Today marks the end of an off-season that began after my last competition in July 2011, the NPC Team Universe. Technically, you could say that it didn't really begin until around February of 2012. That's because two weeks after the contest, I returned to MMA classes after about a six-month hiatus to focus on training and dieting for Team U. In my very first sparring match, I fell and broke my fall by putting my right arm under me; and tore my triceps. It was a blessing in disguise, since once the surgeon opened it all up in late September to re-attach the tendon to my elbow, he saw that a portion of that triceps had actually been torn for years. He knew this because the retracted ends of the muscle were blunt.
My left shoulder had been in a great deal of pain for a few years already, due to arthritis and a bone spur. An MRI also showed that I had worn away nearly all the cartilage. It made sense to me that if I had to have surgery and lose training time for my triceps repair, I might as well have that taken care of too. Four weeks to the day after my right triceps was fixed, I had a 'decompression' procedure on my left shoulder in late October of 2011. Even though I never stopped training, obviously there was a period of a couple months where I was very limited in what I could do. Some strength and size was lost, and I was very cautious not to interfere with the healing process of both operations. I was especially careful with my right triceps, as I needed to be sure the tendon healed to the bone and I didn't tear it off again! As such, I would say my training wasn't really back to normal until around February of 2012. So really, my off-season lasted just a little over a year, which is plenty of time in my opinion.
Did I reach my goals? As evasive as this answer sounds, I won't really know for sure until I am much closer to contest condition. The key areas I worked hardest on were my arms and my back thickness, and I know they both improved. As for how much, only when all the bodyfat is stripped away will I be able to say exactly how much. I did have a bodyweight goal of hitting 240 pounds, but once I got to 235 and saw unacceptable amounts of fat around my waist, lower back, and in my face, I decided it was stupid to keep adding weight if it wasn't in the form of quality muscle mass. Anyone can get to an arbitrary bodyweight if they don't care how much of what they gain is fat. I happen to care! At 43 years old, excess bodyfat is not healthy; not to mention it kills me to see photos of myself looking chunky. Not that I stayed super lean this whole time, but I never lost sight of my abs and could always see some separation in my quads, chest, shoulders, and back.
So tomorrow my diet begins, at 16 weeks out from the NPC Team Universe. As soon as I tell people that, they usually want me to run down my contest diet. I could do that, but it would not be very useful to most of you. I eat the way I eat after many years of doing this - my first contest was 24 years ago in March of 1989! I don't coach people on nutrition, mainly because I lack the patience and I'm simply not interested. But I have arrived at some 'rules' that I follow when I diet that would be helpful to most others seeking to lose as much bodyfat as possible while maintaining their muscle mass.
1. Eat most of your carbs around training.
I have been doing this for many years now whenever I dieted, because it just makes sense. Give your body carbs when it needs them, and don't eat carbs when you don't need them. You do need carbs before your workout to provide fuel for a good workout - muscular contractions and a pump - and you need carbs to replace the muscle glycogen you spent during the workout. In the off-season, you want more carb meals as the day goes on because you want a constant surplus of calories. When your goal is to lose as much fat as possible, that no longer makes sense. At the start of my diet, I will have a third carb meal. At some point as the weeks go by, that will be cut and my only carbs will be eaten in the pre and post-workout meals.
2. Don't mix carbs and fats in the same meal - most of the time
Not everyone agrees with this policy, but it's worked very well for me. Carbs and fats are both energy sources. I simply don't feel the body needs both at once. That being said, all my diet meals that don't include carbs do include healthy fats from sources like nuts, lean red meat, or salmon. The only meal I break this rule with is breakfast, since I feel whole eggs are much better for you than egg whites. As such, I have 3 whole eggs, 3-4 egg whites, and gluten-free oatmeal (more about gluten in a moment). If I am eating a very lean protein source like chicken/turkey breast or white fish and it's not a pre or post workout meal, I will usually have half a cup of nuts to keep my calories up and just to help me feel fuller and maintain energy. If my protein source is red meat or salmon, which have more fat in them, I will just have raw veggies like green beans or snap peas with it.
3. Rely on whole foods as much as possible.
I don't ever cut out shakes completely, nor do I feel it's necessary. Fellow Team Gaspari athletes James 'Flex' Lewis and Hide Yamagishi continue to drink Myofusion shakes all the way up to the show, and nobody gets more ripped than they do! One thing I won't have at all are bars. I just don't feel they are ever as 'clean' as the labels claim they are. I suspect they have sugars and fillers that would interfere with my fat-loss goals. Most of my meals are just that, meals.
4. Ditch gluten
My wife started looking into eating gluten-free a couple years ago, since many CrossFit athletes eat that way. I pretty much rolled my eyes when she started eating gluten-free, considering it some New Age diet fad. The idea that most of us are allergic to gluten sounded ridiculous to me. How was I convinced? For years, Janet had a little 'pooch' on her lower abs that bulged out even when she was very lean and had a six-pack. I assumed it had something to do with her having our two children. After about six weeks of her not eating gluten, it was gone! Her stomach was flat. I decided to try it for my last contest just to see what would happen, and my midsection was smaller and tighter than it had been in years. Cutting out foods with gluten like bread (yes, even whole-wheat has gluten) and pasta really did make a difference in my waistline, plus I had less joint and tendon pain. I don't eat gluten-free all the time, and my gut is pretty large in the off-season even though I can see my abs. Once I cut gluten out of my diet tomorrow, I guarantee it will start shrinking rapidly.
5. Make adjustments as needed
Some of my responses often come across as being sarcastic. For example, when asked how much cardio I will be doing, my honest reply is 'as much as I need to.' By that I mean that I may have a starting point such as 30 minutes a day, but if or when that increases depends entirely on how my fat-loss and muscle maintenance is going. If the fat isn't coming off, I will add in more cardio. I prefer HIIT sessions of 30 minutes, alternating sprints with recovery periods, rather than longer steady-rate sessions. I'm not even sure it burns a lot more fat, but my time is limited and valuable to me. I'd rather work very hard on cardio for 30 minutes than cruise for 45-60. If at some point I see that I am losing muscle, I won't hesitate to either increase my calories, decrease my cardio, or both. You can't have any one set plan to follow for 16 weeks, because you don't know what will happen. You must be flexible and prepared to make adjustments.
6. Forget about cheat meals
At the NPC Stage Ready seminar last Saturday in Watertown, MA; 4-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler fielded a question about cheat meals. He explained that he doesn't believe in them. Once he is dieting, he stays strictly on his diet until the contest is over. The only situation he feels cheat meals are appropriate is when a person is way ahead of schedule and much leaner than they should be at x amount of weeks out. That's something you rarely see. Far more often, bodybuilders are either right on track or behind. Jay was very diplomatic and encouraging, saying that you can indeed stay on a diet for 12-16 weeks. I am often a little more blunt, some would even say abrasive. I would have added, if you can't stick to a strict diet for 12-16 weeks, maybe you shouldn't compete! I don't believe in cheat meals either. Look, we all eat our treats in the off-season. I've had my ice cream. cereal, cake, pizza, etc. Now I'm ready to eat 100% clean and get into the best condition of my life!
Talk to you all later.