Carb cycling is a dieting approach where the dieter rotates scheduled higher carb days and lower carb days based upon their needs and goals.
When done correctly this can help contribute to fat loss, muscle gain, and improved performance.
In addition to these physiological benefits, there are also some psychological benefits as well which can improve diet adherence.
There are a lot of different strategies that can be used based upon the dieter’s goals and preferences, but I’ve outlined the most common ones below.
Who Should Carb Cycle?
Before we get into specific carb cycling strategies I think it’s important to understand who should be cycling their carbohydrate intake.
Carb cycling is an approach that is typically used by people who are trying to manipulate their body composition or improve athletic performance.
This would include people like:
- Physique athletes
- Elite Athletes
While there are many benefits to cycling carbs, (which we’ll talk about more below) this is an approach that is most effective for people are disciplined enough to follow a structured diet.
So, if you’re not into counting calories, meal prepping, weighing your food, etc. then this may not be for you. Sorry!
But, if you consider yourself an “advanced” athlete or physique competitor and are comfortable following a deliberate nutrition plan then you’re a perfect candidate for someone that might benefit from carb cycling.
Below I’ve listed a few of the most common methods of carb cycling, but first here’s an example of what carb cycling is not…
Linear Dieting (NOT Carb Cycling)
Just to make sure that you understand what carb cycling is not, here is an example of linear dieting.
Linear dieting would be eating the exact same macros (macronutrients = protein, carbohydrates, and fat) every single day and never altering them. So, for this example, we would be eating 300g carbs every single day…no high days, no low days, 300g carbs every day.
Over the course of the week we had 2100g carbs, split evenly over 7 days.
*We will use these numbers for all the examples for the sake of simplicity and so that it’s easier to understand. This does NOT mean that your carbohydrate intake should look exactly like this. These are just examples…
I wouldn’t say there is anything “wrong” with doing it like this…I actually prepped for my first bodybuilding show doing exactly this.
But, as you can guess, this method can get monotonous which makes it difficult for some people to follow for extended periods of time.
2 Low Carb Days, 1 Higher Carb Day, Repeat
One of the more popular strategies is to have two lower carb days followed by one higher carb day.
This would allow the dieter to have a higher carb day fairly frequently which would (hopefully) mean that adherence would be higher.
However, when you have a higher carb day this often there isn’t much difference between the “lower” days and the “higher” days. But, if it provides any psychological relief then that’s a win!
Here, you can see that on Day 1 and Day 2 our carbs are at 250g/day, and on Day 3 they jump up to 400g/day. This allows us to still average 300g/day and maintain our weekly total of 2100g.
Even though we are using 3 or 6 day blocks (instead of 7 for a standardized week) our carbs will average out to where we want them to be over the long term…which is the ultimate goal.
Higher Carb Days on Weekends
Another strategy that many people like to use is “saving” their higher carb days for the weekends. Some people may choose to have their higher carb days on Friday/Saturday and others may choose to have them on Saturday/Sunday…that’s really just a personal preference and whatever fits best with your social schedule.
This approach allows you to “save” your carbs for the weekend so that you can be more social or less restrictive with your diet.
As you can see, using this method we would have 5 lower carb days of 250g/day and two higher carb days at 425g/day, but our weekly total still equals 2100g of carbohydrates each week.
Many people like this approach because they’re able to enjoy themselves on Friday and Saturday and not have to feel like they’re missing out when friends or family have get-togethers, birthday parties, or other social outings.
Personally, I feel better when I train on my higher carb days so if you’re planning on taking Friday and Saturday completely off from the gym this might be something you should experiment with and see how it affects how you feel.
Increase Carbs on High Volume Training Days
Another method of carb cycling would be to increase your carbohydrate intake on days when you have intense training sessions, higher volume, or an athletic competition.
Personally, I feel like this is the most effective way to cycle your carbohydrates and it’s also how I structure my diet.
This approach should only be used by people who follow a highly structured routine and are able to practice a high level of discipline. Otherwise, the numbers won’t add up at the end of the week if the dieter takes extra off days, changes their workout routine, or has occasional “slip-ups” when they’re supposed to have a lower carb day.
*Note: I’m not suggesting that this should be your training split, that it’s the best split, or that your workout routine has to resemble this in anyway. It’s simply an example.
The two largest muscle groups in our bodies are our legs and our back. So, these body parts usually require a higher total workout volume, and that’s why most people who use this approach have higher carb days on the same days they train legs or back.
If you’re trying to emphasize a different muscle group or bring up a lagging body part you may choose to have higher carb days that are different than this example.
In this example we have 3 “different” days planned:
- 225g carbs on days of regular training
- 475g carbs on days of heavy training
- and 150g carbs on days of no training
But, just like the other examples above, our weekly total still equals 2100g carbohydrates for the week.
This purpose of this method is to give our bodies more fuel on days that are more physically demanding, which, in theory, should improve performance.
Carb Cycling Mistakes
Now that you have an understanding of what carb cycling is and how to start using it, let’s make sure that you avoid some of the most common mistakes.
Mistake #1 – Higher Carb Days are NOT Cheat Days
This is a big one…that’s why it’s listed as #1.
Just because you have a higher carb day scheduled doesn’t mean that you get to eat as many carbs as you want. It’s not a cheat day…don’t treat it like one!
Even though our carbs are higher on certain days we should still try to get most of our carbohydrates from similar sources that we would on our lower carb days.
Example: On your lower carb days you’re eating oatmeal, rice, sweet potatoes, fruit, etc., but on your higher carb days you’re crushing cookies, cakes, do-nuts, etc.
Try to keep your carb sources consistent between lower carb days and higher carb days…just eat more of them on your higher carb days.
Mistake #2 – Fiber Intake Drops Too Low on Lower Carb Days
Fiber intake is important and should remain fairly constant.
A common mistake that many people make is that they don’t pay attention to this and their fiber intake drops below their goal amount on low carb days.
Make sure that even on your lower carb days you’re still getting a sufficient amount of fiber in your diet!
Mistake #3 – Not Paying Attention to the Other Macros
It’s called “carb” cycling…that means that our carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that we’re manipulating from day to day.
Our protein and fat intake should remain very similar from day to day.
Similar to Mistake #1, a lot of people will eat too much fat on their higher carb days because they treat it like a cheat day…don’t do that!
While applying carb cycling to your diet try to keep your protein and fat intake very consistent throughout higher carb and lower carb days.
For example, if your goal macros are 200g protein, 300g carbohydrates, and 75g fat your protein and fat should stay at 200g and 75g respectively each day and only the carbohydrates are manipulated.
Carb cycling can be a very effective approach to dieting if done correctly. A few of the benefits can be:
- Improve diet adherence by giving you higher carb days to look forward to
- Allows you to maintain a balanced social life by scheduling higher carb days when you’d like to enjoy meals with family/friends
- Fuel your body with more carbohydrates on days when workout intensity/volume is higher
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide if this method is right for you, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of what carb cycling is and how you can effectively implement it into your nutrition program.