Cutting, or prep if you compete, is a process that some love (no, really), and some despise. Eating a very strict diet that does not allow for most of the tasty foods many of us crave, doing loads of cardio, and feeling hungry, exhausted and bitchy is an acquired taste. But who among us does not enjoy the off-season? The off-season is really what bodybuilding is all about for most people, since the main goal is “building.” It’s when you add mass in general or focus on bringing up lagging body parts or aspects thereof. Then, when you lean out either for competition or merely for your own satisfaction as many do each spring and summer, your physique has improved since the last time it was witnessed in all its ripped and tanned glory. When you’re ready to start building and begin your off-season phase, the following 10 commandments will aid you in your quest and ensure success.
1. Set specific goals, and write them down
This is a good idea no matter what you happen to be starting out on, because it’s the first step of three to accomplishing just about anything. Step one, set the goal. Step two, devise a plan to achieve the goal. Finally, step three is to execute that plan, adjusting tactics or methods as needed based on progress toward the goal. Let’s focus on the first step. Give some serious thought as to what you want to accomplish in this off-season phase. More importantly, decide in very specific terms what your goals are. If it’s to gain weight, you need a number. It should be realistic, but still challenging. Let’s say you currently weigh 200 pounds. You could set a goal of weighing 210 pounds. Ten pounds, assuming it’s mostly muscle, is a commendable increase in mass for a time period of four to five months. Or maybe you want bigger arms, as I do. “Bigger” is too vague a term to get excited about, and you must be excited about your goals if you’re to have any hope of realizing them. If you’re still in the beginner to intermediate stages of training, it wouldn’t be overly ambitious of you to set a goal of adding one inch to your upper arm measurement. More advanced lifters should probably shoot for a half-inch. For the legs, that would mean two inches for newer trainers, and an inch for the more experienced. Or, you could set a strength goal, although as I will explain later, it probably should be doing a certain weight for reps rather than a one-rep max. Whatever your goals are, write them down on paper or type them up. Look at them once every day, as this will reinforce their significance to your brain.
2. Thou shalt incorporate intensity techniques
Most of us either intentionally or subconsciously train mostly with straight sets in the off-season. Then, when the weather warms up and we decide we want to show some cuts in a tank top, we begin incorporating intensity techniques like forced reps, drop sets, supersets, giant sets, and rest-pause. Why is that? We know in our hearts that it’s diet and cardio that strip the fat off, yet we persist on making our workouts tougher and more demanding. Part of that is the psychological motivation of seeing ourselves leaner and more muscular. The more ripped we get, the harder we want to train! But this is a backward approach. Intensity techniques are meant to help you tax the muscle more efficiently in order to stimulate muscle growth. Muscle growth also relies on proper recovery, which requires a surplus of calories and energy. If you’re dieting and doing cardio to lose body fat, you are in a deficit for both. You need to be, or else you won’t get leaner. Therefore, it stands to reason that utilizing intensity techniques when you’re cutting is wasted effort. Instead, throw them in liberally during your off-season workouts. This is when you’re taking in plenty of nutrients and getting ample rest. This is when your muscles can fully recover and grow from all those drop sets and supersets. That’s not to say you shouldn’t also do straight sets. A mix of the two styles will deliver optimal results. Maybe the first one or two exercises in any given workout should be straight sets with a basic compound free-weight movement. From there, you can round out the workout with other types of sets and get the best of both worlds.
3. Thou shalt not worry about being shredded
Though this probably only applies to a small percentage of you out there reading this, I feel I would be remiss not to mention it. There have always been a rare breed of bodybuilder/serious trainer who feels the need to stay lean year-round. Not necessarily ready to step on stage lean, but no more than a few weeks of dieting away from that condition. The numbers of this contingent have swelled drastically since the advent of social media. When you were only showing off your abs and veins for a few people at the gym, there wasn’t much motivation to stay lean. But now that you could theoretically have a million or more IG followers and YouTube subscribers peeping at that body 365 days a year, some do feel pressure to look camera ready, shirtless, all the time. The fact is, very few people can gain muscle unless they loosen the reins and allow their body fat to creep up just a bit. You need the extra calories and rest for the process of recovery and growth to take place. For you social media whores, just post up pictures of yourself leaner on Memory Monday, Wayback Wednesday, Throwback Thursday, and Flashback Friday. Then you can get to work putting some more beef on your frame, so you have more size the next time you cut.
4. Thou shalt do some cardio
There are many of us meatheads who ditch cardio completely once we have officially embarked upon our off-season journey. Why bother? We’re not trying to stay lean, so there’s no point. Wrong. It will help you from adding some body fat, but more importantly, it keeps your heart and lungs strong and healthy. Only those fortunate ones among us know all too well that when your health is not in a good place, your training and physique both suffer. You will also have more “wind” for taking sets to failure and beyond. You’ll be able to bang out brutal sets of 20 in the squat without keeling over on rep 13. Weight training is the primary form of exercise we focus on, but cardio always has its place too. Do three weekly sessions of 20-30 minutes, maybe two after weights and one on a day off from the weights. While you’re at it, do some abs and stretching on those days too.
5. Thou shalt not eat a ton of crap
Denial is a tricky dragon. When your goal is to “bulk up,” it’s easy to take the attitude that everything you stuff down your gullet is contributing to growing new muscle mass. Deep down we know that’s bullshit. Cookies, doughnuts, cake and ice cream are not chock full of quality nutrients like eggs, chicken breast, steak, fish, rice, potatoes and fresh fruit are. As we said, you do need to be in a state of caloric surplus to grow. If your body’s maintenance level is 3,000 calories a day, you need to take in more than that to support muscle recovery and growth. You certainly don’t need 6,000 calories. The trick is to figure out the “tipping point” that allows you to keep gaining weight before an unacceptable percentage of that gain is in the form of body fat. Food logs come in handy, and these days you can do all that easily using any number of apps you can download to your phone. A controversial subject that applies to this aspect of your off-season eating is, does it matter where the calories come from? The IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) disciples will vehemently argue that 50 grams of carbs from Pop-Tarts is the same as 50 grams from oatmeal. I disagree. Eat clean most of the time. You can have treats here and there, but boost your calories with more clean food. Usually, increases in complex carbs and healthy fats yield superior results in gains in terms of body composition than snacks, junk foods and fast food.
6. Thou shalt honor the principles of progressive resistance and time under tension
You should work on getting stronger in the off-season, as a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle— generally speaking. For instance, if you can squat 315 for 12 reps now and you started off struggling to get 10 reps with the bar the first time you trained legs, there’s no doubt your thighs are twice the size today. Strive to add weight to all your lifts, with two stipulations. One, don’t sacrifice form. Anyone can use more weight if he throws the weight around and no longer tries to feel the muscle working or cuts the range of motion short. Half-reps with more weight typically don’t lead to gains, aside from your ego inflating. The other mandate is that you need to observe the time under tension principle. Super heavy sets of one or two reps barely put the muscle under any tension. Your nervous system and connective tissues are what’s doing more work. That’s why every gym has at least a couple of guys who somehow lift far more weight than you would ever imagine possible by looking at them. They have trained hard to become stronger, and it paid off. They may or may not have known this was not the way to go about trying to get bigger muscles. You need to try to increase the weights you use for reps. If you can currently handle a pair of 100s in the dumbbell incline press for 10 reps, a goal of hitting 10 reps with the 120s is both realistic and will stimulate growth in your pecs. You could go from bench-pressing 315 for one rep to 365 without seeing any discernible difference in the development of your chest. Work mostly in the 8-12 rep range for your upper body, 10-20 for the lower. Unless you have a photographic memory, keep track of your weights on your phone or in a little notebook so you know how you are progressing. You won’t get stronger at every workout, and there may even be days when you are a touch weaker. But the overall trend over weeks and weeks should be upward.
7. Thou shalt not use the scale as your only gauge of progress
A bodyweight goal is wonderful, because it’s so easy to check your progress every day, or even multiple times a day if you’ve got a touch of OCD like a lot of us bodybuilders do. I myself used to draw supreme motivation at the thought of finally seeing a specific number I dreamed of on the scale, whether it was 200, 220, or 240 pounds. The problem with bodyweight is that it’s just a number. It tells you nothing about body composition. For example, you could be 5-foot-9 and 240 pounds of chiseled perfection like Phil Heath at his best, or you could be the same height and weight with 14-inch arms, 20-inch thighs and a belly that sticks out a foot further than your chest. You should be able to tell when you’re getting fatter, but many of us are unable to see it in the mirror. I know that in many off-seasons past, it was photos taken with friends and family around Christmas and New Year’s that alerted me to the fact that my face had taken on a distinct chipmunk form. If you can’t look in the mirror with your shirt off and tell if the 10 pounds you’ve gained has been in the form of mostly fat or mostly muscle, you need to test your body fat every couple of weeks. If you have the access and means to hydrostatic weighing or a DEXA machine, perfect. If not, calipers, which any decent personal trainer owns, will give you enough of an idea to know what form of tissue you are gaining. If it’s 70 percent or more in the form of lean muscle, you’re golden. That’s a perfectly acceptable ratio. Once you get closer to half the weight gain coming from fat, it’s time to tighten up your diet, add in a little more cardio, or both. Anyone can gain fat. A full 60 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Gaining muscle is much more difficult, but damn does it look a lot better with your clothes off!
8. Thou shalt not train with weights every damn day
Way back in the second commandment, I recommended that you use intensity techniques, as the off-season is when you can best recover and grow from them. On that note, a huge part of recovery is taking off days from weights. I suggest a minimum of one per week, and most would be better off with two or maybe even three. It doesn’t matter that we train different body parts on different days. The system as a whole still needs time to recover, specifically the central nervous system (CNS) and the connective tissues. If they are getting beat up every day, it won’t be long until you are overtrained and aching in every joint. Going to the gym will seem about as appealing as meeting with IRS agents. I suggest you try training two days on, one day off with weights. The more hardy among you, and by that I mean those of you who are younger and have less stress and more time to eat and sleep at your disposal, can probably get away with three days in a row with weights and a day off before repeating. You do have to listen to your body. It will tell you when it needs a break. The potential detrimental effects of continuing to train when your body is exhausted are much worse than anything you might lose by throwing in an extra rest day. The off-season should be about training hard, eating plenty of good food, and resting well.
9. Thou shalt not party like a rock star
It should go without saying, but overindulging in alcohol will not serve your efforts towards gaining muscle mass. Alcohol is catabolic to our bodies. We also tend to either miss meals when we drink, or eat all the wrong things— usually loaded with grease and salt. Try eating a good breakfast and having a killer workout when you’re hungover, too. As for marijuana, it’s less damaging in my estimation, but you should still exercise moderation. A healthy body and a clear mind are the best environment to make optimal muscle gains.
10. Thou shalt put a clear time limit on your off-season
Last but certainly not least, the off-season can’t go on indefinitely. Eventually, your body will adapt to the increased calories and most of any gains you make will be in the form of body fat. Beyond that, though, we all tend to work best with deadlines. They put pressure on us to get things done. Without that pressure, we can all get comfortable and lazy. I like to mark the date on my calendar to remind me of how much time I have left to gain. Anyone who competes is familiar with speaking of contest prep in terms of X amount of weeks out from a show you happen to be. That lights a fire under our ass to diet harder and sweat more in our cardio sessions, because we know a date is looming. Why not apply that same strategy toward your off-season? Pick an end date for it. That’s when you will shift to eating cleaner, cutting back on carbohydrates, and doing more cardio. Work backward from that date. When you know you only have 10 weeks left, or four weeks, to build more mass or improve a body part, you will have an extra edge in motivation to work harder and get it done. It only makes sense both physically and psychologically to shift gears every few months. Many people take the spring and summer to cut body fat and attune their body to lower calories and carbs. That primes them for another successful off-season phase in the fall and winter that follows. Whatever your time frame, follow these 10 Commandments and put some brand-new muscle on!
Ron Harris got his start in the bodybuilding industry during the eight years he worked in Los Angeles as Associate Producer for ESPN’s “American Muscle Magazine” show in the 1990s. Since 1992 he has published nearly 5,000 articles in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, making him the most prolific bodybuilding writer ever. Ron has been training since the age of 14 and competing as a bodybuilder since 1989. He lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area. Facebook Instagram
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