Is a high carb diet for bulking necessay? The article examines the benefits of high carb diets for weight gain and muscle building.

Key Points on High Carb Diets for Weight Gain

  • A recent study examined if high carb diets for weight gain were similar to lower carb diets for weight gain.
  • Resistance-trained athletes consuming a lower carb diet (i.e., 281 grams per day) gained similar muscle mass and strength compared to a higher carb diet (i.e., 381 grams per day).
  • Bodybuilders need a certain threshold of carbs; consuming more does not further enhance muscle gain.
  • The amount of carbs you need will vary depending on your exercise volume, an individualized approach is necessary.


For years, we’ve been taught that high-carbohydrate diets are necessary to gain weight and build muscle. Recent evidence has suggested that building muscle may occur on low-carb diets if calories are similar. While ketogenic diets may be better for weight loss short term, they may modestly reduce gains in muscle. This is likely due to lower total energy intake and some water weight loss from glycogen depletion.

It’s also worth noting that a low carb diet, such as the keto diet, may not be ideal for everyone. While some individuals may experience weight loss, improved insulin resistance, and improved blood glucose control on a low-carb diet, others may find that it negatively impacts their energy levels, glycogen stores, and overall athletic performance. In these cases, a more moderate carbohydrate intake may be preferable. Also, recent studies suggest certain people can have an increased risk of heart disease on a keto diet.(Burén et al., 2021)

A new study, however, challenges the notion that high-carb diets are better for weight gain, providing evidence that a more moderate carbohydrate intake. This article will examine this new study and the studies comparing high vs. low-carbohydrate diets for gaining muscle and provide practical recommendations for adjusting your own carbohydrate intake based on your training program, calorie intake, and metabolism.

Recommendation for High Carb Diets for Weight Gain

Regardless of whether an individual follows a high-carb or low-carb diet, achieving a caloric surplus is necessary for weight gain. This can be accomplished through the consumption of nutrient-dense healthy foods such as legumes, starchy vegetables, and whole cereals like brown rice and oats. These foods provide not only carbohydrates but also important nutrients like potassium, calcium, and dietary fiber.

In contrast, a diet consisting primarily of refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice, may lead to an excess of calories and an increased risk of obesity and heart disease. Consuming whole foods and including healthy fats, like olive oil and avocado, as well as lean proteins from sources like Greek yogurt and legumes, can help prevent these negative health outcomes while still promoting muscle growth and weight gain


Adequate carbohydrates (CHO) are needed for optimal performance during resistance exercise. A single resistance training session can reduce muscle glycogen content by about 25-40%, which may negatively impact training performance by limiting energy regeneration and the ability to sustain high force production throughout the session. (Robergs et al., 1991) Some studies have reported that low-carbohydrate diets can impair performance and reduce muscle growth. (Kephart et al., 2018; LEVERITT & ABERNETHY, 1999; Paoli et al., 2021; Vargas et al., 2018). However, it is worth noting that the low-carb groups in these studies were likely in a caloric deficit, which could impair anabolic responses to resistance exercise.

 Evidence based muscle
Some studies have reported that low-carbohydrate diets can impair performance and reduce muscle growth. However, it is worth noting that the low-carb groups in these studies were likely in a caloric deficit, which could impair anabolic responses to resistance exercise.

Current CHO guidelines

Current CHO guidelines for resistance exercise are scarce in the literature and do not provide specific recommendations for increasing lean mass. More precise recommendations are needed to inform practitioners seeking muscular adaptations, such as increased lean mass and strength.

For example, the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends CHO intake of:

  • 3-5 g/kg/day (1.4- 2.3 grams per pound) for low-intensity or skill-based activities,
  • 5-7 g/kg/day (2.3-3.2 grams per pound) for moderate exercise programs (e.g., ~1 hour per day),
  • 6-10 g/kg/day (2.7-4.5 grams per pound) for endurance programs lasting 1-3 hours, and
  • 8-12 g/kg/day (3.6- 5.5 grams per pound) for extreme commitment activities (e.g., >4-5 hours/day).

However, no specific recommendations exist for improvements in muscular strength and lean mass. There has been a recommendation that experienced lifters’ CHO intake be in the range of 3-7 g/kg/day (1.4- 3.18 grams per day) may optimize weight lifting performance and gains in muscle. (Lambert et al., 2004; Slater & Phillips, 2011)

Benefits of a High Carb Diet for Weight Gain

A high-carb diet can offer several benefits for individuals looking to maintain a healthy body weight and build muscle. Carbohydrate availability is increased by consuming carbohydrates in the hours or days before the session and intake during and after exercise. During high-intensity exercise, carbohydrate represents the main substrate source, and endogenous carbohydrate availability largely dictates endurance performance and capacity. (Cermak & van Loon, 2013) Ingesting carbohydrates before, during, and after exercise is critical for the performance of many sports and a key component of current sports nutrition guidelines. (Burke, 2010)

 Evidence based muscle

How Can High Carb Diets Aid Muscle Gains and Boost Metabolism?

Fueling the body with high-carb diets is an effective way for bodybuilders to gain muscle mass. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source during intense workouts, allowing for longer and more efficient training sessions. High carb intake also increases insulin levels, which helps transport nutrients to the muscles, promoting optimal growth and recovery. High carbohydrate diets can also increase anabolic signaling pathways, which are essential for muscle growth and repair.

Anabolic signaling pathways are initiated by insulin and IGF-1, which are released in response to carbohydrate intake. These pathways are activated by essential amino acids and insulin, which stimulate mTOR signaling and protein synthesis. (Yoshida & Delafontaine, 2020) The increase in anabolic pathways has been suggested to result in superior muscle gains

Low-Carb and High Carb Diets for Muscle Gain

One study compared the effects of different amounts of energy intake with CHO intakes in eleven male bodybuilders. The results revealed that the group that ingested 12.9 g/kg/d of CHO (5.8 grams per pound) achieved a greater increase in muscle mass (2.7% vs. 1.1%, respectively) than the group that ingested 8.0 g/kg/d (3.6 grams per pound).(Ribeiro et al., 2019). Another study had resistance-trained men perform an 8-week resistance training program while consuming either a ketogenic diet (42 g/d) or a high carbohydrate diet (~55% of total calories from CHO). Results showed that only the high carbohydrate group increased muscle mass. (Vargas et al., 2018)

Moreover, (Jabekk et al., 2010)showed that a ketogenic diet combined with weight lifting did not increase lean mass after 10 weeks, whereas a control group following their usual diet achieved an increase of 1.6 kg (.7 lbs) in lean mass. (Jabekk et al., 2010) Despite these studies, there are no clear recommendations for the amount of carbs needed for strength and muscle mass gains. Some studies have found that lower-carb diets do not impact resistance training performance.

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Weight Lifting Requires High Carb Diets: Debunking the High-Carbohydrate Myth 

There is a common myth that weightlifting requires a high carbohydrate diet. However, the provided research results do not support this claim. There is no evidence to suggest that weightlifting requires a high carbohydrate diet. Not consuming carbs has been suggested to cause a reduction in training intensity, leading to a reduction in glycogen stores and a decrease in muscle growth. However, several studies have found no reduction in exercise performance during weight lifting. Here is a list of studies finding that high carbohydrates diets don’t increase strength gains:

  • A recent review of the literature found that keto diets do not impair workout performance when performing less than 10 sets per muscle group. (Henselmans et al., 2022)
  • A study by Paoli et al. (2012) evaluated the effects of a ketogenic diet on strength performance in elite artistic gymnasts. After 30 days, the participants following the ketogenic diet experienced significant body composition improvements without losing strength or power. This suggests that a low-carbohydrate diet can support muscle strength and performance in elite athletes.
  • (Volek et al., 2002) conducted a study comparing a low-carbohydrate diet to a traditional high-carbohydrate diet in healthy, normal-weight men. The results showed no significant differences in muscle strength between the two groups, despite the low-carbohydrate group consuming significantly fewer carbohydrates than the high-carbohydrate group.
  • (Van Zant et al., 2002) reported that three weeks of a moderate CHO diet (42%) resulted in no difference in muscular strength or endurance as measured by isokinetic knee extension and flexion, bench press 1RM, and repetitions to failure at 80% when compared with a higher CHO diet (62%).

A High Carb Diet For Bulking

Despite the long-held belief that bodybuilders need carbohydrates to bulk up and gain muscle, not all studies have found beneficial effects of high-carb diets. The research does point to the fact that if calories are similar, you can gain muscle on a low-carb diet.(Brinkworth et al., 2009; Wilson et al., 2020) In a review of the research that assessed 5 studies with 101 participants. When the calories and protein are similar, there was no difference in gains in lean muscle mass when following a keto diet compared to a high carbohydrate diet. (Vargas-Molina et al., 2022)

 Evidence based muscle
The research does point to the fact that if calories are similar, you can gain muscle on a low-carb diet.

A recent study on high and moderate-carb diets for muscle gain

Recent studies have led to a debate surrounding the importance of carbohydrates for lifters and the optimal daily carbohydrate consumption. A new study, “The Effects of Carbohydrate Intake on Body Composition and Muscular Strength in Trained Men Undergoing a Progressive Resistance Training,” suggests that high-carbohydrate diets are necessary for bodybuilders, and athletes may not hold true for everyone.

The Study

In the study, participants engaged in resistance training four days a week, alternating between “push” and “pull” workouts, with additional ab and leg exercises. Participants performed four sets of each exercise, increasing the load for each set and adjusting it weekly to maintain the target rep ranges.

The researchers divided participants into two groups based on self-reported carbohydrate intake from 3-day food logs collected during the trial. In this study, the effects of high-carb (>5 g/kg/day or 2.3 grams per pound per day) and low-carb (≤5 g/kg/day) diets on strength and body composition were compared over an eight-week resistance training program. This study took the subject’s normal diets, divided subjects into those normally consumed lower and higher carbohydrate diets, and put them through an 8-week resistance training program.


At the end of the study, the lower carb group consumed roughly 281 grams of carbs per day compared to the high carb group, which consumed 381 grams daily. The lower carb group consumed less fat, protein, and fewer calories. Despite this difference in nutritional intake, both groups gained a similar amount of muscle, strength, or body fat. (Ribeiro et al., 2022) Interestingly, one would expect the lower calories and carbs consumed to result in lower muscle mass gains. This suggests a carbohydrate threshold in which more carbs do not result in greater muscle growth.

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Importance of individualized nutrition plans

It is recommended that most lifters aim for at least 3-4 g/kg/day of carbohydrates as a minimum daily target. Excessive carb restriction can be disadvantageous for exercises relying on carbohydrate metabolism. A daily carbohydrate intake of 3-4 g/kg/day could be considered the default approach for most lifters.


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Burén, J., Ericsson, M., Damasceno, N. R. T., & Sjödin, A. (2021). A Ketogenic Low-Carbohydrate High-Fat Diet Increases LDL Cholesterol in Healthy, Young, Normal-Weight Women: A Randomized Controlled Feeding Trial. Nutrients, 13(3).

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Henselmans, M., Bjørnsen, T., Hedderman, R., & Vårvik, F. T. (2022). The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 14(4).


Jabekk, P. T., Moe, I. A., Meen, H. D., Tomten, S. E., & Høstmark, A. T. (2010). Resistance training in overweight women on a ketogenic diet conserved lean body mass while reducing body fat. Nutr Metab (Lond), 7, 17.

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Paoli, A., Cenci, L., Pompei, P., Sahin, N., Bianco, A., Neri, M., Caprio, M., & Moro, T. (2021). Effects of Two Months of Very Low Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet on Body Composition, Muscle Strength, Muscle Area, and Blood Parameters in Competitive Natural Body Builders. Nutrients, 13(2).

Paoli, A., Grimaldi, K., D’Agostino, D., Cenci, L., Moro, T., Bianco, A., & Palma, A. (2012). Ketogenic diet does not affect strength performance in elite artistic gymnasts. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 34.

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Vargas, S., Romance, R., Petro, J. L., Bonilla, D. A., Galancho, I., Espinar, S., Kreider, R. B., & Benítez-Porres, J. (2018). Efficacy of ketogenic diet on body composition during resistance training in trained men: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 31.


Vargas-Molina, S., Gómez-Urquiza, J. L., García-Romero, J., & Benítez-Porres, J. (2022). Effects of the Ketogenic Diet on Muscle Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men and Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 19(19).

Volek, J. S., Sharman, M. J., Love, D. M., Avery, N. G., Gmez, A. L., Scheett, T. P., & Kraemer, W. J. (2002). Body composition and hormonal responses to a carbohydrate-restricted diet. Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental, 51(7), 864-870.

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