Carb Cycling: The Bodybuilding Alternative to a “Diet”

In recent years, carbohydrates have been shunned and feared as the main force responsible for body-fat. As such, many diets have developed that recommend lowering or cutting them out altogether. Unfortunately, carbohydrates do, in fact, serve a purpose for muscle development and strength, as well as daily activities.

While a few of these low-carb diets can be a successful way to lose weight (and only a few), they are not a healthy or suistainable way of eating. Since carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, cutting them out altogether means that your workouts will suffer dramatically. An extended low-carb approach tends to sacrifice much of your strength and endurance in the gym (not to mention the impact on your own sanity). For those who are unwilling to accept this, there is an alternative approach: Carb Cycling.

(This is not a diet in the sense of some sort of a fad or crash diet – these all inevitably fail. Instead it is a more permanent approach to nutrition that can support your exercise and training goals.  Your diet is what you eat, not a way of eating)

The Basics

Carbohydrate cycling is a very effective method of promoting muscle development, while simultaneously reducing fat storage. As such, it is recommended both for individuals who are looking to bulk up as well as those seeking to cut. The nutrition plan involves regulating the intake of carbs, at specific intervals and on specific days. For example, each week may consist of 2 high carb days, 2 low carb days, and 3 no carb days. It is ideally designed so that the high carb days correlate with the two most demanding workouts of each week, the moderate days with 2 less-strenuous workouts, and the low carb days as off periods/ cardio only. This not only keeps the body guessing, but it also fosters a positive hormonal balance without sacrificing the intensity of your training.

The exact number of calories and carbs you should intake is entirely dependent on the individual. It depends on your own weight, muscle mass, and intensity of training, as well as personal preferences. Some people may require large amounts of carbs to provide the energy to get through each day, whereas others have trained themselves to function on virtually no carbs.

The basics of carb cycling involve eating five or six times a day – the carb intake is divided accordingly to accompany the meals you see fit. Of course all carbohydrate consumption should be from healthy sources- slow digesting, complex carbs like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and the occasional fruit (at certain times). The only time you should eat simple-sugars would be immediately post workout. It is important to note that protein intake must be high to preserve muscle mass, and are kept at a constant amount throughout, as are fats.

Theories Behind Carb Cycling/ Why it Works

An Alternative to Low-Carb Diets -

While a low carb approach like the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet can be effective for rapid fat loss, it comes with a few problems as well. To begin with, it relies on the phenomenon of ketosis to make fat your body’s primary source of energy. While this allows you to strip off bodyfat as fuel, it can deplete your glycogen levels to the point that brain and muscle function becomes impaired. To get around this, you must engage in a 2-day “Carb Up” each weekend to restock glycogen levels. In addition to this approach being extremely specific, it is also very physically demanding, leading to a low rate of success. Keto diets must be cycled on and off, as to stick to such a plan for more than a couple months at a time becomes counterproductive as your hormones get thrown out of balance.

Carb cycling builds off of these principles, but it takes them a step further – it makes it far healthier and easier to follow by advancing a holistic approach that is not dependent on ketosis for fat loss. By shifting the daily carbohydrate intake, you will train your body to become more sensitive to carbs, and consequently feel more energized off lower amounts (making it easier to function at the reduced-calorie intake necessary for weight loss).

Hormonal Responses -

The main purpose of carb cycling is to preserve muscle and allow the fat burning process to continue for an extended period of time. This is achieved by optimizing your body’s hormone levels. While the foods we eat affects nearly all our hormones in some way or another, there are a few that are most crucial to your goals (that are affected negatively by low-carb diets).

The first of these is leptin -a hormone produced by the fat cells that regulates hunger and satiety. If leptin levels remain high, it sends signals to the body that promote satiety and direct energy away from fat storage to be burned as fuel (or for muscle development). This increased energy expenditure, coupled with the reduced appetite, contributes to a successful fat-burning process. Unfortunately, leptin is one of the first things affected by a lack of dietary carbohydrates. and low levels of leptin will signal the metabolism to slow down and promote fat storage. By cycling your carb intake, you can ensure that leptin levels do not drop too much, in order to keep fat gain at a bay and allow for muscle anabolism.

Insulin is another powerful hormone that is directly responsible for gaining both fat and muscle.  Since insulin is one of the primary hormones that facilitate muscle growth, it is important that it is regulated, and not cut out altogether. Insulin is directly controlled by the presence of carbohydrates, as it is necessary to metabolize food into glycogen that can be utilized by muscle cells and the liver. (If timed properly, insulin can shuttle nutrients directly to the muscle cells, stimulating rapid growth). Instead you can utilize your own insulin levels at the times that they are most ideal, such as post workout. In addition, the high carb days allow you to train at full capacity, as your strength and endurance will not be compromised.

Another important hormone that is affected is cortisol – a stress hormone released when the body is in a fasted state (like sleep).  It should be known by now (if you have been following my articles) that cortisol is the hormone that is most feared by bodybuilders – in the absence of carbs it tells the body to break down muscle tissue for fuel. Most dietary efforts are made to reduce cortisol, as it signals muscle catabolism (atrophy) as well as fat storage – two responses we are all trying to avoid. Unfortunately, after sticking to a low calorie or low-carb diet for an extended period, it becomes very difficult to keep cortisol at bay – this is the primary reason why diets begin to fail after a while. That is why you need carbohydrates – to turn off the overproduction of cortisol and spare muscle mass.

(In addition to these hormones, testosterone production can also be greatly inhibited by a reduced calorie or reduced-carb diet, whereas Growth Hormone (GH) production is negatively affected by consuming too many carbs (especially before sleeping). By cycling carb intake, you can ensure that both anabolic (muscle-building) hormones are regulated.)

Designing Your Own Diet

The diet itself varies based on individual preferences, but the basics are this: Keep protein consumption high and at a constant level, keep (healthy) fat content at a constant (fairly low level), and fluctuate carbohydrate levels in a predetermined pattern each day. Note that since fats and protein levels do not change, your overall calories will shift each day as well. This is intended.

To find the overall number of calories you should be consuming you will need to calculate your BMR (click here for a sample calculator) and determine the results based on your activity levels. You should eat up to 500 calories below maintenance to lose fat, up to 500 above to gain muscle. And obviously by eating at maintenance level your weight will remain unchanged (though with this approach you may burn fat and gain muscle).

Carb intake is dependent on preference too, some recommend a high carb day of about 400 grams for a 200 lb male to maintain, whereas I rarely eat over 250. (Following this example, that 200 lb person would need a minimum of 200 grams of protein a day – though ideally closer to 300 – divided evenly between 6 meals.)

A carb schedule for a sample week is as follows:

    Monday = No Carb
    Tuesday = Low Carb
    Wednesday = High Carb
    Thursday = No Carb
    Friday = Low carb
    Saturday = High Carb
    Sunday = No Carb

It is important to split the high carb days away from each other to regulate hormone levels.  You should plan your two most intense training sessions on the high carb days, and keep the no carb days as rest/light cardio.


Carb Cycling: The Bodybuilding Alternative to a “Diet” — 720 Comments

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