Carb Cycling: Can This Old Bodybuilder’s Trick Increase Your Fat Loss?
Tom, I’m following your Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM) program and using the carb cycling (aka zig zag) method. How long should it take to see results from cycling the carbs? I am just on my fourth day but I am curious as to what to expect. I am starting out with the basic guideline of 3 days low 1 day high and the macronutrient ratios suggested in BFFM. I am wondering how long to give it before knowing if I have to tweak the ratios. I am 5″2″ and weigh 124 lbs. My beginning weight, 22 months ago, was 176 lbs. Now I’m trying your carb cycling method to shed the last of the stubborn fat that’s “hanging” around.
Carb cycling has been a “secret weapon” fat loss trick of bodybuilders for decades. It’s one of my personal favorite methods as well.
It Works! However, what carb cycling can and can’t do and how to use carb cycling most effectively are very misunderstood subjects.
When you’ve just started carb cycling and you’re wondering if it will work at all, when it will start working, how long it will take to work and what kind of results you can expect, it’s important to set your expectations properly…
So let’s talk about typical results first.
How Much Fat Loss To Expect Normally
If you have my Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle book or if you’ve read any of my articles about weekly fat loss goals, you’ll usually see me quote figures like this:
Average/Typical Fat Loss
1/2% body fat per week
1-2 lbs of body weight per week
Less Than Average/Typical Fat Loss
Less than 1/2% body fat lost per week is a bit slow, but you made progress. Good job, but you could crank things up a bit for the next week.
Less than 1 lb lost per week – is slow, but if kept up consistently, again, it’s still progress. Tighten things up if you want faster results.
Better Than Average/Typical Fat Loss
More than 2 lbs per week – if it’s all body fat – is better than average (great results)
0.6% to 1.0% body fat lost per week is faster than typical fat loss (keep up the good work)
No Progress (Needs Some Tweaking)
No weight/fat loss or no drop in body fat% lost after 7 days means no forward progress (assuming your weigh in and body fat test was correctly performed).
Carb cycling is not necessarily going to give you faster than normal fat loss. You should be looking for the same type of results you normally would.
This isn’t “magic.” If you want magic, go to a David Copperfield show (but even he can’t make your fat disappear – only smart nutrition strategies are going to make that happen!)
What carb cycling IS spectacularly good at doing is keeping the fat loss going without plateaus – both in terms of sustaining your motivation (psychological benefit) as well as keeping your energy levels high and your metabolism cranking (physiological benefits).
When is the Best Time To Use Carb Cycling?
For people who are just getting started, who still have fairly high levels of body fat, carb cycling is not really even necessary. The best way to start out on a fat loss program is to simply establish a caloric deficit and hold it steady.
In fact, if you’ve just started a fat loss program and can’t even get out of the gate, you’re doing something very wrong with nutrition 101, let alone the advanced stuff like carb cycling. Early stage weight loss should always be the easiest.
Carb cycling is probably most helpful for “end-stage” fat loss when you’re already fairly lean and you’re working on the last of the stubborn fat.
This is when you’ve been dieting a long time and your metabolism is at the most risk of slowing down and you are at the most risk of falling off the wagon due to feelings of hunger, deprivation and lack of energy.
How Carb Cycling Works: Physiological benefits (hormones and stuff…)
Remember that without a calorie deficit, carb cycling doesn’t guarantee you will lose fat at all. In fact, think about what happens to your weekly deficit with carb cycling:
If you were on a deficit 4 out of every 4 days and then you go to deficit 3 out of every 4 days, then technically you have a smaller cumulative weekly deficit don’t you? So you can see that carb cycling /zig zagging doesn’t work by increasing a calorie deficit.
The idea here is that it’s NOT a good idea to always be in a deficit. Bad stuff happens if you are always calorie-deprived.
The problem with prolonged and aggressive deficits, especially after you’re already lean, is that your metabolism tends to slow down as an adaptation to the caloric restriction. Your body also tricks you into eating more by increasing appetite. Both of these effects can be controlled hormonally.
The way carb cycling works is that by raising calories every 4th day or so (carbohydrate calories in particular), you help restore metabolism-regulating, appetite-stimulating, satiety-inducing and anti-starvation hormones closer to normal levels.
For example, a higher calorie, higher carb spike can boost leptin, the anti starvation hormone. This tells your body that you are no longer “starving” and brings metabolism back to normal, at least temporarily.
Carb cycling also has psychological benefits.
When you’re on low calories all the time, you get physiologically (hormonally) hungry. You also get cravings, which can be different than physical hunger. You tend to crave what you cant have (carbs anyone?).
But if you use carb cycling, you know you get to eat more every several days and you get to eat carbs. So even if you do feel some hunger and cravings on the low days, it’s easier to hold out. This is how carb cycling helps most people with compliance.
The end result is you avoid plateaus and falls off the wagon (overeating, binges, “unauthorized” cheating, etc).
Carb cycling and body re-composition
A possible third benefit of carb cycling is that it may explain how some people add lean body mass while in a calorie deficit.
That’s because when you’re raising calories every several days you’re actually NOT always in a deficit, and your body is given more fuel on “high days”, which could be directed into muscle tissue for growth.
Being on low calories and low carbs 100% of the time can be a real drag on your workouts. Taking a periodic higher calorie/carb day works wonders to boost your training energy.
The extra fuel makes for more intense training, and if you can train harder, you can build more muscle and burn more fat.
What if carb cycling isn’t working for you?
If you’ve been carb cycling and it doesn’t seem to be working, it’s sometimes for the same reason as if you weren’t carb cycling – you didn’t get your calories quite right and you weren’t in a deficit.
That’s one reason I’m partial to controlled refeeds or “high carb days” rather than free-for-all cheat days. While the latter approach works for some, “cheat days” can backfire if you go overboard, and it’s quite easy to cut into (or erase) a few days of deficit with one giant binge.
If you hit a plateau (no change for at least 7 days), it’s helpful to count calories carefully and weigh/ measure foods. Any time you are struggling with results or simply just working on the last few pounds of fat in the stubborn areas, the attention to detail at that point is more important than ever.
Another thing you might want to do is start tracking a number that most people don’t consider: your weekly deficit (or weekly average daily caloric intake). Add up your calories every day for the entire 7 day week and divide by 7 for a daily average. Then make sure you have an adequate weekly deficit to reach your weekly goal.
Getting better results out of carb cycling may require being more strict on the low carb days. When you’re carb cycling, in general, the whole idea is that the low carb days ARE very strict “diet” days and sometimes with a fairly aggressive calorie deficit – 30% below maintenance (and sometimes people even push the envelope and go even lower on low days, knowing that they have a big refeed coming up.
Watch Out – The Scale Plays Tricks On You When Carb Cycling
One last thing to consider: Suppose you are trying to assess your results after day 4, wondering when it is going to start working.
One thing about carb cycling that many people don’t account for is the swing in body weight due to glycogen and water. With 3 strict days of lower carb, lower calorie eating, you may actually have already accrued a pound of fat loss. But then you carb up on day 4. Your body composition has improved, but the carb up makes you gain total body weight (water and glycogen).
If you only judge your success by the scale and if you only look at short term (daily) numbers, you may be misled into thinking you were not successful when you really were.
For that reason, you must have patience, watch the trend over time and avoid obsessed with short term fluctuations in body weight especially on high carb day and or the day after high carb day.
Once you have an understanding of all the above factors, and you’ve been carb cycling without getting weekly results, then do the same things to break the plateau that you’d normally do – including increasing the calorie burn from training/ cardio and or decreasing the calories.
The one thing you’d do that’s unique to carb cycling is on your low carb days, a tweak you might make to break a plateau is to simply make the low days even lower in carbs (that means lower in calories, but you are specifically lowering the calories from carbs… leaving the protein, healthy fats and fibrous carbs/veggies alone).
Then just repeat the process using the burn the fat, feed the muscle feedback loop system until you get the rate of fat loss you want.
How to Learn More About Carb Cycling
You’ll find the cycling method first introduced in chapter 6 of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle and you’ll see the entire carb cycling plan laid out for you in chapter 12.
Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle is the most detailed, one-stop guide to fat burning nutrition you’ll ever find.
That’s why so many people call it the fat loss bible.