As MMA fighters, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our game. We sharpen our skills, improve our conditioning, and increase our strength, all with the goal of being better warriors. However, many of us fail to take advantage of a very important key to success in the ring (or cage)—optimal nutrition.

How many of you are exactly the weight you want to be right now? How many of you currently possess your “ideal physique?” If you’re like many of us, you probably have some extra “fluff” weighing you down, that once lost, could substantially improve your speed and agility (not to mention your “game” with the other sex). Perhaps you’re on the other end of the weight spectrum and could stand to gain some extra “buff” to help you overpower your opponents and bring more force to your strikes and grappling.

Well, there’s a method of eating that can be used to address either of these scenarios all while having plenty of energy to continue pursuing your skill, conditioning, and strength goals. The method is called carbohydrate cycling. Its main premise is that by exploiting your body’s insulin levels via cycling your daily carbohydrate intake, you can maximize its anabolic (muscle building) and anticatabolic (muscle sparing) effects while minimizing its ability to store fat and maximizing your body’s ability to burn fat. And how do we do that, you ask? Let’s get started!

Put in simple terms, we consume a high carbohydrate diet on some days of the week (typically on our most physically demanding days such as training days or days of heavy skill work) and a low to moderate carbohydrate diet on the other days (typically on days that are less physically demanding or on rest days). The high carbohydrate days raise our insulin levels, fill our glycogen stores, keep our metabolism burning efficiently, and stave off muscle catabolism. The low carbohydrate days are the “fat burning days.” They keep insulin levels low enough to allow for maximum fat burning while retaining muscle.

If your goal is to lose fat (and retain or even gain muscle), you will only have one or two “high carb days” per week. The other five or six days are your low to moderate carb days. If your goal is to gain muscle (while keeping fat gain to a minimum), go with two to four of these high carb days (the number will depend on your metabolism and work load, or in other word, how many days per week you train and at what intensity). The rest of the week is your low to moderate carb days.

Macronutrients and meal frequency

The macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Though this diet is called “carbohydrate cycling,” manipulation of your protein and fat intake will also play a key role. The following are general guidelines for each macronutrient on a typical high carb day and a typical low to moderate carb day. Note that we lower protein on our high carb days and also keep fat as low as possible. Also, keep in mind that for optimal blood sugar levels, metabolism, and amino acid turnover, it is best to divide your daily totals into 5–7 meals per day (about every three hours or so).

Carbohydrate Protein Fat
High carb day 2–3g per lb/bw 1–1.5g per lb/bw as low as possible
Low to moderate carb day 0.5–1.5 grams per lb of bw 1.25–1.75g per lb/bw 0.25–0.5g per lb/bw

*bw = body weight


Example set up

Here’s how to use the funky table using a 200-lb fighter as our example.

On a high carb day, our fighter would shoot for the following totals:

  • 500 grams carbohydrate (200 lbs x 2.5)
  • 250 grams protein (200 lbs x 1.25)
  • 30 grams fat (while we aim to keep fat as low as possible on high carb days, there will always be an incidental amount in the foods we eat)

Dividing these numbers evenly over six meals, we get approximately 83 grams of carbohydrates per meal, 42 grams of protein, and five grams of fat.

A low carb day for the same fighter might look something like this:

  • 200 grams carbohydrate (200 lbs x 1.0)
  • 300 grams protein (200 lbs x 1.5)
  • 70 grams fat (200 lbs x 0.35)

Again, dividing these numbers evenly over six meals gives us approximately 33 grams of carbohydrates per meal, 50 grams of protein, and 12 grams of fat.

A sample week of carbohydrate cycling for a fighter looking to lean out might look like this:

  • Monday: MMA training and cardio/conditioning work; low carb
  • Tuesday: Weight training; high carb
  • Wednesday: MMA training and cardio/conditioning work; low carb
  • Thursday: Rest day; low carb
  • Friday: Weight training; high carb
  • Saturday: MMA training and cardio/conditioning work; low carb
  • Sunday: Conditioning work; low carb

The days and set up will vary depending on your own situation and goals. Just remember that if you’re trying to gain weight, use a higher number of high carb days (3–4 per week). If you’re trying to lean out, only go with one or two high days per week, and on your low carb days, look at taking carbs all the way down to 0.5 grams per pound of body weight. If your MMA days are more demanding than your weight training days, look at making them your high carb days. Also, try to space out your high days during the week. Having them back to back can lower your insulin sensitivity, which is what we’re trying to exploit with carb cycling in the first place.

Okay, what do I eat? Not cheeseburgers and ice cream! Stick to healthy whole foods for this diet. If you can’t kill it, grow it, or pick it, you probably shouldn’t be eating it!

Here are some examples for each macronutrient category:

  • Carbohydrates: oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, yams, fruit
  • Proteins: chicken breast, turkey breast, lean red meat, eggs, fish, low fat cottage cheese
  • Fats: almonds, cashews, all-natural peanut butter, olive oil, flax oil, fish oil, avocados

Wrap up

Not only is this diet “the bomb” in terms of results and ease of use, it’s also very easy mentally. It’s a lot easier to push through a day of lower carbs when we know we have a day of high carbs coming up! Using the guidelines above, you should be able to set up a diet that will not only allow you to reach your physique and training goals but also improve your health and well-being. What more could you ask for (cheeseburgers and ice cream, right)?