat reserves, we have to consume a lesser amount of calories, than the body requires to maintain its weight.
The shredding (cutting) period is also referred to as a “Period of time eating at a caloric deficit”.
However, specifically in this case, the more doesn’t mean the better.
The deficit needs to be moderate, as too big of a deficit will cause the body to burn a lot of lean body mass and on top of that, we might experience a decline in some functions.
Given the information above, we recommend a caloric deficit that will allow you to lose about 1 pound of weight per week.
The deficit for this sustainable weight loss forms at around 500 calories per day.
This is where it gets interesting.
Once we have our deficit calories up and calculated, it is time to break them down into nutrients (protein, fats and carbs).
Protein & fats
We must note here that the MOST important macronutrients for the body are proteins and fats.
That is simply because protein is responsible for growth, recovery and thousands of other functions, while fats are intertwined with endocrine (hormonal) processes.
What this means is that if you severely deplete your body of essential protein, you will recover suboptimally after workouts and you will lose more mass.
Furthermore, severe and systematic depleting of dietary fat, will lead to a decline in hormonal functions.
And so, proteins and fats must be the FIRST and foremost priority, when we’re building a shredding plan.
Optimal protein intake for retention of lean body mass, forms at around 0.8-1.2 grams per lbs. of bodyweight.
You’d be on the lower spectrum of that range if you’re a beginner/intermediate who has little mass.
And then of course, you’d be on the higher end of that spectrum, given that you are an advanced trainee, who has more muscle mass.
As to fat, we highly recommend having it be at least 20% of your total daily energy intake.
Optimal fat intake forms at about 0.35-0.45g per lbs. of body weight.
Now here is where we can DECREASE carbohydrates!
As we already learned, protein, fats and total daily energy balance are the most important factors that will affect our body composition.
That is to say that the caloric deficit, required to lose fat, MUST NOT be created at the expense of protein.
The best approach to creating a deficit is cutting out carbohydrates & just SOME fats.
It needs to be noted here that as we mentioned in the beginning, carbohydrates are what will fuel our workouts.
If you severely deplete your body of carbs during a deficit, your workouts will be suboptimal.
Suboptimal workouts then lead to suboptimal lean muscle retention!
In other words, during a cut, you MUST include carbohydrates, though they are not essential like protein and fats.
Ultimately, with an adequate carb intake, you will perform better workout to workout and will therefore, retain more muscle mass.
High carb low fat foods for bodybuilding
Low carb diet for bodybuilding…? No.
We now know that carbohydrates are the easiest and most sustainable source of energy for intense bodybuilding workouts.
The body can adapt to a low-carb diet, but it is more than likely that the results for the specific goal, will simply be suboptimal.
If you’ve already managed to accept the fact that a balanced diet is the best for ANY case, then you’re good to go.
Generally, most carbohydrate-rich foods are also low in fat, meaning that they are not so full of calories!
Now let’s see some of the best sources of carbohydrates, that will fuel our bodybuilding workouts.
Here are our top 3 picks for the best sources of carbs!
This is one of the preferred sources of complex carbohydrates, that will allow the body to gradually release and/or store energy.
Oats are a high-fiber food, meaning that they will keep us satiated for quite some time.
Our favorite way to prepare oats during the bulking period, is blending some yoghurt with a whole banana, then pouring that over the oats.
Keep in mind that you must allow the oats to soften for at least 5-10 minutes.
Otherwise, you might get some of that bellyache!
Rice and chicken – The favorite meals amongst the bodybuilding community.
White rice is one of the easiest source of sustainable carbohydrates, that will help you fuel your intense workouts.
We generally recommend consuming white rice with veggies & some meat.
Our favorite recipe is – Boiled white rice with steamed broccoli & carrots, as well as some beef or chicken on the side.
Generally, white rice is more of a fast carbohydrate, compared to brown rice.
Brown rice offers more fiber & other micronutrients, which ultimately means that the body will digest it slower.
Note that you must soak brown rice before actually cooking it.
This allows you to soften the fiber structures that would otherwise upset your stomach.
When to eat carbs for bodybuilding?
Have you ever heard someone say “Do not eat carbohydrates after 6 pm! It’s bad for you.”
Well… That’s utter nonsense.
If you eat carbohydrates at night, when you are not as active, the body will simply store that excess of energy in the form of glycogen.
We even recommend eating carbohydrates at night IF you have a highly-demanding physical activity on the next morning.
Ideally, the only thing to consider is avoiding carbohydrates DIRECTLY before your workout.
Get a nice, solid meal about 90 minutes prior to your resistance workout and allow the body to digest that food.
Otherwise, you’d be pumping blood to the stomach during the workout, which will just be suboptimal for your performance.
Ultimately, you’re looking for a carbohydrate intake of about 3-7 g per kilogram of bodyweight.
If you’re bulking, then you’d be on the higher end of that spectrum.
Note that muscle gains occur best in a SURPLUS of calories.
After making sure to cover your protein and fat needs, it would be best to create that surplus primarily by increasing carbohydrates.
Low carb diet for bodybuilding VS. Keto
Keto or low
Are you still not convinced that carbohydrates are king when it comes to sustaining good performance?
Well if that’s the case and you want to experiment with low carb intakes, then we’d advise you to completely avoid the ketogenic approach.
From a bodybuilding standpoint, the ketogenic diet is just nonsense. Yes, it may work for some, but in 99,9% of cases it just hinders performance and makes the musculature look flat.
That is because glycogen fills out the muscles nicely.
If you have to choose between both, go for the low carb approach, rather than no carbs at all (keto).
Note that resistance training does not completely deplete glycogen storages.
This means that consuming just enough carbs to fuel your workouts, might be the way to go.
So, is the low carb diet for bodybuilding any good?
Alright, as we learned in this article, carbohydrates are detrimental to sports performance.
Extreme depletions of carbohydrates will lead to suboptimal performance.
For bodybuilders, this means less muscle gains during the bulking period and less muscle retention during the cutting period.
Ultimately, you’re looking at an intake of 3-6 grams per kilogram of body weight, if your goal is optimizing your performance in the gym.
This number of course might be on the lower spectrum during a cutting period, because a deficit must only be created at the expense of carbs and some fats.
Now that we’ve busted the myths about carbohydrate intake, you can feel free to go ahead and carb load for those intense workouts!