April 07, 2017

What Is Carb Cycling?

Any time the topic of weight loss comes up, carbs inevitably get mentioned. It's just going to happen. And, put simply, this is because your carb intake could have a pretty powerful impact on the success – or failure – of your efforts to shed a few pounds. Along with the traditional and straightforward low-carb diet, though, there are a few options.

Carb cycling is among the most common and useful carb-manipulation system out there. What is carb cycling? Does it work? What do you need to know about it?

Defining The Practice

As the oh-so-descriptive name suggests, carb cycling requires you to cycle your carbs. Generally, however, protein and fat intake remain roughly unchanged. Since each gram of the oft-maligned macro contains about four calories, it's pretty typical for carb cycles to also become calorie cycles. Essentially, in their effort to adjust your carbohydrate intake, these diets will also tend to limit your total calories at the same time.

And that's really about it. But, as you might imagine, there are plenty of different ways in which you can alter your carbohydrate intake from one day to the next.


The big question, though, is this: Why would someone do this? Because it works.

The traditional low-carb diet also works but comes with several limitations. First, and most famously, it's a challenge to maintain for long stretches. It's also important to realize that much of the initial rapid weight loss associated with low-card diets is actually water weight, not fat.

Once that water is gone, then, weight loss can slow to a full, irritating, grinding stop. And then what?

The idea behind carb-cycling is to continually restrict and then reintroduce carbohydrates – and calories – in a strategic way that takes advantage of the effects of both low-carb and low calorie diets while limiting the side effects. Anyone who's ever attempted a full-on low-carb diet knows all too well about the mood swings, low energy and fatigue that can accompany this already difficult nutritional strategy.

In theory, though, the occasional high-carb day should help to offset these side effects, allowing you to continue your normal routine – both in and outside of the gym.

Which brings up an interesting point: Carb cycling could also offer some benefits for those looking to build muscle mass. By manipulating your body's response to anabolic hormones like insulin, while still allowing you to perform your best in the gym, carb cycles could keep you building muscle during your cut.

Does It Work?

Sadly, solid science is a little limited here. Granted, there are decades worth of anecdotal evidence in the bodybuilding and physique athlete world to testify to the effectiveness of carb cycling. And research has shown that calorie-restriction – like that seen in carb cycling – can cut back on feelings of hunger, speed up your metabolism and even encourage muscle growth.

In 2013, however, one study did look specifically at carb cycling, with promising results. This study did find that women who followed a simple carb cycling routine for three months lost more weight and saw a greater improvement in their insulin resistance than those who didn't cycle.

Just Remember...

So while carb cycling is a tested method for both losing weight and generally improving your physique, it's vital to remember one thing: Carb cycling is very hard.

And this is a lot more important than it sounds. The issue isn't simply that it might be a challenge for you to follow this routine; if you do it wrong or for too long, you could both sabotage your weight loss efforts and even damage your health.

For the most part, carb cycling should only be done by physique athletes with significant experience sticking to restricted diets or those under the supervision of a qualified professional.

-Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist with over a decade of experience writing about all things health and fitness. In addition to plenty of articles and blog posts, Thompson is also the author of the book Weighted Vest Workouts.