For anybody looking to get big and jacked, supplements play a very important role in the muscle building process. Now, be under no illusions here, supplements do not work miracles. You can’t chug a protein shake each day and then sit on your butt, eating Cheesits, and expect to pile on the muscle because it doesn’t work like that. You get out of bodybuilding what you put into it. The harder you work, the more results you will enjoy. Perhaps that’s a good metaphor for life itself. With that said, if you choose the right supplements and use them in conjunction with a healthy diet and effective bodybuilding routine, you’ll find that you build muscle far more effectively than if you decided to not bother with supplements at all.
Typically, you’ll find that some of the more popular bodybuilding supplements include products like: Whey protein, creatine, and BCAAs. These all work very well, especially when stacked together, but to get more from your supplements and your training, you may wish to invest in carbohydrate supplements as well. Here’s a definitive guide to carbohydrate supplements to help you decide which is best for your training.
What are Carbohydrates?
Lately, carbs have been getting a lot of bad press, and we’re not sure why. Years ago, carbs were considered to be the best things since sliced bread, which is ironic because bread is a great source of carbs. Anyways, we digress. All of a sudden, along came the Atkins diet, and suddenly low carb diets were in fashion, and carbs were public enemy number one. Atkins died down in popularity, then, along came Keto. Ketogenic diets are also low in carbs, so people again abandoned the carby goodness in favour of fats and proteins.
Carbs are not your enemy. Carbs are good, and they certainly taste good as well. Carbohydrates are one of three essential macronutrients, with the other two being fats and proteins. Now, we’re going to get a bit technical here, so strap yourselves in and let’s talk science. In scientific terms, a carbohydrate is a saccharide. Saccharides can then be divided into four individual groups, which are: oligosaccharides, polysaccharides, monosaccharides, and disaccharides.
Now, when people talk about carbs, it’s worth noting that carbs are not created equally. Some carbs are considered healthy, whereas others are unhealthy. Candy for example, is considered unhealthy, whereas brown rice is considered healthy. Both are carbohydrates. Sugar is a simple carb, whereas brown rice is a complex carb. Monosaccharides and Disaccharides are classed as sugars/simple carbs. Polysaccharides and Oligosaccharides are classed as complex carbohydrates.
All About Digestion
Now, precisely what is it about carbs that determines just how healthy or unhealthy they are for us? Well, that all comes down to digestion. You see, the rate in which the body digests and utilizes carbohydrates will vary depending on the source of the carbs themselves. This is why some people will call certain foods slow-release carbs and fast-release carbs. We can measure the rate in which carbs are digested and utilized by the body via what is known as the Glycaemic Index. The higher a carbohydrate’s rating on the Glycaemic Index scale, the quicker it will be digested. The lower its rating, the slower it will be digested.
Simple carbs like candy, refined sugar, and white bread all have high glycaemic indexes and are digested and utilized quickly. Complex carbs such as oats and wholegrains, have low glycaemic indexes and they are therefore utilized a lot slower. Surely the quicker a carb is digested, the better it is right? Well, typically, no. There are some exceptions to this rule and there are instances where we need fast-digesting carbs such as dextrose for example, but typically, slow-digesting carbs are much healthier and more productive for the human body. Enter insulin…
What is Insulin and Why Do We Need it?
Insulin is a hormone naturally produced by the pancreas that also happens to be extremely anabolic. Its primary function is to regulate blood sugar levels. When we consume carbs, insulin is secreted by the pancreas to shuttle the sugars from the bloodstream into your cells, where it is then used by the mitochondria as an energy source. If you consume fast-digesting carbs, more insulin is needed and is produced, which in turn causes an insulin spike.
Complex carbs which are slow to be digested and broken down require less insulin to enter the cells, so the pancreas secretes less insulin. Generally, an insulin spike is not needed nor wanted, as it can cause us to experience sugar crashes and comedowns after consuming too much sugar. Again, there are instances where insulin spikes are needed, especially if your primary objective is to build muscle in the gym, but we’ll get to all of that a little later on.
Why are Carbs Needed?
Carbs are delicious, and they also tend to make us feel good. That’s not why we need them, though. We need carbs primarily for energy. The metabolism is a collective term for a number of physiological processes responsible for the production of energy within the body. The metabolism is able to get energy from numerous sources, yet its preferred source of energy is carbohydrates, as it finds it easiest to convert these into fuel.
You see, the human body is resourceful, and so it’s always looking for shortcuts. While protein and fats can also be used for energy, it’s carbs that it finds easiest to utilize. Work smarter, not harder, as they say. Though there’s a lot more to it than this, basically when we consume carbohydrates the metabolism takes them and converts them into glucose, which is an energy source for cells in the muscles and the brain. All carbs have to be metabolized into glucose before they can be used as an instant source of energy.
However, what about when we don’t need energy? What then? Will eating carbs provide an endless stream of glucose that we keep working our way through? No. What will happen instead is carbs that are not needed for energy, will be converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle cells for use at a later date. It’s basically the equivalent of stocking up winter fuel at home and storing it months in advance. Now, when all existing energy is used up, the body has access to glycogen. It then takes this glycogen and converts it into glucose sugars.
But what about when glycogen stores are full too? This is when things get tricky. When you can no longer store any more glycogen, excess carbs are instead converted into adipose tissue (body fat) and stored in the form of fat. Bodybuilders, athletes, and people concerned about their weight in general, will want to avoid this from happening at all costs.
Carbohydrate Supplements Options
Now that we know more about carbs in general, it’s time for us to take a look at some of the different carbohydrate supplement options which are currently available for purchase in all reputable supplement stores. There are plenty of options when it comes to carbohydrate supplementation, yet you’ll find that the following 3 supplements are what most serious lifters will tend to favour.
Dextrose, in very simple terms, is basically just glucose. It is the simplest carbohydrate out there and you will also find it used for culinary purposes, as it is basically an alternative to powdered sugar. Dextrose is used for homebrewing, in desserts, and it is even used by certain fast food chains to help give their French fries a touch of sweetness, some colour, and a little added crunch.
Dextrose is a monosaccharide and is around 80% as sweet as regular refined sugar. It has a Glycaemic Index of 100 and has been used by athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts for decades now. But why? Why would a bodybuilder need sugar? Well, it all comes down to insulin. Dextrose creates an insulin spike when consumed, which is incredibly important when it comes to post-workout nutrition. We’ll look at why it’s so important in more detail a little later on. Dextrose is available in fine powdered form and is a very similar consistency to cornflour. It mixes very well and is commonly added to a post-workout protein shake and is consumed immediately after a workout.
Waxy Maize Starch
Waxy Maize Starch, or WMS as it is also known, is a long-chain carbohydrate that has a far more subtle taste than dextrose. It too has a high glycaemic index and it is therefore very rapidly absorbed. In fact, it is absorbed even quicker than dextrose. It is used for many of the same reasons as dextrose, as the idea is to refuel after a workout and to spike insulin levels.
WMS has a larger molecular weight than dextrose and maltodextrin, which means it passes through the stomach at a much more rapid rate. In fact, it is absorbed around 80% faster than most other carb sources. It can therefore, be sipped on intra workout to assist with hydration as well. WMS is a polysaccharide. It is a form of starch, but it is unlike the starches you’ll find in complex sources such as potatoes.
The third most-popular carbohydrate supplement currently on the market today is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a complex carb that is basically a synthetic polysaccharide. Maltodextrin is primarily made from corn starch. Unlike the other two carb supplements on our list today, maltodextrin doesn’t have a distinctly sweet taste. It is actually almost tasteless. It is used primarily for energy purposes during training, and even though it has the structure of a complex carb, it is still very rapidly broken down and absorbed. Don’t let its bland taste fool you, because this carb has a very high glycaemic index of 105. Meaning that it is absorbed quicker than regular refined sugar.
Bodybuilders use this supplement for energy purposes after, and during training. It is also used to help assist with muscle mass growth. Many mass gaining formulas will be rich in carbohydrates as well as some fats, and plenty of proteins. The carbs found in mass gain formulas are primarily from maltodextrin. It is a very affordable carb, which is why many weight gain formulas contain it, because it’s a great and cost-effective way of increasing the caloric contents of the product. The product can be used by itself, or alternatively, some people combine it with dextrose in their post-workout protein shake. This isn’t simply to give the shake an added sweetness, it’s instead to maximize the absorption rates.
Carbs and Fatigue
As you know, exercise and physical exertion in general can be taxing on the body. It can leave you feeling tired and exhausted, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to power on through a gruelling workout. When you’re in the gym lifting some heavy-ass weights, you don’t want to feel tired and fatigued, you want to have the energy of 300 angry Spartans. The more energy you have, the more productive your workouts will be. That’s common sense, you don’t need anybody to tell you that, even though we just did.
Carbs are important for training purposes because they are your muscle cells’ primary source of fuel. The more intense your workouts become, the greater the demand will be for an instant source of energy. Anaerobic exercise in particular, requires large portions of energy because of the high intensity nature of the exercise.
Bodybuilding, strongman training, and powerlifting for example, are all forms of anaerobic exercise which is why carbohydrate supplements are so beneficial for dudes throwing some heavy weights around. If you took in what we were saying earlier, you’ll remember how we spoke about carbohydrates being stored as glycogen as backup energy source for the muscles.
The problem with high intensity exercise is the fact that stored glycogen levels are quickly used up and once they’re gone, tiredness, muscle weakness, and muscle fatigue begin to set in. Once glucose and glycogen has been used up, you basically are running on empty. When this occurs, squeezing out those one or two extra reps needed to nail a PR will be out of the question, as you’ll hit ‘the wall’ as it were. Once glycogen has been used up, the body panics and instead of using energy, it desperately tries to conserve energy instead. Your metabolism, therefore, slows down even further and you will find yourself even weaker and more fatigued than before. Great, huh?
That’s the last thing a bodybuilder wants, so what can be done. Should you instead slow down the intensity and go through the motions when lifting? Nope, this is where intra-workout carb supplements come into their own. When you’re busting your butt training, sipping on an intra-workout carbohydrate supplement will give your body the energy it needs, so rather than trying to conserve energy, you’ll once again start using energy to fuel your workouts. Intra-workout carb supplements are not only beneficial for bodybuilding either, they benefit all forms of high intensity exercise.
How do Carbs Enhance Performance?
So, now that we know that the body uses carbs as energy for training, but we want to dig deeper. It’s easy to say that the body uses carbs for energy, but we want you to understand HOW the body uses carbs for energy. In order to understand how, you need to know how the body uses different sources of energy during exercise.
From a bodybuilding perspective, when you lift a weight you need energy in order for the muscles to contract. Now, in order for muscle contractions to take place, there’s only one type of energy that can be utilized, and that energy is ATP, or Adenosine TriPhosphate. Now, the good news is that we can produce and store ATP in the body. Hooray! Not so fast.
Unfortunately, we can only naturally store enough ATP to promote a muscle contraction lasting for two seconds, or three at the most. We need ATP from somewhere else therefore, otherwise the muscles won’t work, and you may as well not bother trying to lift the weight at all. The body again jumps into action and breaks down creatine phosphate in the skeletal muscles, which is then used to replenish ATP stores. Hooray! Not so fast. This process will only buy you a few more seconds, so you may squeeze out three reps at the most, if you work fast.
Now, here’s where things begin to get carb-orientated. When creatine phosphate has been used up, the body then gets its energy via a process known as glycolysis. This process is where your body will utilize the carbs stored within the cells in your muscles, in the form of glycogen, as well as blood sugar. This is then used to replace ATP. For every single repetition you perform, the body will continuously repeat this process over and over again. The problem here is that glycogen stores are still used up quickly when lifting, especially when you train intensely. Once glycogen is used up, the muscles again fatigue and you will be forced to stop training.
This is NOT how gains are made. Enter carbohydrate supplements. Carb supplements which are consumed during your workout will basically replenish the glycogen which has been used up naturally by the body. It also prevents glycogen stores from being used up entirely, helping you to continue training intensely instead of having your body try to preserve energy.
What about Post-Workout Carbs?
So far we’ve been focussing on the importance of carbs for energy during training. Some carbs however, I.E dextrose and waxy maize starch, are designed primarily to be consumed after training. Why would you consume a carbohydrate supplement after training? After all, we need carbs for energy during training.
Once we’ve finishing pumping iron, we’ve done the hard work, so why do we need energy? Well, not all carb supplements are created purely to fuel the body during training. Some carbs can actually help you to build muscle and to help speed up the recovery process after training. But how? Well, do you remember how we spoke about insulin spikes and how we’d go into more detail about insulin a little later on? Well, now is the time to talk insulin spikes and post-workout nutrition.
After a workout, you’ll see many bodybuilders frantically rushing to their gym bags, pulling out a shaker cup, and pouring various powdered concoctions into the cup before mixing it with water and chugging it down before they have time to breathe. Why are they so frantic to drink a protein shake as soon as they finish lifting? Why not finish training, jump in their car, take a leisurely drive home, shower, and gently sip on a delicious protein shake as they relax and unwind on the sofa?
Well, because after training, the muscles are screaming out for protein, amino acids, glycogen, and nutrients needed to facilitate protein synthesis. After training, your muscle cells expand slightly, and they contain very little glycogen because you used most of it when lifting. They are primed to absorb the nutrients they need and temporarily they can absorb slightly more than usual.
This doesn’t last long, and it is known as the anabolic window. During this period of time, the more proteins and amino acids you can get into your muscle cells, the greater the rates of muscle growth will be via protein synthesis. Insulin acts as a key, unlocking the cell and allowing the proteins and nutrients in your bloodstream to enter.
This is why simple carbs such as dextrose are added to protein shakes. Adding the dextrose will trigger an insulin spike, which will help the protein, amino acids, and nutrients in your protein shake enter the muscle cells quicker, and in larger volumes. The more the cells can absorb, the greater the rate of protein synthesis. Insulin is also an anabolic hormone, which means that it helps to prevent muscle catabolism, or muscle breakdown as it is sometimes known. On top of that, you also replenish glycogen stores with the addition of simple carbs, so basically your cells get all of the nutrients needed to facilitate post-workout muscle growth and recovery.