Most of us love carbs.
They're in all our favourite foods.
But they do send us mixed messages:
Are they good or bad for us? Do we need them to build muscle? Don't they make us fat?
It’s normal to feel confused.
That's why we're going to cover which carbs you want more (and less) of; so you can make well-informed choices that your weight-gaining efforts will thank you for.
How many carbohydrates should you have to build muscle?
If you want to maximise your muscle growth and are genuinely a skinny guy (ectomorph), then you'll want to make sure 50% of your calories are from carbs.
However, having any type of carbs is a surefire way to limit your muscle growth. If you're not careful, you'll likely end up bloated and feeling a bit on the sluggish side, or worse yet, risk becoming skinny-fat.
That's why we're covering everything about using them to not only gain weight but also feel and look as good as possible in the process.
So, if you're looking to know everything about carbs (well, the useful stuff for a bulking diet), then you're in the right place.
Let's get started.
What even are carbohydrates?
You've likely heard of carbs as anything to do with food being used for energy.
And there's some truth to that:
They are broken down (or transformed) into glucose and used as a primary source of immediate energy for all of your body's cells.
Carbohydrates are macronutrients that are long chains of smaller units called saccharides, or sugars.
As carbohydrates link in more complex structures ("complex carbohydrates"), they become starches, glycogen, and various types of soluble and insoluble fibre.
So depending on the type of carb we have, we can change how our energy is affected and how our body uses that carb.
Carbohydrates are split into three main categories:
- Sugars: Sweet, short-chain carbohydrates. We all have heard of these, but maybe don't know them by other names such as glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose.
- Starches: Long chains of glucose molecules, which get broken down into glucose in the digestive system.
- Fibre: Humans cannot digest fibre, although the bacteria in the digestive system can make use of some of them.
Depending on the carb, they can give us a rapid shot of energy, or a steady-state dripped out over several hours;
Why do you want carbs in your muscle-building diet?
Aside from the fact that they give us energy and improve health, you might still be wondering, why should you fill your diet with them if building muscle is your only goal?
There's a tonne of reasons - many which we're about to get into, on why a successful muscle-building diet needs carbs.
Carbs can help increase testosterone and reduce cortisol (when compared to fats) (study). They also help replenish glycogen stores that fuel your muscles, making it less likely to gain fat (study, study). For some, they can help increase workout performance (study, study) which can lead to more strength and intensity in the gym, leading to better gains too.
Not to mention that they're one of the cheapest macros to come by in bulk, choices are wide and are available in most areas of the world.
The two types of carbs
Simple vs Complex: Refined vs Whole
Although there are many kinds of carbs that fall into the three categories above. The best way to view them is to categorise carb types into these two popular frameworks.
Simple carbs = Fast
Complex carbs = Slow
These are also referred to as refined (simple) and whole (complex) carbs, two handy labels for categorising carbs and how we'll talk about them going forward.
Both carb types have different structures and offer different benefits/negatives that can affect your health and body composition.
Whole carbs are unprocessed and contain the fibre found naturally in the food. In contrast, refined carbs have been processed. They typically have very little fibre found in them (with the exception that we'll get into).
The change in energy, we spoke about a second ago, is led by insulin, which can also affect your blood sugar level.
What is Insulin all about?
Insulin is a hormone that produces excess blood glucose to be stored in muscle cells and the liver as glycogen:
- When you eat food, the meal is broken down into glucose which when entering your blood triggers your pancreas to release insulin.
- Insulin allows the glucose to enter your liver, muscle, and sadly, fat cells.
- Insulin is considered anabolic, which means that they put your body in a muscle-building state (study, study). I
- t stimulates your muscles to build new protein (through protein synthesis).
- It also helps with the breakdown of fat and can also contribute to fat gain.
Insulin has been seen as the enemy for the longest time, commonly being spread as something that always makes you fat:
High-Carbohydrate Diet -> High Insulin -> Increased Body Fat -> Obesity
Low-Carbohydrate Diet -> Low Insulin -> Decreased Body Fat
This is generally because we've been told that insulin increasing always means blood sugar rises. A rapid increase in blood sugar does often mean a higher chance of fat-gain, but one does not always mean the other.
For example, protein can cause rapid increases in insulin (due to its leucine content) which makes it anabolic, yet it helps with fat-loss and health.
The same can be said for dairy (due to its amino acid content) which is one of the most insulinogenic foods out there. Yet, there has been no evidence to show a relation between dairy and fat gain (study, study, study).
With carbs, the basic rule, however, is the faster (simpler/more refined) the carb, the higher the chance of blood sugar spikes, and them being anabolic.
The opposite is also true. The slower the carb, the less likely the chance of blood sugar being spiked and the less anabolic a carbohydrate is expected to be.
So you might wonder, which one benefits you as a skinny guy?
The short answer is both, depending on when you use them, the amounts you have and how you use them in your diet plan.
If there was a superhero movie about carbs, these would be the villain. However, much like any superhero movie worth watching, there's a lot more to their character.
Because they spike insulin and can wreak havoc on our blood sugar levels, they've been shown to give our health a hard time.
For the modern general population, consuming too many refined carbohydrates has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, lead to type-2 diabetes and (obviously) cause fat gain.
Due to the spikes in blood sugar, we can get sugar highs, followed by lethargy-filled sugar crashes 1.
Although you might be a skinny dude, who finds it almost impossible to gain fat from simple carbs, you'll still strongly feel the need to nap.
However, it's not all doom and gloom, as there's a key benefit to this type of carb.
Many people dislike refined carbs because they can cause rapid spikes in insulin. However, the main contributor to them not being "healthy" is their energy density (high amount of carbs vs their portion size).
This is, however, a great thing for skinny guys:
This means refined carbs pack a lot of calories into a small form. Not only that, but foods with high energy density are often not as filling, which means if you struggle with your appetite (as ectomorph guys do), then they're a perfect choice (study)
That doesn't mean they all are unhealthy, though. It just depends where we're getting them from, and how well you handle them (with both appetite and energy levels).
For example, fruits and vegetables are sources full of essential vitamins and minerals. Yet, they naturally contain simple carbohydrates composed of basic sugars.
White rice is much easier to devour and, due to its energy density, means you'll be able to eat plenty of them to hit your calorie goals.
Some refined carbs are:
- White rice
- White Potato (skin off)
- Ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, etc
- Most breads
- Most pastas, noodles and couscous
- Sweetened yogurts and other sweetened dairy products
- Sweet wines and liqueurs
These are often called "good" carbs.
They're the ones that have the health benefits that we hear about in the news and are often looked at as doing the polar opposite to refined carbs.
Due to their high fibre content, minerals, antioxidants and plant compounds, studies have shown that whole carbs can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart diseases, lower the kind of cholesterol we don't want (study, study) and help with the risk of type-2 diabetes. (study, study, study)
Not only that, but they can help reduce excessive inflammation, which can cause chronic health issues in the long-term (study).
Because they're generally much better for you (less blood sugar, and health issue reports, plus plenty of benefits on overall health) it means you'll most likely be consuming these more.
So how do refined carbs help with building muscle?
A role carbs play is helping you recover from intense training faster, and as a muscle grows when it's recovered, it's great with that.
Contrary to popular belief. This doesn't happen as soon as your workout ends. In fact, research shows there isn't a magic workout window like we once thought. However, carbs are an important factor when it comes to replacing glycogen which will aid in muscle recovery.
They help you prevent muscle degradation. A study looked at a low carb diet and found that this resulted in protein loss (because of nitrogen being excreted). (study)
Some whole carbs are:
- Whole-grain pasta
- Some fruit (berries, oranges, apples)
- Sweet Potatoes
- White Potato (with the skin on)
- Kidney Beans
However, just because they're healthy for us, doesn't mean they aren't insulinogenic, or great for building muscle.
They are, however, more filling due to their fibre content, which is great for everyone else, but not an ectomorph...
What is fibre, and why is it important for us to have more of it in our diet?
If you're bulking, then you're probably missing out on this health-driving force.
But the reality is most guys don't think about fibre when they're younger. It's mostly talked about for older people (like this shredded wheat advert).
But why should you bother having it and what do you need to know?
Fibre isn't digested, so when you're working out how many carbs to have, it's recommended to take it away from the final number. However, that doesn't mean it's not important for our health.
Fibre delays our stomach from emptying and expands slowly in the small intestine, keeping us fuller for longer, which isn't always ideal for guys needing to eat more (don't panic just yet) but does help with minimising overeating when we don't want to.
It helps bind to substances such as cholesterol or hormones, helping excrete any excess from the body. It also helps with bowel movement and has been proven to help with gut health (which is closely linked to our overall health and brain function).
As you're someone wanting to build muscle, limiting fibre is wise. But that doesn't mean to avoid it completely by binging on sugar instead.
Instead of your bulk ingredients being your fibre source, you could make your sides a fibre source in two meals, or add fibre to a shake (instead of food source).
This way you'd get the benefits of high calories, high carbs and fibre to help your digestion and health.
According to Precision Nutrition, the recommended fibre intake for guys up to the age of 50 is 30-38g/day.
Which isn't a huge amount, but if you're worried about filling up too much on fibrous goodness, then try this:
- Try to get fibre in the form of a supplement. I'd recommend pills, instead of powder, because they're water-soluble and become quite a mess (and lumpy to drink).
- Limit whole carbs more. Although they give you a lot of benefits with health, you might want to opt for getting the vitamins and nutrients elsewhere (via a green powder) and opting for the white variety (refined) types of carbs. For example, opting for white rice instead of brown rice.
- Have fruits instead of vegetables. Fruits tend to have natural sugars, where vegetables don't. Logic would dictate that vegetables are much healthier, however, fruit and veg are very similar in their micronutrient make up. Most importantly, fruits have less fibre and are easier to consume.
- Blend fibrous veg into your drinks. In The Skinny To Superhero Formula, we recommend clients consume a homemade weight gainer shake that's cheap, yet full of muscle-building micro and macronutrients. Part of this shake is to include some veg. A preference of mine is spinach, due to its lack of flavour, yet antioxidant punch. The main benefit to getting it via a drink, instead of whole, is the fact that chewing triggers your brain to feel fuller, quicker (study).
When I first started a bulking diet, I missed out on two major things: getting fat into my diet and having enough fibre (in fact, I wasn't even close).
Thankfully that's no longer the case, and I'm able to enjoy all the benefits.
A look at the glycemic index (GI)
This is usually what is mentioned during that topic:
The GI tells us how much blood sugar goes up when we consume 50g of usable carbohydrate from a particular food (i.e. not fibre). It's a relative measure, determined against a specific reference food (50 g of carbohydrate from pure glucose, which is given a GI value of 100).
With the high GI carbs, you get a rapid spike of blood glucose (linked to insulin) followed by a crash, which typically leads to a feeling of falling asleep.
On the other hand, with low GI, you get an increase in insulin (and energy boosted), but it's much lower, followed by a long-tailed release of steady energy without the crash.
As we've discussed there's more to a carb than the GI index.
First, unless it's a fruit (or we're a savage animal), we don't eat a carb, or any food, by itself. Instead, we consume them with different macros and foods, and since protein, fat, and fibre all change the GI, eating food as part of a meal will change the GI accordingly.
Secondly, the dose affects the GI spike. This is referred to as the Glycemic load (GL). This is based on the glycemic index multiplied by the serving size of the food. While it's a more realistic bigger picture, it still doesn't take into account other things that come with food (fibre, water, , phytochemicals, other macros, etc.)
Thirdly, they don't take into account your genes. Certain genes have been proven to contribute to carbohydrate tolerance, more specifically, the AMY1 gene (study, study). Which is why certain guys, maybe like yourself, can eat all the bananas you want and not gain an inch, yet another skinny guy can do the same and gain a load of fat around only his midsection.
Obviously, genetic testing is out of the question (and for the sake of working out if you can have more or less carbs, simply not worth it) instead let's look at using both of these carbs and why you want a mix in your diet.
Putting it all together
How to use carbs in your diet to build muscle as a skinny guy
If you're a skinny guy, that's trying to pack mass on fast then your best bet is to get plenty of carbs in. You'll want to focus on having 50% of your calories from carbs. If you prefer counting grams instead, or 2.5-3 grams of carbohydrates per pound bodyweight, then make adjustments if needed..
You'll want to limit refined carbs to after a workout and dinner (your last big meal). Although research isn't strong with post-workout refined carbs, they're a great way to get in extra calories. After a workout, you'll typically find you're hungrier anyway (giving you an even better chance at consuming them).
You'll want to limit them earlier in the day, due to the energy density and blood sugar levels becoming unstable. Although this likely won't cause any fat-gain for you, you'll feel tired, and your mental state will be affected (which is almost as worse imo).
The rest of your carbs should come from the whole carb when your appetite allows this.
Mixing both together means you'll capitalise on getting in the best of several worlds. Insulin spiking, calories, appetite being managed, and a whole host of health benefits.
Recommended Carb Sources
|EAT MORE||EAT SOME||EAT LESS|
|Beans and lentils||Couscous||Cereal bars|
|Fresh and Corn frozen fruit||White rice||Fruit juices Flav|
|Plain non-Greek Plain kefir||Granola||Flavored milk|
|yogurt||Vegetable Juices||Honey, molasses, syrups & jellies|
|Steel-cut, rolled,and old fashioned oats||Milk||Canned, dried, and pureed fruit w/ added sugar|
|Potatoes Sweet and white potatoes||Instant or flavored oats||Crackers|
|Whole or sprouted grain, bagels, breads, English muffins, pastas, and wraps||Instant or flavored oats||Plant milks (sweetened)|
|Taro Yuca||Flavored kefir||Juice drinks|
|Barley||Pancakes and waffles||Pretzels|
|Millet||Whole-grain crackers||Anything with 10+g added sugar|
|Farro||Canned, dried, and pureed unsweetened fruit||Sugar|
|English muffins, pastas,|
The Superhuman Lab Summary
Carbs aren't the enemy.
In fact, when consumed right, no macro is. As long as we make the right food choices to nurture our body and push us towards our goals.
Some things to focus on:
- Half your daily intake, but not all at once - You'll want to get in around 50% of your calories from carbs, spread throughout the day.
- Mix it up - Be sure to get in a mixture of carb types. Fast carbs are far easier to consume, as they fill you up less, but they do have their drawbacks, so be sure to limit them when possible.
- Fibre is your friend - Don't forget to get your fibre and veg in, as they provide a range of micronutrients and benefits for everyone, regardless of age or goal.
- Don’t forget the rest - Remember to have carbs with other macros (protein and fats), nothing is in a vacuum.
- Enjoy! - A healthy relationship with carbs will serve your goals well, no matter what they are.
This is why many people tend to crash around lunchtime, wanting to sneak out of the office for a cheeky siesta↵