BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes Vol. 2 – Lean Gain Edition

BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes Vol. 2 – Lean Gain Edition

Sure, you can always pick up unsolicited advice from your local locker room guru, but what are the chances of it actually being good advice? Unfortunately, the odds aren’t in your favor.

That’s why we gave renowned nutritionist and successful bodybuilder Shelby Starnes his own column to answer your training and dieting questions. You see, unlike the big guy at your gym, Shelby has worked with hundreds of athletes who are looking for the same thing as you: a ripped, muscular physique.

In this installment, Shelby shares his three biggest tips for gaining muscle and losing fat, as well as how to stay lean and mean year-round.

Read it, learn it, and apply it…and then print out a copy and give it to your locker room guru.

How Lean is Lean Enough in the Off-Season?

Q: Do you consider there to be optimal body fat ranges for offseason lean gain? For example do you have a specific body fat percentage in mind that it would be good to hover at or perhaps a range to stay within?

Shelby: Optimal off-season condition will vary since we all have different metabolisms, hormonal profiles, and builds.

Generally speaking, I believe you should always be able to see at least an outline of your abs even deep in the off-season. The fat at the lower back “love handle” area should also be kept to a minimum. For most people this means a max of about 12% body fat or so. I’m not big on numbers and measurements, though; I just go by the mirror. How you look is more important than a number.

For those that really want to push the envelope, such as a bodybuilder looking to jump up a weight class, I believe it’s acceptable (and sometimes even advisable) to get a bit heavier, but 15% body fat is about the max.  If you allow yourself to get that high, make sure to allow extra time for dieting afterwards.

Another important factor to consider is where you feel socially and psychologically comfortable. 

Bodybuilding should be enjoyable (though challenging), so if staying lighter and leaner makes the journey more palatable to you, then by all means do it. You’ll never be consistent in your efforts if you hate how you look and feel in the off-season.

If it drives you nuts to try to stay relatively lean in the offseason, then just do your best and save the dieting for pre-contest time.  Not everyone has the same motivation and drive year-round. Just remember that your progress will mirror your effort, assuming your effort is intelligently planned.

I’m “Skinny-fat” and Need a Cure – Help!

Q: What would be your advice for those in the “skinny-fat” category?

Shelby: I have a handful of clients that I’ve been working with for a few years who, when we first started out together, you never would have guessed were bodybuilders because they were fat, small, and weak.  Fast-forward to today and they all look like completely different people: lean, muscular, and strong. The secret? Hard work and consistency.

My advice for the “skinny fat” isn’t much different than for anyone else: lift progressively, eat sensibly, and be both consistent and patient. 

Don’t miss meals, don’t miss workouts, and make sure you’re getting optimal rest and recovery. Do this for a few years straight and you won’t be “skinny fat” anymore. Great physiques are built over years, not days or weeks.

For an idea of how to set up a basic carb-cycling plan, check out my Troponin Nutrition Macronutrient Guidebook, available at EliteFTS.

Cardio in the Off-Season: Yay or Nay?

Q: What’s your take on offseason cardio? Is it a good idea or should I cut it entirely?

Shelby: Just as with diet, cardio requirements will vary quite a bit depending on a bunch of genetic factors.

If you have a great metabolism, I’d suggest keeping off-season cardio minimal while keeping body fat under control with diet manipulation. This allows the body to rest, recover, and grow as much as possible in between training sessions.
Someone with a slower metabolism might need to add in 2-3 sessions per week, mostly at moderate intensity (30 minutes or so) with perhaps one high-intensity interval training session per week. Again though, I’d try to keep these people lean with diet changes before adding much cardio. Save the treadmill work for when it’s time to get lean!

*Note: these recommendations are geared towards gaining the most muscle possible in the shortest amount of time. Abstaining from cardiovascular activity for any length of time is not always the healthiest choice, so if you’re an older trainer (40+) or want to keep cardiovascular health as a top priority, I’d recommend doing some form of cardio year-round.

What’s the Deal with “Mini-Diets?”

Q: I’ve read that you sometimes institutes “mini-diets” during the offseason. Are these always necessary?  What’s the reasoning for them?

Shelby: If you’re a bodybuilder and have a long off-season (four months or more) then it may be a good idea to add a “break” in the middle to drop some of the body fat and regain some insulin sensitivity. For this short break (4-6 weeks), I recommend dropping macronutrients down to pre-contest levels and also introducing cardio at about 30 minutes daily.

If you’ve been training progressively, this would also be a great opportunity to take a week or so to deload. When my clients deload, I almost always reduce carbs for the same reasons mentioned above.

When you resume your normal off-season eating and training, you’ll also get a nice “mini-rebound”, not too unlike the rebound you get after a long pre-contest diet, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Shelby is no slouch in the Off Season – 12 weeks out from competition

The Benefits of Cheating

Q: What are your thoughts on cheat meals or cheat days when bulking? Are they just an excuse to be lazy and eat like crap or do they serve a valid need/purpose?

Shelby: I like to use cheat meals more in the dieting phases than in the off-season. From a functional perspective, cheat meals serve a few purposes: they refill glycogen stores, ramp up metabolism, and also help mental resiliency (it’s much easier to get through a tough week of dieting when you have a weekend cheat-meal to look forward to).

In the off-season, however, you’re never really very glycogen-depleted, so cheat meals really aren’t necessary. They still serve as a nice mental break, so if having a meal out with friends helps you to stay on a good clean off-season diet, then do it.

Remember, the guy that can put in 90% effort for ten years will always beat the guy who puts in 110% effort for three years, burns out, and then quits.

Lose Fat While Maintaining Strength and Muscle?

Q: From a Powerlifting standpoint what are some dietary methods you would employ that would reduce body fat while maintaining strength and weight? I prefer limited weight fluctuations but my preference may not be feasible. I’m looking for basic principles more so than extremely fine macro counts and the like.

Shelby: Simultaneously losing fat and gaining muscle is difficult for most individuals, unless they have excellent genetics or are using anabolic steroids.

For one thing, you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat (and also in the optimal hormonal environment, which is accomplished with proper macronutrient manipulation). To gain muscle, you need to taken in a caloric excess, so right there you already have a conflict.

Also note that fat loss is a much faster process for most people than gaining muscle. It would be much more effective to focus on just one goal at a time.

That said, here are my top three fat loss tips and muscle-gain tips.

The Big Three – Fat Loss

1. Restrict your carbohydrate intake to no more than a few meals per day, namely Meal 1 and your post-workout meal. Periodically re-feed once per week by doubling your normal carb intake and reducing your protein intake by about 30%.

2. Raise your protein intake to ward off catabolism. Shoot for around 1.5g per pound of bodyweight per day when carb intake is low.

3. Don’t forget healthy fats (mono and polyunsaturates including Omega-3s). These fats are vital to optimal health and metabolism.

The Big Three – Muscle Gain

1. Raise carbohydrate intake to help support training, recovery, and growth. The particular amount will depend on a number of factors, including your metabolism, weight, age, sex, and workload. 

2. Keep protein high (at least 1g per pound of bodyweight per day).

3. Once again, don’t forget healthy fats (mono and polyunsaturates including Omega-3s).

Experiment with each of these to find your own individual “sweet spot”.

Protein: The Ultimate Nightcap

Q: What’s your opinion on nocturnal feedings during the offseason?  Are they worth disturbing sleep for?

Shelby: Nocturnal feedings are an easy way to get in additional growth-promoting calories. I like to have clients take advantage of them as long as it doesn’t disrupt their normal sleep patterns.

For quick and easy consumption and digestion, I prefer a protein drink, typically 50% whey and 50% casein (A protein blend such as Nitrean would do the job great), with some added healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil or macadamia nut oil). This provides a nice steady flow of aminos and calories through the night. Drink about half of it right before you go to bed, and finish the rest when you wake up to use the bathroom.

Written by Shelby Starnes

Got a question for Shelby? – The next edition will be on Very Low Carb Dieting. Anything related to low carb dieting is game – the diet itself, refeeds, supplements, cardio, training, etc. You can either post your questions on the forums (Next Q&A: Cardio for Fat Loss and Conditioning) or you can send them via email to Shelby at Be on the look-out for the next installment of his Q and A!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Bodybuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes – Vol 2 discussion thread.

About Shelby Starnes

Shelby is a successful National-level Bodybuilder & Powerlifter and has helped hundreds of athletes get into the greatest shape of their lifes.

  • 2009 NPC Central States Championships – 1st place Middleweight and Overall
  • B.A. in Psychology with Departmental Honors – estimated completion May, 2008
  • 2nd place 198-lb class – 2004 APF Michigan State Powerlifting Championships
  • Overall Novice Champion – Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005
  • 2nd place open middleweight- Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005 (nationally qualified)
  • 5th place middleweight – NPC Junior Nationals, 2006

Whether you are a competitive bodybuilder looking for pre contest/off season assistance or simply just striving to achieve a specific physique, Shelby is available to set up custom diet and training programs to suit your goals.

For more information on his diet and training programs and prices, see here.

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