Carb cycling is the planned manipluation of carbohydrate intake. On workout days you’ll have more carbs and calories to repair your body and build lean muscle.
On non-workout days carbs are kept lower. Because you wont increase insulin sensitivity after a workout, eating fewer carbs and pushing yoru body into a slight calorie deficit can increase fat burning.
When done correctly and consistently, carb cycling works with the ebbs and flows of your schedule, allowing you to train hard, build muscle, and lose fat.
Carb cycling is an advanced strategy that can do wonders for preventing fat loss plateaus and maximizing insulin sensitivity.
Picture This: It’s early fall and Saturday around noon. College football season has arrived. You’re at your local alumni sports bar with your buddies. Everyone’s ordering, microbrews, nachos, chicken wings, and fries..food galore, a gluttonous paradise.
The waitress makes her way to you, what do you do?
The decision shouldn’t be whether you can crush a few nachos and beer with your friends, it should be “ did I earn my carbs today?”
Now, this isn’t an everyday occurrence, but you’ve earned the right to splurge. That’s one of the beauties of carb cycling–the freedom to enjoy some of your delicious, higher carb, and sometimes less healthy options with less damage to your diet.
The key to this high effective strategy? Insulin.
Insulin and Carb Cycling
Carb Cycling Made Easy
Carb cycling is as easy as it sounds. Cycle carbohydrates on weight training days (high carb) and non-workout/cardio days (low carb). Rather than giving you a plethora of calculations and impractical menus we’ll simplify the process.
Lifting heavy and with high training volume? It’s a high carb day.
Due to the repeated muscle contractions during resistance training, your body will have an increased insulin sensitivity. With this increased response to carbs your body will drive nutrients into your muscle cells, aiding them in repair, growing them, and providing you with more energy.
On lifting days you’ll be consuming fruits and starches (potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and oats) as your carbohydrate sources. If you’re trying to build muscle without living in the gym like we teach in our Minimalist Muscle course, eat carbs during all meals and during your workouts.
If you gain fat easily or have shorter, less intense workouts like a 30-minute bicep blaster, use moderate starches. This would mean carbs during your workout and with your first meal post-workout.
Taking a day off or hitting a low volume workout? Keep the carbs low.
On non-lifting days keep carbohydrates low because there isn’t the same increase in insulin sensitivity. Carbs consumed when your body is less sensitive may lead to additional fat gain. Let’s minimize that, shall we? By minimizing carbs a few days per week your body becomes more receptive to insulin. This means on the days you do consume carbs, your body becomes hypersensitive and shuttles carbs towards building muscle rather than being stored as fat.
If you hit a light workout or interval session get your carbs from fruits or veggies throughout the day. It’s fine to keep carbs during your workout or in the meal after, but keep them lower overall.
Lifting? Carb up and support your muscle-building workouts. More volume in the gym means more carbs.
Intervals or taking the day off? Avoid most starchy carbs, improve insulin sensitivity, and burn more body fat.
Sample Workout Schedule and Carb Intake
Monday: Lower Body Training (high volume) /High Carb
Tuesday: Upper Body Focus (low volume) /Moderate Carb
Wednesday: Off Or Sprint Work
Thursday: Upper Body Focus(high volume) /High Carb
Friday: Lower Body Focus/High Carb
Saturday: Upper Body Focus/High Carb
Sunday: Off Or Sprint Work
Low Carb Day
Breakfast: 4 egg scramble, 1/2 tomato, 1/4 avocado
Snack (Optional): Handful nuts and carrots
Lunch: Mediterranean salad w/cucumber, tomato, feta cheese, chicken, feta cheese w/balsamic vinaigrette dressing
Workout: One banana with protein shake
Dinner: Sirloin steak, broccoli, and a small salad. Optional: One sweet potato
High Carb Day
Breakfast: 3 egg scramble with spinach, 1 cup oatmeal with blueberries
Snack (Optional): Shake with 1 scoop vanilla protein, 1 cup berries, 1/2 cup cottage cheese
Lunch: Sandwich loaded with lean meat and veggies
Dinner: Sweet potato, barbecue rubbed chicken thighs and cauliflower
Snack (Optional): Shake with 1 scoop chocolate protein, 1 orange, 1 cup spinach, 1/2 cup cottage cheese
Common Issues and Questions
Do Calories Still Matter if I go Low Carb?
Yes. The idea that dropping carbs will miraculously drop body fat is false…unless you’re burning more calories than you’re eating. Now, carb cycling can improve insulin sensitivity and over time lead to better fat loss, but if you’re eating more calories than your body burns you’ll still add fat. Sorry, butter in your coffee can still make you fat.
How Low is Low Carb?
This depends on your size and body part percentage. With some clients, I’ll shoot for under 100 grams of carbs on low carb days for fat loss. A simple trick is to replace the grains/starches you eat with leafy, fibrous greens.
I’m not looking to build muscle, only lose fat. Is Carb Cycling still for me?
Yes! Carb cycling is great for a fat loss diet. When you’re consistently low on calories and carbohydrates you may see reductions in metabolic rate, thyroid hormones, sympathetic nervous system activity, energy levels, and sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen (Berardi and Andrews 368).
This leads to a plateau that stops your fat loss in its tracks, yikes!
When you cycle carbohydrates and calories back into your diet you raise leptin levels a powerful fat burning hormone that down-regulates when calories are low. Essentially, you trick your body into burning more fat by keeping it out of starvation mode.
Can I pig out on High Carb Days? You did use examples of fries, beer, and wings….
Although carb cycling does afford my flexibility in your food choices this isn’t a pass to go eat pizza, burgers and fill the gaps in with crappy protein powder. You can indulge occasionally but stick to mostly high-quality foods and supplements like Grass-fed whey and a greens powder (here’s mine) if you hate veggies. As tasty as it is, the combination of high fat, high carb, high alcohol containing meals is a perfect recipe for gaining weight. Sorry IIFYM folks, junk food is still junk food and will come back around to harm your body in the future.
That’s a Wrap
Carb cycling works–that’s been shown by coaches a long time ago. For starters, you’ll improve insulin sensitivity and strategically maximize the power of insulin around your workouts to build muscle. Psychologically, my friend and fellow coach Ben Johnson points out, carb cycling helps you pay more attention to what foods you’re putting into your body, leading to better food choices.
In both cases, approaching your diet with awareness and timing carbs around your workouts is a no-brainer for losing fat, building muscle, and improving performance in the gym.
It doesn’t need to be complicated, just focus on eating healthy food options and staying true to your carb cycling schedule to reap the rewards of proper nutrient timing.
Berardi, Jon, and Ryan Andrews. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Second. Precision Nutrition Inc., 2012. 368. Print.
United States Department of Health and Human Services. “Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes.” Bethesda, MD: , 2013. Web.