by Mike Roussell, PhD T-Nation
Carb cycling is a time-tested strategy used by bodybuilders and physique competitors for both getting contest-shredded and staying lean while packing on off-season muscle.
Until recently, carb cycling had remained off the mainstream radar, reserved for articles and discussion forums found on bodybuilding websites frequented mainly by diehard physique enthusiasts.
However, scientists recently got wind of carb-cycling strategies and decided to put them to the test against two other popular dieting protocols. Here's how it stacked up and how you can put this research approved twist on carb cycling to work for you.
Traditional Carb Cycling
Carb cycling has been written about in great detail here at T Nation. In my Carb Cycling for Idiots article I outlined the following approach:
No Starch: This is obvious, you just don't eat any starches. Your carbohydrate intake will be made up entirely of fruits and vegetables.
Low Starch: You'll have starches during your workouts and in the first meal following your workout.
Moderate Starch: You'll have workout starches and starches at your first two meals following your workout.
High Starch: Breakfast starches, workout starches, and starches at your first two post workout meals.
Now if you use the "starch cycling" approach, depending on whether you're doing full-body training or some kind of upper/lower split training, your weekly nutrition plan would look like this:
Full Body Training Schedule
Sunday: Off – No Starches
Monday: Full body – High Starch
Tuesday: Off – No Starches
Wednesday: Full body – High Starch
Thursday: Off – No Starches
Friday: Full body – High Starch
T Nation contributor Tim Henriques, in his article, Carb Cycling for Fat Loss, presented the following ideas:
Super Strict: The carbs are most limited in this phase. You can have up to 50 grams a day, and the majority of those carbs must come from veggies; no traditional starch or sugar in this phase.
Normal: This is the main phase of this plan. It's a lower carbohydrate, higher natural protein and fat diet. You can have up to 100 grams of carbs a day, most of which will come from veggies with a small amount of fruit and starch, but not from junk food.
High Carb: On high-carb days, you're encouraged to consume a large amount of carbohydrates, generally in the 400-800 gram per day range. The purpose is to replenish the body's glycogen stores, stimulate an anabolic response through insulin release, and give the mind a break from the moderately restrictive normal phase of the diet.
You'd then put these diet guidelines into play in two ways if you wanted to drop some fat:
Rapid weight loss: Follow Super Strict for 3-14 days to promote significant weight loss, then move to Normal weight loss for maintenance.
Normal weight loss: Combine 5-6 days of Normal with 1-2 days of High Carb. If losing weight too fast, add in a half to a full day of High Carb; if you're not losing weight fast enough, reduce High Carb by a half-day.
Matt McGorry shared this approach in A Beginners' Guide to Carb Cycling:
Carbs: 2-3 grams per pound of body weight
Protein: 1-1.25 grams per pound of body weight
Fat: as little as possible
Low and Moderate Days
Carbs: 0.5-1.5 grams per pound of body weight
Protein: 1.25-1.5 grams per pound of body weight
Fat: 0.15-0.35 grams per pound of body weight
And finally, in The Carb Cycling Codex, Christian Thibaudeau outlined a very detailed version of carb cycling that I've summarized below with an example of the macro breakdown for a 200-pound bodybuilder looking to lean out:
High Carb Days: 330g protein, 344g carbs, 33g fat
Moderate Days: 330g protein, 275g carbs, 33g fat
Low(er) Carb Days: 330g protein, 206g carbs, 33g fat
With all these different options available, is it possible that the researchers from University Hospital in South Manchester England would come up with a different protocol? Yes, very different.
If you look at the above examples, none of the protocols are very low carb (with the possible exception of Tim Henriques' super strict days).
Also, you don't see a huge drop in calories with any of these protocols between the normal and lower carb days. That's where this new protocol comes into play.
Intermittent Low Carb Dieting
The recently presented Intermittent Low Carb Dieting (what we'd call carb cycling) protocol presented by Michelle Harvie, PhD at a conference in San Antonio combined a Mediterranean Zone-like diet with a low calorie ketogenic diet, the definitions of which follow:
Restricted Low Carbohydrate Day (Low Carb day): 650 kcal, <50 grams carbs/day
Restricted Mediterranean Diet (Normal Carb day): 1500 kcal/day, 40/30/30 (carbs/protein/fat)
Participants were required to undergo 2 Low Carbs days and 5 Normal Carb days each week.
The study (I estimated the macronutrient breakdown for the Normal carb days) was carried out on overweight women, but since "overweight woman" hardly describes the typical T Nation reader, we need to modify it to fit our needs. Hence:
Normal Carb day: 2000-2500 kcal (depending on body size), 40/30/30 macronutrient breakdown
Low Carb day: 1000/1250 kcal (half the calories you'd have on normal days), <50 grams of carbs per day
What makes this different from other protocols is that you're going very low calorie and ketogenic two days a week. Researchers were able to show that this approach worked almost twice as well for stripping away fat when compared to a plain moderate carbohydrate calorie-restricted diet (9 pounds lost cycling versus 5 pounds lost using a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet).
If you hate low-carb dieting you're going to love this – the study included a third diet group that followed a traditional ketogenic diet. The carb cycling group lost just as much body fat as those following the ketogenic plan 7 days per week.
So you "go keto" two days a week, enjoy more carbs the rest of the week, and lose just as much fat.
Here's how you can put this into action.
Training Split – Full Body Training 3 workouts/week
Monday: Total Body, Normal Carb
Tuesday: Off, Low Carb
Wednesday: Total Body, Normal Carb
Thursday: Off, Low Carb
Friday: Total Body, Normal Carb
Saturday & Sunday: Off, Normal Carb
Training Split – Upper/Lower Training 4 workouts/week
Monday: Upper Body, Normal Carb
Tuesday: Lower Body, Normal Carb
Wednesday: Off, Low Carb
Thursday: Upper Body, Normal Carb
Friday: Lower Body, Normal Carb
Saturday: Off, Normal Carb
Sunday: Off, Low Carb
Sample Diet – Normal Carb
1/3-cup steel cut oats (with 2/3-1 cup water)
2 scoops Metabolic Drive® Low Carb vanilla
1/2 cup blueberries
1 scoop Metabolic Drive® Low Carb chocolate
1 cup frozen pitted unsweetened cherries
2 tbsp natural peanut butter
2-3 cups water
3-4 ice cubes
2 boneless chicken thighs
1 onion, diced
1 pepper, diced
1 cup black beans
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Meal 4 - Workout
2 scoops Surge® Recovery
8 oz flank steak
1/3-cup quinoa, dry measure (+ 2/3-cup water to cook)
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup green beans
Sample Diet – Low Carb
(Add 5 grams of Leucine Structured Peptides 2x during the day, between meals)
4 omega-3 eggs
2 cups baby spinach
1 oz cheddar cheese
8 oz grass fed strip steak
10 stalks asparagus
6 oz salmon
2 cups broccoli florets
This version of carb cycling has been show to work very well in eliciting weight loss while controlling insulin levels. The ketogenic days are very simple to follow and can easily fit into any schedule, allowing you to plan to have more carbs on days when a little dietary freedom would be appreciated.
Carb cycling works – bodybuilders figured that out a long time ago – but it's always a hoot when the starchy collar academics finally validate something we've all been doing for years.
Check out some of the carb cycling variations listed earlier and find one that best suits your needs, or try the plan outlined here. Hey, studies show it works!