How I gained lean muscle and lost body fat by using strategic carb cycling and training styles
Here's how this cool little carb binge experiment went down... I just went on a 12-day trip where the first 7 days were spent in beautiful Turks & Caicos with my girlfriend and also my good friends Dr. Kareem (the author of the popular Double Edged Fat Loss program) and his wife Karen.
The next 5 days of our trip was spent on the east coast of the US visiting my parents and helping them to do a lot of spring yardwork, etc. before coming back home last night to a springtime snowstorm here in the rocky mountains of Colorado (hello May powder day tomorrow at A-basin!)
Since I knew that high carbohydrate temptations were going to be everywhere during this 12 day trip (yes, even at my parents house!), I decided to not try to fight the urge to indulge, but rather, just indulge like crazy in the extra carbs, and shift my training program to benefit from the extra carbs for muscle building... and then shift back to a low carb "paleo" style nutrition plan upon returning.
The Priming Phase
In order for this carb binge to work favorably and not just pack on loads of body fat, I had to "prime" my body for about 10 days prior to this trip by going very low carb and using a specific style of training. Then, my body would be primed to utilize the extra carbs during my trip for muscle glycogen and using a high volume "pump" style training program to shift focus to muscle building.
The low-carb phase is also used to increase insulin sensitivity and improve the efficiency of the body in regulating blood sugar. I've actually used similar low-high carb cycling (combined with the appropriate training style) throughout this past winter and have seen some great gains in strength and lean muscle mass, and also reduced bodyfat a couple % too!
Here's how I maximized the benefits of this high-carb and low-carb cycling:
First, during the 10-day low carb "priming" phase, I didn't eat any breads, cereals, pasta, or any grains at all... none! I only ate a small amount of daily carbs from berries and lots of veggies. This phase was mostly healthy fats and protein.
I ate almost entirely meat and veggies, lots of eggs (yes, including the yolks!), nuts, cheese, seeds, some berries, lots of almond butter on celery, supplemental protein and fiber (this grass-fed raw whey is my favorite new protein), veggies and hummus, lots of avocados, olive oil, coconut oil and cream. All of the meats I eat at home are always grass-fed or free range organic meats (bison, beef, venison, and some free range local chicken or pork).
The low-carb priming phase workouts
When you're going low carb, it's no time to try to do high volume training... meaning, you won't be able to achieve a "pump", so it makes more sense to do 2 specific styles of training:
1. Very heavy weight low rep training for max strength -- This type of training was the first 30 minutes of each workout during the low carb phase and included mostly heavy deadlifts, barbell squats, weighted pullups, and bench press. The goal of this training is to maintain lean muscle and max strength on a low carb phase. Reps per set would be no more than 3-4 reps, which means HEAVY training.
The absolute BEST supersets for this style of super heavy training is deadlifts paired with bench, and squats paired with weighted pullups. The reason that pullups and deadlifts can't be paired together is that they're both grip intensive and will hurt the results on each other if paired.
2. High intensity metabolic training -- This type of training was the second 30 minutes of each workout during the low carb phase and involves more "circuit" style training at high intensity and almost no rest in between sets. One of the killer combos I used was this:
The goal of this style of training for the second 30 minutes of each workout was simply to get a super high metabolic response and further deplete muscle glycogen and burn body fat.
I did this style of training and super low carb nutrition plan for about 10 days leading up to my trip, which I planned to go on a carb bender and indulge in whatever high-calorie high-carbohydrate foods I wanted during my trip.
Weird side note: Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed the carbohydrate bender and eating loads of breads, pasta, and desserts on my trip, I actually really enjoyed the super low carb strict phase too. Overall, I think I just feel better and more mentally clear, and with more energy when I'm eating a lower carb "paleo" style of diet. But I won't lie... the carb bender was loads of fun too!
The 12-day high-carb binge phase!
While I was on the 7-day trip in Turks & Caicos, we were obviously eating a lot at restaurants, which means lots of carbs, but we also stocked up at the grocery store and made breakfasts and lunches in our condo. Regardless, I wasn't shy about loading up on the carbos!
The purpose of the high carb binge phase was:
1. Allow myself to go a little nuts on vacation with food
2. Max out muscle glycogen to get a super "pump" during high volume weight training
3. Benefit from the extra calories and the extra insulin production to get a muscle building effect.
Although high insulin can trigger fat gain if left high for too long, elevating insulin strategically can also help to gain muscle. Gaining lean muscle can subsequently make fat loss easier due to your increased metabolic rate. Muscle is KEY to having a blazing metabolism for life!
During the carb binge period, I still had at least one daily serving of Athletic Greens, which is shockingly delicious for a "greens" drink. It's loaded with antioxidants, superfoods, and also lots of probiotics, so that was an important part of my regime to make sure my digestion was still going strong and all of my micro-nutrition was complete.
After the 7 days in Turks, we had 5 days at my parents house in Pennsylvania, and I continued the carb binge, as there was lots of cereal, pasta, and desserts lying around. In defense of my parents, they eat a healthier diet than 95% of the population... at least 75% of the meat that they eat comes from wild game or wild fish that they caught themselves.
And they grow most of their own organic produce for at least 7 months out of the year as they keep a huge organic garden in their backyard. But, they also eat bread and cereal almost daily and have sugary desserts almost daily too. So they eat more grains and sugar than I would recommend to anyone, but aside from that, they eat pretty healthy overall. They're very active too, so they are not overweight despite eating more grains and sugar than they probably should.
It was a carb feast!
While at my parents house, we had big pasta and venison sausage dinners, sandwiches, lots of bread, lots of cereal, and lots of ice cream every night for dessert. I was in a carb coma most of the time! This is almost a shock to my system since I eat such a low carb "paleo" style diet most of the time. But remember that I was utilizing these excess carbs for a PURPOSE! To build muscle. Of course, the carbs themselves aren't the building blocks of muscle (that's the job of protein), but they add the extra calories and the biochemical environment that can make muscle building easier.
Although I might have loaded up on high carb foods that I wouldn't normally eat during this 12 day phase, such as pasta, cereals, muffins, and breads, I still stuck to my guns and refused to eat any artificial trans fats at all, and zero high fructose corn syrup as well. Those 2 food additives are just too evil in my mind.
Keep in mind that I also worked my arse off every day during this carb binge!
The high-carb binge phase workouts
My goal during the high carb binge phase was different than during the low carb phase. Since I was maxing out muscle glycogen with all of those carbs, I wanted to take advantage of that and do more high volume weight training and go for more of the "pump" with the workouts. One of the things we're trying to do is "stretch" the muscle fibers while in a pumped state.
This was also the only time that I would include some single joint "bodybuilding" style exercises into my routine, such as bicep curls, tricep presses, dumbell pullovers, pec flyes, etc. However, the focus of the workouts was still multi-joint compound exercises first (such as squats, bench, lat pulls, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, etc), but in higher rep, high volume fashion.
In addition to the high volume "pump" style weight training during this carb binge phase, I was also doing a lot of daily firewood splitting with an axe to help my parents prep for next winter (I LOVE the muscular workout involved in splitting massive logs the old fashioned way!). This was a great way to help my parents with some of the yard work and get in some extra daily exercise.
So although it might have sounded careless (especially if you know my track record of healthy eating) for me to be carb bingeing so heavily, realize that I was also getting TONS of daily exercise and trying to make the best use of those excess carbs for building muscle.
Back to a lower carb plan again...
Now that I'm back home, I'm back on a lower carb plan again eating almost solely meats, lots of veggies, eggs, nuts, seeds, avocados, etc. When I'm on a lower carb "paleo" style plan, if I had to estimate my macro-nutrient ratios, I'd say it's probably around 15% carbs, 35% protein, and 50% healthy fats.
Side note: One of the purposes of the super heavy, low rep weight training during the low-carb, high fat phase is that both of these aspects (the heavy training and the high fat intake) help to maximize healthy testosterone levels... which is obviously good for both maintaining muscle and losing body fat, among other benefits. I have another article here that explains the exact workout methods that help increase both testosterone and growth hormone naturally to help lose body fat and build muscle faster.
After my first workout back on a lower-carb plan today, I broke lifetime personal records in 3 of my lifts on strength levels! Score! Yes, that was a benefit of this type of cycling. And I guarantee that losing that last bit of abdominal fat is going to be easy over the next couple weeks of low carb eating now that I'm carrying a few pounds more lean muscle on my frame.
I'll continue a low carb cycle again for another 2-3 weeks before I go on another carb binge for 10-12 days.
I've done this type of cycle several times in the last 4 months or so, and I can say that I've improved body composition every time... more muscle and less fat after all was said and done!
If you have a vacation coming up and want to "go nuts" on the carbs and calories while on vacation, keep this strategy in mind and make sure to do the low carb "priming" for 10-14 days before the trip and about 2 weeks after the trip too, before settling back to your "maintenance" diet.
This plan of low carb and high carb cycling and associated workout modifications can also be used even if you're not going on vacation... but it sure is fun on vacation!
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