Carb cycling is an extended variant of carb timing: it's about matching the use of carbohydrates to the training days. What does the carb cycling nutritional method promise? Is carb cycling just for bodybuilders or can it also be used by amateur athletes who go to the gym? These questions can only be answered individually, because whether the carb cycling method makes sense for someone or not depends on various factors.
What is carb cycling?
The method is primarily established in bodybuilding because it involves matching the amounts of carbohydrates to the individual training days: On training days when large muscle groups or the basic exercises are trained (squats, bench presses, pull-ups, deadlifts), high carb is eaten: This means specifically, carbohydrates are eaten at every meal (main meals and snacks). More about the exact macro distribution follows further down in the article. Medium-carb days occur on training days in which smaller muscle groups and more isolation exercises are trained (e.g. bicep curls and tricep extensions during arm training). Carbohydrates are eaten in more than half of all meals there. Rest days are so-called low carb days: Here, similar to the keto diet (only with more protein), almost no carbs are eaten.
There are different definitions of the carb cycling diet and small adjustments can be made depending on training phases, goals and circumstances.
Carb cycling – what can this form of nutrition do for performance and sport?
As already mentioned, carb cycling is primarily known from bodybuilding. Doing high-carb days when training and low-carb days when less intensive exercise takes place generally makes a lot of sense in many sports. One of the main advantages of carb cycling is that the metabolism is continually stimulated. In this context, it is also important to explain again why the body needs few carbohydrates when there is little exercise:
You can think of it like an engine; When the engine runs little, it requires less fuel (=carbohydrates); when there is too much fuel, it has to be stored somewhere else. The body then converts the fuel (carbohydrates) into fats and stores them as reserves because nothing is dumped here. In addition, a powerful engine needs a larger tank with more storage capacity because this engine consumes more fuel. You can strengthen the body's motor and increase its storage capacity with targeted muscle building, because the muscles have carbohydrate stores and these can be increased through training and the right supply of nutrients.
The less body fat you have and the more muscular your body is, the more efficiently the hormones that are responsible for how well your engine runs work. When this works optimally, the engine requires a lot of fuel (protein, carbohydrates, fat), which works most efficiently with more carbohydrates. With more body fat and less muscle, the body cannot use the carbohydrates properly and stores them as fat, as explained above.
The optimal carb cycling plan – this is what it looks like
The number of low carb days and high carb days depends on the current physical baseline (body fat and muscle mass), personal goals as well as the current training intensity, training volume and number of training days. Carb cycling is a bit more complex - after all, it is a very advanced nutritional concept for targeted strength training.
The optimal carbohydrate intake per day can be calculated using a special calorie calculator. However, this is best done by an experienced coach, as body fat percentage and muscle mass should be taken into account. The approximate percentage information on the macronutrient distribution on low carb days, high carb days and, if applicable, medium carb days can be found in a section below.
The carb cycling macro distribution
Basically, you eat low carb on rest days, i.e. days without training. On training days when smaller muscle groups or isolated exercises are trained, e.g. bicep curls, tricep extensions, flies, abdominal training, If leg extension or conditioning training is performed, medium carb is recommended.
However, when training global exercises that involve large and multiple muscle groups at the same time, high carb is eaten. Examples of exercises on such days include squats, pull-ups, bench presses and deadlifts. The macro distribution can vary depending on the starting point, goal and training volume.
The following macro distribution is just an example of what the calorie distribution across the three macronutrients in carb cycling might look like for someone who has a low body fat percentage.
(As a man under 12% and as a woman under 16%) ...and already has a base of muscles.
Low carb day: 35% protein, 15% carbs, 50% fat
Medium carb day: 30% protein, 40% carbs, 30% fat
High carb day: 30% protein, 55% carbs, 15% fat
It should also be taken into account that fewer calories should be consumed on low-carb days (on which there is no training) than on medium and high-carb days, as the need for nutrients is slightly lower. However, higher protein consumption is important for optimal regeneration.
Low carb with carb cycling – how to get started
When carb cycling, a healthy and routine diet should be developed in advance. As already discussed, the method only makes sense if you practice intensive sport. It should also not be used if you have a lot of body fat around the middle of your body and suffer from food cravings, because in this case it is relatively clear that your body cannot currently manage carbohydrates well and that blood sugar is unstable. This means that the hormones, primarily insulin and cortisol, are not working optimally.
An awareness of calories and macronutrients as well as some experience with tracking calories is also a prerequisite for carb cycling.
To get started, you can only differentiate between low carb and high carb days; all training days are high carb, all non-training days are low carb. This means you can approach the method in two steps.
Do I need a carb cycling calculator?
There are various online calculators in which you can enter your personal values (age, height, workouts per week, body type and goal). The Carb Cycling Calculator then calculates the calories and macros that you should consume on the high carb days as well as the medium carb and low carb days. At first glance, a calculator like this is a great thing because it seems to make a lot of work easier, but it usually only calculates body weight in relation to body size and activity level.
The biggest problem here, especially for athletes, is that body composition is not taken into account: body fat percentage and absolute muscle mass play a very decisive role: whether a 1.90 m tall man weighing 95 kg has a body fat percentage of 30% (overweight) or 12% (muscular). makes a huge difference in how many calories he needs and the goal also determines this.
Do women have to pay attention to any special features when carb cycling?
Women should basically consider the same things as men when carb cycling. However, the hormone insulin works differently during the menstrual cycle and, accordingly, blood sugar reacts differently to carbohydrates. Studies have shown that there are significantly more so-called spikes in blood sugar in the week before menstruation than in the week after menstruation. Accordingly, the extreme high carb days could potentially have a negative impact on the hormone balance.
The topic is very individual, but especially those who experience cravings for sugar before and during their cycle should not eat a lot of carbohydrates with a high level glycemic index , more precisely high glycemic load , eat.
In addition, women, who tend to produce more stress hormones, may have difficulty falling asleep in the evening without carbohydrates. If this is the case, the low carb days should also be adjusted so that a little complex carbohydrates are eaten 2 hours before bed.
Carb cycling vs keto diet
Carb cycling includes some basic principles of the keto diet on low carb days, but the two methods should not be mixed together. The keto diet often involves consuming a lot of fats and not necessarily enough protein, and the goal of this diet is to achieve one Ketosis get.
This is hardly possible with carb cycling and the low carb days have a different purpose - namely that the engine is constantly stimulated to work efficiently by changing the fuel and that the systems can always recover. Here you can find out more about Keto diet !
Can you lose weight with carb cycling?
Carb cycling is not about losing weight, but rather the goal is to build muscle. In any case, body fat can be reduced again, because more muscles also burn more body fat. However, if your primary goal is to reduce body fat or lose weight, you should look for a different nutritional concept. Pure fat loss - primarily in the middle of the body - works best when blood sugar is stabilized, which can often be achieved with a low carb phase and of course enough fitness training.
The right nutritional strategy and method always depends on the initial physical situation, personal goals, training, everyday activity level as well as regeneration factors such as sleep and micronutrient supply.
There is no right or wrong for everyone, only the individual diet that suits you and enables you to live a long-term and sustainable lifestyle that you feel good about.