Cardio & Carb Cycling For Fat loss

We all want to make changes to our bodies, and the single biggest change people say they want is to drop body fat. This may be in preparation for a competition or photo shoot, or simply to look and feel better in the skin they’re in. Once the desire to lose that fat is there, many people make the mistake of making drastic changes to achieve quick results. But quick results usually don’t come, frustration does instead – no matter how hard they train, or the many hours doing cardio, the unwanted fat remains. I always used to tell my clients that ‘you can’t force fat, only coax it’, because the simple truth is that when the body faces drastic changes in either diet or training , it enters a state of alert. This is when the body quickly locks tight its fat stores, which can be thought of as the body’s survival energy tanks, and instead breaks down energy stored in muscle to become its fuel. Not the kind of weight you want to be losing!

Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix that will lose you 10 lbs of fat in as many days – if you did manage to lose that amount of weight in those days, most of it will be water, some will be muscle, and a very small amount may actually be fat. In this situation, you’d be sacrificing muscle solely in order to drop a few pounds – and then in all likelihood put those pounds back on within a few weeks, but not in the shape of muscle, as your body would retain more water due to the water lost, and you’d have a slower metabolism due to loss of muscle.

So what’s the answer? Well, there is a combination of cardio and dieting that will allow you to lose the fat, but keep all your hard-earned muscle. A realistic timescale, depending on how much body fat you want to lose, is anywhere between 10 and 16 weeks. This may seem like a lifetime, but just think how long it took to build up your new muscle. It also took time to put on all that fat, and it’s going to take some time to shed that fat too. But with this approach, the loss will be gradual and manageable, plus you’ll be able to keep it off without having lost much muscle. Now that’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?

Well, if you’re still reading and ready to commit to losing the fat for good, then read on – this really is going to change your life!

More often than not, most of us when starting a new plan get a little over excited and change too many things at once in the hope that it will speed up fat loss. Remember what I used to tell my clients – you can’t force fat loss. The clients who saw the biggest fat losses were the ones who listened and changed one variable at a time. So I have a couple of steps for you to take, in turn.

The first step is to cut your calories from carbohydrates by no more than 25%. Dropping your carbohydrates from foods such as oats, yams, pasta and potatoes by too much will leave you feeling weak and unable to train with the intensity that the body needs to hold onto muscle tissue. A drop in total calories greater than 15% would also lower testosterone levels in men, which would also add to the muscle loss. So keep the reduction in calories from carbohydrates to no more than that 25%.

It’s important to note that the reduction in calories should only come from calories from carbohydrates, not protein or fats. As a rule of thumb, you should still be eating from 1 to 1.5 grams of complete proteins (those from meats, eggs or whey) per pound of lean body mass every day. The easiest way to do this is just to cut ¼ of your carbohydrates from each meal. Expect to lose between ½ to 1 pound of fat a week.

The next step is to add cardio work, but only when you see the loss of fat each week start to slow. Start with 30 minute sessions at 75-80% of your maximum heart rate. I’ll point out here that while a lower intensity within a 55-60% training heart rate zone would use a greater percentage of fat for fuel, working at a higher intensity can nearly double the total calories burned in the same period, meaning more fat is burned. So I recommend the higher intensity.

Gradually build your cardio up to no more than 45 minutes at that same heart rate figure. You should be doing this 5 or 6 times per week, ideally early in the morning on an empty stomach. As you will have not eaten anything in the night, you will have reduced levels of sugar available in the bloodstream – therefore your body will immediately start to tap into fat stores for fuel by doing the cardio first thing.

Remember to cap the cardio at 45 minutes, as any more time than this will affect your ability to recover from your weight workouts. This is because increased endurance work begins to reduce the main muscle fibers that are associated with growth – type 2b – and start to increase the use of type 2a fibers – the ones with less potential for growth. In short, too much time spent doing cardio will decrease testosterone levels, and leave your muscles looking flat.

The best way to maintain this high level of intensity is to use intervals that require you to work as hard as you can for 3 minutes followed by 2 minutes of recovery at a low intensity. I find this is best achieved on a stationary bike, although you can use any other piece of cardio equipment providing you can perform those intervals of high intensity followed by recovery at a lower intensity. Psychologically, performing 9 intervals of 3 minutes all-out work, each followed by a 2 minute recovery period, is easier than trying to maintain than a steady pace at that intensity for the same 45 minutes. The total number of calories burned from doing intervals rather than at a constant level is also far greater.

Let’s move on to diet rotation. Once you’ve built up to performing up to 5 to 6 cardio sessions a week, as mentioned above, you can begin the next step and bring everything together by rotating your carbohydrate intake, where the calories are low for 3 days and higher on the 4th day. Depending on the amount of body fat that you wanted to lose, you can reduce your daily intake of calories from carbohydrates by a further 25% before starting the rotational cycle, although remember that too fewer carbohydrates will leave you feeling weak and unable to recover from the weight workouts.

The advantage of rotational dieting is that you are able to burn more fat and hold on to more muscle than if you were to just stay on a low calorie diet. This is due to the muscle energy (glycogen) decreasing over the 3 day lower carb period, changing the metabolism to burn more fatty acids for fuel. Also, by eating fewer carbohydrates, you have less of an insulin response. Combining this with your intense workouts, interval training aerobic work, and your reduced caloric intake provides the body with the ideal stimulus for fat loss.

Sounds simple enough right? All you have to do is eat a little less, workout hard, and pedal a few extra minutes a day, and the fat will start to fall off? Well not quite, and this is where so many people (myself included in the past) hit a plateau and are unable to break past it, often becoming so frustrated with the lack of results that they simply give up. The key to being able to continue beyond this plateau is in the diet rotation – the 3 consecutive lower carbohydrate days, during which more body fat will be burned as fuel. It’s important to keep to those 3 days. Staying on a low carbohydrate diet for much more than 3 days will result in glycogen stores becoming too low, resulting in muscle being burned as fuel in addition to fat. A higher carbohydrate day every 4th day will refuel glycogen stored in muscle cells and stop muscle being used as fuel. Adding some additional protein on the 3 low carb days will safeguard the body against muscle loss – however too much protein could reduce the fat burning potential from this rotational strategy, as protein can be converted into glucose in the liver and this used as fuel instead of fat. Therefore on lower carb days, you should add between 40-60g extra protein throughout the day, and drop back to your usual intake on the 4th (high carb) day.

*Post-workout meal.

If you hit a plateau, or fail to see any noticeable decreases in body fat while following the rotational diet and cardio interval approach, or you seem to just be getting smaller in size, then you should try ‘zigzag-ging’ your carbohydrate intake, which means increasing the amount of carbohydrates you eat for an extra day, with as much as half your total calories coming from carbs. The next day, you should consume only half as much as you were in the original 3 days of lower carb intake, then return back to the original 3 low, 1 high rotational diet. The exaggerated carb increase over two days, followed by a much lower amount the following day is nearly always effective in overcoming plateaus by preventing the metabolism from slowing down.

For the best results, I recommend following the rotational diet for 4 consecutive cycles, (about 2 weeks), followed by the modified zig-zag approach as outline above. This should further increase fat burning and ensure you keep hold of lean muscle mass.

If, after trying everything you still struggle to shed the fat, then cut out your fat intake on the lower carb days. This means you consume exclusively fat-free protein sources to eliminate any extra calories that may be preventing you from getting leaner. Such fat-free proteins sources include protein powders, fish, egg whites, and turkey breasts. On the lower carb days, you can include some vegetables with your meals, although only the fiberous kind that have less of an effect on releasing all the available calories to the body, such as broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, cucumbers, onions and peppers. And on the high carb days, you should stay away from these vegatables (and all greens), and have complex carbs like rice, pasta, yams, oats, and potatoes, as these will help refill the muscle cells with glycogen and help speed up the metabolism halting any muscle loss that results from eating fewer carbs for the previous 3 days.