Maintaining a Solid Bodybuilding Regimen, No Matter Your Profession
9–5 desk job? Check! Jet-setting lifestyle? Check! Night owl? Check, check, check!
As a natural bodybuilder and consultant, I am often asked how I balance my strict diet and taxing gym routine alongside a busy workweek and personal obligations. In the age of COVID, this has become even more challenging for competitive athletes — from serving as the sole caregiver at home to losing proper access to fitness centers. Work can supplement a robust bodybuilding lifestyle for certain professionals, yielding significant growth and major strength milestones. However, various careers make it tough to lift heavy, eat clean, and get adequate sleep, as well as meet other requirements found in the muscle-building pyramid.
So how do you do it? How can you pencil in the time to train hard, meet your macros, and see consistent gains regardless of your industry, role, and work schedule?
For those tied to a desk for 8+ hours…
Attending (Zoom) meetings for hours on end with limited breaks and tight deadlines can be a hindrance to any regimen. An office job can make getting to the gym at an optimal time nearly impossible on the most hectic workdays. Your facility may be closed by the time you are off the clock and ready to roll. When you do make it, perhaps the place is packed wall-to-wall with those in the same boat. Securing an open bench or squat rack after 5 p.m. can truly be a sport in itself. A sedentary desk job with hours of physical inactivity can also thwart your ability to shed excess body fat — one of the cornerstones of bodybuilding.
Solution: Adjust your meals by preparing in bulk
Getting 5 or more meals in can be difficult when you work long hours. Consider prepping large batches of food that you can take to work in Tupperware. If space allows, carry in all your meals first thing Monday morning and store them in the refrigerator for the workweek. At my previous job, I would bring 15 meals (3 per day) for refrigeration and stow additional non-perishable items, snacks, and supplements, including BCAAs and creatine, in my office cabinet. You may find having a reusable gallon jug or water bottle at your desk to be useful. Purchasing a thermos with a cup attachment for protein shakes can come in handy, too.
Here are some bulk foods that you can easily keep in the fridge with their expiration dates:
- Boiled eggs in the shell (1 week)
- Lentils, quinoa, or split peas (up to 5 days)
- Beans and brown rice (up to 5 days)
- Chicken breasts (up to 4 days)
- Baked or sweet potatoes (up to 5 days)
- Egg or tuna salad (up to 5 days)
- Chili, pasta, or stew (4–5 days)
Solution: Test run variations of your lifting regimen
As bodybuilders, we strive to get in and out of the gym in 90 minutes or less during off-season. If you are currently doing a longer push–pull routine, think about switching it up to a shorter three-day split, where day one works chest and back, day two knocks out arms, and day three trains legs and shoulders. Ideally, this plan should take you no longer than an hour per workout, excluding cardio and stretching. Plus, you will get to rest on day four, giving you enough time to catch up on any missed cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). If your gym is at work or near the office, try lifting in the morning or even during your lunch break. You can scarf down all your meals in-between meetings or at your desk instead.
Solution: Sneak cardio into your day in small ways
If you live a short distance from the office, bike in two or three days per week — say Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during week one and then Tuesday and Thursday the next. Many major corporations offer commuter benefits programs and might assist you in financing that bicycle you have always dreamt of owning. Ask your human resources and talent management office for more information. Working in a high-rise or towering facility means stairs galore. Spend 15 minutes during your lunch break climbing the stairwell. If you lack proper stairs, pace the halls while listening in on a call. For those who drive to work, park your car farther away from the office. Similarly, bus riders can hop off a stop or two early and walk a longer distance. There are countless ways to fit light cardio activity and movement into your busy workday. Do not limit yourself! Get creative and mix it up.
For those constantly on their feet…
Working as a carpenter, consultant, contractor, electrician, or plumber may require hitting the road to meet clients on-site day in, day out. Likewise, those in factory, manufacturing, and warehouse settings tend to be on the line in steel toe boots with only a 30-minute lunch and two 15-minute breaks at best. It can be a breeze to get your cardio and step count in while on the job, but these roles make reaching daily calorie and macronutrient goals burdensome, particularly for those who have inflexible schedules and little to no downtime.
Solution: Stock a portable cooler with your meals
Invest in an Igloo or YETI portable cooler to store bulk quantities of food and dishware in your break room or cafeteria. If you drive a company vehicle or only have the opportunity to eat behind the wheel, rest assured that your meals will remain fresh throughout the day, even in the scorching summer heat. Keep reusable utensils, napkins, and non-perishable condiments, such as packets of soy sauce, as well as hand sanitizer and wet wipes, in your console or glove compartment. Future you will thank yourself for staying stocked up.
Here are some additional snacks you can stash in the cooler with their expiration dates:
- Protein bars (up to 1 year)
- Cottage cheese or Greek yogurt (up to 2 weeks)
- Rice cakes (1–2 weeks)
- Beef jerky (2 years)
- Whole milk (5–7 days)
- Popcorn (2–3 weeks)
- Oatmeal (1–2 years)
For the jet-setters and world travelers…
Frequent traveling, especially last-minute and unexpected work trips, can make establishing a routine lifting and eating regimen tricky. Most airlines offer limited meal options and poor food quality, ultimately preventing calorie counting and tracking macronutrient needs. Once you have touched ground, you may not have the means to grocery shop or prepare food. Air travel also limits mobility and affects sleep-wake cycles, resulting in chronic jet lag and fatigue that can stunt growth. Essentially, you must rethink your entire strength training plan or risk losing progress — an even more complicated task when trips are weeks long.
Solution: Bring the gym along in your suitcase
Before you arrive, call your accommodation to inquire about their gym equipment and fitness amenities. While many hotels provide guests with dumbbells, machines, and weight stacks upon weight stacks, others may only house an elliptical or treadmill in a room the size of a broom closet. Pack your bag with the following versatile items that allow for practical body weight exercises — not ideal, though much better than skipping a session altogether:
- Pull-up bar: Doing push-ups is great, because they effectively target your chest, shoulders, and triceps — but that is unfortunately only half your upper body. Both chin-ups and pull-ups help to complete upper body work by strengthening your back, biceps, and forearms, as well as tightening the core and stretching out those hard-to-reach muscles. With a simple modification and some creativity, portable pull-up bars can be set up almost anywhere you go: no bolts, no screws, no problems.
- Weighted vest: Add some resistance to your pull-up sets by donning a 15- or 20-pound weighted vest. This will give your upper body a massive shock, maximizing muscle growth in tandem with strength gains. If you do not want to lug around a bulky vest in your suitcase (which might incur extra charges at the airport), fill your backpack with two gallon water jugs — about 16 pounds of extra weight — or other miscellaneous items that you have laying around your room, such as heavy books.
- Dip bars: A nice pair of sturdy dipping handles with foam or rubber grips will keep your delts and pecs looking extra defined in those dress shirts. With regular use, you will see vast improvements in your ability to balance and control your own bodyweight, bolster proper shoulder stability, and amplify upper body push power and strength. Parallettes are adaptable, inexpensive, and mobile — an excellent addition to travel workout kits — and with bare-bones set-up, they can be used both indoors at your hotel and outdoors on concrete, firm sand, and flat, grassy areas.
- Elastic bands: Tube bands with handles mimic what you might perform while using dumbbells or machines, though significantly minimize your chance of injury and strain on joints. Through a full range of motions, band training also targets tiny muscles that are not activated when using standard free weights, resulting in more core activation, stabilization, and strength gains. Cheap, durable, and lightweight, resistance bands will give you an effective, full-body workout right in your room.
Solution: Cut back and hack your eating window
As always, pack your thermos for instant soup, oatmeal, and protein shakes. If possible, head over to the nearest supermarket to grab some healthy snack food items or meals that can be quickly prepared in your hotel room. For those lacking a car or access to transportation, consider a grocery delivery service, such as FreshDirect or Instacart. This may exceed your per diem costs, so keep that in mind as you file for travel reimbursement. Sometimes your only food source may be eating out at the hotel restaurant or local diners. Shoot for semi-healthy, low-sodium, and fat-free options that you can save for later by placing in takeout containers — an easy, on-the-go bite with minimal mess and zero prep work. You can also prevent unplanned gains using intermittent fasting techniques. It can be rather difficult to calorie count when inundated with work. However, eating within an 8-hour window and staying hydrated will help in maintaining your body fat percentage on the road.
For those manning the late-night shift…
Graveyard shifts can be a severe detriment to quality of sleep and post-exercise recovery. For competitive bodybuilders, between 7 and 9 hours of sleep is necessary to restore both cognitive function and alertness for intense training sessions. REM sleep is also responsible for producing human growth hormone, ramping up fat loss, and triggering protein synthesis — all of which aid in muscular hypertrophy. If you work a night shift, you most likely sleep during the day. While sunlight may not avert a light sleep cycle, the quality of deep sleep might be compromised entirely, inducing restlessness and irritability. When your resting body senses any incoming light, its melatonin levels are altered and circadian rhythms are disrupted. Even though you may be getting ample sleep, feel well-rested for workouts, and have no trouble falling asleep, the quality still may not be up to par for bodybuilding.
Solution: Shut out as much light and sound as possible
Close the blinds, draw the curtains, and pull down those shades. Catching z’s in the daytime involves ensuring your room is as dark and quiet as possible. Sadly, most blinds do not fully block out rays of light. Consider hanging up thick sheets, covering windows with blackout paper, and wearing a sleep mask to simulate nighttime conditions and quell penetrating light. You should also turn off televisions, computers, and other electronic devices that emit artificial blue light. With the exception of a white noise machine, which can obscure distracting, loud noises, enabling airplane mode on your phone and wearing a pair of soft earplugs can further improve quality of sleep by reducing the reverberation of sound waves.
For the college crowd and student interns…
Being a university student and/or an unpaid intern can drastically hamper bodybuilding progress and curtail peak performance. This is the time of your life to explore new interests, meet your best friends, and make big moves. Having a dynamic and stimulating social life while in school may be emotionally and professionally rewarding, but it makes staying physically healthy quite the struggle at times. Students are also frequently short on cash, meaning trips to the grocery store for extra food beyond the dining hall are far and few.
Solution: Make every cent you have in the bank count
Think about how you can slash expenses from your budget and spend less on junk food, recreational activities, and unneeded items, such as fancy electronics and high-tech gadgets. Most competitive bodybuilders do not drink alcohol or consume empty calories regularly, so consider eliminating them from your diet altogether or imbibing only in moderation. It will save you massive coin and help you stay shredded all semester long. Buy cheap yet valuable bodybuilding foods in bulk, including beans, eggs, oatmeal, tuna, and whole milk. If possible, head over to your local Dollar Tree or 99 Cents Only Store to pick up these items. Preparing large batches of food weekly does not require more than basic cooking skills, and will keep your kitchen sink or dishwasher predominantly devoid of grimy cookware.
Solution: Create an organized planner to stay on top
Many students experience fatigue when reviewing their academic, fitness, and work goals and performance. However, you can smoothly conquer this issue with something as simple as a visual planner. Whether digital or physical, keep a daily, weekly, and monthly tracker that outlines everything on your plate. Color code it, make task lists, and write extensive notes. Make sure to take time on weekends to update major schedule changes. When you structure and prioritize your time effectively, you move through your day with a coherent sense of purpose, ultimately fueling your motivation to kill it at the gym and beyond.
For those navigating a stressful environment…
Highly stressful, public-facing careers, including those in healthcare, law enforcement, and sales, can curb performance, exacerbate injury, and jeopardize gains. For bodybuilders and other strength athletes, acute mental and physical stress is a major concern, as it can cause the adrenal cortex to release elevated levels of cortisol. Although an essential hormone in small amounts, extra cortisol will prompt catabolism by breaking down lean muscle tissue and weakening vital testosterone production. Stress can also wreck the body’s ability to use fat as an energy source, resulting in increased fat storage and high serotonin levels when consuming carbohydrates. All this is to say that stress adversely impacts muscular function and growth, but can also be bad news for the endocrine, metabolic, and nervous systems.
Solution: Factor in some “you” time every week(end)
We all cope with stressful situations differently. Some of us crave pleasant distractions and indulgences, while others simply seek ways to keep busy outside of work. Making the time, even an hour or a short lunch break, to enjoy your favorite activities or start a new hobby may help you to overcome obstacles on the job, and in turn, find your groove when lifting for sport. The better and more consistently you observe self-care, the more resilient you will become at handling unforeseen circumstances and events that can knock you off your feet.
Here are some favorite pastimes among bodybuilders, though the full list is exhaustive:
- Eating a cheat meal: Albeit a bodybuilding fundamental, many athletes get overwhelmed with consuming clean, macronutrient-friendly grub each and every day. Treat yourself to a fast food alternative, cook your meat in butter or oil, use a condiment or spread, and have your favorite dessert every now and then to stay sane. Slight adjustments to your dietary intake will not cause you to go off the rails.
- Taking a cat-nap: Dozing off a few times per day can boost your energy levels, skyrocket productivity, and allay stressors. Consider having a short nap in your car during a lunch break or immediately after you get home from a frantic shift.
- Listening to tunes: If your employer permits you to wear headphones while on the clock, take advantage of that by streaming your favorite music. Build a lengthy playlist of songs that help you stay focused and alleviate your workday woes.
- Getting a massage: Bodybuilding can be extremely painful on your muscles, joints, and bones, notably the pelvis and spine. Visit a masseuse or chiropractor to stimulate circulation in your body, expediting recovery time and enhancing mobility. If you do not feel comfortable receiving a massage from a trained professional, consider purchasing a massaging chair or pillow to achieve similar results.
- Reading a book: Stop by your local library for a couple of bestsellers. If you dislike traditional or digital reading, try listening to an audiobook in the car or on the train.
- Growing a garden: Scientific studies have shown that becoming a plant parent can ease stress, lower anxiety, and put you in a better mood. Planting a spacious garden outside or even tending to a flower in the window can bring you much-needed peace.
- Practicing yoga: Meditation and yoga techniques are an age-old stressbuster. Stretching and flexing major muscle groups not only enhance your flexibility and range of motion but can also clear your thoughts and free your mind from negativity.
Final thoughts and reflections
Unless you work in the fitness industry or as a personal trainer, you will have to make occasional sacrifices, change daily habits and weekly routines, and learn how to find balance in bodybuilding as both a sport and lifestyle overhaul. Some of the greatest modern bodybuilders have held down stressful office jobs, toiled in hard labor, and pursued higher education while training for stage and show through trial-and-error learning. With a little practice and a lot of patience, you, too, can set yourself up for great success and unlock your potential as a bodybuilder, no matter your career path or level of experience.
Zac Gipson is a senior management consulting analyst at Accenture Federal Services in Washington, D.C. His primary research interests center on machine translation, natural language processing, and voice user interface. He is also an OCB natural bodybuilder who is teaching others how to build lean muscle on a plant-based diet.