“Carb-loading theories are everywhere, but which one is right for me?” This is one of the questions I receive the most from competitors, and it is truly an excellent forum to open up for discussion. It is one of the main components of contest prep that I feel truly makes or breaks an athlete’s appearance onstage the day of the show. Time after time, I’ve seen so many competitors look incredible until the final week of preparation, only to blow their entire prep from mistakes made during the “loading” process. The flip side of making mistakes during the process are those who have the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” frame of thought.
No matter what type of loading process is utilized, you still need to take the proper steps to know if a certain process is right for certain aspects personal to you—your body type; your metabolism; how you respond to fats, sodium, high carbs, etc. There are many, many aspects to take into consideration when pinpointing what type of loading process will work for your physique.
In today’s competitive world, the physiques have become leaner, more muscular, and more defined than ever before. With this evolution has come the need for loading processes that target specific body types, metabolisms, and loading obstacles that athletes face rather than a one-size-fits-all mantra. Whether it is a case of depleting the physique to the point that it could never fill back up again, overloading the physique to the point that it spills, or thinking that you look better the day after the show and you wish you had eaten the late-night, junk-filled, post-show meals the night before the show, there are different methods to address all of these issues.
I always adhere to the thinking that no two physiques are alike, so no two diet preps should be alike. It just makes sense then that there should be different options for the loading process during the final week as well—not a global theory. Another factor that should be taken into consideration when choosing a loading process is to take a look at your individual contest diet; this too will dictate how you are able to load. For instance if you have been on an extremely low-carbohydrate diet for an extended period of time or you follow a higher-fat, higher-protein diet with little to no carbs, your body is in a different mode from someone who has carbohydrates regularly in his diet. Your body won’t be used to holding glycogen, so when you then try to go from one extreme (low to no carbs) to the other (loading with very high carbs), you are basically setting yourself up for failure. You are almost guaranteeing that you will look better in your depleted state than in a “loaded” state. I have heard this time and time again from athletes in this position.
Here are a couple of popular methods of carb loading, the theories behind them, and my feelings on them. I also have included what I utilize with my athletes and how it works.
DEPLETE & LOAD METHOD
Just about everyone I know who has ever competed has used this method at some point in his competitive career, and really for those just starting out, it is a pretty solid method that garners decent results. The Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday prior to your show, you go into your depletion mode. On these three days of depletion, you would cut your daily carb intake in half (if you take in 300 grams, drop to 150 grams), then Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, you load back up to fill out.
One primary problem that comes with this method is that bodybuilders usually like to implement a “more is better” mode of thinking, and they will think they are doing their bodies good to go even lower than the 150 grams during the depletion process— sometimes going much less than 100 grams daily in the quest to get even leaner during those three days. Unfortunately, if you haven’t gotten in shape by that point, you aren’t really going to get that much better in two or three days’ time.
You’ve been at 300 grams most of your diet, then you deplete at 150 grams or less for two or three days—then when it comes time to load on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday prior to your show, you jump your carbs up to 600 grams, thinking that your body will just suck everything up and you will swell up, looking huge, round, and shredded. In reality, when you try to ramp up your carbs so high after going through major depletion for several days, the body cannot utilize all the carbs and the body is unable to hold that much glycogen in the muscle, so the excess spills over into the body. From that point, the body goes out of balance; your conditioning and fullness are inconsistent, so you try to overcompensate for this mistake. You then try to clean up the excess water the carb spill has created, throwing the body even more out of whack. You end up in a tug-of-war between the carbs and your body, and in hindsight you think, “I looked better when I was depleted.”
With this type of carb loading, it is important to stay basic with it and not go “radical” with your depletion and loading. If your daily carb intake is 300 grams during your diet, don’t go to the extreme and chop that in half or lower. I suggest lowering your carbs a bit, but closely monitor your body throughout the day—see how your body responds while you are at home, at the gym, after cardio, etc. If you feel you need to flatten out or deplete a bit more, do it by upping your cardio a bit rather than drastically lowering your daily carb intake. On the flip side, if you feel too flat after the first day, then you can keep your carbs a bit higher from there. Now you have more of a balance to your diet, your system is more in check, and you won’t be yo-yoing up and down so much when you do load.
Another suggestion is not to cycle your carbs up and down right before the point of depletion. If you plan on using the deplete/load method, about 10 days out, go to 300 grams of carbs and stick with that for the 10 days prior to your depletion. By following this, you won’t have to go to crazy extremes to fill back up. If your body is balanced well, it should take very little to actually fill you back up. Staying with basic carbs your body responds well to is the key to success with this type of loading process.
This is another popular loading process, though I am not a big supporter of it. First and foremost, it is very easy to miscalculate this type of loading process, and the end result is not pretty, to say the least. Only an extremely small group of athletes can, for lack of better phrasing, get away with this type of process: You have to possess a crazy metabolism with shredded conditioning, hold little if any water (fluctuating only a pound or so throughout the day normally), or you have to be flat and have difficulty filling out. In such cases, this type of loading process could sometimes work. If you try this process, you must stick to a strict and specific game plan—this cannot be a pizza and doughnut free-for-all several days prior to the show. If this is what you envision, forget it!
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen with junk loading is that the person is too full before he begins. Most actually start out loading on good, clean foods Wednesday and Thursday, and they become very full at this point. Then Friday comes and the athlete decides to junk load, doing this when he is already full. Junk loading when already full means that the excess carbs, sodium, etc., have nowhere to go, so they usually spill and the method is unsuccessful. When talking with individuals wanting to utilize this process, I make it evident that they have to take a modest approach when it comes to taking in carbs on Wednesday and Thursday just to keep the body balanced out and so there is room to move forward with the junk load and have better control over the outcome.
With this type of loading, the biggest blunder is with water. Junk loading encompasses taking in high amounts of fats, sodium, and carbs all at once, and you have to be extremely dry and cut your water in plenty of time to keep from seriously spilling over with this process. If someone just really has his heart set on this type of process, I would recommend cutting water Thursday night so he doesn’t have a lot of water running through his system when he begins the process. On Friday, I’d suggest taking in four to six ounces of water at the beginning of the day, and then not again until post-show. If you take in water while you are adding all the junk foods into your system, your body will fluctuate water and your conditioning will be all over the place, making it difficult to maintain consistency in conditioning, let alone hit your peak. So even though it looks good on paper and the way many look the day after a show would dictate that this method works, it is truly a case of what works on paper doesn’t always translate into real life.
MY RECOMMENDATION/ MY PROCESS
Personally, what I like to implement with my athletes is completely different from what many currently follow in terms of the popular carb loading I mentioned above. I’m not a big believer in really depleting the body down to an extremely low point, and for the most part, bodybuilding diets are low carb. You are, in essence, already depleted by the final week of the diet, so I don’t have faith in going to extremes with the depletion. I usually keep the contest diet very strict up to a certain point, so with this in mind, I don’t think you can effectively load a body in an already depleted state in a matter of two days. In that short period of time, it would be extremely difficult for the body to fill up anymore than where it was throughout the course of the contest diet. What I like to do is gradually increase the amount of carbs in the diet over an extended period of time—usually 6 to 10 days, depending on the size of the athlete. Sometimes if I’m working with a very large athlete, it could be 10 to 14 days. My thinking behind this is that you can carb load better with whole foods that the body is already used to, gradually increasing them on a daily basis. Also, by utilizing a very slow and lengthy carb-loading process, I can closely monitor the loading process and control the outcome better. With this method, there aren’t huge fluctuations and imbalances in the body, and there is no yo-yo effect, while at the same time, the body gets used to the amounts of glycogen added and is able to hold more, allowing for a bigger and fuller physique onstage.
A good example of how this process works is Ben Pakulski on the 2012 Arnold Classic stage. Throughout Pakulski’s entire prep for the 2012 Arnold, we kept his daily carbohydrate intake very low—some days he was as low as 150 grams of carbs, but we varied them up and down throughout the entire process.
The last couple of weeks before beginning his carb-loading process, we alternated between 100 and 150 grams of carbs daily until it was time to begin the process, which for him I decided would be seven days. In terms of types of carbs, we stuck with what his body was used to in his daily contest diet (potatoes, rice, and oats) and just gradually began to up them.
The transformation in Pakulski’s physique from 2011 to 2012, as we all witnessed, was pretty incredible. As I watched him change throughout the week before the Arnold, what I noticed the most is that by gradually increasing his carbs over an extended period of time, his body simply adapted to the process, rather than rejecting it (which can easily happen with other methods).
He became consistently fuller, harder, drier, and more balanced to the point that there wasn’t a huge amount of water to pull from his body— which could risk flattening out the physique.
As you can tell, the method I like to use isn’t a “radical” change in carb type or amounts, it’s just a nice, gradual uptake that I feel is a safer and more effective method, from which you can better control the outcome. I have also found that I can customize this process to better meet the needs of any type of client, whether he is able to utilize more carbs than others or can employ simple sugars compared with others who simply stick to the whole-food carbs normally in their diets. I am a firm believer that most individuals sabotage their own loading processes by trying to take in ridiculous amounts of carbs or massive amounts of junk foods the body simply cannot utilize, when in reality, keep ing things simple will give you a much more successful outcome. No matter what type of loading process you end up utilizing, always evaluate your conditioning going into the load, what type of metabolism you have, know whether or not you are a “watery” or “dry” physique, and learn how your body responds to certain foods before you commit to one method or another.