Picking up from Poliquin

In the world of strength and performance training, no one is quite as famous (or perhaps infamous) as Charles Poliquin. There are those who worship the ground he walks on and why not? The man has produced Olympic medalists in 12 sports, has a client roster that reads as a who’s who of professional athletes and has penned numerous strength training books and countless training articles.

On the flip side, he has his fair share of critics. Poliquin chafes a lot of people because he’s someone who loves to espouse his way as the ONLY way to train and he’s not shy about slamming ridiculous fitness trends and so-called weight loss experts (if you don’t believe me, try Googling “Poliquin and BOSU” or “Poliquin and Dr. Phil”).

But love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect what the man has done. If you can accept his brash presentation, you’ll often find his information to be quite useful.

Recently, I came across an article on Poliquin’s Top 10 Carb Intake Rules For Optimal Body Composition. In typical Poliquin fashion, he’s got a lot of great ideas (e.g. your main sources of carbohydrates should be fibrous vegetables), others that are tough to test empirically (e.g. using taurine, magnesium and alpha-lipoic acid to enhance glucose storage in muscle vs. fat cells) and some that are a little beyond the acceptance of John Q. Public (e.g. avoid any and all grains).

Among the great points he makes is one pertaining to post-workout carbohydrate needs scaled for exercise volume. Basically, he correctly points out that the greater the total number of reps in a resistance training workout, the greater your glycogen breakdown will be. As a result, you would require more carbohydrates post-workout to replace these glycogen losses.

Makes sense on both the physiological and practical sides.

To walk you through some basic exercise physiology, there are three energy systems we can use to power muscle contractions. They are:

  1. ATP-CP: the system using stored phosphocreatine to power rapid energy production and explosive movement
  2. Anaerogic glycolysis: the system using stored carbohydrates (i.e. muscle glycogen), that covers the bulk of your energy needs after your initial burst, up until a few minutes of high intensity work. If you’ve ever experience the “lactic acid” burn (which is not actually lactic acid at all, but that’s a topic for another post), then this is the energy system you are tapping into.
  3. Oxidative phosphorylation: a slower energy producing system that relies more on burning stored fat. This fuel system doesn’t give you energy quickly, but it can give you energy for a long time.

If we extend these energy system realities to weight training, we can see if you are performing a single heavy set (e.g. 3 reps or fewer), the total time that set will take might be only 10-15 seconds, therefore just how much glycogen will you be exhausting?

Conversely, if you and your best friend are doing 5 lbs biceps curls while standing next to one another on the BOSU, you are clearly not taxing your glycolytic system one bit. In fact, the only thing you are taxing is the patience of those serious individuals who actually come to the gym to train.

Just an FYI: if a set of biceps curls take 7 minutes to complete, you are doing the arm equivalent of 45 minutes on the recumbent bike.

Happily, most people find themselves somewhere between these two extremes. For you guys, Poliquin has come up with the following post-workout carbohydrate recommendations:

  • 12-72 reps per workout : 0.6 g/kg/LBM
  • 72-200 reps per workout : 0.8 g/kg/LBM
  • 200-360 reps per workout : 1.0 g/kg/LBM
  • 360-450 reps per workout : 1.2 g/kg/LBM

Of course, this “carbs to rep” rule isn’t perfect. A single rep of a deadlift is far more demanding than a single rep of a cable triceps pressdown; however, the rule still has its merits. An interesting project might be for someone to actually quantify exactly how much glycogen gets used per exercise, per unit of lean body mass… but that’s quite the ambitious project to say the least.

Obviously, any amount of carbohydrate needs to be paired with protein for optimal recovery benefits. There is some recent work out of the Stu Phillips lab at MacMaster University which suggests that ~20 g of protein post-workout might be enough to maximally stimulate protein synthesis1.

Admittedly, 20 g of protein may not be enough to maximally stimulate protein synthesis for a 250 lbs bodybuilder on a squat day; however, for the vast majority of the exercising public, aiming to consume ~20 g of protein in conjunction with the aforementioned carbohydrate recommendation makes for a good goal.

Just one final point, the carbohydrate recommendations given above are based on lean body mass (LBM) and not total body mass. Lean body mass is simply what is left once you subtract how much fat mass you are carrying around. To calculate it, simply get your percent body fat tested, then subtract your fat mass from your total mass and you are left with your lean mass (total mass – fat mass = lean body mass).

Pretty simple, no? Just another tool you can use to individualize and personalize your nutrition.

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!

1. Moore et al. (2009). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89, 161-168.