If you are well versed with various bodybuilding nutrition protocols, I am sure you must have come across the term ‘Carb-Cycling’. It is often promoted as a method of torching fat, especially in stubborn areas.
Carb-Cycling is not a specific kind of diet but a nutritional approach where you alternate your carbohydrate intake between high, moderate and low in order to prevent a fat loss plateau and maintain metabolism along with workout performance. There’s a lot of hype about carb cycling, and most of the claims about it are yet to be affirmed. The idea that alternating between high and low-carb days will accelerate fat loss, is actually baseless.
In 1964 a group from the Institute for Medical Research in Oakland, California, decided to study the effect of various macronutrient compositions on weight loss in obese patients. This study involved five obese patients residing in a hospital metabolic ward.
The patients were fed a liquid formula diet containing the same number of calories per day – either 800, 850, or 1200 (as per the patient) for ten weeks.
Every three or four weeks the researchers modified the formula to change its content of protein (from 14 to 36% of calories), fat (from 12 to 83% of calories), and carbohydrates (3 to 64 percent of calories).
All the obese patients lost fat/weight at a constant rate, regardless of the nutrient composition of the diet. What mattered was the total calorie deficit.
The title of the study was synonymous with the findings: CALORIES DO COUNT
Another study conducted by Harvard University compared a low-fat, low-protein, high-carb diet; a high-fat, low-protein, moderate-carb diet; and a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet, and found no significant differences in weight loss regardless of macronutrient breakdown.
This evidence makes it clear that any diet that is capable of fat loss provided you expel more energy than you intake. As long as your body is in a caloric deficit, whether it’s daily or even weekly* (important), you will lose weight.
But if you have dedicated aesthetic or performance goals the purpose of a diet is not limited to fat loss but it should also maintain/gain muscle mass and strength levels. And given diets are followed outside the controlled environment of a laboratory, Carb-cycling can have some benefit for athletes in the real world situations.
It should be mentioned that carb cycling is an advanced and aggressive nutrition strategy. Only people who have a high level of nutrition adherence and knowledge should use it.
How to begin with Carb-Cycling?
If you search the internet you will find various carb-cycling strategies. Most of them are overly complicated. Which requires: calculating weekly carbohydrate intake, dividing them it into percentages for different days and what not. This creates unnecessary mind fuss and makes adherence to the diet a challenge. And even the perfect diet (hypothetical one) will not get you any results if you are unable in adhering to it. So what should you do?
As mentioned earlier our goal with carb cycling is to lose fat while simultaneously maintaining and if possible even gaining muscle and strength. Also, it is well documented in research that as long as the body is in a negative energy balance (caloric deficit) per day or per week your body will lose fat.
For our carb-cycling approach, we will be utilizing the concept of weekly caloric deficit i.e. maximising total caloric deficit of an entire week. Our primary aim is to sustain as much muscle mass as possible and studies have shown the best way to do is lifting heavy. As heavy lifting gives a strong anabolic signal to the body which helps in preserving lean muscle mass.
Carbohydrates are essential for training at higher intensities. Hence, your heavy training days are going to be your high carb days. On days you are going to lift moderate loads, carb intake will be lowered and on rest days carb intake will minimum.
- Heavy Lifting Days: High Carbs
- Moderate Lifting Days: Moderate Carbs
- Rest Days: Low Carb or No Carb
Basic Idea Behind This Model
The basic idea behind this approach is to create a relatively larger weekly caloric deficit without hampering performance in the gym. This approach works best with a 4-day training split. (More on it later). The protein intake is going to be constant every day around 2.2-2.5g per Kg of body weight, for an 80 Kg man this equates to 175-200g of protein per day. On high carb (high calorie) days, fats are going to be lowered and on low carb (low calorie) days, fats are going to be slightly increased.
The reason for this is to provide decent satiety even on lower caloric intake. Since fats digest slower than carbohydrates, they stay in the stomach for a longer period keeping it full. Therefore, a lower-calorie diet is best suited with more fats than carbs to curb hunger levels. Before we move forward it is important to clarify some nutrition basics.
P.S: if you aren’t aware of this already, carb-cycling is not the right approach for you.
There are four macronutrients the human body can get energy from carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and alcohol (yes it is). Calories are the amount of energy your body can derive from these macronutrients. Caloric content of all four macronutrients is mentioned below.
Ideally for fat loss consuming 200-300 calories below maintenance* per day is recommended. This creates a weekly deficit of 1400-2100 depending on how much calories you are reducing per day. On this Carb-Cycle protocol following will be our caloric intake.
- 2 Heavy Lifting Days: 350 Calories below Maintenance
- 2 Moderate Lifting Days: 550 Calories below Maintenance
- 3 Rest Days: 800 Calories below Maintenance
This sums up to 4,100 calories, the weekly deficit. This is a fairly large weekly deficit and given you are able to maintain performance in the gym, you will also be able to sustain more muscle mass.
Maintainence Calories: How To Calculate It
What are Maintenance Calories*?
The number of calories your body needs to maintain your current body weight.
How to Calculate it?
Take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 9-14. The no. you multiply it by depends on your activity levels.
- If you’re a sedentary female (think office job) who trains anywhere from 3-5x per week: go with the lower end (9-10).
- If you’re a female who works a fairly active job or any job that has you on your feet quite a bit and you’re training 3-5x per week: go with the mid-range (10-12).
- If you’re a sedentary male (office job) who trains 3-5x per week: go with the low to mid-range (10-12).
- If you’re a male who works a fairly active job, and you’re training 3-5x per week: go with the higher end (12-14)
Sample Carb-Cycling Plan
Let’s take the example of an 80Kg man; who has a desk job and trains 4-5 times a week. His estimated maintenance calories will be somewhere around 2200. Aiming for 2.2 grams of protein per kg body weight, the person would be consuming 175g of protein per day i.e 700 calories from protein.
Following will be the caloric and macronutrient breakdown.
Note – On each day protein intake will be 175g. Therefore, 700 calories are fixed.
2 Heavy Lifting Days: 350 calories below maintenance i.e. 1850 calories
- Protein: 175g
- Fats- 50g
- Carbs- 175
2 Moderate Lifting Days: 550 Calories below Maintenance i.e. 1550 calories
- Protein: 175g
- Fats- 50g
- Carbs- 100g
3 Rest Days: 800 Calories below Maintenance i.e. 1400 calories
- Protein: 175g
- Fats- 65
- Carbs- 30g
Heavy lifting days can constitute of compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, barbell rows, etc.
Moderate lifting days can incorporate exercises like bench press, cable rows and all arm exercises such as bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, side raises, etc.
Once in every 1-2 weeks, you can have a re-feed day, where you consume calories at maintenance or slightly above maintenance (200—300 calories). You may or may not include junk foods on this day.
On low carbohydrate days, fiber intake will also be reduced. Make sure to consume high-fiber foods and supplements (isabgol) and drink plenty of water to prevent constipation and dehydration.
Advantages of using this strategy
- Carb cycling may help control leptin and ghrelin levels. These are appetite and fat homeostatic hormones which are sensitive to body composition and food intake; their job is to ensure we eat enough and have enough body fat.
- Carb cycling can maximize glycogen stores and improve workout performance during a low-calorie
- As it allows to maintain performance, it also allows preserving more muscle mass while cutting.
- It maximizes the weekly caloric deficit allowing individuals to get extremely lean.
Important Tips For Each Carb Cycling Approach
- Base the dietary approach on maintenance calorie requirements and activity levels.
- Always pick out the re-feed aka cheat days in advance.
- Stick to the plan until the re-feed day arrives.
- Keep your decisions outcome-based. Certain re-feed strategies work better for certain body types. Look at your progress photographs and body composition to ensure what works best for you.
- Try to exercise on the re-feed days for optimal body composition and calorie portioning.
- On the re-feed days, the body tolerates carbohydrates best during the morning and around times when physical activity is higher.