Carb Cycling

Most of us eat pretty much the same way every day — similar foods, similar amounts, similar timing. As a result, other than the occasional cheat meal, it would be hard to distinguish one day from another. The problem with this is that if you don’t vary your daily calories, you will end up overfeeding yourself on the rest days or the days you are training light, and at the same time underfeeding yourself on your hardest training days. Luckily, you can get the best of both worlds with carb cycling. With this approach you will fuel your body optimally on your hardest training days, but restrict calories and treat your body as if it's in a cutting phase on the days you don't need the excess energy.

carbcycling

 

How carb cycling works

The main premise behind carbohydrate cycling is that by changing your daily carbohydrate intake you exploit your body’s insulin levels, maximizing insulin’s anabolic (muscle building) and anti-catabolic (muscle sparing) effects, while minimizing its effects on limiting fat oxidization.

How is it done?

In spite of the seemingly complicated approach, it’s really as simple as consuming a high carbohydrate diet on some days of the week (typically the most demanding training days), and a moderate or low carbohydrate diet on the other days (typically less demanding training days and rest days). Consequently, the high carbohydrate days will raise insulin levels and fill up muscle glycogen stores, which keep the metabolism burning efficiently and stave off muscle catabolism. At the same time, the moderate and low carbohydrate days create a favorable environment for fat burning by keeping insulin levels low. Therefore, if your goal is to loose fat, limit high carb days to once or twice per week. On the other hand, if your goal is to gain muscle, then go with two to four high carb days per week, and the rest of the week will be comprised of moderate and low carbohydrate days.

The Importance of other macronutrients

Though this diet is called carbohydrate cycling, manipulation of your protein and fat intake will also play a key role. There will be some room to increase protein and fat when lowering carbohydrates on the moderate/low carb days. However, remember that calories still matter. The purpose of these days is to elicit a fat loss response and increase muscle insulin sensitivity for carbohydrates, and increasing calories too much from protein and fat will negate the fat loss response that would otherwise occur. Hence, you want to be in a slight calorie deficit on the low carbohydrates days, and in a slight caloric surplus on the high carbohydrate days. Furthermore, for optimal blood sugar levels and amino acid turnover it is best to divide your daily totals into 6 meals per day.

Macronutrient distribution with carb cycling

A table outlining the recommended macronutrient content for each day is listed below with grams (g) as a measurement unit.

Carbohydrate Protein Fat
High carb day 2-3g per pound of bodyweight 1-1.5g per pound of bodyweight As low as possible
Moderate carb day 1-2g per pound of bodyweight 1.25-1.75g per pound of bodyweight 0.25-0.5g per pound of bodyweight
Low carb day 0-1g per pound of bodyweight 1.5-2g per pound of bodyweight 0.5-0.75g per pound of bodyweight

Using the example of a 180 pound bodybuilder, we would be aiming for the following totals:

High carbohydrate day

- 180 pounds x 2.5 = 450 grams carbohydrates

- 180 pounds x 1.25 = 225 grams protein

- 30 grams of fat (while we aim to keep fat as low as possible there will always be trace amounts in the foods we eat)

Dividing these numbers by six gives 75 grams carbohydrate, 38 grams protein and 5 grams of fat per meal.

Moderate carbohydrate day

- 180 pounds x 1.5 = 270 grams carbohydrates

- 180 pounds x 1.5 = 270 grams protein

- 180 pounds x 0.375 = 67.5 grams fat

Dividing these numbers by six gives 45 grams carbohydrate, 45 grams protein and 11 grams of fat per meal.

Low carbohydrate day

- 180 pounds x 0.5 = 90 grams carbohydrates

- 180 pounds x 1.75 = 315 grams protein

- 180 pounds x 0.5 = 90 grams fat

Dividing these numbers by six gives 15 grams carbohydrate, 52 grams protein and 15 grams of fat per meal.

A sample week of training and cardio for the bodybuilder might look something like this:

Day Body Part Trained Cardio Carbohydrate Intake
Monday Chest, abs 30 minutes Moderate
Tuesday Shoulders, calves 30 minutes Moderate
Wednesday Back None High
Thursday None 45 minutes Low
Friday Legs None High
Saturday Arms, abs 30 minutes Moderate
Sunday None 45 minutes Low

The individual set up will vary depending on your own training schedule and goals. Just remember that if you’re trying to gain muscle, use a higher number of high carb days. On the other hand, if you’re trying to lean out, only go with one or two high days per week, and on your low carb days remove all carbohydrates except for the trace amounts found in vegetables. Also, try to space out your high carb days during the week, since having them back-to-back will lower your insulin sensitivity. Besides, it’s a lot easier to push through a series of lower carbohydrates days knowing that you have high carbohydrate days spaced throughout the week to look forward to.

Optimal food choices

Stick to healthy whole foods for this diet - if you can’t pronounce the name of the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t be eating it! As a little help with food choice, we show below some recommended food sources for each macronutrient category:

- Carbohydrates: oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, yams, vegetables, plain large rice cakes, carbohydrate powders such as waxy maize (only for post workout)

- Proteins: chicken or turkey breast, lean red meat, eggs and egg whites, wild caught fish, low fat cottage cheese, whey protein isolate

- Fats: almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, all-natural peanut butter, olive oil, flax oil, fish oil, avocados, coconut oil

As athletes, especially physique athletes, we are constantly looking for ways to improve. Whether it’s to improve our conditioning, increase our muscularity and symmetry, or increase strength and performance because we are never satisfied with where we are currently. Luckily, with smart programing and carb cycling you can increase muscle mass while simultaneously decreasing body fat. In fact, you can truly have your cake and eat it while achieving the above mentioned goals. Using these guidelines you should be able to set up a diet customized to your individual physique, training and performance goals.

Below is a printable sample meal plan for our 180-pound bodybuilder example.

High carbohydrate day

180 pounds x 2.5 = 450 grams carbohydrates

180 pounds x 1.25 = 225 grams protein

30 grams of fat (while we aim to keep fat as low as possible there will always be small amounts in the foods we eat)

75 grams carbohydrate, 38 grams protein and 5 grams of fat per meal.

calories carbs protein fat
Meal 1 1 cup (250mL) egg whites 120 2 26 0
110g oatmeal - uncooked weight 412 74 14 8
Meal 2 150g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight 195 0 30 5
100g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight 370 77 8 3
Meal 3 1 can tuna 160 0 30 1
350g baked sweet potato with skin - cooked weight 370 77 8 3
Meal 4 200g 0.4% dry cottage cheese 160 4 32 0
350g baked sweet potato with skin - cooked weight 327 75 8 0
Pre-workout chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight 195 0 30 5
100g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight 370 77 8 3
During training 30g bcaa 120
Post-workout 45g whey isolate 180 2 40 2
70g waxy maize 280 70 0 0
5g creatine monohydrate
3216 456 234 27

 

Moderate carbohydrate day

180 pounds x 1.5 = 270 grams carbohydrates

180 pounds x 1.5 = 270 grams protein

180 pounds x 0.375 = 67.5 grams fat

Dividing these numbers by six give 45 grams carbohydrate, 45 grams protein and 11 grams of fat per meal.

calories carbs protein fat
Meal 1 1.5 cup (375mL) egg whites 180 3 39 0
1 whole egg 70 0 6 5
60g oatmeal- uncooked weight 225 41 8 5
Meal 2 200g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight 260 0 42 6
60g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight 222 47 4 3
Meal 3 1 can tuna 160 0 30 1
20g almonds 115 4 4 10
200g baked sweet potatoe with skin - cooked weight 200 45 5 0
Meal 4 130g sirloin steak - cooked weight 291 0 37 15
150g baked sweet potatoe with skin - cooked weight 150 34 4 0
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots) 70 11 5
Pre-workout 170g wild salmon -cooked weight 300 0 45 9
60g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight 222 47 4 3
During training 30g bcaa 120
Post-workout 45g whey isolate 180 2 40 2
20g almonds 115 4 4 10
40g waxy maize or 4 large plain rice cakes 160 40 0 0
5g creatine monohydrate
3040 278 277 69

Low carbohydrate day

180 pounds x 0.5 = 90 grams carbohydrates

180 pounds x 1.75 = 315 grams protein

180 pounds x 0.5 = 90 grams fat

Dividing these numbers by six give 15 grams carbohydrate, 52 grams protein and 15 grams of fat per meal.

calories carbs protein fat
Meal 1 1 cup (250mL) egg whites 120 2 26 0
3 whole eggs 210 0 18 15
100g spinach 35 5 4 1
100g onion 40 9 1 0
Meal 2 200g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight 260 0 42 3
20g almonds 115 4 4 10
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots) 70 11 5 0
Meal 3 200g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight 260 0 42 3
15g coconut oil 135 0 0 15
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots) 70 11 5 0
Meal 4 150g sirloin steak - cooked weight 335 0 42 18
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots) 70 11 5 0
Pre-workout 200g wild salmon -cooked weight 353 0 53 11
150g mushrooms 40 8 4 0
During training 30g bcaa 120
Post-workout 60g whey isolate 240 2 54 2
15g walnuts 98 2 2 10
3 rice cakes 120 24 3 1
5g creatine monohydrate
2691 89 310 89

 

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