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Carbohydrates, The Insulin Response & Its Role In Bodybuilding

Posted on January 1, 2021

Carbohydrates, The Insulin Response & Its Role In BodybuildingDividerimage


Most bodybuilders understand the importance of quality protein to support recovery and overall well-being. But what about carbs?



Is it time cast this macronutrient aside in favour of fats as an energy source? Or does it still hold relevance to human health and exercise performance?




With so many diets and opinions flooding the internet and social media, it can be a hard task arriving at some semblance of truth.





Let's try and take a look at carbs from a few different angles, hopefully with more than sprinkling of objectivity, and see what we can find out.




The tricky thing about carbs is that technically we don't need them to survive. Have you ever looked for an RDI on carbohydrates? Before you waste any time, there is no established RDI for carbohydrates.




This is because we can survive without them. And this is what the RDIs look at. Minimal amounts of a nutrient required for survivial.



This is important to note, as the RDIs do not tell us how much of a nutrient is ideally required for optimal health.



You know, this thing called preventative measures against chronic disease, and feeling healthy, energetic and alive?



The human body has alternative pathways that keep our blood sugar within a normal range and keep the citric acid cycle moving in the right direction. This is all essential for ATP or energy synthesis.




These days, carbohydrates are often overlooked or avoided altogether due to health concerns. And in many cases, rightly so. Too much carbs in the wrong form, such as candy, chips and pastries, can wreak havoc on our health.




Even that delicious potato mash with butter and salt is not a great way to go. Though realistically, it all depends on what constitutes the total daily diet and how much exercise is engaged in.




For instance, a small amount of potato mash on the side of a piece of fatty fish, asparagus and broccoli, consumed post-workout is absolutely no problem at all, despite the fact that mashed potato is a high glycemic index food.



To spin this the other way, how about a sedentary person who works in front of screen all day, doesn't exercise, and enjoys an absolute mound of potato mash with charred steak for dinner most nights of the week.



Hey, potatoes are a vegetable, right?







So where do we find ourselves with this nutrient called carbohydrates that isn't essential and that can create poor health outcomes if over-consumed, particularly if it's in a refined or processed state?



And to be clear, over-consuming refined and processed carbs is a great way to push yourself towards obesity, insulin resistance, type II diabetes and other cardiometabolic diseases.





If you're into bodybuilding, odds are you're reasonably healthy. After all, it takes some serious grunt to feel the burn towards the end of a set while you keep the reps pumping.





For bodybuilders, carbohydrates are an important fuel source. They easily keep blood sugar elevated and assist with glycogen restoration after exercise.





On top of this, they trigger the release of a seriously anabolic hormone called insulin.






That's right. Insulin is anabolic!



In addition, insulin is anti-catabolic. This means it helps to increase muscle growth and reduce the rate at which muscle is broken down.




Now before you start guzzling packets of pure dextrose, there are limitations to this insulin anabolic system. I.e., it has a ceiling.




What the heck does this mean? Before you start growling, bear with me ...




This ceiling is called insulin resistance. This means that if we fill our stomachs too often with carbs, particularly the wrong type, our cells will eventually being to lose their sensitivity to this important anabolic hormone.




And then the elevated insulin levels won't get the response we once had, even if the pancreas is really pumping out the insulin.




So there is a fine line that is worth treading if you can find it. And this involves consuming healthy forms of carbohydrates, with some high glycemic index carbs around training time.



You might be wondering why it's okay to have high GI carbs around training time. The answer to this is something called exercise induced GLUT-4.



The beauty of GLUT-4 is that it doesn't require insulin's involvement. Glucose can be taken up into the muscle simply as a result of the moderate to intense exercise. This means it's hard to push blood glucose levels too high and we don't get any insulin desensitization.







If you're seriously into bodybuilding, using some natural supplements to boost insulin sensitivity can be a good idea. More on this later.




Intra-workout carbs can be an awesome way to help you power through those sets without dropping off into fatigue, wondering how comfortable the bench press would be for a quick nap.



And you don't need much either. Sipping on a carb beverage containing even as little as 20-40 grams of carbs can make all the difference to an intense session.




Carbs are an easy fuel source, in that they're readily converted to energy and can almost instantaeously make someone with low blood sugar feel like a trillion dollars. And let's face it, there's simply no better way to restore muscle glycogen levels after exercise than with some healthy carb sources.



Resensitizing Insulin

For a bodybuilder maintaining an anabolic state as often as possible is of paramount importance. After all, this is the state in which muscle is repaired and rebuilt, hopefully bigger and stronger.




As a bodybuilder, it's important to also keep insulin functioning with some potency if you want to maximise the anabolic and anti-catabolic signals that it can naturally deliver.




Here are just a few of the discovered nutrients and herbal extracts that have been shown to support insulin sensitivity and keep cellular insulin signals on point:

  1. Lipoic Acid
  2. Magnesium
  3. Chromium
  4. Gymnema sylvestre
  5. Cinnamomum cassia
  6. Bitter melon
                             Gym-Ropes.jpg   Image courtesy of Senivpetro @




How Does Insulin Work?

The release of insulin from the pancreas is stimulated by the consumption of carbohydrates. Insulin is dispersed throughout the body to specific receptor sites, which in turn allows for the successful uptake of nutrients, such as glucose and amino acids.



Carbohydrates are converted into glucose with the exception of fibre, which is the body's preferred fuel source. Glycogen, which is found in skeletal muscle tissue and the liver, is composed of long chains of glucose units, much like a starch.




Glycogen is simply a storage form of glucose. When we eat a carbohydrate food, our blood glucose (sugar) levels increase, which can then be used for immediate energy, or stored as glycogen as a result of a process called glycogenesis.



If the body has more than the amount needed for immediate use or storage as glycogen it is turned into fat.





Glycogen is a form of energy which is easily accessible. It is the energy source most frequently used in exercise, though the phosphocreatine and beta-oxidation pathways are also quite active, depending on the form of exercise.



As you well know, we need plenty of energy during a workout, unless that workout consists of a nap. If you have ever experienced the major energy dip called 'hitting the wall', sometimes boosting up the blood sugar can be helpful here.  



Consuming carbohydrates before your workout can also help to prevent this, and can also lead to more productive and longer-lasting workouts. Trying to power through a workout with low blood sugar can be difficult and ineffective.






Carbohydrates play a positive role in muscle development, through not only fueling exercise, but also leading to greater insulin release. Insulin not only allows glucose to be taken up by the muscle cell, but also amino acids, like the tripeptide creatine.




This is why so many people like to stack their creatine with sugars, as this creates an insulin release, allowing the muscle to uptake more creatine.



Introducing a pre and post workout routine, which includes carbohydrates, helps to increase muscle protein anabolism and reduce breakdown. This coupled with the benefits including stabilised sugar levels and raised energy levels indicate that carbohydrates should not be overlooked.



The production and regulation of insulin is governed by your carbohydrate intake. Protein may be an incredibly important nutrient for any athlete, but needs to be used with other nutrients for the full effect.



Carbohydrates help to regulate how nutrients are distributed, as a result of the production of insulin. Ensuring you don't burn fat or protein, but use glucose as your fuel, results in a more controlled performance and improved results.



So, should we all start tearing packets of 100% pure dextrose open and chugging them down multiple times daily? Please don't! Remember, we don’t want to eat too much or too little, as both take us away from the most benefits.



Ideally, stick to low glycemic index carbohydrates with meals, such as sweet potato, kipfler potatoes, wild rice and brown basmati rice, and have your high glycemic index carbohydrate, like pure dextrose powder, before, during and after exercise.



After all, too much of a good thing, and we will slowly over time, push ourselves towards insulin resistance.