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Nutrition: Carb Cycling

Submitted by IFBB Pro League Staff

*Reprinted with the kind courtesy of FLEX Magazine (February 2009)

Carb cycling is a process used to help bodybuilders drop bodyfat.  The term is thrown around often, yet no one really knows how to apply it.  In short, carb cycling involves moving your carbohydrate intake up and down.  In theory, this will help you get leaner.  For most bodybuilders and quasi-experts, the technique is effective, but it remains misunderstood.  They’ll go to extremes and choke carb intake down to 50 grams per day for a few days, then "load" them back up eating 300 g or so.  Both picks – eating such a paltry amount followed by not really eating what I consider "enough" – defeat the purpose.  This month, I’ll give you my two cents on how to effectively cycle carbs.

Step 1:  Understand carb cycling mechanics

When you cut carbs, muscles give up stored carbohydrates – called muscle glycogen – as energy.  In general, when glycogen levels fall, the body increases its ability to burn bodyfat.  Therefore, it makes sense to reduce your carbohydrate intake, which means smaller portion of oatmeal, fruit, rice, pasta, potatoes and bread.  When that happens, the body ramps up fat burning.  However you don’t have to cycle, at least from the onset of dieting, to burn fat.  In other words, simply eating fewer carbs on a daily basis will ramp up fat burning.  So, step 1 in getting lean and applying this principle requires you to reduce your carbs.  I suggest a 33%-50% reduction from what you are currently eating.  Without having to whip out a calculator, an easy way to do that is to simply eyeball your carb portions and eat one-third to one-half smaller portions at each meal.

Step 2:  Remain on low carbs

By low, I mean eating 33%-50% fewer carbs as outlined in step 1.  How long should you remain on this carb intake?  That depends on how your body responds.  If you continuously become leaner for two weeks, hell, continue to stick with it.  Why would you want to go into carb cycling if you are already on an effective diet that is making you leaner?  I find that most bodybuilders will definitely get leaner for two, and even up to three, weeks simply by keeping their carbs at this level.  However, don’t get caught up in the numbers.  If you were eating 900 g of carbs in the first place, you’ll be able to lean down on 450-600 g per day.  If you were eating 400 g to start, then you’ll get harder on 200-300 g per day.

Step 3:  Cycle for two days only

After two to three weeks, or when you see your body no longer getting leaner, take any two days out of the week and drop your carbs to about 100 g per day.  For example, if you were eating 450 g per day, you can go to 100 g on any two days.  The ideal time to start is your off-training days.  However, if you only take roughly one day of rest a week, you’d drop your carbs to 100 g on the off day and on any other training day.  The net result: you’ll have lower glycogen levels that will revamp fat burning, which may have downgraded with extended dieting.

Step 4:  Cycle for four days?

When I am putting a diet together, a lot of time is spent evaluating and re-evaluating someone’s progress.  Particularly, I think about whether I should do nothing.  For example, the bodybuilder cycling – or dropping carbs to 100 g twice per week – will get leaner.  The next step is to decide if he needs to set aside more days out of the week during which he’ll be eating only 100 g of carbs.  If he is getting leaner, I take the "do nothing" approach and let the body ride the wave and get leaner from week to week.  For some, that may be two weeks.  For others, those two lower-carb days outlined in step 3 coupled with overall lower carbs on the other days are sufficient.  If not, I have to make changes:  lowering carbs to 100 g for four days per week.  Using our example, I’d have the bodybuilder ingest 100 g of carbs four days per week with 450 g on the other days.

Step 5:  The big carb day

It’s only after you have been dieting for an extended period of time that a large increase in carbs is needed.  When you consume 100 g of carbs per day – outlined in step 4 – for a period your muscles become flat and severely depleted of muscle glycogen.  At this point, take your low-carb figure (in our example, 450 g) and double it.  Remember, we’re not trying to get too technical and bogged down in counting carbs and such, so you can eyeball your carbs and simply choose a day to eat twice the portion size you typically eat.  When should you go to 900 g of carbs?   That’s the big question.  If you start to lose muscle and your muscles appear extremely flat or you become extremely fatigued, that’s the time.  On the other hand, if you appear full and are not losing size, there really is no need to go up in carbs. In fact, going up will only slow your progress.  Only when you’re flat or extremely weak will step 5 be beneficial.  The beauty of this step is that if you need it, it actually will make you leaner.  If you have the type of physique that starts to flatten and shrink or you find yourself fatigued, like you are running marathons, implementing step 5 will give both a kick to your metabolism and help you hold mass.  The real answer to, "Do I need a high-carb day?" depends on your body.  Increasing carbs for the sake of "cycling" can be a waste of time.


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