Log entry 23. Day 45.
There isn’t a carbohydrate in sight, and all I can think about is the sweet smell of bagels. They said this diet would make me look amazing. As I drift into sleep, I sincerely hope they’re right. May my dreams of carbs get me through this rough night…
If you’ve read a few fitness magazines or blogs in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard of “carb cycling”. From the competition floor to the top trainers in the world, carb cycling is the diet du jour.
With so many bodybuilders, bikini models and fitness professionals who swear by it, you’d think it’s the ultimate magic diet. This is the approach that will turn you into a lean, muscular and SEXY beast.
Carb cycling claims to help you lose fat faster than ever, all while maintaining and even gaining muscle mass. Finally, the cure to all our problems!
So is this approach to nutrition the ultimate way to reach your goals? Not really. You see, as much as some people want to believe, there IS NO BEST diet plan.
Carb cycling, like any other diet, is a tool. If you use it right, it can help you achieve remarkable results. But if you give it a half-ass effort and expect greatness, you’ll be left frustrated and disappointed.
So, what exactly is carb cycling and what can it do for you?
The Nuts and Bolts
Carb cycling is a method of dieting that uses planned increases and decreases in both calories and carbs throughout the week.
There are a few different carb cycling methods out there, but they all involve alternating between high carb days and a low to moderate carb days.
Some also include a no carb day, but why you would ever not want to eat carbs is beyond me. How are you supposed to survive without Swedish Fish?
You know, that reminds me of the time I tried to go no carb while on deployment on a Navy ship. Do you know how hard it is to eat zero carbs when the military still thinks that potato is an essential food group? I was like an addict, begging for bacon from the cooks. Obviously, that didn’t last long.
Back to carb cycling, the breakdown for each day would look something like this:
- High-Carb Days: Eat about 2-3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight. Protein will be in the range of 1 – 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight. And fat will be very low, about 0.2 – 0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight. High-carb days are also the highest in calories and usually, fall on your training days.
- Low/Moderate Carb Days: On these days, you’ll be taking in 1.0 – 1.5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight. Protein will be at 1.25 – 1.5 grams and fat will be higher, ranging from 0.3 – 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. These days are lower in calories and are typically non-training days.
- No-Carb Days: Good luck to you if you’re doing these. For a day to be a real “no-carb day”, you’ll need to take in less than 30 grams of carbs. And yes, you’ll have to count your veggies. You’ll still want to have protein in the 1.25 – 1.5 grams with fat in the 0.5 – 0.7 grams per pound range.
Wow, That’s A Lot Of Math!
Yes, it is. Makes my head hurt just looking at it. But it is a necessary evil for this diet to work.
Carb cycling emphasizes the notion that your body doesn’t need as many carbs on non-training days as it does on your workout days. Carbs are the focus specifically because of their unique relationship with insulin.
As the latest bro-science will tell you, insulin is both a gift and a curse. On one hand, it’s ideal for the gains because it sends nutrients to the muscles that need it. But on the other hand, it also triggers fat storage. Dun dun dun.
With carb cycling, the aim is to avoid the negative effects of insulin (fat storage) and reap all of the benefits (muscle gain).
The high-carb days allow you to recover from your workouts quicker and get more nutrients to the muscles that need them. The low-carb days keep insulin levels low and your body in fat-burning mode.
Sounds like the perfect diet to me! Build muscle, lose fat, look SEXY.
Boom, sign me up!
Not So Fast…
Carb cycling is great and all, except it’s not as magical as you think. It works, but for reasons you may not expect.
First, it’s a calorie restrictive diet. Second, it’s a high protein diet.
You WILL lose weight if you carb cycle. But it’s the calorie deficit nature of the diet that accomplishes this, not the carbohydrate musical chairs. Energy in vs. energy out. It’s the one truth in fat loss, everything else is just bells and whistles.
And because the protein in carb cycling diets is relatively high, you will be retaining much more muscle mass or even gaining a little.
Can This Diet Work For Me?
Carb cycling works pretty well for fat loss. It’s just not better than any other high protein, calorie restrictive diet, but it will get you results.
This diet can even work for gaining weight. And as long as your calorie intake is greater than your calorie expenditure, you train hard and eat enough protein, most of the weight gain will be muscle.
Here is a sample weekly breakdown of a carb cycling diet combined with a simple training program:
|Heavy Lower Body
|High Volume Upper Body
|Heavy Upper Body
|High Volume Lower Body
Do you respond better to lower carb diets? Are you just tired of eating the same meals every day of the week and looking for a change of pace? Give carb cycling a shot.
But remember, that at end of the day, your results will be entirely dependent on one thing:
Lift heavy weights 3-5 times a week. Use big, compound movements for most of your lifts. Eat a high protein diet that fits your calorie goals, whether it’s low-carb or high-carb. What matters is that you can stay on the diet and be patient.
The Bottom Line
Carb cycling isn’t the ultimate “magic diet” some think it is, but it can definitely help you reach your fitness goals. If you’re going to give it a shot, remember these key points:
- Eat high carbs (2 – 3 grams per pound of bodyweight), and low fat on your heavy training days.
- Eat a moderate amount of carbs (1 – 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight), on your moderate intensity/high volume training days.
- When eating a lot of carbs, ensure they are mostly coming from “good” carb sources like sweet potato, fruits and whole grains.
- Ensure your weekly calories are in line with your body composition goal (fat loss or muscle gain)
The best things in life all take the time to achieve results, and your body is no different. Find the method that will help you stay on course and you will be amazed at how far you can go.