By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photographer: Alex Ardenti; Model: IFBB Pro Markus Becht
The term “offseason” can be a bit misleading. What the word doesn’t mean is an extended vacation when bodybuilders and athletes let themselves go. On the contrary, for most sports, the offseason is critical for a number of reasons. First, yes the offseason offers a time to be completely off from the sport — a chance for mental and physical recovery. But it’s also a time for a back-to-basics approach to the trade. It’s during the offseason when professional athletes gain strength, size, endurance or whatever features their particular sport requires. Many vouch that how you perform in season depends on how well you make use of your offseason.
But you’re a bodybuilder. Knowing when one season ends and one begins is like seeing a shadow in the dark — distinguishing the difference isn’t easy. Besides, most of us don’t have screaming fans and trophies to hoist. A soaked sweatshirt and a mirror with good light is your daily finish line and the only gratification you get.
But even it that’s the case, it’s still important for you to look at the bodybuilding year with some type of season and offseason. For some it might mean taking the winter months to put on a few pounds before trying to shed bodyfat before summer. For others it might be dedicating weeks to strength training before trying to attempt a 1RM. And maybe as important as any goal is utilizing a portion of the calendar to rest, with decreased volume and intensity, or complete rest, to help you throughout the year.
If your goal is to add some serious mass, and by that we mean a solid 10–15 pounds of muscle by the time spring rolls around, this two-month offseason program is your ticket. The plan is designed to build muscle via the right balance of mass-building exercises, sufficient volume and intensity-boosting techniques — it’s simple, structured and proven. Welcome to your offseason. Now get ready to work.
The First Month
The first four weeks of the program are all about heavy, mass-building compound exercises. Your reps will fall within the 6–8-rep range. We realize this is probably heavier than what bodybuilders typically do for mass, but there’s a reason for this. For one, be patient — the higher reps are coming soon enough. But muscle growth also means getting accustomed to working within different rep ranges, and the heavier sets will help spark necessary damage and recovery, two factors crucial for mass. Finally, during this offseason program, gaining basic strength in all bodyparts will ultimately help you throughout the year.
For the first month we keep the volume moderate (volume being the amount of exercises, sets and reps). You’ll do about 10 sets total for large muscle groups and train each bodypart once a week; to pack on tons of mass you need ample recovery time. Doing endless sets in each workout can easily put you in a catabolic state, so the key during this offseason is finding the right balance of adequate volume and rest/recovery.
The four-day split pairs a large bodypart (chest, back, shoulders, quads/hams) with 1–2 smaller muscle groups (tri’s, bi’s, traps, calves, abs) in each workout. This helps ensure that you’re fresh when doing your heaviest compound exercises.
During the first month, you’ll also concentrate on heavy abdominal moves, helping build that solid inner core while also forming the blocky abs that you’ll show off next summer. Typically during bodyweight ab moves you continue doing reps until failure, which will be the case in the second month of work. For the weighted moves, however, select a weight that causes you to fail at the designated rep range.
The Second Month
During the next four weeks you’ll bump up both the rep range and the intensity. Rep ranges increase to 10–12 for most exercises (meaning you choose a lighter weight so you can achieve the higher target rep), which research confirms is ideal for promoting muscle growth (hypertrophy). Overall volume increases slightly during this phase, mainly because of the added isolation exercises (single-joint moves) you’ll perform in concert with compound movements for your chest, back, shoulders and legs.
The second month also introduces a number of intensity-boosting techniques into the equation to accompany the higher reps. You’ll be able to select your own technique from the list, but what they have in common is helping you extend a set past muscle failure and making the overall effort more difficult. However, you’ll use only one technique per exercise and only on the last set. (Repeat that sentence to yourself again because it’s one you must follow.) Don’t employ a technique on every set because it will likely cause you to overtrain. Here are the techniques you’ll be doing:
- Drop Sets: After completing your reps with a heavy weight, quickly strip off about 25–30% of the weight and continue repping until you fail, then reduce the weight again to enable you to complete even more reps.
- Forced Reps: Have a training partner assist you with reps at the end of a set to help you work past the point of momentary muscular failure. Your training partner should help lift the bar with only the force necessary for you to keep the weight moving and get past the sticking point.
- Rest-Pause: Take brief rest periods during a set of a given exercise to squeeze out more reps. Start out with a very heavy weight (one with which you can do just four reps or so) and lift for 2–3 reps. Rack the weight and rest for a maximum of 20 seconds, then try for another 2–3 reps. Take another brief rest interval, then attempt as many reps as you can handle; repeat once more.
For some of you, using these intensity techniques on only a few exercises and sets will be a decrease in intensity (from what you may now be doing, especially if you’re accustomed to doing forced reps with your workout partner of every set), an adjustment to say the least. Either way, your body needs the change.
This phase continues to employ a four-day split, but bodyparts are paired differently — chest and back are trained on the same day (Day 1), as are biceps and triceps (Day 4).
Finally, the offseason is also a time to focus on creating great habits within each workout, including sufficient rest, adequate intensity, as well as focusing on bodyparts commonly forgotten from one session to the next. That’s why there’s a dedicated attack day for abs and calves. If we were to take a poll, abs and calves would likely be on the list of bodyparts you’re first to ignore, but not during this offseason. Aside from the attention you’re giving the smaller bodyparts, during this dedicated time frame it’s also ideal to incorporate multiple angles through exercise selection into your routine, keeping your workouts from becoming just that, routine. Making sure you’re hitting all bodyparts from multiple angles will ensure balanced development and new muscle growth. It’s by forcing the issue of new exercise angles that you invite much needed progress into the frame, pun intended.
So while your friends and buddies may be coasting this offseason, come spring they’re going to find you a rock-solid 10–15 pounds heavier, and it won’t be from doing 12-ounce curls.