The truth about insulin
We all know insulin and carbohydrates are what’s making America fat, right? Reality: that is the furthest from the truth. Read on for a quick educational breakdown of insulin and how it operates in the body.
Before tackling the ins and outs of how to manipulate insulin in our bodies to create great results, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of what insulin is and why it’s important. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. It regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats in the body, and promotes protein synthesis and glucose utilization. Insulin also has the ability to prevent breakdown of muscle tissue. As you can see, insulin is a highly effective tool in gaining new muscle and recovering from tough workouts.
Insulin is secreted when we consume carbohydrates and proteins, and it can build up fat cells and muscle cells equally (This is the downside of insulin. Discussion on how to avoid this below). Lastly, it dilates blood vessels, allowing more blood to reach the muscle, which facilitates the shuttling of nutrients like glucose and amino acids to flow in and through.
Insulin, with all its greatness, has that major flaw of building up fat cells and muscle cells equally. This means if you eat food that spikes insulin (ie. sugary carbs) with a fat source, your body will not only shuttle the carbs to muscle cells but it will also drive the fat. Now this doesn’t mean don’t eat fats -- they are an integral part of a good diet -- it just means time them well.
The optimal time to spike insulin with higher glycemic carbs is around a workout. Other times, carbohydrates should be reduced and selected from a lower glycemic index source to slow the spike (these are the meals you would incorporate your fats into). The glycemic index is a good way to know what foods will spike insulin rapidly and which ones will have a slower, more controlled insulin release. Things like muffins, white breads, honey and jams will spike insulin fast, while things like brown rice, sweet potatoes and oatmeal will have a slower, more controlled release. This index is a great tool to know what foods do what, and to incorporate them at appropriate times based on your goals.
Carb timing is also extremely important to the facilitation and manipulation of the release of insulin. The consumption of higher glycemic carbs pre-, intra- and post-workout is a great tool to beneficially spike insulin. A significant advantage of well-timed insulin spikes is the fact that they not only speed up the rate of protein synthesis, but also blunt the catabolic effects of training. As you train, muscle is torn down. Ideally, you will be able to eat, sleep and recover enough for them to grow back before your next session, but with strategic timing and spiking of insulin you can significantly reduce the amount of muscle damage, expediting recovery and allowing you to train harder and heavier every time. Getting a head start on the recovery process is crucial, because the faster we recover the more we can train and with reduced chance of injury. An under-recovered muscle is a muscle susceptible to injury. When trying to induce a rapid release of insulin, we want to minimize anything that will get in the way of that; high-fiber foods, high-fat foods, and anything that doesn’t typically sit well with your stomach should be avoided. All these will blunt the release of insulin, thus negating the positive effects.
As you can see, we can spike our own insulin and reap the benefits without having to supplement it from external sources, so why is it so prevalent in the sport of bodybuilding? This is due to insulin resistance. Over time, we start to develop insulin resistance, especially in a calorie surplus or if we are really pushing carbs hard. Bodybuilders also take growth hormone, which further promotes insulin resistance, so insulin is also often taken as well.
But what does insulin resistance mean? It means your body has developed a resistance to the positive effects of the hormone due to consistent over-consumption of carbs. When insulin is continuously spiked, the human body will eventually no longer effectively utilize it. This is where the trouble begins. Instead of a hard, lean look, you start to get a lot softer and fatter. On top of that, glucose starts to build up in the blood instead of being absorbed by the cells, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes. So how do we avoid this? Diet, training and supplements.
There are actually a few diet approaches to avoid insulin resistance: some type of carb cycling, a bulk and mini cut, or nutrient timing where carbs are cycled in only around training hours. I prefer to take a carb cycling approach with diets for several reasons, including that it keeps insulin sensitivity high and it allows you to run the same diet in a calorie surplus a little bit longer. Let me say that being in a calorie surplus for an extended period of time regardless of the diet will start to build some type of insulin resistance. Sorry, you can’t bulk forever.
The idea behind carb cycling is that you have high carb days for your highest volume training days, medium carb days for your other training days and low carb days for your off days. This change in carbohydrates will allow your body to take a break and reset from time to time, so you can push the diet longer without getting too much insulin resistance. You just have to make sure your low carb days are pretty low and your medium days the carbs are timed around training.
Finally, we have the timing and manipulation of carbs. The best times to consume carbs (and really the only time your body really truly needs them) is pre-, intra- and post-workout. Carbs are our body's primary source of energy, so when you are not exercising they are not necessarily needed, especially in high amounts. Consuming carbs in that workout window will keep insulin sensitivity high because the macros are immediately used and not just flooding your body with nowhere to go. Again, just like carb cycling you want a lower carb diet on your off days. With this approach your diet will consist of a lot of proteins and fats with carbs around your workout window. Those carbs can be pushed higher than normal because your body will need them and better utilize them. Like I said above, no matter how long you push a diet you will have to have a time to be in a calorie surplus and in a calorie deficit. You can’t do both forever. So setting up mini cuts with your bulks will help prevent insulin resistance as well. It doesn’t have to be a crazy amount of time: anywhere from 3-6 weeks should do the trick to let your body reset and allow you to start gaining again.
Another great way to keep your insulin in check is to look into glucose disposal agent supplements or GDA. There is a whole host of supplements you can get that helps shuttle carbohydrates and help with insulin sensitivity. (Not to let any cats out of the bag, but keep your eye on some new releases from Subject Zero in the next few weeks 🤫) Some of my favorites are Berberine, NA-R-ALA, Chromium Picolinate, Slintrol (an all in one GDA), Matador (an all in one GDA), and Cinnamon (not Cinnamon Sugar, calm down). All these supplements aid in the breakdown and shuttling of carbohydrates, thereby regulating and controlling insulin spikes. Couple these with higher carb meals and you should be able to keep insulin sensitivity higher for longer periods of time.
The last thing to help with insulin resistance is how you train. Simply, you have to train hard. The more volume you can accumulate the more you will dump glycogen. Volume = reps + sets + load, so you have to lift heavy for a lot of sets and reps. You can’t go to the gym, do some flyes and kickbacks and think that’s good enough for the day. Compound movements should be the base of your plan and doing them in the 6-12 rep range for multiple sets is ideal. Training this way depletes glycogen stores, and empty glycogen stores give carbs a place to go when consumed. So if you aren’t pushing hard in training, those carbs you are consuming will have nowhere to go, and will likely be stored as fat. Based on how your training is set up and the body part you are working you can manipulate your carb intake as needed, which will help keep things rolling. Legs, chest and back will require the most amount of carbs and shoulders and arms you simply don’t need as many.
So by matching your diet to your training and supplementing with GDA’s you will be albe to push calories harder in the offseason without the accumulation of as much fat. I am not saying this will keep you lean, because when you are in a calorie surplus for a long-time fat will come. I am saying that by taking these things into consideration and applying them in a smart manner, you will grow with more quality for a longer time and stay healthier, avoiding insulin resistance.