powerlifter at a powerlifting meet

Protein, carbs, and fats are the three macronutrients that make up the food we eat.

At different points in time, carbs and fats have been under scrutiny. For instance, years ago, people used to demonise fat and claim that we should avoid them if we want to lose fat and stay healthy.

These days, ketogenic dieting has convinced many people that carbs are harmful in one way or the other.

But is this the case? More specifically, what roles do carbs play in strength sports? Let’s find out.

Carbs 101 - A Brief Look
Carbohydrates provide four calories per gram. Once ingested, your body breaks carbs down into simple glucose molecules unless we’ve already consumed them in their basic form.

Carbs also pass through the liver, where we convert them into glycogen - a complex form of carbs that we store in our muscles and liver for later use. The remaining carbs go into the bloodstream to maintain blood sugar levels, provide immediate energy, and fuel the brain.

Glucose and Glycogen: A Deeper Look
Glucose that doesn’t get converted to glycogen goes into the bloodstream. It then plays a huge role in our health and well-being.

Most notably, blood glucose provides energy for nearly every cell of the body. Without it, we cease to function, which is one reason why low blood sugar levels can be incredibly dangerous.

Nerve cells are particularly hungry for glucose as they carry many energy-demanding tasks. This means the brain consumes a lot of glucose, which allows it to carry out its functions and communicate with different parts of the body, such as to produce muscle contractions.

As discussed above, glycogen is the complex form of carbs we store in our muscles and liver. Having adequate glycogen levels is essential because our muscles preferentially use it for anything more intense than a simple walk in the park. The more glycogen-depleted we are, the more challenging it is for us to do anything physical. We feel flat, tired, and weak.

The Role of Carbohydrates in Strength Sports
When we consume enough carbs, we maintain healthy blood sugar levels and keep our glycogen topped off. In a practical sense, this means:

  • We can train harder, lift heavier weights, and do more work (sets, reps, and exercises). Normal blood sugar and glycogen levels allow our muscles and nervous system to work at peak efficiency and allow us to have productive workouts.

  • We can recover better between sets. In other words, we can train hard and maintain our performance for the duration of the workout. In contrast, not having enough carbs in our system can still allow us to do a bit of intense training, but our performance will plummet quickly.

  • Similar to how we can recover better between sets, having enough carbs - energy for the body - allows us to recover more quickly between workouts. As a result, muscle protein breakdown occurs at a smaller scale, we never deplete our glycogen, and we can have more frequent workouts throughout the week.

In other words, carbs play a massive role in strength sports. They allow us to do enough productive work, maintain our performance, and recover better between workouts.

June 26, 2021 — Daniel Felstein

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