There are some athletes that don’t have a “bulking” phase of the year at all. some athletes do, and then some stay lean and build slowly all year round. There are many different ways to acquire the body that you want. So the question becomes, "to bulk or not to bulk?" I started off not knowing anything more than you had to eat a lot and lift heavy to get big, so that’s what I did. All through my twenties I only ever made sure I ate a lot of protein. I never counted anything and I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and never felt any guilt in doing so. Was I lean? Despite my style of eating I definitely wasn’t a mess, but definitely not at the level I am able to attain now. I started off in bodybuilding and would see examples of all my favorite bodybuilders being shredded one moment and being the size of houses shortly after eating mass amounts of food in order to add muscle for next season, so that’s how I approached things. I did my first few bodybuilding shows and post-show I would just start eating whatever I wanted again. This of course was a pain because I would get so big it would take forever to cut back down again for my next show. By chance, I ended up injuring my quad the day after a bodybuilding show and I had another show only two weeks away. My leg was swollen, I couldn’t flex it and it hurt to work it in the gym. That’s when my trainer suggested I try this new division called Physique. At first I was hesitant, though eventually I agreed. I had a blast at the show and placed second to my friend, and now IFBB physique pro, Trevor Larsen. I loved the class and had a lot of fun with it and decided from there I wanted to continue to compete in this division. Enter “Aesthetics” As the physique division progressed it got more and more popular. “Aesthetics” was a word you started to hear more and more. Guys staying lean year round to do show after show, and things like photo shoots became common-place. To be competitive and make a name in the industry you had to get yourself out there and hold shape for much longer than a quick show or two. Guys were doing 4, 5, 6, 7 and even more shows a year. For some athletes that works, for others it’s hard for them genetically to get down to the size they need to be without looking like a bodybuilder. They may be easy gainers, have superior work ethic and great genetics, or hey appear bigger on stage than they really are due to their aesthetics/proportions. I fall into that category as does my friend, team mate, and IFBB pro Craig Capurso. After dieting down time after time, and holding your weight lower, it starts to have an effect on your body. I myself go a lot lower than I’d like size-wise to be competitive in this division. I have a small waist, small joints, a full chest and round shoulders, which gives the illusion that I’m bigger than I am and have been penalized for it in the past. I was told I was too big, even when standing next to guys 20-40 lbs heavier than me. Craig is just a monster, so that’s his draw back. After a long season I can definitely see the effect in my body. I'll appear to have lost mass and fullness, and my body won’t respond quite as well as it normally does to diet. Because of this I take an off-season. It can last on average anywhere from 4 months to as many as 8. I can usually be back in stage shape within 30-60 days based on how much time I’ve taken off and how lean I stayed in my bulking phase. I don't just jump right into higher calories. I gradually up them and get to around the 3,800-4,200 mark, which for me is plenty. I gain slow and have benefited each time I have done so. It’s good to give yourself a break and good for you to build up your metabolic capacity leading into a show preparation. If you started it at 2,500 calories and had 35 lbs to lose, you would be miserable. This makes things go a lot smoother. I have better workouts, my mental state does great with this method, my workouts are strong, and I have plenty of energy throughout my prep. After I get to my max calories I still do a cheat meal once a week. I don't always eat bad, and bad for me is a burger and fries. If there is a social event that weekend or a date night, I will eat something like that. Otherwise my cheat meal normally consists of 3 quest bars, 1 cup or more of oats, 4-6 tablespoons of peanut butter, and I may have some ice cream too. I like to eat the same foods and those are some of my favorites. Whether I go to dinner or eat at home it gives me a sense of normalcy and I feel like everyone else. During my bulking process my workouts are great. I tend to lift a lot heavier and really push myself for optimal growth. That’s the purpose of me doing it. Then I slowly start pulling back a bit on calories until I hit my maintenance levels and that really is my starting point. The key is that my maintenance levels are higher than when I started so that I make my preparation go that much smoother. This may or may not be for you. You may eat more, less, etc... You may want to change out your foods, which I do myself. Don’t be afraid to substitute things and give yourself some variety. I have to consciously do that myself, as long as it's food I love to eat it and don’t mind eating the same thing every day.