Carb Cycling – What is it and when do you use these approaches

Written by Clean Health Online Master Coach, Kim Leggett

A very common approach which can often help clients stay on track with their meal plan is Carb Cycling. This is when you alternate between various carbohydrate intakes through the week based on external factors like training. The concept behind this is to program higher carb days in conjunction with training days focused on a priority body part. Non-priority training days will therefore get moderate carbs and rest or active recovery days low carbs. 

In other words: 

  • Rest or Non-Priority Training Days: low carb, low calorie
  • Training Days: high carb, high calorie

As carb cycling requires counting macros and a good amount of nutrition planning – it is considered a more intermediate to advanced nutrition strategy. It works well for highly-motivated individuals and is popular amongst amateur and elite athletes/bodybuilders. This approach is also perfect for athletes who are looking to maximise their performance by synchronising carb intake with demand to ensure that there is little to no excess blood sugar left to be taken into fat storage and there is sufficient fuel when it is needed. 

Also consider the time your client trains when looking to implement a carb cycling strategy. If they train early, consider starting their high carb day the night before. 

Why do we look at carbs and not protein or fat?

Altering carb intake can have a positive impact on numerous hormones whilst fluctuating fat or protein intake can have a negative affect. If fat intake remains too low, females can see their menstrual cycles halt and if protein intake remains too low you can lose muscle mass and experience mood swings. 


Carbs are not as essential to the body however they make dieting (and eating) a lot easier and more pleasurable. Lowering carb intake can also increase insulin sensitivity which can aid in body composition goals. The way carb cycling works is by affecting the hunger hormone leptin. High carb days increase leptin levels which keeps us from feeling hungry which prevents the lower carb days from stalling our metabolism and leading to binges or massive cravings to keep compliance in check. 

So, does carb cycling work?

To help you lose fat and improve body composition – yes. Again this is given the plan is being followed to the letter. Like anything, carb cycling is an approach and by no means is it superior or inferior to another. For most people, it’s a high effort but low impact deal but can be really useful for people who are already very lean and want to get leaner, want to manage training and nutritional stress, trying to cut weight for a physique competition, do not tolerate carbs well or are aiming for incremental gains.

At the end of the day, if you’re too strict, you’ll feel deprived and won’t stick to your diet. You need to make some sacrifices and give up unhealthy habits to succeed in losing fat or winning on stage. Getting your carb counts right is important but a big part of dieting success is being in the proper mindset. How much fat loss you achieve whilst carb cycling is a matter of how strictly you adhered to your program.

Clean Health Fitness Institute. (2020). Performance Nutrition Coach Level 1. Clean Health Fitness Institute.

St. Pierre, B. (2020). Carb cycling: Is this advanced fat loss strategy right for YOU? Retrieved from: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-carb-cycling

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