Written by justis berg
14 September 2010


By Dan Gwartney, M.D.

Old-school Bodybuilding: Carbs Make a Comeback

There was a time when bodybuilders ate food (gasp!). It is difficult to visualize today, given the prominence of protein powders, energy drinks, and meal replacements in all their manifestions (bars, powders, and drinks). It may be difficult to realize as well that bodybuilding and powerlifting have their roots in the blue-collar community. Some modern bodybuilding pros live the life of celebrities, receiving impressive endorsement contracts to supplement prize earnings and other payments. This allows them to access a wide variety of foods, supplements, and dietary guidance to provide for an optimal diet.

Though many protein powders represent a good value for meeting the higher protein demands of iron athletes, it is difficult to obtain a quality intake of carbohydrates or fats through supplements. In fact, most products are void of fat and rely upon sugars to an extent that makes soda look healthy.

Bodybuilders have always sought out high-protein foods, relying upon lean meats and skim milk products. Those who experienced bodybuilding in the '70s and '80s likely remember their diet, finding little similarity with the recent meal plans spoken of by modern bodybuilders. In fact, it is pretty simple to write down the circa 1980 bodybuilding diet: breakfast— oatmeal, eggs, and skim milk; lunch— two turkey and swiss cheese sandwiches on whole-wheat bread with mustard; pre-workout— applesauce and two chicken breasts; dinner— steamed rice, two cans of tuna packed in water, and a can of vegetables mixed in a bowl; pre-bedtime— one chicken breast and celery with peanut butter.

This diet seems odd, but most amateur bodybuilders had very little discretionary income (spending money) and workplaces often did not have refrigerators. Those who continued to compete for decades likely went through a range of diets, from low-fat to balanced to ketogenic. Bear in mind that a huge bodybuilder weighed 230 pounds then (contest weight), well below the near 300-pound mark broached by today's Olympians.

The diets all work, as evidenced by the continuing development of bodybuilders over the years. Yet, there are subjective and objective differences. Back in the '80s, physiques looked fuller, though not nearly as lean. Binging was rarely heard of except for the post-competition parade of gluttony through pizza buffets and home-baked pastries. Balanced or Zone®-like diets did not rise to prominence until after protein bars and powders appeared on the market; there really was not impact from these diets.

Once low-carbohydrate dieting appeared, physiques became shredded to an unprecedented degree; this was particularly true among drug-free athletes. Unfortunately, low-carbohydrate dieting often resulted in periodic binging— bodies often did not look as full, and workouts were less satisfying, due to failing strength and an inability to achieve a pump.

Low-carbohydrate diets were seized with glee and zeal initially, particularly among the drug-free crowd as body fat and subcutaneous water are shed with unparalleled results. However, over the years, the low-carbohydrate diets appeared to take their toll on bodybuilders and the sport. From contest to contest, bodybuilders who followed a low-carbohydrate diet progressively lost size, fullness, and presentation; injuries, onstage cramping, and other maladies became prevalent. A greater dependence upon exogenous insulin to promote muscle growth was related by professional competitors.

Just recently, the resurgence of an idea that was nearly dead from neglect has erupted back into professional bodybuilding, with the drama of an ex-girlfriend catering your wedding reception. Those not able to watch the 2009 Olympia missed a showdown between two giants who showed size and fullness, along with a taut leanness due to skin pulled tight by inflated mass, rather than the shrink-wrapped appearance that followed whole-body depletion. Jay Cutler and Branch Warren, as well as many of the other competitors, displayed pumped muscles and lean physiques that challenged the imagination of Marvel comics artists. In addition to being full and lean, there was also a pleasant near-absence of GH-belly.

Year-to-year comparisons will show physique improvement among many of these competitors, in the eyes of many. The first assumption made may be a new drug regimen, as people often wish to ascribe enhancements and competitive success to either genetic or pharmaceutical advantage. However, there is a more basic explanation; something missing was restored.

Bodybuilding, even more so than mainstream dieting, is filled with "gurus." Unfortunately, there is no qualification to self-proclaiming oneself as an expert in bodybuilding, sports consultant, or dieting expert. This had led to a confusing library of contradiction. However, amongst the amalgam of advisors, a few rise to the top through the success of their clients. In the case of the 2009 Olympia, this includes George Farah, who guided Branch Warren to his second place finish, as well as Jay Cutler's advisor, Hany Rambod.

Take the example of George Farah, a well-spoken gentleman with a passion for the sport, as evidenced by his own status as an IFBB pro, despite surviving multiple gunshot wounds over 12 years ago. What differentiated the contest preparation of these two, and others in the Olympia, from the practices of prior years, was a greater tolerance of carbohydrates in the diet.

As mentioned earlier, there was a pendulum swing from low-fat to low-carbohydrate plans in the diets of Olympians and everyday people. Yet, many competitors were placing lower, despite losing significant amounts of bodyweight and body fat. Why? It's simple: bodybuilding is a competition based upon presentation. Judges defined the ideal presentation by penalizing those who lost muscle fullness, had difficulty holding poses, and looked weak, rather than strong. George Farah reiterated a comment I have heard many a time in the sport, "It is a sport of building bodies, building muscle."1

Farah, whose diet advice was certainly a component of Branch Warren's success, was perplexed upon seeing the trend toward low-carbohydrate dieting. Staying with a program defined over time, based upon his personal experience and observations of numerous elite clients, Farah has transformed the physiques of many. Warren is just the latest of a string of successes directed by Farah.

In a telephone interview, Farah responded to a number of questions about what, why and how he instructs his clients nutritionally. He began with the astute observation that muscles don't grow when carbohydrates are restricted. Not only is there a deficit that impairs anabolism, but overall metabolism is disrupted by low-carbohydrate dieting by athletes.2-8

One general measure that demonstrates the effect of long-term carbohydrate depletion is low body temperature.9 Farah sees clients come in with body temperatures of 96ºF, which quickly rose to normal after reintroducing carbohydrates into the diet. Interestingly, he also pares back cardio to a single 30-minute session daily.

Given that these athletes are reducing body fat despite eating very significant quantities of carbohydrates (Branch Warren consumed as much as 1,000 grams of carbohydrates a day— 4,000 calories worth!), and cutting back on cardio, suggests that the 'in vogue' programs are overly stressful to the body, and catabolic as well. Apparently, the increase in metabolism more than compensates for the increase in calories or any fat-storing effect of diet-induced insulin surges.

Not only have his clients demonstrated improvements in their appearance, Warren and others also were hitting personal records in their training.1 Those who have followed low-carbohydrate diets are hard-pressed to maintain strength and mass, let alone enjoy workouts or feel a pump. In comparing Warren to his peers onstage, Farah noted that not only was Branch hitting his poses to the delight of fans and judges alike, he continued to hit leg shots as the judges called "relax." Other competitors weren't conditioned to the same extent.

Of course, Warren was defeated in the final posedown by Jay Cutler, who appeared in peak condition. Did Cutler win because he avoided carbohydrates? No. To the contrary, he also followed a carbohydrate-full diet plan, directed by Hany Rambod. Though Rambod was not available for comment due to publishing deadlines, Cutler's diet was well-known, via Jay's blog and industry talk. Slightly less than Warren's 1,000 grams-per-day carbohydrate intake, Cutler consumed approximately 700 grams per day, accounting for nearly half his macronutrient intake. Rambod and Farah follow similar philosophy in advising their clients, so it is likely no consequence that their disciples gained 1st and 2nd place, respectively.

Of course, Warren and Cutler are not your everyday lifters. They can hardly be compared to recreational bodybuilders, representing the pinnacle of modern-day bodybuilding. Yet, there is a great deal to support the inclusion of carbohydrates back into the diet, welcoming them like the proverbial prodigal son. This assumption may be more specific to athletes, as it should be realized that sugars are the preferential energy source for short-term and explosive action.10

A sedentary person may not be utilizing intramuscular and hepatic (liver) glycogen sufficiently, forcing the carbohydrate-sourced calories to be stored as fat.11 Glucose uptake occurs throughout the body, but skeletal muscle will preferentially take up glucose immediately after exercise, promoted by the migration of glucose transporters to the membrane and the increased blood flow to the working muscle.12,13 Not only is glucose driven into muscle cells under the influence of insulin, but so is potassium.14 This may help protect bodybuilders from cramping onstage.

Of course, it is important to bear in mind some of the wisdom imparted by George Farah. Eating what seems like a huge quantity of carbohydrates is not carte blanche to devouring unlimited carbohydrates. Also, by increasing carbohydrates, there is a concomitant decrease in dietary fat.

Farah is quick to cut saturated fats, and like Rambod, promotes fats known to be easily used for energy or health, such as olive oil and fish oils.1,15,16 However, rather than pushing gelcaps, the gurus emphasize fat intake in food. This reduces the inconvenience level of the diet, and lowers the glycemic index/load of each meal. Farah rarely considers the glycemic index of any individual food, as the presence of fiber, fat, and other factors modifies the glycemic and insulinemic response of the body.17 Certain meals may include a fattier meat, such as steak, to lower the glycemic response.

Is it possible that carbohydrates may be the forlorn answer to improving the physique for an active person? What about for the everyday man or woman?

A number of head-to-head studies have shown that for weight loss, all diets are equal over time (months to years), so long as calories are equal.18,19 Yet, what about the effect of carbohydrates in the diet for people not purposefully altering their diet or trying to lose weight? A recent study was published in Journal of the American Dietetics Association that looked at the association of carbohydrate intake as a percentage of calories, finding that those who ate the least amount of carbohydrates had the highest risk of obesity and overweight.20 In fact, the intake that was the healthiest included 47-64% carbohydrates. Not surprisingly, this includes the range that Farah and Rambod prescribe.

There is theory, and there is practice. The best results come from following those skilled in both. Bodybuilding is ever a contest between men who build the best bodies, not tear them down. While there is a time for ketogenic dieting, it appears to be a tool of limited use. Bear in mind, rediscovering carbohydrates does not grant permission for reserved parking at IHOP® or Krispy Kreme®. Rather, it allows one to turn right when entering the grocery mart, filling the cart with yams, sweet potatoes, and other forbidden fruit.


1. Personal communication via phone with George Farah, 2009 October 12.

2. Westerterp KR. Limits to sustainable human metabolic rate. J Exp Biol, 2001 Sep;204(Pt 18):3183-7.

3. Astrup A, Ryan L, et al. The role of dietary fat in body fatness: evidence from a preliminary meta-analysis of ad libitum low-fat dietary intervention studies. Br J Nutr 2000 Mar;83 Suppl 1:S25-32.

4. Astrup A, Astrup A, et al. Low-fat diets and energy balance: how does the evidence stand in 2002? Proc Nutr Soc, 2002 May;61(2):299-309.

5. Luscombe-Marsh ND, Noakes M, et al. Carbohydrate-restricted diets high in either monounsaturated fat or protein are equally effective at promoting fat loss and improving blood lipids. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005 Apr;81(4):762-72.

6. Schoeller DA, Buchholz AC. Energetics of obesity and weight control: does diet composition matter? J Am Diet Assoc, 2005 May;105(5 Suppl 1):S24-8.

7. Van Zant RS. Influence of diet and exercise on energy expenditure--a review. Int J Sport Nutr, 1992 Mar;2(1):1-19.

8. Jeukendrup AE. Modulation of carbohydrate and fat utilization by diet, exercise and environment. Biochem Soc Trans, 2003 Dec;31(Pt 6):1270-3.

9. van Baak MA. Meal-induced activation of the sympathetic nervous system and its cardiovascular and thermogenic effects in man. Physiol Behav, 2008 May 23;94(2):178-86.

10. Sahlin K, Sallstedt EK, et al. Turning down lipid oxidation during heavy exercise— what is the mechanism? J Physiol Pharmacol, 2008 Dec;59 Suppl 7:19-30.

11. Flatt JP. The difference in the storage capacities for carbohydrate and for fat, and its implications in the regulation of body weight. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1987;499:104-23.

12. Santos JM, Ribeiro SB, et al. Skeletal muscle pathways of contraction-enhanced glucose uptake. Int J Sports Med, 2008 Oct;29(10):785-94.

13. Casey DP, Curry TB, et al. Measuring muscle blood flow: a key link between systemic and regional metabolism. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2008 Sep;11(5):580-6.

14. Ferrannini E, Galvan AQ, et al. Potassium as a link between insulin and the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. J Hypertens Suppl, 1992 Apr;10(1):S5-10.

15. Votruba SB, Atkinson RL, et al. Prior exercise increases dietary oleate, but not palmitate oxidation. Obes Res, 2003 Dec;11(12):1509-18.

16. Votruba SB, Atkinson RL, et al. Sustained increase in dietary oleic acid oxidation following morning exercise. Int J Obes (Lond), 2005 Jan;29(1):100-7.

17. Bao J, de Jong V, et al. Food insulin index: physiologic basis for predicting insulin demand evoked by composite meals. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009 Oct;90(4):986-92.

18. Dansinger ML, Gleason JA, et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trial. JAMA, 2005 Jan 5;293(1):43-53.

19. Sacks FM, Bray GA, et al. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med, 2009 Feb 26;360(9):859-73.

20. Merchant AT, Vatanparast H, et al. Carbohydrate intake and overweight and obesity among healthy adults. J Am Diet Assoc, 2009 Jul;109(7):1165-72.