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I’ve seen many approaches to “off-season” dieting over the past 30+ years. The biggest mistake I see in these well-intentioned plans is the expectation that the ramping up of calories over the course of a year will add muscle. This is the same logic that insists that increasing weight on the bar will increase muscle mass. Both are flawed concepts. MuscleMag writer Greg Zulak said it best: “Muscle growth has to be coaxed, not forced.” Continually forcing down calories may work for a short time, but overfeeding every day for extended periods won’t pack on bovine-like mass. Instead, it will lead to rapid fat gain.
So what’s a guy (or gal) who wants to jump up a weight class at a future competition to do? One successful strategy that I have employed with my clients is diet cycling. Much like cycling training styles, diet cycling can be employed to initiate new muscle growth. If you look at low-volume/high-intensity Dorian-style training, you’ll notice that muscle growth does occur. This isn’t because of the training itself, but is actually because of the change in training styles (for example, high volume to low volume/high intensity). If a change in training styles results in muscle growth, why not a change in diet approaches? Christ, did I ever hit a new PR with that one! The results I got from my clients really impressed me; we’re talking complete jumps in weight classes.
Let’s take an overview of how I might set up a client’s off-season plan of attack. I like to break the time between competitions into three distinct phases. Here they are:
Phase 1: Post-comp stage (8–12 weeks)
Because the majority of my clients come off a diet that is high in protein, low in fat, and moderate in carbs, I like to feed their bodies with what they’ve been deprived of the most—carbs! Not junk carbs, though. This isn’t the time to overdose on gummy bears. This is when I have them eat plenty of rice, oatmeal, potatoes, flavoured rice cakes, and bagels. Because the body is hypersensitive to starches, it’s primed to grow and the carbs will do the trick. Protein is kept at moderate levels (finally, a break on the grocery bill) and fat still remains low. If I had to suggest a ratio, it might be something like 60 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. Veggies are also limited in Phase 1, and I prefer my clients to consume their rabbit food in the form of a Pharma Greens type of drink.
Phase 2: Isocaloric stage (8–12 weeks)
Now is the time to add some healthy fats and slightly lower the carbs. Bring on mac nut oil and enjoy some peanut butter. The body does need fats to produce essential hormones. Although you are getting enough in Phase 1 to accomplish this feat, the excess fats and lowered carb intake does affect body composition positively. As the phase name suggests, the macros are evenly split—33 percent carbs, 33 percent protein, and 33 percent fat. Depending on client feedback, I may bump the macros to a more familiar 40/30/30 split, but I prefer to start at an even breakdown and work from there. Carbs are structured around breakfast and the workout.
Phase 3: Pre-contest prep stage (8–12 weeks)
The purpose of this phase is to get the calories up. Because most of our contest diets start with high calories, we need to get the calories high so that the client can ease into prep. High calories at the start equals higher (than you would normally see) calories at the end. A typical ratio might be 50 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 10 percent fat. I normally don’t count fat, as the food choices in this phase and while dieting are always derived from low-fat protein sources. The extra protein is a great way to grow. How many of you remember our friend Greg Zulak recommending the easiest way to pack on weight was to simply double your protein? Trust me, it works!
It’s this type of targeted approach to muscle gain that successful competitors employ to really pack on slabs of muscle mass. It really doesn’t make sense to follow the same plan the entire off-season and expect phenomenal results. It just doesn’t happen. And the constant eating-at-the-trough approach where your gut feels like it’s going to explode will only yield poor to moderate results. Change up your macro ratios in structured phases and I’m willing to bet you’ll have your best off-season ever!
For more tips and tricks on having a successful off-season, click here to read more of Dan Kennedy's columns!