Carb cycling

Posted 1 year ago

Carb cycling on training and non-training days

If you’ve been a long-time follower of the brand, by now you will have seen that we tend to have large amounts of carbs around the training window, and effectively more total carbohydrates on our training days in general. However, you might not be aware that we will tend to run these a bit lower on non-weight training days (NTDs). Simultaneously we will run our total calories for those day a little bit lower also when compared to training days (TDs).

This is common within the bodybuilding world but not everyone understands why it is done, nor the benefit it can have regarding maximising muscle gain and minimising fat gain. It can also bring about a whole host of other benefits which will be discussed in this article. The purpose of this article is therefore to explain the thought process behind carb cycling and why it can help us with our physique development.

What do carbs do?

I would hope that by now you have delved deep into the other articles on the site and have a good understanding of carbohydrates, but if not, let me refresh your memory. Carbs are our body’s primary source of fuel and energy production. After consumption, they can be used immediately to allow for general movement but also stored for later usage as muscle glycogen, liver glycogen, or body fat. Simple, right?

So how does this help us when it comes to bodybuilding? Well, when you train, you contract muscle. This muscle contraction places huge demands on the body – more specifically, high energy demands to meet the work you’re doing in the gym. In simple terms, you are going to require more carbs as you’ll be requiring more energy as you’re ‘giving it the beanz’ on the hack squat. You know that we train very, very hard, and in a progressive manner, so you can imagine that the energy needs to lift more weight and recover from that same weight in time for the following week can increase week to week.

It’s no secret that a lot of carbs around the training window can aid in increased performance and recovery from training. We call this peri-workout nutrition, and you can learn about this by reading my article here. So, we know that we need more energy on days where we are training and that if we put in more carbs on those days, it will aid performance and recovery. Win-win situation.

Why run lower carbs on NTDs?

Once you get your head around why we utilise more carbs on TDs, the next thing to tackle is why we would lower these on NTDs. Although the answer might be simple, there might be something that you are overlooking, which I will discuss in turn.

Firstly, you know that on days where you aren’t in the gym, your energy expenditure across the day will be significantly lower. This means that your calorie demands that day, i.e., the food you need to put in your body to maintain/grow/recover, will also be significantly reduced. Here lies the first reason why we lower total carbs for those days: to simply match our body’s energy demands. It can also allow for us to put more calories in on the days where we need it, particularly around the workout parameter as discussed previously.

If one were to keep their total calories and carbohydrates as high as on TDs daily, they would quickly find that the body does not need these and would more than likely store any excess as fat. This leads me on to the second point regarding why we would run lower carbs on NTDs, and that is to ensure we stay sensitive to insulin. If you don’t know much about insulin, you can learn more by reading my article on tracking blood sugars here.

But for those who need a little reminder, let me rejog your memory. Once you have ingested a meal, blood sugars begin to rise which is not a bad thing and is of course needed if we are exercising. This rise triggers the release of a hormone called insulin from the pancreas. This hormone travels around the body, and causes cells to let glucose in. This process ultimately lowers our blood sugars back to the baseline levels (aka where they were prior to eating). Please note that this process of glucose storage will occur both in fat and muscle cells, prioritising the storage of any excess in fat cells.

If we are lean and have strategically placed the bulk of our carbs on TDs and around the workout parameters, insulin will more readily shuttle those carbs into muscle cells to aid performance and recovery. This is what we’d term being insulin sensitive. When we are at rest and have consumed excess carbs, our body will more readily shuttle these into fat cells.

Therefore, keeping carbs lower on NTDs allows us to stay more insulin sensitive. The longer you can have a higher sensitivity to insulin, the more optimal it is going to be for adding muscle mass and minimising fat gain in a gaining phase. One thing to also note here is that the more body fat we accumulate, the less insulin sensitive we become. This means that even if we are strategic with our fuelling of higher carbs on training days, our body will still promote the uptake into fat cells over muscle cells as we move through our gaining phase.

But what if you’re dieting?

This is still a methodology I would implement if you were dieting, particularly for a show or a shoot. Before we get into it, adherence will trump everything, so if it works better keeping your calories the same every day, and stops you overeating, then do that! But if you wondered why we still do it in a dieting phase, let me explain.

The main goal of any dieting phase it to preserve as much muscle as you can whilst pulling body fat levels down. If you think of the strategic fuelling described above, it only makes sense to follow the same protocol, i.e., to put extra food and carbs where your body needs them: to aid performance and recovery. If you can handle running even that little bit lower on NTDs, it can really aid your fat loss pursuit. Those days can be used to really drive the body into a calorie deficit, and chase fat loss a bit more aggressively on those days where you aren’t moving as much.

I also think it can have the added benefit of a slight psychological “dietary break” when it comes to TD. You may have been running 50-100g carbs on NTD and then suddenly when TD rolls around that increases to 250-300g. This can feel like a huge mental relief, because you get more food, but it also makes those NTDs really easy to get through, because you know it’s short lived and can look forward to what is coming next.

Bear in mind this strategy might not work for everyone, as some people may not be able to run low without the urge to binge or cheat on their diet. So, if that is the case for you, then keeping your total calories and carbs a bit higher on NTDs would be a better strategy.

In summary, carb cycling can be a great tool within bodybuilding/physique development. Higher carbs and calories on TDs can increase training performance and recovery from your sessions. Simultaneously, keeping them lower on NTDs can keep you more insulin sensitive and allow you to prioritise more energy for the days when the body needs it (I.e., when you’re in the gym). It can also be a great tool to use when dieting as well as gaining as it can help drive fat loss a bit more, as well as serve as a mental break when you get more food on TDs.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons