Do you want to look more muscular for a bodybuilding show, photoshoot, or a trip to the beach? We show you how!
Although I’ve always loved bodybuilding, I also think it’s one of the oddest sports in the world. After all, almost all of the hard work is done behind the scenes, and bodybuilders only look their best for a few short hours.
Bodybuilders don’t have to demonstrate their strength or athleticism. Instead, they’re living statues to be judged on appearance. Even more frustratingly, the biggest competitor is not always the most successful.
To make matters worse, months, if not years, of training can be undone simply because your muscles look puffy or you’re holding a little extra water. A small dietary misstep can completely ruin your physique or be the difference between winning and losing.
So, while building muscle is a brutal activity involving hours of intense training and eating like your life depends on it, looking your best often comes down to “the tricks of the trade.”
In this article, we delve into the topic of carbohydrate loading for bodybuilding, revealing how it can enhance muscle size and how you can use it to look your best, albeit very briefly.
What is Carbohydrate Loading?
Carbohydrate loading originates in endurance sports. Long-distance runners and cyclists have long used carbohydrate loading to maximize athletic performance. While bodybuilders carbohydrate load for a different reason, the end result is actually pretty similar.
The Fate of Dietary Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are a significant part of most people’s diets. Foods like bread, rice, fruit, oats, vegetables, and sugar are all common sources of carbs. When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested and broken down into glucose which, in turn, is stored as glycogen. Glucose is the preferred source of energy for your muscles and brain.
The carbs you eat are either:
- Used as immediate energy.
- Converted to glycogen and stored in your muscles.
- Converted to glycogen and stored in your liver.
- Converted to fat and stored in your adipose tissue.
- A small amount of glucose remains in your blood.
The glycogen in your muscles fuels your workouts, which is why consuming carbs is so critical for athletic endeavors. Low-carb diets are great for fat loss but not so good for anyone who engages in intense physical activity. Yes, your body does burn fat for fuel, but that’s a slow process and not ideal for fueling short, intense workouts.
What is Glycogen?
Anyway, glycogen is glucose bound to water. In fact, for every gram of glucose, glycogen also contains 3-4 grams of water. As such, glycogen is a bulky substance, and your body can only store so much.
The aim of carbohydrate loading is to maximize your glycogen stores. In endurance events, this means you’ll be able to go harder or longer before running out of energy. Carb loading can help prevent “hitting the wall” in an event like a marathon.
In contrast, bodybuilders carbohydrate load to increase muscle cell volume. It’s important to clarify that the muscles don’t get bigger. Instead, they soak up the glycogen and water, which makes them swell. The fibers themselves do not undergo rapid hypertrophy during carbohydrate loading.
Carb Loading Basics
In simple terms, carbohydrate loading involves two stages – carb depletion followed by carb refeeding. The depletion stage is designed to empty your glycogen stores so that, when you refeed, your muscles “soak up” even more glycogen (and water) than usual.
Think of this process like wringing out a sponge; the harder you squeeze, the more water you’ll get rid of, but the more water you’ll be able to soak up when you release it.
Carbohydrate loading can have a significant effect on your appearance, making your muscles look much larger and fuller than usual. While carb loading will never compensate for a lack of training or a poor diet, it can make the most of your current muscle mass so you look your best.
Sources of Dietary Carbohydrates
We’ve mentioned carbohydrates numerous times in this article, so it’s probably a good idea to list some popular carbs so a) you know what to avoid during the carb depletion stage of carb loading and what to eat in abundance when it’s time to refeed. So, to that end, here is a list of 30 common carb-rich foods:
|Brown Rice||Cereal Bars||Cookies|
|Pita Bread||Popcorn||Potato Chips|
|Waffles||White Bread||White Rice|
So, now you know what foods are good sources of carbohydrates, let’s answer the question you really want to know – does carb loading even work?
Does Carbohydrate Loading Work?
Many of the things that bodybuilders do are based on anecdotal evidence and bro-science. However, there is research that supports carb loading, suggesting that it really does work.
A team of researchers observed 24 male amateur bodybuilders who were competing in the 2016 Amateur South American Arnold Classic. For four days before the event, the athletes documented their food consumption, which was then scrutinized by the researchers.
Of the participants, nine opted not to carb load, while the remaining 15 followed a specific carb-loading protocol involving initial depletion and subsequent refeeding. Various metrics, including muscle thickness and body silhouette, were assessed.
The findings revealed that those who carb-loaded experienced noticeable improvements in both physical dimensions and visual appeal. However, they also reported some digestive issues.
|Metric||Carb-Loading Group||Non-Carb-Loading Group||Notes|
|Muscle Thickness||Significantly improved everywhere except the waist area||No significant change||Measured using ultrasound|
|Visual Impression||Improved||No change||Evaluated by contest judges who were blind to nutritional manipulations|
|Gastrointestinal Reactions||7 out of 15 reported diarrhea, 4 severe||Constipation reported||Self-assessed by bodybuilders|
|Mood||No change||No change||Self-assessed by bodybuilders|
TLDR: Carb loading makes your muscles bigger, albeit temporarily, but won’t make your waist bigger. However, it could upset your stomach.
Now you know what carbohydrate loading is and does, let’s move on to how you do it!
A Step-By-Step to Carbohydrate Loading for Bodybuilders
Whether you’re planning on stepping on stage, looking your best for a photoshoot, or just wanting to impress the beach crowd, carbohydrate loading can help.
However, it’s important to note that carb loading affects everyone differently. While it may give some people the edge they need to win their show, it could leave others too scared to venture far from the bathroom.
As such, you should try carbohydrate loading before your big event – whatever it may be. That way, you will know how your body will react and avoid undoing all your hard work. For some, carb loading is more trouble than it’s worth.
Long story short, don’t try carbohydrate loading for the first time during the lead-up to a big event. Have a practice run a few months beforehand to see how your body responds.
With that warning out of the way, these are the steps you need for carbohydrate loading. Please note that this is a seven-day carb-loading plan, so make sure you start it at the right time. Otherwise, you may miss your peak and fail to look your best when you need it most.
Your event preparation should have started several months in advance. The aim of this phase is to maximize muscle mass while reducing your body fat percentage. The earlier you begin this process, the easier it will be. Most bodybuilders start their diets 12-16 weeks before the event.
Remember, carb loading won’t do much for your body composition, so make sure your pre-event diet will get you to your desired level of leanness. Don’t expect to lose much more fat in the final week before your event.
Days 1 to 3: Carb Depletion
Before you start carb loading, you first need to purge your body of glycogen. This process, while not a lot of fun, serves to increase carb sensitivity so you can store even more glycogen when you refeed.
Typically, you should consume no more than 0.5 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. Your protein intake should be around 2.5 to 3.5 grams per kilo, while your fat intake should not exceed 2.0 grams per kilo.
Use a nutrition tracking app to make hitting these numbers easier.
Your low-carb diet should be combined with bodybuilding and cardio workouts. Train all major body parts during these three days to accelerate glycogen depletion. Expect your workout performance to decrease, especially on day three.
In addition, increase your water intake during these three days by roughly 50% above maintenance.
- Carbs: 0.5 grams per kilo
- Protein: 2.5 – 3.5 grams per kilo
- Fat: <2.0 grams per kilo
- Water: 50% above normal intake
- Sodium: Below 5 grams
Days 4 to 5: Carb Refeed
After three days of consuming very little carbohydrate, your muscles should be very depleted and ready to take up whatever carbs you consume. Being that they’re not in a very carb-sensitive state, almost all the carbs at this time will be converted to glucose and stored in your muscles as glycogen. This will also draw water into your muscles, increasing cell volume.
So, for the next two days, consume 6 to 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. Combine this with 0.5 grams of fat and 1.5 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilo. Keeping your fat intake low helps avoid any competition for fuel and minimizes the risk of fat regain.
You should also reduce your water intake to about 50% below maintenance during this time. However, after drinking so much over the previous few days, your body will excrete a large volume of water, helping you to dry out and appear leaner and more defined.
Regarding training, now is the time to kick back and relax a little. You can do some light cardio and practice your posing, but it’s best to avoid strenuous training. After all, it’s too late to build any more muscle.
- Carbs: 6-10 grams per kilo
- Protein: 1.5-2.0 grams per kilo
- Fat: 0.5 grams per kilo
- Water: 50% below normal intake
- Sodium: Below 1 gram
Day 6 – Dry Out
With your competition just around the corner, you’ll need to double down and stay strong, as you may feel tired and unwell today. Try to only sip water occasionally to avoid looking puffy and feeling bloated.
Diet-wise, consume 2-3 grams of carbs, around 2.0 grams of fat, and 3.0 grams of protein per kilogram. Don’t train, but feel free to practice your posing if you feel the need. Try to keep moving by walking or doing anything that doesn’t involve sitting or lying around. Stay busy.
- Carbs: 2-3 grams per kilo
- Protein: 3 grams per kilo
- Fat: 2.0 grams per kilo
- Water: Minimal
- Sodium: Increase sodium intake if you look a little flat
Day 7: Event
You should wake up today in the best shape of your life! Don’t screw things up by overeating or drinking gallons of water, as both will make you look and feel bloated. Sip and snack lightly – fruit is your friend. You can also drink soda, the kind with sugar, for energy. However, sip, don’t gulp to avoid the bloat.
Expect to feel tired, hungry, and thirsty today. But remember that you’re close to the end, and you’ll be able to enjoy a celebratory meal in just a few hours.
A few minutes before your event, pump up with some high-rep exercises, but don’t overdo it, as you’ll risk reducing vascularity.
Avoid pumping up areas where you are less lean, as added blood flow can reduce definition. Most lifters focus on their arms, delts, and chest at this time. Apply oil to your skin to bring out your definition. Consider using special “pump and pose” oil, which encourages vasodilation for more prominent veins.
- Eat and drink lightly to maintain your condition.
- Enjoy a post-event feast of whatever food and drink you’ve been craving!
This section has a lot of information, so here’s a handy chart for easy reference. You’re welcome!
|Day||Stage||Carbs (g/kg)||Protein (g/kg)||Fat (g/kg)||Water||Sodium|
|1-3||Depletion||0.5||2.5 – 3.5||<2.0||50% above normal||Below 5 grams|
|4-5||Refeed||6-10||1.5-2.0||0.5||50% below normal||Below 1 gram|
|6||Dry-Out||2-3||3||2.0||Minimal||1-2 grams if looking flat|
|7||Event Day||Eat and drink lightly to maintain your condition|
Note: Larger athletes should use the higher ends of these ranges, while smaller athletes should use the lower values.
Do you want to learn even more about carbohydrate loading for increased muscle size? Check out the next section for even more information.
Do you have a burning question about carb loading for muscle enhancement? No problem, because we’ve got the answers!
1. What is carbohydrate loading, and how does it differ for bodybuilders compared to endurance athletes?
Carbohydrate loading is a nutritional strategy designed to increase stores of muscle glycogen, which is stored glucose plus water. Endurance athletes use carbohydrate loading to increase energy and endurance, while bodybuilders do it to increase muscle size and fullness.
Both types of athletes carb load in much the same way. They start with 2-3 days of glycogen depletion, which is followed by 3-4 days of carb replenishment. However, bodybuilders also manipulate their water and sodium (salt) intake to maximize muscle cell volume. They may also end their preparations with a “drying out” day to increase muscle definition. Endurance athletes do not do this.
2. How long should I carb-deplete before starting the carb-loading phase?
There are several recognized ways to do carbohydrate loading. Some involve short depletion and longer replenishment phases, while others feature a longer depletion and shorter refeed.
In general, most use a 2-3 day low carb depletion followed by a 2-4 day replenishment. The right one for you depends on your current diet and how sensitive you are to carbs. For example, if your diet is usually very high in carbs, you may benefit from a more prolonged depletion phase. In contrast, if you are somewhat insulin resistant and prone to fat gain, a shorter carb refeed is recommended.
Use the method outlined in this article, then adjust it based on your results. Remember, though, to try carb loading several weeks before your event so you know how your body responds.
3. What types of carbohydrates are best for carb loading?
There is no single “best” carbohydrate source for carb loading. However, because you want to make the most of the insulin sensitivity caused by the initial stage of carb depletion, you’ll probably refeed faster if you use fast-acting carbs, which are typically low in fat and fiber.
So, given a choice, pick “white” versions of your favorite carbs, e.g., white bread, white rice, white pasta, bagels, rice crackers, etc., as they are digested and converted into glucose/glycogen more rapidly than their less processed alternatives.
4. Can I still work out during the carb depletion and carb-loading phases?
Working out will speed up carb depletion, so it’s a good idea to continue training during this time. Use compound exercises and train your entire body over 2-3 days to maximize glycogen depletion.
However, as your glycogen levels decrease, so too will your energy. Don’t expect to set any personal records; your workouts may become a bit of a slog.
Then, when it’s time to refeed, cut back on training so that the carbs you consume go straight to your muscles and are not used to fuel your workouts.
5. What are the potential side effects of carb loading?
While carbohydrate loading usually results in larger, fuller muscles and manipulating your salt and water intake helps improve definition, there are some potential side effects, too. Such side effects are generally not too severe but can be unpleasant enough that you may not feel your best, even if you look great.
The most common side effects of carbohydrate loading are:
- Fluid retention
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- High blood pressure
- Mood swings
- Muscle cramps
- Temporary insulin resistance and hyperglycemia
- Weight gain
However, it’s important to note that these side effects are transient. They will disappear once your carb intake and glycogen levels return to normal, i.e., 2-3 days after your event. Also, some people experience worse side effects than others. In my experience, carb loading never caused me any issues apart from mild headaches and insomnia.
6. Is carb loading suitable for everyone, or are there some people who should avoid it?
While carbohydrate loading is a common technique in bodybuilding and endurance sports, albeit done slightly differently, it is not without risks. After all, you are trying to manipulate your glucose metabolism to achieve a specific outcome, which means what you are doing is not natural.
As such, the following people should not do carbohydrate loading:
- Children and adolescents
- Individuals with food allergies or intolerances
- Anyone with heart conditions
- Individuals with chronic kidney disease
- People with chronic liver disease
- Individuals with metabolic disorders
- People on low-carb or ketogenic diets
- People with gastrointestinal issues
- Pregnant women
If you are worried about the possible risks of carbohydrate loading, please speak to your doctor before you begin.
7. Can I use diuretics to help me shed excess water for better definition?
Some bodybuilders use drugs called diuretics to lose water that would otherwise make them look less defined, bloated, or puffy. This is especially the case in pro competitions, where the “dry” look is what the judges are looking for.
However, acute dehydration can cause serious health problems, including:
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Cognitive impairment
- Dizziness and fainting
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Increased risk of drug testing failure
- Kidney damage
- Muscle cramps
Several high-profile deaths have been attributed to misuse of diuretics.
As such, the use of diuretic drugs is not recommended. However, there are natural supplements that gently help eliminate excess water, such as:
- Dandelion root
- Green tea
- Juniper berry
- Nettle leaf
Do you have any more questions about carbohydrate loading for bodybuilding? Then post them below in the comments section, and we’ll get back to you ASAP!
Carbohydrate Loading – Closing Thoughts
Carbohydrate loading can add a real shine to your physique by making your muscles temporarily larger, fuller, and more defined.
So, whether you’re doing a bodybuilding competition or just want to look your best for a photo shoot or a trip to the beach, carb-loading can help. However, it only works when you are already in good shape. It is not a miracle fix for inconsistent training or a poor diet.
There are a couple of different approaches to carbohydrate loading, but they all share the same steps. These include several days of low-carb glycogen depletion, carb replenishment, and a day of “drying out” to maximize vascularity and muscle separation. The duration of each stage varies from method to method.
While most people respond favorably to carbohydrate loading, in terms of appearance at least, there are some common side effects. These include bloating, stomach upsets, and fatigue. As such, it’s wise to have a trial run a few weeks before any big events to see how your body responds to this nutritional strategy.
Is carbohydrate loading right for you? That’s hard to say, as it depends on your physiology and what result you are trying to achieve. It could make a big difference in a bodybuilding show but may be unnecessary for non-competitive athletes.
The best way to learn about carbohydrate loading is to try it for yourself. If you do, we encourage you to share your before and after results and how the process went. That said, carb loading is probably unnecessary for the average gym rat, and any benefits are short-lived and likely outweighed by the potential drawbacks.
1 – de Moraes WMAM, de Almeida FN, Dos Santos LEA, Cavalcante KDG, Santos HO, Navalta JW, Prestes J. Carbohydrate Loading Practice in Bodybuilders: Effects on Muscle Thickness, Photo Silhouette Scores, Mood States and Gastrointestinal Symptoms. J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Nov 19;18(4):772-779. PMID: 31827362; PMCID: PMC6873117.