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Can A Low Carb Phase Actually Make You Feel Stronger During Your Workouts?

In today’s post I want to talk briefly about a phenomenon that used to have me scratching my head. I’m referring to an individual seemingly having more strength when doing resistance training even though they’re in a low carb diet phase.

Ask any bodybuilder about going “low carb” for contest prep and they’ll likely tell you all about things like feeling flat during workouts, not being able to get a pump, muscles and connective tissue feeling like steel on steel, a noticeable loss in strength, and the list goes on.

They’re not lying either, anybody who’s ever competed in a body building contest will attest to the dregs of carb cutting phases.

But strangely, going low-carb doesn’t have this same effect on everyone. I’ve witnessed this several times over the years working with personal training clients. Individuals having more strength during their workouts, actually performing better in the gym while in a low-carb phase.

I believe I may have the answer to why this sometimes happens.

More after the jump…

I’ll admit that whenever I’d had a client who was going to be doing a cyclical low-carb diet, like the Rapid Fat Loss Diet, Ultimate Diet 2.0, or some other variation, I expected the worse with workout performance.

I had it in my mind that they’d be weak, lethargic, light-headed, and having to trudge their way through discomforting workouts. After all this is what you get when you go low-carb, right?

Let’s just say I was definitely surprised when it didn’t always happen.

I can specifically remember one particular client that started on my Rapid Fat Loss Diet a couple of years ago. He was about 40 pounds overweight and suffering from insulin resistance, low T, and other hormonal / metabolic imbalances.

Not a bodybuilder mind you, just a guy who had succumb to poor lifestyle choices and was now dealing with excess body fat and metabolic issues. He had sugar cravings through the roof, a junk food addiction, and difficulty with avoiding night-time snacking, etc.

We had done a supportive nutrition diet for a while (you know the 4-6 small meals a day approach) with some success and things were moving in the right direction. However, he wanted to take a more aggressive approach to dropping weight and overcoming the sugar addiction, so the decision was made to start a low-carb cyclical diet.

If you’re not familiar with a low-carb cyclical or rotation diet, basically it entails bringing carbs way down for short periods of time (generally 3-5 days), then re-feeding and putting them back in.

During the low-carb phases, resistance training is used as a way to deplete muscle glycogen. Basic weight training movements like presses, rows, squats, etc, are favorable at this time. Like I eluded to earlier, I suspected my client would really struggle with the weights during the low-carb phases.

To say I was surprised is an understatement, when his performance in the gym actually improved. He was using heavier weights than before, didn’t need as much rest between sets, and was seeing some of his best workouts yet.

In my head this didn’t add up, but I didn’t dwell on it too much as I was pleased with his progress and we kept rolling. He ended up losing over 20 pounds in just over a month so the strategy was a success.

Fast forward a couple years and a handful of clients later where I witnessed the same thing. Individuals who went on low-carb cyclical dieting strategies and had better workouts. Of course this didn’t happen EVERY time as there were those who really struggled with their workouts when they went into low-carb phases.

So what gives, why would it work to seemingly provide more energy and strength with some individuals but not others?

Naturally, the answer lies in the simple fact that people are different!

There’s a laundry list of differences that could factor into the equation. I set out to see if I could figure out what might be behind all of this.

After spending a great deal of time researching and learning everything I could about the physiological impacts of carb depletion, what happens during ketosis, etc, I think I’ve found some clues.

While ketosis is certainly a controversial subject, much maligned by some physicians, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The body will naturally drift in and out of ketosis when carbs are restricted from the diet. When carbs are brought low enough for a long enough period of time, typically a few days, the body will resort to ketosis as an energy pathway in the absence of readily available glucose.

I don’t want to get into all the upsides and downsides of ketosis right now, I’ll just say short term periods of being in a ketogenic state isn’t a bad thing. In a low-carb cyclical diet, even if ketosis occurs it’s not going to be but for a short period of time.

But let’s leave ketosis off the table for a second, in all reality it’s not the lever point anyways. Physiological changes start to occur when the body is depleted of glucose, whether ketosis happens or not.

Let’s look at some of those changes.

Physiological adaptations that occur when restricting carbohydrates

  • Increased use of fatty acids for fuel in the absence of readily available glucose
  • Decreased levels of inflammation due to lowered blood sugar
  • Decreased insulin secretion
  • Increased secretion of the hormone glucagon
  • Increased levels of catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline)
  • Increased secretion of growth hormone

Once again, the impacts of the above will differ from person to person. Let’s go back to the first client where I witnessed an improvement in strength when the transition to a low-carb phase took place. He was dealing with high levels of inflammation and insulin resistance issues all leading to excess insulin and blood sugar constantly circulating.

By lowering the carb intake he was able to decrease both insulin and blood glucose. Inflammation went down, neural recruitment improved. Elevated levels of catecholamines both in the blood (adrenaline) and the central nervous system (nor-adrenaline) increased energy. In short, I believe the strength and improved performance was the result of the physiological adaptations that occurred when insulin and blood sugar levels dropped significantly.

Eating several small servings of carbs spread out through the day didn’t have the same effect. In essence it was this “hammer” to insulin and blood sugar levels that brought about the adaptation.

This is by no means a recommendation to run out and jump on a cyclical low-carb diet. I still think you’re much better off to start with the supportive nutrition diet approach of 4-6 small meals per day with a balanced mix of macronutrients. Coupled with regular exercise this seems to be the best starting point for most individuals.

It’s also not a recommendation to go low-carb, high-carb, or whatever. Each individual has to find what’s the best thing for their body at any given point in time.

And guess what, this is likely to change to over time. As body composition changes occur with more metabolically active lean muscle so to does insulin sensitivity and other variables. But then again it’s also somewhat predicated by your genetics as well.

Let’s face it some people do better with low-carbs, others do better with higher levels of carbs, even when it comes to weight loss. Some people do great on cyclical carb rotation diets, others feel like crap and really struggle with them.

The bottom line is what I’m always coming back to…each person is different and has to experiment to find what will work best for him/her at any given point in time.

What I’ve mentioned for the possible reasons why some individuals tend to see an increase in strength and performance while on low-carb phases is purely speculative on my part based on the physiological adaptations that occur.

I don’t have concrete answers, only personal experience that I’ve seen it happen in several cases.

Granted, when further glycogen depletion takes place (like in the last day before re-feeding starts), pretty much everyone is going to be wiped out at that point. If you’re not, you’re not truly depleted and probably not training hard enough.

In the middle of a low-carb phase is where things are weird. Some people really struggle while others seem to be at their best.

There’s also something to be said about the physiological adaptations that occur with individuals who tend to stay on relatively low-carb diets. Not an Atkins diet per say, I’m talking more along the lines of a Primal Blueprint or Paleo type diet where carbs are generally around 100 grams per day.

Over time the body conditions itself to be more of a “fat burner” than a “sugar burner.” In essence it gets efficient with processes like gluconeogensis for energy production. Sugar cravings go down, you can go longer periods of time in restriction (voluntary or otherwise) and not be “hangry” (the combination of hungry and angry). All good stuff.

Then again there are those who will feel the best when they’re eating every 3-4 hours and getting a mix of carbs, protein, and fat at each meal. I can’t tell you what will be best for you, only that you should be open to experimentation so long as your eating whole natural foods and not depriving yourself of nutrients.

I just thought I’d share with you this seemingly strange occurrence that sometimes happens with individuals feeling stronger when they cut carbs and attempt to possibly explain why it happens.

If you’ve experienced something similar I’d love to hear from you. Share your comments below.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

 

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Category: Fitness Training.