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Carb Supplements 101

During the heyday and golden era of bodybuilding, you had people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane tossing dextrose into their shakers and drinking these carb dense juices to keep them fuelled during their gruelling sessions with the iron.  Fast forward a few decades later and you see bodybuilders and powerlifters that have opted for sweeter alternatives like sour worms, gummy bears and other forms of sugary goodness to consume as a source of fuel while they power their way through their workouts. Logically, it would make sense to have a quick source of energy that absorbs quickly to keep you going through an intense session. So, is this bro science or is there any scientific backing behind this seemingly logical approach?

Carbs as energy

Have you ever heard of glucose and glycogen? Well, glucose is the body’s most preferred source of energy. It works by being circulated in the body in and through the bloodstream and is then transported to your cells for energy. However, your body has a limit as to how much glucose it will allow to circulate through its bloodstream. Your body stores glucose in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen as a readily available source of energy. (1) 

So how does your body tap into these stored sources? By a process we know as glycogenolysis.  Your body breaks down the glycogen back into glucose into a potent source of energy. Depending on the volume, duration and intensity of your training session, your glycogen stores can be depleted by approximately 36% in that time. (2) In terms of practical use, consuming sugary snacks or highly dense carbohydrate drinks during your session for energy can easily be replicated by your body through glycogenolysis if you have enough glycogen stores in your muscles. 

A study by Kulik et al. tested a placebo-controlled group that observed the effects of intra-workout carbohydrate on squats to exhaustion. (3) “In this study, the subjects were made to do sets of 5 reps to exhaustion. The weight used was 85% of predetermined 1RM. The subjects received either 0.3g∙kg∙bodymass-1 of carbohydrates from Gatorade or a placebo prior to training and after each successfully completed set. There was no significant difference between groups in total sets, volume, work or rate of perceived exertion between the two groups. This study suggests that intra-workout carbohydrate may not benefit an athlete performing resistance training.” (4)

The Best Types of Intra-Workout Carb Supplements 

  1. Cluster dextrin or Cyclic Dextrin or HBCD (Highly Branched Cluster Dextrin) is an advanced type of maltodextrin that is synthesized when sugar molecule clusters are formed when starch (amylopectin) is broken down by using a specialist enzyme. As a result of this, HBCD is more soluble than other forms of carb supplements and is also absorbed faster and easier by the body than any other source of carbohydrates.
  2. Vitargo is purported to be a unique carbohydrate supplement due to the fact that it is specially processed to yield a high molecular weight profile that is massively different from the carbohydrates that make up sugars (e.g., glucose, fructose, sucrose) and maltodextrin. Vitargo’s larger molecule size minimizes its osmolality (the amount of water a substance draws to itself or pulls into your intestines) and as a result you have less water in your gut and minimal bloating in your stomach. Additionally, this low osmolality means that Vitargo is absorbed faster than most other carbohydrates.
  3. Dextrose is a kind of simple sugar that is made from corn. It is almost identical to fructose and chemically mirrors glucose. You will often find that Dextrose can be found in foods such as an artificial sweetener and ingredients such as fructose corn syrup. Dextrose is not as technologically advanced as Cluster Dextrin, but it is a lot cheaper to produce and provides a similar effect to Cluster Dextrin. It might not be as a sharp a tool as the other two, but it is the best bang for your buck.
  4. Maltodextrin is a white powder that is relatively tasteless and dissolves in water. It is an additive in a wide range of foods, as it can improve their texture, flavour, and shelf life. Maltodextrin is cheap and can be made from a wide range of starchy foods such as corn, potato, wheat, tapioca, or rice. To make maltodextrin, manufacturers put the starch from these foods through a process called hydrolysis. Hydrolysis uses water, enzymes, and acids to break the starch into smaller pieces, resulting in a white powder that is pretty much made up of sugar molecules. Just like dextrose though, it is not as technologically advanced as the first two, but it is another carb supplement that is great bang for buck.

Where to from here?

If you are on the bulk or are looking to put on some good size, there will heaps of benefits that you will find from taking an intra-workout supplement.

If you tend to get sluggish quickly during a workout and need a fast-absorbing pick-me-up, an intra-workout carb might do you some good.

If you struggle to eat food when you need to in order to reach your goals or simply do not have an appetite, but you need to get your calories in, one of these carb supplements can be extremely useful to get the much-needed glycogen into your system without having to put your body through a digestive process that you do not have the stomach to handle. 

It really all depends on your goals, lifestyle choices and whether you feel you can benefit from taking a carb supplement.

So, have a look at your goals and objectives, evaluate your processes and methodologies, piece in your lifestyle, and choose the right supplement for you.

  1. Acheson KJ, Schutz Y, Bessard T, Anantharaman K, Flatt JP, Jéquier E. Glycogen storage capacity and de novo lipogenesis during massive carbohydrate overfeeding in man. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Aug;48(2):240-7.
  2. Roy BD, Tarnopolsky MA. Influence of differing macronutrient intakes on muscle glycogen resynthesis after resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1998 Mar;84(3):890-6.
  3. Kulik JR, Touchberry CD, Kawamori N, Blumert PA, Crum AJ, Haff GG. Supplemental carbohydrate ingestion does not improve performance of high-intensity resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jul;22(4):1101-7. doi: 10.1519
  4. Biolaynecom. 2019. Biolayne. [Online]. [8 May 2019]. Available from: https://www.biolayne.com/articles/nutrition/intra-workout-carbohydrates-carb-not-carb/
  5. Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Jan 29;10(1):5. doi: 10.1186
  6. Parkin JA, Carey MF, Martin IK, Stojanovska L, Febbraio MA. Muscle glycogen storage following prolonged exercise: effect of timing of ingestion of high glycemic index food. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Feb;29(2):220-4.