By Chris Cander Men's Fitness
Carbohydrates, like electricity, provide energy. But, as with electricity, if you stick your fork in with reckless abandon, you’re setting yourself up for failure. With carbs, it’s all about timing. Housing a giant serving of pasta, for example, at the wrong time of day won’t get you electrocuted, but it could short-circuit your weight-loss efforts. Time it right, on the other hand, and the results will shock you.
First popularized in the 1970s and ’80s by competitive bodybuilders, “carb cycling” is one of the simplest and fastest ways to get ripped while maintaining lean muscle mass. “It just makes sense,” says nutritionist and IFBB pro bodybuilder Shelby Starnes. “You need more carbs on heavy training days, and fewer on light or rest days.” The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that adults consume 45–65% of their total caloric intake in the form of carbohydrates. However, by simply adjusting the proportions of carbs you eat from day to day—cutting them on rest days and ramping them up on days when you work out—you can yield electrifying fat-loss and muscle-building results.
BUILD MUSCLE ON HIGH-CARB DAYS
High-carb days raise the body’s insulin levels, fill glycogen stores, keep your metabolism burning efficiently, and stave off muscle catabolism (breakdown). Although it’s often maligned as the hormone responsible for fat storage and sugar crashes, insulin also plays an important role in building muscle. After you eat, insulin is released into the bloodstream, where it triggers biochemical reactions in various tissues, including muscle fibers. Insulin molecules essentially unlock muscle cells and allow building-block compounds— glucose and amino acids—to enter and be stored there.
BURN FAT ON LOW-CARB DAYS
Once muscle cells are saturated with glucose and amino acids, extra glucose is sent to the liver to be converted to fat. So, to prevent this from happening, high-carb days must be balanced with low-carb, or fat-burning, days. These days keep insulin levels low enough to allow for maximum fat burning without sacrificing muscle. “You might feel sluggish on low days if you’re not used to it, but if you’re making good food choices—not eating Pixy Stix for carbs—you’ll start to see changes quickly,” says Starnes.
LEAN BY NEW YEAR’S
If your main goal is to build muscle, you might have three or four high-carb days and keep the other days low-carb. If fat loss is your priority, you’d only schedule one or two high-carb days, and these should be days when you work out. “The number of days and actual ratios depend on your metabolic needs and goals as well as your training frequency and intensity,” says Starnes. “Do you want to lose 10 pounds in a year, or 10 pounds by New Year’s? The shorter the time frame, the fewer high-carb days you can have.” The same applies to building muscle, except that you’d up your high-carb days per week and cut down on low ones.