There comes a time when almost every lifter wants to "lean up."

If you're already lifting regularly, simply changing up your training routine is unlikely to cause a dramatic drop in bodyfat. How you train will have the greatest impact on your performance, but it's how you eat that really decides who's staring back at you in the mirror.

In other words, to get lean you need to focus on your diet, and carb cycling is about as effective an approach as you can find.

Carb cycling basically means varying the amount of carbs and/or calories consumed on a given day.

Bodybuilders have known for years that of the three major macronutrients, carbohydrates seem to have the most significant effect on body composition. Subsequently, there are literally hundreds of carb cycling approaches available, each with its own particular spin on the popular fat loss strategy.

Although I'm more a "sets & reps" oriented coach and writer, I too have my own spin on carb cycling. It's one that I've used successfully with many athletes including myself; last year I went from 220 to173 for a meet using a plan similar to what I'm about to unveil here.

Like my weight training programs, this plan isn't easy, but it is simple, straightforward, and it works – if you've got the discipline to follow it.

The plan is broken into the following four phases:

1 – Super Strict

As the name implies, this is a very strict dietary phase. This should be done at the beginning of a diet as a jumpstart or at the end as an effective way of stripping off the last bit of fat. This is a tough, brutal diet, but it should only be followed for a short time as I'll explain a bit later.

The carbs are most limited in this phase: you can have up to 50 grams a day, and the significant majority of those carbs must come from veggies; no traditional starch or sugar in this phase.

2 – Normal

This is the main phase of this plan. It's a lower carbohydrate, higher natural protein and fat diet. You can have up to 100 grams of carbs a day, most of which will come from veggies with a small amount of fruit and starch, but not from junk food.

T Nation recently published an article about the benefits of consuming 100 grams or less of carbs each day and there's considerable truth to that. Part of the reason I named this phase "Normal" is to start changing the mindset of people.

Right now many people think high-carb days are "normal," and that we should just sit back and put away 500-600 grams of carbs a day. Carbs are not evil but still you must earn them through activity; most people are highly sedentary and thus their carb intake should be limited.

In the new dietary mindset, a lower-carb diet would be "normal" and a higher carb diet would be seen as a "splurge."

3 – High Carb

Low carbs are good for fat loss but often not ideal for performance. Most of you are lifting hard and heavy so sometimes a carb spike is necessary, and this is where the High Carb day comes into play.

On high-carb days, you're encouraged to consume a large amount of carbohydrates, generally in the 400-800 gram per day range. The purpose is to replenish the body's glycogen stores, stimulate an anabolic response through insulin release, and give the mind a break from the moderately restrictive normal phase of the diet.

The basic idea is to continue to eat a lot of veggies and add to that unlimited fruit, unlimited natural unprocessed carbs, and if necessary, a small amount of processed carbs. Carbs from organic dairy sources are also permissible.

4 – Holidays

You can use your imagination on this day. I generally believe in moderation in most things – including moderation of moderation itself – so on Holidays feel free to indulge. The shock to the system with the influx of nutrients can actually be a good thing when done on an occasional basis. You can decide on your own holidays (I've listed mine below), but generally they should total fewer than 21 days out of the year.

Dietary Plan by Phase

(Number listed is servings per day of that food item.)

Food Item Super Strict Normal High Carb Holidays
Veggies Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Fruits 0 0-2 Unlimited Unlimited
Eggs 1-4 Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Natural Protein 2-4 Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Natural Fat 2-4 Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Cheese 0-1 Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Milk 0 0-2 Unlimited Unlimited
Protein Shake 0 0-2 0-4 Unlimited
Nuts 0-1 0-2 Unlimited Unlimited
Natural Starch 0 0-1 Unlimited Unlimited
Tea or Coffee w/sugar 0 0-2 Unlimited Unlimited
Yogurt 0 0 Unlimited Unlimited
Processed Carbs 0 0 0-4 Unlimited
Desserts 0 0 0-1 Unlimited
Processed Meat 0 0 0-1 0-4
Soda 0 0 0 Unlimited
Wine 0 0 0-2 Unlimited
Other Alcohol 0 0 0 Unlimited

Foods are listed in preferred order by category:

  1. Natural Protein: Fish (any, wild caught preferred), chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, pork, seafood (organic strongly preferred when possible)
  2. Natural Fat: Olive oil, organic butter, animal skin, etc. (organic strongly preferred)
  3. Natural Starch: Sweet potatoes, potatoes, rice, oatmeal
  4. Processed Carbs: Wraps, pitas, all breads (more fiber the better), pasta, popcorn, crackers, granola bars, fruit bars, cold cereal
  5. Desserts: Ice cream, popsicles, chocolate, pies, brownies, cookies, cakes, pastries, candy bars
  6. Processed Meat: Lunch meat, non-homemade beef/hamburgers, pepperoni, hot dogs, bacon, sausage

Weight Loss System

  • For Rapid Weight Loss: Follow Super Strict for 3-14 days to promote significant weight loss, then move to Normal weight loss or Maintenance phase.
  • For Normal Weight Loss: Combine 5-6 days of Normal with 1-2 days of High Carb. If losing weight too fast, add in a 1/2 to 1 day of High Carb; if you're not losing weight fast enough, reduce High Carb by 1/2 day.
  • For Maintenance: Combine 4-5 days of Normal with 2-3 days of High Carb.
  • For Weight Gain: Combine 3-4 days of Normal with 3-4 days of High Carb.

I categorize holidays as the following:

  1. Post competition meals
  2. All vacations outside the state (up to one week long)
  3. The following official holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve, July 4th, Birthday
  4. Optional: Spouse's birthday, anniversary, Halloween, Labor Day, Memorial Day

Listed below is a sample food intake for one day on each of the three main phases. (I assume you don't need help to fill in the Holiday food guidelines!)

Super Strict Normal High Carb
    banana and/or tea w/sugar upon waking
2 hard boiled eggs 3 hard boiled eggs 4 scrambled eggs
1/2 serving of shredded carrots
1/2 serving of peas
1/2 serving of cauliflower
1/2 serving of sliced peppers
1/2 serving of shredded carrots
1/2 serving of peas
1/2 serving of cauliflower
1/2 serving of sliced peppers
1 serving of shredded cheese
1 baked potato w/butter and sour cream
1 serving of peas
1 serving of shredded cheese
water 8 oz whole organic milk 1 yogurt smoothie
6 pieces of tuna sashimi – thick 6 oz of chicken breast 1 plain bagel
1/2 cucumber 1 serving of snow peas
1 serving of sliced peppers
¼ serving of orzo
3 cherry tomatoes
4 oz tuna fish
slice of lemon 1 tbsp of olive oil tomato slices
water water 2 slices of cheese
    1 low-fat raspberry yogurt
    2 servings of Surge® Workout Fuel during training * *
1/2 rotisserie chicken w/skin * Southwestern turkey wrap:
1 high-fiber thin wrap
4 oz of roasted turkey
2 servings of cheese
lettuce, tomato slices
chipotle chicken burrito w/rice and vinaigrette sauce,
toppings as desired
2 servings of broccoli water water
  2 servings of beef jerky 1 Finibar
  water 8 oz whole organic milk
  tea w/sugar if necessary 2 servings of roasted nuts

* In regards to the rotisserie chicken, watch what the skin is glazed with. I prefer a homemade version mad only of spices; you don't want a sugary glaze.
* * For the Surge® Workout Fuel, consume that before, during, and immediately after you lift. I train in the middle of the day, so it's after meal 2 and before meal 3 for me.
* * * On Super Strict or Normal training days, use a carb free peri-workout nutrition system like Plazma™, MAG-10®, and/or BCAA's.

It's assumed that all eggs are organic and from cage-free chickens and all dairy products are organic and preferably from grass-fed cows.

Where do I get this food? I do most of my shopping at Whole Foods and the majority of these foods can be found in the salad bar or hot bar. It's more expensive but convenient to have it prepared that way.

The vast majority of the rest of the meals can be made at home and prepared in advance. I also have a Ronco Rotisserie cooker that allows me to control what goes in and on my protein sources.

On the High Carb day I tried to include foods that were common and easy to come by, perhaps at the expense of choosing the absolute ideal foods.

The Good, The Bad, and The Butt Fugly

All dietary plans have pros and cons. I'm not saying this is the only way to achieve fat loss, but it's one valid way.

To me, the positives and negatives of this system are as follows:

Positives of the Program:

  1. It's relatively easy to follow. You wake up, you know what day you're on, and you do your best to stick with the guidelines.
  2. It works well with real life. If you're hanging out with friends or have a social event to attend, make that day a high-carb day. It allows one to splurge on the holidays. After all, when you bust your ass in the gym and the kitchen you occasionally need to take off the restraints.
  3. Once you have this system down, you can modify it for a variety of goals by increasing/decreasing the number of high-carb days. If you want to gain weight but stay relatively lean, try this plan with 3 or 4 high-carb days. If you're not losing fat at the rate you want, decrease the number of high carbs you have in your weekly plan by 1/2 day each time.
  4. This program focuses on natural, unprocessed, whole food that should be the cornerstone of any successful dietary plan. You can also work in substitutions – if you don't want chicken, substitute in salmon, etc.
  5. This program allows for cravings and doesn't constantly deny them, which can be tough on the will power and might not make you the most popular person to be around.
  6. This program works! 'Nuff said.

Negatives of the Program:

  1. It can be easy to turn the High-Carb day into a full blown cheat day. You see some chips and think, "Oh, it's a high-carb day" and eat them, followed by a chocolate bar, two plates of spaghetti, etc. You can eat a lot of carbs, but they need to be moderately natural and healthy. If you want two baked potatoes with your steak, go for it; two servings of French fries isn't the same thing.
  2. Re-introducing the carbs into your system after a few low-carb days can sometimes enhance the cravings instead of decrease them. I've found that first breakfast after a few days of high carbs can be tough as by then I'm used to eating a lot; the second or third day is actually easier as I'm not comparing that smaller meal to the feasts from the high-carb day.
  3. It can be tough to do an intense workout on a low-carb day. The solution here is to make your high-carb days fall in line with your two toughest workout days – or at least the day before – so you'll have some glycogen to power you through the workout. I usually made my high-carb days on Monday and Friday, but you can plan yours as you see fit.
  4. Your bodyweight will fluctuate a bit more on this plan than normal. It should drop relatively rapidly one low-carb day to the next, but it might spike up after a high-carb day due to glycogen storage and the accompanying water and sodium. However, if you keep track of your weight you'll still see a regular drop in weight with a similar drop in bodyfat as you go.

The Skinny on Carb Cycling

To me, all of those cons are manageable and are outweighed by the pros of this program. You work out hard in the gym, now it's time to show off some of that hard work! If you're frustrated with the results of standard caloric restrictions and want to try something new, give this program a shot. You have nothing to lose but your waistline.

Tim Henriques has been a competition powerlifter for over 20 years. He was a collegiate All American Powerlifter with USA Powerlifting. In 2003 Tim deadlifted 700 pounds (at 198), setting the Virginia State Record. Follow Tim Henriques on Facebook