The normal dieting protocol for bodybuilders and fitness competitors is to adhere to a cycle of cutting for show prep followed by bulking in the off-season to fill in weak points and add extra muscle. Even those who don’t necessarily compete generally go through this process simply because it is very difficult to stay lean all year round. Further, staying extra lean for too long often comes at the expense of muscle mass. While bulking can be enjoyable as we can eat many of the foods we aren’t usually able to, it also comes at the price of looking fat, bloated or soft for a few months.
Is it really necessary to gain 15,20, or even 40 pounds in the off-season just to put on muscle and maintain our sanity in dieting? Many of us don’t like the way we look in the off-season so we are only enjoying our hard work from training and dieting in the rare weeks and months we are in our best shape. Why train hard 100% of the time to look good 20% of the time? As it turns out, getting round and soft may not even be the best way to put on muscle. In fact, going above 12-13% body fat (for a male) or 17-19% (for a female) creates inefficiencies in our body that can hinder muscle growth and recovery. Also, the large amounts of often not-so-healthy foods create inflammation in the body that is detrimental to a healthy and growing body.
So what can we do to stay lean and hard all year while still allowing ourselves to grow and improve? The tricky part about staying extra lean is that our bodies don’t to be 5% or 6% body fat. However, if you change variables regularly, we can effectively our body into staying leaner and better than it could otherwise from a long term repetitive program, not to mention this makes it much more fun, interesting and exciting. By following the five guidelines below, then learning your body and custom tuning the program to your individual circumstances, you can stay looking great 12 months per year and still improve and progress:
Cycle your cardio – Cardio that is done on a daily and monotonous basis isn’t very effective long term. Your body quickly adapts to the change in activity and makes hormonal and metabolism adjustments to offset what you are doing. Instead, do your cardio in short bursts. That is, for your base cardio program, do none or very little, then do exponentially increased cardio in pockets. For instance, a base cardio plan may be 20 minutes post-workout 3 days per week, then every three to four weeks you do HIIT for a full hour every morning. This will come as a shock to the system and it will have no choice but to pull from body fat stores to fuel the added expenditure.
Maintain a low-carb base diet – While the definition of “low-carb” is different for everyone, you must not walk around with full glycogen stores which lend itself to fat storage. Eat low carbs 4-6 days per week, keep glycogen stores low and train your body to metabolize fats for energy by incorporating healthy fats and MCT's into your diet slowly. Also eat PLENTY of Omega 3s. Your brain can use Omega 3s and MCT's for fuel instead of glycogen as well, so by doing this you can go lower carb and still feel great, and also train your body to pull from fats for energy. You MUST maintain a glycogen debt for most of the time to keep your body exceptionally lean.
Eat lots of greens and veggies – These are nutrient rich, low calorie density and high fiber foods. They will keep you full and nourished and can be eaten with near impunity. No amount of celery or zucchini or otherwise will cause fat accumulation. You must get in the habit of eating them regularly to stay full and avoid turning to more calorie dense foods. Incorporate these into at least 2-3 meals per day, with a focus on eating them at your most hungry times of the day.
Fill up on carbs/cheat at least once a week- This is necessary to not only replenish glycogen stores and alter the hormones that control your metabolism, but also to maintain your long-term sanity. This may be every three days or as little as every 7 days, but it’s important to refill your glycogen stores and reset your system. Eating about about 300-400 grams of carbs over base (for a 200+lb person) on a high carb day is ideal to fill glycogen stores but not overfill them. This is enough to replenish stores and essentially hit the “reset” button on your body systems. Preferably it will be all clean foods, but for those who can tolerate and metabolize a dirty cheat day, that’s ok too(and more fun).
Time your daily carbs – This varies for everyone according to your circadian clock, but as a generality, the carbs you do eat should be done so around your workouts, or even at night. Never first thing in the morning in any significant amount (unless that’s when you train). It may take you months to determine exactly when you should eat your carbs for best results and it can only really be perfected through trial and error, but this is a crucial step to the process. Cues to look for are energy levels and how different meal timing affects hunger the rest of the day.
Perfecting this program for everyone will be quite individualized. Everyone is going to react a bit differently to all the different variables and learning your body is a huge part of looking amazing all year round. Following the five key points above will be key to getting and keeping the body you want not just sometimes, but all the time.