Key Takeaways

  1. When you’re new to weightlifting, you can easily build muscle and lose fat at the same time by restricting your calorie intake and lifting weights.
  2. After your first year or so of weightlifting, muscle gain becomes much more difficult, and you’ll make better progress by focusing on either muscle gain or fat loss.
  3. Keep reading to learn how body recomposition works (regardless of your experience level), how to recomp effectively, and more!

Building a great body is straightforward: 

You need to lose fat, and you need to build muscle.

Poke around online for how to accomplish both of these goals, and here’s what you’ll learn: 

If you want to build muscle, you need to eat a lot of calories, lift heavy weights, and content yourself with gaining some body fat along the way.

If you want to lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories, lift heavy weights, and be okay with maintaining or even losing a little muscle. 

In other words, you need to focus on one goal at a time.

Then, there’s a third group of people who claim you can lose fat and build muscle simultaneously. Progress might be slower, they claim, but there’s no need to ever cut or bulk to get the body you want.

This is known as body recomposition, aka, the Holy Grail of getting fit.

Proponents of body recomposition also claim that it’s really just a game of patience and precision. Manage your daily calorie and macronutrient intake correctly (usually using some kind of calorie cycling), and after a few months of this you’ll be bigger, leaner, and stronger.

The best part? 

You can stay lean the entire time, and don’t have to make any drastic changes to your diet or exercise program. Just pull the right levers and push the right buttons for a few months, and you’ll be rewarded with the physique you’ve always wanted 

That’s the pitch anyway . . . 

But what does science say about body recomposition?

Can you really “recomp” the way people promise, gaining muscle and losing fat while staying at the same body weight? 

Is body recomposition only possible if you’re new to lifting weights, or is it something anyone can “turn on” with the right training and dieting techniques? 

You’ll learn the answers to all of these questions in this article. 

 

Would you rather watch a video? Click the play button below!

Want to watch more stuff like this? Check out my YouTube channel!

Is Body Recomposition Possible? What Science Says


body recomposition What Science Says


First, let’s quickly define what we mean by body recomposition

Body recomposition is the process of simultaneously decreasing the proportion of body weight that is body fat and increasing the proportion that is lean body mass. 

This can be accomplished in three ways: reducing fat mass and maintaining lean body mass (cutting, basically), minimizing fat gain and increasing lean body mass (lean bulking, basically), and reducing fat mass and increasing lean body mass at the same time.

Typically, when people use the term “body recomposition,” though, they’re referring to the last method—reducing fat mass and increasing lean body mass at the same time. 

That’s the method you’re going to learn about in this article, as it’s the most debated of the three. 

Some people say that body recomposition, aka “recomp,” is only possible during your first year or two of weightlifting, after which it becomes more or less impossible. 

Why? 

When you have little to no weightlifting experience, your muscles are hyper-responsive to the muscle-building effects of resistance training. In your first year of weightlifting alone you can expect to gain anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds of muscle as a guy and about half that as a woman, a phenomenon known as “newbie gains.”

Read: Here’s How Much Muscle You Can Really Gain Naturally (with a Calculator)

And in most cases, you can pull this off while gaining very little body fat or even losing fat—thus achieving “recomp.” 

After your newbie gains are exhausted, though (usually after the first 6 to 12 months of weightlifting), it becomes much harder to build muscle, much less while losing fat. 

And here’s where opinions diverge. 

Some people say that your ability to recomp disappears at this point entirely. From here on out, they say, you’ll need to focus on either gaining muscle or losing fat, but you can’t expect to achieve both at the same time. 

Others say that while recomp becomes more difficult, you can still pull it off with the right diet and training techniques. If you have the patience and discipline, it’s possible. 

Who’s right? 

Well, they’re both sort of right but mostly wrong. 

Let’s start with what’s correct about this line of thinking: many studies have found that people who are new to weightlifting can experience profound body recomposition.

The most impressive example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who divided 38 overweight, sedentary, middle-aged police officers into three groups: 

  1. A diet-only group that followed a weight loss diet that provided 80% of their total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) per day. In other words, they maintained a 20% calorie deficit per day.
  2. A diet/casein/strength training group that maintained a 20% calorie deficit, ate at least 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram per body weight per day, consumed at least 25% of their daily calories in the form of casein hydrolysate, and lifted weights four times per week. They followed a body-part split workout routine, training every major muscle group once per week.
  3. A diet/whey/strength training group that did everything the diet/casein/strength group did, but consumed at least 25% of their daily calories in the form of whey hydrolysate instead of casein hydrolysate.

The average age of the participants was 34 years old, none of them had any previous weightlifting experience, and they were all around 27% body fat on average.

After 12 weeks, the two groups that lifted weights lost 9 to 15 pounds of body fat and gained 4 to 9 pounds of muscle on average. In other words, after three months they only gained a few pounds of body weight, but they were much leaner and more muscular. They’d achieved near perfect recomp.

On a side note, the participants in the diet/casein/strength training group lost the most body fat and gained the most muscle. 

Specifically, they lost 15 pounds of fat and gained 9 pounds of muscle, whereas the diet/whey/strength training group lost 9 pounds of fat and gained about 4 pounds of muscle, and the diet-only group lost 5.5 pounds of fat and gained no muscle.

Read: The Ultimate Guide to the Best Protein Powders: Whey, Casein, Egg, Soy, and More… 

The researchers weren’t sure why this was the case, but it could simply be due to the small sample size in each group. Or, it could be that casein is slightly better for promoting muscle gain than whey. We’ll have to wait for scientists to sort this one out. 

Anyway, here’s a chart from the study showing the clear body recomposition effect experienced by the participants who maintained a calorie deficit, lifted weights, and ate sufficient protein:


body recomposition science


As you can see, the groups that maintained a calorie deficit, lifted weights, and ate sufficient protein lost a substantial amount of fat while gaining muscle.

These results are impressive, but not uncommon for beginners.

For example, here are a few guys and gals who’ve achieved similar results following my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men and my Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women: 



legion-success-shawn-s featured





Brian O featured





legion-success-landon-p featured





alison l featured (1)





legion-success-erica-v



 



Kelsey Y Featured (1)



What about people who’ve already exhausted their newbie gains, though? 

Well, despite what naysayers claim, they too can achieve body recomposition. 

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, the researchers divided 24 elite male and female athletes into two groups: 

  1. A slow weight loss group that ate about 500 calories less than their TDEE (a ~20% calorie deficit) until they reduced their body weight by 5.5%.
  2. A fast weight loss group that ate about 800 calories less than their TDEE (a ~30% calorie deficit) until they reduced their body weight by the same amount.

Both groups followed a four-day per week relatively low-volume (6 to 10 sets per workout) strength training program that trained each muscle group twice per week with a combination of compound and isolation exercises.

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 things get interesting. 

At the end of the study, the slow weight loss group decreased their body fat by 8% (relative) and increased their overall muscle mass by 2%. They achieved body recomposition, although not much.

The fast weight loss group didn’t fare so well: they reduced their body fat by 4% and lost a small amount of muscle mass.

You can see the differences between the groups in this chart: 


Weight-Loss-Rates


There are two important takeaways from this study: 

1. Despite following a sound diet and training plan, the highly trained athletes in the slow weight loss group were only able to increase their muscle mass by 2% after 10 weeks of training. 

For comparison, the sedentary police officers with no weightlifting experience in the study you learned about a moment ago were able to increase both muscle mass and reduce body fat by about 8% over the same timeframe. 

Thus, athletes closer to their genetic potential for muscle gain probably can’t achieve significant recomp (at least naturally).

2. The fast weight loss group didn’t gain any muscle and didn’t lose as much body fat as the slow weight loss group.

What’s more, if you look at the results by gender, the men in the fast weight loss group lost about four pounds of muscle on average, whereas the women gained a small amount of muscle (probably because they had less resistance training experience).

One problem with this study was that we don’t know exactly how much resistance training experience the athletes had, how much protein they were eating, or how much exercise they were doing outside the gym. That said, it seems unlikely any of these changes would explain just how slowly they gained muscle mass compared to the sedentary police officers. 

The most likely explanation for their relatively lacklustre body composition results? 

They had exhausted their newbie gains, and simply couldn’t gain muscle as fast as they used to.

All in all, what this means is that body recomposition and muscle growth in general becomes much more difficult the closer you get to your genetic potential. 

Listen: Menno Henselman on how genetics influence muscle building

If you look at other studies conducted by scientists at University of Jyväskylä, St. Francis Xavier University, and the National Research Institute of Poland, you find the same result. Well-trained athletes can indeed gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously, but only in very small amounts. 

Their progress is measured in inches and ounces, not yards and pounds.

The best example of this is highly trained bodybuilders, who devote more or less all of their training time (and a good chunk of their lives) to getting as big, strong, and lean as possible. Despite this, muscle gain grinds to a halt after just a few years, and stays vanishingly slow for the rest of their careers.

As Dr. Eric Helms, a member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, puts it,  “ . . . highly trained bodybuilders who achieve a great deal of muscularity may not make measurable improvements in muscle mass even over the course of a six month period.”

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern, scientists found that advanced male and female bodybuilders were only able to squeeze out a small, insignificant, almost immeasurable increase in biceps size after 24 weeks of training (that’s six freaking months!). And this was with a lot of intense training while they were bulking.

Based on my conversations with Dr. Helms and other bodybuilding coaches, it’s clear that after your first two to three years of weightlifting, you’ll be lucky to gain more than a pound or two of muscle mass per year until you reach your genetic potential. 

After you reach this point, you’re stuck with what you’ve got.

For example, the athletes in the study I mentioned a moment ago had 4 years of training experience and primarily played endurance-based sports, so they likely had a greater potential for “newbie gains.” 

Even so, they still only increased their muscle mass by about 2% after 10 weeks.

Now, I’ve been lifting weights for close to 16 years, and have been following well-designed training programs and diet plans for about half that time. 

What do you think my chances are of gaining muscle while losing fat? Slim to nil.

“Hypertrophy [muscle growth] may occur during weight loss,” writes Dr. Helms, “however, the overall magnitude is limited with greater gains seen in novices, the untrained, and those who are overweight/obese.”

In other words, once you’re flirting with your genetic ceiling for muscle growth, any kind of body recomposition you might experience is going to be so small that you’d never be able to notice it. 

Why is this the case? 

To understand the answer to that question, you first have to understand a bit about muscle growth and fat loss.

Summary: You can achieve impressive body recomposition when you’re new to weightlifting, but your ability to “recomp” grows smaller and smaller as you approach your genetic potential for muscle gain. 















The Simple Science of Body Recomposition

Why is it so much harder to recomp as you become more advanced, and what can you do to improve your odds?

Well, how to best build muscle and lose fat at the same time, you first have to understand how both of these processes work. 

Let’s start with muscle growth.

The Beginner’s Guide to Muscle Growth

Muscle growth is the result of the creation of new muscle proteins being added to muscle cells, which makes them bigger and stronger. 

This is known as muscle protein synthesis, and it’s triggered by strength training and consuming protein and calories. 

Muscle protein synthesis is decreased by inactivity, inadequate protein and calories, and lack of sleep. More specifically, these factors increase what’s known as muscle protein breakdown, which is the other side of the coin from muscle protein synthesis. 

Read: The Definitive (And Practical) Guide to Muscle Protein Synthesis

The relationship between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown is known as muscle protein balance, which works similarly to energy balance:

  • When muscle protein synthesis and breakdown rates are more or less equal, you don’t gain or lose any muscle mass. 

This is known as neutral muscle protein balance

  • When muscle protein synthesis rates exceed muscle protein breakdown rates, you gain muscle mass.

This is known as positive muscle protein balance

  • And when muscle protein synthesis rates are lower than muscle protein breakdown rates, you lose muscle mass. 

This is known as negative muscle protein balance

When your goal is to gain muscle, you want to spend as much time as possible in positive muscle protein balance.

There are a few levers you can pull to bump up protein synthesis, but the most powerful one is resistance training. More specifically, progressive tension overload, which refers to forcing your muscle fibers to produce more and more tension over time.

Showing up to the gym and lifting the same weights day after day isn’t enough, either, because your muscles become resistant to the effects of strength training over time. That is, bench pressing 135 for 5 reps might rev up muscle protein synthesis significantly the first few times you do it, but the effects diminish over time. Thus, you have to continue to expose your muscles to greater and greater amounts of tension over time. 

Read: Is Getting Stronger Really the Best Way to Gain Muscle? 

You can increase tension levels in your muscles in a few ways, but the two most effective ways are lifting heavier weights (increasing the intensity) and doing more sets (increasing the volume).

You also need to do enough sets each week and lift sufficiently heavy weights in each set order to “trigger” a significant increase in muscle protein synthesis. More on this in a moment.

There’s one more important thing you need to know about muscle building: it’s a very, very slow process. 

We don’t need to get into the nitty gritty of why this is (it involves a lot of tongue-twisters like mammalian target of rapamycin, prostaglandins, and 3-phosphoinositide dependent protein kinase-1), but the long story short is this: 

Lifting weights and eating food triggers a long series of molecular and hormonal changes in the body that, slowly but surely, leads to small, incremental increases in muscle mass over time. 

The only time when this isn’t true is during your first year or so of weightlifting, where muscle building is fast and easy. 

After this “honeymoon” phase is over, though, building muscle is like constructing a house out of LEGOs. Show up and add a little bit week after week and month after month, and you’ll see progress eventually, but it’s a long row to hoe. 

Read: Here’s How Much Muscle You Can Really Gain Naturally (with a Calculator)

This matters, because many people expect to build muscle and lose fat at the same rate, or at least to gain some visible muscle and lose some fat, but this rarely happens. For example, someone might expect to gain 5 to 10 pounds of muscle and lose about the same amount of fat over the same time period when recomping.

The only time this happens is in your first 6 to 12 months of weightlifting, after which, it becomes a mirage. 

After your first year or so of proper weightlifting, you’ll always be able to lose fat much faster than you can gain muscle, which significantly changes the recomposition results you can expect (you’ll always lose fat a lot faster than you can gain muscle).

Summary: Muscle growth occurs when protein synthesis is higher than protein breakdown over a period of time, and after your first year or so of weightlifting, it’s a slow, gradual process.

The Beginner’s Guide to Fat Loss


The Beginner’s Guide to Fat Loss


To lose fat, you must expend more energy than you consume. 

Yes, it comes down to calories in versus calories out

It doesn’t matter how many “unclean” foods you eat or when you eat them or anything else. Your metabolism runs on the first law of thermodynamics, which means fat (energy) stores can’t be increased without you providing a surplus of energy and can’t be decreased without you restricting energy intake, creating a calorie deficit.

Scientists suspected this for centuries (even the ancient Greeks prized physical exercise and moderate food consumption to achieve an aesthetic physique), and it’s been confirmed by the past 100 years of controlled weight loss studies.

This is why research shows that reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize. 

This is still true if your goal is body recomposition: you can only lose fat in a calorie deficit.

When talking pure weight loss, a calorie is a calorie. Your body only burns so much energy and if you feed it less than it needs, it has no choice but to continue tapping into fat stores to stay alive.

Read: The Complete Guide to Safely and Healthily Losing Weight Fast

Of course, you aren’t reading this just to lose weight. You want to lose fat and build muscle—to recomp.  

And when that’s the goal, you have to be smart about how much you restrict your calories (fewer isn’t better) and where those calories come from. Specifically, you need to ensure you eat enough protein so that your body has the raw materials needed to build muscle mass. 

Research shows that when restricting calories, a high-protein diet is more effective at reducing body fat, preserving muscle, and increasing satiety

How much protein should you eat? 

We can look to a review conducted by scientists at Auckland University of Technology (including Dr. Helms) for an answer. Here’s what they concluded: 

“Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM [1 – 1.4 grams per pound of fat free mass] scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.”

For most people, that works out to around 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

So, let’s take a moment to review what we’ve covered so far: 

  1. To build muscle, you need to follow a strength training program that includes sufficient intensity and volume and you need to eat enough calories and protein to maintain a positive muscle protein balance.
  2. To lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn and sufficient protein to support muscle growth.

If you’ve been reading carefully, though, you’ve probably noticed that this creates a problem when it comes to body recomposition: 

If you need to maintain a positive muscle protein balance to build muscle . . . and you need to maintain a calorie deficit to lose fat . . . and a calorie deficit reduces muscle protein balance . . . how in the heck are you supposed to build muscle and lose fat at the same time? 

Well, people who claim that anyone can recomp without a hitch have a neat explanation for this problem. 

They rightfully point out that while your body needs sufficient energy to build muscle, that energy doesn’t necessarily have to come from food. In fact, you probably have far more calories than you need to fuel muscle building in the form of stored body fat.

For example, I’m about 10% body fat and weigh 195 pounds. Men can only get down to around 3 to 4% body fat before they die, so realistically we can say I have 6% of body fat that’s available to be used for energy, or in my case around 12 pounds of body fat.

Read: How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage Easily & Accurately (With a Calculator)

As one pound of body fat contains around 3,500 calories of energy, this means I have about 40,000 calories of body fat that my body can use to build muscle. 

Quick maths!

So, on paper, as long as I eat enough protein, lift weights, and am still above around 3 to 4% body fat, my body should have no trouble building muscle and losing fat at the same time, right? 

Wrong. 

You see, this neat little explanation overlooks the way your body adapts to calorie restriction. 

We don’t need to get into the specifics, but the long story short is that when you restrict calories, your body deprioritizes other energy intensive processes like muscle growth. Although you may still have plenty of stored energy in the form of body fat, your body sees calorie restriction as a form of starvation (and it is, technically). 

Thus, hormone levels dip, protein breakdown rises, protein synthesis decreases, and it becomes difficult just to hold onto your muscle mass, much less gain any. 

Read: “Metabolic Damage” and “Starvation Mode,” Debunked by Science

This is why even elite bodybuilders who are doing everything “right” often still lose muscle mass when they get ready for competitions (and it’s often the most experienced who lose the most muscle). 

What’s more, the larger your calorie deficit (and thus the faster you can lose fat), the more your protein balance decreases. 

As you’ll recall from the weight loss study we covered earlier in this article, the athletes who lost 1% of their body weight per week lost muscle, whereas the athletes who lost 0.7% of their body weight per week were able to gain a small amount. 

The bottom line is that, while body recomposition is possible, it’s a lot more tricky than it looks on paper. 

So, circling back to the question I posed a moment ago . . . how are you supposed to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?

The correct answer is verrrrrry slowwwwwwly.

As I alluded to in the previous section, another problem with the idea of body recomposition as most people understand it—the idea that you can gain muscle and lose fat without changing your body weight (or changing it very little)—is that you can lose fat much faster than you can build muscle. 

While both men and women can lose 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week without losing muscle, men can only gain around 0.5 pounds of muscle per week in their first year of lifting (and that’s assuming they’re in a calorie surplus), and about half of this every subsequent year (0.25 pounds in year two, 0.125 pounds in year three, and so on). Women can cut those numbers in half. And once you reach your genetic potential for muscle growth, muscle growth ceases.

If you’re restricting calories, you can expect to gain significantly less muscle than this. 

Based on my experience with my own body and working with thousands of men and women through my books, blog, and podcast, I’d say most people in a calorie deficit can gain muscle at about a quarter the rate they would while in a calorie surplus.

That is, if you could normally gain a pound of muscle per month in a calorie surplus (roughly the rate a man could expect in his second year of lifting), he could expect to gain about a quarter pound per month while in a calorie deficit. 

And this is assuming he does everything right with his diet, training, and sleep habits.

Thus, even when you’re brand new to weightlifting, you’re probably going to lose fat about two to four times faster than you’ll build muscle. While this is technically body recomposition, the results aren’t what many people expect. 

For example, let’s say you’ve been following a sound weightlifting program for two years. At this point, you can expect to gain around 0.5 pounds of muscle per month under ideal circumstances and about 0.125 pounds (that’s 2 ounces) when cutting. Of course, you can still lose about 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week when cutting. 

Thus, after three months of maintaining a calorie deficit and lifting weights, you’ll have gained a little less than a half-pound of muscle and lost 12 to 24 pounds of fat.

Not exactly the “replace all of your fat with muscle” effect that many people expect.

What’s more, you can lose fat this fast for the rest of your weightlifting career, whereas muscle gain will become more or less nonexistent after several years of proper training and dieting. That is, after 5 years of consistent training you can still lose 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week when cutting, but you’ll be hard pressed to gain that much muscle all year while lean bulking. 

Eventually, you’ll reach a point in your weightlifting journey where you can still increase or decrease your body fat levels quickly, but your muscle mass will remain more or less unchanged. 

Read: In Which I Give a “Physique Update”

So, while body recomposition is possible, you need to temper your expectations. Your chances of, say, gaining 10 pounds of muscle and losing 10 pounds of fat after three months of eating and training properly are low. 

After your first year of weightlifting, the best you can hope for is basically “gain a few ounces of muscle while getting lean.”

That said, just because you can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same rate, doesn’t mean body recomposition isn’t worth pursuing. If you want to stay about the same body fat percentage or you’re okay cutting for longer than you would otherwise if it means you can make small strength and muscle gains, body recomposition is a worthwhile goal. 

You just have to know what you’re doing. 

In the next section, we’ll put all of this into a plan for achieving successful body recomposition.

Summary: Restricting your calorie intake decreases the rate at which you can build muscle, which means you’ll gain muscle significantly slower when trying to “recomp” than you would when lean bulking. 

The Beginner’s Guide to Gaining Muscle and Losing Fat at the Same Time

 


body recomposition transformation


Let’s quickly review everything we’ve covered so far: 

To build muscle, your need to keep muscle protein synthesis rates consistently above muscle protein breakdown rates, and the best way to do this is to lift weights, eat sufficient calories and protein, and get enough sleep. 

To lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn over time, which forces your body to break down its own fat stores for energy. If you eat sufficient protein, you can lose fat while maintaining or increasing your muscle mass.

Although these goals seem like they should be compatible on paper, they really aren’t. 

Muscle building is a very energy-intensive process, and your body requires a lot of calories to build muscle as quickly as possible. Thus, calorie restriction is an obstacle to building muscle.

That said, it’s not an insurmountable one.

If you know what you’re doing with your diet and training, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, at least until you reach your genetic potential for muscle growth. 

Here’s how: 

  • Do lots of heavy weightlifting
  • Maintain a small calorie deficit
  • Eat sufficient protein
  • Get enough sleep

Let’s go over each one in turn.

Do lots of heavy weightlifting.

Whether your goal is to lose fat or build muscle, what you do in the gym shouldn’t really change. 

That is, the best way to stimulate muscle growth, regardless of what you do with your diet, is still to lift heavy weights for multiple sets per muscle group per week. Whether you’re in a calorie surplus or deficit or eating at maintenance simply changes how well your body responds to your training.

Thus, when your goal is to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, you need to lift weights with the appropriate intensity and volume for maximizing muscle growth. 

Scientists are still debating the “optimal” intensity and volume for maximizing muscle growth, but it seems to be around 60+% of your one-rep max (1RM) and 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week. 

If you’re looking for an effective strength training program that matches these guidelines, check out this article: 

Read: The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength

Maintain a small calorie deficit.

When your goal is to lose fat as fast as possible while maintaining your muscle mass, setting up your diet is straightforward: 

Maintain an aggressive calorie deficit and eat enough protein, and continue until you have the body you want. 

Read: A Simple and Accurate Weight Loss Calculator (and How to Use It) 

When your goal is to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, though, you have to tread more carefully.

As you learned a moment ago, calorie restriction hinders muscle growth, and the more you restrict calories, the worse the effects become. After a certain point, restricting calories too much can cause muscle loss even if you’re doing everything else right (eating enough protein, lifting weights, etc.). That said, you still need to restrict calories to some degree if you want to lose fat.

Thus, you have to thread the needle between restricting calories enough to cause fat loss, and not restricting your calories so much that you shut down muscle growth.

The sweet spot here is probably something like a 10 to 15% calorie deficit per day.

This range is based on several studies that have looked at the relationship between calorie restriction, fat loss, and muscle growth, which have found that if you restrict your calories much more than this, it’s very difficult to build an appreciable amount of muscle, much less maintain it.

The leaner you are, the smaller your calorie deficit should be. This is because your risk of muscle loss increases (and chances of building muscle decreases), as your body fat levels drop. 

Read: How Fast Can You Lose Fat without Losing Muscle? (According to Science)

If you’re at or below 10% body fat as a man or 20% as a woman, aim for the lower end of this range (a 10% calorie deficit). If you’re above 10/20% body fat, aim for the upper end of this range (a 15% calorie deficit).

Check out this calculator and article to set your calories: 

This Is the Best Macronutrient Calculator on the Net (Updated 2020)

Eat sufficient protein.

Whether you’re cutting, maintaining, or lean bulking, eating sufficient protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass. 

As you learned earlier in this article, your protein needs increase when you’re restricting your calories for fat loss. 

Specifically, when you’re in a calorie deficit you want to eat around 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is true whether you’re solely focused on fat loss or chasing body recomposition.

You can use the same calculator I shared a moment ago to figure out your protein intake: 

This Is the Best Macronutrient Calculator on the Net (Updated 2020)

Get enough sleep.

Sleep is often the last thing people think about when it comes to improving their body composition, but that’s a mistake. 

Aside from sapping your energy to train and hampering your workout recovery, sleep deprivation also directly inhibits muscle growth and decreases fat loss.

The best example of this comes to us from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago, which split ten overweight adults into two groups: 

  1. An insufficient sleep group, which slept 5.5 hours per night on average (about how long 40% of Americans sleep per night).
  2. A sufficient sleep group, which slept 8.5 hours per night on average (about how long research shows is optimal for most people).

Both groups were also put on calorie-restricted diets during the two week study. The researchers measured everyone’s weight, lean mass, body fat percentage, hunger, and level of fat oxidation before and after the study. 

They found that the insufficient sleep group lost 55% less fat and 60% more lean mass than the sufficient sleep group. In other words, they experienced near perfect body recomposition . . . but in reverse, gaining fat and losing muscle in equal proportions. 

Specifically, the group that slept 5.5 hours per night lost a little over one pound of fat and over five pounds of lean mass, whereas the group that slept 8.5 hours per night lost three pounds of fat and three pounds of lean mass. 

All in all, if you want to achieve successful body recomposition, make sure you get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. 

A Better Alternative to Body Recomposition

 


counting calories


At this point you’re probably thinking, where are all the fancy strategies I’ve heard about? 

What about calorie cycling and special training programs? 

Are you saying I should just restrict calories, lift weights, and let my body take care of the rest? 

Well, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. 

First of all, calorie cycling is overrated. 

You can read this article to understand why, but the gist is that it may help you stick to your diet more easily and slightly minimize fat gain while bulking, but it won’t help you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.

Second, here’s the real lesson from this entire article: 

  • If you follow a calorie-restricted diet with sufficient protein and lift weights, you can absolutely build muscle and lose fat at the same time. 
  • Aside from avoiding mistakes that can stunt your ability to recomp (losing weight too fast, not eating enough protein, not training hard enough or with enough volume), there are no diet hacks, training protocols, or special supplements that will improve your ability to recomp.
  • Although you can build muscle while losing fat, you’ll almost certainly build less muscle than you would if you spent that time lean bulking.
  • You’ll pretty much always be able to lose fat at a much faster rate than you can build muscle, and this effect becomes more pronounced as you near your genetic potential for muscle gain. 

And finally, here’s my biggest beef with most of the body recomposition protocols you’ll find online (including the one I shared a moment ago): 

They aren’t superior to the traditional approach of cutting and lean bulking I’ve described elsewhere, and in some cases are just plain inferior.

That is, alternating between periods where you gain muscle and body fat (lean bulking) and periods where you maintain (or gain a little) muscle and lose body fat (cutting), tends to produce better results in the long run than trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, all the time.

Here’s an example to illustrate my point: 

Let’s say John has been weightlifting and dieting properly for a year, so he’s a solid intermediate weightlifter. 

Under ideal circumstances he could probably hope to gain around 1 pound of muscle per month while lean bulking. Of course, he’s cutting, which means his rate of progress will be significantly slower. 

Remember that in a calorie deficit you can expect to gain muscle at about a quarter the rate you would while in a calorie surplus, which would mean John can gain around 0.25 pounds of muscle per month. 

Let’s also say he starts out at 180 pounds and 15% body fat, which means he has 153 pounds of lean body mass and 27 pounds of fat mass.

Since he’s above 10% body fat, he’ll maintain a fairly small calorie deficit (15%), so he’ll only be losing around 0.5 pounds of fat per week, or about 2 pounds per month.

If he were to recomp, here’s what his progress would look like over six months: 



body recomposition example




Of course, this is assuming John sticks to the plan perfectly and his body responds the same way throughout the entire process. After six months, John would be 170.5 pounds and 9% body fat, with 155.5 pounds of lean body mass. 

In reality, maintaining a 10% calorie deficit is difficult. There’s no room for error, and it’s easy to under or overestimate how much you’re eating, which can prevent you from losing fat or gaining muscle as consistently as you’d like.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s say the plan pans out as detailed above. 

How would his results compare if he were to spend three months cutting followed by three months lean bulking? 

Let’s say that if John were to maintain a 10% calorie surplus, he could gain about 1 pound of muscle per month along with 1 pound of fat (a reasonable goal for a guy in his second year of weightlifting). 

Then, when he switches to cutting, let’s say he’s able to lose 1 pounds of fat per week (4 pounds per month) while maintaining (but not gaining) muscle. 

Here’s what his progress would look like: 

cut and lean bulk example

Now, like the previous example, this is an oversimplification. In reality, John would lose slightly less fat every week as he got leaner, and he may not gain muscle quite this fast throughout the entire lean bulk, but overall it’s more accurate than not.In the end, he winds up at 174 pounds and 10% body fat with 156 pounds of lean body mass.

The bottom line is that, over the long-term, most people will make faster progress if they alternate between dedicated cycles of cutting and lean bulking than if they try to lose fat and build muscle at the same time.

While many people say that recomping allows you to stay leaner than you would cutting or lean bulking, this isn’t necessarily true, either. 

In fact, if you cut down to a low body fat percentage and then carefully lean bulk afterward, you’ll actually be leaner on average than you would with recomping. 

Read: Why Rapid Weight Loss Is Superior to “Slow Cutting” (And How to Do It Right)

Case in point, using the examples above, John’s average six-month body fat percentage while recomping was 11.5%. His average six-month body fat percentage while cutting and bulking? 10.3%.

Now, you could argue that these differences are too miniscule to matter (and they are pretty small). By recomping John winds up about 1% fatter and with about 1 less pound of muscle than if he were to cut and lean bulk. 

That said, these small differences add up over time, especially when you consider that the biggest benefit of cutting and lean bulking is the simplicity and sustainability of it. You can focus your efforts on a single goal, and don’t need to be quite as careful about eating just enough to allow for muscle growth but not too much to sabotage your fat loss.

This isn’t to say that body recomposition is a bad idea for everyone.

During your first six to twelve months of weightlifting, you’ll experience significant body recomposition by just following a calorie-restricted diet and lifting weights. 

Thus, trying to recomp when you’re new to proper weightlifting and dieting is not only possible, it’s inevitable. Just eat fewer calories and lift weights, and you’ll build muscle and lose fat like clockwork. (Of course, if you’re skinny and trying to gain muscle, then you should just focus on maintaining a calorie surplus and getting stronger). 

Read: The “Hardgainer’s” Guide to Guaranteed Muscle Growth

After your first year or so of weightlifting, you have to more carefully micromanage your calorie intake to successfully recomp, and even then, your rate of muscle gain will slow down substantially. 

And at this point, you’re better off switching to cutting and lean bulking.

Most of the people I’ve worked with who’ve tried to recomp after their first year of weightlifting ended up frittering away months of time and energy only to be disappointed with what they saw in the mirror. 

Eventually, they wound up switching back to the tried-and-true method of cutting and lean bulking.

Summary: If you’re brand new to weightlifting and you want to build muscle and lose fat, maintain a calorie deficit and lift weights. If you’ve been lifting weights for more than a year and you want to achieve the same thing, you’ll make better progress by alternating between phases of cutting and lean bulking.

The Bottom Line on Body Recomposition

Everyone can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but how much muscle you can gain while losing fat depends on a few factors.

The more years of proper weightlifting experience you have, the less muscle you’ll be able to gain at all (much less while in a calorie deficit). After your first year of weightlifting, your ability to recomp successfully largely disappears. 

Restricting your calorie intake decreases the rate at which you can build muscle, which means you’ll gain muscle significantly slower when trying to “recomp” than you would when lean bulking. 

To recomp effectively, then, you want to follow these four steps: 

  • Do lots of heavy weightlifting
  • Maintain a small calorie deficit
  • Eat sufficient protein
  • Get enough sleep

Even if you do all of those things, though, you’ll still probably make slower progress than if you were to stick with the tried-and-true method of cutting and lean bulking. You’ll build muscle faster and lose fat faster than you would trying to recomp, and you’ll still stay lean throughout the entire process.

If you want to learn how to cut and lean bulk properly, check out these articles: 

The Complete Guide to Safely and Healthily Losing Weight Fast

⇨ Why Rapid Weight Loss Is Superior to “Slow Cutting” (And How to Do It Right)

This Is the Best Macronutrient Calculator on the Net (Updated 2020)

⇨ The Ultimate Guide to Bulking Up (Without Just Getting Fat)

⇨ How to Successfully Clean Bulk In 6 Simple Steps

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What do you think of body recomposition? Have anything else to add? Lemme know in the comments below!

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