Building muscle is more than just lifting weights and shoveling down the protein. You also need the fuel to perform your best in the gym. You need to know which the best carbs for bodybuilding are.
In this article, we’ll review the top 11 carb sources you should include in your bodybuilding diet to build muscle, improve your body composition, and fuel your high-intensity sessions in the weight room.
Table of Contents
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are one of the three main types of nutrients that give our bodies energy, the other two being fats and proteins. Carbs and fats are your body’s preferred fuels, while protein is used to build and repair tissues, including muscle.
Carbs are found in foods like bread, pasta, fruits, veggies, and sugary snacks.
When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose. The glucose is then transported to your cells through your bloodstream, where it is used to power your muscles, organs, and brain.
In your muscles, carbohydrates are stored as glycogen. During resistance training, when you lift weights, glycogen is your primary fuel source. Carbs don’t build muscle directly, but they significantly boost your exercise performance in the gym, and that’s the key to muscle gain.
You can build muscle on low-carb diets or even without them, like the ketogenic diet, but it might be slower going.1
Carbohydrates provide the same amount of energy as protein: 4 calories per gram. Fat gives you more than double that: 9 calories per gram.
Different Types of Carbs
Carbs come in different forms—some are simple and easy to break down (like sugar), while others are complex and take more time to process (like the ones found in whole grains).
- Simple carbohydrates are the simplest form of carbohydrates and are found in foods such as fruit, sugar, candy, and processed foods. Simple carbohydrates are quickly digested and can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. The exception is natural sugars in fruit and berries.
- Complex carbohydrates, true to their name, are more complex than simple carbohydrates and are found in foods like whole grains, starchy vegetables, and rice. Complex carbs are often, but not always, digested more slowly.
- Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that is not digested by the human body. Even though it doesn’t provide any nutrients, fiber has several health benefits, including helping to regulate your blood sugar levels, boosting your digestive health, and keeping you regular.
Are There Good and Bad Carbs?
Yes and no. Carbohydrates are not inherently good or bad, but eating or drinking too much of certain types of carbohydrates can be bad for you.
Complex carbohydrates found in foods like whole grains, potatoes, rice, and legumes are your best option in most cases. These good carbs help keep your blood sugar stable and provide sustained energy. They are great for everyone, from the average person to bodybuilders and endurance athletes, and fuel both high-intensity sessions in the gym and longer periods of strenuous exercise.
Eating a lot of foods filled with refined sugar can contribute to obesity and tooth decay. They can be helpful to refuel after a workout, but they should only be a minor part of your bodybuilding diet. Avoid sugary drinks, as they provide you with nothing but empty calories.
On the other hand, naturally occurring sugars are not bad for you because they come in a complete package filled with health-boosting nutrients. The calories in most fruits and berries are almost 100% from different sugars, but very few people would claim that fruits and berries are unhealthy. On the contrary, dietary guidelines tell us to eat more of them because of their proven health benefits.
What Is the Glycemic Index and Should You Care About It?
The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking system for carbohydrates based on how quickly they raise your blood sugar levels after you eat them. Foods with a high GI cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly, while low GI foods cause blood sugar levels to rise slowly.
The GI scale ranges from 0 to 100, with pure glucose having a GI of 100.
- Low GI: Less than 55
- Medium GI: 56 to 69
- High GI: 70 or more
A few decades ago, many people, including scientists, thought the glycemic index might be a holy grail for preventing diabetes and fighting obesity. However, recent research shows that it is irrelevant for most people, at least when seen as part of the bigger picture.2
You rarely eat only a carb source and nothing else, after all, unless you base your meals on candy. In the real world, fat, fiber, and protein all work together to reduce a meal’s glycemic index and load.
That being said, for a bodybuilder, a high- GI meal or carbohydrate supplement after a workout can help you replenish your muscle glycogen rapidly. Besides that, you don’t have to lie sleepless worrying about the glycemic index of your carb choices.
The Best Carbs for Bodybuilding: Your Top Choices for Performance, Health, and Muscle Growth
Now you know how different types of carbs work and how important they are for bodybuilders. Let’s dive into the 11 best ones to boost your carbohydrate intake, in no particular order.
All nutritional data in the list is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central database.
Few carb sources are more associated with bodybuilders than white rice. The rice and chicken meme might make you think that’s all they eat. While that is a bit of an overstatement, rice does play a significant part in many bodybuilders’ diets. For good reasons.
Rice fuels more than half of the world’s population, so you know it’s up to the task. It’s a complex carbohydrate powerhouse, providing roughly 375 calories, more than 80 grams of carbs, 7.5 g grams of protein, and virtually no fat per 100 grams of uncooked rice.
Bodybuilders love white rice for its versatility and digestibility.
- Rice itself doesn’t taste much, meaning it goes perfectly with almost any dish or protein source you can think of, not just chicken.
- White rice doesn’t burden your digestive system or stay in your stomach for too long. It is a complex carb but breaks down fast and gives you a readily available energy boost before a workout. You can eat a hefty meal without feeling overly full, and white rice won’t make you feel uncomfortable or like a bloated mess during or after a workout.
- In the post-workout period, white rice is great for muscle recovery. The high glycemic index of white rice means it quickly elevates your blood sugar, spikes your insulin levels, and helps your body store the carbs as muscle glycogen.
- Rice is ideal for making large batches. You can cook enough rice for a week and store it in the fridge without it going bad. It saves a ton of time compared to cooking each meal, especially if you’re a bodybuilder who eats rice several times daily.
- In addition to being a good source of carbohydrates, rice is also relatively inexpensive compared to many other carbohydrate sources.
White Vs. Brown Rice
But what about brown rice? On paper, brown rice is the healthier option. It is a whole grain, meaning you get all parts of it, including those removed to make white rice. Those parts contain valuable nutrients that get lost in the process.
Brown rice also contains plenty of fiber. Fiber helps keep you regular and is good for your gut health. In moderation. If you eat rice like a bodybuilder, that much dietary fiber can cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues. It also lays in your stomach much longer, making a bodybuilding diet more challenging when the next meal is only 3–4 hours away. Everybody loves to eat, but it is significantly less fun when it’s time to eat and you’re still full.
Brown rice also contains more natural arsenic than white rice.3 Natural or not, arsenic is not a good bodybuilding supplement. If you eat a lot of brown rice every day, you might get more than what is good for you.
Brown rice is an excellent option for the average person who eats rice twice a week. You shouldn’t stay away from brown rice, but for a bodybuilder who bases their entire diet on it, white rice is the better option.
Who doesn’t love pasta? Be it spaghetti, tagliatelle, or tube-shaped macaroni-style, pasta is a perennial favorite on the dinner table and a top comfort food for many.
Pasta is also one of the best carbs for bodybuilding, although it is often overshadowed by white rice. It contains around 75 grams of complex carbs per 100 uncooked grams, very little fat, and essential nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and iron. Pasta is lower in carbs than white rice, primarily because it contains significantly more protein.
One cup of cooked pasta contains between 38 and 43 grams of carbohydrates, making it easy to carb load for a workout with a bowl of spaghetti. Pasta has a moderate glycemic index (GI) and doesn’t play havoc with your blood sugar levels when eating during the day. It is suitable both as a pre-workout meal for sustained energy and after a training session to replenish your glycogen stores.
Pasta has a bad reputation as being fattening. However, that is not true. Sure, if you don’t burn off the calories, pasta can cause weight gain simply because it’s so easy to eat a lot of it and because you often cover it with high-calorie sauces. But pasta itself doesn’t make you fat. In fact, it can be a major part of a successful weight loss diet, as long as you watch your calorie intake.4
Oats are among the best bodybuilding carbs because of their fiber content, low glycemic index, protein content, rich micronutrient profile, and versatility.
You simply can’t go wrong with a bowl of oatmeal on the breakfast table.
But you can also enjoy them in many other ways, from healthy overnight oats to delicious oatmeal cookies and as a part of smoothies and protein shakes.
A cup of cooked oatmeal provides more than 10 grams of protein in addition to close to 60 grams of high-quality complex carbohydrates. Oats are also high in many essential vitamins and minerals, like magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, and iron.
Oats also contain plenty of dietary fiber, particularly a type called beta-glucans. They are associated with many health benefits like lower cholesterol levels, improved immune function, and better blood sugar management.
Oats have a low GI, meaning they cause a gradual increase in your blood glucose levels rather than a rapid spike. A bowl of oatmeal a few hours before training will fuel any heavy-duty workout session. Or, if you need a quick pre-workout snack, mixing oats and protein powder in a blender makes a convenient and easy-to-drink energy boost.
Fruits are filled with essential micronutrients and are great for overall health. In addition to being tasty and naturally sweet treats, they help reduce the risk of many diseases and medical conditions.5
For a bodybuilder, all fruits are excellent sources of carbs, but bananas hold a special place. They give you a higher number of carbs than many other fruits and contain both simple sugars like glucose, fructose, and sucrose and a fair amount of complex carbohydrates depending on how ripe they are.
A medium-sized banana contains around 27 grams of carbohydrate in addition to essential micronutrients like potassium, vitamin B6 and C, and manganese.
Bananas are a convenient and portable snack. They come in their own natural packaging and are easy to carry and consume on the go whether you’re heading to the gym or need a quick energy boost between meals. You can eat a banana right before training without feeling full and bloated. After a workout, bananas are effective for rapid recovery and might even help you fight inflammation.6
From regular white bread to variants filled with whole grains, seeds, and nuts, there is a bread for every occasion, be it the breakfast table or a midnight snack. For a bodybuilder, the versatility and variety of bread make it one of the best high-carb foods, although a somewhat underrated one.
You can choose from high GI white bread to quickly fill your muscles’ energy stores after a grueling weight training session or load a whole-grain sandwich with any muscle building protein source like eggs, meats, and veggies for a quick and filling meal.
A standard slice of white bread provides 66 calories, just over 12 grams of carbs, 2,5 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of protein. A slice of whole-wheat bread gives you more of everything, including vitamins (like B vitamins) and minerals (such as iron and magnesium).
Like pasta, bread is often associated with weight gain, but again, this is something of a myth. Bread can be a part of any balanced diet, whether you’re going for muscle mass gain or fat loss. It is only fattening if you cover it with unhealthy spreads and eat more calories than you need.
Quinoa is an edible seed with excellent nutritional value. It provides plenty of good carbs, almost as much as rice or pasta, but with more protein.
Best of all, unlike the other carbohydrate sources mentioned in this article, the protein in quinoa is a complete protein.
That means that quinoa provides all the essential amino acids your body needs for muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth in sufficient amounts. That alone makes quinoa one of the best carb sources for bodybuilding.
Along with 64 grams of healthy carbs, 100 grams of quinoa also provides 14 grams of high-quality protein, almost unmatched in plant-based whole foods. The fat content of quinoa is relatively high compared to many other high carb foods, but it’s of remarkably high quality with a very beneficial proportion of unsaturated fats.7
The benefits of quinoa don’t stop with the macronutrients, though. This tiny seed also comes packed with micronutrients like iron, folate, zinc, magnesium, copper, and potassium.
What a nutritional powerhouse!
If you’ve been sleeping on quinoa, now’s the time to wake up and dig into this treasure trove of nutrition – easily one of the best carbs for bodybuilding.
What’s for breakfast? A bowl of cereal has been a breakfast favorite for many decades. It’s a delicious way to start the day the high-carb way.
Breakfast cereal isn’t just for kids watching morning cartoons either. It can also be one of the best carbs for bodybuilding. If you take the time to read the label on the box, that is.
Many types of cereal are loaded with added sugars and devoid of nutrition. Starting your day with a bowlful of sugar isn’t the best way to lay the foundation for a heavy gym session.
Fortunately, the cereal section is filled with choices that can aid your bodybuilding efforts instead of providing nothing but empty calories. Wholegrain cereals without a lot of added refined sugar are the ideal options for a bodybuilder. Bran flakes, shredded wheat, granolas (check the ingredient list – some read more like a sweet dessert than a healthy breakfast), and even regular cornflakes are better options than your typical Froot Loop-style breakfast cereal.
Breakfast cereals contain somewhere between 65 to 90 grams of carbs per 100 grams, depending on the ingredients. Here are two 100-gram examples to illustrate the differences:
- Quick oats cereal without added sugar provides 65 grams of carbs, almost all complex carbs with only one gram of simple carbs in the form of naturally occurring sugars.
- Frosted Flakes give you 90 grams of carbs, 39 of which are pure sugar.
As you can see, reading the label on the box pays off if you want a cereal that will do more for your muscles than give you a quick sugar rush. If you crave your chocolate frosted sugar bombs, save them for after a tough workout when your muscles are screaming for fast carbs.
There is more than one good reason why potatoes are one of the best carbs for bodybuilding.
- They are little powerhouses of nutrition. A single medium-sized potato contains around 16% of the recommended daily vitamin C intake and 8% of the RDI of vitamin B6. It also gives you ∼40% more potassium than a similarly medium-sized banana.
- The protein content of potatoes might be fairly low, but the protein you get is of the highest quality. Recent research shows that potato protein is as effective as milk protein in boosting muscle protein synthesis.8
- And, of course, potatoes give you the carbs your muscles need to get ready for your next workout. One medium-sized potato contains just short of 30 grams of carbs, almost all of which are of the complex, starchy kind.
Some bodybuilders shun potatoes because they can be a high glycemic food, meaning they cause your blood sugar to rise fast. However, the GI doesn’t matter much unless your meal is nothing but potatoes. When eaten as part of a complete meal with protein, fat, and fiber, your body processes the potato carbs much slower.
That also means that you can use potatoes as a superb post-workout meal. Mashed potatoes would be perfect at this point as your body can break the carbs down almost instantly and shuttle the glucose into your bloodstream.
Best of all, potatoes are supremely versatile. You can boil, fry, roast, mash, bake, or slice them up and put them into salads, stews, and soups.
Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to regular potatoes but provide many of the same nutritional benefits. Both are root vegetables and belong on any list of the best carbs for bodybuilding.
Compared to white potatoes, sweet potatoes contain more vitamins B and C and more than a thousand times more vitamin A. On the other hand, regular potatoes win if you compare potassium content.
Over the last decade, researchers have found numerous health benefits from sweet potatoes.9 They have antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties and help protect your heart.
As for the carbs, both contain similar amounts, but sweet potatoes have many times more sugar. Not surprisingly, perhaps, considering their name. This combination of complex and simple carbohydrates fuels your body before or after a workout or any other time of the day.
Beans and Other Legumes
Legumes, including beans, chickpeas, and lentils, pack a powerful combination of excellent carbohydrates and plant-based protein.
The type of carbohydrates found in beans is some of the most low-glycemic you can find. They produce a low rise in blood sugar after a meal without any spikes.
In addition, they are filled with phytochemicals (natural compounds found in plants that protect your body from diseases). They help improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation.10
The only problem with relying on beans to support your bodybuilding carb needs isn’t the carbohydrates themselves. Those are fantastic. It’s the fact that if you eat beans like you would eat rice, your stomach might betray you and have you farting all the way to the gym. Digestion is key for a bodybuilder.
That being said, beans and other legumes provide some of the best carbs for bodybuilding when eaten in moderation. Include them in your diet on a regular basis, and you’ll get the best possible carbs, plenty of protein, and many nutritional health benefits.
Sweet, juicy, delicious, and nutritious: berries of all kinds, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are great for bodybuilders.
Berries are low in calories but high in fiber and vitamins. They also contain antioxidants that protect your cells and other bioactive compounds that show remarkable health benefits.11
Berries contain mostly simple carbs from natural sugars, but have a lower glycemic index than most other carb sources.
Add them to a bowl of Greek yogurt, use them to add flavor and nutrition to your protein shakes, or enjoy them as they are.
Bonus Carb: Ice Cream
Okay, it might not make you a better bodybuilder, but everyone deserves a bowl of ice cream now and then.
There are protein-rich ice cream and low-fat or non-fat ice cream, but nothing beats the real thing. Follow the 80/20 rule: focus on making healthy choices in roughly 80% of your diet. You can then allow for more flexibility or indulgence in the remaining 20%.
Ice cream (and other tasty treats) fall into those 20%. As long as your dietary base is sound, fitting ice cream into a bodybuilding diet plan is no problem.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
Now you know which are the best carbs for bodybuilding. But how do you figure out how many of them to eat?
It’s pretty simple: your carbohydrate intake makes up the calories left after you’ve accounted for protein and fat.
What does that mean? It means that you first estimate how many calories you need, then calculate how much protein and fat you’re going to eat. Once that’s done, the remainder of your calories are carb calories.
Here’s an easy step-by-step guide.
Step One: Calories
First, calculate your calorie needs. You can use our nifty calculator:
From that number, subtract 3–500 calories if you’re on a cut. Add the same number of calories if you’re bulking. If you’re happy with your weight, you don’t need to make any more changes.
Let’s say you arrive at 3,000 calories for your daily calorie needs after taking your general activity level and workout routine into account.
Step Two: Protein
After that, it’s time to figure out how much protein you need.
We have a calculator to help you with your protein intake, too:
Let’s say you weigh 90 kilograms (198 pounds) and aim for 2 grams of protein per kg/day. That’s 180 grams of protein.
Those 180 grams provide 720 calories (180 x 4 = 720). That leaves 2,280 calories for your fat and carb intake.
Step Three: Fat
Next up: your fat intake. It should be neither too low nor too high. Unless you’re on a ketogenic diet, but then this article isn’t for you anyway. Too much fat might not leave enough carbs to fuel your workouts, while too little can compromise your anabolic hormones.
Athletes and bodybuilders should consume 20-35% of their daily calories from fat.14
Step Four: Your Carb Intake
Once you’ve crunched all these numbers, you know how many calories you have left to spend on carbs.
As an example, you decide that 30% of your calories should come from fat.
Thirty percent of 3,000 if 900. Because each gram of fat provides 9 calories, that means an even 100 gram of fat daily (900 / 9 = 100).
After accounting for your fat calories, you now have 1,380 calories left for carbs.
1,380 / 4 = 345. Let’s round that up for a nice and even 350 daily grams of carbs!
You want the right fuel for your body at the right time to perform your best in the gym and lay the groundwork for muscle growth. That means a good pre-and post-workout strategy for your carb intake.
- Unless you’re training early in the morning, try to eat a decent-sized meal with plenty of complex carbs 2–3 hours before you hit the gym.
- If you train before breakfast or haven’t eaten in some time, a snack with protein and simple carbs 15–30 minutes before the workout stabilizes your blood sugar and gives you high-octane fuel to power you through your training session.
Training otherwise fasted is OK. Most of your muscles’ energy comes from glycogen stores from the carbs you’ve eaten the day before.
After your workout, you need protein to flip the switch to muscle-building mode. However, your muscles are also extra sensitive to carbs at this point. Any carbs you eat or drink during the hours after a training session go directly to your muscles. They are stored as glycogen and will be there to fuel your next workout.
Fast carbs, meaning high-glycemic sources, are extra beneficial for rapid glycogen replenishment.
For best results, spread your carbs out during the day to avoid overloading your stomach and slow down digestion. Eating every 3–4 hours, both complex carbs and protein, is a good rule of thumb instead of loading up on one or two hefty meals.15
Protein might get the most attention when it comes to bodybuilding. However, carbs are the troopers that allow you to perform the work needed to pack on lean muscle.
While carbohydrates might not be necessary in the strictest sense of the word when it comes to building muscle, they can for sure be your best friend in the gym.
Fill your muscle glycogen stores with these 11 best carbs for bodybuilding – your energy levels will have you kick some serious butt when it’s time to hit the weights.
- Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 26(4):p 347-352, July 2023. Low carbohydrate availability impairs hypertrophy and anaerobic performance.
- Adv Nutr. 2021 Nov; 12(6): 2076–2084. Perspective: Does Glycemic Index Matter for Weight Loss and Obesity Prevention? Examination of the Evidence on “Fast” Compared with “Slow” Carbs?
- Front. Nutr., 14 July 2023. Arsenic in brown rice: do the benefits outweigh the risks?
- Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2020 Jun 9;30(6):984-995. Body weight of individuals with obesity decreases after a 6-month high pasta or low pasta Mediterranean diet weight-loss intervention.
- Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2019 Sep;70(6):652-667. Fruit and vegetable consumption and health outcomes: an umbrella review of observational studies.
- PLoS One. 2018; 13(3): e0194843. etabolic recovery from heavy exertion following banana compared to sugar beverage or water only ingestion: A randomized, crossover trial.
- Encyclopedia of Food and Health 2016, Pages 573-579: Quinoa.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 54(9):p 1572-1581, September 2022. Potato Protein Ingestion Increases Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates at Rest and during Recovery from Exercise in Humans.
- Antioxidants 2022, 11(9), 1648. Sweet Potato Is Not Simply an Abundant Food Crop: A Comprehensive Review of Its Phytochemical Constituents, Biological Activities, and the Effects of Processing.
- Nutrients 2021, 13(2), 519. Health Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition: Focus on Beans in Cardiometabolic Diseases.
- Molecules. 2021 Jul; 26(13): 3904. Review of Functional and Pharmacological Activities of Berries.
- ACSM Information on Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Volume 14, Article number: 20 (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise.
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):709-31. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Volume 14, Article number: 33 (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.