We analyse the most important points about Nutrition for Fitness Competitors in «off-season» looking to gain muscle mass.
What is it
Off-season is the period in which a fitness athlete changes their focus of preparation and concentrates on gaining muscle mass by minimizing fat mass gain, so that when the period is over, they can do the next on-season period with better body composition than the last competitive cycle.
Really off-season doesn’t necessarily imply the need to gain muscle mass. In the case of Kim Angel, for example, because of competitive standards in his category, he can’t gain more muscle mass without changing competitive weight classes.
Figure I. Kim Angel on stage.
Characteristics of this stage
Traditionally, bodybuilders in the 80s and 90s used the off-season stages as periods of “clean” eating and ad libitum.
A time of the season where they shifted their focus from training to heavier work systems focused on a constant increase in the external load handled; followed by very aggressive (“on-season”) preparations.
Figure II. Lee Priest, famous for his drastic image changes between volume and definition.
Today the trend has changed dramatically due to the commercial interests of athletes, and the condition they are in all year round is a physical necessity that allows them to attend fitness events as guests and pose in front of consumers to generate a certain spectacle.
Currently, “bulking” no longer exists among some reputable competitors.
Figure III. Sadik Hadzovic, one of the few Classic Physique athletes that makes preparations where he fills out substantially.
We now know that what was done in the last century was far from adequate.
How to Start
First, you should start once post-competition weight is stabilized.
Once weight stabilizes at a healthy energy intake >45kcal/kg lean mass/day, we should find ourselves at around 10-11% body fat, which is a good starting point.
Starting fat percentage
It is recommended to start this stage with the lowest possible fat percentage, as the increase in the volume and density of adipocytes (fat cells) increases the expression of the enzyme 5-alpha-aromatase that alters the balance between sex hormones.
Figure IV. Graphic representation of simplified HPTA aromatization and inhibition mechanism by negative feedback.
That is, the more fat that you have, the less favourable hormone profile for muscle mass gain you’ll have.
I am not quite clear where that exact data has come from, but the truth is that based on the data that I know, there is no limit as such from which you will not gain muscle mass.
So in any case, especially if you’re a novice, I recommend doing an off-season that allows you to gain enough muscle mass to make you competitive after definition; you’ll reach 18, 20 to 22% body fat.
Mini-definitions in volume
In order to maximize the volume stage, and make the process more efficient, mini-cuts can be used strategically, abusing them delays the process, so they must be considered a short-lived and non-generalized tool.
Before writing in the comments, no; I’m not recommending that anyone gets fat for volume, I just recommend lengthening the volume as much as necessary, maintaining a consistent and efficient body weight gain regardless of whether you have 12 or 18% body fat.
How long should an off-season last
The duration of an off season varies a lot, and it depends on the starting point and the physical objectives in the face of the competitive category, in other words:
It’s not the same to weigh 75kg on stage and want to go into the next competition at 90, returning to go out in the same weight category with a better objective.
One competitor can do a short 2-3 months off-season and start preparation and another may be doing 3 years off-season without competing.
How much weight you gain per week
In the narrative review by Iraki et al., (2019) it is recommended to gain around 0.25-0.5% of body weight per week.
The most experienced athletes with more muscle development should focus on gaining weight in the lower range of their bracket while novice athletes can focus on gaining 0.5%.
Ex: Novice in training weighing 60kg -> may consider a preparation where he gains ~300g a week.
Where is the muscle mass gain limit?
A group of elite athletes underwent two diets, one with 47.8kcal/kg and the other with 39.52kcal/kg and although the group of the former consumed more protein (2.4 vs 1.7g/kg), muscle mass gain was not statistically significant compared to the other group while fat gain was statistically significant.
Figure V. Effects of two different diets (NCG = 47.8kcal/kg / ALG = 39.52kcal/kg) on body composition (BW = Body weight / LBM = Lean Body Mass / FM= Fat Mass). (Garthe et al., 2013).
So “peach” bulking is not a good idea specifically in bodybuilders for the deregulation of the (an-)orexigenic hormones they present.
The group that gained 0.2% body weight minimized their fat gains and maximized lean mass gains versus the group that gained 0.47% that gained fat, just look at the graph.
The amount of protein we need to consume to maximize muscle mass gains differs slightly from what we need to maintain muscle mass in a period of energy deficit.
We know that the recommendations of 0.8g of protein per kg body weight established by IoM are not enough for active people looking for hypertrophy.
Where is the protein limit?
In a very well conducted study by Bray et al. (2013) it was demonstrated that 8 weeks of hypocaloric diet had different effects on muscle mass depending on the amount of protein consumed in active young subjects.
It would have been perfect if they had also protocolized training, as not doing so is a factor that increases the risk of bias.
Figure VI. Changes in body composition after 8 weeks of diet with 3 variable amounts of protein.
The group that consumed 228g of protein per day (HIGH) gained more lean mass and less fat (not statistically significant) than the group that consumed 139g per day (NORMAL), this in turn more than the group that consumed 47g a day (LOW) that gained more fat than the rest of the groups and lost muscle mass.
This is in line with studies such as Morton et al. (2017) which establishes an average intake of 1.6g protein * kg body weight to maximize protein synthesis.
In bodybuilders it was found that the maximum efficiency of protein intake by IAAO was 1.7-2.2g/kg. (Bandegan et al. 2017).
And Schoenfeld et al. (2018) recommends consuming:
0.4-0.55g/kg/intake *4 daily intakes.
They are the least studied nutrient for their effects on body composition in athletes looking to improve their image.
We know that certain fatty acids are essential for normal cognitive, visual development, which exert cardioprotective effects and we need to ingest through the diet to avoid suffering conditions due to lack of fat consumption.
We’re talking about the polyunsaturated fatty acids of the omega 3 and omega 6 series.
A bulking bodybuilder who eats a flexible, rich and varied diet with a choice of quality foods (with meats, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, seeds, unrefined vegetable oils…) has the recommended intakes of essential nutrients, so in general, fats are given little attention.
It is generally recommended that fat intake should not be reduced below 0.5g/kg body weight; and in off-season it would not make sense to do so, so the recommendation is:
Consume about 1 gram / kg body weight; if you are a male you can benefit from a slightly higher intake and if you are female, a slightly lower one.
They are the key energy nutrient for maintaining good performance in high-intensity sports.
Unlike what it might seem like at the beginning, bodybuilding is not a sport that requires a high consumption of carbohydrates to prevent their depletion, because of the type of training that is done, and the frequency at which it is done.
We know that there are no differences in performance in 15 series of 15RM of lower training between a group that consumed 7.7g/kg and 0.37g/kg (Mitchell et al., 1997), although no biopsies were performed in the study to check muscle glycogen concentrations
The results are heterogeneous when we refer to this nutrient: Trials like the previous one see no differences in performance but others like Leveritt and Abernethy (1999) do.
My recommendation is that you will have to fill the calories with something, right?
Be sure to consume enough carbohydrates so that your muscle glycogen concentrations do not decrease below 70mmol/kg since at these concentrations the ability to exert strength is also reduced (Murray and Rosenbloom, 2018), a diet of 9.8g/kg/day filled to 93% of depleted glycogen.
Taking into account the constant ratio of repletion that occurs in the human body:
- If you do an F1 you are likely to have enough with 2g/kg/day.
- If you do a F2 you may benefit from more consumption, around 4-5g/kg.
In general it is preferable that the bulk of the energy comes from carbohydrates if there are no glucose metabolism disorders.
Keto Diet in volume
If you eat a low-carbohydrate diet, although presumably there are (theoretical) mechanisms that postulate that it will negatively affect your muscle mass gain, in reality this is not evidently observed (Paoli et al., 2019).
Figure VII. Summary of trials evaluating the effects of ketogenic diet on body composition by analysing bias factors.
This is a completely valid option, just make sure you consume 30-90g fructose a day to avoid the negative metabolic impact of a ketogenic diet by depleting liver glycogen concentrations.
The recommended supplements are the same as I proposed in the on-season feeding article, since they are the same as recommended by Roberts et al. (2020) and Iraki et al. (2019) based on IOC and ISSN recommendations.
There are a lot of supplements with the potential to positively influence body composition, but they are very specific and if you want to find out whether they will suit you or not there are a lot of the articles on the blog that talk about each of them individually.
Those that are generally recommended, for everyone without having to take into account individual characteristics are:
|Protein powder||As needed.|
|Carbohydrates in powder form||As needed.|
|Creatine||0.1g/kg body weight/day.||At any time of day.|
|Caffeine||3-6 mg/kg depending on CYP1A2 and ADORA2A.||30-45′ before training.|
|Beta-Alanine||4-6g/day.||Chronic consumption divided into 2-4 intakes throughout the day|
|Citrulline Malate||>3g/day (8-10g optimal)||30-45′ before training.|
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Tamayo, A., Buehn, R., & Peacock, C. A. (2016). A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in Resistance-Trained Males. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2016, 9104792.
- Bray, G. A., Smith, S. R., De Jonge, L., Xie, H., Rood, J., Martin, C. K., … Redman, L. M. (2012). Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association, 307(1), 47–55.
- Fui, M. N. T., Dupuis, P., & Grossmann, M. (2014). Lowered testosterone in male obesity: Mechanisms, morbidity and management. Asian Journal of Andrology, 16(2), 223–231.
- Garthe, I., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P. E., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2013). Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. European Journal of Sport Science, 13(3), 295–303.
- Iraki, J., Fitschen, P., Espinar, S., & Helms, E. (2019). Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports, 7(7), 154.
- Roberts, B. M., Helms, E. R., Trexler, E. T., & Fitschen, P. J. (2020). Nutritional Recommendations for Physique Athletes. Journal of Human Kinetics, 71(1), 79–108.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 10.
- Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6, 131.
- Nutrition for Fitness Competitors: On-Season at this link
- Nutrition for Fitness Competitors: Tuning Up at this link
- Nutrition for Fitness Competitors: Post Competition at this link
- Example of a Season in Natural Bodybuilding at this link
- Do you want to know about the Best Supplements for Volume? Just click here.