Carb Cycling for Busy People
Last week was all about asking “do you need to carb cycle”? This is an important first question for any nutrition endeavor because if we don’t know why we’re choosing a method or we can’t explain what the intention is, how can we gauge our results?
The ketogenic diet is a great example of this because so many people have tried it, including many clients I’ve worked with. Often in the discussion of why someone is choosing to restrict nearly all carbohydrates, individuals will cite that they tend to gain more body fat when they are eating carbohydrates.
These broad statements get thrown around a ton in the nutrition world, often based on anecdote and/or a desire to find “the reason” someone cannot lose the fat they want. Do you struggle to lose weight? Tried everything and failed? Well, that’s because insulin is making you fat! Didn’t you know that if you JUST cut out carbs that you’d effortlessly lose weight while eating anything you want?? That sounds pretty good to me and obviously to many individuals out there looking to shed some pounds.
Strawman arguments are much easier to sneak past people when it comes to nutrition because, honestly, who is going to see an ad like that and then search Pubmed to see if the research holds those statements up? Um….no one.
It’s even harder to convince someone that you can definitely consume carbohydrates while leaning out if they have previous experience on something like keto and lost quite a bit of bodyweight with it. James Krieger has done an excellent job compiling research over multiple posts that shows the insulin = fat storage statement doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
In an almost paradoxical series of events, a client who sees short-term success with any particular methodology may actually inhibit their long-term success due to bias. If you try the Super Fat Blaster 5000 method and lose ten pounds because it requires that you only eat the approved list of Fat Blaster foods, cool. You might not realize that the food selection simply helped you control calories, rather than those specific foods holding some kind of special fat loss properties.
So when we decide to carb cycle, we really need to be clear as a freshly Windex’d pane of glass that all we’re doing is cycling calories with an eye on performance. The reason we choose to cycle carbohydrates rather than fat or protein is from practicality. Protein remains constant because it is critical for protein synthesis, recovery, repair and satiety. Fat usually stays constant because eating significantly more fat on any one day won’t have a noticeable effect on gym performance. Cycling carbohydrates allows us to add more when we need it for performance and recovery and less when we don’t. Because carbohydrates contain calories, this ends up being calorie cycling as well.
Practical Uses for Carb Cycling
In any fat loss diet, you inevitably reach a point where taking your calories further into a deficit seven days a week is not practical, safe or productive. With long-term severe calorie reduction you’ll experience drops in sex hormone, increases in cortisol, decreases in leptin, slower recovery and impaired performance. You’ll probably also be hungry, tired and irritable.
Adding in some high(er) carbohydrate days allow us to stave off some of the inevitable effects of long-term calorie restriction. Boosting calories, specifically from carbohydrates not only provides short-term reprieve from some of the negative effects of dieting but can aid in gym performance which is crucial. Strategically adding high(er) carbohydrates on training days can allow you solid performance, recovery and pumps while still adhering to an overall calorie deficit.
In this case, carb cycling helps to mitigate the negative effects of dieting.
Practical example 175lb male:
In almost the opposite of carbohydrate cycling for fat loss, we might use this strategy to add more calories on training days to ensure good training, recovery, pumps and of course muscle growth. However, we may keep calories lower on off days to limit the accumulation of too much body fat.
With any long-term muscle gain protocol, some fat gain is inevitable. While it seems like that’s terrible news, about 15% of fat is actually lean mass (structural components and cellular machinery) and can help contribute to strength gains. Sumo wrestlers have the highest fat free mass indexes of any athletes despite carrying huge amounts of fat mass. Simply carrying more total weight will contribute to muscle growth because it’s added mass that gravity is acting on – if you weigh more you have to exert more effort to move. More muscular work/tension = more muscular growth.
While we aren’t trying to completely mitigate fat gain, eating closer to maintenance on off-days can help limit the amount of fat we gain while bulking, meaning there is less to diet off at the end of that phase.
Practical example 175lb male:
Carbohydrate cycling for performance lies in the middle ground. Performance protocols are usually focused on remaining the same weight while trying to improve your sport or gym performance.
This focus is when I might add in some fat cycling as well. Since our goal is not to have high and low calorie days, we want to focus on keeping calories relatively constant so no weight change occurs.
The approach here usually just means more carbs and less fat on training days and more fat and less carbs on off days. Calories overall stay the same; just the ratio of the macronutrients change.
Practical example 175lb male:
90 g fat
Choosing Your Goal
For fat loss and muscle gain, the approach can start relatively simple.
- Set your fat loss or muscle gain calories
- Run those numbers daily until progress stalls
- Being by adding 10% more carbohydrates on training days, working up to 20% if you are still experiencing progress in your overall goal.
- For fat loss, don’t add so many carbohydrates on training days (e.g 100g) that your overall fat loss progress stops. Calories still count and if you add too many you won’t be in a deficit
- For muscle gain, don’t add so many carbohydrates on training days (e.g 100-200g) that you start gaining a lot of excess body fat. Some is inevitable but no reason to pack it on for the sake of “gainz”
- Set your maintenance calorie numbers
- Increase carbohydrates by 20% on training days. Your fat will need to come down but NOT by 20%. Remember that carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and fat has 9. So if you raise your carbs 20% and that is a 150 calories surplus, you’ll need to reduce fat by 150 calories.
- Decrease carbohydrates by 20% on off days. Whatever calorie reduction this is, you will need to replace with fat calories. Remember they are not interchangeable gram for gram! If you reduce carbohydrates by 150 calories, you’ll need to add 150 calories from fat
- Keep pushing 5% up on training days and 5% down on off days every 1-2 weeks until you feel you’ve maxed out performance in the gym. I recommend not lowering fat on off days below 0.3 g/lb
Carb Wrap Up
If one thing is apparent, it’s that you should still have a primary goal. The old adage of “you can’t ride two horse with one ass” stands up pretty well. In many cases, pushing for one specific goal not only gives you focus but it’ll help you reach that goal faster. Carb cycling is simply a way of pushing progress a little more in your favor when things slow down.
If you want to get lean, carb cycling isn’t going to get you massively jacked at the same time; if you want to gain size, it won’t get you simultaneously shredded.
Make sure you prioritize. Choose one goal, attack it with everything you can and stay consistent day in and day out. When that approach slows down, play that Ace up your sleeve and employ smart carb cycling to continue pushing that goal.
Since I love you and you’re great, use my top-secret carb cycling calculator below. Just don’t let those maniacs at Super Fat Blaster 5000 get their hands on it!
Carb Cycling Calculator
2. Input your known calories and macros into the boxes with green text
3. Adjust the % carb change on training days and let the calculator do the work!