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How Carb Cycling Can Help You Build Muscle, Lose Fat and Develop a Lean Body

Updated on December 8, 2018
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Use carb cycling to build muscle and lose fat.
Use carb cycling to build muscle and lose fat. | Source

Build Muscle And Lose Fat

Is it possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time? Although opinions differ, the short answer is “yes, it is possible”. Beginners and people with high testosterone levels can do it without much difficulty. For the rest of us however it’s a bit more of a challenge, but it can be done quite effectively if you use a nutritional strategy known as carb cycling.

The Way To Build Muscle And Lose Fat

Basically, if you want to build muscle you need to consume a calorie excess, with plenty of protein and carbs, and do heavy resistance training. Whereas, if you want to lose fat you need to consume a calorie deficit. So the usual approach is to concentrate on one of these at a time, using a ‘bulking and cutting’ strategy. However if you vary your calorie (and carb) intake on a day to day basis, you can have some days geared toward building muscle (your training days), and other days geared toward losing fat. This is the basis of carb cycling.

The problem with bulking and cutting is that during a bulking phase you would typically gain a lot of fat along with the muscle. And then during the cutting phase you would lose a lot of the muscle you had worked so hard for. So over the course of a year your actual amount of muscle gain would be quite small. Apart from that you’d spend a large part of the year looking ‘bulky’, i.e. fat. But with carb cycling you can build muscle, lose fat and develop that lean body all at the same time. So you’ll look good all year round. And although it might seem that progress is slower, you’ll find that by the end of the year it’s about the same – or maybe even better.

How To Do Carb Cycling

You can approach carb cycling in a number of ways, but the basic premise is that you eat higher carbs (and calories) on your training days, to facilitate muscle gains, and lower carbs (and calories) on your off days, to facilitate fat loss. Your protein intake remains about the same on all days.

The exact way you would do this will depend on your own specific goals. So if your main aim is to build muscle you would consume a weekly calorie excess in order to build muscle without gaining any fat (or maybe even losing some fat). But if your main aim is to lose fat you would consume a weekly calorie deficit to lose fat whilst maintaining (or even gaining) muscle. Or you could adjust your calorie intake to put an equal emphasis on both.

With some carb cycling plans you are advised to have just high carb and low carb days, whereas other plans suggest high, medium and low carb days. Both methods work, but my suggestion is that the one you choose should depend on how many days per week you train.

If you train three days per week, just have all of these days as high carb days, and have the other four days as low carb days.

But if you train four days per week, have two of these days (your heavier or priority days) as high carb days, the other two training days as medium carb days, and again have your off days as low carb days.

On your low carb days you would eat mostly protein foods, healthy fats and vegetables. But you can also have some nuts, beans and a small amount of fruit if you wish. And on your high carb days you would reduce your fat consumption and add in some starchy carbs such as brown rice, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes etc.

A Carb Cycling Meal Plan

So assuming you eat three main meals per day, plus a post workout shake, and maybe a couple of snacks, your carb cycling meal plan might look something like this:

High Carb Days

Breakfast – oats with added whey protein.
Lunch – tuna, salad and brown rice (add a little olive oil to the tuna).
Post Workout Shake – whey protein (in water or semi-skimmed milk) and a ripe banana.
Dinner – meat, vegetables and baked potato.

Low Carb Days

Breakfast – eggs and celery; handful of nuts (or some nut butter)
Lunch – tuna, cheese and salad (add double the amount of olive oil to the tuna).
Dinner – meat and green vegetables.

Medium Carb Days

Breakfast and lunch same as low carb days; dinner same as high carb days.

Snacks (all days) – choice of cheese, cottage cheese or nuts with salad vegetables or an apple.

This is just an example. The actual amount of calories and macro-nutrients you consume on each day will vary according to what you are trying to achieve, and how your body responds. So monitor your results carefully and adjust according to the response you get.

If you need to reduce your calories further on some of your off days to facilitate additional fat loss, intermittent fasting is a simple and effective way to do this. Intermittent fasting also has a large number of additional health benefits and is highly recommended.

By eating carbs on your training days you will be providing the fuel for an effective workout, as well as spiking your insulin levels post workout to facilitate protein synthesis and hence muscle growth. And by cutting down on carbs on your off days you will be reducing calories and keeping your insulin levels low to facilitate fat burning. So by using carb cycling in this way you will be able to build muscle, lose fat, and develop the lean and muscular body you have always wanted.


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    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Yes you are right; the low carb day has no starchy carbs at all. But there will be a small amount of carbs in the nuts and possibly the salad vegetables. If you are quite lean you could add in a small amount of starchy carbs in the form of rice, oats or sweet potatoes, but personally I would avoid bread.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Is it ok to eat ONE bagel during a low carb day? Or would you avoid any bread on low carb days whatsoever. It seems like the diet you wrote for the low carb day actually has no carbs whatsoever.

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Glad you liked it My Cook Book. Thanks for stopping by.

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 

      5 years ago from India

      Useful hub on Carb Cycling. Thanks for the share!


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