It would be a dream come true if you could make your muscles bigger just by eating pasta, but unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. However, eating pasta after a workout or as a part of a bodybuilding diet may contribute to muscle growth, as long as you're putting in the work at the gym too.
The best way to make your muscles bigger is by following a balanced diet — that can include pasta — and engaging in regular strength-training exercises that challenge your muscles and make them grow. You may be after bigger muscles purely for cosmetic reasons, but increasing your muscle size actually has benefits beyond what you look like, too.
Pasta can provide the carbohydrates you need to get through intense workouts, which can indirectly make your muscles bigger. But pasta will not make your muscles bigger on its own. Building muscle strength requires dedication both in the kitchen and in the gym.
The Macronutrients in Pasta
Pasta is known for being high in carbohydrates. That's why high school sports teams often get together the night before a big game for pasta parties and why endurance athletes use pasta to "carb load" before an upcoming event, like a marathon or a triathlon. The idea is to fill up the glycogen stores in your muscles as much as possible so you have enough energy to get through a game or race.
The exact amount of carbohydrates in a serving of pasta depends on the size and shape of the noodle. One cup of elbow pasta contains 91 grams of carbohydrates, while a cup of spaghetti contains closer to 68 grams. A cup of penne clocks in at 71 grams of carbohydrates, while a cup of shells contains 48 grams. Although the carbohydrate count differs pretty significantly based on which type of pasta you pick, one thing that all regular pasta has in common is that it's a simple, refined carbohydrate.
By definition, refined carbohydrates are high in rapidly-digesting carbohydrates and low in fiber. Because of this, they move through your digestive system quickly and cause surges in your blood sugar and insulin levels. While this is typically frowned upon in a normal, healthy diet, this characteristic of pasta makes it one of the good carbs for bodybuilding or making your muscles bigger.
Read more: Is Pasta Healthy to Eat?
Good Carbs for Bodybuilding
While refined carbohydrates may not directly influence muscle growth, they can help in an indirect way by providing your body with a quick source of energy that you need to get through a workout that does build muscle and by replenishing muscle glycogen so you're ready to go for the next exercise session.
When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose and either uses them immediately for energy or converts that glucose into glycogen and stores it in your muscles. When you exercise, that glycogen is broken down and turned into ATP, a compound that provides you with energy to get through your workouts.
While glycogen doesn't directly build muscle, it provides you with the energy and power you need to get through resistance training exercises that do help you increase your muscle mass.
One study, published in the International Journal of Exercise Science in October 2016, compared the effects of moderately-low and high carbohydrate intakes on high-intensity exercise and found that participants with high carb intake prior to workouts were able to perform more reps than the group following a low-carb diet.
A review published in Nutrients in March 2018 piggybacked on this finding by saying that high-glycemic carbohydrates, like pasta, are better than low-glycemic carbohydrates, like beans, in boosting glycogen storage and helping you get through workouts so you can effectively build muscle.
Of course, this is a direct contradiction of typical nutrition recommendations, which advise you to stay away from refined carbohydrates as much as possible; but the recommendations for a bodybuilding diet typically focus more on physique rather than overall health goals.
Protein and Muscle
On the other hand, high-quality proteins, like whey and casein (which both come from milk), can directly promote muscle growth by providing essential amino acids that increase muscle protein synthesis and help you build new muscle.
However, the proteins can't do it on their own; they need to be consumed after a workout. An August 2012 report in Limits of Human Endurance does note, though, that this muscle-building effect of protein remains high for a full 24 hours following a workout.
Researchers added that the sweet spot for protein is about 20 to 25 grams directly following a resistance training exercise. It's also important to make sure that protein is high-quality, which means that it's easily digestible and contains all of the essential amino acids that your body needs to build muscle and stay healthy in general.
While protein can help you build muscle, adding carbohydrates to your post-workout meal seems to have no added effect on muscle protein synthesis, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in September 2013.
However, the report did note that eating carbohydrates like pasta after a workout can help decrease recovery time so you're ready for your next workout more quickly. This is especially beneficial if you're in a pre-contest bodybuilding phase and have to do more than one workout per day.
Read more: 5 Types of Weight Training
Resistance Training for Muscles
The bottom line is that, while nutrition can help provide the building blocks you need, the only surefire way to make your muscles bigger is through regular resistance training.
Resistance training, which is also referred to as strength training or weight training, uses increased force against, and resistance to, muscular contraction (through weights like dumbbells or your own body weight) to build muscle strength as your body works to overcome that force. This also increases the size of your muscles.
You don't have to spend hours in the gym to get bigger muscles, though. Most people begin to see noticeable improvement from incorporating a 20- to 30-minute resistance training session two to three times per week. As your muscles become bigger, your strength will also increase.
As a result, you'll be able to increase the amount of weight you use as well as the length of time you exercise — or the number of resistance training sessions you incorporate into your week. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that you should make sure you work all the major muscle groups — the legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms — every week.
But increased muscle mass isn't the only benefit of strength training. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular strength training can also help:
- Increase bone density
- Increase metabolism
- Contribute to better balance
- Ease symptoms of chronic conditions, like arthritis, anxiety, depression, heart disease, diabetes and back pain
- Improve thinking and memory (especially in older adults)
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Is Carbohydrate Needed to Further Stimulate Muscle Protein Synthesis/Hypertrophy Following Resistance Exercise?"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "4 Keys to Strength-Building and Muscle Mass"
- Nutrients: "Regulation of Muscle Glycogen Metabolism During Exercise: Implications for Endurance Performance and Training Adaptations"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for Coaches and Athletes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: "Pasta, Dry, Unenriched"
- International Journal of Exercise Science: "The Effect of a Moderately Low and High Carbohydrate Intake on Crossfit Performance"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Protein Blend Ingestion Following Resistance Exercise Promotes Human Muscle Protein Synthesis"
- Limits of Human Endurance: "Dietary Protein for Muscle Hypertrophy"
- Better Health Channel: "Resistance Training – Health Benefits"