Carb Cycling: A Beginner's Guide to How It Works

By Anthony Yeung

Carb cycling isn't just about fat loss — it’s a dynamic approach to nutrition that can also build muscle at the same time. The great thing is it’s easy to follow, it allows you to still enjoy the foods you love, and it creates great physical and hormonal benefits. The result? Solid results and a solid body.

Read on and we’ll break down how carb cycling works, why it gets its benefits, and how you can try it yourself.

What is Carb Cycling?

At its core, carb cycling involves varying your daily intake of carbohydrates — and fat, to an extent — depending on your workout routine. Throughout a given week, for example, you’ll have either “high carb” or “low carb” days (which are also high and low-calorie days).

This fluctuation optimizes your body’s ability to build muscle and lose fat simply by adjusting your calorie intake via your carbohydrate consumption.

Thus, depending on your goal, carb cycling can be used to lose fat, build lean muscle, or change your body composition while maintaining your weight.

Satisfy Cravings And Have Flexibility

Carb cycling is a very straightforward diet approach that also provides great flexibility to satisfy your cravings. The problem with a lot of diets is that they avoid carbs at all costs when, in reality, we should really welcome them. If you’re pushing your body hard in the gym and on the field, carbs play a huge role in building and preserving muscle as well as metabolism.

Instead of eating a mouse-sized portion of rice or a tiny sweet potato, with carb cycling, you can enjoy an athletic-sized serving on certain days of the week. Oh, and it gets better: on the low carb days, you can have fatty foods like a juicy ribeye steak, almond butter, or even bacon!

The trick is that you can only satisfy one of the cravings on a given day to maintain balance.

Burn Fat and Build Muscle

Can you really do both at the same time? With carb cycling, it’s possible.

On high carb days (which coincide with your strength training), you’ll increase your calorie intake to go anabolic. Those carbs will also be used primarily to refill your glycogen and build muscle instead of going to fat storage.

Even better, carb refeeds will keep your energy and strength high as you push heavy weights. Meanwhile, the low carb days will decrease your overall weekly calories enough to keep the fat gains at bay. 

Support Hormones

Carb cycling is a solid way to improve your insulin balance. Low carb days keep insulin low and improve sensitivity, while high carb days rev your metabolism back up and facilitate muscle growth and repair.

The more sensitive your insulin, the better your body is at processing the sugars in your bloodstream from carbs. When your insulin is working at its best, it takes those sugars and uses them as fuel or to refill muscle glycogen.

Carb cycling also has benefits with leptin, a hormone associated with satiety and metabolism — the more leptin you have, the faster your metabolism and vice versa. Leptin only gets triggered, however, if calorie and carb intake rises for 12-24 hours.

Combined, those high carb days will help keep your leptin elevated while low carb days keep insulin sensitivity high, creating a great balance for better results.

How to Carb Cycle

There are many ways to use carb cycling and you can tailor each to your particular schedule and preferences. One popular method is alternating high and low carb days throughout the week.

If your workout schedule is spaced out or sporadic, this is probably the best approach for you to stay on track. Here’s what it might look like if you do a bodybuilding split:

  • Monday: Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps (High Carb)
  • Tuesday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)
  • Wednesday: Lower Body (High Carb)
  • Thursday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)
  • Friday: Back and Biceps (High Carb)
  • Saturday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)
  • Sunday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)

Another common method is to split the week in half and do three to four low carb days in a row followed by three to four high carb days in a row. It requires a slightly stricter schedule, but many people find more effective because it puts you in fat-burning mode half of the week and muscle-building mode the other half.

This could also create a bigger hormonal impact because your body has more time to respond and adjust to the changes in your carb intake. 

  • Monday: Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps (High Carb)
  • Tuesday: Glutes, Hamstrings, and Abs (High Carb)
  • Wednesday: Back and Biceps (High Carb)
  • Thursday: Quads and Calves (High Carb)
  • Friday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)
  • Saturday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)
  • Sunday: Off/Cardio (Low Carb)

What About Your Macros?

With carb cycling, it’s important to have accuracy with your numbers: Otherwise, you might miss your carb targets and struggle to get the results you want. (In other words, you might eat too many carbs on your “low carb day” and too few carbs on your “high carb day.”)

The following are some general guidelines for macronutrient ratios to use to based on your body weight:

Sample High Carb Day:

  • Carbs: 2-3 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • Protein: 1 gram per pound of bodyweight
  • Fat: Minimal

Sample High Carb Day Meal Plan:

  • Breakfast: 6 egg whites, 2 slices of whole wheat toast, 1 cup of oatmeal
  • Lunch: 8oz lean ground turkey, 1.5 cups of rice, broccoli
  • Snack: 1 cup low-fat Greek yogurt, ½ cup mixed berries, 1 banana
  • Dinner: 8oz tilapia, 2 medium baked potatoes, greens salad

Sample Low Carb Day:

  • Carbs: 0.25 grams per pound
  • Protein 1-1.25 grams per pound
  • Fat: 0.5 grams per pound

Sample Low Carb Day Meal Plan:

  • Breakfast: 3 eggs, 3 egg whites, 3oz bacon, 1oz cheese, sauteed vegetables
  • Lunch: 8oz salmon, 2 cups of broccoli, 1 cup of blueberries/strawberries
  • Snack: Deli turkey, cheese, and avocado rollups
  • Dinner: 8oz steak, 2 cups of mixed veggies 

Ultimately, carb cycling is one of the most flexible diet approaches out there to help you gain muscle and burn fat at the same time. As long as you stay strict on which day is high-carb (low-fat) or low-carb (high-fat) AND you hit your carb numbers, you’ll see some great results. 

Good luck!

Anthony J. Yeung, CSCS, is a fitness expert at Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Health and helps guys get fit for their wedding at GroomBuilder.

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