Carb Backloading™ : A Weightlifter’s Experience

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Matt Bergeron is teammate on Team MDUSA with me and a 94 kilogram weightlifter. He graduated from Ball State University with a Masters in Exercise Science in 2013 and has been with MDUSA ever since. Carb Backloading is form of eating that I became interested in after seeing Mark Bell post about it and a similar approach Carb Nite to help him lose weight. When Matt was looking to keep his weight under control (not every can be a super after all) I mentioned John Keifer’s book to him. But I wasn’t prepared for how well Matt had adapted the plan to weightlifting and the amount of success he would have with it. So I have asked Matt to give a detailed description of the plan and how he implements the program into his training regiment to continue progressing while not having to worry about his weight. Take a look and see if this could be a possibility to help your further your training along. 

When I moved to South Carolina to join team MDUSA in 2013, I was overweight for a 94kg lifter, weighing in at a whopping 103kg daily.  The immediate issue then became getting back to proper training weight.  I had an exercise science background.  I knew all about post-training protein and carbs and everything every athlete should take in , but, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t losing any body fat. I wasn’t putting on any muscle and I wasn’t getting any stronger in training or competitions. I had to revamp my diet to fix this issue.

Tom pointed me to a diet plan called Carb Backloading™, a system developed by John Kiefer (You may know him for his previous diet plan Carb Nite©).  The objective of Carb Backloading™ (from here on referred to as CBL) is to control insulin levels ( through maintenance of most of your carbs to the end of the day after your workout or last workout) to, in turn,  optimize recovery with minimal body fat retention.  The basic premise is this:  resistance training activates hormones, muscles and enzymes in a manner vastly different than endurance exercise (running, for example) and in a way that renders mainstream research on post training exercise not applicable.

To simplify for the reader:  the athlete engaged in resistance training requires greater attention to the timing and utilization nutrients  to achieve goals than, for example, the professional runner or Crossfit athlete.  CBL has application for Crossfit with adaptations.  However, the purpose of this article is to discuss the utility of CBL for the weightlifter, powerlifter, or athlete focusing on resistance training.

Prep-Phase

To prep the body for effective CBL,  the athlete must first reset his or her hormones and body to the training plan, a process similar to going Paleo.  For the first 2 weeks, the athlete eats nothing but fats, protein, and veggies in order to get the body back to utilizing fat stores throughout the day.  If the athlete takes in a lot of carbs, his or her body is going to want to use carbs; if the athlete takes in a lot of fat, his or her body is going to want to use fat.  That’s how our body reacts to the fuel presented – it tends to use what it is ingested.  Utilizing certain nutrients sets our hormones up to respond to that energy source for several hours:   if we take in carbs, we’ll have an insulin spike, and it takes usually 8-10 hours to reset the body back to a fat-utilization mode.

If you are like me, we get back to fat utilization through carb deprivation.  This is NOT a fun experience, training-wise.  Carb deprivation is, nevertheless, necessary in order to stabilize insulin release and use.  Two weeks of carb deprivation will results in the body using fat and using fat fast!  The idea here is to eat a lot of protein, fats and high fibrous vegetables low in carbs to fuel the body.  The meaningful shift from carbs to protein-fat-vegetable fuel can take 14-21 days.  It is important for the athlete in this phase to be mindful of the fatigue that accompanies carb deprivation.  Do not push yourself hard; you risk injury from being tired and low on carbs.  Do your prescribed reps and sets until this phase is over.

Re-introduction of Carbs Phase

This is the main phase of CBL—or if you have the manual—the Strength Accumulation plan. This focus of this phase is the reintroduction of carbs into the athlete’s system without putting fat back on, an outcome especially critical for those competing in a weight class sport like weightlifting.  You eat to recover and get stronger.  You can still enjoy your food, but you have to be smart in order to maintain desired weight.  To do this, the athlete maintains the prep phase diet, sticking to veggies, protein and fats.  My diet, for example, looks like this now:

  • Breakfast
    • Protein shake (no carb protein)
    • Bulletproof coffee
  • Post morning training
    • Protein shake (no carb protein)
    • Amino Acid shake
    • Pork chops or chicken breasts
    • Broccoli and peppers
  • Post Afternoon/Evening Training
    • Protein shake (no carb protein)
    • Amino Acid shake
    • Meat
    • Veggies
    • Simple carbs

Note the style of carbs recommended for dinner/post second training meal:  Simple carbs.  Oh no!  Not Simple Carbs!  They are bad for you!  White rice, red potatoes and their lot aren’t paleo and will make you fat!  Simple carbs have value for the athlete with this diet as the objective is to keep insulin levels as low as possible throughout the day but as high as possible for as short a time as possible at the end of the day.   The athlete’s muscles are primed and starving for carbs after training.  Therefore, the higher the insulin spike, the more carbs the muscles will take in.   Also, the big and SHORT/BRIEF spike is desirable because, the longer the insulin is active in the body, the more likely the body will continue storing glucose.  Once those muscles and liver are full, carbs are converted to fat and stored as fat cells.

This is why we want simple carbs – they quickly fill the muscles and shut off the storage reaction before your fat cells can consume the remaining carbs.  You’re recovering from your previous workout, and getting ready for your next workout, the two objectives of this diet.  Over time on this plan, you start to notice you are less lethargic; you are stronger; and you are hitting PRs over and over again.   A reminder:  simple carbs refers to items like white rice and potatoes, not candy or high-sugar choices.  Under the CBL model, the athlete cans have treats every now and then without major drawback, just not every day or even every other day.   Keep the treats as they are, treats and rewards.

Re-Evaluation and Adjustment Phase

This phase is where I am currently at right now.  My body weight has dropped significantly, and I am actually below my competition weight and need to start putting size back on.  Now the trick is putting back on size and making it mostly muscle, not fat again.  Toward this end, Kiefer’s CBL includes the Density Bulking method, which is, essentially, the introduction of additional protein and fats throughout the day to, in turn, increase calorie intake without overstimulating insulin levels to adverse effect.  The key to this phase is the use of intra-workout protein shakes to  support increased body mass.

Now you’re probably asking yourself,  “Wait, now I add carbs?  What’s going on here???”  Remember, this is a novel approach to diet for pure resistance training.  In part 2 of this series , I discuss Kiefer’s rationale further.

The intra-training protein shake, comprised of whey and casein protein, is used to keep your muscle fueled throughout training.  During heavy/intense resistance training, the athlete is draining muscles of nutrients, and these shakes are designed to provide muscles those much-needed nutrients.   Resistance training creates a catabolic state in the muscles—the breakdown of muscle—and the trick to building muscle is the fact that you DON’T have to go catabolic to build muscle, as every gym teacher or exercise physiology teacher has probably informed their students.  Rather than promoting breakdown of the muscle to then rebuilding it, the use of intra-protein shake stops muscle protein breakdown.  The shakes, instead, prompt a mild insulin response.   The body stops breaking down muscle and, instead, stores nutrients from the shake in the working muscle.

Note – I said raises insulin levels, not spike it.  If you spike insulin too much before dinner time, you defeat the purpose of this diet.  A small raise in insulin interrupts the breakdown process in the muscle.  Since you’re training while ingesting the shakes, nutrients travel to the muscle not your fat stores.  You do not burn as much fat as you do in the Strength Accumulation process, but this is not the objective of this phase:  we’re trying to put muscle back on without putting on fat.

The intra-workout protein shake is the primary tool of the Density Bulking phase.   If you continue to struggle to put muscle back on, it’s time to take in more total calories throughout the whole day.  This means eating more, plain and simple, while adhering to the overall plan of the diet – calories must come then from mostly protein and fat.   Start slowly.  Don’t throw everything in at once.  Start with the shake; see what happens.  On your heavy days (2x a day training or heavy squat days) eat a breakfast with fats and meat.  ( I like kielbasa with my morning coffee and shake.)  If that still doesn’t work,  add in lunch on the heavy days too, and then breakfast all days.

These are the basic principles of CBL.  In Part 2, I’ll discuss further the premise of the diet, offer a shopping guide and offer more suggestions regarding daily meals and shake options

To find out more information on Matt, check out his instagram @mattyice230mdusa and his website SAS Weightlifting for training tips, informational videos, as well as the occasional selfie. Stay tuned for Part 2!

  1. Chris left a comment on April 24, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Great article! I’ve been looking for something on CBL that applies to weightlifters, finally!

  2. Donald left a comment on April 25, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Yeah this is money…… I just start exclusively weight lifting and am curious about nutrition and am worried about adding a ton of weight…. Also you are crazy shredded now compared to how you were when you first got on the team……. Awesome information…

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