The connection between carbs, glycogen and flat muscles
In this post we’re going to discuss briefly about carbs, glycogen storage and why flat muscles not necessarily mean you’ve lost muscle mass.
I’ve first noticed this when I first started bulking after a fairly long cutting period and then I’ve see Chris Jones (check out his channel Pump Chasers if you haven’t already) talking a little bit about this on YouTube the other day and I thought this is a good topic to writing something about.
Carb is the king of the macros
If you’ve been reading the blog you should know already that I am not an advocate of low carb diets. Low carb diets are not any better for losing fat that the traditional caloric deficit way of dieting.
Yes, you might lose more total body weight faster if you do low carb for a certain period of time, but that will be just from the water weight and from the glycogen stores in our body.
Regardless of what the trendy diet plans or flashy ads you see online every 5 clicks, low carb diets are not superior for fat loss. All the water weight you lose by eating less carbs will be restored by the body once you go back to your normal eating habits.
Carbs are super important for the body. Our organism converts carbs to sugars and then uses them as fuel for our daily physical activities and for internal organs functioning. If you are doing any kind of physical exercise, and since you are reading the blog you probably do, carb are your friends.
Even so, when dieting, when you are trying to lose fat and get shredded you will have to lower your caloric intake which you will do by cutting back on fat and carbs. The protein needs to stay the same or even increase a bit to prevent any muscle loss and to make your meals feel more satiating.
So, you will have to eat less carbs.
Either way, when cutting I don’t recommend eating less than 0.8 – 1 grams of carbs per pound of body weight if you want to be able to have a good workout in the gym. For me that means about 150 – 180 grams of carbohydrate.
If you care to know more about carbs, low carb diets or want to give carb cycling a try (it is beneficial in some cases) please head over to this article.
How glycogen works
This part of the article will feel like an anatomy lesson but I will try to make it less boring that it sounds.
Glycogen is a form of energy storage. It’s the way our body stores carbs, hence the direct connection between carbs and glycogen. Eating more or less carbs will mean larger or smaller glycogen storage available for our body to use.
Now, glycogen itself is just the transportation vehicle that we are going to call a molecule, a fairly large one. It this vehicle (the glycogen molecule) rides glucose a whole bunch of water. By a whole bunch of water, what I mean is that the water weight carried by a single molecule of glycogen weighs 3-4 times more that the glucose itself.
What’s why at the beginning of any diet, especially the low carb ones, you will see a rapid weight loss and then a stall. That’s the water weight that goes away.
The weight loss stall happens when some of the water weight is being restored by the glycogen, but this is not a fat loss stall. You still lose fat if you’re in a caloric deficit; you just don’t see it on the scale because the amount of fat you lose is offset by the water weight.
The glycogen is produced by the liver and then some of it is stored in the liver and some in the muscles.
The purpose of the glycogen found inside the muscles is to provide the energy we use when we contract that specific muscles. That’s why muscles get depleted of glycogen quickly when you train hard, especially if you are on a low carb diet.
After each meal the once the body consumed the glucose it needed, the extra glucose is packaged by the liver in glycogen molecules and stored for later. Just like we put stuff in the fridge to eat them later.
According to what the books are saying the body can store glucose worth up to 2,000 kcal. As you can imagine this is more than enough for any kind of weight lifting training session and you can throw in a nice cardio session in there as well.
If you’re a marathon runner though, the 2,000 kcal may be gone when you are halfway through your race.
Glycogen, well glucose actually, is a form of energy that acts very fast. If your body needs the energy NOW, it goes to the glucose stores. Just like we go to the fridge when we are hungry. Glycogen is consumed when do a rep a set, when you run, in that very moment.
If you want to burn fat, your body needs to run out of glycogen first. That’s when it goes to eating the fat – which is another form of energy storage (acting slower that glycogen), but I am going to leave this topic for another article.
Think of it this way. If you want to eat now you go to the fridge, just like the body goes to the glycogen storages. If you want to eat later you go to the freezer, defrost something and eat it tomorrow. Just like the body goes to the fat storages.
That’s why when you train you don’t burn fat, you burn glycogen. The fat is burned during the day, after you run out of glycogen.
So basically the hierarchy of the human body preferred energy sources is the following:
- Simple carbs
- Complex carbs
Why do I look so flat?
If you have been doing at least one cycle of cutting and bulking you might have noticed that in the first couple of weeks after you are done cutting and start eating more you probably look better that you did when you were at your lowest body weight and body fat percentage.
Your muscles look bigger, the definition and separation is still there and you hardly put on any fat, if you have been in a mild caloric surplus or at maintenance level.
On the other hand, right when your are done cutting your muscles look flat and a little bit smaller. Ideally that’s not because you lost size, it’s just because you are on a low calorie diet and not getting in the right amount of carbs you should. That doesn’t put too much glycogen inside your muscles which makes them look smaller or flat.
I liked the analogy Chris Jones did on this. Think of it this way. The muscles are the tires and the carbs or better put the glycogen is the air. Depleting your muscles of glycogen doesn’t necessarily mean you have lost size; your body is just not putting enough glycogen inside them because of your diet restrictions.
That’s why when you are done dieting and start eating more food, more carbs, your muscles fill up a bit more, you get more energy and more strength.
So that’s how you fix flat muscles in a nutshell – up your carbs for a few days.
Hopefully this article hasn’t been too boring, and if you’ve read through so far I hope it was worth your time. You now know the connection between carbohydrates, glycogen and flat muscles.
Let me know if you have any comments by using the form below.