Layoffs are a funny thing. Some people rarely if ever take them and don’t feel they are necessary as long as they get adequate rest and nutrition. Others feel they are so essential to long-term progress and avoiding major injuries that they specifically schedule them for certain times of the year. And when it comes to competitive bodybuilders, there are two diametrically opposed schools of thought as to the proper course of action following a competition for which one has trained and dieted long and hard.
Like six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, many feel that since the body has been deprived of surplus calories for so long while dieting, you should immediately return to heavy training and eating in order to take advantage of a brief window of opportunity to gain new muscle mass. Dorian has stated that he believes he made his best gains of the year in the six to eight weeks that followed each competition.
Then there’s eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, who was known to take off a full three months from training after each win. Since Ronnie and Dorian both grew larger over the course of their Mr. Olympia reigns, one can’t point to either method as being superior. Who’s to say that Ronnie’s extended breaks didn’t do as much to prime his body for new gains as Dorian’s jumping right back into the gym?
The best strategy may actually be somewhere in the middle, as practiced by four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler. Jay stumbled on this method out of necessity. Traveling for guest-posing appearances every weekend for nearly three months after the Olympia each year, he found it impossible to maintain his usual regimen of training and eating. Instead of stressing out and trying to do the best he could, Cutler settled on simply doing a couple of full-body circuits with lighter weights two or three times a week, an hour of cardio a day for heart and lung health and drastically reducing his food intake.
When I ran into him in Miami at the NPC Nationals more than two months after the ’11 Mr. Olympia, his weight had dropped from his typical off-season 290 to somewhere in the low 260s. Far from looking small, Jay appeared lean, healthy and reinvigorated. The time away from superheavy weights and stuffing himself with upward of eight meals a day had done him a world of good. Though he was still undecided about whether he would return to competition at the ’12 Olympia to try and wrest his title back from Phil Heath, the “cruising” period was definitely giving his mind and body the time to recuperate fully. It would put him in an ideal position to make another intense run at the Mr. Olympia this year, if that’s the direction he decides to take.
It may seem pointless to talk about three multiple Mr. Olympia champions when mapping out a training year for the average IM reader, who is drug-free and genetically average and does not compete. But is it? Each of us needs to decide whether to take breaks from heavy training, how long the breaks should be, and what type of training, if any, we should do during them. For those who love training too much to ever completely stop, it makes sense to include periods of higher-rep training. Rather than doing that for months at a time, however, it’s more practical to work them in for a week or two after four to six weeks of heavy training.
Training heavy all the time doesn’t seem to work out well for anybody in the long term, as our joints and connective tissues can take a beating for only so long before something has to give. Dorian seemed to have just one gear, and many feel that’s the reason he retired somewhat prematurely and with multiple injuries after only eight seasons as a pro. As of this writing, Jay Cutler is looking at his 16th season in the IFBB. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not. There is a lesson here, and the gist of it is simple: You must turn down the intensity and heavy loads every so often if you want to reap the benefits of bodybuilding for life.
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth from 25 Years In the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.