This is the second article I wrote for NB&F magazine, which appeared in the May 2010 issue
Importance of Off-Season
For the natural bodybuilder, gains are made in the off-season. Period! It’s unlikely for one to add muscle when they are in a caloric deficit preparing for a show. So if you don’t want to look the same as you did the last time you stepped onstage, then YOU BETTER TAKE YOUR OFFSEASON TRAINING SERIOUSLY!!! What you do on a daily basis in the off-season is just as important as what you do in-season. I can’t understand competitors who don’t get serious about their diet or training until they decide to start prepping for a show. It’s too late then! A true bodybuilder is always getting ready for the next show. The day after you’re done competing, if you’re a true competitor, then you’re already thinking about what you need to do in the off-season to get ready for the following year. EVERY DAY IS AN OPPORTUNITY THAT EXISTS ONLY ONCE AFTER WHICH AN ADVANTAGE IS EITHER GAINED OR LOST! Are you letting your competitors gain an edge over you while you waste valuable opportunities to grow. Every workout, every day needs to be optimized!!! I don’t care if you’re next show is 2 years away. You don’t miss meals! You make sure you get adequate rest and recovery. You don’t compromise your body doing stupid things! And you TRAIN YOU ASS OFF like you’re next show is only 2 weeks away! This requires sacrifice and it requires you to have faith in the fact that your success in the future is reliant upon every little thing you do, every day leading up to that event over a very long stretch of time. You cannot measure the effects of your actions from day to day or even week to week. You can, however, recognize when someone has paid their dues in the off-season when they step onstage a year or two later. Likewise, you can tell who didn’t take their off-season seriously when they show up looking the same as the year before. Where do you stand?
Ok, now that we’ve addressed the importance of off-season, let’s talk about strategy. I constantly hear bodybuilders talk about or ask me questions about bulking in the off-season. In simple terms, bulking refers to an ingestion of calories that exceeds caloric expenditure, creating a caloric surplus. Theoretically, a caloric surplus should prevent catabolism and enable greater anabolism (assuming calories are properly allocated and come from good sources). The question is how much of a surplus is actually beneficial? Many bodybuilders think they are going to get big by eating tons and tons of food in the off-season. This may work for the chemically enhanced bodybuilder, who is providing the body with exogenous sources of hormones, insulin, hgh, etc, which enable greater synthesis of protein and other nutrients. For the natural bodybuilder, however, I would maintain that there is a limit to how much extra food you can really benefit from. Consider the role that each macronutrient plays. Once the body has what it’s capable of using at one time, force-feeding any additional nutrient is only going to result in one thing: the excess being stored as fat! While you should maintain higher bodyfat levels in the off-season (within reason), the more you have to take off come contest season, the more energy must be expended towards doing so. This means more cardio and more drastic caloric deficits, both of which translate to less energy expended towards your workouts and greater chance of catabolism…kind of defeats the purpose of what you were trying to attain with all those extra calories in the first place.
When determining sufficient amount of calories to allow for growth, you should monitor the progress of your physique throughout your off-season with progress pictures, tracking of bodyweight (same scale, same time of day), and bodyfat measurements (I use a 7 point skin caliper test). Make sure the test is administered by the same person under the same conditions (same time of day, day of week, etc.) These three measures will indicate whether or not you should be increasing your calories. Weight should be tracked on a weekly basis, while bodyfat measurements and progress pictures can be taken about once every four weeks. These will help keep you honest and on track. This will also ensure that you have a solid starting position for your next contest season.
I would also advise that while you are taking in more calories in the off-season, that is the time to incorporate cardio, contrary to popular belief. Cardio vascular health and efficiency enables blood circulation. Oxygen and nutrient delivery are dependant upon blood circulation, which determines both short and long term recovery (how fast you’re able to recover from one set and perform the next and how long it takes to recover in between workouts). Being in better aerobic and anaerobic conditioning as a result of cardiovascular exercise increases your work capacity, enabling you to work harder during your workouts, which translates to more intense workouts and more muscle. You can’t get your legs to grow from doing squats if you get tired and winded after the first couple working sets. Aerobic and anaerobic capacity is a limiting factor to muscle growth. Furthermore, by incorporating cardio in your off-season routine, you’re more likely to utilize the extra calories you take in and the cardio itself is less likely to cause catabolism during this period since you are taking in more calories. If you play your cards right, you may actually to able to taper cardio down or even phase it out as your contest approaches, saving your energy for your workouts and posing sessions.
In order to have a productive off-season, in which strength and lean mass gains are made, you stay lean and focused on your next goal, you must have a strong transition from the end of one season into your off-season. At the end of a contest season, if all you’re thinking about is food and how much you want to eat, then your off-season will likely suck, because your mind has already set the tone for what is going to happen after your show. Just like you have a plan of action to get yourself in shape for a show, you need a plan of action to come off of a show and work towards the next one. Right now I have six weeks left in my 25 week contest prep. I have already created a sample off-season diet to start following the Monday after the show, which includes more calories (mainly from added carbohydrates and fat). I thought about how to structure my meals, so that they seem slightly different than what I was doing for the 25 weeks before. I’ve also started jotting down some lofty strength goals that I am going to pursue. I’ve picked a weight that I want to perform for a given number of reps on several different exercises, beyond what I was capable of doing in my previous off-season. My mind is already thinking about making progress as a bodybuilder when my last show of the season is over.
Don’t get me wrong, I will enjoy some good food when the show is over and will have my cheat meals here and there, but structure, planning and discipline must be maintained. Allow yourself a certain degree of leniency over the first month or so (you don’t want to set yourself up for failure), but keep some rules and phase yourself back to a completely structured plan over a period of several weeks. You have to realize that by the end of a rigorous contest season the metabolism has been slowed significantly. If you just go ahead and eat whatever you want for days on end, your body will store fat very efficiently. Your winning physique will quickly be lost, you will physically look and feel terrible and worst of all, it will affect you psychologically. When you’re used to looking in the mirror for several months and seeing a shredded physique that then suddenly disappears in a matter of days, it can cause depression! The best way to combat this is to start working towards your next goal right away and keep things in check so you don’t look like a water buffalo inside a week. A few tips along these lines: Sunday is generally a travel day to get back home, but Monday you should be back in the gym working out. Get back in your routine! You’re going to want to eat certain less than healthy foods that week, so build some cheat meals into your structured plan. For instance, give yourself a 24 hour period from the end of the show Saturday night until Sunday night when you go to bed to eat whatever you want. Monday morning you’re back to a structured meal plan with more calories (incorporating some different foods, so it doesn’t seem the complete same) and wait until Wednesday night for your next cheat meal. Stay on track Thursday and Friday and wait until Saturday afternoon/evening once you’ve gotten a certain number of good meals in. Leave Sunday open to eat what you want. Over the next month, work on making your cheat meals cleaner or less frequent. Continue incorporating some cardio while your body becomes acclimated to higher calories. Remember, a true bodybuilder is one who is working towards improvement 12 months of the year!!!