A Beginner's Guide to Carb Cycling
by Matt McGorry
I rushed into the venue — a nondescript warehouse in the middle of nowhere called "The Compound III" — exactly 30 minutes late.
Dave Tate uses the Compound both as a showcase for his company's products and as a serious training facility. As such, it's stocked with everything you'd ever want or need to get big and strong — power racks, monolifts (squat racks that don't require a walkout), a deadlift platform, 20 different bars, and enough machines to satisfy any bodybuilder.
It's kind of like a warfare museum. Except, instead of not touching the artifacts, you can jump right into the cockpit and start launching missiles.
But I didn't come here to train. I came for a seminar cosponsored by EliteFTS, Tate's company, and Troponin Nutrition. Representing the latter were Troponin owner Justin Harris and Shelby Starnes. Both have competed at high levels in powerlifting and bodybuilding, and their goal was to reveal some of the inside secrets of their trade — specifically, how to eat to get jacked and shredded. This is the stuff the American Dietetic Association would be happy to tell you is a waste of time. Which, of course, is exactly why we need to know it.
Carb Cycling 101
Losing weight is simple. Most people know that burning more calories than we consume will lead to a decrease in scale weight. Just about anybody who tries it will be rewarded with moderate, short-term success.
Here's something fun to think about: Next time you're in your gym — or any place where people who care about their appearance tend to gather — take a close look at the ones who, in your estimation, need to lose some fat. Now try to figure out how many of them are currently enjoying the moderate, short-term success of eating less and exercising more. Chances are, at least a few of them are 10 to 20 pounds lighter than they were a few months ago.
And still clearly overweight.
So those of us in search of more than "moderate" success need a better way to lose a lot of fat without sacrificing muscle, or to stay lean while adding size and building strength.
That's why Justin Harris and Shelby Starnes have used carb cycling with hundreds of clients, ranging from competitive powerlifters and bodybuilders to average folks. And they mos def practice it themselves. Harris is an NPC superheavyweight competitor who also attained an elite powerlifting total in his first-ever meet, with an 875-pound squat, 573 bench, 700 deadlift, and 2,149 total. Starnes has a decade of experience competing in powerlifting and bodybuilding, winning his first bodybuilding competition in 2005 as a novice, and since then finishing twice in the top six in the NPC Junior Nationals.
Which brings us to carb cycling.
Most of us eat pretty much the same way every day — similar foods, similar amounts, similar timing. Other than post-workout shakes and cheat meals here and there, it would be hard to distinguish one day from another in terms of macronutrients and calories.
Here's how Starnes described the idea behind carb cycling: "By fluctuating macronutrients on a daily basis, we can ensure that performance and muscle building can be optimized on the days when it's most important, while burning fat on the other days."
This applies to virtually everyone who trains hard, from gym rats to competitive lifters and bodybuilders to athletes in just about any sport that's more physically demanding than a spelling bee. There are always training days that take more out of you than others. If you never vary your daily calories or macros, you end up overfeeding yourself on the days you're either resting or training light, and perhaps eating too little on the days you train the hardest.
For most of us, the damage goes one direction: We eat to support our hardest workouts, meaning we overeat on the other days. Intentionally or not, a lot of us are in a perpetual bulking cycle. Over time, we end up with excess body fat, which many of us try to take off all at once during a cutting phase.
Carb cycling, when you get it right, gives you the best of both worlds and the worst of neither. You fuel your body on the brutal training days that would ordinarily suck the life out of you, but treat your body as if it's in a cutting phase on the days you don't need excess energy.
"High days," in which you're giving your body all the carbs it can handle, refill your glycogen stores and promote an anabolic environment.
Let's say you're doing a body-part split, your legs are your weakest body part, and thus your toughest workout of the week is leg day. (Especially if this is your workout.) So you choose that as your high day for carbs. You don't need as much protein, since the extra carbs generate more insulin, which helps you get more protein into your muscles. ("It's not how much protein you take in, but how much your body can utilize," Harris told us.)
"Medium days" allow you to maintain your glycogen levels with fewer total calories. You'll have enough carbs to fuel your workout and prevent tissue breakdown, but not enough to be highly anabolic.
"Low days" are ideal for the days you do cardio only, or don't train at all. Your body, with its low insulin levels, will be primed for burning fat. With fewer carbs, you'll be eating more fat, which benefits hormone production and helps keep your body sensitive to insulin on the medium and high days.
That's the general idea. Here are some specifics:
Carbs: 2-3 grams per pound of body weight
Protein: 1-1.25 grams per pound of body weight
Fat: as little as possible
Low and moderate days
Carbs: 0.5-1.5 grams per pound of body weight
Protein: 1.25-1.5 grams per pound of body weight
Fat: 0.15-0.35 grams per pound of body weight
Carbs: 0.9-1.0 grams per pound of body weight
Protein: 0.75 grams per pound of body weight
Fat: as little as possible
Low and moderate days
Carbs: 0.2-0.5 grams per pound of body weight
Protein: 0.9-1.0 grams per pound of body weight
Fat: 0.1-0.2 grams per pound of body weight
Focus on What Matters
Just looking at the basics, your first thought might be, "That looks really fucking complicated." Harris and Starnes had some comforting news: You don't have to worry about a gram of something here or there. You won't be derailed because your morning oatmeal has slightly more fat or slightly less protein than you expect.
There aren't really any "pure" foods, exactly matching whatever calories and macros their labels say they should have. The most predictable are the most highly processed, and those are the ones you want to avoid. The nutrients they remove, add, or process into oblivion to make the foods conform to their own labels aren't worth the convenience.
The key, Harris and Starnes said, is to choose clean foods and prepare your own meals. You won't be able to calculate the calories and macros precisely, but at least you'll know what isn't in the food.
So how do you know if it's working? Harris likes simple photographs, taken weekly in the same room, from the same angle, with the same lighting. (Use a flash, which is less flattering and thus more honest.)
Scale weight (which fluctuates with your glycogen and hydration levels) and body-fat calculations (which are highly dependent on the skill of the person, or the quality of the machine doing the testing) tell you less than a photo. "If you look like a fat turd and have a piece of paper saying that you're 6% body fat, I don't care," Harris said. "You have to take photos."
You'll know you're in competition shape when you take a flash photo of yourself without a tan, standing in front of a white wall, and look ripped anyway. Or you can use the knuckle test that Harris described:
"Pinch the skin on the back of your knuckles. That's what your entire body needs to feel like when you're stepping on stage for a bodybuilding competition. Waist, glutes, low back — everything."
Everyone in the room pinched the backs of our hands, and we all nodded in recognition. Yep, that's pretty damned lean.
But what about those of us looking to go the other direction — to pack on more muscle?
"Gaining muscle is a really slow process," Starnes told us. "In four years, I've put on 30 pounds of pure muscle mass. That's less than half a pound of muscle per month."
The scale is just as bad an assessment tool for a natural lifter looking to build size as it is for someone trying to cut fat. Even a reasonable goal — adding two pounds of muscle a month — can encourage you to overeat and gain more fat than you expect. It doesn't take many months for that fat to change your physique for the worse.
Harris and Starnes start clients out on a "base plan" to see how their bodies react to carb cycling. Males typically have six meals on low and medium days, and seven on high days. Females have five on low and medium days, going up to six on high days.
If you're going for fat loss, plan on one or two high days per week. When gaining, go for two to four weekly high-carb days.
"I almost always start a person off with two or three high days, just to assess how they respond to the diet and to give us a lot of room to play with," Starnes said. "If a person has a fairly high body-fat percentage and they've been on a poor diet, just switching to clean foods will make a big difference, even with three high days a week.
"Some people can stay with three high days for a while and continue to make progress, but most people need to drop down to one or two high days within a few weeks to keep the fat burning going."
It's better to start a little too high than a little too low, Starnes added, for two reasons: First, the extra calories help you preserve muscle mass. Second, you have something to cut back when progress stalls.
"For most of my clients, low days almost always end up being under maintenance levels, medium days are generally right at or slightly below maintenance, and the high days are either at maintenance or slightly above."
Starnes and Harris both warned against cutting sodium out of your diet to speed up progress. "Sodium can actually help in a diet if you don't have specific conditions that prevent you from using it," Starnes said. "It's responsible for many metabolic processes, helps to transport nutrients like creatine, and is required for glycogen storage. Plus, when you're well-hydrated, your muscles are less likely to get injured."
How to Fail the Knuckle Test
At the start of the seminar, Dave Tate asked a simple question: "I'm going to order pizza and soda for lunch. Is that cool?"
Like everyone else, I wondered if he was joking. And, like everyone else, I figured the best strategy was to pretend I knew, keep my mouth shut, and wait to see what kind of food showed up. No one suggested grilled chicken with steamed broccoli as an alternative.
Sure enough, lunch was pizza and soda. I ate and drank my share, as did everyone else ... with one exception. Starnes was dieting for his next bodybuilding competition, which was still a couple of months away. He pulled his lunch from a cooler full of food he'd prepared for the day.
As I left the Compound, hoping that I'd be able to read the notes I scrawled in a notebook, I realized that the biggest lesson of the day wasn't in the lecture Harris and Starnes presented, or even in Tate's rambling but entertaining and edifying talk about training. (Sample advice: "If you've never done a bodybuilding show, do one. You have no idea what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night when your mouth doesn't work right. You can't even produce saliva. The last two days of my diet were the worst of my entire life, and I've been through some shit. But the month after a show is when bodybuilders have the potential to put on the most mass of their offseason. I put on 12 pounds of new muscle mass after I came back from the diet.")
But the biggest lesson for me was that day was watching Starnes model the type of disciplined planning and execution it takes to get back-of-the-knuckles lean.
Sure, it would've been nice if the presenters had provided something lean and healthy for lunch. But it wouldn't have taught us anything. Modern life hits you with easy excess from every direction. Even at a nutrition seminar, you barely need to chew to get more calories than you want or need.
If you simply show up and take what life offers, yeah, you might be able to achieve moderate, short-term success from time to time. But if you want to change your physique dramatically and permanently, you can't allow the circumstances to dictate your diet.
So, if you're on a quest for single-digit body fat, think about what you've done so far today. If you didn't pack your own food before you left your house, how much do you really care about getting shredded?
I ran across this article on T-Nation that I think everyone take a moment to review. It got my interest in particular, being that I'm trying to lower my body fat while maintaining effectiveness of my workouts and my mass while still having a healthy diet. Here are my calculations based on the formulas provided for the high/medium/low carb days.