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!
LeAnn Sharpe says
This is an absolute lifesaver for me. Makes perfect sense and stops the crazy meal prep obsession. It also helps me see how I can do my nutrition without absolutely freaking out on MyFitnessPal. I love simplicity. Thank you 🙏🏻.
Eric Helms says
So glad you found it helpful!
Angeline Iliana says
This is amazing. Thank you for articulating it in an article. I think this is useful not just for those prepping for competitions but anyone who is trying to lose weight. I used to think I was the only or one of the very few that embraced this so called default diet (or was attributed to laziness lol) but I felt that trying to get all creative while Meal prepping only created more stress for me! And made me fall off the bandwagon multiple times.
Keeping it simple like for most things has made it so much easier for the long haul.
Thank you once again Eric.
Eric Helms says
You’re very welcome! 🙂
That’s exactly what i’ve been doing for the last 2 years, the best ones nutritionwise.
The only thing I alter -besides the portion size- is the number of meals. As an IFer for almost 10 years I have 3 meals a day when cutting and 4 when not as I feel far less restricted when I can enjoy bigger meals.
Anyway, perfect laid out article and content, as always.
Greetings from Spain!
Eric Helms says
Awesome, thank you, and greetings back at ya! Keep up the good work!
How would you adjust The Basic Diet in case Quest bars and Whey weren’t available?
Eric Helms says
Remember this is just a sample and what works for my needs, and preferences you shouldn’t be trying to copy it, but rather set up your own based on your own needs and preferences
Great article. It’s great how much you take away from this psychologically (and physically), with such a simple action. Keeping it real, keeping it simple.
Eric Helms says
Glad you liked it!
Thanks for this, that’s very useful insights. I (maybe unfortunately) wouldn’t even be psychologically ok without a structure.
I was just wondering: if you get to the point where you know your caloric intake, doesn’t the structure become a form of tracking ?
(maybe it’s the goal, but just to be sure)
Eric Helms says
Can be! If the portions stay constant you’re hitting the same numbers all the time. However, in a more experienced lifter who has focused on becoming aware of hunger and satiety cues you could also auto regulate the portions up and down (depending on diet phase)
What does your plan look like on a non-training day?
Eric Helms says
Good question, I typically combine the preworkout and post workout into a whole food meal.
Love seeing behind the curtain. You and Jeff have been very transparent lately and it is very helpful. I would love you/ the team to go deeper on the subject of off season BF%/ caloric needs for experienced lifters like myself. Also, what is “maintenance”? If I maintain 10% bf in the off season at 1800 cals. Isn’t my maintenance 1800 cals? Anything above my maintenance is a surplus, no? If so, since a very experienced lifter is lucky to put on 1/4 lb LBM per mo, and it takes 200 cals daily above maintenance to put on 1/4 lb LBM per mo, why don’t I eat 2000 cals per day in the off season and stay close to 10 % instead of the 15% I end up at? Every time I cut I question why I gained all this useless BF. It simply wasn’t necessary in order to build 1/4 lb LBM per mo as an experienced lifter. Thoughts?
Eric Helms says
So glad to hear it’s been helpful! And great question, for one, let me just say I think you’re on the money. Advanced lifters don’t need a big surplus, and probably can be more counterproductive than helpful to follow a big surplus when you can only gain so much muscle, and indeed, we do recommend slower rates of weight gain (I go into this in depth in my book to shamelessly self plug the nutrition pyramid). Also, regarding your question specifically about maintenance, I think you’ll love this podcast episode where we did a deep dive on just that https://3dmusclejourney.com/podcast/88/
I’ll check it. Thanks for the response.
Nathan Rafuse says
Awesome read! Thanks for writing this articles, I’m in the midst of figuring my sustainable eating habits to create an easier maintenance and weight loss transisiton.
Thank’s for the article! You mentioned that you eat yoghurt before bed. Is that a bedtime snack with some benefits for sleep or training or just personal preference? I would like to eat a bedtime snack too and wonder what I could eat for some additional benefits, it would be great if you can give me some recommendations 🙂
Eric Helms says
It’s personal preference largely. In the two studies I’m aware of with matched 24 hour calories and protein with subjects consuming Casein either before bed or Earlier in the day there are no differences between groups in performance or body composition. Theoretically a slow digesting protein as your last meal 1-2 hours before bed will help with a more net positive muscle protein balance over the course of a day, but almost any non-whey protein fits the bill. Takes like 6-8 hours for an omelette or a steak to digest, and that’s in isolation. If you consume it with fat and carb/fiber sources even longer. So most of the day even when asleep you have available amino acids. So truly, just eating a semi late dinner with a protein source covers your bases in most cases.
Samia Ahmed says
Thanks, Eric for this awesome post. I really like how you made diet plans easier for us. I find difficulties in meal prep. I must say very informative & relevant writing .🙏🏻.
Eric Helms says
You’re welcome! Good luck!
Agen Bola SBOBet says
The information you provide is really useful, thank you
Eric Helms says
My true pleasure and privilege so glad it’s useful!
IDN Live says
Nice article, waiting for you next article
Really useful article! I’ve been developing something like this for myself (I’ve always called it my “baseline diet plan”) whereby I hit my protein intake (across 4 meals) and essential fat intake whilst being in a deficit, then just add more calories to it when switching to lean bulking. With having 2 very young children it’s made things a lot easier as don’t really have to think about my food or plan ahead that much!
If I can ask a question – I keep chopping and changing where to add my calories first on top of my default/baseline diet plan. I typically workout in the evening so have a pre-workout meal (whey, fruit and 40g oats) then my main evening meal as my post-workout (high-protein, usually around 800 calories as main evening meal), but I’m not sure which should be the priority for adding calories to before the other – the pre or post-workout period? Ie. Better to optimise fueling the workout with more carbs beforehand, or ensuring getting plenty afterward?
If it helps I’m 35years old and work predominantly behind a desk.
Eric Helms says
Simon, thanks for the comment and sounds like you’re already seeing and reaping the benefits of the practical approach to this setup.
To answer your question, for most people it won’t make much of a difference unless their workout is something more than what would fall on the spectrum of standard training for strength and/or hypertrophy. The bottle neck for performance won’t be acute substrate availability and you won’t likely even be finished digesting your pre workout meal until you’re asleep that night anyway, so the recovery vs performance question is pretty moot for most people. That said some folks find they have more consistent energy in training (and in vs off season can effect this) with larger or smaller pre wo meals so it’s worth experimenting as it’s pretty individual. Good luck!
Appreciate the speedy response! Thanks and keep the content coming
Great article! It’s really useful to see just how easily you can swing between different phases of your diet by simply altering a few things while the base of your diet remains relatively the same.
Farzana Tunni says
Thanks, Eric for this informative post. I really liked it. I am going to save the article.
Very relevant and useful information.
Appreciate it!!! 😍
Melissa Weimer says
Hey, Eric. Your idea is great. Even many dieticians can’t give such a simple diet plan. They make it so complex. I saw you made the diet plan easier to follow.
I really appreciate it!!
That´s a great article, thank you! I was wondering if I should pay attention to where my carbs are coming from. I keep hearing that I should have low absorption carbs early in the day or before training (rice, oatmeal, pasta) and fast absorption after workout (fruits, bread, etc). Is there any truth to this?
Thank you in advance!
Eric Helms says
Thanks, and make sure to peruse our blog as often we’ve covered the questions you might have. Check out our blog post on the glycemic index! https://3dmusclejourney.com/understanding-glycemic-index-carbohydrate-digestion-absorption/
I just saw your reply. Thank you! That was very instructive.
idn live says
very interesting to read, I’m waiting for the latest from you