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Carb Cycling 101: What Is It and How Does It Work?

At some point in your fitness journey, no matter how diligent you are at working on your goals, you are going to hit a weight loss and/or strength plateau. Some people will tell you to decrease your carb consumption to achieve one and eat more to achieve the other. However, what would you say if we told you that doing both is the answer? This is known as carb cycling.

Before you ask, carb cycling has nothing to do with eating bread on a bicycle. It is an advanced strength training and fat loss technique. It is not meant for those who are just starting out on their fitness journey or for those who are struggling with obesity. However, it is an ideal solution for those who have been working out, are relatively lean, and have hit a plateau with their strength training or fat loss.

At first, carb cycling seems a bit complicated. However, the only thing you really need to know is how to track your calories and macros to determine if it’s the appropriate solution for you. In this article, we’re going to explain everything you need to know about carb cycling.

Defining Carb Cycling

Carb cycling is a technique in which you alternate high-carb and low-carb days. For example, one day you may eat lots of pasta, and the following day, you’re practicing the keto diet. Most of the time, your high-carb days are your training days, and your low-carb days are your less active and/or rest days.

Here’s an easy way to look at it: carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, like gasoline. Let’s say you’re going on a road trip across the country. There will be days that you are going to stay put in a certain city and not drive as much. A high-carb day is when you fill up at the gas station. You cycle those big fill-ups with pit stops when you’re not driving so much. After all, why fill up the tank if you’re not going to be driving very much, right?

That being said, energy is not the only reason people use carb cycling. They also do it to make changes to their physique based on aesthetic goals because, after consuming a lot of carbs, your muscles look “fuller”.

Many times, overall caloric consumption is also higher on high-carb days. However, some people do manipulate their carb intake so that they are consuming the same calories. Protein consumption remains steady across all days. Fat consumption typically increases when carbs decrease and decreases when carbs increase.

Individuals may alternate carb intake from one week to the next and even from one month to the next. While there are lots of fat loss tips circulating, there is some proof that carb cycling really does work.

This is based on the fact that your basal metabolic rate decrease when you lose weight or lower you daily caloric intake. Therefore, when your caloric intake and carb portion are both higher, it maintains your basal metabolic rate and decreases hunger.

How does Carb Cycling Affect Your Health & Performance?

By now, you are probably wondering why you should switch up carbs since overall caloric consumption is considered one of the most important factors for weight loss. The truth is, there are several reasons why carbs are the primary player.

Research indicates that timing carbs around your workouts will optimize your physical performance in the gym or on the field. Additionally, it has been proven to affect recovery following athletic performance.

Since fatigue during intense, prolonged workouts is the result of depleted glycogen in the muscles and liver, limiting training and competitive performance, a higher carb consumption prior to, during, and following a workout may be beneficial. The primary goal of carb cycling is to make sure you have as many carbs as possible during prolonged intense workout sessions.

In addition, carbohydrates have been proven to cause insulin spikes and according to research, high insulin levels are a risk factor for insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition in which there is too much insulin in your body, which means you can’t use glucose for energy, leading to increased blood sugar, which ultimately increases your risk for things such as type 1 diabetes.

Research has indicated that by strategically limiting your carb consumption, you can improve your insulin sensitivity and your body’s ability to effectively use the hormone. Some other studies indicate that by alternating high carb/high fat days, you can control the hormones related to appetite and improve your body’s ability to burn fat as fuel.

Who Should be Carb Cycling?

Experts recommend carb cycling for anyone that does not require a steady stream of carbs, including recreational athletes, weekend warriors, and desk jockeys. This means that there are two groups that should probably not cycle: obese individuals and professional athletes. Here is why athletes may not benefit from engaging this technique:

Typically, athletes burn up their glycogen quickly. This glycogen must be replenished with good, clean carbs on a regular basis. The days they are not working out are they days they are recuperating and consuming carbs these days is just about more important than consuming them on workout days. Therefore, the only “cycling” recommended for athletes is to consume simple carbs prior to training.

Simple carbs are things such as sugar, white bread, pastries, and pasta. They offer a quick burst of energy. On the other hand, complex carbs, such as brown rice and whole grains offer a steady stream over a prolonged period of time.

It’s important to note that the term “athlete” is referring to professionals and those who train 6 days a week. individuals who are this active may not see as many benefits from cycling.

On the other hand, if you’re talking about weekend warriors or those who are just working out, that’s far different. If their goal is to gain weight, they likely don’t need to carb cycle- but if their goal is to lose weight, cycling carbs is critical.

Individuals who are inexperienced with tracking calories and macros should not try carb cycling. After all, counting calories and macros (protein, fat, and carbs) is tedious and time-consuming. If you add carb cycling to that, it becomes even more complicated. Once you become more comfortable with tracking macronutrients, you may want to try cycling because this strategy is most useful for those who have been tracking for a while and know what they are doing.

Carb cycling can be confusing for some people and they may have some issues adhering to the plan. If you tend to binge eat, you might not need to try cycling because you may go too far with the carbs and calories.

It’s important to note that carb cycling is typically used by those who are already lean and have some muscle. According to some of the research, there is little benefit for individuals who are overweight or obese. These individuals need to be more focused on reducing their caloric intake.

Sample Carb Cycling Routine

Just like any other fitness strategy, you will find that there are several ways that you can carb cycle. No matter which strategy you want to use, it’s important that you know how many calories you are burning each day. Of course, this is definitely going to take some trial and error, but if you’re serious about improving your body composition and carb cycling seems appealing, there’s no way around it.

Therefore, you need to determine your total daily energy expenditure, referred to as your TDEE. You can find a calorie calculator to get a rough starting point for your calories. Consider the two carb cycling options below to get you started:

Weight Loss Carb Cycling Routine

Let’s say your TDEE is 2,500 calories. Here’s what you need:

Workout Days

  • 2,400 calories
  • 170 grams protein (680 calories)
  • 345 grams carbs (1,380 calories)
  • 38 grams fat (340 calories)

Rest Days

  • 1,400 calories
  • 170 grams protein (680 calories)
  • 50 grams carbs (200 calories)
  • 64 grams fat (580 calories)

If you are working out 4 days a week, this routine should result in approximately 1 pound of weight loss per week. Typically, this routine is used for fat loss, there are some who use it to gain muscle with minimal fat gain. You may want to keep your calories at maintenance level on your rest days and limit excess calories and carbs to your lifting days with this goal. This would end up looking like the following routine:

Muscle Building Carb Cycling Routine

Again, let’s say your TDEE is 2,500 calories. Here’s what you need:

Workout Days

  • 2,995 calories
  • 180 grams protein (720 calories)
  • 400 grams carbs (1,600 calories)
  • 75 grams fat (675 calories)

Rest Days

  • 2,500 calories
  • 180 grams protein (720 calories)
  • 85 grams carbs (340 calories)
  • 160 grams fat (1,440 calories)

It’s critical to understand that your macros vary based on your personal body weight, composition, and activity level. Therefore, it’s a good idea to consult with a nutritionist or dietitian instead of trying to guess at your macros.

Can You Cycle Carbs if You’re on the Keto Diet?

Typically, with the ketogenic diet, carbs are kept at the bare minimum- even zero in some cases- so is it possible to cycle carbs when your goal is to limit them? There is some belief that it is possible- though the research behind this idea is limited.

If you were to do keto one day and high carb the next, that would be too much of a change in carb consumption and would interfere with ketosis, which usually takes more than a day to kick in. Athletes who engage in a keto diet typically spend 24 to 48 hours “refeeding”, that is eating high-carb, low fat meals. Then, they drop back to a keto split- which is low-carb, medium-protein, and high-fat- for the rest of the week. It is believed that this fills glycogen stores and improves athletic performance.

In some cases, carb cycling will maintain sustainability in those who are engaging in a keto diet. It can be empowering for those who are into fitness because it allows them to increase their consumption of carbs around their workouts or HIIT training.

Frequently Asked Questions about Carb Cycling

When you start considering making changes to the way you eat, you’re going to have questions that come up. Many of these questions have probably been answered in this article, but as a quick peek, we’ve gathered together some of the most frequently asked questions about carb cycling and answered them here. This should help you get a basic understanding of what it is and how it works.

What exactly is carb cycling?

As the name implies, carb cycling is when you cycle between high carb and low carb days. The goal is to eat less on the days that you are less active and more when you are more active. This can ultimately help you lose weight.

Is carb cycling for everyone?

No, carb cycling is not for everyone. There are some groups that should not practice carb cycling. This includes professional athletes and anyone else that works out on a daily basis. These groups need a steady flow of carbs. Since they are so active, they need a lot of quick burning fuel in the form of carbs, or they may begin to feel sluggish and possibly lose muscle mass.

Can carb cycling be done on the keto diet?

Yes, carb cycling can be done on the keto diet. However, the very basis of this diet is low carbs, so there really is no point. Plus, if you eat carbs, it will kick you out of ketosis. That being said, some people do choose to do a high-carb day once in a while to improve their athletic performance.

Conclusion

The most important part of a weight loss plan is controlling your caloric intake, regardless of your macronutrients. Additionally, experts agree that consuming high amounts of protein is fundamental to weight loss as well.

However, for those who are already lean and muscular that want to level up their fat loss, carb cycling may be useful. However, before you make any drastic changes to your diet or lifestyle, it’s important to have a conversation with your physician or a dietitian to make sure that it is an appropriate solution for your goals.

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