Carb cycling is a process in which you can manipulate your consumption of carbs so that you can maximize muscle growth while minimizing the negative effects of carbs, such as fat storage.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is essentially a plan where you cycle between low/no carb days and high/moderate carb days.
It’s an alternating method that can give you both the benefits of a low carb diet, such as fat loss, and benefits of a high carb diet, such as muscle retention and more energy.
Carb cycling works by giving your body the fuel it needs to increase metabolism while still creating an overall calorie deficit to burn fat.
On your high carb days, your body releases several hormones that are needed to increase metabolism.
On low carbohydrate days, many times calorie consumption will be in a deficit, allowing your body to burn fat on those days.
How it Works
There are typically two methods to use when carb cycling. Some prefer to have a no-carb day, while others have a low-carb day.
This depends on the person’s preference, their fitness program, and how their body responds to a no carb diet.
Most weeks are broken into 3 different days.
- High Carb
- Low/Moderate Carb
- No/Low Carb
High carb days usually match up with your most intense training day, for many that would be leg day.
Your moderate/low carb day would be a training day that is a little less strenuous, such as upper body. And low or no carb days usually match with rest days or cardio-only days.
Here’s an example week:
It’s important to remember that while following a carb cycling schedule, that all days require high protein intake to keep muscle growth and maintenance optimal.
You must also take into account that your fat intake should be inversely related to your carb consumption.
This means that on your high carb days, you should decrease your fat intake to ensure you do not exceed your calories for that day, and vice versa for low carb days.
Increase fat intake on low carb days, but make sure to hit the calories needed to maintain OR make sure to be in a deficit if you are trying to cut fat or weight.
Why It’s Beneficial
Carb cycling is more of a hormonal strategy than a caloric one. Varying carb intake influences several hormones than can greatly determine body composition.
Insulin not only regulates blood sugar, but it is also a fat-storing hormone. Whenever you consume carbs, your body releases insulin to bring your blood glucose levels back to normal.
It takes the glucose from the carbs and brings it to the liver to be used for later, in the form of glycogen.
Glycogen is important for energy and is your muscles’ primary fuel source during workouts.
The problem is, the body can only store so much glycogen before it starts storing excess glucose as fat.
Carb cycling helps minimize fat storage and increase insulin sensitivity on low carb days, and replenish glycogen stores needed for muscle growth on high carb days.
Leptin is a hunger hormone and lets your body know when it has been satisfied. Leptin is released in response to increased carb consumption.
If the body is constantly on a high carb diet, it begins to become leptin-resistant, meaning it will not tell your body when it has reached the point of feeling “full” — not good for those trying to lose weight.
However, on a low carb diet, the opposite will happen. Your body will begin to feel constantly hungry and lethargic, and your metabolism will slow down.
When carb cycling, leptin sensitivity remains high because just as leptin levels begin to drop too low, a high carb day will reset leptin levels, which will increase metabolism.
Serotonin is a “feel good” chemical for your brain. It boosts your mood and makes you feel happy.
Carbs actually boost serotonin levels (which explains why people “comfort eat”), so when a diet is low in carbohydrates it is also lower in serotonin, which can cause cravings for sugar.
Many diets low in carbs make people feel depressed due to low levels of serotonin, which is why many low carb diets fail.
Carb cycling combats this by regulating serotonin levels during high carb days.
Is Carb Cycling Right for You?
Like any diet, carb cycling isn’t for everyone. Carb cycling seems to be most effective for those that do not have a substantial amount of weight to lose.
But rather 10-15 pounds, or for those that are looking to slightly decrease body fat.
If you have more weight to lose, simply decreasing carbohydrates slightly and lowering calories in general should help you reach your weight loss goals.
Keep in mind that carb cycling does require a bit more meal planning than a traditional diet.
As well, so if that is something that you aren’t willing to commit to, then perhaps carb cycling is not for you, either.
However, if you’re willing to adjust your diet and you don’t have a whole lot of weight to lose, giving carb cycling a try might give you the body you desire and help you enjoy a few indulgences from time to time.
What’s the basic concept?
The idea is that 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can deliver the same physiological benefits (such as improved endurance, and reduced risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes) as three hours of long, slow running.
It seems that short bursts of high intensity exercise – 30-second all-out sprints with a work-to-recovery ratio of around 1:6 – may stimulate the same cellular pathways as long, steady state aerobic exercise.
In other words: the same health gains of running but in a fraction of the time. But, of course, there’s a catch: as lead researcher Martin Gibala says, “Those short bursts hurt.”
HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training
What’s the risk?
HIIT sessions require maximal, or close to maximal, efforts. This means you rely primarily on your anaerobic system for energy.
If the aerobic system uses oxygen on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, the anaerobic system generates an oxygen ‘debt’, which needs paying off as soon as you back off from the full-on effort.
(That is why heartrate monitors aren’t particularly good for gauging the intensity of HIIT intervals: your heartrate continues to climb sharply during recovery as the body pays off the oxygen debt.)
But as long as you have the OK from your doctor to exercise, this is entirely safe. Just remember that maximal exercise of any sort puts considerable stress on your muscles and connective tissues.
There’s no further benefit to be had from doing more than two days of HIIT per week.
And you need time to recover, so allow at least one full day of recovery between sessions.
Prioritise longer, low-intensity sessions in your training week, and include strength and conditioning work to help prevent injury.
Endurance is more important to me than explosive speed. Can I still benefit?
Yes. There’s no doubt that long, slow runs are the most effective means of training for an endurance race.
They boost the fatigue resistance of slow-twitch muscle fibres; HIIT has its greatest impact on fast-twitch fibres. So why should you include HIIT sessions in a distance training programme?
One good reason is that although the fast-twitch fibres may not be as fuel-efficient or resistant to fatigue, they join in the action when leg muscles start to tire in the latter stages of a race.
So you may get a boost to your overall muscular endurance.
Do I have to run my HIITs?
No – HIITs work well on the elliptical trainer, stair climber or stationary bike.
In Gibala’s study, the subjects used a bike: it’s not only a very time-efficient way of getting in a quality workout, but because cycling is non-weight bearing, it’s the mode of exercise least likely to cause – or exacerbate – injury.
As for whether the improvement in leg speed developed by cycling crosses over to improved leg speed during running, that’s up for debate. But it certainly won’t hurt!
Three simple high-intensity sessions
On a track
Warm up with five laps at an easy pace – gradually speed up so that you end up running briskly. Then do 200m at maximal sprint effort followed by 400m gentle jog.
Repeat six times.
On a treadmill
Set the incline to one per cent. Warm up by running gently, gradually building speed, for 10 minutes. On an effort scale of one to 10, you should be at five to six by the end.
Run 30 seconds at close to maximal speed (which is at least 18km/h on the treadmill for most people); jog gently for three minutes. Repeat four to six times.
On a bike
Following a short warm-up, try four to six bouts of maximal sprint efforts.
Each lasting for 30 seconds, and follow with four minutes of easy spinning recovery.
Sample Meal Plan
Day 1 – LOW-CARB DAY
Breakfast: Citrus and almond fruit salad: peel 1 orange and 1 grapefruit and chop the segments in half. Mix with yoghurt, handful of blueberries and 2tbsp crushed almonds.
Snack: 1 Eat Natural bar. 1 apple.
Lunch: Quinoa salad: cook 50g dry grain quinoa in water. Mix 100g chopped cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber, 100g garden peas and 2 chopped hard-boiled eggs.
Snack: Handful of walnuts. 1 banana.
Dinner: Ginger chicken: stir-fry 1 sliced chicken breast in olive oil with a little chopped ginger. Add 1 sliced courgette, 1 sliced carrot and ½ tray of green beans. Add soy sauce and a little water and allow to steam until cooked. Serve with 70g (dry weight) quinoa.
Snack: 2 oatcakes.
Daily totals: 1,880 calories, 226g carbs, 108g protein, 67g fat
Day 2 – LOW-CARB DAY
Breakfast: Apple and seed muesli: mix together 2tbsp rolled oats and 2tbsp each of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. Soak for at least half an hour (or overnight) in the fridge in semi-skimmed milk. Before serving, add 1 small grated apple and 2tbsp yoghurt.
Snack: Handful of walnuts. 1 banana.
Lunch: 1 wholemeal pitta bread filled with tuna, ½ an avocado and 1tbsp low-fat cottage cheese.
Snack: 1 pear.
Dinner: Lime salmon steak: brush a salmon steak with olive oil and season with black pepper. Thinly slice ½ a lime and place the slices on top of the salmon. Grill for ten minutes. Serve with 100g steamed broccoli, 75g sugar snap peas and 70g )dry weight) quinoa.
Snack: 1 apple.
Daily totals: 1,891 calories, 170g carbs, 131g protein, 81g fat
Day 3 – HIGH-CARB DAY
Breakfast: Cook 60g oats in water. Toward end of cooking add 200g frozen summer berries and stir for 3-5 minutes until hot. Serve with 1tbsp sunflower seeds and 1 pot of natural yoghurt.
Snack: 1 peach.
Lunch: 1 baked potato filled with 1tbsp hummus, 1 sliced tomato, sliced cucumber, sliced red pepper and mixed salad leaves. 1 banana.
Snack: 1 Eat Natural bar. 1 apple.
Dinner: Brush 1 large cod fillet with a little olive oil and season with black pepper and ground cumin. Place the fish under a hot grill for approximately ten minutes. Serve with 250g boiled new potatoes, 100g steamed carrots, garden peas and fresh coriander.
Snack: 3 oatcakes.
Daily totals: 1,801 calories, 323g carbs, 78g protein, 40g fat
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