Carbs are a hot topic. Everyone’s eating them first thing in the morning, or cycling them, some people are going anabolic — having carbs just on the weekend — and still others are having just one Carb Nite® a week. But why isn’t anybody back-loading?
Not everyone’s concerned about their carbs, as some people eat them at-will without affecting strength, muscle mass or waistline. That’s not me. It’s not most of the people I work with. Like them, I want all the benefits carbs have to offer without the disadvantages; I want to get muscular and stay lean; or get muscular and get lean. That’s why I discovered back-loading, the best dietary method to achieve both at once.
One thing the industry has realized over the past few years is that carbs need to be cycled for goals beyond day-to-day leaving. Losing weight, building muscle and increasing endurance benefit from cycling carbs; making weight for a powerlifting meet benefits from cycling carbs; even trying to tighten up for wedding photos benefits from cycling carbs. For cosmetic purposes, the formula is well established, and my first book represents a precise and effective version.
Why all this fuss over carbs? Carbs cause hormonal and metabolic changes in the body beyond the capability of any other nutrient and if a pharmaceutical company discovered carbs today, glucose would probably cost $100 per gram. Eating carbs regulates growth in the body directly and indirectly by affecting over a dozen hormones. There is wisdom in spending so much time deciphering the perfect carb-intake formula for various goals.
The one formula that’s eluded the industry is how to gain muscle while minimizing fat, or even possibly losing fat. I’ve seen this claim many times in many magazines and on many websites for various workout and diet plans. Most fit under the philosophy of, “do ridiculous workouts that last hours and eat very little.” A couple noticeable exceptions exist: Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale’s Anabolic Diet and Shelby Starnes’ concept of carb cycling. Programs similar to these two exist (my Carb Nite® diet is a refined version of the Anabolic Diet), but all float the concept that carbs should be cycled on a day-to-day or weekly basis. Recent research contradicts these strategies for gaining muscle. The body needs two things everyday to grow muscle, a lot of calories and a lot of carbs.
I’ve eaten a lot of calories and a lot of carbs everyday while training and I did grow muscle, but I also got fat. The current school of nutrient timing says eat most of your carbs early in the day and few at night. So I switched to eating most of my carbs first thing in the morning and fewer with each meal until bedtime. Again, I gained muscle and got fat. At this point, I was frustrated as hell. It took me a few years to learn how exercise changes skeletal muscle at the cellular level and how to use this information to time carbohydrates during the day for muscular gains and fat obliteration.
Ingesting carbs—most types of carbs—releases insulin, the body’s utmost signaler of growth. Insulin sensitivity is highest in the morning and, as it’s often understood, this means that cells of the body absorb carbs better in the morning than the evening. Thought of in this way, only skeletal muscle and fat cells matter, as most other tissue—nervous system cells, kidneys, the liver, the small intestines, etc—can use carbs with or without insulin. Fat and muscle respond stronger to insulin levels in the morning than the evening.
It is true that eating carbs in the morning allows both fat and muscle to grow more than eating carbs at night. But exercise changes this. Exercise changes everything, even the way skeletal muscle responds to insulin and blood sugar. Resistance training triggers two important changes in muscle tissue regarding carb metabolism. First, heavy resistance training increases sensitivity to insulin in muscle for up to 48 hours post-workout. Second, for a few hours post-workout, muscle cells can use carbs without insulin.
Resistance training, therefore, dissects the day into pre- and post-workout, expanding these concepts from the hour before and after training to the part of the day before training and the part of the day after.
Imagine waiting until 3 or 4 in the evening to lift. Not eating carbs up to this point, neither fat nor muscle has had much of a signal to grow. After training, the consumption of carbs begins en masse, starting with the post-workout shake containing copious amounts of a simple carbohydrate powder. A massive growth signal ensues, but in the evening after lifting, only muscle can take advantage of the signal and not body fat. This effect continues on through the night until bedtime. No more back-fat growth; no more beer-belly expansion; no more second chin. Back-loading carbs in the day tunes the body to grow primarily muscle.
The pre-workout part of my day consists, for me, of ultra-low carb. I consume 30 grams or less of carbohydrates in the first half of the day, excluding fiber. Some people can handle more, and I’ve worked with people who can eat up to 100 grams spread over three to four meals before the training session. I am not one of these people, and before experimenting, I suggesting starting at the 30 gram level or less.
After training, the only meal I keep low-fat is my post-workout shake, which is zero fat. It contains 50 grams of protein, 100 grams of a glucose-based carb powder with no other caloric nutrients. Otherwise, the latter half of the day is filled with high-carb meals, but not necessarily low-fat. The sharp spike in metabolism that accompanies the rush of carbs helps burn the dietary fat through the hours of sleep.
If muscle gets the largest signal to grow after the workout, what’s happening before and during the workout without all the carbs? That’s a fair question. Without dietary modification, before lifting, the body balances the anabolic and catabolic signals within skeletal muscle. To shift this signal in favor of anabolic signaling requires regular ingestion of a fast-absorbing protein, such as whey or casein hydrolysate, together with a few grams of the branched-chain amino acid leucine.
During the workout, glycogen stores and ketone metabolism fuel muscles. As long as glycogen reserves stay full, there’s plenty of fuel for lifting without compromising muscle tissue. Keeping carb stores full is one of the primary goals of the post-workout feedings.
Back-loading carbs runs against every dietary recommendation to guarantee a solid, strong workout. The body needs carbs to lift heavy, or so the advice goes. In most situations, assuming adequate nightly carb intake, strength, nevertheless, increases when back-loading carbs. This may sound counter-intuitive but not when considering the drug-like effects of carbs.
Optimum strength is a balance between muscle size and neural efficiency. On a daily basis, muscular size can be taken as constant. Neural efficiency depends on several factors that are daily considerations and even hourly, such as the ingesting of carbs, which actually puts a stress on the body, knocking it from homeostatis.
Carbs can be one of the strongest disruptions of homeostatis, so if meal timing isn’t exact come workout time (along with a myriad of other factors) not only is the body fighting against the iron, but it’s fighting to achieve balance. Carb timing—or mistiming—may be the most common cause of a crappy workout and missed lifts.
Too many grams of carbs may be consumed too close to training time, causing a hyperglycaemic state in which nervous system cells begin firing inefficiently, blowing through calcium reserves. Too few carbs and glycaemic distress occurs, sweat starts pouring despite chills and strength dissipates. As a result, assuming glycogen stores were sufficiently replenished the night before, strength often increases and stabilizes—is more consistent from day to day—when forgoing carbs before lifting.
Granted, back-loading carbs requires effort. I have a flexible schedule, as do most of the athletes I work with, which makes planning the day around diet and workout feasible and necessary. Maximum gains require planning life around training. But it’s not always possible to get a training session in at 3 or 4 pm. Maybe training time is 7pm. Used with resistance training, no matter what time during the day, back-loading carbs always provides maximum anabolic signals to the muscle, while increasing fat burning, even if post-workout doesn’t occur until 9pm.
There’s a lot to consider and I understand not wanting to go through with all that’s required, but the payoff, for those who accept the challenge, is high. In the past two decades, after working with countless athletes at all levels, back-loading carbs is the only dietary technique I’ve seen that consistently produces strength and muscle gains while limiting—and sometimes even eliminating—body fat.