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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.

CarbohydrateProteinFat
High carb day2-3g per pound of bodyweight1-1.5g per pound of bodyweightAs low as possible
Moderate carb day1-2g per pound of bodyweight1.25-1.75g per pound of bodyweight0.25-0.5g per pound of bodyweight
Low carb day0-1g per pound of bodyweight1.5-2g per pound of bodyweight0.5-0.75g 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:

DayBody Part TrainedCardioCarbohydrate Intake
MondayChest, abs30 minutesModerate
TuesdayShoulders, calves30 minutesModerate
WednesdayBackNoneHigh
ThursdayNone45 minutesLow
FridayLegsNoneHigh
SaturdayArms, abs30 minutesModerate
SundayNone45 minutesLow

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.

caloriescarbsproteinfat
Meal 11 cup (250mL) egg whites1202260
110g oatmeal - uncooked weight41274148
Meal 2150g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight1950305
100g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight3707783
Meal 31 can tuna1600301
350g baked sweet potato with skin - cooked weight3707783
Meal 4200g 0.4% dry cottage cheese1604320
350g baked sweet potato with skin - cooked weight3277580
Pre-workoutchicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight1950305
100g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight3707783
During training30g bcaa120
Post-workout45g whey isolate1802402
70g waxy maize2807000
5g creatine monohydrate
321645623427

 

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.

caloriescarbsproteinfat
Meal 11.5 cup (375mL) egg whites1803390
1 whole egg70065
60g oatmeal- uncooked weight2254185
Meal 2200g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight2600426
60g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight2224743
Meal 31 can tuna1600301
20g almonds1154410
200g baked sweet potatoe with skin - cooked weight2004550
Meal 4130g sirloin steak - cooked weight29103715
150g baked sweet potatoe with skin - cooked weight1503440
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots)70115
Pre-workout170g wild salmon -cooked weight3000459
60g brown rice or oatmeal- uncooked weight2224743
During training30g bcaa120
Post-workout45g whey isolate1802402
20g almonds1154410
40g waxy maize or 4 large plain rice cakes1604000
5g creatine monohydrate
304027827769

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.

caloriescarbsproteinfat
Meal 11 cup (250mL) egg whites1202260
3 whole eggs21001815
100g spinach35541
100g onion40910
Meal 2200g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight2600423
20g almonds1154410
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots)701150
Meal 3200g chicken breast (skinless) or wild caught sole - cooked weight2600423
15g coconut oil1350015
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots)701150
Meal 4150g sirloin steak - cooked weight33504218
180g california mix frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots)701150
Pre-workout200g wild salmon -cooked weight35305311
150g mushrooms40840
During training30g bcaa120
Post-workout60g whey isolate2402542
15g walnuts982210
3 rice cakes1202431
5g creatine monohydrate
26918931089

 

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