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Carb Cycling – How I do it

Sean Lerwill's six-pack abs

I’ve had a lot of interest recently on how I stay lean pretty much all the year round. I am not like many sports/fitness models, I do not go up and down in size through the year. My agent knows and clients like Maximuscle know, that they can give me 24hrs notice and I am pretty much ready for a casting/shoot. I prefer working this way and have got myself a reputation for being this way.

This is a quick, brief idea of how I use carb cycling for myself and some of my clients. First, it’s worth saying that I didn’t always eat this way. I used to adopt a more normal way of eating pretty clean most of the time, with a cheat meal once every 4/5 days. I didn’t count calories/carbs/macros etc. I just trained hard, ate well and tried to live clean – just as you’d expect from an ex-Marine. Food is fuel right?

These days, I’ve adopted carb cycling. I’ve found it’s allowed me to get even leaner, and also makes me look forward to certain things I used to eat whenever I felt like it before, like fruit and protein bars.

First, I do not count calories and macronutrients. I could, and I may get even better results, but to quote one of my best friends in the military “you are an obsessive. You do everything to be the best you can be”. After the initial shock and “I’m not obsessive”, I realised he didn’t mean that in a negative sense, but was right. I don’t want to be that obsessive and hence I work this way.

Planning and preparation is everything

Like everyone else, I am a busy person, but as I learnt in the Marines: Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, so if you plan, prepare and make your food at a time in the week when you do have time, then you’ll be able to reap the benefits of carb cycling. As I say to everyone who asks me to train them to make them look good:

“If it was easy, everyone would have it. If everyone had it, it would no longer be special, and no-one would want it anymore”.

Kate Braithwaite trainingI am a complete believer in (as T Nation put it) “Carb Cycling For The Non-Counter”, this system still helps build/keep muscle and shred body fat without the need to know how many calories and macros in every meal. (by the way, I’m not saying counting everything doesn’t work – it certainly does, I just don’t want to get that obsessed when my results and my clients results show you don’t need to)

So how do I carb cycle?

I basically have 3 (sometime 2 or 4 if days don’t work with travel/birthdays/work etc) normal carb days (you’ll see these as low carb – but I tell my clients these are “normal” days, you’ll get used to it!) and then 1 high carb day. On my normal carb day I try to limit my carb intake to 60 – 100grams. I have a mix of low and high glycemic carbs, high before and after my training sessions and low at breakfast and other times of the day. I aim to have 30% of my carbs at breakfast and 40% either side of training. I spread my meals across 6 meals through the day and aim to have very little to no carbs in my last two meals of the day. I train on pretty much every normal carb day, usually a pre-breakfast run and an upper body session in the afternoon.Kate Braithwaite training with kettlebells

My high carb days are always leg sessions, plyometric sessions or interval sessions. My meals are still healthy, but carbs raise up to 300 plus grams for the day. Sometimes over 500grams. It depends on how tired and depleted I feel, especially if I’ve had four normal days. These high carb days are meant to replenish my glycogen stores so I’ll eat “bad” carbs as well as good.

What I think is important to say is that I believe three things are important here:

1. No set rules

Research seems to indicated that no set ruling governs carb cycling, there are many ways of doing it out there, but it seems to work regardless. What I will say, which I say in all my books is “know thyself”. Try different ways, work out what works for you and stick to that as best you can.

I train really hard. I don’t see it, as I’ve always trained hard, since the Marines drummed it into us, but according to friends, clients and whoever else has trained with me, I apparently train very hard. So if that’s one of the reasons it works, then up your game.

Genetics do play a part, whether we believe in ecto/endo/mesomorphs body typing or not. You have to work with what you’ve got, but just look around the net, all sorts of body types have been transformed.

2. Trial and Error

I had two clients undertake the same 14week programme and diet plan, but it needed tweaking for one not the other. Everyone is different, nothing works for everyone, so try things, change them. It’s up to you to work out what works for you: know thyself.

Lastly…

3. I am not trying to bulk

I do not see myself as a bodybuilder. I am a fitness professional who stumbled into sports model and now do it professionally. However, I also commercially model, so I need to look “normal” in a suit, jeans and a t-shirt etc. I want to be lean, athletic and muscular yes, so if this is your goal: gaining lean muscle mass and lowering body fat, this is the way that works for me.

Food Types

As always, it’s important to get your foods right. I do not believe most people can stick to “the perfect diet” (if it exists) forever, so I personally don’t. If I want to go to dinner with friends, I’ll work this into a high carb day and then eat something healthy, but I won’t sit there and pick the chicken from a curry wiping the sauce off. Be sensible, you have to live this life (or at least I do), this has to be something I can do long term. So I am strict 3/4 days of normal carb days, then I can enjoy some of the things I like on high carb days.

Having said that, where possible have quality, good, organic foods. Avoid processed foods. Your choices of meat should be as natural as possible, grass fed and antibiotic free. A good butcher or organic foods are best. Vegetables should be organic as well. Remember, we are what we eat. If you want a Ferrari, put in high quality fuel. An old LandRover will run for a long time on cheap fuel but never look as good.

Proteins choices:

  • Beef (lean)
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Tuna
  • White Fish
  • Salmon
  • Eggs
  • Egg whites in a carton
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork (lean)Lean cuts of pork
  • Greek yogurt (Total 0% is my favourite)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Protein powders eg; whey, hemp, casein, soy etc

Carb Choices:

  • Oats (porridge)
  • Quinoa
  • Brown Rice
  • Ryvita
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Protein Bars

Fat choices:

  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Seeds
  • Avocado
  • Meridian natural (peanut, almond, hazelnut, cashew) nut butters
  • Coconut oil

Vegetable choices:

All veg allowed, but avoid white potatoes.
Aim for broccoli and cauliflower whenever feasible.

Fruits choices:

Pre/post workout on normal carb days if allowance (60-100grams)
Otherwise high carb days only.

Total 0% yoghurt with Maximuscle CycloneSpices:

I personally add cinnamon to nearly every hot drink, sometimes porridge and casein protein
I add chillies to most my meals and season with Cayenne pepper.

Living with Carb Cycling

I train 6 days a week. This means once a week I have an active recovery day (which I don’t count as training) or a complete rest day. On a complete rest day, I generally try to have 50gram or less of carbohydrate.

As I said before, high carb days coincide with leg or interval sessions, which fall well into the fourth day of a training cycle. I tend to change my training regularly to keep my body guessing and keep results, but an example would be:

  • Low carb day: chest/front delts
  • Low carb day: back/rear delts
  • Low carb day: arms
  • High carb day: legs/shoulders
  • Low carb day: chest/tris
  • Low carb day: back/bis
  • Low carb day: rest day
  • High carb day: leg supersets
    etc

Example eating plan

  • Pre BF – Glutamine and Apple and Pear BCAAs. 20-40min run. low intensity.
  • Breakfast – 20g porridge, promax diet 1 scoop, a few blueberries
  • Mid-morning snack – 3/4 egg omelette, 1 scoop of plain promax protein powder, with chillies cooked on coconut oil. A few almonds.
  • Lunch – tuna/turkey and avocado in a protein/low carb wrap
  • Mid afternoon – 2 x Ryvita with cottage cheese &/or almond/peanut butter
  • Pre workout – filter coffee. L-Carnitine, half a banana/half a promax diet bar (turbo test depending on cycle of training)
    ariginine/glutamine/ 1/4 serving of promax diet or cyclone depending on cycle of training.
  • Workout – BCAAs apple and pear throughout
  • Post workout – 1 scoop promax diet (or cyclone depending on cycle of training), 1/4 scoop of casein sustain, 1/2 scoop of waxy maize.
    1/2 banana or 1/2 promax diet bar
  • Evening meal – tuna/turkey, stir fried vegetables in coconut oil. chillies. (sometimes a sauce made from Meridian Nut butter)
  • Pre bed meal – casein sustain shake or casein sustain mixed with total 0% yogurt. A few other supplemets like ZMA.

Meal Sizes

  • Protein is usually 1/2 to 1 chicken breast or tin of tuna or protein bar, or the equivalent.
  • Vegetables are generally 1 cup.
  • Fruit is 1/2 or one piece.
  • Fats like nuts, nut butters and avocado are the size of 1 protein powder scoop. For coconut oil its between 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon.
  • Carbs are 1 to 2 protein powder scoops or for Ryvita, 2 or 3.

The whole method of carb cycling revolves around the body’s hormonal response to food types, hence there is no need to count every calorie. Having said that, the MyFitnessPal App is very good if you do wish to do this. It doesn’t give good analysis of weights sessions, only CV sessions, and as I said, personally, this is not a route I go down or put my clients down.

Ryan Reynold’s famously used this way of eating before Wolverine: X-Men Origins. He never ate until he was full, but ate every few hours, carbs low, until high carb days. It works for him, it works for me, it can work for you. Just don’t go nuts on carbs and fats. If you feel hungry, eat some protein and drink some fluid. It is natural to feel really sluggish after a couple of days of lower carbs, especially when first starting this type of eating. It will pass on a high carb day and as you get further into this way of life, you won’t notice it as your body adapts.

Eating on High Days

I generally eat the same things, but more. Instead of weighing out 20g porridge, I’ll eat a few scoops with some granola thrown in. I’ll have a few more Ryvita with peanut butter or cottage cheese through the day. I’ll perhaps have a Soya latte coffee pre training. I might have a fruit smoothie with protein powder etc (check out Marvel Meals) as I enjoy these and look forward to them. I may have another protein bar like a Blueberry Promax Bar as these are great.

If a birthday, or a meal with friends, I may have some brown bread, sushi, birthday cake etc. Again, I always ensure a HARD legs or interval session on my high carb day, even if it coincides with a celebratory day, I’ll get up early and hit the gym. To reiterate, carb cycling isn’t a diet, it’s something you should be able to live with and make work with your lifestyle.

Conclusion

Sean Lerwill outdoor trainingSo, I’ve not always used it, but I now find carb cycling to be the way to eat for me, as a pro sports model, to be ready at short notice to cast/photograph. I use it for my clients, be they fellow models or just people wanting an aesthetic pleasing physique. For everyone, carb cycling allows us to use the anabolic side of carbs training and growth, but still keep our insulin sensitivity, thus keeping fat storage to a minimum. For me, and the majority of my clients, there is no need to count calories or macronutrients, just having an idea of the amount of carbs you are eating throughout a day and keeping it low for those normal carb days, but ensuring you are still eating enough by utilising protein and fats, eating 5/6 meals a day, should see the benefits without the necessity to count everything.

Remember, there is nothing that works for everyone, tweak it, try it and “know yourself”.

Sean Lerwill - Author

Sean is an former-Royal Marines Commando Officer & Physical Training Instructor. He has been published as a writer five times, has a BSc in Molecular Genetics and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. He is also a MaxiNutrition ambassador.

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