blog article

Improvement Season vs. Prep Diet

I am fairly often asked how my nutrition differs between my improvement season (“offseason”) and competition prep. Truth be told, there isn’t a huge shift from black to white as most people tend to assume. I tend to eat mostly the same foods regardless of which phase of the bodybuilding process I am in. There are, however, some shifts that occur in my daily habitual eating, especially as the prep progresses.

Fewer calories over time.

One of the more significant changes is simply the amount of macronutrients, and therefore calories, that I consume. 

Even when I am not in a fat loss phase preparing for competition, I am tracking the food I eat. I have a set goal for how much protein, fat and carbs I am supposed to eat in order to enhance recovery, promote muscle growth and stay generally healthy.

In order to lose fat, the macronutrient goals start to change. Protein intake stays about the same, with most of the caloric deficit coming from moderate drops in carbohydrates over time. Small drops in fat intake are implemented less frequently as a certain level of daily dietary fat is required to maintain overall health and function.

This means that as the prep moves forward, and my metabolism adjusts to fewer calories, small decreases in calories are required to drive continual progress (fat loss).

High volume vs. low volume foods.

What is a high volume vs. low volume food source?

A high volume food source is going to have, well, a lot more volume relative to the amount of calories it contains. A low volume source will contain many more calories for a similar volume measurement. The higher volume sources will take up more space in your stomach, leaving you feeling more physically full than lower sources. 

Think about this: there are a similar amount of calories in one donut as there are in 8 oz. of cooked chicken breast. One of those will surely go down a little easier than the other. As I mentioned previously, my protein intake stays relatively the same and it is my carbohydrate intake that decreases over time, so this is where I make the most changes regarding food volume.

For example, all of these things contain ~15g of carbohydrate:

4 oz. of orange juice

100g (~⅔ cup) of potatoes

15 cups of uncooked spinach

Imagine feeling hungry (or full) and how eating the foods above would make you feel.

During my improvement season I was eating a fair amount of food for someone my height (4’11”) and, when calories were highest, I was eating 340g of carbs on my training days. In order to combat feeling like Violet Beauregarde after every meal, I would avoid eating too many high volume carbohydrate sources and would utilize low volume sources. I would sometimes drink orange juice after a workout, drizzle my yogurt with maple syrup and would typically opt for rice over potatoes. 

As my carbohydrate intake decreases, I gradually increase the amount of higher volume sources I consume while simultaneously decreasing the lower volume sources. While I always eat a good amount of fruits and veggies, I am more apt to eat things like a big salad when carbs are low and try to get my greens from other, more compact, sources when carbs are high. I am also much less likely to consume low volume foods like syrup, honey and juice when carbs are low because they will leave me feeling hungry and empty.

Another example is that I always get to a point in the diet where I am no longer interested in whey protein shakes because they digest quickly and are not very satiating. I will opt to eat a piece of chicken after a workout instead of  having a shake because it is more filling and I would prefer to chew my food.

Low calorie foods.

As calories drop, hunger becomes more regular and cravings set in, certain low(er) calorie food options can make the diet a little easier and help to maintain adherence.

Fat-free yogurt instead of a full fat version.

G.Hughes low calorie BBQ sauce instead of Sweet Baby Rays.

A sugar free syrup in my black coffee instead of cream and sugar.

The occasional diet Mountain Dew.

I use these items as tools to stick to my macronutrient targets as well as make the diet a bit more enjoyable. I believe they can be a part of a healthy diet when used in moderation and when things like fiber and micronutrient goals are prioritized.

Peri-workout nutrition.

Our bodies utilize carbohydrates for energy. We store these carbohydrates in our liver and our muscles in the form of glycogen. When carbohydrates intake is high, glycogen stores are plentiful. When carbohydrate intake is low, especially for prolonged periods, glycogen stores can become depleted, as there is no longer an influx of energy (food) to restore them.

For these reasons, prioritizing peri-workout (before/during/after workout) nutrition becomes increasingly important as my prep continues. The majority of my daily carbohydrate intake will be consumed around my workout. This ensures adequate energy during my training session and allows glycogen depleted during the workout to be restored post-workout, promoting recovery. In my improvement season, when carbs are higher, I eat a similar amount of carbohydrates in my pre and post-workout meals, but it accounts for a smaller percentage of overall daily carbohydrate intake.

Less flexibility/room for error.

You can make significant progress with your physique and not weigh out every gram of food you put in your body. During my improvement season I would sometimes eyeball portions (which is pretty accurate after a decade of food tracking), take little extra bites while cooking, get food from restaurants, etc. The extra calories these habits added were fairly negligible, especially while I was actively attempting to increase size.

Now that I am prepping, I am much more accurate with my tracking methods to ensure success and remove potential variables. A competition prep is essentially a dieting experiment and for a good experiment to work, you cannot have unknown variables.

Examples of how my tracking becomes more strict:

  1. Weigh out everything.

Even that no sugar added ketchup with 1g carb per serving.

  1. No bites here and there.

If it didn’t go on the scale, it doesn’t go in my mouth.

  1. Fewer meals “out”.

Sure, places like Chipotle have a nutrition calculator on their website, but there is no guarantee the worker is scooping an accurate amount of each ingredient.

  1. No untracked meals.

The improvement season allowed the freedom to occasionally eat a meal that was completely untracked. During prep I choose not to do that.

Planning ahead

I am a creature of habit. Regardless of which phase I’m in, I tend to eat mostly the same foods on a daily basis, occasionally swapping out certain sources here and there. This makes sticking to my macros pretty simple.

During my offseason I don’t typically feel the need to plan out my meals ahead of time. I basically know what a day of eating should look like, I stick to a basic structure and I can pretty much track as I go and know I’ll hit my targets by the end of the day.

Once I start prepping, planning out a day of eating ahead of time becomes the norm. Not only does this remove stress and complications from my day, it guarantees I will successfully hit my macronutrient targets. If I attempt to “wing it” I am much more likely to become hungry during the day, go over targets (looking at you, fats) or wind up eating chicken with a side of chicken for dinner because all I’ve got left is protein.

I believe there is a misconception that the improvement season is a free-for-all with little structure and unlimited donuts and pizza. On the flip side, it is also assumed that when dieting for a bodybuilding competition there is nothing but chicken, broccoli and rice in a sea of tupperware containers in the fridge. This is surely a result of the “good” vs. “bad” food notions that are perpetuated in our culture as well as a general misunderstanding of nutrition and energy balance.

Ultimately, regardless of whether you are trying to build muscle or lose fat, your health is going to have to be the number one priority to ensure success. So the same basic principles apply to both phases, the improvement season and the competition prep. It is the nuances within the basic principles which shift as you progress and goals are recalibrated.

Of course, this is my personal experience. Not every bodybuilder approaches their nutrition exactly the same as I do. Some may have a more flexible approach, while others may be more rigid with their protocols. This is what I have found works for me and my goals while also allowing me to enjoy the process.