Protein is the key macronutrient for muscle-building. That makes sense, since some of the most protein-rich foods are animal meat, which is essentially just muscle. Eating protein provides amino acids to the body, which it can use to form its own protein.
Where do carbohydrates fit into the picture? You might’ve heard it’s helpful to eat carbs after you workout, or that runners eat a lot of carb-heavy foods like pasta before a marathon.
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of fuel when you exercise. To power your muscles, carbohydrates need to actually get inside of them. Your body breaks carbs down into a simple sugar called glucose.
This simple sugar is sent throughout the body and used to power your brain and other organs. It allows your body to perform vital functions. To power your muscles, glucose is transformed to something called glycogen. In this form, the sugars can reside in your muscles and wait until they’re needed.
While carbs can get inside your muscles and technically make them bigger, they’re not actually increasing the amount of muscle in your body. It’s almost like you have a sponge that you’re soaking in water. Sure, the sponge is increasing in size because it’s absorbing water, but you’re not increasing the amount of sponge you have.
One way to test if carbs build muscle is to have people workout then drink a recovery shake with either protein alone or protein and carbohydrates. Since protein by itself builds muscle, the addition of carbs may or may not add an extra boost. Researchers found that it made no difference.
While they can’t directly help you build muscle, carbs can help you lift weights harder for longer, stimulating more muscle growth. Eating carbs before a workout can help you get more reps, and eating carbs afterwards can help you recover for the next workout.
Keep in mind that an apple of a slice of bread won’t give you enough carbohydrates to make a big difference. You need to eat a big serving of carbs to make a difference. Otherwise, you’re only giving your body the amount of fuel it needs to get through the day.
For that reason, you might want to save the performance-boosting effects of carbs for big workouts. Eating a normal amount of carbs each day is healthy, but you can really splurge the day before or the meal before a workout that you know will be challenging.