The fall is here. With the leaves changing color and the air getting chilly, it's time to put away the shorts and tank tops for a while and break out the hoodies and long pants. This is when most bodybuilders go into their off-season mode. In this blog, I want to offer you some tips on how to make the most of your off-season and add some real quality mass!
My early off-seasons: lessons learned
As a teenager, my main goal every off-season was to gain as much size as possible. To fuel those gains, I would just about anything that wasn't moving. It was not unusual for me to eat a dozen eggs, a jar of peanut butter, and a gallon of whole milk every day. I would have eaten more meat, but back then I couldn't afford it. By the time I was 19, I was up to 255 pounds in the off-season at 5-8. When I was out in California at age 20 and training with Lee Haney in 1984, I was pushing 260. He was already a pro, and training for his second Mr. Olympia contest; which would be his first of eight wins. I was still an amateur, having taken sixth as a Heavyweight at the NPC Nationals the previous year at 202 pounds. Smugly, I was proud of the fact that I outweighed Lee, who was about 245 but three inches taller. Lee wasn't impressed however, and used to jokingly call me 'fat boy.' "Who wants to be fat?" he would ask me, followed by his famous catchphrase, "you can't flex fat!" I pretty much ignored his comments, but it wasn't long before I realized he was right. My gains had not been all quality muscle as I'd hoped. I'd decided that my best bet to win the Nationals and Universe to get my pro card, as Lee had done in '82, was to come in just totally shredded at the top of the light-heavies. There was no Super Heavyweight class and wouldn't be for many more years, so I was at a bit of a disadvantage against the taller, heavier guys. But getting down to 198 for that show was a real struggle, and in the process I lost a lot of hard-earned muscle. I came into the Nationals at 188 and won the light-heavyweight class, but I was not happy with my size and fullness at all. I knew I could have been bigger and just as conditioned. For the Universe a few weeks later I was 192, but still didn't have the mass back that I'd lost. My pro debut was six months later at the Night of Champions, and I was 215 there when I took second to the veteran Albert Beckles.
People were shocked that I'd 'gained' 27 pounds since the Nationals, but that wasn't the case. In reality I probably gained about 10 pounds and held on to 17 pounds that I'd lost dieting because I'd allowed myself to get too heavy in the first place. That experience taught me that overeating and bulking up with too much bodyfat in the off-season was a very bad idea, and I never let it happen to that extent ever again. It's a lesson that not everyone learns, but they should.
Gradual gains for quality muscle
One big mental shift I made was to stop thinking in terms of bodyweight gains, because anybody can see bigger numbers on the scale if they don't care whether it's in the form of muscle or fat. I couldn't get too out of shape anymore anyway, because once I turned pro I was in constant demand for guest posing appearances and seminars. Fans expected me to be in respectable shape, and my pride wouldn't have allowed anything less. I found the best way to do this was to increase my calories very gradually over the course of my off-season. My calories were between 3,000 and 3,500 toward the end of my contest diet phases. What I would do is increase them by 500 and stay with that for a month before upping them by 500 again. I did this until I was at a daily total of 5,500-6,000. The ratio of macronutrients was always the same: 30% protein, 40-45% carbs, and the remainder in fats. I was eating cleaner in the off-season now, mainly because I was finally making some decent money and could afford chicken breast and lean cuts of red meat. I would still have the occasional treat like pizza or ice cream in the off-season if I wanted it, but most of the time I ate clean. I got four solid meals in a day plus three protein shakes. At no time did I ever lose sight of my abs, and you could always see some muscle separation.
Effective off-season training
One aspect of the off-season I always had a good handle on was my training. Instead of the usual six-day split, I went into a four-day split that gave me three full days off from the weights every week to recover and grow. My workouts were a lot more simple, focusing on very heavy basic compound movements like the bench press, squat, deadlift, military press, barbell rows, and weighted dips. My reps were usually around 6-8 for the upper body, but I would do 12-15 for the legs as they always responded better to slightly higher reps. This was what I found was the most effective way to add quality mass. There was plenty of time to add in more isolation movements once I moved into a contest prep phase, but the off-season was my time to eat plenty of quality food, lift heavy, and grow!
Key points for the off-season
- Eat a surplus of calories, but don't let your bodyfat get too high. If you do, you're just going to end up losing a lot of the muscle you work so hard to gain in the first place.
- Don't make dramatic changes to your calorie intake. You're much better off making smaller, more gradual increases.
- Incorporate more rest days. That ensures full recovery and growth.
- Focus on basic movements and go as heavy as you can in good form. Make it your goal to get stronger in the key lifts a little bit each week.
- Do cardio if you need it, depending on your metabolism. I found that as long as I ate clean most of the time, I didn't have to do cardio at all in the off-season. Your situation may be different, and you could benefit from a moderate amount; say 3-4 sessions a week of 20-30 minutes just to keep things moving along.
Too many guys use the off-season as an excuse to get fat, just like I used to do way back in the day. Anybody can gain weight if they eat a bunch of junk. Gaining muscle is a little more challenging, but if you follow my suggestions I'm sure you can be a bigger, better bodybuilder by the time the weather starts heating up again!
Off-season training split
Thursday: Shoulders and arms
Off-season training by bodypart*
Incline barbell or dumbbell press
Dumbbell flyes or pec deck
Bent barbell rows
Shoulders and arms
Bent lateral raises
Barbell or dumbbell shrugs
Pullover and press
Incline dumbbell curls
Heavy walking lunges (up to 275 pounds)
Lying leg curls
*3-4 sets per exercise. Reps 6-8 upper body, 12-15 lower
12 egg whites (slightly cooked)
12 oz. whole milk or heavy cream
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 cup rolled oats
2 scoops Real Mass
1 scoop Myofusion
1 cup instant oatmeal
1 cup apple juice
1 tablespoon peanut butter