If you listen to the 3DMJ podcast, you’ve probably heard me or one of the other coaches talk about how the offseason and contest prep should resemble one another a bit more closely over the course of your career as you develop “bodybuilder life skills”. If this doesn’t make sense initially, I can understand that. An immediate reaction might be to cock your head, and raise your eyebrow as you think, “hold on, in the offseason you should be in a surplus, gaining weight, higher in body fat, using more volume, and doing less or no cardio…that’s very dissimilar to contest prep.” Correct, that’s all true…but we don’t mean the quantitative variables, we mean the habits and lifestyle you develop, and the underlying structure.
Some of the hardest phases of competitive bodybuilding are transitions between offseason and prep, and vice versa. If there is a big contrast between your habits in the offseason and prep, this can create a lag before a contest prep starts to be effective as your adherence improves, and after a prep, this contrast creates potential for developing an unhealthy relationship with food, and your body. Intentionally creating a similar qualitative experience in both prep and in the offseason, while still respecting the quantitative differences and goals between the two, is the pathway towards smoothing out these transitions and making both phases easier, more efficient, and ultimately more effective.
So, what the hell am I talking about? Frankly, the stuff we don’t give enough attention to in the macros-focused era we live in. If you asked me, “what does your offseason nutrition look like”, and I said, “About 75/375/200 on average”, that actually is an acceptable answer to many people these days. (If you don’t know what that means, briefly, those are targets for grams of fat/carbs/protein, per day.) However, that answer says nothing about the habits and structure used to achieve those targets.
Sure, you could truthfully state that: “any structure is just as effective as another for optimizing body composition so long as you hit those targets while also having at least three or four servings of protein decently spread out and eating adequate food variety to ensure micros and fiber are covered.” That statement is accurate in a narrow context. But that’s a statement about what’s true, not an actionable directive that is helpful for someone trying to set up a plan. That statement also inappropriately deemphasizes the importance of having structure and assumes that someone will create structure automatically when they may not, and ignores that in most cases, structure facilitates meeting your targets.
This will be easier to understand if I give an example. If in the offseason you snack on chips, go out to eat regularly, don’t have set meal times, use protein powder to make up for eating like a teenager when you inevitably fall short of your protein target, eat far less fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and generally “freestyle” your nutrition on a regular basis, that can lead to problems during prep. Sure, when you aren’t starving, that freestyle approach allows you to do almost whatever you want. Also, in the offseason when your energy levels are consistent enough that fasting almost feels the same as being fed, you can always make up for long periods of not eating. This “freestyle” approach allows you to have more freedom by planning less. However, it requires you to make a lot of decisions, daily. That’s a negligible stress to many people when they aren’t hungry, have no diet fatigue, aren’t food focused, and don’t feel like they might need a spotter to get off the toilet after five low days in a row. However, that approach carried deep into prep when all of that is occurring, can be disastrous.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people as they get deep into prep start to literally spend hours on meal prep, multiple times per day. They think about what they will eat at each meal, due to a lack of structure, and as soon as the first meal is done, they are planning their second meal. This gets even worse if they are trying to fit in maximal taste on a shoestring calorie budget. This results in all kinds of ridiculous culinary blasphemy involving spaghetti squash, protein pancake mixes, low calorie sauces, defatted powdered nut butters, and various other diet foods that in the right combination, after much time spent in the kitchen, can produce you a 300 kcal dinner that tastes “amazing” (well, amazing for prep, just wait until you try it deep into the offseason). This type of behavior only gets worse the deeper into prep you go and the longer it’s maintained, as it actually serves to increase food focus. You spend more time thinking, planning, and preparing food as you get hungrier. That’s a bad match up. Your free time (which should be spent checking up on your loved ones to see how annoyed they are with you, meditating, or getting work done), gets spent on looking for recipes online, watching Instagram influencers make diet foods, and generally, obsessing over your next meal. Trust me, that’s a recipe (pun intended) for disaster during prep, or if not during prep, post show when the proverbial handcuffs come off.
What’s the solution (or part of it at least)? What I call your Default Diet. I refer to it as your default, because I see it as the basic setup of how you eat, most of the time, that simply gets modifications depending on the phase you are in. Essentially, your default diet is a low-calorie day in a deep phase of prep, which of course, will look way different for everyone. A heavyweight male junior competitor with a manual labor job and a lightweight female master’s competitor with a desk job will have drastically different default diets (perhaps even a two-fold difference in calories). I’ll give you an example of mine, and remember, I’m a desk jockey in his mid-thirties who competes at about 180lbs with a pretty low daily energy expenditure:
Meal 1: Quest bar, Smoothie – 1 cup mixed spinach and kale, 1 cup frozen mixed berries, 1 kiwi fruit, 1 scoop of whey, as much water as will not overflow.
Snack – quest bar before training
PWO – 1.5 scoops whey
Meal 2: Omelette – 300g egg whites, 2 whole eggs, laughing cow cheese wedge, spinach, mushrooms, tomato, bell pepper OR replace egg whites with can of tuna mixed with 2 whole eggs and veggies scrambled up together OR salmon sashimi with cabbage and mixed green salad.
Meal 3: 500g low-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt with sweetener
That puts me right around 50g fat, 100g carbs, 200g of protein and 1600-1700kcals. That’s my rock bottom low day deep into prep.
Are you wondering: “Why the hell would that be your default diet?” Are you thinking: “You should be eating way more in the offseason, that should only be your diet when you’re like, 4 weeks out!” I get it, I get it, I agree, now hear me out. That’s the basic structure, that setup ensures I take care of my minimum fruit, vegetable, protein, and hydration needs. That’s the skeleton, or foundation of my diet. The point is, modifying it is easy to fit a different phase or goal.
How do I do a refeed? Easy, add another piece of higher carb fruit to my smoothie, like a banana, have carbs in addition to my quest bar before training, like a bag of light popcorn, have toast with my omelette, a wrap to put my tuna scramble in, or get nigiri sushi instead of sashimi, and put honey in my yogurt before bed. Boom. Now I’m up like 5-10g of fat and protein, and 100-250g of carbs depending on the portion sizes I’ve used.
How do I do an offseason (or recovery diet) day? Still easy, same exact game plan as a refeed day, except instead of egg whites, or tuna in water, I just use whole eggs, and tuna in olive oil. Instead of low-fat Greek yogurt, I use full fat Greek yogurt. On top of that, when needed, based on whether I’m gaining weight at the appropriate rate (or if I just want to because a friend is in town or its date night with my wife), I simply replace dinner with eating out, or I have frozen yogurt, gelato, or slow churned ice cream for dessert, and modify other meals as/if needed.
It’s as simple as adding carb sources to the default diet for refeeds and also adding fat and/or discretionary calories/snacks/desserts to my diet in the offseason (or during recovery). I have both flexibility, and structure. Most importantly, I’ve minimized the number of decisions I have to make (I also don’t have to track), and subsequently, I’ve reduced my food focus during prep, and made transitions between phases (which have the most potential to get you caught up) much smoother.
Here’s a more general visual that I think will be helpful to see what this looks like. This setup works for most people if you just alter portion sizes. If you prefer a higher fat lower carb approach, or if you have a higher energy expenditure, just alter the portion sizes of fruit, add/remove starches if needed, and/or make proteins less/more lean to fit your individual needs.
So, hopefully this helped to give you some ideas. Also, as a reminder, the specific daily intake I gave earlier in this article was specific to me, what I eat, my preferences, personality, schedule, what I have available to me, and my individual energy and nutritional needs. So, don’t copy it or you’re missing the whole point. Take some time and look at the example eating structure picture and think about what your individual default diet might look like based on that, and what you would do to modify it or build on top of it in various phases. Good luck!