Explosive Nutrition

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Where are you getting it wrong? Webster’s defines explode as a verb; meaning to expand with force, to burst, as dynamite. In sports, being explosive is really just the quality of being able to generate great power over a short time frame. ‘Explosive’, is becoming one of those catch phrases that everyone is hearing and using.  Sadly, people think that being explosive is something that people are simply born with, like being explosive is passed down from some grandparent like eye color. Well, it’s not.  Being explosive is acquired, not inborn, and yes some athletes have a higher ceiling to work with, but turning this verb into an adjective that people use to describe you is much more dependent on choices and actions, then genetic code.

Think of our bodies as cars for a second, a Formula 1 race car is going to defeat a 1964 Volkswagen 100% of the time. Why? The engine and all other aspects of the formula 1 car have been built in such a way that it has the potential to generate 10X the horsepower and torque of the VW.  But what actualizes the potential energy of the race car into explosive, kinetic movements? Fuel.  Our bodies work much in the same way, strength training creates an engine with potential to generate great amounts of power and torque, but if we don’t give our bodies the right fuel to burn, then all the time spent trying to get stronger is a waste.  There is a huge nutritional component to training, thinking, and performing like a champion, and it’s time that you became aware of it.

Observing first hand several world champions, and combining that with research is allowing me to better understand how performance, recovery, and improved body composition can all be accomplished simultaneously.  Applying proper nutrition to the hormonal environments your metabolism and exercise creates will enable you to be more lean, and explosive than ever.

Carbohydrate vs. Fat Metabolism for Performance

This is probably review for most of you, so I will make it quick.  Our muscles use ATP as the catalysts to generate movement, these resources must be continually replaced or fatigue will set in (1).  Unfortunately, there is only enough ATP stored in our muscles to fuel 3-5 seconds of explosive exercise, and 15 seconds of aerobic exercise (2). If you don’t replenish these stores, you will be sitting on the sidelines or getting overpowered by your opponent, no matter how much heart you compete with.  Fats and Carbohydrates are the two fuel sources the body will use to replace the ATP stores in our muscles during exercise (1). As you see below, fats are processed through one pathway (the left) and carbs (glucose) are processed in another (the middle), but both end up as the same compound, Acetyl-CoA (blue square), that propel your muscles to continue working during exercise.

Fats (left) and glucose (middle) both are converted into Acetyl-CoA (square) that the body uses to propel metabolism. Glucose, provided by carbohydrates, is converted much quicker to usable energy that fats. Spriet et al 1999.
Fats (left) and glucose (middle) both are converted into Acetyl-CoA (square) that the body uses to propel metabolism. Glucose, provided by carbohydrates, is converted much quicker to usable energy that fats. Spriet et al 1999.

Great, then both are the same and it doesn’t matter which path I choose, right? Wrong.  Fat metabolism doesn’t come close to generating the explosive power or aerobic capacity that carbohydrate metabolism does (3,4).  Carbohydrate metabolism occurs faster that fat metabolism, refilling ATP stores quicker, and improving short range (10-60 seconds) recovery better than Fats (1). With carbs, muscles can contract with maximal force repeatedly, what does this mean, you go hard every play and come back for more. Don’t believe the myth that carbohydrates are limited to just improving short-term explosiveness, fats can not support aerobic intensity over 60% of VO2 max either, carbs can (3).  This is where the necessity of carbohydrates for repeated explosive performances really gets serious. Researchers found that both anaerobic (short bursts) metabolism and aerobic (endurance) metabolism are simultaneously activated the instant exercise begins; and they work together throughout the duration of exercise to replenish muscle ATP (5, 6, 7, 8). Carbohydrates have been found to serve as the superior fuel for both of these systems (1), and when fatigue begins to set in it is due to glycogen (carbohydrate) depletion, not a lack fatty acids (fat) (9, 10, 11, 12, 13).  From this research we can then say that athletes should eat carbs all the time, right? Afterall, the Formula 1 car only takes one type of fuel. That’s why it’s important to combine research with observation and practice, in doing this I have found that the human body is much more complicated a machine than people try to make it.  This is where many go wrong.

Carb Storage and Fat Burning

I think most of us have seen examples of those who have too many carbs in their diet, the evidence of doing this usually hangs over their waist line or out the back of their spandex.  Quick review, when carbohydrates are introduced into the body, insulin is released, when this occurs mass gain ensues. If this is done over prolonged periods of time, then no matter how much explosive potential someone’s muscles have, ‘fat don’t move’ and you are stuck on the ground.

Because of this some people go in the opposite direction and totally remove carbohydrates from their diet in an attempt to lighten the load they are trying to move in an explosive manner.  Like we have discussed previously, carb depletion leads to fatigue.  I have witnessed this first hand, and it’s frustrating to see someone who is a great athlete and a warrior lose their fire because they have no energy on a low carb, high fat diet.  Dropping carbohydrates and increasing fat is a great way to lose weight and explosiveness, unfortunately.  Fortunately, the body is complex enough to manage fat loss and intense exercise at the same time if proper nutrient timing of fat and carb servings is accomplished.

Preparing for Explosive Performances

With the previous paragraphs in mind, we know that explosive movements and being able to maintain a high level of performance requires carbohydrates.  But, continuous carb servings often times can lead to weight gain that does not improve body composition or athletic performance (yes, there are the instances of the 6’2”+, 160 lb. high school boy that needs to eat everything in sight in order not to blow away in the wind, I’m speaking to the majority here).  What we want to do is maximize carbohydrate metabolism and utilization during exercise and fat burn away from exercise.  Carbohydrate usage and ATP restoration increases during exercise when pre exercise levels of muscle glycogen are high (4, 14, 15, 16, 17). This is where most people go wrong, you must eat carbs prior to exercise in order to use carbohydrate metabolism more effectively, i.e. be more explosive.  I have seen many performance nutritionists that recommend going low carb all day until you begin warming up, then start gorging yourself with high amounts of carbohydrates in order to catch up to your metabolic needs. Not smart, unless your goal is fat loss, in that case, you should not introduce carbs in the first place.  We will get to the specific food types and macronutrient cycling in ‘Explosive Nutrition Part II’; but carbs need to be eaten about 90 minutes before exercise takes place, eating them any closer to exercise and the high blood sugar levels set you up to hit a wall rather than jump over it.

My partner at Juggernaut, Chad Smith at the OC ThrowDown where he squatted 500x22. Carbs fuel his performances, not fats.
My partner at Juggernaut, Chad Smith at the OC ThrowDown where he squatted 500×22. Carbs fuel his performances, not fats.

Refill and Dominate

During exercise, as intensity increases so does glycogen uptake and demand (18, 19, 20, 21, 22).  The same is true with

endurance exercises and glucose utilization, where exercise intensity is considered moderate (20).  Maintaining carb intake during exercise is crucial, liquid carb sources, which are quickly digested, will further increase the amount of glucose uptake by muscles, taking your work capacity for explosive movements to an even higher level (10, 11, 23, 24, 25). Finally, during exercise glucose maintenance will increase central nervous system activity, perhaps the most important characteristic of carbohydrate metabolism (26).  The central nervous system is responsible for relaying messages from brain to body, the better this system works the faster reactions will be, the stronger muscle contractions will be, and because of this, the more explosive you will be.

Where are you getting it wrong? You MUST have carbohydrates to perform like the athlete you have trained to become. Eat right, train hard, recover, and repeat. Become that Formula 1 car and start treating your competition like that ‘64 Volkswagen.


Learn how to incorporate this research into a program built around your schedule in Explosive Nutrition Part II



1. Hargraves, M., Spriet.  Skeletal Muscle Carbohydrate Metabolism During Exercise.  Exercise Metabolism. 29-44, 2006.

2. Bryant, N.J., Govers, R., James, D.E. Regulated transport of the glucose transporter GLUT4. Nature Review (Molecular Cell Biology). 3: 267-277, 2002.

3. Costill, D.L., Coyle, E., Dalsky, G. and others.  Effects of elevated plasma FFA and insulin on muscle glycogen usage during exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 43: 695-699, 1977.

4. Richter, E.A., Galbo, H. High glycogen levels enhance glycogen breakdown in isolated contracting skeletal muscle. J. Appl. Physiol. 61: 827-831, 1986.

5. Parolin, M.L. Regulations of skeletal muscle glycogen phosphorylase and PDH during maximal intermittent exercise.   American Journal of Physiology. 277: E890-E900, 1999.

6. Bangsbo, J. Anaerobic energy production and O2 deficit-debt relationship during exhaustive exercise in humans. Journal of Physiology. 42: 539-559, 1990.

7. Spencer, M.R., and P.B. Gastin.  Energy contribution during 200-to-1500m running in highly trained athletes.  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 33: 157-162, 2001.

8. Spriet, L.L., R.A. Howlett, and G.J.F. Heigenhauser.  An enzymatic approach to lactate production in human skeletal muscle during exercise.  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.  32:756-763, 2000.

9.  Coggan, A.R., Coyle, E.F. Reversal of fatigue during prolonged exercise by carbohydrate infusion or ingestion. J. Appl. Physiol. 63: 2388-2395, 1987.

10.  Coyle, E.F., Coggan, A.R., Hemmert, M.K. Ivy, J.L. Muscle glycogen utilization during prolonged strenuous exercise when fed carbohydrate.  J. Appl. Physiol. 61: 165-172, 1986.

11. Coyle, E.F., Hagberg, J.M., and others.  Carbohydrate feeding during prolonged strenuous exercise and delay fatigue.  J. Appl. Physiol. 55: 230-235, 1983.

12. Hermansen, L. Hultman, E. Saltin, B. Muscle glycogen during prolonged severe exercise. Acta Physiol. Scand.  71: 129-139.  1967.

13. McConell, G., Snow, R.J. Proietto, J., Hargraves, M. Muscle metabolism during prolonged exercise in humans: Influence of carbohydrate availability. J. Appl. Physiol. 87:1083-1086, 1999.

14.  Gollnick, P.D., Pernow, B., Essen, B., Jansson, E. Saltin, B. Availability of glycogen and plasma FFA for substrate utilization in leg muscle of man during exercise.  Clin. Physiol. 1: 27-42. 1981.

15. Gollnick, P.D. and others.  Diet, exercise and glycogen in human muscle fibers. J. Appl. Physiol.  33: 421-425, 1972.

16.  Hargreaves, M. McConell, G.K. Proietto, J. Influence of muscle glycogen on glycogenolysis and glucose uptake during exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 78:288-292, 1995.

17. Shearer, J., Marchand, I., and others.  Pro-and-macroglycogenolysis during repeated exercise: Roles of glycogen content and phosphorlyase activation. J. Appl. Physiol.  90: 800-888, 2001.

18. Kjaer, M., Kiens, B., Hargraves, M. Influence of active muscle mass on glucose homestasis during exercise in man. J. Appl Physiol.  71: 552-557, 1991.

19.  Hargraves, M., Meredith, I., Jennings, G.L. Muscle glycogen and glucose uptake during exercise in humans.  Exp. Physiol. 77:641-644, 1992.

20. Katz, A., Broberg, S., Sahlin, K., Wahren, J. Leg glucose uptake during maximal dynamic exercise in humans. Am. J. Physiol. E65-E70, 1986.

21. Katz, A., Sahlin, K., Broberg, S. Regulation of glucose utilization in human skeletal muscle during moderate dynamic exercise. Am. J. Physiol. 260: E411-415, 1991.

22. Kristiansen, S., Hargraves, M., Richter, E.A. Progressive increase in glucose transport and GLUT4 in human sarcolemmal vesicles during moderate exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 272: E385-E389, 1997.

23. Angus, D.J., Febbraio, M.A., Hargraves, M.  Plasma glucose kinetics during prolonged exercise in trained humans when fed carbohydrate.  Am. J. Physiol. Physiol. 283: E573-E577, 2002.

24.  Chen, H.C., and others.  Activation of the ERK pathway and atypical protein kinase C isoforms in exercise- and aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide-1-B-D-riboside (AICAR)-stimulated glucose transport. J. Biol. Chem. 277: 23554-23562, 2002.

25. McConell, G., Snow, R.J., Proietto, J., Hargraves, M.  Muscle metabolism during prolonged exercise in humans: Influence of carbohydrate availability. J. Appl. Physiol. 87: 1083-1086, 1999.

26.  Nybo, L. CNS fatique and prolonged exercise: Effect of glucose supplementation.  Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 35: 589-594, 2003.

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