Sensible Bulking – Ditch the Dessert for Quality Mass Gains

Building muscle and displaying it on stage – in its contest-ready, ripped to shreds form and for the benefit of a vocal crowd of suitably-impressed spectators – is a most addictive pursuit.

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Indeed, once bitten by the bodybuilding bug a competitor is reluctant ever to exit stage left for good and will continue to train, to some degree, for the remainder of their lives. Combined with bodybuilding’s addictive quality is its inherently competitive nature – a bodybuilding athlete trains to beat the competition and stay on top. To become competitive this bodybuilder will need to pack on as much shapely muscle as their body will hold without losing its aesthetic appeal.

This means a succession of successful offseason bulking phases as this athlete works their way through the rankings en route to securing the coveted top spot and maintaining this position.

For most bodybuilders, the offseason means copious amounts of food both clean and the stuff of many a pre-contest gorge-fest fantasy. And if there is anything a seasoned bodybuilder likes more than training to win, it is eating.

Training hard – both cardio and weights – exhausts energy reserves. A hard training bodybuilder therefore has a perennially healthy appetite, making the low calorie rigors of the pre-contest period a lengthy exercise in self-discipline and – as a contest approaches – self-deprivation.

However come the offseason, free dietary reign is often exercised,

often to the detriment of the lean muscular development a bodybuilder has spent the best part of the year striving to achieve and maintain.

The concept of an “offseason” is a misnomer. Rather than taking time off from a dedicated schedule of pre contest training – where, contrary to popular belief, muscle can be gained – the offseason should see you on your game more than ever. Though an enjoyable and to-be-savored break from more stringent pre-contest requirements the offseason nevertheless is of crucial importance for those seeking to build quality mass.

A wasted offseason often can land the hardest training of bodybuilder’s in square-one territory come contest season. In fact, the double-whammy impact of reduced cardio combined with a caloric surplus on the muscle gaining efforts of an offseason bodybuilder can stifle progress, depending on how far behind the mass-building curve this athlete falls.

Simply put, the offseason should not be used as an excuse to lessen training and dietary diligence.

And make no mistake, getting out of shape in the offseason (17 percent + body fat for men and 30 percent + bodyfat for women) can in many ways severely restrict muscle growth. But, you might ask, would not the extra offseason bodyweight support heavier lifting, and, as a result, additional mass gains?

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To a point (around 15 percent body fat for males), but beyond this point, gains will more than likely level off. So why must one keep an excessive accumulation of fat off the mass-building agenda come the offseason? And how can the aspiring champ ensure that quality gains are achieved in a non-traditional, clean-bulking manner? Read on to find out.

Why a non-bulking approach

Whether achieved dirty or clean, bulking must be kept in context; the weight on the scale must reflect muscle not excessive fat. However, and unfortunately for many, bulking means packing on as much weight as possible, irrespective of whether such weight is in the form of aesthetically pleasing muscle or unsightly belly flab.

To experience real gains, one must be patient. Forget increases of 20-30lbs in a year (unless every anabolic drug under the sun is injected and swallowed). Steady progress from year to year is the key to permanent size increases. So to ensure muscle, not fat, is predominantly gained, check the mirror before you check the scale.

The importance of gradual offseason muscle gains rather than fat accumulation cannot be overstated. Excessive fat accumulation has been proven to deplete testosterone and growth hormone while promoting cortisol release [1, 4]. In fact, a New England Research Institute study involving 1,822 men confirmed that waist circumference is the single strongest predictor of low testosterone levels in men [3].

The more fat an offseason bodybuilder gains, the less testosterone their body will make, and the harder it will be to build lean muscle – both directly due to poor protein synthesis and indirectly due to lower energy levels and training aggression, both of which, when depleted, make working out an especially arduous task.

Fat cells contain an enzyme called aromatase; aromatase converts testosterone to one of the major estrogens (estradiol).

However, not only will lowered testosterone resulting from increased fat stores halt muscle building – testosterone, after all, is crucial for protein synthesis – but since more metabolically-active muscle burns fat, the less muscle we have, the more fat we will accumulate.

Indeed, the vicious circle of fat induced testosterone depletion in the offseason is a major reason why staying relatively lean is the wisest option when seeking to build more quality mass. Furthermore, increased cortisol levels resulting from excess adipose also contribute to fat storage.

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A catabolic hormone released in times of stress to activate the hormonally-governed fight or flight system of the body, cortisol shuts down unnecessary functions like reproduction and the immune system to allow the body to deal with stressful events [2].

Unfortunately cortisol also inhibits the uptake of amino acids into muscles, disrupts testosterone production, increases muscular inflammation, and causes food cravings [2]. Cortisol also attracts fat to certain sites, in particular the abdominal region. By keeping bodyfat down, cortisol, and its many undesirable consequences, can be minimized.

Dirty bulking – the gorging on all manner of off limits treats to increase the number on the scale – also deprives the body of essential nutrients.

Whenever the body is loaded up on high fat and excessively sugary foods that are not conducive to building muscle, these foods compete with valuable nutrients for assimilation.

The next time you slam down that sugar covered offseason donut,

be mindful that the empty calories contained within may have to compete with the highly anabolic proteins found in your next whey shake or chicken breast. Moreover, the body must work extremely hard to process an excessive caloric load. While the body is slaving away continuously digesting and assimilating a large quantity of toxic foods – the poor liver must work overtime to detoxify harmful fried foods and chemically laden sweet treats – the valuable energy resources that would be better spent engaging protein synthesis and muscle recovery are not as efficient as they should be.

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Training energy and motivation levels also can be severely depleted when in the grip of a junk food addiction. Rather than providing energy with which to train with full-throttle intensity, nutrient poor foods have the opposite effect. Slowly processed and insulin spiking junk foods are both draining and life-depleting due to their leaching of energy-boosting nutrients from the body.

When a bodybuilder brags about all the delicious delicacies they will soon be consuming in their next offseason, direct them to this article and assist them to become a better bodybuilder rather than another off season casualty.

Sensible bulking

The offseason need not be a monastically-dull exercise in self deprivation. By all means enjoy the occasional treat, but ensure at least 80 percent of your calories are of the clean variety: skinless chicken, vegetables, brown rice, eggs, fish, and the like.

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By following this 80/20 rule you can enjoy your offseason while forging ahead with your bodybuilding progress. Also, by strategically spiking calories – one day high, the next moderate and so on (in line with an approach that works best for your body type) – the calories needed to support lean muscle growth and the lifting of heavier iron can be consumed without risk of revealing an unsightly mess of flab when asked to remove your top, whether in the bedroom or on the beach.

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Cardio must never be neglected in the offseason. Beneficial on a great many levels, cardio keeps fat down and improves the circulation of nutrients to and waste product removal from muscles; don’t make the mistake made by many offseason bodybuilders of severely reducing or eliminating cardio. Experience a more productive offseason by tapering the treadmill to 2-3 sessions per week, rather than the usual pre-contest schedule of 5-6.

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Small and frequent feedings are as necessary in the offseason as they are pre contest. Many offseason bodybuilders assault their digestive systems with a surplus of calories at each sitting; not only does this approach overburden the body’s ability to process quality nutrients, but it may also reduce one’s appetite for quality muscle building foods.

Instead, across 5-6 meals per day increase calories by enough to support lean muscle growth without encouraging extra adipose.

Incorporate a full range of quality supplements to ensure all the nutrients needed to boost growth while offsetting fat accumulation are accounted for. Follow all of the steps outlined above and it will be easier to regain your shredded conditioning while outmuscling the competition.


  1. Bjorntorp, P. Metabolism, Sep 1995, 44 (Supplement 3): Pages 21-23 Endocrine abnormalities of obesity.
  2. Bennington, V. the ups and downs of cortisol: what you need to know. [Online] retrieved on 3/11/15.
  3. Low T Center. The link between testosterone and belly fat. [Online] retrieved on 3/11/15.
  4. Masuzaki, al. Science, Dec 7, 2001, 294 (5549):2166-2170, A Transgenic Model of Visceral Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome.
David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: and at

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