Carb Cycling When Bulking: Should You Do It?

Carb cycling itself is an effective strategy for improving your body composition, but when paired with a higher calorie intake, it can take your physique to the next level. 

Can you carb cycle while bulking? Yes, carb cycling while bulking helps to increase your energy levels on training days when carbs are higher, and to improve your body composition on rest days when carbs are lower.  

It’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of carb cycling while bulking so that you can decide if it’s worth it, or if you’d be better off just bulking and eating your carbs whenever you want.

In this article, we will discuss:

  • What is carb cycling?
  • Should you carb cycle when bulking? (3 Reasons)
  • Are there drawbacks to carb cycling when bulking?
  • How to implement carb cycling during a bulk
  • Carb Cycling & Bulking: Example
  • Can you expect better results during a bulk when carb cycling?

What Is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is a  strategy used by athletes and bodybuilders to improve their performance and body composition that involves fluctuating your carb intake with high carb days and low carb days.

Carb cycling is most often used in combination with a calorie deficit (eating less than your body needs to maintain weight) to achieve fat loss while retaining muscle mass

However, carb cycling also has the ability to improve physical performance and energy levels during exercise, which could help you build lean mass (muscle) when paired with a calorie surplus (eating more calories than your body needs to maintain weight). 

Carb intake can fluctuate daily based on the amount of energy you will expend. High carb days are generally used on higher-intensity training days (ex: leg days) and low carb days are for rest or active recovery days when physical demands are lower. 

Let’s get you in the best shape of your life. Sounds good?

Should You Carb Cycle When Bulking? (3 Reasons)

Although carb cycling is used most often in a dieting phase, there are benefits to manipulating your carb intake during your growing season as well.

You should consider carb cycling while bulking if you want to:

  • Build muscle while limiting unnecessary fat gain
  • Improve health markers and balance your hormones 
  • Avoid unnecessary blood sugar spikes that can be experienced in a “dirty bulk”

1. Building Muscle While Limiting Unnecessary Fat Gain

Implementing carb cycling during a bulking phase, will allow you to experience the muscle-building benefits that a high carb day has to offer, while also improving your body composition on the lower carb days.

Particularly when paired with a good strength training workout, eating higher amounts of carbs has been shown to reduce muscle breakdown while also improving muscle performance. This is an ideal combination during a bulking phase if your main goal is to add lean muscle mass.

 In addition to this, utilizing a lower carb intake on days when activity level is lower can be beneficial for helping the body tap into fat stores. This is due to the fact that when carb intake is lower, the body will use its own fuel (preferably fat) for energy.

Therefore, with bulking and carb cycling together there is an increased potential to build muscle and lose fat at the same time by working with your body’s preferred fuel source: carbs when active, and fat when resting.

2. Improving Health Markers and Balancing Your Hormones 

Not only can carb cycling be beneficial for muscle building and fat loss purposes, but alternating between high and low carb days can provide other health benefits such as improvements in cholesterol, and keeping hormone levels in balance.

Benefits of Low Carb Days For Health

Having a lower carb intake for a short period of time can help to improve cholesterol markers, which is important for your overall heart health because high cholesterol is one of the main causes of heart disease.

Additionally, a temporary low carb intake can improve your overall metabolic health (how well our bodies generate and process energy), which can help to lower your risk of diabetes, stroke, and other chronic conditions

Benefits Of High Carb Days For Health

The benefit of incorporating higher carb days with your low carb days is that you will keep your hunger hormone leptin (a hormone that signals to your brain that you are full) in balance. 

It’s beneficial to keep leptin regulated because when leptin levels are low, you will feel hungry and unsatisfied which makes it harder to adhere to your calorie and macro goals.

Another benefit of high carb days is that it can maintain the balance of your thyroid hormones and testosterone levels, which are important for health and increasing your muscle-building potential.

3. Avoiding unnecessary blood sugar spikes that can be experienced in a “dirty bulk”

During a “dirty bulk” it is common for people to eat a large amount of calorie and carb-dense foods, which may come from processed food sources that are less nutrient and fiber-rich. The result of this can oftentimes be undesirable spikes in blood sugar, which can have negative effects on overall health.

Not only this, but during a dirty bulk, individuals may be more likely to pay less attention to hitting their carb intake as precisely as one might do while carb cycling. Both of these factors could potentially result in excess fat gain during a bulking phase.

Opting to cycle between higher and lower carb days while keeping calorie intake stable during your bulk could help to mitigate the issues mentioned above, and support healthier blood glucose levels in the body.

Are There Drawbacks of Carb Cycling When Bulking?

Pros vs Cons of Carb Cycling when Bulking

Although carb cycling during a bulk can provide some benefits, it might not be for everyone. In fact, for certain individuals, there may be drawbacks to heavily manipulating your carbs while bulking.

The drawbacks of carb cycling while bulking are:

  • Not effective for hard gainers
  • Requires more attention to detail
  • You have a low tolerance to low-carb diets

Not Effective for Hard gainers

For example, if you are someone that struggles to put on weight despite eating high amounts of calories, then it may not be in your best interest to implement a carb cycle. 

In this case, it would be more optimal to keep your carb intake consistently high throughout your bulk, rather than rotating between high and low carb days.

Requires More Attention to Detail

Another reason why carb cycling during a bulk may not be for you is that carb cycling requires you to be very diligent with planning your daily calorie and macro intake and account for the daily variability.

Oftentimes during a bulk, people will take the opportunity to be a bit more relaxed with their calorie and macro tracking, allowing for a bit of a mental break from dieting. If this is the case for you, then carb cycling is probably not going to be a good fit during your bulking phase.

You Have a Low Tolerance to Low Carb Diets

Lastly, if you are someone who struggles with negative symptoms such as lower energy levels, mood issues, constipation, or bloating during low carb phases, then you might want to skip the carb cycle while you are bulking.

There are certain individuals who simply don’t feel good, or cannot achieve optimal athletic performance unless they have a consistent and stable carb intake. Furthermore, some individuals just might not enjoy the process of carb cycling and the precision it requires.

It is important to remember that you can achieve success during a bulking phase even without implementing a carb cycle, as long as you are in a consistent calorie surplus. Therefore, if you can relate to any of the above section, it might be best to avoid drastically cycling your carb intake while in a bulk.

How To Implement Carb Cycling During a Bulk

how to implement carb cycling during a bulk

If you have decided to implement carb cycling during your bulk, here is a step-by-step guide to follow in order to accurately calculate your intake:

  • Step 1: Determine your bulking calories
  • Step 2: Determine your macro split for high, moderate, and low carb days
  • Step 3: Align your carb intake with your training schedule
  • Step 4: Plan your meals & snacks for your low and high-carb days

Step 1: Determine Your Bulking Calories

The first step in any bulking phase is to determine your calorie surplus to find out how many calories it takes for you to eat above your maintenance. 

To do this, you must first determine your maintenance calories by calculating your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). The easiest way to find your TDEE is to use an online calculator like this one.

For example, according to the online TDEE calculator, a 25 year old male bodybuilder who is 5’11” tall and weighs 185 pounds would need to eat approximately 3185 calories a day in order to maintain his weight.

If this male bodybuilder wanted to enter a bulking phase with the goal of putting on mass, then he would want to eat around 250-500 above his maintenance calories per day to achieve this goal. 

If your goal is to reduce fat gain and as much as possible while bulking, then you should increase by 250 calories above maintenance.

If your goal is to add mass more quickly and you’re comfortable gaining more fat, then increasing by 500 calories above your maintenance would be best.

Let’s say that the male bodybuilder has a surplus of 300 calories, putting his daily bulking intake at 3485 calories.

Step 2: Determine Your Macro Split For High, Moderate, And Low Carb days

Once you have determined how many calories you need to eat to be in a calorie surplus, you must determine what your macro split will be for your high carb, moderate carb and low carb days.

It is important to note that during a carb cycle when the carbohydrate intake is manipulated, fat intake is manipulated as well (while protein intake is stable), so that your total calories stay the same. 

This is a very important step to consider in order to keep overall calorie intake consistent, which is an important factor in any successful bulking phase.

Moderate Carb Day

For a moderate carb day, I recommend a balanced macro split with roughly 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat. 

To calculate this you need to know that carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram. 

So once you calculate how many calories are being allocated to each nutrient based on the percent of your total calories, you can divide this number by the calories per gram of that nutrient to calculate the grams per day of each nutrient.

This would mean that the male bodybuilder in the example above would be eating about 348 grams of carbs, 261 grams of protein, and 116 grams of fat on a moderate carb day.

High Carb Day

For a high carb day, I recommend a macro split of  60% carbs, 30% protein and 10% fat. 

That would mean the food intake on a low carb day for the male bodybuilder would be about 523 grams of carbs, 261 grams of protein, and 39 grams of fat.

Low Carb Day

For a low carb day, I recommend a macro split of20% carbs, 30% protein and 50% fat. 

That would put the male bodybuilder’s daily low carb day intake at 174 grams of carbs, 261 grams of protein, and 193 grams of fat.

Step 3: Align Your Carb Intake With Your Training Schedule

Now that you have calculated your exact macronutrient split for your carb cycle, it is going to be beneficial to correlate your workout schedule with your fluctuating carb intake.

More specifically, it will be beneficial to schedule your most intense training sessions on your higher carb days, while reserving your low carb days for low-intensity exercise or rest days.

Here is an example of how you could align your carb intake with your weight training schedule:

DaysWORKOUTCarb Day
MONDAYARMS AND ABS WORKOUTModerate Carb Day
TUESDAYHEAVY LEG WORKOUT HIIT CARDIOHigh Carb Day
WEDNESDAYRECOVERY/ MOBILITY WORKOUTLow Carb Day
THURSDAYCHEST/ SHOULDER WORKOUTModerate Carb Day
FRIDAYBACK DAY + HIIT WORKOUTHigh Carb Day
SATURDAYLOW INTENSITY YOGA STRETCH WORKOUTLow Carb Day
SUNDAYRECOVERY/ NATURE HIKEModerate Carb Day

Step 4: Plan Your Meals & Snacks For Your Low And High Carb Days

The last step once you have determined an accurate calorie and macro intake for your carb cycle/ bulk is to get prepared with the types of meals you are going to eat on each specific day. 

This step is particularly important since your carb and fat intake will be constantly changing during your carb cycle, and will require planning and preparation in order to stay on track.

The section below outlines a detailed example with meal ideas for a high, moderate, and low carb day during a bulking phase

Carb Cycling & Bulking: Example

The following examples are based on the calorie intake and macro split of the male body referenced in the examples earlier in the article.

High Carb Bulking Day

  • Calories: 3485 Calories
  • Carbs: 523 grams
  • Protein: 261 grams
  • Fat:  39 grams
MealIngredientNutrients
BREAKFAST
Protein Oatmeal
-1 cup of oats
-1 ½ bananas
-1 cup of blueberries
-1 scoop of whey protein
-1/2 cup of egg whites
Calories: 761
Carbs: 120 grams
Protein: 50 grams
Fat: 9 grams
SNACK
Protein Cereal
-1 scoop whey protein powder
-1 cup skim milk
-2 cups of Kashi Go Lean Cereal
Calories: 632
Carbs: 89 grams
Protein: 60 grams
Fat: 4 grams
LUNCH
Chicken & Rice
-6 oz grilled chicken breast
-2.5 cups basmati rice
-1 cup roasted broccoli
Calories: 778
Carbs: 120 grams
Protein: 52 grams
Fat: 10 grams
SNACK 
Protein Smoothie
-1 scoop whey protein
-1 cup skim milk
-1 frozen banana
-1 cup frozen mango
-1/2 cup quick oats
-1/2 tbsp peanut butter
Calories: 686
Carbs: 101 grams
Protein: 48 grams
Fat: 10 grams
DINNER
Turkey Burger & Sweet Potato Fries
-Extra lean ground turkey burger (6.5 oz)
-1 burger bun
-6oz home-made sweet potato fries (no oil)
-ketchup
-tomato and pickles
Calories: 630
Carbs: 93 grams
Protein: 51 grams
Fat: 6 grams

Moderate Carb Bulking Day

  • Calories: 3482 Calories
  • Carbs: 348 grams      
  • Protein: 261 grams      
  • Fat: 116 grams  
MealIngredientNutrients
BREAKFAST
Strawberry banana Oats with Egg
and Egg White Scramble
-1/2 cup of oats
-1 banana
-3/4 cup strawberries
-1 scoop whey protein
-1/2 cup egg whites
-1 egg
Calories: 679
Carbs: 73 grams
Protein: 55 grams
Fat: 19 grams
SNACK
Protein Smoothie
-1 scoop whey protein powder
-1 cup skim milk
-1 frozen banana
-1/2 cup frozen pineapple
-1/4 cup oats
-1 tbsp peanut butter
Calories: 712
Carbs: 77 grams
Protein: 56 grams
Fat: 20 grams
LUNCH
Salmon & Rice
-6.5 oz Wild Salmon
-1 ¼ cup Basmati rice
-1 cup broccoli
Calories: 691
Carbs: 61 grams
Protein: 51 grams
Fat: 28 grams
SNACK 
Protein Smoothie
-1 scoop whey protein
-1 cup skim milk
-1 frozen banana
-1 cup frozen mango
-1/2 cup quick oats
-1/2 tbsp peanut butter
Calories: 686
Carbs: 101 grams
Protein: 48 grams
Fat: 10 grams
DINNER
Burger & Sweet Potato Fries
-6 oz beef burger patty
-1 burger bun
-1 slice 2% American cheese
-tomato and pickles
-ketchup
-4 oz sweet potato fries
Calories: 700
Carbs: 72 grams
Protein: 49 grams
Fat: 24 grams

Low Carb Bulking Day

  • Calories: 3485 Calories
  • Carbs: 173 grams
  • Protein: 261 grams
  • Fat: 193 grams
MealIngredientNutrients
BREAKFAST
Traditional Breakfast
-3 eggs
-1/2 cup egg whites
-4 pieces of bacon
-1 oz 2% cheddar cheese
-2 slices whole wheat bread, toasted
-1/2 cup blackberries
Calories: 685
Carbs: 28 grams
Protein: 51 grams
Fat: 41 grams
SNACK
High Protein Cereal
-1 scoop whey protein powder
-1 cup whole milk
-1 cup ProGranola Cereal
-2 tbsp chia seeds
Calories: 723
Carbs: 54 grams
Protein: 57 grams
Fat: 31 grams
LUNCH
Beef & Rice Bowl
-6 oz ground beef
-1/2 cup basmati rice
-1 cup broccoli
-1 oz 2% cheddar cheese
-1/2 avocado
Calories: 683
Carbs: 35 grams
Protein: 48 grams
Fat: 39 grams
SNACK 
Protein Smoothie
-1.5 scoop Whey Protein Powder
-1 cup whole milk
-1/2 cup frozen blueberries
-2 tbsp peanut butter
Calories: 712
Carbs: 37 grams
Protein: 51 grams
Fat: 40 grams
DINNER
 Steak & Roasted Veggies
-6 oz sirloin steak
-4 oz roasted carrots
-1 tbsp olive oil
-10 roasted asparagus spears
-1 oz feta cheese
Calories: 670
Carbs: 19 grams
Protein: 54 grams
Fat: 42 grams

Can You Expect Better Results During a Bulk When Carb Cycling?

While there is no evidence to suggest that one might experience better results by implementing a carb cycle while bulking, including lower carb days in a bulking phase might help to offset certain undesirable side effects of high carb bulking such as excess fat gain due to reduced insulin sensitivity.

That being said the success of your bulk depends directly on the adherence that you have to your calorie surplus and your training.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, whether or not you decide to include carb cycling into your bulk is going to be up to personal preference, and whether or not you are someone who responds well to a lower carb intake. The most important factor that will determine your success in a bulking phase is your adherence to a calorie surplus. 

If you are interested in carb cycling and wish to learn more, check out some of the other articles below:

Let’s get you in the best shape of your life. Sounds good?


About The Author

COLBY ROY

Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.