Oh the never-ending struggle of physique development. The desire for more muscle to add shape and size to our physique is countered by our need to look beach-ready year round in preparation for those successful nights at the bar or possibly even more importantly, that next Instagram selfie.
As a reader of BioLayne.com, you know that in order to gain an appreciable amount of additional muscle, a caloric surplus (and as a result some body fat) must be present. Fortunately, you also know that following an old school “bulk” isn’t a prerequisite to physique progress just because extra calories are necessary.
As with most things fitness-related, there’s a middle ground that can be achieved to help make the entire process more effective in the long run, and also allow for an offseason body composition that you can feel confident in while still making significant progress in muscle development. Below, I’ll discuss just how we can find that middle ground to maintain and develop a physique we can be confident in year round, not just when it comes time to diet.
Probably one of the most beneficial transitions in mentality that physique oriented athletes can make is from the idea that we have to either be “perma-bulking” or on a quest to be ultra shredded in order to make progress. Although this was once the prevailing belief, either end of the spectrum typically creates more drawbacks than benefits.
Pursuing a higher body weight through increasingly higher food intakes may improve absolute strength through improved leverages, but not likely much in terms of actual increases in muscle hypertrophy.  Not to mention, the unnecessarily long dieting phase required to lose that extra body fat from a classic bulk is very likely to prompt the loss of any marginally additional muscle tissue that is gained.
On the other extreme, pursuing ultimate shreds every time you decide to diet can do quite a number on everything from strength, to negative hormonal and metabolic adaptions which can take months to bounce back from once the dieting phase is over. This is something that my undergraduate research study, along with other related studies of. contest prep effects on drug free bodybuilders, continues to demonstrate. 
Enter the Mini Cut
This is where the idea of the mini cut comes in. Mini cuts have gained popularity among physique athletes, but they also serve a great purpose for non-competitors. The idea behind them is to run brief dieting phases to get bodyweight into a more ideal offseason range after periods of growth focus. These mini cut goals may be as small as 6-8lbs. Regardless of the actual fat loss goal, they are performed just long enough to lose unwanted body fat, but ceased early enough in the dieting phase to avoid much of the negative adaptions connected with most long-term dieting phases.
These mini diets can be especially helpful for physique athletes deciding to take several years off between another competition season while maintaining a body composition they can perform most efficiently in, and also feel purely comfortable and confident in along the way. Rather than gaining to the point where a 20lbs+ diet is needed to see any semblance of muscle definition, and instead approaching the offseason conservatively, periodically mini cutting something along the lines of 6-8lbs off before turning back into a reverse diet/growth phase, can do wonders for keeping body composition in check during extended growth phases.
This can all be done while avoiding many of the negative effects that accompany waiting until double or triple the duration of a diet is needed to get back to a reasonable striking distance of stage weight.
Mini Cut Frequency & Benchmarks
Without turning this article into an “all things mini cuts” piece, I would say that a general rule of thumb I find to be helpful for athletes I work with would be to run a mini cut no earlier than after ~6 months of consistent reverse dieting & growth focused strategies. Plenty of situations could arise that would extend or shorten that timeline for each individual, but aiming for at least 6 months between mini cuts can help with allowing sufficient time for muscle development, and help to ensure that athletes aren’t dieting too often and hindering their long-term progression by constantly being in a deficit.
At the end of the day, using mini cuts can be a great way of keeping things in check without feeling the need to constantly diet down to stage conditioning. Setting some personal benchmarks for when you are to consider mini cutting can help to ensure your growth season remains the priority and isn’t compromised by dieting too often.
As research becomes increasingly popular to reference in fitness industry, people love to talk about NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) while flaunting their newest fitness tracker or phone application. As a general overview, NEAT can be thought of as casual activity throughout your day outside of your planned exercise. It includes things like walking the dog, taking the stairs, and other daily activities most of us don’t even typically perform consciously.
NEAT has been suggested to comprise approximately 15% of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), or the calories expended each day.  Although it’s effects on body composition tend to be over exaggerated and claims are made without many important caveats being taken into consideration, keeping NEAT in mind in the grand scheme of day to day habits can help us to better manage long term body composition.
For those of us already following a structured weight training routine and tracking our daily intake, NEAT changes aren’t likely to create large, noticeable improvements in body composition over night. What paying attention to NEAT during the offseason can do though is help us avoid sinking into an otherwise very sedentary daily routine.
Something I see pretty often is the difference in overall energy levels between athletes who have a relatively active job or lifestyle outside of work, compared to those with a very sedentary job and not performing much in the way of casual activity outside of the weight room and programmed cardio sessions.
Ironically, those with an otherwise sedentary job tend to feel less energized throughout the week and heading into their weight training sessions than those performing at least some casual activity most days of the week, whether that be walking their pets, hiking with loved ones or just making an effort to move around more between tasks during the day. Although we would think those who are more active would have higher levels of fatigue, (outside of excessive activity levels,) it tends to be the opposite. This actually makes sense when we take into the account the benefits of casual exercise, such as increased oxygen delivery to the brain resulting in an increase in alertness and cognition. .
As a result, the improved mental focus and energy from higher activity levels can translate into consistently better weight training sessions, which means greater gains in muscle tissue, as well as potentially improved insulin sensitivity and glycogen storage.
For ideas on how to easily increase NEAT during your offseason, check out Peter Baker’s recent article here.
Research has come a long way in revealing total caloric intake to be one of the most important factors in weight management. The ideas of needing smaller more frequent meals, or taking advantage of the post workout “anabolic window,” have continued to be unveiled as all but irrelevant as long as total macronutrient intake and macro adjustments are implemented effectively.
That being said, for those looking to fully maximize their physique progress, it’s important to not throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to prioritizing details after covering our main bases. One area in particular which I find to have some merit with physique athletes is that of meal timing as it relates to where we place the majority of our carbohydrates during the day.
We know through continued research findings that exercise increases insulin sensitivity and the efficiency with which we use carbohydrates.  Although it would be a bit out of line to suggest significant body composition changes could be achieved simply by pushing a large portion of carbs to pre- and post-workout meals, it does seem reasonable to suggest doing so may help maximize long-term progression through taking advantage of the increased insulin sensitivity prompted by exercise. In addition, more practical benefits include decreased hunger around workouts (therefore better focus on task), delayed intra-workout fatigue through sufficient availability of glucose to prevent hypoglycemia, and allowing for other times of the day to be relatively lower in carbohydrate which could further increase insulin sensitivity for better carbohydrate usage and body composition maintenance.
To provide some context as well as some anecdotal support, I’ll often set up athlete programs to focus a large portion, maybe around 60%, of their carbohydrate intake placed in pre-, intra- and post-workout meals/shakes while spreading the remainder of carbohydrates among other meals. This is a strategy I like to promote year around, especially when dieting phases begin. Some pretty noticeable effects can be seen simply by pushing carbs around and into workouts, often resulting in the athletes being able to keep carb intake higher, longer, while still losing body fat through controlled macronutrient reductions as the diet progresses. At the end of the day, the more fuel we can keep in the tank while progressing through a dieting phase, the better muscle retention and energy left over for other tasks during the day we can expect as a result.
Considering carb timing in your offseason could be a beneficial way to maximize the use of those calories for energy and recovery from workouts, while slightly, but possibly significantly improving body composition over time though better carb usage and reduced storage as body fat. Getting too hung up on this can cause more stress than success if total energy balance and macronutrient distribution across total intake aren’t first priorities. However, adding this consideration after covering those initial bases seems to have some merit both from a scientific understanding of exercise and glucose utilization, and from anecdotal results with client programming.
Assumed vs. Actual Calorie Needs
Athletes in general, but especially those from younger generations, tend to believe in an “eat big to get big” philosophy when focusing on maximizing muscle growth between dieting phases. If calories are required for muscle growth, then eating a ton of calories can only mean more muscle growth and fuel for training sessions, right? As much as it would be nice to say eating your weight in delicious food each day is scientifically validated, the truth is, the calorie needs for muscle growth tend to be less than typically assumed (or hoped for) by athletes.
Gradually pushing intake higher in growth phases can certainly be helpful in maximizing performance and supporting optimal metabolic and hormonal health. However, it’s just as effective to increase intake gradually and in relation to body weight changes from week to week in order to maintain a reasonable weight gain between dieting phases than it is to suddenly jump into an extreme caloric surplus for the sake of “gainz.” When athletes suddenly gain significant weight, they often report subsequent increases in strength as well, which initially may seem like a clear sign of additional muscle growth. In reality, this coinciding strength gain is most likely attributed to greater leverages created by simply weighing more, and not necessarily “true” strength and size increases.
Top researchers in the field, such as Eric Helms, have suggested somewhere around 1-1.5% of bodyweight gain per month, fueled by approximately 100-300 calories per day above maintenance, to be a general rule of thumb for ideal muscle growth in a growing phase, depending on training age and individual variances.  Now it should be noted that gradually increasing calories even further could be beneficial to metabolic capacity and optimizing hormone health between dieting phases. This could serve as a great rule thumb for lifters and highlight the benefit of a “slow but sure” approach to offseason intakes.
Sure muscle growth will occur if you start putting down food like Kobayashi does hot dogs. For those interested in keeping a reasonable body composition they can be confident in year round, and make their next contest prep/dieting phase more effective, approaching offseason intake more moderately is sure to provide better long-term dividends than rushing to diet extremes.
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Sensationalism sells, and no industry capitalizes on that fact more than the fitness industry. Preaching the necessity of extremes gains attention and sells services, but very rarely produces the results that practical approaches and the sensible application of modern science can and does over the long-term.
A variety of factors contribute to the creation of a great athlete, or even just a great looking body, but one factor that is too often overlooked is that of patience and the willingness to invest time to reach a goal, rather than blindly following extremes in hopes of success. Taking time, controlling the details that matter in your particular situation and keeping in touch with modern research can go a long way in balancing the progress we achieve in the future with just how comfortable and happy we are in the present.
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