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Protein Cycling



Well-known member
Dec 23, 2007

Zigzagging carb consumption has been standard practice for many years. Doing the same with protein may be the next big thing

What do the following three strategies — frequently used by bodybuilders and fitness athletes — have in common?

>> Alternating periods of high- and low-intensity cardiovascular training to increase the total number of calories burned per training session.
>> Decreasing carbohydrate consumption for several days, then splurging so muscles are saturated with glycogen (which is their preferred fuel source).
>> Every few days, alternating a low-calorie diet with a high-calorie diet to burn more overall fat without reducing your energy levels in any noticeable way.

If you guessed that all of the above use some form of cycling to achieve better-than-average results, then you're correct. And as far as protein goes, some bodybuilders opt for the "more is better" approach in an effort to force muscles into hypertrophy. Make no mistake: muscle-building requires copious amounts of protein. However, the protein strategy you follow may be equally as important as the total quantity of protein you eat. Protein cycling — eating more protein for several days, then much less for several more — can actually trick the body into retaining more of this muscle-building nutrient than it would by consuming the same amount day in and day out.

For those who've joined the muscle party only recently, let me provide a brief recap. Muscles are made of protein. When you train hard, tiny portions of muscle tissue — called muscle fibres — are damaged and require dietary protein to rebuild and grow. In short, the protein you eat ultimately becomes part of your own muscle mass.

So how much do you need? I recommend consuming 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day, which is impossibly easy to compute and remember. If you weigh 250 pounds, you need 250 grams a day; if you weigh only 175, you need 175 grams a day. End of story? Not today. Protein cycling involves manipulating that formula to realise greater muscle gains than you can achieve under ordinary conditions.


To better understand how protein cycling works, let's first take an in-depth look at how carbohydrate cycling works. Bodybuilders and endurance athletes occasionally deplete their levels of muscle and liver glycogen (the body's storage form of carbohydrate) by eating far fewer carbs and exercising for long periods for 3–5 consecutive days, followed by a three-day loading phase, during which they consume more carbs than normal and perform little to no exercise. Why? When you rid the body of carbohydrates only to abruptly switch gears and eat many more, muscles dramatically increase their ability to build up glycogen reserves. For the endurance athlete, greater glycogen reserves means greater energy for long-distance events.

For the bodybuilder, they translate into fuller-looking muscles. Basically, when you consume fewer carbs, your body releases special carbohydrate-storing enzymes. Once a carb-deprived bodybuilder returns to a high-carb diet, presto — those carbs are driven into your muscles, creating the appearance of rounder musculature.

A similar system holds true for protein intake. When you cut back on protein, your body doesn't immediately start to cannibalise muscle tissue for energy purposes; rather, the opposite occurs. The body responds by slowing protein breakdown, which is a hallmark of building muscle — as protein breakdown slows, muscles grow. Of course, if you continue to eat less protein for an extended period, you'll likely short-circuit your muscle growth. However, with protein cycling, that should never occur.

With this system, a brief interval of modified protein consumption is always followed by several days of significantly higher protein intake. Eating less protein is a temporary measure to trick your body into decreasing its protein breakdown. When you switch to a higher intake while your body has slowed its ability to break down protein, you saturate your muscles with extra protein, leading to greater growth.

>> Stage 1: Cutting Back Eat less protein? The thought borders on heresy among bodybuilders, but the truth is you can grow on less than the standard recommendation of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight daily. Studies have shown you can get by on 0.7 gram per pound, which is the amount you take in during this initial four-day stage. Be sure to consume about 18 calories and about 3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight daily to maintain your muscle during this stage.

>> Stage 2: Ramping Up After four days on a lower-protein diet, it's time to ramp up your protein intake for the next four days. Increase your daily consumption to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight, double the intake of Stage 1. By doing this, your body responds by increasing protein synthesis — pushing more amino acids (the building blocks of protein) into muscles — and also burns more protein (a process called oxidation).

Some of the extra protein grams you consume are insurance for nonmuscle-building purposes (such as energy production), one reason we raise the amount so high. Don't worry — whenever protein intake increases, it's normal to experience more oxidation, although doing so after a period of modified protein intake exacerbates the process. Continue to consume about 18 calories per pound of bodyweight daily, but reduce your carbohydrate intake to about 2 grams per pound of bodyweight to prevent gains in bodyfat.

You can follow this eight-day strategy for as long as you like, depending on your results. Many will see good gains and want to cycle indefinitely. But the body adapts quickly, which means for some, progress may slow after 3–4 months. At that point, you can return to the benchmark of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight for a month, then switch back to cycling your intake.

Growth Cycle
Here's a sample meal plan for a 180-pound man cycling between the Stage 1 moderate-protein diet and Stage 2 high-protein diet for four days each.


2 eggs
500 g porridge
2 bananas

1–2 pieces of fruit
1 Tbsp. flaxseed oil

85 g chicken breast
300 g cooked rice
125 g green beans

1 bagel

85 g halibut
2 baked potatoes large salad with full-fat dressing

90 g (dry weight) semolina made with water

3,161 calories
137 g protein
547 g carbohydrate


4 egg whites, 1 yolk
250 g porridge
1 banana

Protein shake consisting of:
40 g whey protein
1–2 pieces of fruit
1 Tbsp. flaxseed oil

285 g chicken breast
230 g cooked rice
125 g green beans

1 bagel
75 g low-fat cottage cheese

170 g halibut
1 baked potato
large salad with full-fat dressing

Protein shake consisting of:
40 g casein protein
45 g dry semolina

3,190 calories
289 g protein
382 g carbohydrate

From Chris Aceto's instruction books Championship Bodybuilding and Everything You Need to Know About Fat Loss.
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