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Carb Cycling: How Does Carb Cycling Work and Who Can Benefit from a Carb Cycling Diet Plan

  Oct 13th, 2011

Carb cycling is a bodybuilding diet technique that I knew very little about until about a year ago. I first learned about the concept of carb cycling from the book, Muscle Gaining Secrets by Jason Ferruggia.


I used a carb cycling plan, as described in Muscle Gaining Secrets, for about 6 weeks as a way to cut fat. During those 6 weeks I also more fully researched the concept of carb cycling to gain a better understanding about this relatively unknown dieting technique.


In this posting I will share what I learned about carb cycling, tell you about my carb cycling results and explain what you can expect when using a carb cycling diet to reduce body fat. But first, I am going to briefly explain what carbohydrates are, and how they affect the body, so that you will better understand why carb cycling serves as an effective diet technique to shed fat.


What Are Carbs?

Carbs, or carbohydrates, are one of the most basic nutrients found in many of the foods that we eat. When broken down by the body, carbohydrates are converted to sugar which can then be used by the body as a source of energy. This sugar energy provided by carbohydrates is the body’s primary source of energy.


Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs

Simple carbohydrates are found in foods that contain sugars. Fruits, juice, honey and dairy products are all examples of simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are easily digested by the body and typically result in a quick rise in blood sugar as they are quickly digested.


The quick surge of energy provided by simple carbohydrates is the reason simple carbs are consumed by athletes immediately before intense physical activity to help boost their energy levels and improve their performance.


Complex carbohydrates are non-sugar based carbs that can be found in foods like bread, rice, cereal, crackers and pastas. Unlike simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates are digested slowly and provide a smaller rise in blood sugar that is sustained over a much longer duration of time than what is experienced when simple carbs are consumed.


If the sugar energy that is produced from the digestion of simple or complex carbohydrates goes unused, a large portion of this unused sugar will be stored on the body in the undesirable form of fat – this is where carb cycling comes in. *

Scale and Measuring Tape - Weight Loss

How Carb Cycling Diet Plans Work

Carb cycling is essentially a dietary manipulation technique used to maintain low levels of blood sugar as a way to promote fat loss and prevent the storage of additional body fat. Carb cycling diets consist of a certain number of days in which you have an extremely limited intake of carbohydrates each week.


As a general rule, the more days that you limit your carbohydrate consumption, the faster your fat loss results will be. This is exactly what I experienced and also found that my weekly fat loss results were better when I made sure to get in a cardio workout every day that I was limiting my carbs.


Numerous studies have shown that cardio workouts are the most effective at burning off unwanted body fat during times when the body’s blood sugar is at its lowest. With little sugar energy to draw upon to fuel your workout, your body will be forced to oxidize its fat reserves in order to supply your muscles with the energy required to perform your workouts. Because your blood sugar levels are typically at their lowest levels in the morning before eating breakfast, and after weight training, these are the ideal opportunities for using cardiovascular exercise to quickly burn fat.


Using Carb Cycling for Fat Loss

As I stated above, the more days per week that you limit your carb intake, the better your fat loss results will ultimately be. That being said, I should warn you that it isn’t easy abstaining from eating carbohydrates. Carbohydrates make up the majority of calories consumed by Americans on a daily basis and it can be tough eating nothing but low carb meals for several days in a row.


I found that a good way to carb cycle for fat loss, without cutting carbs completely out of my weekly diet plan, was to eat little or no carbohydrates for 5 days each week. I would then eat a moderate amount of carbohydrates on one day (usually around 150 grams of total carbohydrates) and then give myself one day to go nuts and eat whatever I wanted.


This plan of carb cycling worked well as I was able to consistently lose measurable amounts of fat each week (tracked by measuring my waist size at belly button height) as long as I was diligent in doing 30 minutes of elliptical workouts after weight training on all 5 of my low carb days. While my fat loss results were positive, following this kind of carb cycling bodybuilding diet took a lot of discipline as it is not easy to leave carbs out of every meal for 5 consecutive days.


I find it much more feasible (and effective) to get ripped while eating carbohydrates every day, making sure to only eat them in significant amounts at specific times when they won’t lead to fat gains.


I also discovered a few negative side effects associated with limiting my carbohydrate intake…


Low Carb Diet Side Effects

Decrease in Muscle Mass & Strength

After a couple of weeks of following my carb cycling diet, I began to notice a decrease in strength on several of my lifts. My experience has been that this is normal when cutting fat, but this was more extreme than what I had experienced when using other fat loss nutrition plans.


The most notable decrease in strength was seeing a drop from 315lbs to 300lbs when performing 5 reps of squats. I had worked extremely hard to build up my strength and I was not very happy with this significant drop – even if I was getting leaner in the process.


I decided to conduct some research to try and figure out what was causing this dip in strength. It turns out that low carbohydrate intake can actually lead to a catabolic decrease in muscle mass!


When the body goes through prolonged periods of time with low levels of blood sugar, it not only must turn to oxidizing fat for energy, but will also begin to break down muscle tissue as well if it cannot oxidize your fat reserves fast enough to keep up with the demands for energy being constantly placed on your body. By depriving my body of carbohydrates for 5 days each week, I was actually causing my body to enter a catabolic state, reducing the muscle mass I had worked so hard to build up.


Lagging Energy Levels

Another of the adverse side effects of low carb diet plans that I found was a lack of energy and focus. There were certain times throughout the day where my body would seem to shut down and I would feel extremely exhausted. There were several occassions in which I found myself in the middle of meetings at work and the only thing I could think about was taking a nap.


These periods of exhaustion would generally only last for around 10 minutes, but they were inconvenient to say the least. I did find that drinking a cup of coffee in the morning and just after lunch helped me to keep from feeling so tired and enabled me to keep my focus while at work.


Decreased Immune System Efficiency

I only used a carb cycling diet for fat loss for about 6 weeks and didn’t personally experience any sicknesses or any other evidence that my immune system was operating with decreased efficiency. However, I did read about several studies that indicated that following a no carb diet plan, and depriving the body from carbohydrates for a prolonged period of time, will lead to symptoms of immune system deficiency.


While I did not personally experience a noticeable change in my immune system function, the immune system is known to struggle when the body is placed under stresses such as sleep deprivation and insufficient nutrition. Simple and complex carbohydrates are nutrients that are an integral part of many bodily functions and are also a requirement for optimal physical performance. Therefore, it makes sense that following a diet that constantly deprives your body of this important nutrient could lead to certain bodily systems (like the immune system) not operating at their highest levels.


It is important to note that I was eating 150 grams of carbohydrates (or more) 2 days per week which is different than the subjects in the studies I referenced who followed a zero carb diet for several weeks. Either way, I thought you should know about the potential damage restricting carbohydrates could have on your immune system.


On a Positive Note, Low Carbohydrate Recipes are Easy to Prepare

One of the aspects I really enjoyed about carb cycling is the ease with which I could prepare my meals. Since the only constraint that I had was to maintain a minimal number of carbohydrates for each meal, I could simply focus on eating any combination of low carb foods. What made my carb cycling diet really easy was cooking my fat burning foods in bulk.


Low Carb Meal OptionFor instance, I could grill several pounds of salmon, chicken or steak on the grill at once and then portion it out for several meals to eat throughout the week. One of my favorite low carb meals consisted of wrapping turkey bacon around thawed chicken breasts and baking them in the oven.


There are tons of easy and quick low carb recipes that can be made by simply combining any number of low carb foods like eggs, chicken, steak, beef, turkey, pork and cheese. The simplicity of preparing low carb meals was something I really liked about carb cycling.


If you would like some great tasting low carb recipe ideas, you should check out this book.


Low Carb Alcoholic Drinks for Social Outings

I could write a rather lengthy article on the different ways that alcohol consumption hinders muscle building and fat loss. The main impact of drinking alcohol that you need to be aware of is that alcohol consumption has been shown to significantly decrease testosterone production while simultaneously increasing estrogen levels – a double whammy for those of us who are looking to build muscle and burn fat.


While I will always recommend avoiding alcohol altogether, I understand that some of you enjoy relaxing with a drink and I want to share with you a few low carb drink options that you can use when drinking alcohol to minimize the impact it will have on your fat loss progress when following a carb cycling diet, or any other fat loss diet plan.


Low Carb Drink Options

Unfortunately, there aren’t many alcoholic drink options that have low carbohydrate content. That being said, there are a few options that will not impact your fat loss results as much as most other alcoholic beverage options. For instance, most wines will have anywhere from 3-5 grams of carbs per 4 ounce serving. So, as long as you only have a glass or two, your blood sugar will remain low enough to not cause any kind of significant fat storage.


Mixing rum or vodka with diet soda is also a good option for preventing any spikes in your blood sugar. Although, whether you are mixing it with alcohol or not, I would advise against regularly drinking diet sodas as they contain the artificial sweetener aspartame which has been linked to several forms of cancer. As such, it would obviously be in your best interest to avoid drinks that contain aspartame whenever possible.


Probably the best option for an alcoholic beverage in terms of controlling your blood sugar, while avoiding harmful ingredients like aspartame, is whiskey on the rocks. Many people will not consider this to be a viable option because of the intense alcohol flavor and high percentage of alcohol, but from the standpoint of preventing gains in body fat, whiskey on the rocks will be your best option


With any of the options above, make sure to always consume them in moderation. While even a small amount of alcohol will reduce your testosterone levels, drinking excessively will lead to a much greater reduction in testosterone that will also be sustained over a longer period of time. In my experience, having a drink or two per week won’t make much of a difference – just don’t overdo it!


My Carb Cycling Diet Experience

If your main concern is fat loss, and you won’t mind losing a little muscle and strength in the process, my experience has been that carb cycling is an effective way to consistently shed fat week after week. I am not someone who puts on muscle very quickly and losing any of my hard earned muscle growth is not something I am comfortable with which is why I stopped following my carb cycling diet after about 6 weeks.


I hope that my experience using carb cycling as a way to cut fat will help you to decide if following this type of low carb eating plan is right for you. If you have any questions regarding my carb cycling diet experience, feel free to contact me any time.



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