The Secret to Carb Back-Loading

Sometimes I forget how easy life seems. I stay pretty lean throughout the year, so when I order one of the gargantuan entrees at The Cheesecake Factory, clean the plate and move on to the apple crisp with the 3 lbs. of whipped cream, I feel the eyes on me. I, however, have a diet where splurging is necessary.

In strength sports, the balance between body fat and lean tissue dictates success. Too much, and the lifter diets down for weeks, sacrificing mass and strength to cut weight; too little and strength is crippled. Improving strength, increasing muscle mass and maintaining the ideal level of body fat seems impossible – especially for those of us who were raised with the modern diet of convenience in the United States. But it's not impossible.

The key to balance

To balance our body fat and lean tissue, we need help from a pharmacokinetically diverse substance: carbohydrates. Ingesting carbs triggers a host of hormonal responses, nearly all of which signal growth. That's why people often have a love-hate relationship with carbs. Sure, they make you grow, but they're bipartisan: They make both fat cells and muscle cells grow.

Carbs are a two-faced bastard. Want to be muscular and strong? You need carbs. Want to stay tight and lean? Skip the carbs. The insulin released when you eat carbs makes fat cells efficient at storing fat and conserving energy, i.e. insulin changes the amount of energy your body derives from food. This spits in the face of "a calorie is a calorie", but from the point of view of statistical physics, "a calorie is a calorie" makes no physical sense whatsoever. If I told you it was impossible for your car to get better mileage on the interstate than in the city, you'd call me an idiot. The same is true of the body: With carbs the body gets more energy out of food & the body gets better mileage.

Complicating things, the interplay between carbs and insulin affect a host of hormones, enzymes and transcription factors in positive and negative ways. Depending on your past diet, it can significantly alter strength. Most of us need steady insulin levels to operate at peak performance. Levels can be high or low, but the body needs consistency. For the strength athlete, every meal or every missed meal can be the difference between a PR training session and getting stapled to the bench.

It sounds bleak: Being strong means being fat. As a physicist and someone who pursues elite strength, my first instinct is, "screw that", but I didn't have an answer. After almost two decades of combing through medical research and a few years refining it with elite athletes, I can say, "screw that", and mean it.

Keep it simple, stupid

The solution is so simple it's almost stupid. Keep the body as inefficient as possible, but still let insulin trigger growth in muscle tissue. Fat cells become wasteful but muscles still get the signal to grow. You could, conceivably grow muscle while losing body fat. At the very least, you could grow muscle and build strength without adding body fat.

Carb back-loading does just that. I won't get into the details here. For those who want the hardcore science, you can find it online at It works. Ask Brian Carroll, who has totaled 2,700 lbs. in the 275-lb. weight class. Ask Mark Bell, or a host of other powerlifters at various levels.

How to Carb Back-Load

  1. Don't eat carbs before resistance training (or before 6 p.m.)
  2. Try to schedule training start times for between 3 and 5 p.m.
  3. Load up on carbs and protein through the night after training.

That's it. Of course, this might seem familiar. It's the whole, "load up on carbs after lifting" thing, right? But if that's all you take from this, you're missing the point. Starches and sugar can be stored most easily as fat in the first half of the day, but after resistance training, muscles can absorb sugar while fat cells have a difficult time doing so. Referring to the efficiency argument above, if you don't eat carbs for most of the day and save them for after resistance training (all night after resistance training) the body becomes amazingly inefficient, but muscle retains the ability to grow, recover and repair without you getting fat.

Implementing this is easy: steak and eggs, ham and cheese sans the bread, cottage cheese and almonds, any combination of fat and protein for each meal in the first half of the day before training. After training, a carb-loaded protein shake, then load up: pizza, bread, pasta, muffins, bananas. Keep in mind that you also want to keep your protein levels high through the evening to make sure the muscles get the needed nutrients. Even if that means downing a protein shake before your cheese pizza. Do it. Eat until you sleep.


Know the rules

Don't think you can go in, do some froufrou session with your big-box gym trainer then back-load. You might as well sit on the couch all day and start hammering back the Doritos come 5 p.m. You need to train heavy and intensely. No super-sets or forced reps are necessary, just an intense, heavy training session. Muscle tissue needs to be loaded for the changes that allow them to absorb sugar sans insulin. You should be pushing to near failure for several sets, or handling massive loads. And the harder you lift, the more carbs you burn, the more that you can push back into the muscles when back-loading.

You may think that going without the carbs before training is going to kill your strength and endurance, but it's the opposite. Without fighting the fluctuations in blood sugar from eating carbs, the body reaches homeostasis and the nervous system fires with greater efficiency. Most people report almost immediate strength gains of 5 percent within a few days of carb back-loading.

Here's a typical day:

  • Breakfast: Sausage, eggs, tomato slices with Tobasco sauce
  • Lunch: Steak, broccoli with butter
  • Snack (3 p.m.): Low-fat cottage cheese, almonds
  • Snack (pre-training): High-quality protein shake (about 20 to 30 grams of a casein or whey hydrolysate)
  • Snack (post-training): High-quality protein shake (about 20 to 30 grams of a casein or whey hydrolysate) with several ripe bananas or a carb powder, like maltodextrin.
  • Rest of the evening: Pizza, hamburger with bun, mashed potatoes, etc.

A simple plan

Not everyone can train at the perfect time, and there are adjustments you can make, but the easiest is to stick to this guideline: Eat carbs starting at either post-training or 6 p.m., whichever is later. If you train in the morning, have a protein shake after your session, but leave out the carbs and start eating them at dinner. If you train late, load up as much as possible before bed after your session ends. There are more ways to modify this for almost any scenario, but that'll have to wait for another article. PM

John Kiefer has a Masters in Physics and is the author of The Carb Nite Solution. For more on Kiefer, you can check out his website at ~Reprinted with permission from Power magazine, January 2011.