Carb Cycling- How To Set Up a Plan That Works For You

Whether you’re a competitor or your average fitness junkie looking to get more shredded, say hello to your new best friend… Carb Cycling! It’s a technique I mentioned briefly in my past article. It can be extremely effective, both physically and mentally (I’ll explain this second part later).

For now, let me refresh you on what carb cycling is. Essentially, you rotate through higher and lower carb days, consuming the majority of carbs on the days in which you train your larger muscle groups, while saving the lower carbs days for when you will be expending less energy (ie. your rest days). This allows you to take advantage of the energy that carbs provide on the days when your body needs it most.

So what are the benefits of carb cycling? And equally important, some of the myths?

Lets start with the benefits. As I mentioned earlier, you’re going to have more fuel (provided by the extra dose of carbs) on your more intense training days, while burning extra fat in the off days. Best of both worlds, right? You’re essentially using your calories smarter- when you need them. Food = Fuel! In addition to having different levels of carbs each day, you’re also timing those carb-heavy meals around workouts in order to give your body the energy and nutrition it needs to support energy and muscle retention.

Another huge benefit in my opinion, is the psychological advantage of having higher carb days. Now lets be straight, most likely you are still going to crave carbs (and more food in general) because, after all you’re still dieting and eating at a deficit. However, carb cycling has an advantage over linear dieting, in that you have those high carb days, which almost become your pseudo “cheat meals”. I can’t tell you how excited I would get during prep when I realized it was a “high carb” day. Sometimes all it takes is an extra scoop of oatmeal to make a girl happy… pathetic really but I’m sure some of you can relate 😉


And now the myths. As with any fitness related subject, there are a lot of articles on the web that will throw out all kinds of crazy claims and promise that this diet, or this exercise, or this supplement, (and so on) will turn your less-than-perky derriere into a tight backside that will turn heads. That my friend comes down to good ‘ole hard work and adherence to diet. Consistency is ALWAYS the key. And patience is the hardest part.


So what does a carb cycle actually look like? When it comes to setting up a plan, you will get all kinds of recommendations when doing a google search, and some of them are just plain dumb. Some websites tell you to keep protein, fat and carbs at “X%” but dont show how to determine what the calorie amounts should be. Another instructs to not have any fat, and another extremely popular site went as far as recommending to to eat as much as you want on the “high” carb days, and on low days to eat 1g carbs per pound of total bodyweight. UMMM I dont think so, that basically is like letting yourself have a refeed every other day and then eating carbs at a normal level. Sounds like a good plan if you want to pack on the pounds, which is exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve with carb cycling!

So how do you set up a carb plan that actually work for you? Lets first a look at an example:

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Typically your week will have 2-3 high days, which will land on your leg days (which I like to hit twice a week). Medium days will land on your other workout days, and lastly low carb for the off days. There are endless variations depending on what you workout schedule looks, but these are the general principles. As you get closer to a competition or your “goal” date, you may implement more low days depending on your progress.

Now it’s impossible to give every person reading this an “exact” formula that will work perfectly for them. Everyones body will respond differently so for simplicity sake lets make Sally our example.

Sally is 6 weeks out from her first show and she is struggling to get off those last few pounds. She’s really starting to feel the effects of the diet and her body is starting to stall a bit. She’s decides to implement some carb cycling so she can boost her fat loss and have more energy for her workouts. Sally weighs 130 pounds and has been following a linear diet the last 6 weeks, averaging 1400 cal/week (made up of approx. 163g protein, 75g carbs, 50g fat)

As it’s getting a bit closer to the show, we’re going to keeps Sally’s calories at to 1400 and we’re not going to increase her cardio until absolutely necessary (hopefully 2-3 weeks out- we’re trying to avoid metabolic damage and a rebound post show, remember!). So Sally is now still eating 1400 calories a day but has switched over to a carb cycling plan.

Lets start with calculating protein, this will be your constant no matter if is a high or low day. The lowest you should ever go is 1/lb per pound of total bodyweight, but thats actually pretty low and not too hard to achieve. I recommend 1.25 – 2g of protein pound of total bodyweight.

We’ll go with 1.25g per pound total body weight: 130lb x 1.25 = ~163g protein. This equates just about 650 calories (We’re going to round a few calories to make this simple. 1g protein= 4 calories, 1g carbs= 4 calories, 1g fat= 9 calories)


Next comes the fat and carbs. Unlike the protein, these will be the variables depending on the level of carbs. Right now you’re taking in 75g carbs, for your high days we will increase this to 125g and lower it to 40g for low days.

This is how it will calculate out the carbs… You can read this if your nerdy like me or just skip it look at the summary below if you’re not interested in the math behind it 😉

Screen Shot 2013-01-12 at 12.32.19 PM

So for the simple version here’s the setup for carbs we calculated above:I also like to decrease fat a bit on on the high days and add it to my low days to make them a bit more manageable.

High Days: 163g protein, 125g carbs, 40g fat (1512 calories)

Med Days: 163g protein, 65g carbs, 50g fat (1362 calories)

Low Days: 163g protein, 40g carbs, 60g fat (1352 calories)

If you calculate this all out, you will find that your weekly totals are still averaging out to 1400 calories, but you are now strategically placing them on the days you need them most. Keep in mind, just because you are 130 pounds like Sally doesn’t mean this is the perfect setup for you. A personalize plan requires a personalized setup =) Different people respond different ways. However  now you understand what carb cycling is and how to do the initial setup.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions. I will be following a carb cycling for my prep as well and sharing the results with you on both our Facebook page and website =)

About Melissa

Melissa Wilson is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through NSCA and received her Bachelor’s degree from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. In addition to in-person training, Melissa is the founder of ProShape Fitness -- a healthy living company, which specializes in online fitness and nutrition coaching for individuals who want to get back into shape and adopt healthier lifestyle habits.

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