Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.
I’ve had the honour of coaching more than 200 people who have stood on stage. I’ve also been on stage nine times myself to date. I used to think along with many others that bodybuilding was all about the prep, but it’s in the off-season where the most important work is done. Once you’ve figured out the formula for you to get shredded, that’s when you realise it’s in the off-season where competitions are won or lost.
So what is the goal of the off season? Is it to increase calories? To put on muscle size? To work on weaknesses? Or is it to take a break from the grind of prep and just live your life? Sometimes it can be too easy to fixate on just one of those targets to the detriment of others. Take adding size. You don’t want to end up gaining so much weight (read body fat) that it’s going to take a year to get ripped again, and in that process you will inevitably lose some of the muscle mass you gained.
When I take on a new client I ideally want to get them in their off-season. I want to be able to set them on the right trajectory so I don’t have to spend any time trying to fix something that is broken once it’s time to start prep. If I am inheriting someone is who is 40lbs too heavy and has eight weeks to a show, then there’s not much I can do because I don’t have a magic wand.
My point is that you need to remember the bigger picture and that the ultimate point of your off-season is to end up in the best position possible for a successful contest prep.
Higher calories without higher body fat
The role of nutrition in the off-season is to provide the calories needed to perform optimally in the gym and provide the right environment for growth. You want to be on as many calories per day as possible without adding too much body fat. That’s not easy, obviously. A lot of you have heard of metabolic adaptation, but normally the context is a suppressed metabolism following a strict diet, which can result in increased fat gain when you come off it. But it works both ways: increasing calories increases expenditure just like decreasing calories decreases expenditure.
Some of you might have heard the term ‘metabolic capacity’. Building metabolic capacity is a sexy way of saying you’re trying to eat as much as you can without increasing body fat. The body’s ability to increase caloric expenditure when overfed is a real phenomenon[2.] In one study subjects were given 1,000 calories more than they needed to maintain weight, but for some the actual surplus was only 300 calories, suggesting their metabolisms shifted gears and burned off 700 of the extra calories consumed.
I’m not telling everyone to go away and eat 1,000 extra calories per day. I’m saying figure out the sweet spot where you are increasing calorie intake at a rate that your body can handle without the associated fat storage. If you finish your offseason with your body’s resting caloric expenditure ‘maxed out’, that means you will be able to diet on higher calories for longer when your next prep comes along, which should translate into an easier process of getting shredded.
I’ve had people come to me in the middle of the off-season and tell me they are on 1,800 calories and doing cardio six days a week and weighing 160lb. That’s what I might do to them in the final stages of prep, not in the height of the off-season. In this situation there is almost no room to manoeuvre when the time comes to diet down. You need to be lean enough at the start of prep so that you’re within striking distance of stage condition, but not at the cost of a suppressed expenditure. Also, in the offseason you don’t want to be so lean that you can’t perform in the gym or have enough calories to increase muscle mass.
So what does the process look like? Weighing in each day at the same time under the same conditions to record a daily weigh in, and recording you calorie intake on a daily basis. Then you can calculate a seven-day average for both bodyweight and calories. When bodyweight is within or below the acceptable range for the weekly rate of weight gain I’ve decided on, then I add calories.
The rate of weight gain is critical. Growing muscle for a natural lifter, especially one experienced enough to be competing in bodybuilding, does not occur nearly as fast as the supplement industry would have you believe. Focus on gaining 1-3lbs per month. Advanced lifters, older lifters, and females should trend closer to 1lb per month, while the young bucks can be closer to 2-3lbs per month. Gaining faster won’t help you. In fact, seeking rapid weight gain results in faster fat gain, not strength or muscle gain in an experienced lifters.
So how much do we increase calories if we’re in the right range for weight gain? Anywhere between 20 to 100 calories per week, or sometimes more if the client is young, doing great in the gym and appears to be able to handle a higher increase. If you’ve found a good fat to carb ratio that seems to be performing well for you, remember to distribute your caloric increases to roughly preserve this ratio, rather than just bumping up one macronutrient. Over time, you might find your bodyweight and body fat is nearly the same, but a few months down the track you’re eating an additional 300 to 500 calories.
There is not one right or wrong way to increase calories in the off-season. You need to start slowly and constantly monitor how your body responds.
It is critical that you have an off-season game plan of what you need to do in the gym to make the improvements you need to make. You need to be a thoughtful bodybuilder. Hard work is great. Bodybuilders do not typically lack dedication, desire or discipline, but you need to make sure that you are investing your time smartly, on those things that need time spent on them.
You need to evaluate your strengths and your weaknesses, but more than that, you need to realise that you shouldn’t spend all your time on those weaknesses. That can be a very stressful experience to spend an entire off-season hammering a body part that’s not where you need it to be. Sometimes, a body part is a weakness for a reason.
For example, take a bodybuilder with narrow clavicles and a small rib cage. He might be able to improve his delts and upper body to mitigate a lack of width, but all the training in the world won’t change the fact he has a narrow frame. Yes, it’s important in this case to devote a lot of volume to the upper body to mitigate that weakness as much as possible, but remember that strengths give you strength mentally. Training the lifts and the body parts that build your confidence and make you feel good about yourself keeps you motivated. Enjoying your training is critical, and often a stand-out body part can be just as important to your success as a weak body part can be to your failure.
Ask yourself this, would Tom Platz have been more successful if he had smaller legs? Yes, work on your weaknesses, but always acknowledge your strengths to stay in the game mentally. The thing bodybuilders often lack is efficiency. They get a lot done, but a lot of what they get done, doesn’t get a lot done. I cringe when I see a bodybuilder spending an entire session performing redundant exercises, or using a rest interval or exercise order that ends up forcing them to do less volume. Efficiency is all about more bang for your buck.
The concept of efficiency is really important. I want you to ask yourself are you training hard, or are you training hard and smart? Because there is a really big difference between the two. Does your training split allow you to rack up the appropriate amount of volume in an efficient way with lifts that train a lot of muscle mass all at once? If you train to failure, do you do it in a strategic way? Do you have a game plan for progress on your lifts? Have you made measureable progress since the start of the offseason?
If you are not seeing progressive overload, whether that is weight on the bar, or total work or total volume, then you’re not going to be growing.
Give yourself time
How long is the traditional contest prep? Around 12 weeks, but for completeness and covering what most people do, let’s say between eight and 16. Who’s seen Pumping Iron? How lean were those guys compared to today’s standard? Did they get on stage looking to be about 12 weeks out? Eight weeks out? Traditionally bodybuilders didn’t get shredded. It’s a different game today.
Go to an average amateur show and see how many guys show up with striated glutes. A couple of guys in each class, tops, and only if you are at a very competitive contest. But I’ve been to shows with 60-plus competitors and not one had striated glutes. Why is that? I’d say the biggest reason is that they are not dieting long enough.
In my opinion most people need a lot longer from the typical starting point most guys begin prep at to get into the kind of shape that’s competitive today. I think most need five to seven months. Some need even longer if they start very heavy or if they struggle with losing fat. Some people can get shredded in 12 or 16 weeks but that’s rare in my experience.
If most people need on average six months to get shredded, and you want to compete once a year, how long does that leave for the off-season? The same amount of time, six months.
How much growing do you think can get done if you’re spending half the year in a catabolic state trying to get leaner? Especially when you may very well spend the first month or two after a contest trying not to binge on food and to just get back to lifting the weights you were four months ago. It probably takes most competitors a solid two months just to recover fully from their prep.
That leaves a four-month off-season, which is simply not long enough for an amateur. I don’t have a problem with a pro doing that. They’ve been lifting for ten-plus years, put on the vast majority of their size and know how to get in shape and know how to be consistent and manage the transitions so they can compete yearly.
But if you’re a young, new and competitive amateur still growing in a noticeable way over the course of a season, it might not be a good idea to get on stage too often. You need to give your body the time it needs to keep growing and getting stronger.
1 Leibel, R.L., M. Rosenbaum, and J. Hirsch, Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Engl J Med, 1995. 332(10): p. 621-8.
2 Sims, E.A., Experimental obesity, dietary-induced thermogenesis, and their clinical implications. Clinics in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1976. 5(2): p. 377-95.
3 Levine, J.A., N.L. Eberhardt, and M.D. Jensen, Role of Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis in Resistance to Fat Gain in Humans. Science, 1999. 283(5399): p. 212-214.
4 Garthe, I., et al., Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. European journal of sport science, 2013. 13(3): p. 295-303.