Is the off-season truly as important as the pre-contest phase of an athlete’s preparation for a show? Yes! The off-season, beyond a doubt, matters just as much. I am a huge believer in this. However, the longer I am involved with the industry, the more I have noticed an alarming pattern, not only with athletes but also with many trainers and prep coaches who stress the importance of structure in nutrition and training when it comes to the contest portion of show preparation, yet have little if any program structure during the off-season. “It’s the off-season, downtime—time to eat and be merry and throw some heavy training in!” That is what I hear most often. When in actuality, not having a mapped-out nutritional off-season game plan is one of the biggest mistakes that can be made. Bodybuilding is not seasonal—it’s a year-round progression, and without a solid plan, many athletes hit sticking points, make little progress, or take so long to make any strides that they are unable to overcome weaknesses in their physique that could take them to the next level in competition.
Additionally, most athletes in our industry are creatures of habit and reject change—which leads us to another side of off-season nutritional mistakes. I’ve found if athletes follow an off-season protocol, it’s usually something that has worked for them in the past, so they stick with it, never changing the amounts of carbs, proteins, and fats—either not knowing how to change up the plan or not realizing that changes need to be made with each off-season to ensure muscle gains and forward progress in an ever-changing physique. Furthermore, the athlete who falls into this category can also fall victim to the “I have to eat clean to stay lean in the off-season” mode of thinking. Staying too close to your contest diet in the off-season simply won’t allow for critical gains and forward progress. Adjustments and changes must be implemented with the diet each, and every off-season to keep up with the demand of an ever-growing body and guarantee advancement and change with the physique. Following the same program for three or four years will greatly limit progress, if any progress is made at all. Looking at an athlete who follows the “no change” off-season, you will notice that they seem to always be the same size, weight, and at the same level of conditioning—rarely showing improvement when showtime comes around.
Strategically planning out an off-season program is key to taking your physique to the next level. I cannot stress enough how important the off-season really is. It’s not just a break from the rigors of competition dieting or a time to haphazardly train and eat high-fat, high-calorie meals just for the sake of slapping on a few pounds. All of the work needed to make improvements, bring up weaknesses, add size, etc., is done during the off-season, and the largest factor in how well the off-season works is in the setup of the dietary plan and knowing how much proteins, carbs, and fats are needed to make the necessary gains.
Brian Yersky’s Off-Season Plan
Brian Yersky is a top national-level athlete with whom I worked in 2011. One of the keys to Brian’s success last year was going in, evaluating what he was doing in the off-season, and realizing he needed to completely revamp his way of eating. From the beginning, I could tell he was a very dedicated athlete and knew the importance of a structured off-season. Although he had a daily meal plan in place during the off-season, he was the type of athlete who ate very clean and ate the same off-season foods year in and year out, so his gains had stagnated. He knew he needed to compete at the top of the super-heavyweight division in the 2011 NPC Nationals to turn pro, but he needed guidance in the off-season just as much if not more than in the pre-contest to facilitate the necessary gains pushing him one step closer to a pro card.
We set out for a solid gain of 10 pounds of muscle. As with all my new clients, the first thing I did was dissect Brian’s previous program and look at how he had been eating, the number of meals, what the caloric intake was, types, and amounts of proteins and carbs taken in at each meal, and an average of daily fat intake. Once I had all this information broken down, I was then able to start formulating how I would change all of these amounts around not only to begin forward progress, but also to put on the quality size and weight needed to reach our goal of gaining 10 solid pounds during our off-season. One thing you will learn from me is that I am big on eating a wide variety of good, clean foods and lots of them in the off-season, but I also stress throwing in restaurant meals here and there, adding condiments, having cheat days, and not weighing foods to the nth degree every time. I like the off-season plan to differ quite a bit from the contest diet to ensure that the body will continue forward progress and not hit plateaus throughout the diet.
After knowing what formula we needed to reach Brian’s off-season goals, I then created the perfect nutritional plan for his physique type and metabolism. For instance, most athletes have a base point where their body will go each off-season in terms of weight and body fat. Their bodies will naturally go back to this particular point—but it’s what you do to push your body beyond the base weight that will create forward progress and gains in your physique.
When beginning our off-season journey, I had a goal of how much weight Brian could realistically put on during a 12-month period and started him on the first phase of a three-phase off-season program. Throughout the eight-week period of Phase 1, his plan was very basic and one that his body could easily adapt to while allowing me to gradually increase his foods. We began with a set number of six meals per day. I knew he was taking in somewhere around 500g of protein and approximately 600g of carbs. From the start, I wanted to increase his carbohydrates to up his caloric intake, but I also kept his protein intake fairly high in the 450g–500g range.
Throughout the first phase, I progressively upped the amounts of his foods by an ounce or two at each meal until he reached the goal amounts I had set for that particular phase. For instance, we began with 10 ounces of protein per meal, and my goal was to progressively increase the proteins until Brian was taking in 12–14 ounces at every meal. To achieve this, I would increase his protein amounts by 1 to 2 ounces at every other meal—for approximately three meals a day—until his body adapted.
From there, I would add in 1 to 2 ounces at a fourth meal until he be- came accustomed to the amount and so on until all six of his daily meals included 12–14 ounces of protein. Lean turkey, chicken, and red meats were his staple protein sources.
With regard to Brian’s carbohydrates, we followed the same type of incremental increase, beginning with 80g–100g of carbs per meal and gradually upping the amount of carbs by 10g per meal until his body became comfortable, and continued this steady carbohydrate increase until his daily intake was 120g–140g per meal. Staple carbs during this point were rice, potatoes, oatmeal, and a little pasta here and there. We also added in a few vegetables to increase the amounts of foods to help him take in a larger volume at each meal. Adding vegetables is an easy way to increase meal size without having the food sit heavy in your stomach.
After that eight-week point, Phase 2 began another stepping stone to increase food amounts while gaining solid, good weight. At the beginning of the second phase, we were currently at about 12–14 ounces of protein per meal and at least 120g of carbs per meal. What I did next was back off the amounts of proteins and carbs a bit at each meal but add in a seventh daily meal. For example, I may have backed the protein down to 10 ounces and decreased the amount of carbs from 120g to 80g–90g of carbs. As he progressed further into this new phase, Brian’s body responded unbelievably. He was eating less at each meal, but an extra meal was thrown in, so he was eating more frequently and still gaining weight, but he began to lean out.
Once Brian adapted to the extra meal, we then began increasing his proteins and carbs at each meal until once again his proteins were in the 12- to 14-ounce range and his carbs were back up in the 120g–140g range. Now that he had adapted to this plan, his body was in a mode where it was trying to keep up. This type of plan forced his muscles to grow and also amped up his metabolism while placing his body in perfect balance, keeping it nourished consistently throughout the day. He noticed his recovery times were quicker and his training sessions were much more efficient. This type of manipulative, multiphase program also provides a needed shock to the system, especially when many athletes, like Brian, have been eating the same exact way for the past several years during the off-season. The variety and drastic changes to amounts of carbs, proteins, and fats within the nutritional program forces the body to advance and once again kick-start forward progress.
Phase 3 is used as a “finessing phase.” By the end of Phase 2, the off-season weight is generally at its highest point, thus Phase 3 is utilized to maintain this high weight and to let the size gained from the first two phases mature. The most important key to Phase 3 is making certain the weight remains at its highest point without fluctuating. I do this by gradually taking out the vegetables and adding in more carbs in the form of potatoes, rice, and oats. By the end of Phase 3, not only are the weight and strength at the highest point of the program, but the athlete’s diet also varies largely from how he will eat during the contest phase. Having such a dramatic difference between the off-season and pre-contest will help curtail plateaus and sticking points once the contest diet begins.
By implementing this type of multiphase, structured off-season program, from start to finish at the end of 12 months, Brian was not only 25% harder and leaner at the 2011 Nationals than he had been in his life, but he was also 15 pounds heavier than ever on the day of the show. Most people looked at the weight as just being 10–15 pounds heavier, but when actually taking into consideration the type of conditioning he was able to exhibit combined with the extra weight, you see just how considerable his gains were during the off-season leading up to the contest.
Brian is just one of the many athletes I train who achieved monumental gains and success from learning the importance of following a structured off-season program that implements a dissimilar strategy from their contest programs.