Carb Cycling 101

Shelby Starnes (Professional Bodybuilder) is considered a leading expert on carb cycling diets.
Shelby Starnes (Professional Bodybuilder) is considered a leading expert on carb cycling diets.

Carb cycling is a diet methodology that is employed by advanced physique athletes, as well as by certain popular “low carb” diets, and dietitcians.

The main concepts of carb cycling are:

1)  Eat high carbohydrates (CHO) in periods following fasting, or low carb dieting.  This takes advantage of increased insulin sensitivity (as a result of the prolonged lower blood sugar levels)  Due to this increased insulin sensitivity, carbohydrates will be particularly anabolic for the muscles, for a limited period of time following the fast or carb-free eating.

2)Cut CHO and kcal following periods of high or medium carb intake,  The degree of the cut, as far as ketogenic, low, or lw/medium carbs  depends on the individual.  Cutting carbs and kcal, following high carb/high kcal takes advantage of an increased BMR (basal metabolic rate[from increased eating]).

If you were to graph Carb(CHO) intake, when carb cycling it would look like a wave.  Periods of low carb intake are paired with high intake and vice versa.  The more extreme the reduction is, the more extreme the following excess is.  The following is graphed as a wave to show how blood sugar levels might be affected, although the actual value (grams of CHO per day, is shown at the intersection of the day [by #] and the line).


ATHLETE #1(blue)- Cutting phase bodybuilder

Day 1: Upper body lifting
Day 2: Hiit
Day 3:lower body lifting
Day 4: hiit
Day 5: Upper body lifting
Day 6:hiit
Day 7:Lower body lifting

etc etc…
The routine is by alternating day and day of the week has no affects, it changes weekly.
This individuals goal is to lose fat as quickly as possible without losing muscle or strength on compound movements.

In this case the strategy is the lifter takes only the minimum amount of CHO to replenish muscle glycogen, which prevents muscle from being burned, but leaves nothing left for energy (hence fatloss).


ATHLETE 2 (red):  Powerlifter Lean Bulk:  This athlete’s goal is miaximum strength increase with minimal fat gain.  Maximum muscle increase is also of benefit, the athlete has no weight class to stay in.

Standard Westside Barbell Template:

Day 1 (Monday):  Max Effort Upper
Day 2 (Tuesday):  Max Effort Lower
Day 3(Wednesday): Off
Day 4 (Thursday): Dynamic Effort Upper
Day 5(Friday): Dynamic Effort Lower
Saturday: Off
Sunday: Off

The approach taken is standard heavy bulking on the maximum effort days to recover from the 2 days that matter the most as far as strength building(Monday and Tuesday, the heavy days).  Wednesday is a completely ketogenic day to prevent and undo fat gain on Monday and Tuesday.  The lack of cardio on wednesday is intentional.  Strength without fat gain was the priority, not fat loss, and cardio decreases strength gains.  Then the diet supplies enough carbs to build muscle on the dynamic effort days, and just the minimum amount to blunt catabolic hormones over the weekend, on the off days.  It breaks down like this, 2 bulking days (Monday and Tuesday), one cutting day (Wednesday), and 4 maintenance days (Thursday through Sunday).  These diets work because you are accomplishing multiple things at once.  It isn’t that you are building muscle and burning fat at the same exact moment in time, but if a “moment” is changed to a “week”, it is deffinitely doable and actually the most efficient approach for most people.

ATHLETE #3 –  Highschool Football Player (Linebacker)
workout routine:
Day 1:  ME lower
Day 2:  ME upper
Day 3:  hiit/hill sprints
Day 4: Arms, calves, core, sprints
Day 5:  Olympic Lifting

Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off

CHO is supplied on hiit day because hiit is functional and related to anaerobic endurance moreso than fat-loss.  General Increased levels of Kcal and CHO would be due to the athlete being younger, still growing, and early in their weighlifting career(a beginner).  All of these factors make weight gained more likely to be muscle than anything else, given the fact that boys that age gain muscle anyway.

All of the above are valid examples of Carb Cycling that have been implemented based on the athlete’s goals (ending point), where they are now (starting point), and what they are doing physically outside of the kitchen to make a change.  Different carb cycles will create different results, but the best way is to pair CHO intake with gym activity, and of course do that in relation to whether fat maintenance (in the case of very in-shape individuals), or fat-loss is the goal of dieting.

Benefits of Carb Cycling for Fat-Loss:

You are getting the blood to “fat-loss” mode while the muscle still has glycogen (from the recent period of high CHO).  This makes it easy to lose fat while maintaning muscle.  This is why those who carb cycle properly should not lose muscle from hiit or cardio.

Carb Cycling’s Benefits Toward Muscle Gain:

High insulin sensitivity, from “under-feeds”, will cause glycogen supercompensation in the muscle.  This means more of the CHO and protein that is eaten will go to the muscles.  The athlete will feel this in the form of a pump, and strength will be gained with much more ease due to overfeed following underfeeds, rather than just contually overfeeding.

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