You know, I am 40 years old and in my best shape yet. But it hasn’t been easy. I am not blessed with good genes or an easy to manage body shape. I’ve had a baby (who is now 10) and well I like sugary treats and used to live off carbs!
But carbs are not the enemy and when I began to follow this easy to follow cycle in relation to what training I was doing and began working out with kettlebells my whole body shape changed. And so can yours. Whatever age you are.
How? You just need to eat the right things, at the right time for the right purpose and in relation to your exercise.
Let me tell you about carb cycling and why carbs are not the enemy.
Carbohydrates are simply one of the macronutrients you need to fuel your body.
Along with proteins, fats and fiber.
The concept of cycling your carbohydrates is simply about eating more of less carbs on given days based on your level of activity and needs of your body for fuel and for building lean muscle.
Macros, short for macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates), form the basis of what we call Flexible Dieting/IIFYM. These macros are the basis of all calories you consume. Macronutrients or Macros make up the majority of our diets. There are three main macros: Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrate. One gram of each macro has a calorie value.
- 1 Gram of Protein = 4 Calories
- 1 Gram of Carbohydrate = 4 Calories
- 1 Gram of Fat = 9 Calories
Rather than typical calorie counting (e.g. Eating 2000 cals a day) Flexible Dieters would track macronutrients (e.g. Eating 150g Protein, 80g Fat, 170g Carbohydrate = 2000 cals) which more effectively influences body composition rather than just weight loss or gain.
Everybody is different (yes, you are a unique snowflake…) so calculating your macros is just the beginning. And even the most experienced coaches working with clients may get it wrong to start with.
Each person’s metabolism, overall health, and lifestyle all play a vital role in how much energy we actually burn and how much of each macronutrient we should be eating.
But starting with some solid guidelines, even if it isn’t quite right, can be a good start on your journey to dominate your goals, and getting the body you want.
How does it work?
Carb cycling is simply a nutritional strategy where the amount of consumed carbohydrate varies on a daily or weekly basis. It is not a diet programme with strictly defined guidelines but a loose concept advocating days of low, medium and high carbohydrate intakes. Lack of strict definition can be a little confusing as you will see people referring to “carb cycling” when using keto-genic diets (less than 50g of carbs a day) with weekly carbohydrate re-feeds as well as simply throwing in extra carbs post-workout on training days.
Putting the terminology aside you might be wondering why so much attention is paid to carbohydrates?
You must know that the ultimate purpose of carbs is breakdown to glucose and absorption to the blood-stream, raising the blood-sugar level. This elevation stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreas, which signals the peripheral tissues to absorb glucose, thus reducing blood-sugar levels. However the release of insulin affects a much wider range of metabolic processes, some of which have been shown in the table below.
Looking at these few points you can clearly see that insulin puts your body in a storage mode, where both fat and muscle cells get a fair share of stock. Keeping carbs high 24/7 allows insulin secretion to shuttle nutrients wherever it can and your physique will likely reassemble a sumo-wrestler rather than a shredded bodybuilding pro. That’s where carb-cycling benefits can come to play.
The Benefits of Carb Cycling
1. Lean Muscle Mass Growth/Retention
Carb-cycling can be used for both fat-loss and weight gain. The major difference is the number of low-carb days, giving either a net value of calorie deficit or calorie surplus.
By adding a few low carb days during your mass gain programme, you give your body a chance to trim down on some body-fat (due to reduced lipogenesis and increased fatty-acids break-down) you might be putting on.
On the opposite side, by adding a few high carb days during your fat loss programme, you create an anabolic environment; possibly gaining some muscle and definitely holding onto more mass (due to increased amino acids uptake, increased protein synthesis and reduced protein breakdown).
In both of the scenarios, over a week’s time you will be simultaneous losing fat and gaining/retaining muscle.
[Related article: Why you want to focus on building lean muscle in your 40s, 50s and 60s]
2. Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Research shows that prolonged periods of both zero carbs as well as high carbs can lead to impaired insulin sensitivity. Meaning that your cells become resistant to this hormone, forcing the pancreas to produce more insulin in order to deal with the elevated blood-sugar level.
In case of “zero carbs” diets, muscle cells may become insulin resistant as an adaptive mechanism – not accepting, rare to find, glucose to save it for the brain. In case of “high carbs” diets cells may become desensitised to chronically elevated insulin levels in order to prevent further weight gain. This may not only impair your fat-loss/muscle-gain progress but it may also lead to type 2 diabetes and a cascade of health issues.
By varying your carbohydrate intake you effectively vary the insulin release, ensuring optimal sensitivity – leading to better gains and health!
3. Endocrine Stimulation
It has been well documented that long periods of low carbohydrate intake can decrease the thyroid hormone levels (T3), leading to a reduction in Basal Metabolic Rate (amount of calories burnt at rest) which makes it difficult to overcome fat-loss plateaus. Planned, high-carbohydrate day will bump up the T3 production, up-regulating your metabolism and allowing you to shred even more body-fat.
[Related article: How to boost your metabolism to overcome hormonal, thyroid and adrenal fatigue issues to become a fat burning machine ]
What’s more, low carbohydrate intake (30% of calories coming from carbs) has been shown to decrease the free testosterone to cortisol ratio following intensive training in as short as three days. This may lead to over-training and other unpleasant side-effects of low testosterone levels. Again, by throwing in higher carb days here and there, you’ll be able to raise the anabolic-testosterone to catabolic-cortisol ratio and welcome back the gains.
Carbohydrate over-feeding can also raise leptin levels – the ‘satiety hormone’ which becomes produced at the lower rate in response to shrunk fat-cells (fat loss). Obviously being less hungry for few days after a high carb day will help you to stick to your diet and keep losing the love handles.
Similarly, having a good mood following a higher carb day may be helpful in both training motivation and diet adherence. Insulin may help with that by making the tryptophan; pre-cursor of ‘good mood’ neurotransmitter (serotonin) more readily available for the brain.
4. Glycogen Super-Compensation
A few days of low carbs combined with hard training can significantly reduce the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles. This increases the production of an enzyme called glycogen synthase, which works extra hard to turn every little glucose it can into glycogen (which is stored in muscles and liver). Once you raise your carb intake, it will take a while for the body to recognize that there is enough glucose around for the enzyme to take it easy. Meanwhile your muscles will soak up carbs like a sponge, storing glycogen above its normal capacity- Meaning fuller, harder and bigger muscles. Sure, this effect may not be permanent but timed right it makes a dramatic difference when it comes to taking the clothes off for a stage or photo-shoot.
The major thing to keep in mind is that the ratio of higher to lower carb days in a week need to be adjusted based on your goal. For example for fat-loss majority of the days should be low carb; for mass-gain majority of the days should be higher carb; and for maintenance ratio of higher to lower carb days should be roughly 50:50.
Below you can find download my 7 day cycle and a one week example of a 7 day detailing my carb-cycling recommendations, which take into account a typical 4-day training split with a fast day.
With a Carb Cycling plan, I work out for you what you need to be eating each day based on your goals of weightloss, muscle gain or both and based level of activity and the demand on your body to fuel it to perform and recover and ultimate build lean muscle.
At this point, it is important to know that you will be eating more or less carbs on certain days and the full 7 day cycle in detailed in the 28 Day Warrior Goddess Body Programme and calculated for you in addition to providing you with details of the workouts you can do to match the Carb Cycling formula.