Carbohydrate cycling, where you eat more carbohydrates on workout days and less on rest days, is an important factor in gaining strength without excessive fat. But, before I go any further, I need to explain that carbohydrates are not the enemy. Studies have shown that as long as dietary protein and fat are sufficient, a diet that is higher in carbs results in approximately the same amount of fat loss as one very low in carbs (any difference in weight loss was due to extra water weight loss on the low carb diet)3. The key is to ensure that you obtain healthy fats (such as saturated fat) and protein (be careful not to overdue protein as it does have a toxicity range), filling the rest of the calories with non-toxic carbohydrate sources (I prefer sweet potatoes, bananas, and white rice). Furthermore, intermittent carbohydrate consumption actually produces benefits toward hormone regulation.
Why Cycle Carbs?
Eating a consistent low carb diet (under 100 g or 400 calories per day) makes gaining muscle and strength either very difficult or impossible (trust me, I have tried and failed with that one). The caveat to this is if you are new to lifting or coming back from an extended break, in which case you will likely gain strength/muscle no matter what you do. Studies have shown that eating low carb for extended periods of time, especially at a caloric deficit, will cause multiple hormone levels relating to metabolism to decline. For example, active T3, a thyroid hormone that plays a major role in energy production, fat-burning and muscle gain, will decline when not enough cellular energy is available over time (i.e. low calorie or low carb diets)2. Another example is leptin, a hormone that has an effect on the production of epinephrine, T3/T4, neuropeptide-Y, and many others (all hormones that affect the metabolism)1.
And if those aren’t reasons enough for you, the cycling of carbohydrates can make the cycling of calories effortless. By keeping fat and protein approximately the same on a daily basis, adding a large carbohydrate rich meal right after working out will not only bring your calories up on workout days (crucial for strength gains), but it will also help you negate the above hormonal issues while still losing weight in the long run. If your goal is to gain weight, it will help keep the fat gains to a minimum while putting on lean mass.
The reason the optimum time to ingest excess carbohydrates after working out is due to their insulinogenic effect and their contribution towards replenishing glycogen stores. Contrary to the belief that ketones can be used to fuel the muscles during high intensity workouts, the truth is that the body requires glycogen for this type of activity2. When on a ketogenic diet, the liver and kidneys are able to make a limited amount of glucose, however, much of it gets used by the brain and other bodily functions. Therefore, after performing an intensive workout, especially if done fasted, you have the lowest glycogen reserves, meaning you can then eat a sufficient amount of carbohydrates before the body starts storing it for future use (a.k.a. fat). Furthermore, the insulin spike that is caused by ingesting a large amount of carbs (insulin spikes are necessary for maintaining healthy hormone levels) will aid in shuttling nutrients to the muscles, which is desirable for both muscle gain and recovery2.
A good PWO meal has a somewhat equal amount of protein and carbs (if not slightly higher in carbs) and a good dose of fat. Don’t be afraid of eating a sizable amount of calories; in fact, I think this should be the largest meal of the day. I personally am a huge advocate of raw milk, and my post workout meal is usually ½ gallon of raw milk and 3 bananas (about 280 g). The meal has over 100 g of carbs, over 72 g of protein (optimum casein-whey blend from the milk), and over 72 g of fat (of which 50 g is saturated fat). Do whatever works for you (i.e. if you can’t or don’t drink milk, don’t go down a pint of raw milk because I do it). My wife is currently unable to drink milk, therefore her current PWO meal is 350 g of potatoes, 100g of onion, and 2 cloves of garlic cooked in 2 Tbsp coconut oil, 2 pastured eggs cooked in 1 Tbsp butter, and 2-4 oz. grass fed ground beef with seasoning and cooked in 1 Tbsp coconut oil. Both my wife and I also taper carbohydrate consumption throughout the rest of the day, with the last meal of the day only consisting of about 10% carbohydrates (by calories).
With the RPT program outlined above, enough calories to sustain muscle growth, and the cycling of carbohydrates, you have the tools needed for sizable strength gains.
(1) Havel, P.J.. “Control of energy homeostasis and insulin action by adipocyte hormones: leptin, acylation stimulating protein, and adiponectin.”Current opinion in lipidology 13 (2002): n. pag.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11790963#. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.
(2) Hofmekler, Ori. Maximum muscle and minimum fat: the secret science behind physical transformation. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2008. Print.
(3) Johnston, Carol S, Sherrie L Tjonn, Pamela D Swan, Andrea White, Heather Hutchins , and Barry Sears. “Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets.”American Journal of Clinical Nutrition83.5 (2006): 1055-1061. Print.
Ever trained for strength? Do you cycle carbs? Let me know below!