Body Recomposition Made Simple: How to Lose fat and Build Muscle
September 1, 2022
Body Recomposition Made Simple: How to Lose fat and Build Muscle
Body Recomposition is the holy grail of fitness. Many people see a physique they’d like to achieve and realize doing so requires them to build muscle and lose fat–pushing them to pursue both goals at once. For this reason–chasing opposing physiological goals is highly controversial. Some people say it can’t be done. Others say it’s simple.
What’s the truth? Let’s dig in.
What Body Recomposition Is (and Isn’t)
Body recomposition is how you lose fat and build muscle throughout a training cycle. There are important distinctions to make with body recomposition.
First, during any period in time, your body is either in an anabolic state (building) or a catabolic state (breaking down).
Second, You can fluctuate between those states throughout the day, week, and month. For example, you may be intermittent fasting and catabolic (breaking down stored body fat for energy in the morning) and anabolic in the evening after a workout.
To lose fat, you must burn stored body fat (energy), while building muscle requires storing energy and increasing muscle protein.
These distinctions are minor but important.
Can Everyone Do a Body Recomposition Diet?
No, and therein lies the problem. Body recomposition is hard and slow. It takes a lot more time to chase two goals (building muscle and losing fat) than it takes to build muscle and lose fat when focused on individually.
You have to fight like hell to stay disciplined and fight the urges to stay the course. Most people don’t have the patience and discipline to do a successful recomposition while working incredibly hard.
It’s almost universally faster to get lean first, then build muscle.
So, who can do a recomposition?
Body recomposition is most likely when:
1. You’re a beginner in the gym or coming off a long layoff “Newbie gains’ ‘ skew many people’s perceptions of how fast they can make progress. While you can “recomp” when you get started, you’ll eventually want to specialize in one goal at a time.
2. Training correctly for the first time. Many lifters work hard but don’t train effectively. By improving your programming, exercise execution, and creating progressive overload, even an experienced lifter can lose fat and build muscle at the time.
3. Eating properly for the first time. If you’ve trained hard but never been strict with your diet, particularly with details like nutrient timing, you can lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
4. Recovering correctly for the first time. Optimizing body composition is a delicate balance between stimulating your body (training) and recovering from the stimulus. Many people don’t recover due to high-stress lifestyles\, and poor sleep.
If, for example, you go from five hours of sleep to eight hours per night, you’ll see an increase in anabolic hormone levels, discipline in the kitchen, and lose fat while building muscle.
5. Training, eating, and recovering synergistically for the first time. Put simply, if your training, nutrition, and recovery are all working together, they’re much more powerful. A big mistake many people make is training INSANE in the gym with activities that rely on glucose (carbs) as the primary fuel for activity but follow a KETO plan. Without the right type of fuel, cortisol skyrockets, and you end up shooting yourself in the foot.
Your nutrition must be in alignment with your training and vice versa.
6. Using PED’s. Performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids will help in a recomposition. Of course, there are a plethora of health risks to consider as well, and I’m not personally recommending PED’s; rather, highlighting the obvious: They work.
How Long Does Body Recomposition Take?
How long a body recomposition takes depends on your fitness status, genetics, and how well you execute a strategic recomposition plan.
Generally speaking, you will lose fat SLOWER during a recomposition phase than you would on a pure fat loss phase and gain LESS muscle than you would on a focused muscle-building plan.
When focused purely on maximizing fat loss, “fast” progress for fat loss could be 1-2 pounds of body fat per week.
This is where most lifters struggle with a recomposition plan–progress is much slower, and therefore, they change goals, programs, or throw in the towel before a recomposition can elicit noticeable effects
Most muscle-building models that analyze the maximum rate of muscle growth (covered here) indicate “fast” muscle growth being anywhere from 1-2 pounds/per month in beginners to .25-.5 pounds per month in more advanced lifters.
Lyle McDonald’s maximum Genetic Muscular Potential Model breaks it down
Related: How Much Muscle Can You Gain In A Month?
So what does science say on body recomposition?
IN 2011, Researchers at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences conducted a study on recomposition with 24 elite male and female athletes lifting weights four days per week and either slowly or quickly losing weight.
Those who lost weight slowly maintained a moderate 500-calorie deficit.
Those who aimed to lose weight quickly maintained an 800-calorie deficit.
On average, the slow weight loss group lost about 0.7% of their body weight per week, and the fast weight loss group lost about 1% of their body weight per week.
Here’s where the study gets exciting:
1. The slow weight loss group decreased their body fat by 8% and increased their overall muscle mass by 2%.
2. The fast weight loss group didn’t fare so well: they reduced their body fat by only 4% and actually lost muscle mass.
This study indicates that if you want to recomp your body, you’re better off with a smaller calorie deficit (500kCal vs 800kCal) both in terms of losing fat faster and actually building muscle.
Why? I’m hypothesizing here, but it’s well known that eating a calorie-restricted diet can increase cortisol which, in turn, can lead to decreases in thyroid output and optimal testosterone levels. My best guess is that keeping a moderate calorie deficit (500kCal) keeps a better hormonal environment to maintain optimal metabolic function.
In short, doing less gets you more.
Setting Up A Successful Recomposition (Lose Fat & Build Muscle)
Recomposition periods are still technically a diet that puts you at a calorie deficit. For that reason, I recommend keeping recomposition periods to 4-12 weeks, tops. It’s best to rotate through periods of eating at maintenance (recomposition can still take place), a calorie deficit for focused fat loss, and a caloric surplus for lean muscle growth.
Setting Up Your Recomposition Diet
Focus on losing about one pound per week. This will require a total weekly caloric deficit of about 3500 calories–which puts us in line with the Norwegian study above at a daily deficit of 500 calories.
A general starting point for finding your maintenance calories is bodyweight (lbs) x15. This takes some experimenting–if you’ve been undereating for years, this is going to seem like a lot of food just to maintain, so you’re going to have to test it out and adapt.
Calorie Cycling for Fat Loss and Muscle Gain
Cycle your calories throughout the week to prevent adaptive thermogenesis. Adaptive thermogenesis is the slowing of metabolic rate in response to a prolonged calorie deficit. Your body will naturally fight back when it doesn’t have fuel by reducing energy expenditure throughout the day.
To combat adaptive thermogenesis, diet hard (a 700-1000 calorie deficit) 4-5 days per week.
Two days per week, eat at maintenance or slightly above (200-300 calories), ideally on your hardest training days. This will give you both a mental break and upregulate leptin and thyroid, two crucial hormones for optimizing fat loss.
You can work out the math however you want.
You can go 5 days at an 800 calorie deficit (-4000 calories) and eat two days per week with a calorie surplus of 250 calories.
Adjust the numbers and see what works for you–just avoid a huge variance on your “high days” and work to attain a calorie deficit of 3500 calories per week.
Protein Intake for Recomposition Diets
1g of protein per 1lb of bodyweight is a common standard for gaining muscle and losing fat. The reason is, that protein is extremely satiating, will help you preserve lean muscle, and as many as 30% of your calories from protein are burned off during digestion. This trifecta makes protein a powerhouse for fat loss.
When it comes to recomposition, we recommend pushing protein even higher–to 1.25 g of protein per 1lb of bodyweight. This will help stave off hunger and prevent muscle loss.
Fat and Carb Intake For a Recomposition Diet
Once you have your protein intake dialed in, the remainder of your calories will be between carbs and fats–alcohol need not apply.
I prefer to keep fat around 20-25% of total calories. In most cases, your carb intake will then be 30-40%.
You can play with the percentages a bit based on personal preference, but I’ve found people to do much better with a higher % of carbs than fats during decomposition stages–primarily because they’ll be able to train harder and reduce the impact of cortisol post-workout.
The biggest battle for most people doing a recomposition diet is getting enough protein intake. Four evenly spaced out meals and if needed, an intra-workout drink works very well with a recomposition diet, namely because you’ll be consuming a ton of protein. It’s simply easier to consume multiple, moderate sizes of protein than trying to woof down 1 pound of meat twice per day.
Timing your carbohydrates around your workouts is also crucial. You’ll perform best in the gym with a pre-workout meal focused on carbs and protein in your belly. Something like a cup of oatmeal and a scoop of protein powder (30g carbs, 25g protein) is perfect.
An intra-workout drink with BCAAs and highly branched cyclic dextrin (another 30-40g carbs) will help your gym performance. After you work out, your muscles act like a sponge–soaking up nutrients and pushing them into your muscles.
You’ll want to focus around half your carbs for the day around your training. This can be as simple as 1.5 cups of rice cereal and protein powder, getting you 30g of protein and 60g of carbs.
About an hour later, have a solid meal focused on carbs, lean protein, and vegetables. One of my staples is 2 cups of rice, broccoli, and 2 cans of tuna (50g protein) or chicken breast.
When you choose recomposition as a goal, ALL the smaller details like meal timing matter a lot more.
Whatever the case, understand the key principle at hand:
We want protein spaced out throughout the day.
Drive carbs into your body before, during, and after training for optimal workout performance to buffer the cortisol response and achieve positive muscle protein synthesis for muscle growth.
Getting enough water is one of those basic things even the most advanced level athletes mess up. It can cost you dearly in terms of food cravings, energy levels, and performance.
As a baseline, men should consume about 150oz of water per day.
Women should aim for 100oz of water per day.
A 2003 study in the Journal of Endocrine Metabolism found that 500mL of Ice Cold Water increased metabolic rate by almost 30% over the course of 40 minutes.
Here’s the thing: Your body has to work HARDER to heat up cold water, increasing your metabolic rate.
The primary driver for body recomposition in the gym is focused strength training. Ideally, you’ll want to train each muscle group 2-3x per week. The more often you train a muscle, the more often you spike muscle protein synthesis (MPS). In most cases, natural lifters will see an increase in muscle protein synthesis last around 36 hours post-training.
If you can increase the number of MPS spikes throughout the week, your chances at increasing total MPS above muscle protein breakdown (MPB) are much, much better. Plus, the more you train particular movements in the gym, the faster you’ll improve neural efficiency, strength, and optimal performance. Over time, this allows you to build strength and muscle faster.
Recomposition Training Splits:
There are multiple ways to skin the cat and train 2-3x per week.
My favorite training splits are as follows:
– Push, pull, push, pull, vanity (hit all that isolation work, gym bro)
–Upper, Lower, Upper Lower, Upper (isolation)
–Total Body 3x, + 1 day focused on vanity muscles (biceps, medial delts, calves, etc)
Most people don’t realize that the more exercises and variation you have in a workout, the more stressful it is. This is okay to a point, but excess cortisol is a real problem–particularly in today’s stressed out society. As a general rule, the more stressful your life is, the simpler your training should be.
For that reason, I recommend you keep workouts to under 60 minutes, which has been shown to be beneficial in limiting excess cortisol production.
Limit your workouts to 5 core exercises–this isn’t the time to test out every biceps curl under the sun.
Use ramp loading–gradually increase the weight on warm up sets to acclimate your body. Do 3-4 HARD work sets, primarily working with 5-10 rep sets.
Here are my favorite set and rep schemes:
Cardio and Recomposition
Before adding any additional cardio, make sure you’re getting 10,000 steps per day for general health and stress relief. If you’re not, make that your only focus. I have my clients start each day with a 15-minute walk around sunrise and a 15-minute walk before bed. This helps optimize their circadian rhythm, sets the tone for the day, and aids in digestion.
If you’re looking to speed up the process and are already active, do 1-2 steady-state cardio workouts for 30 minutes.
Take your 220-age and multiply by .6-.7. Keep your heart rate here, then head home.
The goal with cardio isn’t to run yourself into the ground.It’s to get your heart rate up enough without overstressing your body.
9 Reasons Recomp Plans (Fat Loss + Muscle Growth) Fail
Even the most well-intentioned lifters come up short on occasion. Here are 9 common reasons recomposition plans fail.
1. Your calorie deficit is too aggressive. This increases cortisol which increases cravings, decreases thyroid output, & decreases sleep quality which impacts testosterone, insulin sensitivity, growth hormone release, & motivation. Yikes.
2. You stick with a daily deficit. It’s better to rotate calories to avoid adaptive thermogenesis. Adaptive thermogenesis is your body’s decrease in caloric expenditure in response to being improperly fueled.
3. Too few carbs. Without carbs, you’ll lower mTor, weakening the anabolic signal and preventing half of the goal–building muscle. In addition, a lack of carbs while training hard and in a calorie deficit can increase cortisol levels.
4. Not taking days off. Many people don’t realize the impact lifting has on the entire body–not just their muscles. Tendons, ligaments, and your immune and endocrine system all take a hit when you’re training. It’s best to take a few days off of heavy lifting each week.
5. Training muscles too infrequently. When you’re only training a muscle once per week, you’re limiting your ability to build muscle. Train 2-3x per week.
6. Too much interval training/high-intensity training. When’s the last time you saw a gym-goer who’s always doing HIIT and has a muscular body you want? The fact is, HIIT is incredibly stressful on your body. Increased total body stress increases your appetite and limits your ability to recover elsewhere.
7. No cardio at all. Skipping cardio isn’t ideal, either. Aim for 10,000 steps per day. If needed, add 1-2 days of low-intensity steady state.
8. No attention to meal timing. With recomposition, details like meal timing and taking advantage of increased post-workout insulin sensitivity are increasingly important.
9. Poor sleep. This is crazy: a 2010 study looked at two groups of people who followed the same style of diet for 2 weeks.
One group slept for 8.5 hrs and the other 5.5 hours.
They lost the same amount of weight, but the group that went 8.5 hrs lost ALL body weight.
The group that slept 5.5 hours lost 60% MORE muscle–over time, this is a huge (negative) difference in calorie expenditure and appearance.
Getting enough sleep can literally be the difference between you building muscle and losing fat and you losing muscle.
The Final Word on Body Recomposition
Yes, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. The process is longer, slower, and more detailed than exclusively building muscle or losing fat.
You’ll go through periods where you feel “small and soft” and everywhere in between. The battle during a recomposition is one between your ears–stay the course, push through, and you will be rewarded.
If you want a step-by-step plan to build fat, lose muscle, and avoid the biggest recomposition mistakes, head here for coaching: http://bachperformance.com/coaching
Boschmann M et al. Water-induced thermogenesis. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Dec;88(12):6015-9. PubMed.
Garthe, I., Raastad, T. et al: Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. International Journal of sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. (2011)
Nedeltcheva, A. V., Kilkus, J. M., Imperial, J., Schoeller, D. A., & Penev, P. D. (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153(7), 435-441.
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