Intelligent Bulking in the Off-Season

by Chris Marzarella, CFT

In years past, if you mentioned the term “bulking”, you think of doing zero cardio (cardi-no!!), eating copious amounts of food and after you’re full, you eat again, and again…and again. Let’s not forget the sugar-ladened “weight gainer” drink or powder. Might as well eat cake mix with a scoop of protein powder. This bro-science method has some validity. You gain, but the “results” from this four to six month process (sometimes inappropriately longer) are not worth the effort. This can translate to a gain of a half pound of muscle to four pounds of fat.

Alas, if a natural bodybuilder-hell even an assisted bodybuilder wants to add size, this has been the pattern one needed to follow, but there is a better way of doing things. I am about to drop some knowledge bombs on you with common sense, complete with science to back it up and of course, less cardio and more food!!

The Off-Season

For many physique athletes (bodybuilders, physique, figure), the fall season is the onset of the off-season. Since you’re going to have hoodies and sweaters on, the cool thing to do is to add a little size, slack off from cardio and not worry so much about fat gain. The four to six months of the chilly weather in front of us are a time of seasonal gatherings of food, family and fun. The drawback comes around March or April, when the federations have posted their new year contest dates and the short sleeve shirts start to come out, you need to take another 12-24 weeks out of the year and diet into misery.

Why not just add from your summer cut an intelligently thought out surplus of calories? Let me give you a disclaimer here, now: do not do this if you are 12-15+ percent body fat if you’re a male, or 16-20% if you’re a female. While these are average fat levels for the “healthy population” of the world, we are athletes and some of us would consider these average fat levels too high. You’ll add size, but a little more of it will be in the form of fat. I should add to this that every one of my athletes that does this, did it at a leaner percentage of fat.

The Training

Compound exercises really are beneficial this time of the year. In fact, studies(1) have shown that using squats, bench presses, rows, overhead presses and deadlifts recruit more muscle fibers than any other exercise. This is great news because most of us knew this, and if you add a surplus of calories into the mix, brother, you’re going to make gainz!

The classic four day split still works, but after one week of resting the muscle group, too much time has been wasted. Muscle protein synthesis drops back to baseline levels after 36 hours(2). Why not use a combination of the conjugate method (aka Westside) and daily undulating periodization to recruit maximum muscle increases and train the body not once, but twice a week?

Below is the plan you will follow, but there a few details you need to adhere to.

1.) Every third week, you will change the first (main) exercise with a variation of the compound lift. Example, flat barbell bench press can become an incline barbell bench press or a floor press.

2.) Every month on Monday and Wednesday, you will replace the second exercise with a variation of the original exercise listed after our main lift. For example, after the bench press, originally you followed with incline dumbbell bench presses. After four weeks, change the incline dumbbell bench press to an incline barbell bench press. Don’t change the compound exercise to an isolation exercise (incline bench press to an incline flye). If you do this, I will call your gym and revoke your membership.

3.) Allow yourself to ease off cardio, but to also know that some cardio is not going to kill your gains. Cardio can be beneficial for weight gain; it can be used to better partition calories, especially for those who gain weight rather quickly. Do this only twice or three times a week.

Squat variation; work up to a hard set of 3 reps
Hex bar deadlift 4 x 6
Overhead Barbell Press; work up to a hard set of 3 reps
Delt Giant Set
a1) Hammer strength press 4 x 6
a2) rear laterals
a3) side laterals 3 x 10
Face pulls 1 x 100
Heavy ab work 5 x 10
Heavy standing calf raise 4 x 10

Deadlift variation; Work up to a hard set of 3 reps
Deficit deadlift 4 x 6
Bench press variation; Work up to a hard set of 3 reps
Close grip bench press 4 x 6
Barbell rows 4 x 6

No belt used on front squat-front squat 4 x 8-12
Smith One legged squat 3 x 12
Goblet sumo squat 3 x 12
Step-ups 2 x 20
Stiff leg deadlift to shin 4 x 8
SHELC 2 x 50
Grip work: Coan suitcase deadlift from the power rack
Seated calf 4 x 20
Bierly ab circuit 3 rounds; weighted swiss ball crunch+leg raise+roman chair situps+bar twists (50 reps)

Guillotine bench press 4 x 8-12
Cable rows 4 x 8-12
Overhead supine grip dumbbell press 3 x 8-12
Lat pulldown 3 x 12-15
Bench dips 4 x 20
Barbell curl 4 x 12

You can adjust the days of the week, but do not change the specific rest periods.


Because of food allergies and acute health issues related to food, I will not advise with particular foods. I offer a gameplan to add lean mass and also to help add numbers to your compound movements. The majority of your food intake should be carbohydrates. Just as protein is important for fat loss and muscle retention (3), carbohydrates are essential for mass gain. Understand also that carbohydrates are muscle sparing which is why you needn’t have a large amount of protein.

You can reduce the amount of protein if you are coming from a cut to 0.9 multiplied by your present bodyweight. Carbohydrates can be placed at your present bodyweight x 1; for example a 200 pound bodybuilder will take in 200g as a starter number. 20% of your calories will come from fat. My suggestion is keep fats to a comfortable level and be aware that fats make you feel fuller.
Record your weight in the morning after the bathroom on your first day of the plan. This number will be your baseline. If, after two weeks, you see no progress, add 5% more calories in the form of carbohydrates. It can be dried fruit, cereal or more oatmeal, but the choice is up to you.

Weigh yourself again in two weeks. If you see a ¼ pound gain or no gain at all, add 5-10% more calories to your calories daily. Once you get to a one pound gain, you will stay on that caloric intake until after two weeks of no progress. Only then should you add 5-10% more. Don’t get overzealous and add more calories just to see the scale climb faster. Take it slow, be consistent and use your head. You don’t need a ton of calories to manipulate muscle gain.


I use only a few supplements because I would prefer my money go to other recreational endeavors, like Call of Duty or Madden. Fish oil: I will take a copious amount of fish oil simply because the heavier I go in squats and deadlifts, the more my joints take a beating. Fish oil has a host of benefits, research has provided data that shows it anti-inflammatory properties (4). Another bonus is that fish oil has shown to be beneficial in decreasing adipose tissue (body fat) (5).

Creatine: 5g daily. Stick with monohydrate. Reams of studies have proven for years that creatine works for muscle and strength gains, but also for several neurological benefits (6).

Sleep: Essential for recovery. Enough said. Take a 15 minute nap daily. You’ll recharge and recover even faster.

Final Thoughts

“Bulking” can be done intelligently. If you go at it haphazardly, you will eventually get fat and muscle gains will be more like fat with some slight muscle increases. You have a game plan now. Go at it with care and you will be rewarded. Be mindful that you will add some fat to your frame, but also remember that you can lose the fat just as you did for your last cut or contest prep. Pledge to do a six month quest of gaining size. Just as you commit to cutting and getting ready for that pro-qualifier contest, commit to adding size to your frame.

If you want to enjoy a meal with family or friends, schedule a squat session the day after to use some of those extra calories. Don’t abuse this bonus feature. I schedule an intermittent fast if I have a family function to attend that I know there will be LOTS of food.

Italians have several different ways of celebrating life, and food is one of our most important and joy filled times in life. My nana could whip up meals in an hour that could feed an army. Typically, we spend hours eating lasagna, meatballs and sausage, braciole and baked ziti before we have our Thanksgiving meal. Don’t even get me started on the Meal of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. It’s understandable why I would schedule such a diet technique!

Bottom line, you have several months of cold weather ahead. Don’t waste time and just get fat in the off-season. Plan it, implement it. Take before and after pictures every two to three weeks and watch your body transform!

“Create with the heart; build with the mind.” ― Criss Jami, Killosophy


(1) Netreba, AI, Popov, DV, Liubaeva, EV, Bravyi, I, Prostova, AB, Lemesheva, I, and Vinogradova, OL. Physiological effects of using the low intensity strength training without relaxation in single-joint and multi-joint movements. Ross. Fiziol. Zh. Im. I. M. Sechenova. 93: 27-38, 2007.
(2) Can J Appl Physiol. 1995 Dec;20(4):480-6. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. MacDougall JD1, Gibala MJ, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDonald JR, Interisano SA, Yarasheski KE.
(3) A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats
Dominik Pesta-Varman Samuel –
(4) Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) as an anti-inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for discogenic pain. J Maroon-J Bost
(5) The role of adipose tissue in mediating the beneficial effects of dietary fish oil
Michael Puglisi-Alyssa Hasty-Viswanathan Saraswathi
(6) Subcell Biochem. 2007;46:205-43. The neuroprotective role of creatine. Klein AM1, Ferrante RJ.