March 28, 2012

Bikini Competition Diet: Carb Cycling Part 3: Setting up a Carb Cycle

In this final installment of the Bikini Competition Diet Carb Cycling Series, I’m going to take you through the steps of setting up a carb cycle for figure or bikini competition.  As mentioned in Part 2, I don’t really see the point in carb cycling much sooner than about 6 weeks or so out from a contest, although I have occasionally used it further out under very specific/unusual circumstances.  Having said that, I don’t think we need to get into determining ideal calories/macros for you, since if you’re at a point where you should be cycling carbs, you already know where your calories should be set in terms of weekly average.  I will however use an example that shouldn’t be too far off where I’d envision the average 120 lb 6 weeks out bikini/figure competitor.  That doesn’t mean you should use these figures if you’re 120 lbs and competing in bikini…its just an example.

As I mentioned in part 2, the only real legitimate benefits of carb cycling are improved nutrient partitioning and (hopefully) improved performance in the gym.  So that said, all you really need to do differently on training days is insert more protein and carbs in the meals immediately surrounding your more intense training (weights and possibly intervals).  So rather than get into all these complex formulas, we’ll just assess the pre/post workout protein/carbs needs and “borrow” those calories from your non-weight training days, where you won’t need them as much.  Assuming you’re already putting a decent amount of protein/carbs around training, we don’t really need to add much on top of that.  For the average 120-130lb competitor, I’d say an additional 20g carbs pre-workout and another 20 post-workout should be fine.

So if you’re currently on a linear diet of 1400 calories, 160g protein, 100g carbs and 40g fat, and you lift weights (or do typical bikini prep “pump and tone” work) 4x/week, here is what your carb cycle plan would look like:

High Days:

160g protein, 140g carbs, 40g fat.  The additional 40g carbs would be split in half, with each half being added to the pre and post workout meals.  No need to up protein in this scenario because its high enough already and you need it to be up even on off/lower intensity days.  You COULD lower fat by up to 10g if you want to save some for your low days, but that’s up to you.  We don’t have carbs up so high that you need to bring fat down, and 40g isn’t really very high to begin with.

Low Days:

160g protein, 47g carbs, 40g fat. Put about half of this day’s carbs post cardio, if you do cardio on these days.  Other than that, just spread it all around.  Carbs at night won’t be an issue.

So lets back up and look at how we arrived at these numbers, and how you can determine your carb cycle based on your (pre-determined) calories and macros.  Since we kept protein and fat the same, we don’t need to do any math there.  For carbs, I multiplied the weekly average of 100g by 7 (as in 7 days per week) to get the total of 700g of carbs per week.  So we need to structure the carb cycle so weekly carbs add up to this number.  We know that we need a little more carbs around training (40g more is plenty), so we just upped carbs by 40g each of the 4 weight training days.  So 140g carbs x 4 days=560g of our weekly carbs being added to our weight training days.  This leaves us with 140g to spread around the 3 remaining days.  140 divided by 3 is 47…pretty simple.  And 47 is enough that you can have a little something around any cardio or lighter work you might do on these low carb days.  We even managed to keep low day calories right around the 1200 area that most experts agree to be the minimum for anyone regardless of how little/much they weigh (some exceptions aside).

So one more time in case I lost you:

1) Multiply your daily carbs (of your current diet) by 7.  This is your weekly carb total (you need this for step 3).

2) Add 40g carbs to each of your days where you have your most intense training (weights/intense intervals).

3) Add up carbs from all of your high carb days and subtract this from your weekly carb total (see step 1).  The number you’re left with is what you get to spread around your low carb days.

4) Evenly distribute the number you were left with in step 3 (high carb days total minus weekly carb total) between your low days.

5) Optional: Borrow some fat from your high days to put on your low days so you’re not too miserable.  Just be sure to leave yourself with at least 25-30g of fat on high days so you can still get all your essential fats.  Put the extra 40g of carbs on high days in the meals immediately surrounding your intense training (20g before, 20g after).  This should be ON TOP OF the carbs you’re already getting in these meals.  Or you can just sip on a protein/carb drink during training if you prefer…just make sure the extra 40 is around training.

That’s it!  All the technical talk in parts 1 and 2 were just to tell you there isn’t really all that much to it.  Its just putting carbs where we need them most at the stage in our diets where we don’t have a lot of them to go around, and shifting a little further into fat burning mode on low days.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this 6 month article series.  Feel free to leave a comment or question.

(In case you missed the first two installments of this series: Bikini Competition Diet: Carb Cycling For Bikini Competitors and Bikini Competition Diet: Carb Cycling for Bikini Competitors Part 2

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bikini, bikini competition, bikini competition diet, bikini prep, carb cycle plan, carb cycling, contest, cycling carbs, figure, figure competitor, nutrient partitioning

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  1. Thanks for the article! I am concerned because I am 6 weeks out from my next NPC show (figure) and my trainer has had us on an extreme carb restricted diet since 12 weeks out. I am doing 3 days no carbs followed by 1 day high then 2 days no and another 1 day high. When I say no I mean the ONLY carbs I get are from green veggies. I feel absolutely terrible, have no energy, my strength has severely decreased and my fat/weight loss has plateaued. My trainer said I started out at 17% body fat (I am 5′ 6 3/4″ and started at 138 lbs). That was 6 weeks ago and now he is telling me I am at 16% body fat. Personally I think he messed up the measurements but regardless, I am not sure how to proceed. Can you give me any insight into how this diet could be hurting my progress? Thanks!! Sarah

  2. Hi Sarah,

    As a rule I don’t really get into picking apart another trainer’s program while they’re still working with a client. All I can really say is that if you feel your trainer isn’t doing what’s best for your body/health/goals, then its time to have a chat with him, and find a better one if necessary. Most likely your metabolism/thyroid output has tanked from carbs being too low overall, and testosterone as well if fat isn’t high enough. Could be holding a good amount of water too from cortisol levels being jacked up. Best thing to do is put your health first and see if your coach thinks it might be best to ease up on the dieting and shoot for a later show. One bad prep can have a pretty bad snowball effect, so whatever you do, NEVER take the “I’ll deal with the repercussions later” approach. Do it right early on so you can compete for as long as you want. Good luck!


  3. Hi Joe,

    Loved these articles! I’m a little less than 9 weeks out from my first show and am prepping to start my carb cycle at 6 weeks out. I lift Monday-Friday, cardio only on Saturday and off completely on Sunday. Please let me know if this cycle works or if I’m completely missing the boat!

    Weekly Carb-840g

    Monday-Legs-High carb @ 160g
    Tuesday-Chest-Mod carb @ 120g
    Wednesday-Legs-High carb @160g
    Thursday-Back/3 hours Ultimate Frisbee-High Carb @ 160g
    Friday-Shoulders-Mod carb @ 120g
    Saturday-Cardio-Low carb @ 60g
    Sunday-Off-Low Carb @ 60g

    I look forward to your reply!!

    Thank you,

  4. Glad you liked them. There is no way of me knowing if your setup is appropriate…it can take weeks of working closely with a client to get the diet FULLY dialed in. And just looking at carb intake alone doesn’t really tell anything. That said, I don’t really use carb cycling anymore (and I never did really all that much). As often as most competitors train, there really isn’t a place in the week where lower carbs would be favorable to any other place in the week, considering muscle cell insulin sensitivity is ramped up for 24 hours post training. If you trained 3 days a week, it could work…although I still don’t think it would be necessary. The one thing that stands out with your setup is that you have two consecutive very low carb days right before Monday’s leg day. If you train legs in the evening and have a good amt of food/carbs beforehand, you MIGHT be okay…but then that would mean not a lot remaining for that 24 hour post workout window. Lower body being the largest muscle group you train, you would need the most carbs during the 24 hours following the workout. See where it gets tricky? A lot of people swear by it but anytime I ask those people if they compared it to the same weekly caloric/macro average, they say no. They’re convinced it works, because they see the scale drop after a higher day, but that is 100% water loss. I get that same water loss with my clients who get 250g-400g (carb) refeeds, but they also get some VERY productive workouts a couple days post refeed…and we end up with a GREAT idea of where to go with their pre-contest carb load if we decide to do one. Carb cycling as its commonly done these days achieves none of that. You’re 9 weeks out…so probably not a good time to make big changes from what you’re doing. And your avg is 120g/day which is way better than a lot of girls are doing. I would keep it close to where you have it if its working, but maybe consider adding a little more post leg day. Again…this is just a guess since I have no way of knowing your needs without working with you.

  5. Thanks for the quick response! I didn’t even think about being low on carbs prior to a leg day! I’ll keep trucking with what I’m doing and tweak as needed, if needed!

    Thanks again for your help!


  6. No problem. Remember that you need carbs AFTER (24 hours) training since that’s the window where your muscles will pull in the most glucose. So do put more before if it helps with training intensity…but NOT at the expense of that 24 hour post workout window. It won’t really hurt to try a week of steady 120g/day or just a couple tweaks to your cycle as long as your avg remains the same. I just wouldn’t go beyond that level of experimentation at 9 weeks out.

  7. So I need to be sure to pack my carbs before and after my workout (for me it’s with sweet potatoes, I don’t eat any grain at all). The rest of the day just enjoy the fibrous veggies?

    Sorry for all the questions-I’m going at this show blind on the nutrition side! I’ve got the lifting part down-but man this eating thing is crazy!

  8. I would hope you’re getting your protein and healthy fats in as well. Again…there is NO way of me knowing what you need right now. At 9 weeks out, if its working, I would just go with it…but then get on a proper program post competition and leading up to any future competitions. Find a coach who wants to speak with you on the phone or face to face before committing, and who has lots of questions before writing a program…choose that over how they look or even how their clients look.

  9. I will! Thank you for all your help! Next prep I’ll keep you in mind! Mention you to the husband and see if we can set up some online coaching!

    Thanks again!

  10. I just wanted to say that you have, by far, the most informative and beneficial information on any website I have found!

    I decided last week to sign up for my first ever bikini show and have 21 weeks to prep. I can’t afford a coach so I have been spin as much internet research as possible and your site has been absolutely invaluable. No exaggeration- I have literally been reading every blog post I can for the past 3 days straight! Hopefully I will be able to dive more into this industry in the future, in which case I will definitely be signing up for your online training, but until then I just wanted to express my appreciation for all of the information you make available to those of us lost in the sea of conflicting viewpoints in the fitness world. You rock!

  11. I agree with Jennifer!

    My question is..what are you counting in your carb macros? Everything, or only non-greens?


  12. I don’t think you really have to count fibrous veggies unless you eat a TON of them. I use a program that counts everything so for that reason, they do get factored in, but really as long as you either consistently do or don’t, and you adjust cals/macros as needed, you’ll end up at the same place either way.

  13. I agree Joe..I just read the numbers people throw out and sometimes they seem very low for a carb count, and I wonder if that is because they’re excluding veggies.

  14. Hi! I am 6 weeks out from a figure show. I have been training my butt off and my bodyfat is still pretty high. I did a show last year and did ok, placed 4th, but it was a beginner class so I didn’t have a ton of muscle. I have been working hard to put muscle on and my strength has been amazing. I have definitely put muscle on, but am not leaning out well. My trainer told me to double my cardio. I’m working out 6 days a week and about 4 days of cardio with 3 HIIT days. My carbs I don’t cycle. I’m a steady 50 g a day with an increase in healthy fats. I’m over 5.7 and about 140. I’m considering cutting carbs more, maybe trying a 2 day off 3 day on approach. I’m very frustrated. I thought I was doing everything right. I don’t want to give up, but thinking of doing 90 minutes of cardio a day…whew!

    Any advice would be appreciated! Thanks,

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