Carbs may fuel your muscle gains, but are they also adding unwanted bodyfat? Here's a breakdown of the what and when of carb intake for fat loss.

Carbs…the bodybuilder’s best friend and worst enemy all rolled into one. They're essential for energy, endurance, muscle building and recovery when used properly, but they can work against you when used incorrectly. Poll the so-called contest prep gurus and you will get conflicting advice on carbohydrates. So if these experienced experts can’t agree on this, how the hell is the average person supposed to know which one is right?

The one obvious point should be that you need to cut the "bad" or simple carbs if you have intentions of shedding fat and looking peeled. Whether or not you choose to include carbs in your diet, you should be aware of the different types of and uses for carbs.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Before we get too far into this, we want to bring out something very important. Your genetics and metabolism will determine a lot of what works for you nutrition-wise. Some people can eat a lot of carbs and stay lean, while others will always look as if they are spilling over. So you have to experiment to find out what your ideal macronutrient breakdown is.

A popular one is 50 percent protein, 30 percent carbs and 20 percent fats. This is, of course, interchangeable depending on how your body reacts to these three different types of foods.

So before you decide to cut carbs in the quest for six-pack abs, here is some information for you to base your decision on.

Bowl of oatmeal topped with fresh fruit


Pre-Workout Carb Benefits

Even if you are cutting carbs, you should include them in the two meals surrounding your training session. You can leave them out the rest of the day, but pre- and post-workout carbs are important for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, carbs will provide the energy you will need to not only get through your routine, but also excel at it. Your endurance level will plummet halfway through the workout if you deplete yourself of carbs. If you want some proof, speak to a competitive bodybuilder who has performed early morning cardio on an empty stomach at the end of his or her contest prep.

Post-Workout Carb Benefits

Carbs, especially when ingested as part of your post-workout meal, will help your body restore the muscle glycogen that becomes depleted during training sessions. If you want to swear off carbs altogether, realize that your body will then resort to breaking down muscle to use.

Another positive aspect of carbs in the recovery process is the insulin spike that they will give your body. This will feed those starving muscles with much-needed nutrients.

Low or No Carb Diets

You will lose at least some muscle size if you cut carbs – plain and simple. Sure, you may shed some of that unwanted body fat, but you have to accept the fact that muscle will disappear with it. Using bodybuilders again as a perfect example, they will go through a carb cutting phase towards the end of their contest prep to get ripped and drop weight but then carb back up closer to the show date to fill out their muscles.

Timing this is a tricky thing to do and that is why you will see competitors looking different each time they don the posing trunks and take the stage, besides weighing an average of 20 to 30 pounds less than during their offseason.

But looking at it from afar, you will lose size – a combination of muscle and fat – when you cut carbs and get more muscular when eating them.

Bowl of salty pretzels and nuts

So Will Cutting Carbs Get You Ripped or Not?

The short answer is yes, but it is not that simple. Depending on your body type, size and immediate goals, it may be something that you try as part of a total fitness program. "Cut the carbs and up the cardio" is a formula that works for the short term, but it is not practical to do on a regular basis.

Carbs are a necessary evil, if you will, as they have the many positive attributes described above. And let’s face it…they taste good. All of that bland food begins to get to you and to have the luxury of including at least some food that is appealing is difficult to keep passing up, especially when it will not completely blow your diet.

We are not talking about cheat meals, which is an entirely different subject. There are carbs that the average person may view as something only one of those "health food nuts" would want to eat, but someone who is serious about health and fitness will see as a treat of sorts.

Try to make your last carb with dinner, if that's possible. Some people only have time to go to the gym in the evening and therein lies a quandary; do you skip the post-workout carbs because it will be too close to bedtime? You have to weigh the pros and cons for yourself on that one, but keep in mind that the former may outweigh the latter.

If you need to drop a good deal of body fat, then you should probably skip or severely limit the PM post-workout carbs. But if you’re just looking to trim down a little, then you should be fine eating some complex carbs at that time.

Complex (Good) Carbs Simple (Bad) Carbs
Oatmeal White Bread
Whole Grain Cereal White Rice
Sweet Potatoes White Potatoes
Brown Rice Cake, Donuts, Muffins
Quinoa Dried Fruit
Steamed Vegetables Quick Oats
Whole Wheat Pasta Sugary Cereal
Barley Regular Pasta
Popcorn (without salt or butter) Honey Roasted Nuts
Fresh Fruit Potato Chips
Beans Pretzels
Nuts (raw, unsalted) Crackers

Here is my best advice to you in regards to this subject – cut down on carbs, but do not cut them out entirely. Choose the right ones to eat – of the low glycemic variety – and only include them in your pre- and post-workout meals.

Posted on: Fri, 10/14/2022 - 13:27

Why are quick oats considered simple (bad) carbs? Aren't they simply rolled oats that have been pre-cooked? Or are you meaning the instant flavored oatmeal with added sugar?

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Posted on: Sat, 10/15/2022 - 11:27

I believe this is referencing to the instant flavored oatmeal with added sugar.

Posted on: Sat, 10/15/2022 - 16:37

Great, thank you. I appreciate the clarification.

Posted on: Sun, 04/25/2021 - 14:20

I didn't think white potatoes are like other white carbs such as bread? potatoes are some of the most filling carbohydrates one can eat. White or sweet.

Posted on: Sun, 05/03/2015 - 13:20

But Joe,

Its been proven that carbs+protein or just protein pwo reaches the same level of protein synthesis and therefore carbs truly arent needed. I'd say carbs at breakfast and preworkout are more ideal and has been working for me in terms of maintaining muscle while losing bodyfat.

Posted on: Wed, 05/06/2015 - 21:14

Jason, wouldn't you also then agree that there's no two identical responses to carb intake?