If we’re honest, nobody wants to be eating six cups a rice or potatoes a day when you’re trying to put on mass. Besides everything else you have to eat, it’s a lot of food!

So, how do you gain mass and strength without having to eat a mountain of food at every meal?

You turn to a carb supplement.

While there are many poor-quality carb supplements available, the good news is that there is also a lot of high quality, effective ones out there that will give you the edge you’re looking for.

And if you’re not sure where to start, you’re in the right place.

We’re going to detail what you need to know—why you need carbs and how they work in the body, the importance of carbs for performance and muscle growth, available options, what to look for in a carb supplement, and where you can find the best one.

Let’s get going.

All About Carbs

You’ll see diets like low-carb and keto that completely banish heavy-duty carb sources like rice, potatoes, yams, and the like.

And even within the bodybuilding community, you see protein on protein on protein, but carbs tend to take a back seat.

Listen to this: if you’re more interested in gaining muscle and strength, or just putting on mass, opting for a low-carb or ketogenic diet may not be to your benefit.

When appropriately used, carbohydrates can boost performance, help you gain mass and strength, and even alter your metabolism to help you meet your goals.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three major macromolecules in the body, alongside protein and fat. They offer four calories per gram and are broken down into single units of glucose upon metabolization.

Glucose in the blood is then taken up by your cells and used to produce ATP—the body’s main energy source. This ATP is what powers biological activities.

When consumed in excess, carbohydrates are stored primarily in the liver and skeletal muscle as glycogen, which acts as a quick source of energy when incoming glucose is limited; the liver stores around 100g of glycogen, while skeletal muscle stores around 500g 1.

While glucose is your body’s preferred fuel source, it can produce ATP from non-carbohydrate sources like amino acids and lipids.

In general, carbohydrates are made of up of three components:

1. Fiber
2. Starch
3. Sugar

The ratio of these three components dictates the nutrient quality of the food and how beneficial it will be towards your performance and goals.

But the reason you should care about how carbs are digested in the body is because of one specific hormone—insulin.

Insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone that is released whenever carbs are consumed. Rapidly digesting carbs (i.e. simple carbs) cause rapid insulin spikes, whereas slower digesting carbs (i.e., complex carbs) have a subtler effect on insulin levels.

Knowing this can come in handy when you’re training and need to determine what kind of carb to consume after a workout.

Carbs and Exercise

Carbs serve as the primary energy source for body functions. During exercise intensity above 70% maximal oxygen uptake, glycogen serves as the main energy substrate 1. When skeletal muscle reserves are depleted in active muscles, that’s when you start to feel fatigued.

For high-intensity exercise specifically, those carb stores serve as the main pool for energy. However, exercise intensity and duration will determine how much energy is used during the training session.

For example, metabolism in skeletal muscle differs significantly between high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and moderate-intensity training. Whereas HIIT utilizes anaerobic pathways, prolonged continuous exercise is primarily sustained by skeletal muscle glycogen 2, 3.

What’s interesting is that when blood glucose is depleted, only liver glycogen can contribute to the direct release of glucose into the bloodstream; skeletal muscle reserves are mainly used as a substrate for exercise rather than blood glucose maintenance 1.

There’s something else you need to know, too. A lot of people think taking BCAAs before exercise will suffice if following a low-carb diet.

Still, it’s been confirmed that protein turnover increases during exercise, and although amino acids, most notably the branched-chain amino acids, can be oxidized by skeletal muscle, ATP contribution is relatively low.

Thus, under conditions of decreased carb availability, the contribution from amino acid metabolism is increased 4; if there is an inadequate amino acid intake, your body goes after your muscles—a concentrated source of them.

How Carb Supplements Can Help You Gain Weight

Quick and Direct Weight Gain

We’re going to start with the most basic role of carbs in weight gain, and it comes down to the simple principle that unused glucose gets stored as fat and fat = weight gain.

But insulin is also involved in this cascade.

When you eat carbs, your body metabolizes them to form glucose, which causes a subsequent rise in blood sugar.

The glucose floating around your bloodstream has to go somewhere, so your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which stimulates cells to open up and allow glucose to enter. Both the brain and muscles are very keen on glucose and use it as their preferential fuel.

If your cells are readily stocked with glucose, however, and there’s still glucose in the bloodstream, insulin stimulates muscle and liver cells to open and store glucose for later use as glycogen.

When the glucose isn’t required for immediate energy or stored in your muscles or liver, it has to go somewhere, as excessive glucose exposure can damage cells. Insulin signals to your fat cells to open up, so glucose enters and is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.

There’s another angle to this problem.

When insulin receptors are constantly being bombarded with insulin, they become desensitized to insulin and are less likely to open and let glucose in.

It becomes a vicious cycle of high blood sugar causes high insulin, which causes cells to become resistant to insulin, which causes high blood sugar—and the cycle continues.

However, it’s important to be mindful that you don’t necessarily want to pack on the pounds as fat because that contributes to a whole slew of other health dangers and drastically increases the risk of chronic disease development, especially things like diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome.

A healthier, safer way to gain weight would be to use excess calories to your advantage, as well as the energy provided from carbs, to increase your performance in the gym. If you can pack on muscle instead of fat, your weight gain will be far healthier and more successful.

How carbs can help you do that is what you’re about to find out.

Carbs for Performance

If you’re looking to up your performance, carbs are going to be your friend. Especially for athletes or anyone doing exhaustive competitions, carb replenishment (liver and muscle glycogen) becomes critical to both your performance and recovery.

But to further understand how carbs can enhance your performance, you need to understand what’s happening during a lift:

Whether you’re squatting, pressing, or doing a high-intensity circuit, to lift any sort of weight, you need energy, and like we mentioned earlier, that energy comes in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP); ATP is the only substrate that can enable muscle contractions.

However, where things get tricky is that your muscles only store enough ATP to support muscle contraction for about two seconds 4. After that, it either needs another source, or the contraction stops, and your set ends.

To replenish these ATP stores, your body breaks down creatine phosphate (CP), which releases ATP to replenish energy stores quickly; creatine phosphate can also supply energy for only a few seconds of maximal work 5.

Once creatine phosphate supplies run out, it switches over to glycolysis, whereby blood glucose and stored glycogen are used to supply energy.

This last piece is where carbohydrates come into play, and during rest periods, your body uses the glycolytic pathway to restore ATP levels.

The last thing you want is to run out of fuel during your lifts because you didn’t supply adequate carbohydrates to restore glycogen levels and proceed at optimal training intensities.

Several acute and chronic training studies suggest that despite strength adaptations not being impacted by severe carbohydrate restriction, consuming adequate amounts of carbs in the days before training may enhance maximal strength and strength-endurance performance 6.

As such, carbs are not only the starting point for growth, but they ensure you can train hard from the get-go all the way until the end.

And if you want to take it a step further, consuming a fair amount of quick digesting carbs pre-workout (30-60 minutes) will ensure your blood glucose levels are topped up and available for immediate use.

Carbs for Muscle Growth

When there isn’t enough glucose coming in to supply the body with the necessary energy, it starts to pull glucose from other sources via a process called gluconeogenesis, or creating glucose from non-carbohydrates sources; these sources include amino acids (muscles) and fat.

If you’re looking to maximize muscle growth, having your amino acid stores tapped into in order to supply glucose is less than ideal.

To avoid that, we want to be consuming adequate carbohydrates to maintain loaded glycogen stores, so muscles remain intact.

As we just mentioned, enhancing performance by consuming adequate carbohydrates is likely to increase muscle growth in the long-run, but what about now?

In lieu of our discussion on insulin, we’re going to keep on that topic. Muscle growth from carbohydrates is done through the actions of insulin, as carb consumption stimulates the secretion of insulin.

Insulin increases protein synthesis (i.e., muscle growth) in a couple of different ways.

First, insulin increases the transport of amino acids and other nutrients from your bloodstream to your muscles, which are required for muscle protein synthesis 7.

Insulin also binds with the muscle cell membrane to trigger the cellular pathways involved in muscle growth.

And conveniently, insulin is an anti-catabolic hormone because it keeps cortisol levels in check; cortisol is a catabolic hormone that, when in excess, will breakdown muscle tissue for energy.

While increased cortisol is inevitable during resistance training, some of the effects can be counteracted by consuming high glycemic carbs that immediately increase insulin.

Not only this, but high-glycemic carbs pre-or post-workout will also replenish glycogen stores and aid in muscle growth and recovery.

Carb Supplement Options

When it comes to choosing your carb source, food is always the best option. However, when you’re in a pinch or not looking to consume a massive plate of carbs at every meal, carb supplements are the next best thing.

Typically, these are what you’ll see:

Dextrose and Maltodextrin

Dextrose and maltodextrin are two of the post popular sugars used in post-workout carb supplements.

Maltodextrin is a powder produced from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat. Despite being derived from plant-sources, it’s still highly processed and must be cooked and heat-stabilized to further break it down and create a water-soluble, neutral tasting product.

Maltodextrin is like corn syrup solids, however, with lower sugar content.

It’s commonly used in workout supplements because it’s high on the glycemic index and thus rapidly increases blood glucose levels and subsequently insulin, thus aiding in carb replenishment and muscle growth.

Research suggests that acute maltodextrin supplementation combined with glutamine 2 hours before exercise may prevent a decline in anaerobic power 8.

However, where maltodextrin goes wrong is regarding your gut health. A 2012 study published in PLoS One found that maltodextrin may alter gut bacteria composition in such a way that it increases disease susceptibility 9; it can suppress the growth of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract that are important for immune function.

Like maltodextrin, dextrose is also a high-glycemic sugar derived from corn that helps to refill your body’s tank. Since dextrose is chemically identical to glucose, it’s rapidly absorbed and creates the same effect on blood glucose and insulin levels.

As a result, you drastically spike blood sugar and insulin, thus enhancing nutrient transport into your cells (i.e., amino acids and glucose).

Where these molecules differ is in their structure. Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide composed of multiple linked glucose units, whereas dextrose is a monosaccharide. Because it doesn’t have to be broken down, dextrose elicits an almost instantaneous spike in blood glucose and insulin.

But besides enabling nutrient transport to the muscles and replenishing glycogen stores, dextrose and maltodextrin have little more to offer.

Waxy Maize Starch

Waxy maize starch (WMS) is one of the other popular carb supplements. Waxy starches are exactly as they sound—a carbohydrate derived from sources like rice, barley, and corn (maize) that resemble actual wax when viewed under a microscope.

They contain a large amount of highly branched starches called amylopectin, and lesser quantities of another branch starch called amylose 10, 11.

There have been notions that WMS, due to its high amylopectin component (>99%), is more rapidly absorbed by the gut (compared to dextrose and maltodextrin) and elicits an immediate spike in blood glucose and insulin. However, what studies show is that this theory is more a myth than it is a fact.

One study compared the effects of WMS with maltodextrin, sucrose, and slow starch using the 1-hour glycemic index test 12. Results showed that WMS blood glucose levels were not only lower than maltodextrin but even lower than the slower carbohydrate sucrose.

Another study showed similar results when comparing WMS with maltodextrin + a small amount of sucrose and white bread 13.

Researchers found that the blood glucose impact of WMS was similar to that of white bread and was quite a bit lower than the maltodextrin sucrose combination. Insulin response was also lower for WMS than white bread.

Taken together, the idea behind the use of WMS post-workout is sound, but there isn’t enough positive research to actually support its efficacy.

What To Look For In A Carb Supplement

With all of that said, choosing a good carb supplement seems a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Not all supplements are created equal, so choosing one that works for you is all about knowing what to look for.

But lucky for you, we’ve done the research and have drawn up what you should be looking for when choosing a carb supplement.

High Quality, Rapidly Absorbing Carb

If you’re looking for weight gain from your carb supplement, you’re going to want to ensure that the source of the carb is quality and digests quickly, which means you want to look towards a simple carbohydrate.

The simpler the carbohydrate source, the faster blood glucose and insulin spike, and the quicker the glucose can supply your muscles.

Avoid carb supplements with high amounts of fiber, as fiber acts to slow down absorption in the gut and thus slows down insulin and glucose spikes.

Natural Flavors and Sweeteners

In the effort to maintain your health through your ‘bulking’, you want to avoid the nasty ingredients that you’ll typically find in protein powders and weight gainers.

Things like sucralose, aspartame, artificial colors and dyes, and additives and stabilizers are all things like wreak havoc on your gut health.

Opt for more natural sweeteners like coconut sugar, stevia, erythritol, or monk fruit, and always look for spices and other flavors that you are familiar with; avoid products if they say ‘natural flavors’, as there is little regulation on what these natural flavors can be derived from.

Scientifically Proven

The sports nutrition supplement industry can be a little dodgy at the best of times. With minimal regulations, you want to be sure that what you’re putting into your body is as safe as it is effective.

Always look for third-party verification like BSCG Certified Drug-Free, Informed-Choice (or Informed-Sport), NSF Certified for Sport, and USP Verified.

These labels ensure that dietary supplements and their ingredients, as well as manufacturing and storage facilities, comply with GMP (or similar) requirements and that the product has been tested for and does not contain ingredients banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

With carb supplements, the banned ingredient issue is less of a concern, but it’s always best to take precautionary measures to ensure you’re consuming a clean and safe product.

The Best Natural Carb Supplement: Performance Lab Carb

If you’re going to invest your money into a supplement, you want to make sure it’s science-backed, high quality, and, more importantly, effective.

Performance Lab Carb supplies your body with essential minerals, quality carbs, and organic ingredients formulated for sustainable weight gain.

Where it trumps other products is with its main ingredient—Karbolyn, a ‘state-of-the-art’ carb formula made using potato, corn, and rice starch, which has been proven to digest faster than sugar or dextrose.

But as a homopolysaccharide, it’s also capable of balancing blood sugar levels to provide sustained energy for longer than other carb supplements.

It gets to work faster to stimulate growth-promoting insulin release, sustains energy for 2+ hours with its mix of simple and complex carbohydrates, and enhances nutrient absorption by pulling nutrients from the intestines into the bloodstream.

If that’s not enough, Performance Lab Carb also contains essential minerals such as sodium from Himalayan salt, potassium from coconut crystals, and spices like cinnamon and cocoa that contribute to increased energy, enhanced nutrient delivery, and sustainable long-term weight gain.

Performance Lab Carb contains only the best scientifically proven ingredients for improved weight gain, sustained energy levels, and long-term health.

And if you’re serious about gaining weight, the combination of protein and carbs is a sure-fire way to get you there.

Performance Lab Protein is a 100% organic protein powder that digests 30% faster than whey protein and contains only natural flavors and sweeteners, meaning it not only tastes great, but is equally effective.

References

  1. J Jensen, PI Rustad, AJ Kolnes, YC Lai. The role of skeletal muscle glycogen breakdown for regulation of insulin sensitivity by exercise. Front Physiol. 2011;2:112.
  2. Hermansen L, Hultman E, Saltin B. Muscle glycogen during prolonged severe exercise. Acta Physiol Scand. 1967;71(2):129-139. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1967.tb03719.x
  3. B Saltin, J Karlsson. Muscle Glycogen Utilization During Work of Different Intensities. In: Pernow B., Saltin B. (eds) Muscle Metabolism During Exercise. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, vol 11. Springer, Boston, MA; 1971.
  4. M Hargreaves, LL Spriet. Skeletal muscle energy metabolism during exercise. Nat Metab. 2020; 2: 817–828.
  5. JM Berg, JL Tymoczko, L Stryer. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002. Section 30.4, Fuel Choice During Exercise Is Determined by Intensity and Duration of Activity. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22417/
  6. JM Cholewa, DE Newmire, NE Zanchi. Carbohydrate restriction: Friend or foe of resistance-based exercise performance? Nutrition. 2019;60:136-146.
  7. S Fujita, BB Rasmussen, JG Cadenas, JJ Grady, E Volpi. Effect of insulin on human skeletal muscle protein synthesis is modulated by insulin-induced changes in muscle blood flow and amino acid availability. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2006;291(4):E745-E754.
  8. M Khorshidi-Hosseini, B Nakhostin-Roohi. Effect of glutamine and maltodextrin acute supplementation on anaerobic power. Asian J Sports Med. 2013;4(2):131-136.
  9. KP Nickerson, C McDonald. Crohn’s disease-associated adherent-invasive Escherichia coli adhesion is enhanced by exposure to the ubiquitous dietary polysaccharide maltodextrin. PLoS One. 2012;7(12):e52132.
  10. JY Li, AI Yeh. Relationships between thermal, rheological characteristics and swelling power for various starches. J. Food. Eng. 2001 Nov; 50(3): 141-148.
  11. N Singh, J Singh, L Kaur, NS Sodhi, BS Gill. Morphological, thermal and rheological properties of starches from different botanical sources. Food Chemistry. 2003 May; 81(2): 219-231.
  12. GH Anderson, NL Catherine, DM Woodend, TM Wolever. Inverse association between the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose and subsequent short-term food intake in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76(5):1023-1030.
  13. AL Sands, HJ Leidy, BR Hamaker, P Maguire, WW Campbell. Consumption of the slow-digesting waxy maize starch leads to blunted plasma glucose and insulin response but does not influence energy expenditure or appetite in humans. Nutr Res. 2009;29(6):383-390.