Carbs Are the Enemy? Um, Not Really
I changed a lot of my views over the years, but the biggest change is related to carb intake. When I first started out in the strength coaching field I was a diehard low-carb guy. I believed that most people needed to limit carbs if they wanted to get really lean, and that you could build a significant amount of muscle mass on a low carb diet.
Here are some of the reasons behind those beliefs:
- I was never a lean guy growing up. I wasn’t really “fat” but I didn’t have abs or muscle definition either. It’s only when I lowered my carbs, using Bodyopus by Dan Duchaine, that I was able to get lean for the first time. So right off the bat my mind started to believe that low carb was the only way to get ripped for people who aren’t naturally lean.
- One of my biggest influences early on was Charles Poliquin. One of the key things he taught at the time was low-carb eating. His famous phrase was, “You have to earn your carbs; you must be at 10% body fat or less to consume a higher amount of carbs.”
- When I first dieted down using a low-carb diet I already had a good amount of muscle mass. I was squatting (high bar) 600 pounds, front squatting 475, benching 405, snatching 315, and push pressing 315 for 5 reps. I was 228 and 5’9″. But I didn’t look impressive because I was carrying a decent amount of fat. When I got down to under 10% body fat I looked a lot more muscular. But I actually didn’t carry more muscle than before. In my mind it was possible to gain muscle on a low-carb diet, because it looked like I had added muscle.
- The only time I looked good was when I ate a low-carb diet. So I thought that I needed to eat that way to look lean and muscular. But when I wasn’t trying to get shredded I’d eat a crappy diet: pastries, hamburgers and fries, kid cereal, candy, etc. And I blamed carbs for gaining fat. So in my mind low carb eating = lean and muscular, moderate or high carb eating = strong, but fat. But I was likely eating over 5000 calories during my high carb (but low quality) diet versus 2500 when I was low-carbing it.
I had a change of heart a few years back when I achieved my biggest muscular bodyweight (228 pounds at under 10% body fat) eating lots of carbs. That was in 2013 when I was in Colorado, training at Biotest HQ.
At the time we’d just come out with Plazma™, Mag-10® and Finibars and I was getting over 300 grams of carbs from those alone, and my supper was normally four turkey burgers (only the bun and the meat). All and all I was likely having 400-500 grams of carbs per day. And this is when I gained the most muscle past the beginner stage.
Low-Carb Diets Hamper Muscle Gains
I started to read more about carbs and muscle gain and I realized that hormonally speaking, eating a low-carb diet makes it really hard for most people to put on a significant amount of muscle mass.
Low carb diets…
- Lower IGF-1, the most anabolic hormone in the body.
- Increase cortisol levels. Cortisol’s main function is to increase blood sugar levels when they get too low, which will happen during a low-carb diet.
- Decrease insulin, which is also anabolic even though it can be anabolic to fat cells too.
Even today when I want to gain muscle I make sure that carbs are high. At the moment I’m eating to get stronger and bigger and consuming over 400 grams of carbs per day. I’m up to 231 pounds and still have ab definition.
When I did my last photoshoot and got into my leanest condition to date I never went below 100 grams of carbs on my low-carb days (consumed pre, during and after the workout) and up to 300 grams on my higher days, and got leaner than I did during my low-carb days.
In fact, more and more studies are coming out showing that if protein and calories are the same, it doesn’t matter for fat loss if the non-protein calories come from fat or carbs.
Yes, some people will feel better on a lower-carb diet while others will be the opposite. But I no longer believe that low-carb dieting is the best way to eat to optimize your physique.