Carb Rotation - An In-depth Guide to Personalizing Your Diet

Carb Rotation - An In-depth Guide to Personalizing Your Diet

Carb rotation for bodybuilding nutrition is not a new theory. I first came upon the concept in the late-eighties via the Ultimate Dieting Handbook (although it had been practiced by diet theorists and human lab rats before then).

This seminal manuscript by Michael Zumpano and Dan Duchaine introduced the basic science of ketogenic dieting to the bodybuilding world. It was not a zero-carb diet. In fact, The Ultimate Diet involved “reload days” to counteract the complaints some bodybuilders had with a strict ketogenic protocol; specifically, the reload days allowed lifters to maintain training intensity and to avoid a decrease in thyroid function.

I have studied all aspects of bodybuilding training and nutrition, and I pay particularly close attention to evolving trends in both fields of study. Part of my work involved a decade as a consultant for a couple of supplement companies, including seven years with a company that formulated hundreds of pre-contest diets for athletes in both natural and tested events.

As with any successful diet, the basis of many approaches was carb restriction. As the trend continued for lower levels of carbs in diets, people found out that many athletes needed to institute carb-load days. This kept them from flattening out, becoming mentally stale, and actually increased fat loss rather than hurt it due to the ability of higher carb days to kick start a sluggish metabolism.

My version of a carb rotation diet involves High-Carb, Moderate-Carb and Low-Carb days, arranged through your week to correspond to your specific training days. Your heaviest training days (legs, back) should always be High-Carb days. Rest days could be Low- or Moderate-Carb, depending on your goals during that period of the year (pre-contest fat loss versus off-season size building).

The program may look something like this (although your bodypart split will most likely be different, this will give you a general idea):

Monday Leg Training High Carb
Tuesday Chest, Shoulders Moderate Carb
Wednesday Rest Day Low Carb
Thursday Low Back/Lats High Carb
Friday Arms Moderate Carb
Saturday Rest Day Low Carb
Sunday Rest Day Moderate Carb

 

As you can see, the above diet has two High-Carb days, two Low-Carb days and three Moderate-Carb days each week.

A pre-contest version may have only one High-Carb Day (depending on the person’s specific metabolism) and three Low-Carb Days. As you will see, the plan is very adjustable. A weight gain diet may have three High-Carb, three Moderate-Carb, and one Low-Carb day (but probably with a higher calorie level).

GOAL HIGH-CARB MODERATE-CARB LOW-CARB
Pre-Contest 1-2 2-3 3
Average Off-Season 2 3 2
Weight Gain 3-4 2-3 1

 

Calorie needs are very specific, based on the lifter’s metabolism and activity level, but the example below is a good “best guess” for someone on a fat loss program. A daily calorie level of 15 grams per pound of bodyweight is generally a good starting point for this type or program but, if are very lean or carrying a large amount of muscle, you may need to increase the calorie levels to 16, 17, or 18 calories per pound. Look at your recent diets (if applicable) to determine where you should start and you can adjust from that point. If you need to cut the calorie levels, drop it in the other direction. If you’re trying to lose fat, you don’t want to start out too low, since that makes it impossible for you to make adjustments later.

  • Fat-burning: 10-17 calories per pound of bodyweight
  • Muscle-gaining: 12-20
  • Weight gain: 15-25

The macronutrient ratios I recommend are: High-Carb days (35% protein / 60% carb / ~5% fat); Moderate-Carb days (50% protein / 35% carb / 15% fat); and Low-Carb days (60% protein / 10% carb / 30% fat). For a person weighing 177 pounds who decides to begin a fat loss diet at 15 calories per pound of bodyweight, it might look like this:

177lbs x 15 = 2,655 calories

Protein Carb Fat
HIGH-CARB 35%

232grams / 928cal 

60%

398grams / 1592cal

~5%

15grams / 135cal

MODERATE-CARB 50%

332grams /1328cal

35%

232grams / 928cal

15%

44grams / 396cal

LOW-CARB 60%

398grams / 1592cal 

10%

66grams / 264cal 

30%

88grams / 792cal  

 

This lifter is looking at a High-Carb day of 232 grams of protein, 398 grams of carbs and not much fat (maybe 4-6 EFA capsules and whatever fat is naturally occurs in meats).

The Moderate-Carb day would be 332 grams of protein, 232 grams of carbs, and 44 grams of fats (6-8 EFA caps broken up into two servings, with the rest coming from macadamia nut or olive oil— which is 14 grams of fat per tablespoon).

The Low-Carb day would consist of 398 grams of protein, 66 grams of carbs, and 88 grams of fats (once again, 6-8 EFA caps broken up into two servings with the rest coming from macadamia nut/olive oil).

The thing I like best about this diet is that it is easily adjustable. If you are gaining bodyfat on it, you can switch one of the days (in the weekly schedule example above, it would be Thursday) from High-Carb to Moderate-Carb, or your Sunday from Moderate to Low. If you are getting flat or feel like you are rundown, you can boost one of the Low days to Moderate or a Moderate day to a High day, or you can increase the carbs a bit on your Moderate and/or High days.

In a fat-loss mode, you may need to gradually adjust your intake. The first step in doing this would be to reduce calories. In this example, we lower the caloric value to 14 calories per pound of bodyweight.

177lbs x 14 = 2,478 calories

Protein Carb Fat
HIGH-CARB 35%

217grams / 868cal 

60%

372grams / 1488cal

~5%

14grams / 126cal

MODERATE-CARB 50%

310grams / 1240cal

35%

217grams / 868cal

15%

41grams / 396cal

LOW-CARB 60%

372grams / 1488cal 

10%

62grams / 248cal 

30%

83grams / 747cal  

 

The next adjustment would be for us to stagger calories so that the Low-Carb and Moderate-Carb days are lower in calories (-1 in calories per pound of bodyweight) and adjust macronutrient balances on High-Carb Day to:  protein 40% / carbs 55% / fat ~5%. 

As you can see below, this gives you a calorie intake of 2478 calories a day on your High-Carb Day and a lower level of 2301 on your Moderate- and Low-Carb Days. This keeps the metabolism burning body fat while the High-Carb Day keeps the metabolism from slowing down, keeps glycogen levels high, and staves off psychological hunger pangs.

Protein Carb Fat
HIGH-CARB (177 x 14 = 2478) 40%

248grams / 992cal  

55%

340grams / 1360cal 

~5%

14grams / 126cal 

MODERATE-CARB (177×13 = 2301) 50%

288grams / 1152cal   

35%

201grams / 804cal 

15%

38grams / 342cal 

LOW-CARB (177 x 13 = 2301) 60%

345grams / 1380cal 

10%

58grams / 232cal  

30%

77grams / 693cal

 

Further adjustments are made either by reducing the calorie level or reducing the number of High-Carb days. For fat-loss, I like two Low-Carb days in a row somewhere in the week (rest days) followed by a High-Carb day, since I feel this really activates glycogen loading on the carb-load day while getting maximal fat-burning on the two depletion days.

Shelby Starnes is a big advocate of a carb cycling approach

The High-Carb days replenish glycogen stores and keep the metabolism high. We keep fat intake low since carbs provide plenty of (more preferentially used) energy. Insulin levels are relatively high, driving glycogen and aminos into muscles. Since you are taking in so many carbs, you don’t need as much protein on this day since the protein you are eating is being utilized at a higher rate. You may have heard the phrase that ‘carbohydrates are protein-sparing’…this means that when you have enough carbs, protein stores are not used up for other functions as much. Avoid caffeine and stimulant fat-burners on these days since they inhibit glycogen storage (which is our primary dietary goal on High-Carb days).

The Low-Carb days stimulate fat-burning and increase your insulin sensitivity. We take in more protein on these days, which supports fat-burning, and also consume more healthy fats (which are important in the body’s creation of growth hormones and testosterone). I recommend you use EFA caps for some of this but use a healthy dose of macadamia nut oil to make up the rest of your fat intake on the Low-Carb days since it seems to really support fat loss during a low carb state.

Your food choices should be virtually the same as on every proper bodybuilding diet you have ever been on. For proteins, eat lean meats, eggs, and quality protein shakes. Eat slow clean carbs like oats, sweet potatoes, and rice and LOTS of fibrous veggies.

I also recommend a “greens” product like Udo’s Wholesome Fast Food Blend, Greens+, or Garden of Life’s Perfect Food. These products are ground extracts of a variety of plants and contain fiber, antioxidants, tons of phytonutrients. They also correct the acidic pH that comes from a protein-heavy bodybuilding diet. Some also have probiotics and digestive enzymes added to even further enhance their value.

I already mentioned EFA capsules and macadamia nut oil. If your budget allows, an essential amino is a great product to add to boost the value of each meal. A dose of essential branched-chain aminos is also a good idea to take when you wake in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. I keep five of each in a tumbler on my nightstand next to a glass of water. You can also benefit greatly from a glutamine/BCAA drink and/or BCAAs during your workouts. Lastly, you should be drinking one-half to one-and-a-half gallons of water daily. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the importance of that.

Below is a table which summarizes what occurs on each day:

HIGH CARB MODERATE CARB LOW CARB
Storage dayHighly anti-catabolic Coasting day Fat-burning (depletion) day. Catabolic (hopefully on fat)
Leg Day, Back Day or Weak Bodypart Specialization Day [Varies] Rest days or training of smaller bodyparts like arms, delts
Higher insulin output Keeps metabolism elevated and keeps you from flattening out Insulin levels low, allowing for efficient fat-burning
Increased insulin sensitivity from low-carb days allows for glycogen super-compensation and increased intake of nutrients.

Proportionally more protein available for synthesis, even with lower gram intake

  Higher (healthy) fats which increase insulin sensitivity (omega-3s).

Deplete glycogen stores somewhat which increases insulin sensitivity.

More protein needed since some is used as an energy source.

Good time for high quality hydrolysates or BCAAs to maintain muscle size

No cardio High-Intensity Interval Training Long steady-state cardio

 

Don’t sweat the small stuff on the daily diet. If it is your Moderate-Carb Day and you need to consume 310 grams of protein, 217 grams of carbs, and 41 grams of fats, don’t think you need to evenly divide that into your 5-6 daily meals. All that matters is your end-of-the-day total.

I would however, try to get extra protein (using a protein supplement like Nitrean makes this easier) and carbs in during the meals directly before and after your workout (especially on the Low-Carb day).

On this program, I also recommend that you divide your meals into protein/fat and protein/carb meals. Keep most of your protein/carb meals in the early part of the day near your workout (if you train in the morning).

The carb rotation diet is effective in that it addresses all major hormonal systems (testosterone, insulin, cortisol, growth factors, thyroid) and is incredibly adaptable.

This means it’s not just adjustable to a specific person, but can easily be tweaked along the course of an individual program based on the body composition changes you experience.

This guide spells out all the basics. Give it a try!

Written by Steve Colescott

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About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist , Steve Colescott works alongside Dave Palumbo and John Romano as a Staff Writer at RxMuscle.com.

He has had nearly a hundred published articles covering the science behind various training and nutrition protocols. He can be reached at stevecolescott@gmail.com

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