Unless you've been in a coma, or have Michael Jackson's personal physician doing nightly house calls, you know that carb cycling works. T Nation coaches Christian Thibaudeau, Dr. Mike Roussell, Shelby Starnes, and Dr. John Berardi have all endorsed manipulating daily carbohydrate intake to improve body composition.

However, it's not all roses and sunshine. Counting carbohydrates and other macronutrients can get complicated if you prepare your own meals, and damn near impossible if your lunches come from a food truck or taco stand.

Enter Carb Cycling For The Non-Counter, a system that derives the muscle building, fat shedding effects of traditional carb cycling without all the cortisol-raising counting and calculators.

Counting works. I realize that many fit people have experienced great results from just sucking it up and doing the damn math. My argument is, however, that a non-counting method can deliver similar results without all the OCD teeth-gnashing and label-reading. Here's why.

1 You can't trust labels.

Most nutritional labels base their information on averages, not exact or absolute values. Furthermore, the quality whole foods you should be eating (lean meats, vegetables, fruits, etc.) vary greatly in macronutrient and calorie content based on cut, what the animal was fed, soil quality, and so on.

The nutritional information on boxed processed foods, on the other hand, is much more accurate as their ingredients are consistently managed by the manufacturer.

So when you eat a Wheat Thin, you know almost exactly how much protein you're (not) getting. Unfortunately, with apologies to the Yahoo health experts, Wheat Thins aren't part of an effective body composition-improving meal plan.

2 Daily energy expenditure.

There are many factors that go into daily energy expenditure, including intensity and duration of exercise, type of employment, body composition, and resting metabolic rate, all of which are difficult to accurately measure.

3 The Thermal Effect of Feeding.

The thermal effect of feeding (TEF) is the amount of energy used to digest food. There's an accepted estimate that 10% of energy consumed is used in digestion and assimilation of food.

However, this number can be affected by many factors, including macronutrient type, total amount of fiber, type of fiber, quality of food (processed versus whole foods), and insulin-sensitivity.

So how are we supposed to assign specific macronutrient and caloric intake quantities when we can't even determine an accurate baseline of what the system (your body) needs to operate?

The answer is, we guess.

So why spend energy on weighing food and counting, tracking, and adding macronutrients when those numbers aren't even accurate?

When researching the popular carb cycling plans, I found no standardized quantity of macronutrients amongst coaches. Some base their percentages on absolute numbers (specific amounts of carbs, proteins, and fats on low, medium and high days), while others on a matrix that includes body weight, basal metabolic rate, estimated activity levels, daily training goals, and current body fat percentage.

Generally, the plans include low carb days, which range from 50-150 grams per day, medium carb days ranging from 150-300 grams per day, and high carb days of 300-500+ grams per day.

Some plans also include 'super carb days' that may exceed 700 grams of carbs or more and 'no carb days' that barely hit 50 grams per day.

Interestingly, despite the broad range of recommendations, coaches using these protocols have all had great results. This reinforces my theory that it's the act of cycling macronutrients and not necessarily the specific amounts that's really important.

1 Forget bulking or cutting.

Unless you're preparing for a specific competition, all-out bulks followed by drastic cuts don't get you very far. For most, slow but steady body recomposition – gaining lean muscle mass and minimizing body fat – is a better long-term strategy.

2 Embrace trial and error.

Because there are no specific calorie or macronutrient allotments in this plan, it will require some tweaking. But here's a secret: all nutrition plans are based on trial and error. There are so many factors that influence fat loss and muscle gain that it's impossible to make blanket recommendations that work for everyone. Successful nutrition coaches devise a plan, see how you react, make adjustments, and continually reassess – the very definition of trial and error.

3 Know your goal.

If you're peaking for a bodybuilding contest or trying to bring your body fat percentage down from 8% to 7%, this isn't the plan for you. You need something more exacting. However, most people don't fall into either category. They need to make weekly progress towards body composition improvements. This is the plan for them.

4 Training is critical.

As always, you should have a smart training plan that you're following and progressing consistently.

Quality whole foods should be the main focus of this nutrition plan. Furthermore, targeted peri-workout nutrition is also critical.

The following isn't a complete list of acceptable food sources but it will give you a solid base and good variety.

Meat sources should be natural, antibiotic free, and grass fed whenever possible. Vegetables should be organic whenever possible. Whether carb cycling or not, quality of food has a huge affect on overall health and body composition.


  • Whole eggs (preferably omega-3)
  • Egg whites
  • Lean cuts of beef
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Wild game (venison, bison, boar, elk, etc.)
  • Lean cuts of pork
  • Greek yogurt (if dairy is well tolerated)
  • Cottage cheese (if dairy is well tolerated)
  • Whey protein powder (breakfast only on high/moderate carb days)


  • Sweet potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Gluten-free oatmeal (100% rolled oats or Irish oats)


  • Avocado
  • Raw or dry-roasted nuts (except peanuts)
  • Natural (100% nuts) nut butters
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Macadamia nut oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Grass-fed butter

Peri-Workout Nutrition

Editor's Note: Biotest's peri-workout nutritional plan varies a little from that proposed by the author, but the concept remains the same. For more information on Biotest's recommended protocol, click here.

All spices are allowed and encouraged.

All vegetables are allowed except for white potatoes. Although not listed on the plan, you should aim to have vegetables with every non-peri-workout meal, every day.

Starchy vegetables such as squash, beets, and root vegetables are allowed on medium and high carb days only.

Fruit is allowed on high-carb days only.

The base plan assumes that you're training four days per week. Plan the cycle around this workout schedule. I'll lay out some troubleshooting options for 'special cases' but for the majority of trainees, this base plan is a great place to start.

You'll see I use the word 'serving' – this does not mean the serving size on the package. What it means is that you need to self-regulate and eat the amount it takes for you to feel satiated.

This plan is based on hormonal response to food type, not total energy intake. We're trying to avoid micromanaging, but that being said, don't overindulge – especially on the fats and the carbs. Most need less food than they think.

High Days

Your high days should coincide with your most intense or highest-priority training days. For most that would be a lower body day.

  • Meal 1: One serving each of carb (one from the acceptable source listed above) and one serving protein
  • Meal 2: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Meal 3 (pre-workout): One serving protein, one serving carb
  • During Workout: One serving Plazma
  • Post Workout: One serving Mag-10®
  • Meal 4 (post workout): One serving protein, one serving carb or fruit
  • Meal 5: One serving protein, one serving fat

Medium Day

Medium day is a training day but not a priority workout.

  • Meal 1: One serving protein (one from the acceptable source listed above) and fat
  • Meal 2: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Meal 3 (pre-workout): One serving protein, one serving fat
  • During Workout: One serving Plazma
  • Post Workout: One serving Mag-10®
  • Meal 4 (post workout): One serving protein, one serving carb or fruit
  • Meal 5: One serving protein, one serving fat

Low Day

Low day is either a non-training day or just non-resistance training (intervals, sports practice, pleasure exercise, bodyweight circuits, remedial/recovery work, etc.)

  • Meal 1: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Meal 2: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Meal 3: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Meal 4: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Meal 5: One serving protein, one serving fat
  • Optional: 10 grams BCAAs during exercise/practice

Laying Out the Week

A typical week would look like this:

  • Monday: Lower Body Training, High Day
  • Tuesday: Upper Body Training, Medium Day
  • Wednesday: No Training, Low Day
  • Thursday: Lower Body Training, High Day
  • Friday: Upper Body Training, Medium Day
  • Saturday: No Training, Low Day
  • Sunday: No Training, Low Day

Since 'one size fits all' plans rarely work, here are some ways to make adjustments based on what you know about yourself or may learn once you try the base plan.

  • Obviously, if you train on a different schedule than the meal plan above, move the peri-workout nutrition (including pre and post-workout meals) accordingly.
  • If you're a hard gainer and looking to put on size, add a FiniBar™ Competition Bar into your peri-workout plan by eating one 30-45 minutes pre-workout. You may also want to add another high day during one of the upper-body training days.
  • If you find you're putting on too much fat, first try reducing portion sizes. You could also make one of the lower body training days a medium day.
  • Certain items on the accepted list are common food intolerances. If you're not making progress or experiencing gastric distress, try eliminating dairy, eggs, or nuts for a time and see how your body reacts.
  • Take weekly progress photos. This is a body recomposition plan, so scale weight won't be a solid indicator of progress. If you know someone skilled at taking skin-fold measurements with calipers, that's a great tool as well.
  • You should never drop the peri-workout carbs – this window is the most critical aspect of body recomposition.
  • You can't go wrong with adding a multivitamin, vitamin D3, and a good fish oil like Flameout® to your plan.

Good estimates for serving sizes are as follows:

  • Protein is 6 oz.
  • Vegetables are 1-cup.
  • Fruit is 1/2 cup or one piece.
  • Fats are either the size of a golf ball (for nut butters, avocado), a tablespoon (for oils), or 15 nuts.
  • Carbs should be 1/2 cup, precooked (oatmeal, brown rice), or one medium sweet potato.

Carb cycling may be the most effective way to reap the anabolic benefits of carbohydrates while maintaining insulin sensitivity and keeping fat gain at bay.

And it doesn't have to be complicated. By eliminating the counting and focusing on the big picture principles, you can reap the rewards without the calculations.