If you’re looking for that “one weird trick” to melt belly fat…
Or those special exercises that will unlock unlimited gains…
Or that exotic pill or powder that will transform your physique…
Then you’re not going to like this article because you’ll find none of that here.
No hacks. No shortcuts. No nonsense.
Instead, you’re going to learn what science actually says about carb cycling and how well it may or may not help you lose weight.
Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is just showing up. Very applicable to us fitness-minded folk because 80% of having the body you want is hewing to the “boring” fundamentals.
Which brings me to the subject at hand: carb cycling.
Some people would like you to believe it’s part of the 80%, but as you’ll soon see, it’s not. Not even by a long shot.
That said, that doesn’t mean it can’t help you lose weight and reach your fitness goals faster.
So, keep reading and you’re going to learn what carb cycling is, how it works, and how to know if it’s something for you.
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Table of Contents
Carb cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in carbohydrate intake.
It usually involves increasing and decreasing caloric intake, too.
There are many carb cycling protocols out there, but most suggest alternating between at least two of three types of days:
These days generally call for something around 2 to 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. They’re the highest in terms of caloric intake as well.
Most protocols peg your carb intake around 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight on low-carb days, which can be a bit of a struggle if you’re also training on those days. Caloric intake is usually lower than high-carb days, too.
These days are, quite frankly, rather hellish. A true no-carb day calls for less than 30 grams of carbs for the entire day and a low caloric intake as well.
As you can see, carb cycling requires that you pay very close attention to your meal planning and adhere strictly to it. It’s not for dilettantes or “half measure” types.
Why, then, do people subject themselves to it? And is it worth it?
Carb cycling emphasizes the importance of manipulating your carbohydrate intake, so let’s start this discussion there.
Why the focus on carbs?
You’ve probably also heard that you have to eat a lot of carbs to build muscle efficiently.
Thus, a dilemma:
Well, this is exactly the problem that carb cycling purports to solve, and is exactly why people are willing to suffer through it.
Specifically, the higher-calorie, higher-carb days are supposed to…
And the lower-calorie, low- and no-carb days are to ramp up fat burning.
Sounds perfect, right?
Theoretically, then, you should be able to use carb cycling to build muscle without gaining fat…or maybe even build muscle and lose fat at the same time!
If you take a grounded look at the science, though, it quickly becomes clear that the pitch is more sizzle than steak.
To understand why, we need to dig deeper into one aspect of carb cycling in particular…
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
Most people interested in carb cycling want to know one thing:
Can it help me lose weight?
Sure it can.
But there’s more: so can any other diet that puts you in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time.
In fact, that’s the only way to achieve meaningful weight loss–you must consistently eat fewer calories than you burn, regardless of the carbs you do or don’t eat.
This isn’t an opinion. This is scientific fact.
After a century of metabolic research and anecdotal evidence, there’s just no room left for argument. “Calories in vs. calories out” (known scientifically as energy balance) dictates weight loss and gain, not food choices or meal frequency or any other factor.
Many of the health and fitness “PDF peddlers” won’t tell you that, though. They want you to believe that their brand of carb cycling is the “secret” that Hollywood bombshells use to melt belly fat and drop pounds by the bucketfuls.
Well, to get to the bottom of it all, we have to ask a different question:
Is carb cycling is any better for losing weight than traditional dieting?
And the answer is maybe, but that doesn’t mean it’s a better mousetrap.
This is why carb cycling (and low-carb diets in general) can result in faster weight loss than traditional, higher-carb dieting.
Notice, though, that I didn’t say anything about fat, which is what we really want to lose (water and glycogen weight will just come back once you’ve resumed your normal diet).
To be clear, while we may say we want to lose weight, what we really mean is we want to lose fat and not muscle. That’s what will improve our body composition and get us closer to the body we really want.
The real question we have to answer, then, is this:
Is carb cycling is any better for losing fat than traditional dieting?
Ask just about anyone how to lose fat, and they’ll probably say something cutting out carbs.
It’s the weight loss diet du jour.
It also can’t live up to the hype.
Yes, there are studies that seem to demonstrate it can–that low-carb dieting is significantly better for losing fat. This, this, and this are a few of the more popular ones among low-carb evangelists.
Other research shows otherwise, though.
For example, this study conducted by scientists at Arizona State University found that a low-carb diet offered no metabolic or weight loss advantages over a traditional diet.
Well, God is in the details, as they say, and in this case, the detail that matters most is protein intake.
Namely, when you read over the research you’ll notice that when a low-carb diet has resulted in greater fat loss than a higher-carb diet, it has invariably contained more protein.
Yes, one for one…without fail.
In some cases, the high-carb groups were given less protein than even the RDI of 0.8 grams per kg of body weight, which is just woefully inadequate for weight loss purposes. Studies have shown that double and even triple those (RDI) levels of protein intake isn’t even enough to fully prevent muscle loss while dieting to lose fat.
This is a catastrophic design flaw because it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
You can’t pit a high-protein, low-carb diet against a low-protein, high-carb diet, observe that the former results in more weight loss, and then ascribe the results to the low-carb element of the design.
And especially not when it’s a well-known fact that a high-protein diet is itself superior for losing weight.
Instead, you’d have to compare a high-protein, low-carb diet and a high-protein, high-carb diet to get a real assessment of whether low-carb truly is better for weight loss.
When caloric and protein intake are matched among low-carb and high-carb dieters, there’s no significant difference in weight loss.
That is, a high-protein, low-carb diet simply doesn’t help you lose fat faster than a high-protein, high-carb diet.
Now, let’s bring this all back to carb cycling.
As it’s essentially a carb-restricted diet, carb cycling may help you lose weight faster but won’t help you lose fat faster.
That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t cycle your carbs when you want to lose weight.
Some people don’t process carbs well and respond better to lower-carb dieting. You generally see this in the very overweight, and in these cases, carb cycling can serve them well.
Another reason to carb cycle when you want to lose weight is because you like it, and if that helps you keep your diet on track, that’s valuable.
So, if you want to give carb cycling a go, you can learn how to set it up here.
Nobody wants to just “gain weight.”
They want to gain muscle and not fat. Or, even better, gain muscle while losing fat.
Can you do that with carb cycling?
Sure you can.
Is it better for building muscle than traditional dieting, though?
No surprise here: nope.
In fact, carb cycling can even hinder muscle gain due to a lower overall carb intake.
You see, how much carbohydrate you eat affects your muscle gain in two ways:
1 . It helps maintain high levels of glycogen in your body.
Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the muscles and liver.
As it’s a fuel for your muscles during workouts, increasing glycogen stores can improve your workout performance, which, over time, can lead to greater gains.
Insulin is a hormone that shuttles nutrients into cells for use.
While it’s not anabolic like testosterone, it does have anti-catabolic properties, which means it decreases the rate at which muscle proteins are broken down. This, in turn, creates a more anabolic environment in which muscles can grow faster.
When you eat food (and carbs in particular), insulin levels rise, which is why a higher-carb diet results in generally higher insulin levels (which is more conducive to muscle growth).
This isn’t just theory, either–several studies have shown that high-carb diets are superior to low-carb ones for gaining muscle and strength.
For example, researchers at Ball State University found that low muscle glycogen levels (which is inevitable with low-carb dieting) impair post-workout cell signaling related to muscle growth.
Another study, this time conducted by scientists at the University of North Carolina, found that when combined with daily exercise, a low-carb diet increased resting cortisol levels and decreased free testosterone levels.
Cortisol is a hormone that breaks tissues down, including muscle, and testosterone is the primary hormonal driver of muscle growth, so this is basically the opposite of what you want for getting bigger and stronger.
Yet another study worth mentioning was conducted by researchers at the University of Rhode Island, and it looked at how low- and high-carb dieting affected exercise-induced muscle damage, strength recovery, and whole body protein metabolism.
The result was the subjects on the low-carb diet (which wasn’t all that low, actually—about 226 grams per day, versus 353 grams per day for the high-carb group) lost more strength, recovered slower, and showed lower levels of protein synthesis.
And last but not least, in a study conducted McMaster University, subjects performed daily leg workouts and followed either a low- or high-carb diet. Those on the low-carb diet experienced higher rates of protein breakdown and lower rates of protein synthesis, resulting in less overall muscle growth than their higher-carb counterparts.
And it also explains why carb cycling protocols that are, at bottom, low-carb diets aren’t ideal for gaining muscle.
Again, though, just because it isn’t optimal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
As I mentioned earlier, you might find that your body is particularly sensitive to carbs and feels better when you reduce intake several days per week. You might also just like it more.
These are valid reasons to use carb cycling to build muscle.
Too many people are looking for magic bullets, quick fixes, “biohacks,” and other nonsense to reach their fitness goals easier and faster.
One month they’re following the Rebel Max Anabolic Anaconda Program, then it’s on to the Xtreme Adonis Metabolic Recomposition Program, followed by the Hyper-Aggressive Warrior Fat Shredding Intensive, and on and on.
And it doesn’t get them very far.
I know because I get emails like this every day:
“I’m currently carb cycling, carb backloading, and intermittent fasting on a power/hypertrophy triple-split that I periodize with a strength complex. 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”:
High-rep “pump” training has its uses but when it comes to building muscle and strength, heavy lifting is king.
Again, isolation exercises have their place in a proper weightlifting program but compound movements are more important.
If you want your muscles to grow, you have to force them to. Progressive overload is key.
I’m not looking for overnight results. I’m looking for small, incremental improvements that, in time, add up to big changes.
That’s it. That’s all it takes.
The reality is you don’t need to do anything fancy or special like carb cycling, but you can if you like it more than traditional dieting.
Remember that, in many ways, the best diet is the one you can stick to.