And the basics of that require a broad understanding of how to manipulate the three macronutrients, especially carbs. For many dieters, manipulating carbs (carb cycling) is a missing key to amazing results.
But today, people tend to get caught up in the small details: clean eating vs. IIFYM. Low-fat vs. no fat. Gluten-free or non-GMO. The list goes on.
Each of these has its own important distinctions, but for the majority of us, we just need a simple solution to getting amazing results.
As someone who appreciates the traditional, bro-style methods of physique sculpting, I want us to journey back to the old school. While it may not be the hot topic of the industry anymore, carb cycling is still an incredibly effective practice, one that deserves another look.
Just like flexible dieting, carb cycling is nothing more than a method of eating that can be used in any diet. If the total calories are right, it works. It doesn’t matter if you eat six meals a day or practice intermittent fasting, you can cycle your intake of carbohydrates.
At the core, carb cycling is just another (easy to follow) approach to nutrition; there’s nothing magical about it.
There are all sorts of health benefits that we could discuss: improved insulin sensitivity, stable blood sugar (glucose) levels, and more cool-sounding things. Rather than dive into all that, I’d rather tell you the overarching concepts of why it works.
Carbohydrates, unlike other macronutrients, are the best for readily usable energy. If you’re unsure about the basics of carbohydrates, read our carbohydrates 101 guide first. Because carbs can be used as energy, the idea behind carb cycling is to only consume excess carbs when you need them. As the great, late, Charles Poliquin said, you have to earn your carbs.
On hard training days, for example, your workouts will benefit from readily available glucose from carbs. Your workouts will be better because of the energy boost, and your body will absorb the carbs without a program. On those days, you’ve earned your carbs, so eat more.
On rest days, you don’t need spiked blood sugar levels, so you can get your calories from a higher protein and fat intake.
In a normal diet, your overall calories might change on training and non-training days, but your proportion of carbs won’t. Now with regards to weight loss or weight gain, carb cycling isn’t necessarily affecting your calorie input. Obviously, in either case, that will depend on being in a calorie deficit or calorie surplus. This makes carb cycling appropriate for pretty much any goal.
However, its versatility makes it especially effective if you’re trying to lose body fat and gain muscle “at the same time” otherwise known as body recomposition. This makes it an especially valuable tool for bodybuilders, whose goal, after all, is muscle gain and fat loss.
Without a doubt, Carb Cycling’s by far the easiest dietary method I’ve ever tried. That’s not to say it won’t require effort and sacrifice to reach your goals, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just the most pleasant of diets.
You simply eat your lean protein and veggies with more carbs on the days that you lift weights and then the same with just fewer carbs on the days that you don’t lift weights.
Pretty straight forward, right? On to the next point.
We’ll cover specifics below, but for those who are precise with their food tracking, this allows you to enjoy a bit of everything. On higher carb days, you can fit in more whole grain pasta, rice, Skittles, or whatever else your carb of choice may be.
And those low-carb days? Be miserable no more. The extra fat means you can eat more steak, whole eggs, buffalo wings, or anything else you fancy. Hell, you can even throw butter in your coffee, if you’re that kind of weirdo.
Ah, the fun stuff: now you get to read directions and do math things.
If you want to try carb cycling, there are three different methods I like to use with my clients. They all have their place, and while carb cycling can be effective for bulking phases, the examples below are set up for fat loss.
Bonus Tip: If you really want to make this effective, try doing a Roman-style insulin reset, in which you go several weeks with close to zero carbs. That will make your method of choice more effective and allow you to fully benefit from the carbs you do eat.
This is the most basic method. It’s useful for those who are new to dieting or who don’t want to spend too much time planning different macro intakes. Simplistic and effective, this one is quick to pick up, and a good choice for those who want to give carb cycling a trial run.
With this method, I like to have my rest day calories to come out slightly lower than my training day calories. There are some complex macro calculations out there that you can do, but frankly, they’re a lot of work. Here’s a simpler formula that gets the job done; the job, i.e. figuring out your individual macros for training and rest days.
Just remember, you may need to adjust them throughout your training if progress slows. Start with carbs first; for the most part, you’ll want to leave the protein and fat alone.
Set your protein at 1g per pound fat anywhere between .25-.45g per pound of bodyweight (lower if you have higher carbs, and vice versa). On training days, set your carbs at 1.25-1.5g per pound. On rest days, set your carbs at .5g per pound and increase fat by .10g/pound.
When you apply these calculations to a 200-pound bro with a maintenance level of 2,600 calories, you get the following.
This is a somewhat advanced variation, with three levels of caloric intake. This is useful for a person who’s already somewhat fit or trains more than 4 days per week. It’s also useful for recomposition, as you’ll have at least one day with calories above maintenance level.
With the three-way method, you’ll have medium and low days, which are the same levels from method one above. The difference comes one or two days a week when you’ll have a high carb day. Pick one day to jack your carbs up if you train 4 times per week. Or, choose two high carbs days if you train five or more days per week.
This high day should be the day you have your most grueling training session. I
Let’s use the same dude from above, with the 2,600-calorie maintenance level shooting for fat loss. The calculations for low and medium days are the same as above. For the high days, keep fat low at .35g per pound, and simply increase carbs to 2g per pound of bodyweight. For this method, the new calculations look like this:
This is for the advanced trainee who’s been grinding away at a diet for a long time, or for those prepping for a contest or photoshoot and are looking to lose those last few stubborn pounds.
Five to six days on very low carbs will deplete your glycogen stores and when combined with super high carb days, you’ll experience a nice metabolic effect. The benefits are similar to having a massive cheat day followed by a 24-hour fast, only on a smaller scale.
With this protocol, which requires the willpower of a Jedi, the low carb days will be very tough. You may feel physically and mentally drained, but be strong. A glorious carb-feast is just around the corner. On the high carb day, do your toughest workout and then eat a ton of carbs for the rest of the day.
Note: you will be a few pounds heavier the day after your refeed, so don’t bother weighing yourself. This is due to increased glycogen, which will increase water weight. If you feel bloated and heavy, give it a couple of days back on the low carbs, and it will all balance out.
While the high carb day may seem extreme, assuming you stay within your macro limits, you’ll still be in a good caloric deficit for the week. You shouldn’t gain any real fat, just a bit of water weight for a few days.
Again, let’s use our trusty 200-pound avatar who’s trying to get his shred on. For the very low depletion days, use 1g per pound for protein, .25g per pound for carbs, and .45g per pound for fat. For the refeed days, protein is the same, fat goes down to .35g per pound, and carbs increase to 2.25g per pound.
If 450 carbs in a day seem like way too many, go eat some candy, pancakes, or a donut, and then tell me how you feel. Sure, it’ll be tough to hit with rice and potatoes, but if you allow yourself to have some fun, this number is very attainable.
If you’ve run into a wall with your fat loss efforts, carb-cycling is just the thing you need.
For those new to carb cycling, the first or second method are great places to start. Give it a few weeks, and see how it goes. If you’ve already been cycling your carbohydrate intake for a while, you might be ready to step up to the advanced stage – using long depletions and refeed days.
If you want to fully optimize your progress and get lean, you need to pair this dietary approach with a well-designed fat-loss program. To help you out, I’ve put together a complete four-week fat loss program that I’m giving away for free. The workouts match perfectly with a carb-cycling diet, so grab your copy here and let me know if you have any questions.