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The Definitive Guide to Carb Cycling

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The Definitive Guide to Carb Cycling

Is the carb cycling diet effective for fat loss and muscle growth? Is it better than traditional dieting? Read on to find out!

 

Like intermittent fasting, the carb cycling diet has some pretty big shoes to fill if you listen to its more fervent advocates.

According to them, carb cycling delivers the holy grail of bodybuilding: rapid fat loss while preserving, or even building, muscle. The more ridiculous claims go even further, enticing you with promises that you won’t have to count calories, and the allure of the high-carb day, wherein you stuff yourself silly with precious carbohydrates.

Another common selling point of the carb cycling diet is the claim that a traditional approach to dieting (steady protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake throughout the week, with planned cheats/refeeds) simply can’t get you to the “super lean” category (6% and under for men, 16% and under for women) without burning up a ton of muscle.

Well, in this article we’ll not only dive into what carb cycling is and how you do it, but we’ll also cut through the hype and hyperbole surrounding the matter and use a bit of science and anecdotal experience to get at its heart.

What is the Carb Cycling Diet?

The carb cycling diet is very simple. It works like this:

  • Throughout the week, you rotate through high-carb, moderate-carb, and low/no-carb days.
  • All days require a high protein intake.
  • Your fat intake is inversely related to your carbohydrate intake. That is, your fat intake is low when your carbs are high, and vice versa.

 

Exact protocols vary in terms of specific numbers, but all are based on that simple structure. For example, you may do 4 low-carb days, followed by a high-carb day, and then a no-carb day, and then start over. Or you may do 3 low-carb days followed by 1 high-carb day, and then back to the low-carb and so on.

Here’s what these days often look like numerically:

  • A high-carb day will generally have you eating 2-2.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. Your protein intake will be around 1 gram per pound, and your fat intake between 0-.15 grams per pound.
  • A moderate-carb day will call for about 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. Your protein intake will be between 1-1.2 grams per pound, and your fat intake around .2 grams per pound.
  • A low-carb day will call for about .5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. Your protein intake will usually increase to about 1.5 grams per pound, and your fat intake to around .35 grams per pound.
  • A no-carb day means less than 30 grams of carbohydrate per day. To achieve this, you basically can only eat a few servings of vegetables per day. Protein intake is around 1.5 grams per pound, and fat intake goes up to .5-.8 grams per pound.

The theory behind the diet is as follows:

Your high-carb day will refuel your muscles’ glycogen levels and flood your body with insulin, which has anti-catabolic effects (but not true anabolic effects like some people claim–insulin does not induce protein synthesis, but rather inhibits muscle breakdown). Most protocols recommend that you do your toughest workout on your high-carb day.

Your moderate-carb day gives you plenty of carbs to maintain glycogen stores, but doesn’t put you in enough of a caloric deficit to cause much weight loss. You train on these days.

Your no- and low-carb days are the days where you’re in a caloric deficit, and where some people claim the “magic” happens. These are the days where you “trick” your body into burning fat at an accelerated rate by keeping insulin levels low. It’s usually recommend that you use cardio or rest days for now/low-carb days, but if you lift more than 3 days per week, you will have to lift on 1 or more of these days. (Which sucks–more on this later.)

So, that’s how to do it. Let’s address the next question on your mind: does it work?

Is Carb Cycling Good for Weight Loss?

Can you use carb cycling to lose fat? Absolutely. 

Any dietary protocol that puts you in a caloric deficit, whether it’s daily or weekly or even monthly, will result in weight loss, regardless of the macronutrient breakdown.

Let me state this again:

So long as you keep yourself in a caloric deficit–meaning you give your body less energy than it expends–you will lose weight, regardless of whether the energy comes from protein, carbohydrate, or fat.

Part of the appeal of carb cycling are the claims that you don’t have to “count calories” or really “watch what you eat.” You simply follow a set of simple rules regarding eating “a lot” of carbs on high days, less on moderate days, and very few on no/low days.

This loose style of dieting works decently for maintenance, and may work for weight loss to a degree, but never works for getting shredded.

Getting below 8-9% body fat (men) or 18-19% (women) requires that you plan and track your macronutrient intake closely. Period. You need to know exactly how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you’re eating every day, and you need to manipulate these numbers to keep yourself in enough of a caloric deficit to continue losing fat, but not so much that you sacrifice muscle.

So the question of carb cycling and weight loss becomes…

 

Is Carb Cycling Better for Weight Loss Than Traditional Dieting?

Enthusiasts of the carb cycling diet will claim that your low-carb days will greatly accelerate your fat loss over what it would be with a traditional approach to dieting.

Unfortunately, science isn’t on their side. 

Let’s start with a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, which had 63 obese adults follow one of two diets:

  • A low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high fat diet. This consisted of 20 grams of carbohydrate per day, which gradually increased until target weight was achieved.
  • A conventional diet where 60% of calories came from carbohydrate, 25% from fat, and 15% from protein.

The result: the low-carbohydrate group lost more weight in the first 3 months, but the difference at 12 months wasn’t significant.

The 3-month result isn’t surprising, considering the fact that reducing carbohydrate intake reduces water retention, and also decreases the amount of glycogen we store in our liver and muscles, which further decreases total body water retentionThis, of course, causes a rapid drop in weight that has nothing to do with burning fat (and anyone that has reduced carbohydrate intake as a means of cutting calories for weight loss has experienced this).

Next is a study conducted by Harvard University on diet composition and weight loss. Researchers randomly assigned 811 overweight adults to one of four diets:

  • 20% of calories from fat, 15% from protein, and 65% from carbohydrate.
  • 40% from fat, 15% from protein, and 45% from carbohydrate.
  • 40% from fat, 25% from protein, and 35% from carbohydrate.

The result: after 6 months, participants assigned to each diet had lost an average of 6 kg, began to regain weight after 12 months, and by 2 years, all had lost an average of 4 kg. Researchers concluded the study with the following (emphasis added):

“Reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.”

study published by Arizona State University found that an 8-week high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein diet was equally effective in terms of weight loss as a low-carbohydrate, low-fat, high-protein diet.

Particularly relevant to this post is another study conducted by Arizona State University, wherein researchers pitted a ketogenic diet (a very low-carbohydrate diet) versus a traditional diet to see if one had a metabolic advantage over the other.

In this study, 20 overweight adults were randomly assigned to one of two diets:

  • A ketogenic diet, consisting of 60% of calories from fat, 35% from protein, and 5% from carbohydrate.
  • A traditional diet, consisting of 30% of calories from fat, 30% from protein, and 40% from carbohydrate.

After 6 weeks, the results were as follows:

  • No significant difference in total weight loss.
  • Hunger ratings improved for both diets with no difference between them. This strikes at a claim often made to sell carb cycling, which is that it blunts hunger better than traditional dieting. According this study, that isn’t true.
  • Resting energy expenditure went up for both diets, with no difference between them. The low-carb diet failed to provide any special metabolic boost.
  • Insulin sensitivity was improved in both diets, with no difference between them. This is yet another blow to the low-carb trend that’s taking the fitness world by storm. The fact is weight loss in and of itself is effective at improving insulin sensitivity, regardless of diet composition.

So, what you should take away from this section of the article is that the theory that low-carb days deliver the big fat loss punch of carb cycling are not supported by literature. They are simply part of the marketing pitch.

Before we move on, however, I’d like to mention that there is a scientifically supported exception to the above statement. That is, there are cases where some people do lose more fat by reducing carbohydrate intake (and the flip side is true as well–some people lose more fat by increasing carbohydrate intake).

How does that work and why? Check out my article on carbohydrates and weight loss to learn more about it.

For the purposes of this article, however, just know that some people’s bodies have problems digesting and using carbohydrates properly. This is due to impairments in insulin production and processing. For those people, reducing carbohydrate intake can help with weight loss. In my experience, however, this isn’t very common, and problems with insulin production and sensitivity can be vastly improved with diet and exercise.

 Some Anecdotal Support for Traditional Dieting

I both advocate and use a traditional approach to dieting because it’s simple, and it works very well when you do it right. The best diet is the one you can stick to, and you can get as lean as you want with traditional dieting.

Don’t believe me?

Well, I just finished an 8/9-week cut using a traditional diet (40% of calories from protein, 40% from carbohydrate, and 20% from fat).

I lost about 13 pounds and went from ~9% to ~6%, and my strength increased for the first 4-5 weeks, and then decreased back to my pre-diet numbers over the course of the last several weeks (and this was simply because I had to gradually reduce my calories, and I chose to pull from carbs–this makes workouts harder).

Here are a couple pictures of how I currently look:

20130616_2034259161980ed11011e2bbd822000a9f15da_7

You can’t get shredded eating 150-200 grams of carbohydrate every day? Please tell me more. Mr. Carb Cycler…

Okay then, let’s steam forward to the next big, bold claim made to sell people on carb cycling…

Can You Use Carb Cycling to Lose Fat and Build Muscle Simultaneously?

The short answer?

Maybe.

But it’s not the carb cycling per se that would make this possible. It would be your current level of conditioning, your training history, and your genetics.

For instance, I email with scores of guys and gals every day that are losing fat and building muscle on my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs, but they usually fit a certain profile:

  • They’re usually pretty out of shape to begin with, and have a fair amount of fat to lose.
  • They haven’t lifted weights before, or haven’t lifted anywhere near properly before. They’ve never focused on lifting heavy weights, compound lifts, progressive overload, etc.
  • They never quite knew what they were doing with their diets. Most have simply tried “eating clean,” but have never calculated, tracked, and manipulated macronutrients properly.

Under those circumstances, I actually expect people to both lose fat and build muscle while following my programs. But I don’t try to claim it’s because of the magical quantum mechanics of my methods like some carb cycling hucksters. It’s simply because the body responds incredibly well to proper diet and training, and especially in the beginning. Newbie gains are real, and are a lot of fun.

But if you’re an advanced lifter that is approaching your genetic potential, I can guarantee you that you will not  build muscle while losing fat without steroids, regardless of what you do in the kitchen or gym. What you can strive for, however, is maintaining the muscle you have by never putting yourself into too deep of a deficit, and not going overboard with too much steady-state cardio.

Another aspect of this “metabolic advantage” claim for carb cycling is that your high-carb day will give your body an “anabolic, muscle building boost” while simultaneously “shocking” your metabolism into high-gear, thus accelerating fat loss.

As you probably expect by now, these claims just aren’t supported by science.

I mentioned earlier that insulin can help preserve lean mass, but does not induce muscle growth, and any metabolic boost that comes with increased caloric intake is offset by the extra calories themselves. That is, you can speed your metabolism up by eating more, but never to a point where you’re burning the extra calories consumed plus  additional fat.

Also relevant to this claim in the fact that most people basically feel like shit on their no/low-carb days. If you want to know what carb cravings are really like, eat less than 50 grams of carbs per day for a week.

Training on a no/low-carb diet is even worse, and 1-2 higher carb days is not enough to offset this. If you want to drag ass and have basically the worst workouts ever, try to lift with any intensity on a no/low-carb day. Furthermore, a big part of maintaining lean mass while cutting is continuing to lift heavy weights and maintaining your strength, and drastic reductions in carbs make this impossible.

“Fuckarounditis” and the Bigger Picture

The bigger issue here is what Martin Berkhan called “fuckarounditis.” If we want to be more politically correct, we can call it “shiny object syndrome.”

That is, too many people are looking for magic bullets, quick fixes, advanced body hacks, and other nonsense to reach their goals. One week they’re following the Rebel Max Anabolic Anaconda Program, the next the X-Physique Metabolic Recomposition Program, and on, and on.

I have sympathy, but they’re basically the hipsters of the lifting community. They’re drawn to whatever is trending, whatever’s buzzworthy. And they’re always stuck in a rut.

I get emailed every day by people afflicted with fuckarounditis. It usually goes something like this:

“Hey Mike

“I’m currently following an intermittent fasting protocol combined with some carb cycling and backloading. In the gym I’m training twice per day on a power/hypertrophy triple-split, and I’m periodizing with volume training. Why am I not big and lean like you? What type of cutting-edge protocols do you follow?”

My reply usually leaves them a little baffled. I share my secrets:

  • I lift heavy ass weights 5 times per week. Pretty much every set I do for every muscle is with weights that allow for no more than 6 reps. Check out my post on the hardgainer myth to learn more about why.
  • I stick mainly to compound movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press. My isolation work is simply to prevent physique imbalances (side and rear lateral raises, and arms training).
  • I always push myself to beat my last week’s numbers, even if it’s only by one rep. Progressive overload is key.
  • I eat a lot of protein and carbohydrates, and enough healthy fats to maintain health. If I want to lose fat, I put myself in a mild caloric deficit. If I want to maintain my body fat percentage, I eat (more or less) what I burn every day. And if I want to focus on building muscle, I put myself in a mild caloric surplus. My meal plan fits my dietary needs, schedule, lifestyle, and food preferences, and I stick to it. Period.
  • I stay patient. I’m not looking for overnight results. I’m looking for small, weekly or bi-weekly improvements that, in time, add up to big changes.

That’s it. That’s all it takes.

Resist the allure of shiny objects. Don’t contract fuckarounditis.

So Should You Give Carb Cycling a Go?

I’ll make this section short and sweet:

If you know your body doesn’t do well with carbohydrates, then carb cycling may help you lose weight. Otherwise, don’t bother with it. It doesn’t deliver on its exaggerated claims, and training and, well, living on a no/l0w-carb diet sucks.

What are your thoughts on carb cycling? Have you tried it? Let me know in the comments below!

 

If you liked this article, then you’ll love this book…

Many people claim that eating right is more important than training right when it comes to building muscle and losing fat…and they’re wrong. It takes BOTH proper nutrition and proper training to transform your body. 

The truth is if you know how to train, eat, and rest properly, then you can build muscle and lose fat every week…and actually see the changes in the mirror.

And that’s why I wrote Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women: they lay out EVERYTHING you need to know about diet and training to build muscle and lose fat effectively…

The Book Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews.

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admin I’m Mike Matthews and I’ve been training for nearly a decade now. I believe that every person can achieve the body of his or her dreams, and I work hard to give everyone that chance by providing workable, proven advice grounded in science, not a desire to sell phony magazines, workout products, or supplements. More about me.

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108 Comments
  • ismael

    I am so confud

    • Quentin

      :)

  • ismael

    Confused :-)

    • Michael Matthews

      How so?

  • Martin

    Love your article…It’s easy to undertsand and simplifies this whole thing. Great job MIke !

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Martin! Really glad you liked it.

  • http://michaeldmassie.com/ Michael Massie

    Mike, I agree with you that you can lose weight on virtually any diet that puts you in a caloric deficit, at least, for a time. Roman Malkov wrote the definitive book on carb cycling, based on his experience as a nutritional adviser to the Russian Olympic team. Lean tissue conservation is the main reason Dr. Malkov used it with Olympians. I’ve used carb cycling for years to help my fitness clients bust through stubborn weight loss plateaus. It works. Anyone who wants to know more about it from a scientific perspective should read Malkov’s book for the why of carb cycling.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Mike! I’ll check out the book.

      The most common reasons why carb cycling helps people bust through weight loss plateaus are:

      1. They lose water weight due to the reduction in carb intake.

      2. They are forced to drastically reduce their caloric intake.

      The only exceptions that I run into here and there are people that are lean (8-9% in guys, 17-18% in girls) that want to get super lean. Sometimes people in these circumstances need to drop carbs quite a bit to lose the last bits of stubborn fat…

      • Mohanned Afeef

        No it is not the caloric deficit alone. Studies show that subjects do actually lose fat on carb cycling. Also, a study that compared two identical diets in caloric intake but which differ in their macro breakdown (high fat/low carb vs high carb/low fat) found that subjects in the high fat/low carb lost more weight and more fat. So, it isnt a caloric deficit only. Fat Loss/Weight Loss is more of a biochemical process than it is a physical process (Cals In/Cals Out).

  • JohnKov

    Mike,

    I agree with your “shiny object” standpoint totally. However, intermittent fasting can work wonders for some people, diabetics in particular.

    I am a type 2 diabetic and have been following your Bigger, Leaner, Stronger program for about 4 months now. While I have seen vast improvements in strength and body composition, I was still struggling with keeping my blood sugar levels down. The problem with this, which I am sure you are aware of, is that the higher my sugar levels, the more likely my body is to store fat.

    Since starting the intermittent fasting, I have had amazing progress in controlling my sugar levels. To the point that I have gone off medication all together and have had fasting sugar levels in the morning in the normal range for a non-diabetic!

    It is a little more difficult to do my workouts because I am still lifting heavy 4-5 days a week and I have not eaten before I go to the gym. However, I am determined to make the combination of your program and my new eating lifestyle work.

    My goal when I first started my fitness journey was to train my body to the point of almost reversing my disease. I would say at this point that I am well on my way!

    John

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks John! I’m really glad IF is working well for you. I actually support the use of IF:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com /the-definitive-guide-to-intermittent-fasting/

      I was just using it as example of what people will try in the belief that it will somehow make building muscle and losing fat much easier.

      That’s amazing regarding your blood sugar levels. Keep it up and I won’t be surprised if you completely handle the condition. I’ve spoken with quite a few people that have.

      Regarding the fasted lifting, are you doing BCAAs before? This is important. 10 grams before training, and a good post-workout meal.

      Again, keep it up. I’m excited for you!

      • JohnKov

        Yes, taking 15g when I wake up. My schedule goes as follows:
        BCAA’s at 7am, workout at noon, 5 more grams of BCAA’s and 3g of creatine immediately following workout. First meal at 2pm.
        It’s working wonders.

        • Michael Matthews

          That’s good. Not to nitpick, but I would recommend doing 10 grams BCAAs before your training, and then 10 grams after, and then eat at 2 pm. The BCAAs at 7am aren’t so important because you’ll have aminos still being released from your final meal of the previous day if it contained any amount of protein…

          • JohnKov

            Ok. Thanks for the advice!!

          • Michael Matthews

            YW!

  • Jenny Leadem

    Great article as always. This one really gets me pumped. My mom is one of those drawn to “shiny objects”. I can’t stand people who make excuses instead of just accepting what you have to do and doing it, no way around it. When you de-bunk this stuff it just reaffirms that I need to keep at it and work harder each day!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Jenny! Really glad you liked the article.

      Haha yeah many people are drawn to the shiny objects. Help her through it though!

      Yup, just keep up the good work. You’re doing great.

  • Roseann

    Good information, you know your stuff. It was nice to hear from a body builder that you don’t support a no or low-carb diet, and support a healthy diet with healthy numbers of carb, protein, and fat grams. A caloric deficit does do wonders….

    Roseann

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Roseann! I hate no/low-carb dieting and avoid it all costs. That said, it does have its place in contest preparation, but that’s only for about one week before the show.

      Yup, a mild deficit, proper exercise, and patience is all it takes.

  • Joe

    Dude you have a 5 pack!!!

    • Michael Matthews

      Hahah my ab genetics fail me. :(

  • rene

    Hi, mike, i was wondering how many calories did you eat while cutting at 40/40/20? thanks

    • Michael Matthews

      I started around 2400 and that took me from about 9% to 7.5% or so, and then reduced my calories 100 per week for 4 weeks to lose the final 1-1.5%.

  • Skylar

    Great stuff here, someone who does his research.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Sklyar!

  • Andy

    Mike, what’s your opinion about carb backloading?

    • Michael Matthews

      Not into it. I’ll be writing an article on it soon.

  • Illysa Hamlin

    Would you recommend the 40/40/20 for females wanting to get low body fat as well, just with less calories?

    • Illysa Hamlin

      Also, perfect timing on this great article – I was getting ready to institute carb cycling this month and after reading this I think I’ll save myself the headache! Another outstanding read.

      • Michael Matthews

        Thanks! Good call I think. It’s just not necessary.

    • Michael Matthews

      Yes.

      Generally speaking, you want to have between 1 – 1.2 grams of pro per pound of body weight, around .2 – .25 grams of fat per pound of body weight, and the rest of your calories from carbs.

      That’s about a 40/40/20 split unless you’re eating a LOT of food.

  • Wildan

    Excellent article Mike!

    I especially like your take on diet trends, showing how there are no such things as sixpack shortcuts. :p

    During the most of the summer I used carb cycling and it works but not for the reasons alot of people believe it does. My experience shows me that on the days I ate low carb I would eat a significally less amout of calories opposed to my high carb days. If I wouldn’t have counted my calorie intake I would’ve fooled myself believing I ate more than I actually did. Same goes for Intermittent fasting as well, if I shorten my eating window I naturally eat less, which simply creates a caloric defict and not a magic pill. ;)

    I would greatly appreciate your input on my current carb cyling routine:
    The average macros across the week are 30% fat, 30% carbs, 40% protein, spread differently across the week.
    On weekends I would consume 20f/60c/20p at 2400 kcal which is a slight caloric surplus for me.
    On monday and tuesday I’d still be pretty carbed up from the weekend so I’d eat 60f/10c/30p, again at 2400 kcal.
    Wednesday however I make it my fasting day and do not eat anything and I would leave it as a rest day for weightlifting too.
    On Thursday and Friday I switch to a caloric deficit at around 75% of the calories from the eating days, taking 10f/20c/70p ~1800 kcal which feel more like 2500-3000 kcal because of the protein abundance, sometimes I have to force myself to reach the caloric goal. Worst days for hitting the iron, because my glycogen is usually totally depleted and 20% carbs are quite limiting even if I consume them prior to my workout. On the weekend I’d start with the cycle from the begining and carb up again.

    Technically this way I’m cutting only on 3 days out of 7 but with a deficit of around 400-500 kcal/day (weekly average as 4 days are surplus). Doesn’t seem like much but I’ve been able to shed my bodyfat on a steady basis as well as retain my muscle mass and improve my lifts.

    As a big fan of Brad Pilons Eat Stop Eat mindset my main reason why I do this kind of cycle instead of daily caloric deficit is that with high fat days my HGH level rise and allow me to do a 32 hours fast once a week, with no muscle loss at all. I do seem a bit flat on wed-fri but as soon as I carb up again my muscles look full again.
    How would you see this kind of routine and would you recommend some tweaks?

    Thank you and greetings from Austria!
    Wildan

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Glad you liked it.

      Yup you’re totally right on the calories point. Low-carb is an easy way to restrict calories, as is IF.

      Your setup is technically good for a recomp approach. I don’t see any major flaws other than I would personally be in a surplus on training days, not rest days (unless you train on the weekend).

      How has your body been responding though? The reason I ask is I just haven’t really run into any natural weightlifters that can pull off the type of recomp that inspires people to try, you know?

      ESE is pretty good. I prefer Berkhan’s model though.

      • Wildan

        You’re right, with this schedule I also think that it’s best to train on surplus days. As I have most of my freetime on weekends I decided to make them my carb- and heavy training days so I do legs on sat, chest on sun, back on mon, biceps/triceps on tue and minor support muscles like delts and forearms on one of the caloric deficit days.

        As the cutting goes this sort of recomp was kind of a trial and error thing for me.

        My problem in general is that my body adapts pretty quickly to any kind of caloric deficit and responds with slowing down my metabolism. This does happen even with the setup I described above but it takes a bit longer. First time I went on it I made the mistake to do it for too long at a time (5 weeks) and I had a way too big gap between my caloric deficit and surplus which gave me a hard time on reload days causing me to “spill over” with the carbs and then crave them afterwards during the week.

        Eventually as I learned to calibrate my caloric intake vs. weight change, my body responded better as well. Still even with 4 days of caloric surplus my metabolism goes down, not by much, but at some point the effort doesn’t seem to give enough benefit. Two weeks never seem to be a problem but after the third week, in order to maintain the rate of fat loss, I find my self forced to reduce the average calories trough the week by a higher amount then it equals the weight change. I don’t feel any worse but I concluded that my metabolism is slowing down though so now I never do it for longer than 3 weeks and return to a steady slight caloric surplus at around 20f/50c/30p for a few weeks.

        It’s hard to objectivly measure my muscle gain during my carb-cycling but it’s deffinatelly there, eventhough it can’t compare with the results a steady supply of carbs at a continuous caloric suprlus.

        I know that this diet routine doesn’t sound like a great deal for some people but in terms of fat loss/muscle retention, carb cycling brought me the best results so far. Also a great benefit was that I developed a habit of being more careful about the quality of consumed carbs, which also helped me to avoid wild insulin spikes. I used to eat all kinds of processed crap before wondering why my gut engine wouldn’t get smaller. ;)

        I don’t think I’ll stay on this cycle trough the comming winter but I definatelly want to see how it compares to the same kind of a recomp/caloric intake but with something like 20f/50c/30p.

        I do believe that hormones have their role in fat loss but for sure not in such a huge way like it’s often believed today. Just like the issue with the thyroid I think it’s gladly used as a scapegoat for staying lazy. It still goes down to energy in – energy out.

        I never heard of Berkhan’s model but I’ll make sure to check it out, thanks!

        • Michael Matthews

          Definitely better to train on surplus days. Good call.

          Hmm I suspect that your training could be optimized. You shouldn’t be having any metabolic issues until you get to the 7-8% body fat range.

          What is your exercise schedule like? What type of lifting program are you following?

          You’re right, hormones don’t affect weight loss as much as some people believe.

          You can read about Berkhan’s Leangains here:

          http://www.muscleforlife.com /the-definitive-guide-to-intermittent-fasting/

  • maxfaxmax

    On point-best article iv come across in a long time

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Max!

  • Andy

    Great article! i also just purchased your book. love how all the macros are already figured out for you, makes life that much easier. Cant wait to try some new recipes. I have a question about the 40/40/20. Do you keep it and your calorie intake the same on your rest days?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Andy! I hope you like the recipes.

      I keep my cals the same when I’m cutting, and usually when I’m maintaining. (Kinda depends how big my Friday night cheat meal is, haha.) Sometimes I’ll drop 300-500 cals on my rest days when I’m maintaining.

      When I’m bulking, I like to drop cals to maintenance for my rest days.

  • Marissa Georgiou

    Hi Mike, I just read an article on tabatatimes.com about how women at resting burn glucose as opposed to men who tend to burn fat at rest. Therefore it suggested that manipulating carbs (carb cycling) occasionally could assist the body use fat stores. It did caution however that restricting calories too low would be counter effective. Would like to get your thoughts on this. Perhaps you could look into whether the articles comments on the metabolic differences between men and women are substantiated?

    • Michael Matthews

      I haven’t seen any research on the glucose vs. fat point, but I have seen research indicating that men simply oxidize fat easier than women (and thus can generally lose fat easier).

      That said, there’s no change as to how to lose the weight–moderate deficit, regular exercise, strength training a big bonus.

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  • Lucian Popescu

    How to carb cycle if I’m lifting 5 days a week ?

  • Lucian Popescu

    Thx

    • Michael Matthews

      YW

  • Samuel Sander

    Hey, first off – awesome blog, been soaking up the info for the past few hours :D
    A few months ago I started with leangains and carb cycling. Decided to drop the carb cycling approach now and also add some randomness to IF – eg. eat breakfast on some days and do a longer fast than on others.

    Thing is though, now when I don’t carb cycle anymore – I should still stick to eating more calories on training days and less on rest days, right? How do you approach this (whether cutting/bulking/maintenance) – do you eat a set amount of calories each day or do you eat more on training days? (so calorie surplus/deficit would show on a weekly scale)

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Sam! Really appreciate it.

      Cool on what you’re doing. That’s totally fine.

      Yeah, a slight surplus on training days and a deficit on off days is a workable way of maintaining. I’m actually going to talk about it in depth in my next book, which will be out in January/Feb.

      The idea is your WEEKLY cals are at maintenance, but you don’t want your daily surplus so large that you have to eat next-to-nothing on your off days, haha.

      Keep in mind you don’t have to do this at all though. You can just eat TDEE every day and be fine too.

      • Samuel Sander

        Oki, so TDEE (including multiplier) or higher/lower calories depending on the nature of the day – both work. I reckon I’ll go with the latter on most days though..just personal preference.
        Thanks a lot! :))

        • Michael Matthews

          Yeah exactly. YW!

  • Jordan

    Do you have an article that goes into depth about all the different kinds of carbs? Mainly hi GI carbs vs low GI carbs? I know in BLS you mentione hi GI carbs are best eaten right after a workout, but other than that it’s better to stick with low GI. Is that the “definitive guide” version?

    Thanks Mike, love the info!

    • Michael Matthews

      No I don’t but this is on the list!

  • Jamal

    Mike, what is your opinion on people saying, skinny fats cannot be in surplus or deficit consistently or will gain fat/lose muscle? I’m skinny fat and until recently had been doing this… lift 4 times a week. On lifting days eat 300 cal below maintenance and on not lifting days eat 700 cal below maintenance. I’d follow the leangains guide where I’d do same protein every day but 70%/30% carbs/fat for the remaining calories on training days and 30%/70% carbs/fats on non-training days. All training done fasted so I would the body with carbs right after a training session, so i’d be in a short term surplus after I lifted weights. 2 of my rest days would include fasted cardio as well. This had worked well but I want to switch to the BLS program. Only problem is, my diet would have to change as the 5x a week program cannot allow for more than 2 rest days. So I’m thinking of switching to a consistent caloric deficit daily, same macros every day. I’m afraid that if that “consistently in a deficit” will lead to muscle loss for people with skinnyfat genetics theory is correct that I will lose a ton of muscle.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Jamal! That’s bogus. Skinny fat is just a problem of body composition and you fix it the same. Some people need to eat more and some people less, but once you know your metabolism, you can just roll along smoothly.

      I don’t recommend alternating surpluses and deficits unless you’re an advanced weightlifter more or less happy with your physique and you’re just trying to stay lean and make slow, 3-5 pounds per year gains.

  • DJVege

    Only just read this page. I’ve carb cycled a few times in my life, only for about 3 months max in each straight run, and I’ve dropped fat/weight fairly well. However, you definitely you definitely feel LOW on the low/no days. Obviously, you don’t lift weights on those days (unless you’re an idiot), so I did cardio/stretching/rest on those days. I seemed to only lose a little muscle and a good deal of fat. I can see, reading your article, however, that the decrease is really just due to being in a weekly calorie deficit. Whether carb cycling is better at maintaining muscle during fat loss periods, I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to give a straight 40/40/20 a go to see the different.

    So, while I would definitely say Carb Cycling WORKS when done CORRECTLY, for the average human who wants to build muscle, lose weight, and not take steroids, 40/40/20 looks to be a much better fit. No low/no days where you feel crappy and irritated at work. :)

    Of course, sneaking in a week or 2 of carb cycling for photos is still viable. :)

    Thumbs up on the great article. I learned a lot.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah, it works, it’s just not necessary, that’s all.

      Glad you liked the article. :)

  • Jay Abate

    Mike,
    Do you eat the same meals every day to assure your macros are correct?
    jay

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah or if I want to change a meal, I make sure to look up the macros.

  • Danielle Martinson

    Great article! I had luck dropping a few pounds with carb restriction but boy was I weak and moody! I couldn’t do that for the long term so I gained it all back. Learned my lesson and now I follow the 40/40/20 which allows me to stick with it and have energy for my HIIT days as well as weight lifting days. Thanks for all the great information! :)

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Danielle! Haha yeah, low-carb dieting sucks. Nice on what you’re doing. Keep up the good work!

  • Jonas

    Do you know Martin berkhan or Anthony Mychal? they are both carb cycling and are insanely ripped as well…

    • Jonas

      anthony mychal suggests to eat 1 pound of meat per day, fattier on low carb, and lean meats on high carb, then much carbs on training days and much fat on rest days…
      i mean it seems to work ( look at the picture)
      i also like that idea of eating its just way more liberate!
      or could it just be done like this: “your everday diet” on training days, on rest days high fat? like 30 protein, 20 carb, 30 fat ( or what could you recommend?)

      how do you even maintain your diet when eating out or how can it be done?

      • Jonas

        thats anthony mychal

        • Michael Matthews

          Great physique for sure.

      • Michael Matthews

        That’s a sensible way to eat. i do something similar and talk about it in my next book, as “zig zagging” calories is most suitable for advanced lifters.

        Eating out sucks for dietary purposes. I just save it for cheat meals so I don’t have to think about it.

    • Michael Matthews

      Cycling calories can help you stay lean but a carb cycling routine that has you drastically lowering and raising carb intake just isn’t necessary.

      • Jonas

        would it work to eat a bit more fat on the off days and the recommended amount of carbs on training days( so no drastic lowering of carbs, but still enough carbs to fuel regeneration, basic movement etc, but bot as much as on training days, because not as much is needed) ..

        and how would this day look like in terms of macro ratio then?
        150 g protein still of course..

        but then? 100 grams fat, 200 grams carbs? how can i calculate that?
        the reason why i would probably enjoy this is because i like fatty stuff like yoghurt, milk, nuts oils all thr stuff but im very limited on training days, as in most of my protein sources theres already much fat with it..

        • Michael Matthews

          Yeah, that totally works. I will be talking about this in my next book and I break all the numbers down.

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  • Laura

    Interesting. Carb cycling is the only thing that seems to work for me. I tried calorie defector using my fitness pal and weighing everything!! Excercise and weighing myself daily, my weight went up :(. I have hormonal problems, hypothyroid and have just gone on the contraceptive pill to balance my hormones (obviously I’m a girl). I’m assuming hormones play a big role in weight loss for people as well. We all have different levels which is why some weight loss programs work for some and not others. Just a theory

    • Michael Matthews

      It really depends how much you were eating previously and what your exercise routine was like. And you may have been running into water retention issues:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/water-retention-and-weight-loss/

      Hormones don’t affect your ability to lose fat as much as people think. Yes, the lower your T levels the naturally heavier you will be, but hormones mess with water retention more.

  • Jason

    Hey mike good article like always. I have just recently started a carb cycling program and it sucks terribly lol.

    It’s from the book engineering the alpha by john romaniello.

    Your thoughts if you checked that out yourself.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Jason! Haha I also hate low-carb dieting. Haven’t read the book….

  • Tommaso

    Another great article – certainly agree with the faddish euphoric element to IF/Carb-cycling and other “diets”

    That said, i’ve never followed a carb-cycle per se, though i do tend to reduce my carb intake fairly drastically when im cutting. I normally keep my carb intake at or around 1g per KG of bodyweight (for me that’s around 75) per day – the majority of which is taken pre and post workout, or if im using BCAAs for workouts, then post and either breakfast/dinner. All the while keeping protein high (~2.5-3g per KG of bodyweight), and fats moderate.

    Quantity control never seemed to work that well for me, whereas using low carb, and toying with some keto diet philosophies, i shed an appreciable amount of body fat, and didnt lose any noticeable muscle. My measurements stayed pretty much the same, and my lifts didnt seem to suffer too much, though that was while i was using the 8-12 rep range; not the BLS 4-6 range with much heavier weights.

    I think this time i may try to reduce my carb intake more gradually and see how i fare. Any thoughts?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!

      I also reduce my carbs when cutting simply because I have to reduce calories, but I never go below .8 grams per pound. Low-carb dieting sucks for training though. You lose quite a bit of strength.

      The bottom line is so long as your insulin response and sensitivity are good, you can get shredded eating plenty of carbs every day.

  • TheTallGuy

    Hi Mike, I just bought Bigger Leaner Stronger and am about halfway through, I am enjoying it. When I saw that you are actually answering questions here I got excited.
    Here’s my question. I’m a tall guy (6’7″, 245), medium build, about 20-30 lbs of fat I’d like to lose eventually, but would also like to put on 20lbs of muscle for a net affect of weighing about 235-245 lbs. If I were to choosing the bulking cycle first, I would need to start consuming around 3,660 calories a day. My current average is 2600-2800 and carbs on the low side. I have a hard time eating more than that, especially by adding complex carbs which I find very filling. But one easy way I know I could add another 500-700 calories without filling me up so much is Almonds. I love almonds, and I could add them as snacks and easily get to 3660. Only problem is that makes my Fat macros pretty high. Is there something magical about getting those extra calories from complex carbs? Or can I safely substitute for almonds?? Thanks!!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks so much!

      Cool on your stats and goal. I like it.

      It sounds like you should cut first. Here’s why:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/the-best-way-to-gain-muscle-not-fat/

      Let me know what you think!

      • TheTallGuy

        Thank you for the quick reply! I like the rule in that article helping to make the decision between bulking and cutting. You’re right, I am over 15% body fat (around 22-25% I think) so I should cut first. According to your formula that would put me at around 2600 cals per day.
        About my other question, when I do bulk, can I substitute almonds for brown rice to be able to get enough calories without stuffing myself? 3660 calories is just a lot to eat, I don’t care who you are, but due to my height, I need to find a way to do it. If I substitute some almonds, my macros would be at about 250g protein, 321 carb, 150 g fats. All healthy foods. Is that 150g fat going to harm me while bulking? Thanks!

        • Michael Matthews

          My pleasure! Cool let’s have you cut first.

          What I like to do is focus on eating a bunch of calorie-dense foods. Here are my favorites:

          Red meat

          Grains like brown rice and quinoa

          Oils like coconut oil and olive oil

          Avocado

          Whole-fat dairy

          Multi-grain pasta and bread

          Almonds and almond butter

          Bananas

          White and sweet potatoes

  • David Roberts

    Hey mate I’m 13 stone with 16bf how much protein fats and carbs would I need to do this carb backing loading to get lean, I train 4days a week, I understand that on non traing days you do less en 30grams of carbs but how much protein and fat would I need en and when I do train how much?

  • Nikky

    When a person approaches carbs and fat cycling properly, she/he never trains on low/no crabs days (these days are rest days). Carbs and fat cycling works wonderfully! It works for both muscle gain and fat loss. I never reduce my calories. It doesn’t work for me. I do not understand how people can work out while reducing calories (energy level?). I cycle carbs and fat. I change my diet. I change my ratios. I am very happy with this approach because I can eat plenty of carbs and plenty of fat, and it works into my advantage. It also works well for females because girls burn more carbs than fat at rest!

    • Michael Matthews

      That doesn’t work if you’re training 5 days per week. And if you’re losing fat, you’re creating a calorie deficit. You just aren’t counting or tracking numbers, that’s all.

      • Nikky

        Correct. It does not work if you train 5 days per week, and that’s why I mentioned rest days. If a person trains 5 days per week and his body and CNS recover (and such person must lift exceptionally heavy if he needs to split body parts to train 5 days per week), he is either genetically very gifted or chemically enhanced. Training 5 days per week in most cases eventually leads to over training.

        I count my ratios precisely. Always. I just shared with you my experience. You made presumptions that do not exist.

        • Michael Matthews

          I work with hundreds of guys and gals of all ages training 5 days per week and they do great. The claims that 5 x per week = overtraining are bogus.

          Ah cool on the tracking. Then you know you’re creating a calorie deficit (restricting your calories)…

  • http://webbynode.com/ Felipe Coury

    Mike, I weigh 191lbs and I’m having around 200g protein daily to support muscular gains.

    Thing is I am still overweight and have a lot of fat to burn. I am following BLS’s routine and I am weekly beating my last week’s numbers, like clockwork.

    My current problem is that I am trying to stay at 1,800kcal por day and eating more carbs make that number go up a lot, considering I stick with 200g protein/day.

    My usual numbers are 40-50g fat, 100-200g carbs and 200-250g protein. Today, for instance I did 50g fat, 123g carbs and 209g protein, however the calories ratio is Carbs 27%, Fat 25% and Proteins 48%.

    I am noticing this is becoming a constant. Given that I am still losing weight, however now at a much slower pace (lost 58 pounds already, and am losing 0.5 to 1pound per week), should I change this ratio? How can I achieve that without affecting my protein intake? Or is my current ratio OK during this (eternal) cutting phase I’m on?

    Thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      The calories will determine overall weight loss but I would recommend keeping your macro intake more constant. You want the carbs to keep your training numbers up…

      • http://webbynode.com/ Felipe Coury

        Hi Mike!

        Thanks again for your reply.

        They are constant, just not 40% p / 40% c / 20% f. They are more like 50% p / 30% c / 20% f. Would that be a feasible goal if I stay at 1800kcal or should I really aim at 40/40/20?

        I think this was what I intended to ask.

        • Michael Matthews

          Ah okay. Protein doesn’t need to be that high but it’s not detrimental. Personally I would drop 5 – 10% pro and add to carbs.

  • Schyluer Jarman

    Mike great article. Im trying to learn everything I can about how to get as strong as possible while staying in a weight class for Olympic lifting. Obviously this means trying to increase my LBM as much as possible by replacing some fat with muscle.. I am 9-10% BF right now. And want to get to about 7-8% for my next competition while increasing muscle and strength BUT i have a weight class. What would you recommend? I lift 6 days a week. With two days being max effort on squats and 1 day max C&J.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!

      Hmm honestly by staying natural all you can do is diet and train correctly and see how your body responds. You sound like an experienced weightlifter so I highly doubt you’ll be able to go from 10 to 7% AND get stronger…

  • rayca

    “Without burning up a ton of muscle”–LOL. Do you realize your heart is muscle. Do u really think your body is so stupid as to burn heart muscle? Or do u live in a world where the muscle is selective, like quads or biceps? Honestly. The only people I’ve ever heard of losing TONS of muscle are people who fast for weeks at a time and POWs. Next time u r in San Francisco, stop by. There’s a bridge I’d like to sell u.

    • Michael Matthews

      Says someone who most definitely has never been below 10% body fat.

      Real useful comment.

      • Renier

        Haters gonna Hate mike, just ignore…

  • Gabriel

    I’ve been working out for 5 years now. Like you, I do heavy workout 5 days per week. After trying several diet approaches, I found out that my body have a really good response with carb-cycling diets, even for bulking. My mass gains are bigger and leaner than with a high-carb diets. For me, it’s related to my overweight past and genetics (lot of people from my family has diabetes) that makes my body insulin resistence very high and work very well with carb cycling diets.

    • Michael Matthews

      Great! HIgh-carb is definitely the way to go and if you like carb cycling, keep it up!

  • Gerardo celasco

    Do you do consults? What the best place to email you?
    Gerardocelasco@gmail.com

    • Michael Matthews

      I don’t as I don’t have the time at the moment but I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.

  • Ravi

    I think the issue is not around weight loss but fat loss. If any calorie deficient diet will result in weigh loss…. Are you saying an individual can go on a Twinkie and doughnut diet and lose weight as long as they are below they calorie maintenance level. I believe the reason behind the low carb diet is on the low carb days… The body relies on body fat stores for energy thus reducing fat. So low carb leads more to better body composition. All the diets may have lost the same weight but how did the individuals look? Was the body composition better in the low carb? That is the question.

  • David M. Day

    Hi Michael… Very very good write up. I’ve been looking for a good formula to follow and you have provided that perfectly. Is there a good “rule of thumb” formula for a “refeed day”? Or is a refeed not even need this particular system?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Generally a refeed is eating about 2-3g carb per pound of body weight and as little fat as possible.

  • bored@work

    Its good to see a post about diets that actually reference technical publications. Although, it seems as though diet is very person-specific. You referenced publications that show low carb diets as being equal in the long-term to traditional diets (although for small sample sizes). However, there are publications which show the exact opposite. One such publication concludes “[i]ndividuals assigned to a [very low carb ketogenic diet] achieve a greater weight loss than those assigned to a [low fat diet] in the long term”:

    Nassib Bezerra Bueno, Ingrid Sofia Vieira de Melo, Suzana Lima de Oliveira and Terezinha da Rocha Ataide (2013). Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Nutrition, 110, pp 1178-1187. doi:10.1017/S0007114513000548.

    I think (and this is just personal opinion) that it really just comes down to the individual, and what works for their specific body.

  • Kat

    Hi Michael,

    I just finished TLS a few days ago and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about overall nutrition and strength. I have two questions for you. I’m currently 5’4, 130, 20.9% body fat and (like everybody else) I’d love to lose fat and gain muscle.

    1. Do I focus solely on HIIT cardio and calorie deficit to get down to 15% before I start strength training?

    2. According to the book calculations, I should be eating 1380 calories a day, at roughly 40/40/20. Does this include exercise? For example, if I burn 100 calories doing HIIT cardio, should I be eating those calories back?

    I apologize if you’ve answered these questions before, I tried to do some hunting for answers but didn’t come across any.

    Thanks!

    • Kat

      I did a little more digging and came across your Healthy Meal Planning Tips post. I calculated 80% of my TDEE (with 1-3 hrs exercise per week) is 1322, which is less than the TLS calculation. Any advice on what to go by?

      And am I understanding correctly that if I go by 40/40/20 at 1322 cals per day, I don’t bother tracking calories burned per exercise and then try to eat them back?

      Thanks so much!

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