How Bodybuilders Can Structure Carb-Cycling Days to Build Muscle

Carb-cycling can be useful for a variety of athletes, here's how a powerlifter/bodybuilder uses them!

You probably know by now that I’m taking a hiatus from powerlifting to embark on a bodybuilding journey towards earning my Pro Card. I’m really excited about this new goal, and I want to share my experiences with you, because I know plenty of powerlifters want to look good, too.

Now, the single biggest factor influencing bodybuilding success is diet, so we’re going to start there: With an entire day’s food intake. Keep in mind, that to get to the pro level, I need to get bigger — a lot bigger. That means eating a lot more.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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Doc said to wait 48 hours after my cortisone shot for any lifting so I got my pump on with a @mountaindog1 arm workout. This is my current shape, with NO regular hypertrophy training, NO diet drugs (no OTC fat burners, no tren, no clen, no t3, no dnp, or whatever the fuck else you can think of) and no cardio. Also no idea how to pose and no tan 😂😂😂 Just training, a brilliant diet from @troponin_nutrition, and admittedly genetics for staying lean. Justin and I will be collaborating on some cool stuff in the future, so if you have diet/supp questions, post em below! Don’t expect me to know the answers though because I just do what he tells me… I’d also appreciate posing/physique feedback because tbh IDK what I’m doing when it comes to competitive bodybuilding and actually getting on stage. I just like to train hard and eat clean 🙂

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In fact, while I was planning on competing at 181 at the US Open before I got injured, my goal is now to get my off-season bodyweight up to a massive 230-240 pounds. While that sounds like a multiple-year process, you’ve got to keep in mind a few things:

  1. 1. First, the plan was to cut from the 210-220 pound range to 181. Yes, that’s a big cut (arguably an insane one!) but I’m pretty darn good at weight cuts. So I’m not in a position where I actually need to gain 60 pounds; it’s more like 20.
  2. 2. Twenty pounds of muscle is still a hell of a lot, so keep in mind the second key to success: Training. The vast majority of your muscle tissue is actually comprised of stuff other than contractile tissue (like intracellular fluid, for example). The important takeaway here is that I hadn’t been training for hypertrophy, and now that that’s changed, along with my diet, I’m going to be storing a lot more glycogen very quickly. Higher glycogen stores, in turn, mean higher rates of intramuscular water retention, so expect the process to be much faster than if I was starting from a different background.
  3. I’ve got a great team behind me. Mike Tushscherer (founder of Reactive Training Systems and legendary powerlifting coach) will help me to adapt my training to my new goals, and Justin Harris (my longtime idol and the man who got Dave Tate shredded) will manage my diet.

Carb-Cycling Diet

The diet itself is a carb-cycling plan. That means I’ll have a mix of high carb days, medium days, and low days, depending on my training workload on that particular day. It’s very important that the training and diet work together, and I’ll cover that in a separate article. For now, all you need to remember is that,

  • High days are hypercaloric, meaning I’m taking in (much) more than maintenance, using a very high carb intake, moderate protein, and low fat.
  • Medium days are isocaloric (maintenance calories)
  • Low days are hypocaloric (under maintenance). Those days use a high protein intake and a moderate carb and fat intake.  This allows for better management of insulin sensitivity, appetite, and activity level.

Obviously, the high days are the most fun, so we’ll start there!

[Interested in trying carb-cycling for yourself? Check out our Carb Cycling 101 article!]

High Day Nutrition

Want to watch rather than read?  Check out the video here:

In this section, I’m going to break down my goals for each meal. That’s the important thing if you’re trying to learn something here — the exact amounts you’re eating will depend on your own body, background, and goals, so don’t just eat what I’m eating!  But do try to to follow these principles to maximize the effectiveness of your diet.

Meal 1 (30 grams protein, 125 grams carbs)

If you’re like most people, you’re not your hungriest first thing in the morning — but it’s a hugely important time for nutrition after an overnight fast. There’s plenty of evidence that shows how detrimental skipping breakfast can be, so I won’t rehash that, but I will discuss how I choose foods that help me to eat early in the morning, and still be hungry shortly thereafter for my pre-workout meal.

That process is simple: I choose foods that are easily digestible and taste good! For me, those tend to be calorically dense foods — basically, the opposite of most fruits and veggies, which are nutrient dense. So I go with cream of rice, Ezekiel bread, and bananas for carbs, and egg whites for protein. Egg whites are arguably an inferior choice to whole eggs, but in this case, I’m trying to limit my fat intake, and egg whites are easy to eat with a little low-sugar ketchup!

Meal 2 (pre-workout, 40 grams protein, 150 grams carbs)

Protein pancakes are my go-to here! Again, easily digestion is key. You don’t want to feel sluggish and bloating during your training, or else your productivity will suffer. At the same time, you don’t want to feel hungry for the same reason, but we have an intra-workout meal to help with that.

Meal 3 (intra-workout, 10 grams protein, 50 grams carbs)

I want to be very clear: I do not believe that supplements are necessary for your intra-workout meal, but there is some evidence that shows they may be helpful. More importantly, they’re extremely convenient!

When I’m training for powerlifting, I’ll choose a more substantial intra-workout meal, like a low-fat, sugary cereal. But when I’m training for bodybuilding, I want something I can drink, so that I don’t have to interrupt my training (and lose the all-important pump) just to eat. So I go with something like Recovery by Granite Supplements here, which contains a high-molecular weight carbohydrate and essential amino acids.

Meals 4 & 5 (post-workout, 40 grams protein, 200 grams carbs in meal 4; 30 protein/125 carb in meal 5).

Here, we want the insulin spike to take advantage of the post-training anabolic state. That means a significantly higher carb intake, moderate protein, and very low fat. Yes, it’s pretty much the same as breakfast, but the difference in amounts in meal 4 is significant.

Meal 6: (cheat meal)

I’ve written before about cheat meals, so I won’t rehash that here. But I do want to reiterate that cheat meals have pros and cons, and you need to evaluate those before including them in your diet!

Because I’m trying to gain so much size, the cheat meal is beneficial for a few reasons. First, it allows me to get some more calories in when I might be too full for “clean” foods.  Second, when you’re eating like a bodybuilder, your food choices tend to be pretty monotonous. I’m actually more comfortable with that, but having enough cheat meals in the off-season will hopefully help me to control cravings when it is time to start prepping for a show and reducing my intake.

A Few Things to Remember

Again, this is what works for me, and it’s based on my body — not yours.

I’ve been dieting for a long time, excepting a short break at the beginning of the year. So my body fat is very low to begin with, and my body is more than ready to grow. For that reason, I can (and need to) eat more calories than I might had I started in difference circumstances. Second, remember that not all my training days are high carb days! In fact, most are medium days, when my food intake is much more moderate.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same overarching factor that drives success in powerlifting: finding what works for you, not for someone else. But hopefully following along with my bodybuilding journey will help you to do exactly that!

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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