Read on to find out How Carb Cycling Works and How It Can Benefit You.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carbohydrate (Carb) Cycling is proven to be an effective way to either improve fat loss, or to limit fat gain while trying to build muscle.
Your carbohydrates are the breads, pasta, grains and fruits in your diet.
The main concept is to “eat for your energy levels”. Carbohydrate provides you with energy, so on days you are less active, you don’t need as much. Simple, right?
Most versions of Carb Cycling involve three different templates: High Carb Days, Medium Carb Days, Low/No Carb Days.
As you may have read in my article here I tend not to recommend going below 100 grams of carbs in a day. This is because the brain runs on carbohydrate and sharp drops over a day can lead to poor memory, brain fog and short tempers.
How Does It Work?
Depending on when you consume carbs, they can support muscle growth or they can stimulate fat storage. This all depends on the hormone insulin.
By reducing carbohydrate on days where we aren’t exercising, we are limiting the fat storage effect while increasing our bodies reaction to carbohydrates.
The effect is a greater rate of fat burning on days we aren’t exercising.
This can reduce carbohydrate storage in the muscle itself (glycogen), which requires replenishing before you undertake intense exercise*.
When it comes to eating higher amounts of carbohydrate, it initially stores as glycogen in the muscle as well as producing a spike in insulin. This helps preserve muscle tissue by using glycogen as the primary fuel source for training.
*You shouldn’t “fear” carbohydrates. By not taking on sufficient carbohydrates your workouts will be lethargic and flat. This is because your body can’t convert fat into energy as fast as it can with carbohydrate, so the maximum effort you can put in will reduce, thereby making the workout less effective.
As the memes suggest, you can find a drastic change in energy levels depending on how aggressively you change your intake.
Low Carb Days
These are typically days where you aren’t exercising, or may complete some lighter activity like gentle running* or power walking.
I recommend keeping protein intake the same, particularly if you trained the day before, as your muscles will still be in their recovery phase.
You may also want to increase the fat content of your diet, as that’s where the largest proportion of your calories will come from on these days.
For an 80kg male, a typical split might be: Protein 140g – Carbohydrate 100g – Fat 120g – Calories 2040
For a 60kg female, a typical split might be: Protein 90g – Carbohydrate 90g – Fat 90g – Calories 1530
*If you do undertake any exercise on a Low Carb Day it’s a good idea to take BCAA’s (Branch Chain Amino Acids) as they help retain muscle
Medium Carb Days
As you may have guessed, these are days involving moderate exercise, typically upper body work as the muscle groups are smaller than when training legs.
Here it’s best to place your higher carbohydrate meals either side of your workout.
As a rule of thumb, aim to take on 75% of your total carbohydrates over the meals directly before and after training, as well as pre- and post-workout nutrition.
For an 80kg male, a typical split might be: Protein 140g – Carbohydrate 200g – Fat 90g – Calories 2170
For a 60kg female, a typical split might be: Protein 90g – Carbohydrate 150g – Fat 70g – Calories 1590
High Carb Days
These days are reserved for when you have intense exercise, for a weight training individual this would be on days you train your legs or complete full body workouts.
As with medium carb, still try to place the majority of your carbohydrates in the meals either side of your workout, as well as during pre- and post-workout nutrition.
For an 80kg male, a typical split might be: Protein 150g – Carbohydrate 300g – Fat 70g – Calories 2430
For a 60kg female, a typical split might be: Protein 100g – Carbohydrate 200g – Fat 50g – Calories 1650
Putting It All Together
A typical week for someone lifting weights would look something like this:
Monday – Lower Body Weights – High Carb Day
Tuesday – Upper Body Weights – Medium Carb Day
Wednesday – Rest Day – Low Carb Day
Thursday – Lower Body Weights – High Carb Day
Friday – Upper Body Weights – Medium Carb Day
Saturday – Rest Day – Low Carb Day
Sunday – Rest Day – Low Carb Day
This is not a complete list but details the types of food you should be eating (whether doing this plan or not!).
Greek Yoghurt/Cottage Cheese
Nuts/Natural Nut Butters
Ground Nut/Coconut Oil
Butter (Grass Fed)
Salmon (Oily Fish)
Are There Food I Shouldn’t Eat On Certain Days?
Given the low energy requirements of a Low Carb Day, it’s best to try and avoid grains on these days. Try to limit your fruit as well, instead opting to have a large serving of fresh vegetables at each meal. This ensures a good amount of fibre is consumed, which will help fill you up along with the higher fat content of the meals.
Conversely, fruit is best consumed before or after a workout, as although it contains fibre it tends to be quite fast-acting to supply you with the energy you need, or replenish the energy you’ve used.
The protein, carbohydrate and fat contents used are only examples. You can calculate your baseline requirements for Protein, Carboyrate and Fat here but remember that no two people have identical energy expenditure, so keep track of your progress and increase/reduce calories as required.
Your body doesn’t reset at midnight every night, so if you over-indulge one day or fail to meet your targets the next, don’t panic. As long as your average intake on the High, Medium and Low Carb Days is near the target then you should see results.