“If you can’t flex it, don’t carry it.” –8x Mr. Olympia Lee Haney
“Quality food for quality gains.” –7x 212 Olympia champion Flex Lewis
The whole point of bodybuilding, at its very core, is to get bigger. Since long before most of us were born, bodybuilders have arranged their training year around the four climatic seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter. It didn’t matter whether or not said bodybuilders competed, though that often factors heavily into the equation. Obviously, the term “off-season” describes the time of year when bodybuilders strive to add more muscle mass so that they will be larger the next time they diet down and step on stage. In past decades, the bigger contests were usually held in the early fall, meaning the remainder of the fall and winter along with part of the spring was reserved for “bulking.” For everyone else, weather has always played a more influential role, as it directly relates to how much of the physique is on display. In the warmer months, we all tend to dress in lighter, more revealing clothing. Summer is the peak of high temperatures and sunshine, and it’s the only time for most when they will show their entire bodies in shorts or a swimsuit at the beach or water parks. This is when we all want to be at our leanest. Would you rather take your shirt off in front of a group of hot girls when you’re rocking a six-pack and veins, or when you have a little potbelly and a muffin top hanging over your belt? In the winter and for about half the spring and fall, we tend to stay covered up in long pants, long sleeves, or even oversized hoodies. These do a fantastic job of keeping anyone from seeing the body fat we may have accumulated, though the moon face typically gives that away regardless. Since most of you still have a good two to three months left in your off-season and most likely would love to squeeze out some more fresh new gains, I’d like to dedicate this to all of you who go full fatso during this phase. There is no judgment on my part, because I was the poster boy for bulking gone wrong for too many years to admit. To this day I cringe at many Christmas and New Year’s Eve photos, as my face was often reminiscent of a Cabbage Patch Kids doll, and my gut looked as if I might be the first man to birth triplets. It took me far too long to come to my senses and put an end to that yearly descent approaching obesity, and my goal is to save some of you from repeating my mistakes. I believed for years that it was impossible for me to gain any significant amount of muscle without gaining a concurrent amount of body fat. In retrospect, this was my not-so-clever way of justifying my gluttony/lack of discipline, and all that belief yielded was that I would resemble, as Lee Haney so eloquently describes the over-bulked condition, “Porky Pig.”
‘Dirty Bulking’ Needs to Be Removed From Our Lexicon
If there’s one newer term in our industry that makes me want to tear my hair out, it’s “dirty bulking.” It’s a simple method, wherein the subject knowingly gains an appreciable amount of body fat by packing in as many calories as humanly possible, which by definition would mean calorie-dense items loaded with fat and sugar like pizza, doughnuts, cheeseburgers, cookies, ice cream, fried chicken, and so on. In other words, you’re eating exactly like a lot of obese men and women, the only difference being that you lift weights and carry more muscle mass. At the very start of this, I quoted Flex Lewis in a nutrition mantra he is known for: “Quality food for quality gains.” Think about how simple that statement is, yet how much common sense it makes. You could eat 500 calories from a grilled chicken breast and a bowl of rice, or 500 calories from a big bowl of potato chips, or a glazed doughnut. Which one of those would do a better job of fueling your workouts, and especially the muscle recovery and repair following your workouts? As bodybuilders, we do need a caloric surplus to grow, but the majority of those calories should come from high-quality solid foods low in sugar and saturated fat. Sugar contributes to a host of serious health problems such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease; and saturated fats increase your LDL cholesterol, which in turn puts you at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. One argument I hear for dirty bulking comes from ultra-hardgainers, with metabolisms so fast that there is no possible way they could gain any amount of muscular bodyweight without consuming frightening amounts of calories daily, a task that would be virtually impossible to complete without resorting to fast food and junk food to stack up the calories. These individuals do exist, but that extreme level of hardgainer is about as common as the guy who starts training and gains 20 pounds of pure muscle in his first month, already looking like a different person. Odds are, you fit into neither or those rare categories of human being. As such, the words “dirty bulk” should never come out of your mouth again, nor should you ever attempt to follow such a misguided plan that will only make you fat.
Why Do You Need Cheat Meals?
Let’s assume you have more common sense and self-control to ever entertain the licensed gluttony known as dirty bulking. You could very well still fall into the trap of believing that “cheat meals” should be built into any nutrition plan, be it off-season or contest prep. In prep, cheat meals can serve a purpose to either dial back condition that’s too far ahead of schedule (not a common dilemma for most), or to help jump-start a metabolism that’s stagnated after weeks of low calories and carbohydrates. Everyone else incorporates them “just because.” Coaches get showered with gratitude by clients when they “reward” them with cheat meals for being strict with their diets all week – even though that’s what they are supposed to be doing anyway. During contest season, Instagram is deluged with food-porn posts of things like giant greasy bacon cheeseburgers and deep-dish pizza with captions joyously proclaiming, “coach said I could have this!” Many bodybuilders apply the cheat meal philosophy to their off-season as well. Even if they are already taking in plenty of nutrients and calories and are never remotely experiencing hunger or looking/feeling “flat,” they still believe cheat meals can and should be scheduled into their nutrition plan. Can you indulge yourself and chow down on some bad stuff every so often? Sure, you can. But there is no reason to schedule them or worse, to feel as if they are necessary. How often can you have cheat meals, and how crazy can you get with those meals? This sounds unfair, and it is, but the correct answer is, it depends on what you can get away with. Some guys can destroy a buffet or a whole pizza twice every week and not gain any appreciable amount of body fat. Others are not so lucky. The bottom line is that even though this is your off-season and you are trying to gain weight, we always want most of this weight to be in the form of lean muscle mass. The more crap you eat, the more fat you will gain. Which leads to my next point.
Anything You Put on Now Needs to Come Off Later
The most compelling argument for keeping your body fat in check year-round is one that I and many of you probably have already learned the hard way: any fat you gain will have to be taken off later, and it’s a lot harder to lose fat than it is to gain it in the first place. Eventually you are going to want to get leaner, either for a competition or just to look better in general. The more body fat you have to drop, the longer you will have to diet, the more extreme you will have to be with reducing carbs and calories, and the more cardio you will have to do. And when you do all those things, rest assured that you’ll also end up losing some muscle mass along with the fat. The only reason you would be unable to stay relatively lean year-round is that you can’t control your cravings. Nobody is forcing you to eat that cake, those cookies, those doughnuts, those fries, or that pizza. You eat them because they taste good. Just know that the old computer programming cliché of “garbage in, garbage out” will always apply. You’re always better off not gaining excessive amounts of adipose tissue, because getting rid of it will always suck.
Don’t Buy Junk Food
Many of us struggle with willpower over junk food. It’s not unlike other addictions. Alcoholics can’t be around alcohol, because they will drink, and the same for recreational drug addicts and drugs. Most of us find that if we have the wrong foods around us at home, we eat them. The simple solution is, don’t buy the crap! This can be problematic if you share your home with anyone who doesn’t share the fit lifestyle. Those of you with kids know there will always be tasty treats laden with sugar, saturated fat, and high-fructose corn syrup calling to you from your cupboards and refrigerators. You may also have a significant other that eats junk. In those cases, you will have to be strong and not give in to temptations. If you’re living on your own or with someone else who eats clean, there is no reason for junk food items to be found unless you bought them. So, don’t buy them! Make a list of what you need before you shop and stick to it. Stay out of the bakery area and the aisles with snacks and sugary cereals and keep a wide berth of the ice cream portion of the freezer section. If your willpower really sucks, use one of the shopping services like Instacart, where you order online or on their app and someone delivers your groceries to your home. It’s a bit pricier, but still cheaper than a nutritionist you might hire when you get too fat.
Cardio Is Still Mandatory
Along with eating clean most of the time, albeit in larger portions than you would if your goal was to lose body fat, you should still be doing cardio during your bulking phase. Many bodybuilders have it in their heads that cardio is only for prep, and any amount of it will interfere with your muscular gains. This is a bunch of horseshit. Anyone who thinks 20 to 30 minutes of moderate cardio three to five times a week is going to be catabolic for a person taking in plenty of good nutrients and getting proper rest is delusional and just making an excuse to be lazy. Cardiovascular exercise will burn some calories, but more importantly, it will stimulate the metabolism and improve both circulation and digestion. And especially if you are over 35, cardio is mandatory to keep your heart and lungs strong and healthy. Heart disease is still the number one cause of death for both men and women worldwide, and regular cardio has been proven to reduce your risk. Getting back to our focus, cardio will also serve to mitigate some of those excess calories you ingest in the form of the wrong foods. You don’t need to do an hour every day, but the bare minimum should be 20 to 30 minutes, three to four times a week. I would recommend 20 minutes at the end of every weight-training workout as a cooldown, or four sessions of fasted cardio first thing in the morning if you have a cardio machine at home.
Take Pictures Every Week
Body fat is an insidious thing. It creeps up on us stealthily until one day we realize we have somehow accumulated an extra chin and a gut. One interesting phenomenon is that nearly all of us are able to look in the mirror and miss that process as it happens. We can shift around and find angles where our faces look a bit leaner, or our midsections a little flatter. The mirror can lie, because we can lie to ourselves about that reflection. Photos do not lie. Many times, over the years I turned into a fat-ass every late fall and winter, and I never realized it until I saw myself in a photo. Once I saw that round face and gut, I would be horrified and immediately clean up my diet and start doing more cardio. I strongly suggest you take photos of yourself in just shorts, full-body front and back, every two weeks. You could keep yourself accountable by doing regular body fat tests, but let’s face it, how many of us will really do that? We all have phones, and it only takes a minute to take these pictures. These will help you keep an eye on what’s going on with your body fat and should alert you to eat better before too much damage has been done. How lean should you attempt to remain? That’s up to the individual, but here is one rule I think most would be wise to heed: you should always be able to see some delineation in your abs, and a little bit of separation between major muscle groups like the quads and upper back. If it’s all one smooth blob, you’ve gone too far in your bulking.
Clean Bulk Daily Meal Plan
To wrap this up, I’d like to lay out a day of off-season eating for those who want to bulk clean and gain lean muscle mass with minimal body fat. It provides ample calories, protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats; and I’ve even included a treat to show you that junk is OK if moderation can be observed. You can gain muscle without turning into a chunky monkey. The best part is, you will always look pretty good and see some definition. And when the time comes that you decide to really rip it up and get shredded, you won’t have too far to go.
3 whole eggs, 4 egg whites, ¾ cup (dry measure) rolled oats, 1/3 blueberries, 1 tbsp raw honey
Optional: 2 slices wheat toast
8 oz chicken thigh, 1.5 cups (cooked measure) jasmine rice, 2 tbsp teriyaki sauce
Protein shake, 40-50 grams protein from blend of whey and casein
2 chocolate chip cookies OR 1 muffin of choice
8 oz. ground turkey, 2 cups whole grain or corn tortilla chips, ½ cup salsa
Sirloin burger on whole-wheat or potato bread bun with lettuce and 1 slice cheese, large apple
8 oz salmon, 1/3 cup mixed unsalted nuts, 1 cup raw green beans or large green salad with vinaigrette dressing