What is Carb Cycling? What's the Purpose?
Carb cycling is a diet / eating style that manipulates caloric and macronutrient intake, specifically adjusting the carbohydrate intake throughout the week.
The idea or purpose of carb cycling is to limit your carbohydrate intake for a set number of days. By doing, you are decreasing your insulin levels which influences the release of fatty acids to be used as the primary fuel source. Having fats as the primary fuel source, this dietary style can help with weight management, body fat loss, and increase your insulin sensitivity. Timing your carbs to be in and around workouts is ideal to replenish glycogen stores and to help maximize your workouts and recovery, This timing also aids in weight and fat loss because the carbohydrates will be used to replenish glycogen stores and not having an excess of glycogen that will then be converted into fat for storage.
Many athletes use carb cycling for their sport. Such as endurance athletes who cycle their carb intake based on their training days and the intensity of their training, saving their carb loading for the most intense training days and zero-low carb days on off days. Weight lifters and bodybuilders use carb cycling as well, more so to shed body fat and will follow a similar schedule of low carb on off days and high carb on their highest intensity training days. Carb cycling is reaching outside of the sport world and gaining visibility among the general population as well.
For bodybuilders (like me) it helps in the department of leaning out over a longer period of time and allows you to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. I used carb cycling last year for show prep and am currently using it to get a tad bit leaner before my trip to the 2020 Arnold Classic in March (8 days away!). I find it to be a great way to distract my mind (compared to doing a long, straight calorie deficit) and keep my body guessing while trying to shed some fat. It helps to keep me sane by incorporating at least 1 high carb day in my week.
There are a variety of ways that one can set up their carb cycling schedule, and it all depends on their goals, training and diet intensity, and how/what the body reacts to. After doing some research (because I love diving into everything!) and playing around with various “diets” and carb schedules, I have it down to a format that works for me. Some common schedules that are followed are as follows:
There are multiple ways you can mess around with it. When determining a schedule, it should be based around one’s training schedule – placing the higher carb intake on intense training days or on a day where you are working a muscle group that is lacking.
Of the schedules shown above, I am currently following the 2-1-3-1 schedule. In the past I’ve done 2 weeks low carb with a refeed day…that was great and all, but it was a struggle too and I’m not looking to be that intense with my diet in my off season. So I chose the 2-1-3-1. My calories are still fairly high and I’m not having fatigue or energy crashes like I have in the past. On low days, I keep carbs around my workout — usually 30g pre-workout and 40g post workout, then keep my fats high in my other 3 meals.
Sunday: low (fasted cardio)
Monday: low (chest/delts)
Tuesday: moderate (legs)
Wednesday: low (conditioning)
Thursday: low (off/cardio)
Friday: low (back/delts)
Saturday: high (legs)
I struggle to get the 260g carbs in…by my 3rd meal I don’t really want to eat anymore
For Carb Cycling to Work...
You have to:
- Create a schedule that works for you and your goals
- Know how much food you should be consuming (calories) each day
- Balance out the macros for your low and high days
- Keep to whole foods at least 80% of the time – especially those high in fiber on your low days
- Eat enough carbs, even on your low days
- Be smart about your refeed days…a refeed is not an excuse to go off the rails
Upside of Carb Cycling
- Your CNS and metabolism don’t take a significant hit compared to a large calorie/carb restriction for a long period of time (easier to do/maintain long-term)
- You aren’t really restricted when it comes to food — can still go out and eat, drink, etc. You can rearrange your days to work for you if you have an event coming up that you want to have a bit more freedom with (should still focus on consuming high quality food!)
- It’s super easy once you get into a rhythm
Downside of Carb Cycling
- It takes some time and planning each week (but so does any other diet trend)
- Going 3+ low days can be draining for your body and mind
- You may feel a bit more sore on the days that you are low carb following a training day
Dieting is hard…
and if you’re someone who is consistently at social outings, it’s even more tough to stick to a diet with the happy hours, brunches, work lunches, etc.
I’m not a huge social butterfly when it comes to eating/drinking while out, but I’ve found carb cycling to be a fairly consistent “diet”. It allows me to have my freedom with food that I prepare and allows me to enjoy eating at a restaurant every now and then, while keeping me inline with my goals.
It may not be for everyone, but I do believe it’s a style that is maintainable and does not go to extremes like other diet trends that are out there.