Carb Cycling: The Ultimate Guide

Carb cycling is one of the best tools you can use to build muscle, lose fat, and get into shape quickly. And the process is actually very simple to setup once you know how.

Today you’re going to learn what carb cycling is.

You’re also going to learn the science behind how to use it for any goal you have, whether it’s more muscle, less fat, or more strength.

Carbohydrates as energy

If you’re already familiar with what carbohydrates are, feel free to skip to the ‘what is carb cycling?’ section.

Carbohydrates, in simple terms, are sugars the human body uses for energy. Carbs are classified as starches, sugars, and cellulose (fiber). The body runs on two energy sources: glucose (simple sugar) and fatty acids, which come from our diet and is mobilized for energy from our body fat.

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Carbohydrates are responsible for ‘quick’ energy and are broken down in the body to be stored as muscle glycogen or liver glycogen.

When you are training with lots of intensity using resistance training, bodyweight training, sprinting, or any other work that requires a lot of output only sustained in short bursts (anything less than 45-60 seconds), you’re utilizing stored carbohydrates to fuel these activities.

For further reading, check out these resources:

What Is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is a process of eating more carbohydrates for a sustained period followed by a period of eating lower carbohydrates.

An easy way to explain it is like this:

Some days you’ll eat lots of carbohydrates, and some days you’ll eat a lot less or very little to none.

The main point to remember here is that Carb Cycling is a very strategic approach to setting up your diet. So if you aim to utilize this method for your goals of fat loss, more muscle, or better performance in the gym, you must do it properly.

And the way you set it up is ENTIRELY up to you, your goals, and your own dietary preferences. But here’s something you should know before we get any further…

There is no single right or wrong way to go about this. Some people eat a high-carb diet every single day and some eat a lower carb diet. Some cycle their carbs, some don’t.

Regardless of your goals, whether they be fat loss, muscle gain, improved performance, or maintenance, you can adopt a carb cycling approach, and that’s what you’re going to learn today.

The Reason For Carb Cycling

Carb cycling has a purpose. And that is to get the most out of your training and body composition efforts as possible. With careful control of your carbohydrates on a daily basis, you can better manage your caloric deficit and/or surplus.

Is carb cycling absolutely necessary for you to get lean, strong, and build the physique you want so badly?

The short answer is no. Plenty of people get lean by eating a static amount of food amount daily. And plenty of others get very muscular and strong eating a steady dose of carbs and protein daily.

Carb cycling attempts to manipulate glycogen stores in a strategic manner by topping up the body’s stored carbs to replace what’s been used up for exercise.

A quick example to help illustrate this point is the high carb meals runners would often have the night before their race the next day. It’s common for runners to consume lots of pasta, bread, juice, and other carbohydrates the evening before a race to ensure their glycogen stores are full.

This way, they would have plenty of stored carbohydrates (glycogen) for their race the following day.

The Science Of Carb Cycling

As of now, there’s not a ton of science behind the typical method of carb cycling we’re discussing here. And that’s because most studies about nutrition are aimed at determining how food affects the body in terms of contributing to health and disease as opposed to performance or body composition alone — especially regarding obscure populations of performance athletes and bodybuilders.

This type of dieting mostly comes from bodybuilders, physique athletes, sprinters, and distance runners trying to maximize their performance and/or body composition levels.

There are nutritional studies covering the energy systems, such as how the body uses fat and carbohydrates for fuel, but nothing specifically on carb cycling, per se.

Here’s how carb cycling works, in simple terms.

carb cycling

High carb days are meant for:

  • Refilling muscle glycogen(1)
  • Improving performance
  • Spare protein (reduce the muscle breakdown from lots of training, dieting and carb restriction)
  • Raise hormones like leptin(2) that help mitigate hunger signals

Low carb days are meant for:

  • Inducing a caloric deficit and/or helping the body burn more fat
  • Controlling calories on a weight loss diet
  • Managing insulin spikes (not of major relevance as long as calories are controlled)

What’s It Good For?

Carb cycling can help people who have the following goals:

  • Muscle gain with very little fat gain
  • Desire to maintain a lean physique fairly easily
  • Fat loss without a loss of muscle or training performance
  • Improving insulin sensitivity

It’s also good for those who like variety in their diet and who want to enjoy fatty meals and high-carb meals rather frequently. I’m a uniform eater and so are many others, BUT that doesn’t mean you have to be.

If you like variety in your diet, carb cycling can be a tool that helps you succeed.

Interestingly enough, there are some metabolic advantages to using carbs strategically to make changes to our body composition.

Carb cycling:

  • Can help manage hunger pangs and adherence by helping you feel fuller from scheduled higher caloric intakes followed by lower intakes.
  • Can help improve your ability to store glycogen and build muscle by overfeeding on carbs, which make insulin levels rise. Note: Insulin is not bad, it’s essential to life. Insulin helps carry nutrients to the entire body making sure fat gets stored in fat cells, carbs get stored/used and to make sure amino acids get to the muscles for repair.
  • Can help improve muscle retention by making sure your glycogen reserves are consistently refilled, so there’s no breakdown of protein for energy.
  • Can also help us raise leptin, which is a hormone that influences hunger. When leptin is higher, we feel fuller. Higher carb meals help raise leptin more than high-fat intakes (3).

What’s It Bad For?

The only downsides to carb cycling seem to be those of the psychological and practicality variety.

For those who have any negative associations or a bad relationship with food, this method can easily turn into alternating days of severe restriction and eating junk. I’ve seen it in the past where people would completely restrict their calories to nothing but protein and green veggies on their days off from training, only to binge on candy, soda, and other Frankenfoods on their high carb days.

If you struggle with any form of disordered eating, it’s highly recommended you get some counseling and probably refrain from any extreme approaches.

Yes, carb cycling can become extreme for some people.

And for those who don’t have the time, nor the desire to fluctuate their intake every other day to eat more carbs around their training, this is likely to cause more of a headache than it’s worth.

The advantages might not actually be worth it in the end from a standpoint of reaching your body composition goals.

carb cycling

The Carb Cycling Diet Varieties

The ways of implementing carb cycling are almost limitless.

In general, we have so-called

  • high carb days
  • low carb days
  • no carb days.

High carb days

For those on a high-carb day, starch and fruit will typically make up 50% or more of their total intake for the day. And the range can vary depending on your needs, activity level and goals. That range can be anywhere from 2-4 multiplied a person’s body weight in grams of carbs.

High Carb Day example for 180-pound male:

180×2 = 360 grams.180x 4 = 720 grams. If 720 grams seems like a huge number, that’s because it is. The people that will require this many carbohydrate are those with very high energy expenditures, who are doing lots of training and have robust metabolisms. Their intake will typically be full of starchy carbs like rice, bread, potatoes, and possibly even some sugary treats to hit their goals.

Low carb days

For those on a low carb day, carbs will make up anywhere from 25-50% of their intake depending on their individual expenditure. For numbers’ sake, we’re looking at anywhere from .5 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight.

Low Carb Day example for 180-pound male:

180x.5 = 90 grams. 180×1.5 = 270 grams. Where you set your total number of carbohydrates will most likely be determined by your total caloric maintenance intake, so the number will vary. On these days, people tend to stick to fruit and lots of green veggies as these carb sources are generally more filling.

No carb days

For those on a no carb day, total carbs will likely make up less than 10% of their total intake, depending on individual expenditure. For numbers’ sake, we’re looking at anywhere from 0-50 grams of carbs per day. Realistically, it’s pretty impossible to get zero carbohydrates in the diet, unless you’re eating nothing but meat and fat.

Most people using no carb days will tend to eat mostly green veggies to ensure they get some fiber in their diet, not to mention the vitamins and minerals that are found in them.

No Carb Day example for 180-pound male:

0-50 grams of carbs per day. The amount you consume will largely be dictated by how many carbs you’re consuming on your high carb days, food preferences and overall performance goals.

Carb Cycling Methods Revealed:

Again, there is no right or wrong way to go about this…

carb cycling

In fact, the most important factor is YOUR personal preferences and what you’re most likely to stick to out of convenience and practicality purposes. Some people can alter and vary their intakes every single day. Some don’t have the ability or mental bandwidth to utilize this approach.

For most people, protein is going to be fairly static on all days. Simply multiply .8 – 1 by your body weight in pounds, and that’ll give you the total amount of protein to eat per day. For example, a 180-pound man would consume 144-180 grams of protein per day.

Note: I recommend leaning toward the 1 gram per pound of body weight figure to ensure muscle maintenance on a diet).

Total fat calories will vary depending on the approach taken, but the number is generally somewhere between 15% and 35% of total calories for the day.

Here are some popular methods:

The ZigZag Approach

Day 1: Low carb // training day

Day 2: No carb // rest day

Day 3: High carb // training day

Day 4: No carb // rest day

Day 5: Low carb // training day

Day 6: High carb // training day

Day 7: repeat

The Every Other Day Approach

Day 1: Low/no carb // rest day

Day 2: High carb // training day

Day 3: Low/no carb // rest day

Day 4: High carb // training day

Day 5: Low/no carb // rest day

Day 6: High carb // training day

Day 7:  Low/no carb // rest day

— start over with High carb, repeat the process —

The Weekly Carb Refeed Approach

Day 1: Low carb // training day

Day 2: No carb // rest day

Day 3: Low carb // training day

Day 4: No carb // rest day

Day 5: Low carb // training day

Day 6: No carb // rest day

Day 7: Very high carb* // one can train or rest on this day depending on their individual programming and ability to recover.

*mostly a large carbohydrate refeed depending on the goals of the individual.

Is Carb Cycling Good For Fat Loss?

Yes, it’s a great approach for fat loss, but keep in mind this one thing: for fat loss to happen, a caloric deficit has to be present over time. Just because you go low to no carb, you can still be eating enough calories to maintain your weight, which will not allow you to lose fat.

Carb cycling is great for fat loss because it can help you in the following ways:

  • It allows you to overeat on carbohydrates strategically, which can help keep you full and satisfied in a caloric deficit.
  • It can help you maintain performance in the gym because heavy weight training is supported by having glycogen in your muscles.
  • Carbohydrates spare protein (which will keep you from burning muscle tissue on a fat loss diet).

By the way, below is some more proof Carb Cycling is great for fat loss. Here’s what one of my Inner Circle members had to say:

carb cycling

Is Carb Cycling Good For Muscle Gain?

Yes. Muscle gain happens because of the following factors:

  • A stimulus from resistance training
  • A caloric surplus (from all calories, not just protein)
  • Proper rest and recovery from hard training.

Overeating carbohydrates strategically can help you pack on muscle mass without the extra fat gain. But beware… any type of caloric surplus WILL make you gain fat regardless of how you go about it. That means overeating on any amount of protein, fat, or carbs will cause fat gain. There is no magical macronutrient ratio.

So it’s best to try and manage the total surplus calories so that you’re not gaining more weight than necessary, which typically comes out to no more than 3 to 4 pounds gained per month, and this number goes way down the more advanced you become with total muscle mass gained and how long you’ve been training over your lifetime.

carb cycling

What To Eat On High-Carb Days

On high carb days, you’ll focus mostly on carbohydrate foods like grains, tubers, fruit, and veggies. Fatty foods will be low, and protein sources will need to be the leaner varieties.

Carb sources:

  • Rice
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Any fruit (apples, bananas, berries, juices, etc)
  • Any veggies you like

Fat sources:

  • Trace fats from foods you eat such as eggs, meat, fish, etc.

Protein sources:

  • Lean chicken, beef, fish, pork
  • Lean dairy products (nonfat or low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Whey or pea protein shakes

What To Eat On Low-Carb Days

On low carb days, you’ll focus mostly on carbohydrate foods that are lower in total carbs and calories that promote satiety like tubers, fruit, and veggies. You will be able to eat fattier foods on these days to help with satiety and your protein sources don’t have to be as lean as the high carb days.

Carb sources:

  • Potatoes (good for satiety and fairly voluminous)
  • Some fruit (berries, melons, no juice)
  • Any veggies you like, but mostly green and fibrous varieties

Fat sources:

  • Any fats from foods you eat such as eggs, meat, dairy, etc.
  • Fattier cuts of meat are fine here.

Protein sources:

  • Lean chicken, beef, fish, pork
  • Fattier cuts of meat
  • Lean dairy products (nonfat or low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Fattier dairy products (full-fat milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Whey or pea protein shakes

What To Eat On No-Carb Days

On no carb days, you’ll focus mostly on green veggies and no other carbohydrate sources. You will be able to eat fattier foods on these days to help with satiety and your protein sources won’t need to be as lean as the previously mentioned days.

carb cycling

Carb sources:

  • Green veggies only

Fat sources:

  • Any fats from foods you eat such as eggs, meat, dairy, etc.
  • Fattier cuts of meat are encouraged.

Protein sources:

  • Fatty chicken, beef, fish, pork
  • Full fat dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Whey or pea protein shakes
Want to know exactly what to eat? Check out my carb cycling meal plan article.

Meal Timing And Carbohydrate Types

Does meal timing really matter?

This is a highly individual subject, so keep in mind the old saying… your mileage may vary, and it’s encouraged that you try out different approaches to see how they affect you personally.

Here’s what you should focus on when it comes to determining the right meal timing for you:

Your preferred meal times and ability to consume the total calories for the day.

If you have to consume 3000 calories or more on your training days, it might not be easy to fast all day and eat one giant meal. It’s probably not ideal in terms of muscle protein synthesis*, either.

In this case, 3-4 meals spaced throughout the day is probably a better option, spreading out your protein and carbs to make sure you don’t get too full and bloated.

On your low carb days, you might prefer eating only 2 meals with 1 or 2 snacks to keep you satiated. It’s really up to you.

*In general, you’ll get more out of your protein intake by splitting it up over 3-4 meals to take advantage of the muscle building process.

What about the type of carbohydrate?

Typically, starchy carbohydrate sources (grains, potatoes, bread, pasta, rice, etc) are better stored as muscle glycogen, while fructose ( the sugar found in fruit, juice, half of table sugar, and other simple sugars) is best for refilling liver glycogen. So on your high carb days, in order to refill your muscle glycogen, it’s best to focus on starchy carbs.

On your lower carb days, fruit and green veggies, alongside a smaller amount of starchy carbs (if you can fit them in), is a good approach.

How To Set Up A Carb Cycling Diet

To make this easy, we’re going to use a very simple carb cycling diet that I have used many times for my personal coaching clients.

Stats: Male, 200 pounds, 16% body fat, training 3 days per weeks, 40-60 minutes walking on his days off. Sedentary office job.

Goal: fat loss with a focus on maintaining as much muscle possible and improving performance.

To estimate his maintenance intake, we’ll multiply his body weight by 14 calories.

Note: want to make it easy? use my calorie intake calculator.

Estimated Maintenance calories: 200×14 = 2800 calories.

To maximize muscle retention, I’ll set his training day calories to 2800, otherwise known as his maintenance intake.

To maximize fat loss, I’ll set his off day calories to around 2100-2200, which is 600-700 calories below his maintenance intake. One major key to preserving muscle mass is eating enough protein and regular weight training.

Read more: How much protein do I need?

Note: since he’s at 16% body fat, I’m not too worried about the 600-700 calorie deficit on his off days. He has plenty of fat to lose, and muscle loss won’t be much of an issue as long as the following requirements are met.

  • He consumes at least 1 gram per pound of body weight daily.
  • He eats enough carbohydrates on his maintenance days.
  • He gets enough rest from his training.
  • He trains hard while in the gym to maximize muscle retention.

Here’s what the carb cycling diet would look like:

Training Days 2800 calories

200g protein (1g per pound of body weight)

400g carbs (remainder of intake)

45g fat (15% of total calories)

Off Days 2200 calories

200g protein

150g carbs (.75 x body weight)

90g fat (remainder of intake, about 37% of total calories)

Over the course of the week, the total caloric deficit is around 2400 calories. Ideally, this will net around 2-4 pounds lost per month, which is right in line with what I want for people to lose in order to maximize their performance, fat loss, and muscle retention.

The leaner a person is, the slower I prefer fat loss to happen.

Carb Cycling Meal Plan (just a sample)

carb cycling

So now you might be wondering what an actual day of eating could look like. I’m glad you’re curious.

Note: this in no way constitutes as medical or nutritional advice. It’s just a sample meal plan, so this is NOT an actual meal plan for you, the reader. ^_^

Training Day Meal Plan:

Breakfast

2 scoops pea/whey protein powder

2 bananas

Tbsp honey

Spinach/kale, green veggies etc

Handful of berries

— mix into a blender and chug it down —

Lunch

200g (8 ounces) lean chicken breast

2 cups cooked white or brown rice

A quarter of a small avocado

Post workout

2 cups of Greek yogurt (fat-free)

2 apples

2 handfuls of berries

Dinner

200g (8 ounces) lean steak, fat trimmed

1 large (or 2 medium) sweet potatoes

Pat of butter of coconut oil

Green veggies cooked with the steak

Off Day Meal Plan:

Breakfast

2 scoops pea/whey protein powder

1 banana

Half tbsp honey

Spinach/kale, green veggies etc

Handful of berries

Handful of walnuts or almonds

— mix into a blender and chug it down —

Lunch

250g (10 ounces) chicken thighs

1 cup cooked white or brown rice

1 avocado

Quit Doing It The Hard Way. Here's How To Finally Get Lean And Build Your Best Body Ever:

Sick of trying to "figure it all out"? Struggling to piece together a training plan that actually works? Use this exact process for more effective fat loss efforts, and see results in just 8 weeks.Learn More Now »

Dinner

250g (10 ounces) lean steak, fat trimmed

1 medium sweet potato

1-2 pats of butter of coconut oil

Green veggies cooked with the steak

Is Carb Cycling For You?

If you want to lose fat, build muscle, and maintain your lean body, then it’s a good method to try out. For fat loss and muscle gain, energy balance is still important and will ultimately dictate the results you get.

For fat loss, maintain a caloric deficit and eat enough protein. For muscle gain, get enough calories to grow (be in a caloric surplus), utilize one of the many workout plans we have here for your goals.

References:

  1. Ivy, J. L. “Glycogen Resynthesis after Exercise: Effect of Carbohydrate Intake.” International Journal of Sports Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 1998. Web. 13 July 2017.
  2. Dirlewanger, M., V. Di, E. Guenat, P. Battilana, G. Seematter, P. Schneiter, E. Jéquier, and L. Tappy. “Effects of Short-term Carbohydrate or Fat Overfeeding on Energy Expenditure and Plasma Leptin Concentrations in Healthy Female Subjects.” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2000. Web. 12 July 2017.
  3. Romon, M., P. Lebel, C. Velly, N. Marecaux, J. C. Fruchart, and J. Dallongeville. “Leptin Response to Carbohydrate or Fat Meal and Association with Subsequent Satiety and Energy Intake.” The American Journal of Physiology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 1999. Web. 10 July 2017.

Quit Doing It The Hard Way. Here's How To Finally Get Lean And Build Your Best Body Ever:

Sick of trying to "figure it all out"? Struggling to piece together a training plan that actually works? Use this exact process for more effective fat loss efforts, and see results in just 8 weeks.Learn More Now »

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