Strength sports such as Powerlifting and Weightlifting require maximal and explosive strength to be displayed for up to nine single repetitions in any one competition. It is a common/popular train of thought that muscle glycogen (our carbohydrate stores) is not used for heavy single repetitions and therefore, carbohydrates are not 100% necessary for competition or strength athletes in general. There is some truth to this since lifting maximally or explosively for singles or even performing a hard, higher volume session will not completely deplete our glycogen stores and certainly won’t tax our glycolytic energy system anywhere near as much as a 90-minute football match, an 80-minute rugby match or any kind of long distance race. However, this is only part of the picture and there are other considerations before we can get the complete picture and draw appropriate conclusions.
- We will almost never only do 9 heavy single repetitions in training, so energy demands will be often much higher for intense, voluminous training sessions compared to competition days. Although we may not need full glycogen stores to effectively complete a session, consistently training hard with submaximal glycogen levels can have a long term detrimental effect on performance gains.
- Are there any other effects of carbohydrate consumption other than glycogen replenishment that will be beneficial for the optimal expression of maximal or explosive strength?
In Danny Lennon’s Sigma Nutrition Radio podcast, Dr. Mike Israetel highlights there are in fact a whole host of benefits to carbohydrate consumption beyond that of glycogen replenishment for Powerlifters and Weightlifters. There were some great points made and I urge you to listen to the whole podcast, but below I summarise three of the benefits Mike suggested carbohydrates have for strength performance.
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO THE ROLE OF CARBOHYDRATES
- Full glycogen stores have anabolic downstream signalling effects, which allow for the creation of new muscle tissue. That is, the depletion of glycogen stores negatively affects the process of muscle protein synthesis and prevents its stimulation, which in turn means muscle growth, gain and maintenance is extremely difficult. For those wanting to get stronger and more powerful, this becomes an obvious problem.
- Insulin is an extremely anabolic hormone that promotes the growth and recovery of new tissue. Carbohydrate consumption causes the secretion of insulin and therefore, promotes growth and recovery which is key for strength athletes and in fact any athlete in general. An inability to recover/suboptimal recovery will have negative knock on effects to subsequent training sessions and over the long term could result in a stagnation or even decline in performance and in worst case scenarios, injury.
- As well as the quantity and quality of muscle involved in a movement, the ability of the nervous system to appropriately activate those muscles has a vital role to play in strength performance. Sufficient carbohydrate consumption, subsequently leading to high blood glucose levels is what primarily fuels the nervous system. It therefore, would seem a good idea to ensure carbohydrate consumption is sufficient for strength athletes not only to fuel the muscle, but also the nervous system.
Enhancing performance is all about balancing stress and recovery. We need to stress our body and more particularly our skeletal, muscular and nervous systems sufficiently to promote adaptation i.e. increases in muscle size, strength and power. However, the adaptation will not occur if we do not recover and will only be sub-optimal if we do not recover fully. So, for sure strength athletes don’t NEED to consume endurance level amount of carbohydrates for training or competition. They can definitely get away with less however, there will be a lower limit below which performance will be adversely effected. There may be the argument that the nervous system can run well on ketones, which would involve a high fat and very low carbohydrate diet. However, the transition to be becoming ketogenic takes a while and still is not optimal. Not to mention the fact that for most people it’s an extremely hard diet to completely adhere to long term simply because carbohydrates are just so god damn tasty! If you are still eating carbs here and there whilst trying to enter ketosis you will never really make the transition.
This then presents the question of how much carbohydrate is enough and I think this is where individuality comes into play. Powerlifting and Weightlifting are weight class sports and many individuals will need to manage and monitor weight differently depending on how close they are to the end ranges of their class and whether they are trying to drop, gain or maintain weight. There is a lot to be said around this topic and the different approaches that may be taken, but that is for another discussion. So simply and briefly, for strength athletes that don’t have to worry about making weight because they sit comfortably in their class, I recommend eating as many carbohydrates as it takes to make you feel good, happy, recovered and energetic. The same applies to those that are closer to the top of their weight class and need to monitor weight a little, or those that may need to drop some weight. However, these athletes may need to restrict their consumption to the highest amount that allows them to keep their weight at or around their desired competition weight and/or allows them to develop and maintain maximal muscle mass whilst keeping body fat levels within their desired limits. With this, there will obviously reach a point where if carbs are restricted too much there will be a trade-off with performance and this point may signify the need to move up a weight class.
As I mentioned earlier, these are just three points I have summarised. A lot more was talked about and in more detail in the podcast so if you want to have a listen for yourself (which I would highly recommend) you can find the whole talk here: