How to Increase Glycogen Stores in Muscles without Gaining Weight

How to Increase Glycogen Stores in Muscles without Gaining Weight

What’s the key to training hard day after day AND maintaining good body composition? Read on to discover how to increase glycogen stores in muscles and the liver without adding on extra pounds.

Glycogen is a necessary and ubiquitous fuel source in the body. It is primarily stored in skeletal muscle cells and liver cells. But it is also stored in small amounts in brain cells, heart cells, smooth muscle cells, kidney cells, red and white blood cells, and even adipose (fat) cells.

When glycogen stores in skeletal muscles reach a critically low level, exercise performance markedly decreases. For the body to sustain the capacity for continued training and competition, it is essential that glycogen stores in the muscles and the liver be replenished as rapidly as possible.

The problem, however, is that the best way to replenish glycogen is by eating a high carbohydrate diet. And, a high carbohydrate diet can cause weight gain – even in extremely active individuals. So, how do you increase glycogen stores in muscles without gaining weight? The answer lies in the type of carbohydrates consumed, the amount of carbs consumed, and the exact timing the carbs are consumed.

All Carbs are NOT Equal

Dietary carbohydrates are divided into “simple” versus “complex” carbs, based on their chemical makeup and what they do once in the body. The simple carbs are basic sugars which are easy-to-digest. On the other hand, the complex carbs contain longer chains of sugar molecules and take more time for the body to break down and use.

Simple carbs should be consumed when an athlete is in the midst of training or competition. They also work quickly immediately after a workout to replenish glycogen stores. Complex carbs, however, should be consumed in preparation of a competition (think “carb loading”), which I’ll expound more on later.

Still, there are “good” versus “bad” simple carbs as well as “good” versus “bad” complex carbs. For example, both corn syrup and natural orange juice are considered simple carbs but consuming the juice from an orange is far healthier than consuming a corn syrup-laden soda drink. Likewise, good starches (complex carbs) would include oats, beans, or vegetables versus processed breads that are high in flour, sugar, and yeast.

How to Increase Glycogen Stores in Muscles During Training 

Research confirms that ingesting “healthy” carbohydrates during and immediately following exercise can improve performance and speed recovery. In fact, the ability of carbohydrates to improve exercise performance is not limited to ingesting carbohydrates; simply rinsing the mouth with carbohydrate solutions without swallowing has been shown to improve aspects of exercise performance such as endurance capacity and bench-press repetitions.

However, the amount of carbs consumed and the timing (when you are eating) is critical to avoid weight gain. The key to sustaining the capacity for continued physical activity without gaining weight is to digest enough carbohydrates to maintain muscle and liver glycogen stores (fuel) without going overboard. Additionally, carbs should be combined with proteins to stimulate muscle repair as well as fluids to ensure proper hydration.

During training season, the total amount of carbs you’ll consume is dependent on the type of exercise performed, the intensity of the exercise, and the duration of the exercise—more carbs should be consumed with hard training sessions, less carbs with easier training. Depending upon training intensity and duration, carbohydrate intake might vary from 1.4 to 4.5 grams per pound of body weight per day. As a general rule, many endurance athletes try to consume 30-50 grams of carbohydrates per hour for up to 3 hours of exercise and 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour for exercise lasting longer than 3 hours.

Post Workout Refueling

After a hard, intense workout, you should eat carbohydrate-rich foods that can be quickly digested, absorbed, and transported in the blood and taken up by the muscles and liver for the restoration of glycogen stores (think simple carbs that are “healthy”, yet still high on the glycemic index such as fruits).

Furthermore, you should eat a combination of carbs and proteins within 2 hours after a workout as insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis, is better stimulated when carbs and protein are consumed together. (Plus, as mentioned earlier, proteins help stimulate muscle repair.)

Rules for Replacing Glycogen Stores Post Workout:

  • Muscle glycogen is restored at an average rate of 5% per hour.
  • Muscle glycogen storage is slightly enhanced for up to 2 hours after exercise, during which the muscles have a greater capacity to take up blood glucose.
  • In 24 hours, you can fully replenish depleted stores.
  • Delayed carbohydrate intake by even 2 hours can slow down the replenishment process. (Aim to eat within 30 minutes and no longer than 2 hours post workout.)
  • Studies show that both liquid and solid carbohydrates are adequate in refueling the body.
  • Athletes should consume between 0.5 to 0.7 g of carbs per pound of body weight within 30 minutes of completing intense exercise.

How to Increase Glycogen Stores in Muscles Prior to Competition

It is well established that beginning exercise with ample muscle glycogen stores is an important contributor to improved exercise performance. Prior to a competitive event, many endurance athletes and body builders undergo “glycogen supercompensation” – also known as “carb loading”.

The glycogen supercompensation effect (achieving extra high glycogen levels due to carbohydrate depletion followed by loading) was first demonstrated in 1967. Glycogen supercompensation occurs in muscles that have been trained when a low carbohydrate diet is combined with vigorous exercise followed by a high carbohydrate diet.

Endurance athletes such as runners benefit from glycogen supercompensation because fatigue in events lasting longer than one hour is related primarily to glycogen depletion.

Bodybuilders benefit from glycogen supercompensation because each gram of glycogen is stored with 2.5-3 grams of water; therefore, a doubling in glycogen stores can increase the bodybuilder’s apparent muscle mass.

How to Carb Load

The earliest studies showed that athletes can substantially increase their muscle glycogen stores by doing a long workout seven days before a competition, then eating a low-carbohydrate diet for three days, followed by a high-carbohydrate diet (70-80 percent of calories from carbohydrate) for two to three days preceding the competitive event.

In runners, the long workout (a.k.a. “the last long run”) depletes the body’s glycogen stores and the three days of low carbohydrate intake keeps them low, which signals the body to store as much glycogen as possible.

More recent research demonstrates that you can increase glycogen stores to similar levels without the depletion/low-carbohydrate phase by tapering training and eating a high-carbohydrate diet during the last two to three days before a competition. During this time, aim to eat high-quality, nutrient-rich carbohydrates, such as pastas and vegetables to provide both simple and complex carbohydrates along with micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.

You should expect to gain a couple of pounds during carb loading because the body stores 2.5-3 grams of water for every gram of glycogen. This added weight is unavoidable. The good news is the stored water can help prevent dehydration during competition and the weight should drop within the week following competition (as long as you maintain a healthy diet post event).

The Post-Competition Meal

Remember, the primary goal of your post competition meal is to supply your body with the right nutrients for adequate recovery. Don’t forget to combine macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats). The following are examples of healthy post-competition foods:


  • Sweet potatoes
  • Chocolate milk
  • Fruits
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Granola


  • Eggs
  • Protein powder
  • Protein bar
  • Yogurt
  • Turkey
  • Tuna
  • Chicken


  • Nuts
  • Nut butter
  • Cheese

For more info, visit the nutrition and recipes sections.


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