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How Carb Cycling Can Help You Build Muscle and Lose Fat

Updated on April 27, 2019
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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 very 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

If you want to build muscle you need to consume a calorie excess, with plenty of protein and carbohydrates, 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 carbohydrate) 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 and lose any excess fat you have 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 a higher amount of carbohydrates (and calories) on your training days, to facilitate muscle gains, and a lower amount of carbohydrates (and calories) on your off days, to facilitate fat loss. Your protein and fat intake can remain about the same on all days, or you could increase one or both of these a little on your low carb days if you wish.

The exact way you would set this up 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. In this instance, the higher carb days would serve not only to preserve/increase your muscle mass, but also to give your metabolism a boost, so you will burn fat more effectively on your lower carb days.

Or, if you want to "recomp", i.e. build muscle and lose fat at an equal rate, your weekly calorie intake would be set at maintenance level.

With some carb cycling plans you are advised to have just high carb and low carb days, whereas others suggest high, medium and low (or even no) 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, fruit and vegetables, with just a small amount of starchy carbs, such as rice, oats, whole wheat bread or pasta, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Or, if your main aim is fat loss, you could cut out the starchy carbs completely on these days.

Then, on your high carb days, you would simply double, or even treble, the amount of starchy carbs you are eating, depending on your calorie requirements for the week.

A Carb Cycling Meal Plan

So, assuming you eat three meals per day, plus a post workout shake, and you train four days per week, your carb cycling meal plan might look something like this:

High Carb Days

Breakfast – oatmeal porridge with added whey protein.
Lunch – tuna, salad and a wholemeal bagel (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, large baked potato.

Low Carb Days

Breakfast – greek yogurt, fruit and a handful of nuts.
Lunch – cheese omelette and salad.
Dinner – meat, vegetables, sweet potato.

Medium Carb Days

Breakfast – greek yogurt, fruit, handful of nuts.
Lunch – tuna, salad, slice of wholewheat toast.
Post Workout Shake – whey protein (in water or semi-skimmed milk) and a ripe banana.
Dinner – meat, vegetables, brown rice.

Additional fruit can be eaten at any time of the day, and one or two snacks can be added in if required.

This is just an example. The actual amount of calories and macro-nutrients you need to consume each day will vary according to what you are trying to achieve, and how your body responds. So monitor your progress carefully by weighing yourself first thing in the morning on the same day each week, as well as keeping an eye on how you look in the mirror and how your clothes fit. Then simply adjust as necessary until you are getting the results you want.

By eating more carbs on your training days you will be providing the fuel for an effective workout, as well as the extra calories and nutrients required to optimize 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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