Carbohydrates have had a bit of a bad rap over the past thirty years, which is unfair as they are perhaps the most effective macronutrient for fueling tough workouts. But many people claim that you should cut them out of your diet completely. Do bodybuilders cut carbs? And if so, does doing so offer any advantages?
Bodybuilders may cut carbs towards the tail-end of a pre-competition shred, but very few bodybuilders cut carbs for a prolonged period of time. Carbs are too useful for training. Some bodybuilders may follow a ketogenic diet, that aims to cut carbs completely, but the vast majority of pro bodybuilders use carbs often.
Now that you know the answer, let’s take an in-depth look at bodybuilding and its relationship to carbohydrates. We’ll look at what carbs are, why they are effective, and why people may want to avoid them.
There are three main macronutrients; Protein, fats, and carbohydrates. You also have alcohol, which is technically a macronutrient but is often ignored when we discuss diet and nutrition. Most diets contain all three macronutrients, with carbohydrates typically being the most consumed.
If you have certain kidney issues, you may have to follow a low/no-protein diet. While low-fat diets have been popular for a long time. However, out of the three, carbohydrates are the most likely macronutrient to be removed from the diet.
Low-carb, high-protein diets are very popular for people who want to lose weight while maintaining muscle mass. The ketogenic diet (very high fat, medium protein, and no-carb) is also becoming increasingly popular.
But the vast majority of athletes will consume diets that are rich in carbohydrates. This is because carbs are the best macro for fueling your workouts. While it is certainly possible to fuel your workouts without carbs, keto diets have so far failed to out-perform high-carb diets when it comes to athletic performance.
The biggest benefit of carbohydrates is how easily they are utilised for energy. When you consume carbs, the glucose is removed and used to provide energy. Fat and protein are also used, but carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy and will be prioritised.
The energy that is not immediately used is stored in the body as glycogen. Again, it is the first energy source that the body will turn to. The theory behind carb-free diets is that if you avoid carbs completely the body will immediately burn fat instead. But the truth is, as ever, that any diet where you are in a calorie deficit will lead to fat loss. Don’t try and overcomplicate matters.
The fibre found in carbohydrates has many uses, it can improve gut health, increase satiety (making dieting easier), and improve digestion. It also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Carbohydrates are also considered protein-sparing. Meaning that they can help to protect your muscles during diet by supplying them with glycogen. It should also be noted that there are a number of side effects to removing carbs from your diet: Constipation, fatigue, headaches, and you may also become deficient in certain nutrients.
One of the biggest problems with carbohydrates is the fact that they are absolutely delicious. Making them very easy to overconsume. Most of our favourite snacks and treats are high in carbs. We also tend to overdo our portions of foods such as rice, pasta, and bread.
Many people who give up carbs tend to lose weight quite quickly, not because carbs themselves are bad, but because they make up such a large part of our diet. Remove 200 calories of rice from your plate and guess what? You are probably going to lose weight.
Many bodybuilders cut carbs when trying to get very low body fat percentages. Cutting carbs is an effective short-term solution, and it is quite straightforward. But it is important to stress the fact that bodybuilders will use carbohydrates for the majority of their training.
Many bodybuilders perform carb-cycling, this is where you have no carbs on rest days, and high carbs on training days. There is little evidence that carb cycling provides any additional benefits, but many bodybuilders claim that it helps them to fuel their workouts better.
When bodybuilders have a competition or show, they will avoid carbohydrates completely for a number of days beforehand. They then consume a high-sugar carbohydrate the night before to give their muscles the perfect look.
This technique is very effective, but not particularly pleasant. It is also not recommended for regular people looking to lose weight or build muscle. This is a bodybuilding competition-specific practice.
Most bodybuilders will lower their carb intake progressively during a cut, to the point where they avoid carbs completely in the days before their competition. But very few remove carbs for the entirety of their cut.
At the start of a cut, bodybuilders will consume quite a lot of carbs, and then slowly lower that number on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. There are of course some bodybuilders who cut out carbs completely for the entire cut, and there are bodybuilders who follow ketogenic diets.
Bodybuilders don’t need carbohydrates, there are a few successful bodybuilders who follow ketogenic diets and keep their carbohydrate intake down to the absolute minimum. However, there is no real benefit to avoiding carbs completely, and it definitely makes it harder to train and follow a healthy diet.
If you want to follow a ketogenic diet, then that’s fine. You can have a lot of success with it. But following a diet rich in healthy carbs and high in fibre is easier, involves nicer foods, and is healthier too. Lowering your carb intake during a cut is a sensible decision. Just adjust your workout intensity to match your lower calorie and lower carb diet.
Thanks to their health benefits, relatively low cost, and how easy it is to consume them, many bodybuilders will eat a lot of carbs while trying to gain muscle mass (bulking). It is possible, but very hard, to build significant muscle without carbs. Bodybuilders on a budget will stock up on bread, rice, pasta, and lots of vegetables, alongside their high protein and high-fat foods.
It is absolutely possible to lose bodyweight while cutting carbs, that is the main reason why people do it. But it isn’t the act of cutting carbs alone that causes you to lose weight. If you remove 300 calories worth of carbohydrates but add 400 calories worth of fat and protein then you will gain weight.
The trick to losing weight is to create a calorie deficit. This can be achieved by cutting carbs, cutting fat, or cutting calories from carbs and fat. The third option is usually the best, as all you have to do is eat smaller portions of your regular meals, rather than completely overhaul your diet.
The purpose of this article is to help you understand how cutting carbs strategically can be helpful as a bodybuilder. But I also want to stress the fact that carbohydrates are very useful for training, cognition, and health. So don’t be scared to eat them.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.