Glycogen Loading Explained
Having a firm understanding of glycogen loading and glycogen depletion is key to losing fat and yet, it’s a subject that most body builders and fitness enthusiasts know little about.
I’ve had several discussions about maintaining low glycogen levels with random individuals at the gym this last month in a deliberate attempt to try and find out what the average guy knows about glycogen. It turns out that it’s not much. Granted, my sampling of individuals was not exactly a scientific method but everyone I hit up was a gym rat, a body builder and/or a huge fitness enthusiast that I see at the gym almost daily. Am I wrong in thinking that such devotees should have a firm grasp of what glycogen is and how it relates to their fitness goals?
Let’s discuss what glycogen is and what glycogen loading, as well as glycogen depletion, can do for your fat loss goals.
Glycogen is simply carbohydrates, in hydrated form, that your body stores away for energy. The typical person has around 2,000 calories worth of carbs stored away. The body stores your carbs either as glycogen (present in your muscles and liver) or as glucose (which circulates in your bloodstream).
Glucose travels through your bloodstream, looking for individual cells that need energy and delivers it. By comparison of carbohydrate calories stored, a typical lean athlete is said to store over 80,000 calories worth of fat stored in the body.
Glucose gets converted to glycogen and that’s the process of glycogenesis, in a nutshell. The body performs this process to keep extra carbs on hand for quick energy when needed, since this is the easiest way the body can manufacture readily available energy. The greater the intensity of your exercise, the more the body relies on carbs for fuel as fat can’t be broken down and used quickly enough. Bummer, huh?
Don’t fret. Although a slow walk wins the “fat burning” contest over a fast run (in the midst of the exercise itself), the greater overall “fat loss” rewards belong to those who work the hardest (faster metabolism and fat loss that occurs throughout the day and night). Fat is actually an energy source that is much more likely to be metabolized at rest.
All glycogen is stored with 2.7 grams of water. Knowing this makes every low carb diet you’ve ever heard make sense, in regards to being successful. As soon as the “low carb” lifestyle is introduced, glycogen stores and the water stored alongside, are severely depleted. This obviously isn’t fat loss, in any way, but it’s enough to get most new dieters excited about their diet and bragging to all their friends about losing 10 pounds in their very first week.
The next time someone tells you how well Atkins is working for them, you can be nice and just smile while saying nothing or you can rain on the parade and explain that all that weight lost in the first week truly is just water weight.
The Other Side of Glycogen Loading
If glycogen depletion has such an stirring effect on weight loss, then glycogen loading will obviously cause a weight gain that you now know better than to get anxious and worry over.
My Glycogen Loading Day
June was the strictest month of dieting I had this year. I posted my diet every day and I kept to low carbs most days, hitting a high carb day every fourth day, while carb cycling throughout the month. Not until July 7th did I cheat. Now every other time I’ve cheated this year, it’s been a cheat meal but this was my first true cheat “day”. For lunch, I stopped just shy of consuming an entire pizza by myself. For dinner, I made my way to Applebees, had a high carb pasta dish and then I topped it off with a gooey chocolate cake and ice cream delight. It was pure heaven.
I woke up the next day and did my usual morning scale reading. I should mention that the prior day (July 6th) was the absolute lowest I have weighed in at all year (the last 20 years actually), weighing in at exactly 160.0.and on this very next day, I was a whopping 170.6! I gained over 10 pounds in one day!
Now, I didn’t count calories on my cheat day but since a pound of fat is 3500 calories, I’m pretty sure I was nowhere near 35,000 calories for the day. Instead, my glycogen stores (with water attached) were now fully topped off and it was merely going to be a matter of restricting carbs again and using up glycogen, to see this number fall back down to where it’s been for the last month. That takes a few days.
One reason this is so important to understand is glycogen loading is sometimes the culprit for people giving up on their diets, without even realizing what is really going on. After enduring a couple months of successful low-carb dieting, a new dieter might binge for a day or two, see the scale jump an enormous amount and just decide to give up, thinking that s/he must have some genetic predisposition for getting fat.
Don’t let glycogen and water weight ruin your long term success. Understand the relationship and simply let the occasional binge day happen.
Glycogen Loading for Fat Loss
This is the part that every body builder, elliptical trainee and fitness enthusiast should understand. Fat loss is typically a primary goal of most everyone in the gym and glycogen plays one of the most crucial roles in how your body burns fat.
Anytime you eat simple sugars (foods higher up on the glycemic index), you create a sugar spike in your blood sugar. The pancreas responds by secreting insulin at an extremely high level. It is physiologically impossible to burn fat with high insulin levels. Continued high glycogen levels trap fat so stay away from those simple carbs/sugars on a routine basis.
Keep those glycogen levels low and let the body use your fat for fuel. This is the secret to burning fat.
As Franco Carlotto (six-time Mr. World Fitness) says in his book titled Carb Cycle (highly recommended reading), “The key is to keep your carb storage full and then slowly (slowly!) empty it by cutting your intake of grains, starches, and exotic foods in half”. Once your carb storage is depleted, you can start replenishing it without fear that the calories will be stored as fat. If you do this, he promises that you will be able to eat what you like without fear of gaining weight.”
That’s great news. If you know you’re going to grab an extra large hot fudge sundae on the weekend, be sure to go low carb and deplete those glycogen stores in the days prior and then enjoy!
If glycogen is a new topic for you, at this point you’re probably asking why bother with carbs at all? Is the no-carb diet the answer? Well it’s not and I’ll never understand the no-carb enthusiasts. It’s just a very unhealthy way to live and you with no carbs, you actually train your body to preserve fat.
When you’re losing weight the right way, your goal is losing fat and not muscle. Whether you’re trying to build muscle or just maintain muscle, you certainly don’t want to burn muscle or you’ll likely never see any progress in your physique.
As most everyone knows, protein is the key to maintaining or building muscle. And there is only one way protein can get carried to your muscles.
Your muscles all have insulin receptor sites and only insulin can unlock those receptors and allow proteins in to build and repair the muscle. This is why it’s so important to create an insulin spike after any workout where you muscles have engaged in resistance (weight training being the most popular method). This is the only time you want to get in those foods that are higher up on the glycemic chart.
Hopefully that’s enough to stir an interest in anyone who is somewhat new to carb cycling and glycogen loading. Insulin is and glycogen loading is a balancing act and getting it right can lead you to the exact physique you’ve always wanted so enjoy those carb days!