Clean Muscle Gain Off-Season

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Clean Muscle Gain Off-Season

Eating clean and training dirty – the smart approach

By Devlin Brown.

Above: Carlos Nunes, Shot by Soulby Jackson (

The old adage goes: “eat clean, train dirty”, but what does that mean, and is it applicable in the off-season when you want to correct your imbalances, build up your weaknesses and gain as much muscle as possible?

The body is under immense strain in season as hard training, a calorie deficit and hard dieting is needed to get you shredded and popping. So what do you do the day after your last show for the season, or the day after you decide to “bulk”? Do you eat three tubs of ice-cream and pizza until it comes out of your ears? Probably. And then? For the next months, how do you eat?

Go big or go home?

Some opinions pull no punches. They call the old-school concept of eating everything you see in an effort to get huge a cop-out: that it’s a lazy way of justifying getting fat. That’s probably just tough love. You don’t want to become fat, and if you’re eating like that it’s because you want to get as big as you possibly can. But two bodybuilders, Marius Dohne and Chris Fitzpatrick, as well as numerous experts both local and international, have told this magazine, and said at various times, that a big, dirty, gain-size-at-any-cost, bulk up is often just an illusion. Sure, it feels great to weigh so much more and stretch that XL t-shirt. But this extra size is unfortunately not directly proportional to new muscle growth – the added size is predominantly fat.

So what’s the big deal? Well, for starters, you’re a bodybuilder and not a shot put competitor. Secondly, and more importantly, when it comes down to competition prep you are making your life all the more difficult. You now have so much more junk to burn through before you get to the real business of conditioning. And let’s not beat around the bush either. Imagine being four weeks out and the extra lard is taking it’s time to melt away: you will most probably increase the amount and the intensity of the cardio, and pretty much do whatever else it takes to get down to the detail. This is where you stand the biggest risk of eating away at all that hard-earned muscle.

The other end of the spectrum is the criticism that guys who keep themselves lean all year round tend to stay the same size, with the same conditioning, year after year. Also, it is quite possible that a guy who was lean to start off with, and is too advanced in his diet seven weeks out, and showing incredible amounts of striations and detail so far out, could quite possibly start losing muscle heading into the final stretch before the show. As we all know, timing in this game is vital. It can make or break your potential to break at a show.

What is a clean bulk?

But the whole idea of a clean bulk is not about keeping yourself in a near-competition state all year round. It is based on the premise that eating clean during the off-season has numerous benefits: it is easier to get shredded in-season; the size you have gained is more likely to include more muscle than just fat; you are actually able to see the muscles you are trying to work on or improve, which is a massive advantage; you are still in a decent routine and rhythm when it comes time to diet, so when prep starts it is not as much of a shock to the system – after all, bodybuilding is a lifestyle.

The general rule of thumb for a clean off-season muscle gaining phase is that the mirror can be a good guide. Advocates of this approach say that you should be able to see at least the outline of your abs at all times, and the outline of the top of your abs at the very least. Generally, for most guys this is up to around 12% body fat, maybe slightly more. When it comes to love handles, this can be managed by not going crazy on the refined carbohydrates and sugar, because your workouts should already be at a massive intensity, especially with the added energy and optimal hormonal environment.

Training dirty

Your training doesn’t need to change from what you have done before. You are not in prep. It is still advisable to hit the big compound lifts as the base of every off-season workout. They are a great way to keep the body anabolic and to pre-exhaust the targeted muscles, as well as the accessory and stabiliser muscles. And then don’t leave out the finer work – continue working the isolations and pump. Just because you may be eating cleaner doesn’t mean you must start training cleaner! Push yourself. Aim to progressively improve in every lift, especially the ones you hate. Take no prisoners and punish the iron. If you sew what you reap, then in the off-season you should be reaping like a farmer possessed.

“If you sew what you reap, then in the off-season you should be reaping like a farmer possessed.”

Eating clean

At this point it is important to point out that we are not talking about a calorie deficit, or about you being hungry, or about you not eating enough to fuel gains and monster workouts. You will be eating a lot more than you do during the in-season. The total amount and type of calories you can eat while maintaining a body fat of around 12% is dependent on your body type, genetics, hormonal environment and age.

Enjoy yourself at a restaurant, but there is no way you should be eating four cheese pizzas with extra chouriço four times a week. Stick to what you already know. Avoid, or go easy on the breads, oily sauces, pastas, sweets, burgers, pizza, butter, and fizzy drinks.

Spread your clean meals out as you would in-season. Keep your protein sources lean, and eat good quality carbs – sweet potato, potato, brown or basmati rice and oats. Because you are going heavy and hardcore it is of paramount importance that you keep your good fat intake where it should be.

What we’re talking about is eating clean. And you should keep a diary – if your body fat is consistently rising, cut back 50g of carbs in one meal a day and see how you react. Then in two meals, and so on until you have the balance just right. On the other hand, if you are not gaining muscle, or enough muscle, you can add more protein, then increase the carb intake per meal. It is a fine balancing act, where your aim is to keep yourself anabolic and growing, but mitigating the fat-gain effects of more eating.

Off-season diet guideline

Chris Fitzpatrick wrote guidelines for Muscle Evolution previously, and his guidelines fit very comfortably into a clean off season. He wrote:

A protein intake of 2,5-3g/kg should be more than sufficient to optimise muscle growth, unless you are using compounds that are aggressive on protein synthesis. If this is the case you would require a higher protein intake. Carbohydrate intake at a 1:1 or 1,5:1 ratio with protein should also give you enough energy to be able to increase your poundages, along with your workout intensity. Fat intake should only come from good fats, and should not exceed 15-20% of your daily caloric intake.

Based on these parameters, a 100kg (off-season weight) bodybuilder at 12% body fat would have a macronutrient intake of:

Nutrient Lean Body weight g/kg Total grams Total calories
Protein 88 3.0 264 1,056
Carbs 88 4.5 396 1,584
Fats 88 0.8 73 660


Off-season supplementation guidelines

Supplementation to aid in recovery and fuel muscle gains should incorporate the following types of supplements, at the very least:

  1. A high potency multivitamin and multi-mineral (including vitamin E). The product must be geared towards serious athletes.
  2. Vitamin C (I would recommend 2,000mg daily – 1,000mg in the morning and another 1,000mg pre- or post-workout).
  3. A good pre-workout supplying BCAAs, creatine, glutamine and beta alanine (if possible). In the off-season, try and train without a stimulant or make sure to cycle them systematically. Periodic use use of caffeine-based pre-workouts can be highly beneficial.
  4. A good post-workout formula supplying BCAAs, creatine, glutamine, electrolytes and antioxidants. A post-workout drink that includes carbohydrates becomes a personal choice, but during the off-season period it is beneficial to have a post-workout intake of carbs to refuel the muscles with glycogen.
  5. ZMA to supply the key anabolic minerals of zinc and magnesium.
  6. EFAs (6-9 soft gels daily, depending on whether you include flax seed oils, olive oils and nuts in your diet).
  7. L-carnitine – at least 1g daily.
  8. Amino acids and glutamine during the day.


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