Okay I think I’m probably about 2-3 weeks late writing part 2 of Bikini Competition Diet: Carb Cycling for Bikini Competitors, but I re-checked and google still has little to offer on the subject. Not that its google’s fault. I love google.
So I realized after re-reading part 1 that I never really bothered to explain what Carb Cycling is, or what most people think it is at least. Apparently its not common knowledge (who knew?). So I’m going to back up a little and get that out of the way.
Then I’ll get into what I think its uses are, why I like it, and how/when I like to use it. And of course I’ll teach you how I think a carb cycle should be set up.
What carb cycling claims to be: So carb cycling has basically been pitched as a method of ensuring that the body has the fuel it needs to support training on training days, and enough of a deficit to cause a net fat loss on non-training (or cardio only) days. This I agree with.
Some have gone a step further and claimed that its superior to linear dieting (aka same calories/macros each day) in allowing one to efficiently burn fat and gain muscle at the same time.
And some have gone further yet in claiming that the high carb days are enough to “boost the metabolism” by upregulating certain key hormones that affect thyroid output. I touched on this a little in part 1, so I won’t go into why that’s probably not true. I’ll just say that if you value your hormones/metabolism, you might not want to look at carb cycling as something that lets you get away with a more extreme caloric deficit/more training than a linear diet.
Okay, back to typical approaches. Most common carb cycling approaches implement 2-4 high carb days per week, with a large percentage of the carbs being ingested around the weight training workouts. The rest are either all low carb days or a combination of low carb and medium carb days (medium days usually falling on upper body lifting days, since they’re at least marginally less depleting than lower body days).
Every approach I’ve seen has kept protein the same (usually 1.5-2 grams per pound of bodyweight) each day. Most of them have fat fairly low on low carb days, and extremely low on high carb days.
So a typical High/Medium/Low carb cycle schedule might look something like this:
This setup is basically fine, although as I mentioned in part 1, most of the formulas I found for calculating macros for each day were severely flawed. But the way most approaches have you coordinate high/low (and medium if applicable) days with training days is basically fine.
There are dozens of different routes you could go with this, and as long as it averages out to the proper deficit/macros over the course of the week, and supplies adequate protein and carbs around the more intense workouts, it should work well.
Actual Benefits of Carb Cycling
So basically, the areas where I disagree with most carb cycling approaches are rationale, aka what it does that linear dieting doesn’t, and general setup/calculation of calories and macros. I touched on all of that already, so now I’m going to tell you what I think carb cycling does, why I like it and how/when I use it.
High days support training intensity while dieting: You’ve probably heard/read that you need a good amount of protein and carbs around at least your more intense and/or glycogen depleting workouts…this is no secret.
However, when fat loss becomes more of a priority as your bikini competition date approaches, there is generally a shift of priorities from muscle gain (or at least recovery from the previous pre-contest dieting period) while minimizing fat gain, over to fat loss while minimizing muscle loss.
To do this, training intensity (aka weight on the bar) needs to be maintained, but fuel needs to be cut to create the appropriate caloric deficit. Anyone who has tried training hard while dieting can attest to how difficult this is.
By cycling carbs, you can maintain training intensity by putting more carbs around your intense workouts, and still average out to a deficit (and low carbs) by keeping carbs and calories low on non training or cardio only days.
Now this doesn’t mean that carb cycling is the answer for those who want to optimize both muscle gain and fat loss (simultaneously), because there is a tradeoff with carb cycling while in a deficit: You don’t get the carbs and calories you need on off days to prevent/minimize catabolism (muscle breakdown) or refill muscle glycogen, among other things.
So its ideal for those needing to go pretty low calorie and low carb towards the end of their bikini competition prep, but not ideal or necessary for those between competitions who need to either build muscle or let their bodies/metabolisms recover from the dieting they did during their last contest prep.
If I use carb cycling at all, its not until the last 6 weeks or so before competition, and I still implement structured refeeds as I normally would, depending on how a given client responds to dieting.
High days promote improved nutrient partitioning by putting more carbs/calories where they will be best utilized rather than stored: Nutrient partitioning refers to what the body does with incoming calories, aka whether they get stored or oxidized. Intense training improves nutrient partitioning by temporarily making the muscles more sensitive to the hormone insulin.
So when carbs are ingested after an intense workout, more of the glucose they’re broken down to is shuttled into the muscles to refill muscle glycogen. This is part of the “post-workout window” so many refer to.
But did you know that the muscles maintain this heightened insulin sensitivity beyond the immediate post-workout period? This is where the high days can be beneficial. On an iso-caloric (meaning same amount of calories) linear diet where you’d be averaging the same amount of carbs per week as your cyclical diet, the amount of carbs you take in on training days may not be enough to take full advantage of this heightened insulin sensitivity. So muscle glycogen may not be re-filled to the extent it could be.
The significance of this probably depends on how low your weekly average is for calories and carbs however. If calories/carbs (weekly average) aren’t set all that low to begin with, I don’t think glycogen replenishment would be much of an issue, and a linear diet would work just fine. If calories/carbs (weekly average) are set low, and you plan to exercise quite a bit, you might want to consider carb cycling.
Low days create a deficit and increase catecholamine release to help burn stubborn bodyfat: Low days provide carb cyclers with the same benefits of low carb dieting: big caloric deficits and good fatty acid mobilization via catecholamine release/blunted insulin.
If you’re lean enough to be using carb cycling when I think it should be used (pre-contest), then you’re likely lean enough that you’re down to just “stubborn” bodyfat. I won’t go into detail as to how the process works, but basically to get stubborn fat out of the fat cell (so it can be burned), we need insulin levels to be very low and catecholamine levels to be high. This is exactly what happens when one trains fasted first thing in the morning, but it also happens (albeit to a lesser degree) when eating low calorie and low carb.
The tradeoff is that you’re putting yourself into a highly catabolic (muscle breakdown) state, which is why I wait until just the last few weeks pre-contest to cycle carbs. And I think being well fed on high/training days so that training can be more productive more than makes up for this tradeoff.
I should add that protein needs on low days tend to be higher than on high days…another thing I see other approaches getting wrong. Generally, as carb/calories decrease, protein needs increase in order to maintain a positive nitrogen balance. Ever heard that carbs are “protein sparing”? This is what that phrase refers to. I’ll get more into this in Part 3 (yes, you have to wait even longer before I tell you what to do).
Psychological/Adherence Benefits: Any way you look at it, your carbs are never going to be as high as you would like them to be when dieting. Whether you’re taking a linear or a cyclical approach to dieting, protein needs are going to be so high that carbs will have to be low in order to stay in a caloric deficit and still have room for your essential fats. So you WILL crave carbs.
But with carb cycling, many people find they can suffer through the low days knowing that a high day is right around the corner. Granted, these high days probably won’t afford them the KINDS of carbs they’re craving, but they’ll be a welcome relief nonetheless.
So cyclical dieting is probably the ONLY diet for competitors that actually addresses the psychological challenges of dieting. That might actually be the most important benefit, if you ask me. Coming from a coach who looks at food logs/reads client emails all day…competitors slip up too. A diet that improves compliance needs not have a single additional benefit over other equally sound diets.
Okay, so I’ve rambled on enough in Part 2 that I’ve given myself even more homework, and forced you to wait even longer to learn how to actually put carb cycling into play. I have other blog posts I’m itching to get to, so I might actually come through this time with my promise to have the next (and final) installment posted next week. Well that and my clients apparently all call each other and plan their vacations on the same weeks…so I have no excuse not to get it done. See you in a few days.
Click here to read Carb Cycling for Bikini Competitors Part 1
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Great article! How do you make sure that you take in “good” carbs throughout the week? Is part of your plan to list the good/bad foods to eat?? Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Thanks! I probably won’t get too much into food choices since that’s another topic, but generally if calories/carbs are low enough that you’re carb cycling, you’d want most of your carbs to be from whole food starches and a few tagalongs from fibrous veggies. At that stage I usually play it safe and go with sweet potatoes, yams, brown rice and oats.
Great information throughout your articles. When would you introduce carb cycling in your pre contest prep? Would you start say 12 weeks out from a contest or would it be something that you would start around the 6 week out from contest mark?
This was a very helpful article. Thank you for sharing! I am 8 weeks out from my bikini competition and i train right at 5am every morning. I’m finding it VERY difficult to find a balance with my carbs. I can’t bring myself to get up at 4am just to eat a carb loaded meal if i have to fit cardio and legs into one session… any suggestions?
Glad you liked! First…if you’re working with a coach, ignore anything I tell you and do exactly what they say, or find another one if you don’t FULLY trust them. Otherwise, I would say that you don’t really need to carb cycle at all. And if you do, it would make MUCH more sense to put the bulk of your carbs AFTER a leg+cardio workout (meaning the 24 hour period after that workout) than to load up before the workout. Of course you would want some pre workout too, but not a ton. It really depends so much on your overall setup (and where you are in terms of readiness, etc) though that its impossible to tell you what you need to do. With the info you’ve given me, telling you where to go next would be like opening a book in the middle chapter and trying to predict what’s going on and where things are going, etc. I would say make it a priority to train in a state where you can get the most out of your training, so if training later in the day after you’ve had a couple meals seems to work better, do that rather than feeling like you have to build your training/schedule around a carb cycle that doesn’t really give any metabolic advantage over linear dieting. For most competitors, the training needs are specific enough that it makes more sense to set the training where it needs to be and THEN build the diet around the training, rather than setting up the diet and making things too rigid in terms of “synching” the training/diet. The possible exception could be final ~3 weeks if you need to give fat loss absolute priority to be ready, and in that case, it can sometimes make sense to ease up on training volume to allow for a bigger drop in calories/carbs (or fat if there is more room to drop there). Hope that helps.
Wow, very informative article. I have always been interested in fitness and have recently aspired to give a bikini competition a try. My question is how do I go about finding a qualified personal trainer? Or a more simple question, but probably not as simple of an answer, how do I even begin this journey?