Dextrose. What is it exactly? Some new fangled weight loss pill used by celebrities everywhere? One of those “special supplements” found in the locked case at the local GNC store? The name of a blood splatter analyst who is secretly a vigilante serial killer?
Nope. It’s sugar. Just sugar.
Yup, the stuff found in your kid’s Halloween bag that you “hid in a safe place.” The stuff you try desperately to avoid. The stuff that can cause a whole host of problems like insulin resistance, weight gain, and Type II Diabetes.
But what if I told you that dextrose can actually help on your journey to the stage? This supplement becomes something my clients can’t live without while dieting down and working their a$$’s off in the gym.
In this post:
- Sciencey details on energy pathways
- Dextrose and Muscle Building
- Dextrose: The Superhero of Contest Prep
- Experiential Proof that it Works
- How I use dextrose in client plans
Sciencey Details on Energy Pathways
ATP and How The Body Uses Energy
Adenosine triphosphate, more commonly known as “ATP,” is the energy source of the human body. Without it, you’d not be reading this article because you’d be lying in a wooden box.
So yeah, it’s pretty important.
There are two primary ingredients for making ATP: Triglycerides (fat) and glycogen (carbs), which is a bunch of glucose—sugars from the carbohydrates we eat – stored for later use in our muscle and liver cells.
Dextrose is chemically identical to glucose. This connection will matter as we go on.
The human body uses three different types of energy systems to create ATP. Each system is different in how fast and how much ATP it can make. For the average person, which energy system being used during exercise doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot. However, for athletes and bodybuilders, trying to maximize the use of one system over another can be the difference between first and second place.
Energy System #1: ATP-PCr
The first energy system, known as the ATP-PCr system, provides approximately seven to ten seconds of explosive energy before it runs out of phosphocreatine (PCr), which is the essential component to make this energy system occur (yes, this is where the use of the widely popular creatine supplement comes into play). When you do your first set heavy squats, you are likely using the ATP-PCr system. It is the most powerful of the three our body has to offer. Unfortunately, it’s also the shortest, and that’s why we are strongest with those first few reps versus our last (using structured rest periods between sets can help restore the ATP-PCr system so you can use it – and all of its explosive power – all over again. More on this in another article).
Energy System #2: The Glycolytic Pathway
Once we use up the PCr required of the first energy system, the body kicks into the glycolytic pathway. This system provides a little less explosive power, but there’s still some damn good push behind it. One of the main components of the glycolytic system is triglycerides. Can you guess what the other is?
The glycolytic pathway is super complex and I don’t want to bore you with the details, so I’ll try to summarize it as painlessly as possible. Stay with me. This will all make sense soon.
When the body needs to make ATP, glycogen is like unleaded premium at the pump – it is our body’s preferred choice for energy. The glycolytic system immediately turns to our glycogen stores for fuel. Using a process called “glycolysis,” the body releases stored glucose molecules from the tissues and uses them to make ATP. The more glycogen we have, the longer glycolysis – and the use of the glycolytic pathway – occurs. The longer we can use this pathway, the longer we can benefit from its heavy lifting power.
That being said, the human body can only store a limited amount of glycogen in the muscles and liver. How much depends on each individual person. However, one study suggests we store around 600 grams total. In other words, the body only has so much glycogen available, especially if your glycogen stores aren’t full in the first place from being in a big ‘ol calorie deficit (so grab some carbs and fill that baby up! Refeed baby :D).
When our glycogen stores begin to get low, the glycolytic pathway switches to what’s known as the Kreb’s Cycle. The Kreb’s Cycle is like your thrice-divorced Aunt Mary; it’s not picky about its prospects. In fact, it will look towards other macronutrients to use for the production of ATP. Using a process called gluconeogenesis, the body converts fat and protein into glucose to use as fuel. The Kreb’s Cycle is part of the third and final energy system known as the “oxidative phosphorylative pathway” (try saying that three times fast). This system slows our performance down measurably, though it does allow us to continue physical activity for long periods, just at a much less powerful rate. It’s great for going for a walk or doing an hour of steady state cardio. But for weight lifting? Not so much.
Dextrose and Muscle Building
By now hopefully you’ve learned that we have three energy systems, the first two of which give us the greatest amount of physical power. While the first energy system is engaged for a very short amount of time due to the extremely limited amount of phosphocreatine it can store, the second can last a bit longer because it relies on the relatively more robust glycogen stores (though that’s limited too). The more glycogen we have hanging around, the better physical output we will have. This is why carbohydrates are so essential in our diets.
When you are an athlete or bodybuilder, drinking Dextrose before or during your workout can give you a slight edge in performance. Here’s why.
Dextrose, like glucose, is a monosaccharide. This means that it is in its simplest form; it cannot be broken down into any smaller units so there isn’t anything to process during digestion. When you put dextrose (which comes in a powder that looks like, well, sugar!) in your workout drink, it is very quickly transported to the liver where it can be immediately used for energy.
While the body primarily turns to glycogen to make ATP, the higher blood sugar resulting from the Dextrose can, at the same time, be used to fuel your body. In theory, this can prolong the use of the glycolytic pathway ever so slightly, especially if your glycogen stores aren’t completely full or you are training in a fasted state.
In other words, Dextrose can give you an edge.
That’s because the heavier weight we can lift, the more damage we cause to our muscles (hypertrophy). Each time the body repairs these damaged muscles, the bigger these muscles become. (Check out Rapid Gainz Post Show are Not What You Think for more on muscle anatomy and how muscle grows.)
Are you seeing the connection yet?
If we can prolong the use of the ATP-PCr and Glycolytic energy systems, that is giving ourselves the ability to perform at a higher level longer.
That being said, if you are eating at maintenance level and including plenty of carbs in your diet, your glycogen stores are likely already full. Supplementing dextrose during workouts is most effective for individuals who don’t have time to eat a decent breakfast before exercise, who are in a carb depletion, are planning to perform a high endurance or high intensity exercise (like HIIT), or are working out more than once in a single day.
If you choose to drink Dextrose during your workouts, be sure to count that as part of your daily macros. The body has a “glucose overfill” mechanism; you might know it by its more common name of “getting fat.”
Tee hee :D. And more importantly, if you are prepping for a contest, counting every last macro is darn crucial to getting leaner than your body really wants to go which BTW wreaks all sorts of havoc hormonally amongst other side effects like lack of energy and motivation and muscle loss! And this is where dextrose becomes the super hero of contest prep! (See also 3 Reasons for Diet Plateaus & 7 Tips and Tricks to Bust Through Them.)
Dextrose: The Superhero of Contest Prep
When I really like to utilize dextrose in my diet plans for clients is when they are prepping for the stage.
That’s because the goal of competitive bodybuilding, physique, figure, or bikini is to reduce body fat while, at the very least, maintaining that muscle you worked so hard to create. But as the body leans out, its’ glycogen and fat stores are becoming substantially less.
Remember gluconeogenesis, the process of converting fat or protein into glucose when glycogen is not available?
This is when the body is going to turn to protein.
And that means the risk of breaking down our muscles to get it.
By having clients drink dextrose during their workouts, I’m supplementing the lack of stored glycogen. Remember what I mentioned earlier? Glucose is the body’s preferred energy source. If it’s available – whether that’s through glycogen or recently consumed dextrose – it’s going to use it.
So not only do clients feel more energy when they workout, dextrose also helps direct the body to turn to glucose, not protein, as the source of fuel for their training.
Does this mean that by drinking dextrose you will protect your protein (muscles) from being robbed by that cursed Kreb’s Cycle? No. That’s because while the glycolytic pathway primarily uses glycogen for fuel, it still uses fats too. Since stored fat is minimal during contest prep, the process of gluconeogenesis using protein as a fuel source is very difficult to avoid. But supplying the body with glucose can at least reduce the damage.
Experiential Proof that it Works
Scientific evidence for the effectiveness of dextrose during contest prep in particular is non-existent. Dr. Helen Kollias, a molecular biologist and researcher, explained that studies of this nature are lacking because the nutritional aspect of competitive bodybuilding does not have any real health implications warranting inspection (indeed, contest prep is not the diet to look to when pursuing a long-term healthy lifestyle).
However, I put dextrose into my contest prep clients’ diet plans as a way to give them the most energy around their lifting session. Lifting beast mode while dieting can be Brutal with a capital B. Screw it… BRUTAL… call caps. Just sayin.
My clients, like all of them, report that dextrose makes a huge difference in their energy levels while lifting and if at any time they forget to put it in their water bottle when they hit they gym, it’s like a slow death to the end. I srsly concur. It is hard to strength train when energy levels are low!
For me, not only does it make a huge difference in my energy levels during lifting sessions while dieting down, but if I ever forget to put it in my water bottle, it’s like I feel I can’t go on. Much like Dumbo and his feather. If you remember that cute little Disney Elephant that thought this special feather made him fly. Yeah well dextrose makes me lift!
How I use Dextrose in Client Plans:
I use dextrose a few different ways in diet plans.
The majority of my contest prep clients have dextrose to sip on during their lifting session. Dextrose being a simple sugar doesn’t need to be broken down further and is digested quickly. Once you get warmed up and lifting, that dextrose is going to be available once you use up the glycogen stores from breakfast, or lunch or whatever you ate 2 or more hours before the gym.
In general, my female clients get about 20 grams of dextrose which is 20 grams of carbs and male clients around 30 grams of dextrose.
It tastes pretty great mixed with BCAA’s or Flex Flavors too.
I will also utilize dextrose for clients that have to get up in the wee hours of the morning and hit the gym right away having been fasted all night. This goes for cardio or a lifting session. In this case I may have my clients drink dextrose right when they get up with some whey protein before heading out.
I am not a fan of fasted cardio and don’t see the benefits of it. Yes it burns fat but it also is burning through your muscle. If you are already dieting down, macros are fixed daily and you are depleted of energy stores, you will burn fat for the sheer fact that you are in a calorie deficit. So spread those calories out and fuel up when working out.
Are you ready to take your training to the next level? Contact me and we can discuss strategies like this one. Losing weight or getting to the competitive stage can be a complex journey unique to everyone. Let me help find the path that works best for you as you strive to become your strongest self.
Disclaimer: This article is not permission to eat candy as a workout strategy. So put those jelly beans down right now.