Body recomposition does happen, in the sense that it is possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.
However, while you can do both at the same time, it’s extremely rare to do both at the same rate. With very few exceptions, you won’t build muscle at anything like the same speed at which you lose fat.
That is, you can still build some muscle while you lose fat. Just not as quickly as you would have done on a muscle-building diet that puts you in a calorie surplus.
There are numerous calorie cycling methods that claim to hold the key to body recomposition. But even then you’re not going to replace every pound of fat lost with one pound of muscle.
The best that most people can hope for is to generate a small muscle gain while losing a much larger amount of fat.
Body Recomposition and Beginners
As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptions, the most notable of which are beginners.
Take a group of people who have never lifted weights before and put them on a diet and training program that’s geared towards fat loss. They’ll have a much easier time with body recomposition than someone who’s moved beyond the beginner stages of training.
The men were assigned to one of three groups. Group one spent three days a week running (25-40 minutes at 65-85% of their age-derived maximum heart rate), while a second group trained with weights. A combined group performed both routines on the same day of the week, always doing the weight training first.
The resistance-training program involved a combination of free weights and fixed resistance machines, and was divided into upper-body exercises (performed on Monday), lower-body exercises (performed on Wednesday), and both upper- and lower-body exercises (performed on Friday).
During the first two weeks of the program, subjects performed 10-15 repetitions per set, with three sets per exercise. During the final eight weeks, the resistance was set so that failure to lift the weight occurred at 10-12 repetitions on the first set, 8-10 repetitions on the second set, and 4-8 repetitions on the third set.
The runners lost a little over 4 pounds of fat, but they also lost a small amount of muscle. The men who lifted weights gained around 5 pounds of muscle while losing almost 2 pounds of fat.
But it was the combined group who saw the best results.
Despite the fact that they started out with an average body fat of just 12%, the men gained 7 pounds of muscle while losing almost 6 pounds of fat.
However, even though these individuals weren’t overweight, they were beginners in terms of strength training. It’s in the first few months of lifting weights that most people make their fastest gains, and the results aren’t going to apply to someone who’s been training properly for some time.
Can I Gain Muscle on a Calorie Deficit?
While a calorie deficit is a requirement for fat loss, a calorie surplus isn’t necessary in order to gain muscle. That’s because body fat is a reservoir of chemical energy, which your body can use to fuel muscle growth.
That is, if you’re overweight, stored fat can be used to supply the energy required to make your muscles bigger.
In one study, researchers rounded up a group of overweight and unfit men, and got them to lift weights three times a week . On top of that, the men also did 30 minutes of cycling or walking in the same workout.
Because the men were in a calorie deficit, they ended up losing, on average, a little over 16 pounds of fat.
But that’s not all. As well as losing fat, the men gained almost 10 pounds of lean mass – a reasonable proxy for muscle mass – at the same time.
In other words, they gained a decent amount of muscle while also losing slightly more than one pound of fat per week.
Even with a highly restrictive liquid diet containing less than 1000 calories a day, weight training still led to an increase in muscle size in a group of obese women .
However, your body becomes less willing to pull energy from fat stores the leaner you get.
As you climb the ladder of leanness, eventually you’ll reach the point where the best you can hope for is to maintain muscle mass while you drop fat.
A natural bodybuilder, for example, who is closing in on the upper limits of his natural muscular potential will do very well just to hold on to the muscle he currently has when moving to a single digit body fat percentage in preparation for a contest.
So, while you can gain muscle in a calorie deficit, it’s a phenomenon that’s generally limited to people who have a lot of fat to lose, and are relative newbies to lifting weights.
Body Recomposition and Muscle Memory
Anyone who’s been in shape before will find it easier to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously when returning after a layoff.
When returning to pre-season training after the off-season break, a group of elite rugby union players lost 3 pounds (1.4kg) of fat, while simultaneously gaining 4.4 pounds (2kg) of muscle .
When a muscle is trained, detrained and retrained, there is a faster change in muscle size during retraining compared to the initial training period from an untrained state . This is a phenomenon that some refer to as muscle memory.
Of course, muscle tissue itself can’t actually “remember” anything. Rather, the number of nuclei (which play a crucial role in building new muscle) in muscle cells increases when you lift weights, even before the muscle cell itself starts to grow.
But those nuclei aren’t lost when you stop training and your muscles shrink. Instead, the extra nuclei form a type of muscle memory that allows the muscle to bounce back quickly when you start training again.
Body Recomposition and Calorie Cycling
Calorie cycling is often hailed as “the key” to body recomposition. The idea is that you eat more calories and carbs on the days you train than on the days you don’t.
Let’s say you decide to follow one of the popular carb cycling protocols that involve rotating high, medium and low carb days over the course of the week.
You spend a few days planning what you’re going to eat on your low, medium and high carb days. You decide in advance exactly what each workout will look like, making sure to match your training precisely with your diet.
Then, after filling the supplement cupboard in your kitchen with an expensive array of various pills, powders and potions, you’re all set.
Sounds good, right?
But what really happens?
I mean, really?
For a lot of people, it usually goes something like this:
You do everything perfectly for 10 days and then quit after you go out to dinner on a low carb day, eat a bunch of food that you weren’t supposed to, and now your whole schedule is out of whack.
Or you give up because you read an article saying that some of the high carb foods you’re eating are making you fat.
Or the extra calories you take in on your high carb days cancel out the calorie deficit created on your low carb days, and no fat is lost.
Or you never get started in the first place because the whole thing looks more complicated than the blueprint for a nuclear power station.
Carb cycling does have a number of benefits – glycogen levels are topped up, which usually leads to better performance in the gym. You have more energy, your strength levels are up, and you just feel a whole lot better.
You also get a mental “break” from the grind of dieting, and eating some of the foods that might otherwise have been off the menu can make it easier to stick to your diet. Plus, carb cycling may help to limit some of the adverse metabolic and hormonal effects that come with linear dieting.
However, I don’t believe that calorie cycling is going to make a radical difference to the amount of muscle you gain while losing fat.
What Foods Help Body Recomposition?
If you want to lose fat and gain muscle, you’ll need to eat enough protein. Other than resistance training, supplying your muscles with the protein they need to recover and grow is probably the single most important thing you can do to gain muscle while losing fat.
In one study, Canadian scientists rounded up a group of young men and put them on a diet providing just 60% of their maintenance calorie requirements . The men also trained hard for six days out every seven, lifting weights and doing interval training, alongside various other forms of intense exercise.
Half the men ate a protein-rich diet, which provided roughly one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. The rest of the group received just half that amount.
After four weeks, both groups got leaner. But it was the high-protein group who saw the best results, shedding 11 pounds of fat, compared to 8 pounds in the low-protein group.
What’s more, men in the high-protein group ended up gaining muscle, finishing the study with almost 3 pounds of additional lean body mass (a reasonable proxy for muscle mass). While the low protein group didn’t lose lean tissue, they didn’t gain any either.
Body Recomposition and Drugs
Take a look at the cover of most fitness magazines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that body recomposition is the easiest thing in the world.
You’ll see headlines about how to get a summer body in 7 days… lose fat without breaking sweat… 923 ways to make your life better now… get a 6-pack in 24 hours… torch flab in 20 minutes.
I’m not kidding. Those are genuine headlines from the covers of various magazines that I’ve seen in the last few days.
Everything is always “instant ways” to get this and “easy ways” to do that.
Well, here’s a quick dose of reality:
Getting in shape is not easy. Getting in shape is not instant. Truth of the matter is that it’s bloody hard work.
Most see the claims on magazine covers for what they are: the normal “puffery” commonly indulged in by companies trying to persuade you that their product is “the key” to solving all your problems.
But a lot of people do get confused when they see claims about how much muscle it’s possible to gain and how much fat it’s possible to lose over a 3-4 month period.
Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader who wanted my opinion on the training program of a guy who appeared on the cover of a popular fitness magazine.
The cover model in question claims to have gone from 216 pounds and 23.9% body fat to 202 pounds and 6.8% fat in just 15 weeks.
That means he lost 38 pounds of fat and gained 24 pounds of muscle in a little under four months.
But when I saw a few pictures of the guy in question, I’d say that he was almost certainly enjoying the benefits of a little “pharmaceutical assistance.”
Much of the confusion about whether it’s possible to lose fat and gain muscle stems from the fact that some of the people you see online or on TV are taking drugs.
In this short clip from the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former fitness model Christian Boeving admits to using anabolic steroids since the age of 16.
Truth is, anabolics can make a massive difference to the length of time it takes to build muscle, as well as the maximum amount of muscle you’re able to build.
Here are some numbers from a study that looked at the impact of weekly testosterone injections (600 milligrams of testosterone enanthate) on muscle growth in a group of men aged 19 to 40 . They weren’t untrained beginners, and had some experience with lifting weights, but weren’t bodybuilders or competitive athletes.
After ten weeks, the men gained around seven pounds of muscle. And that’s without doing any training.
A similar group of men who trained with weights three times a week, but who didn’t get the injections, gained a little over four pounds.
Think about that for a second.
Taking testosterone and doing nothing produced a faster rate of muscle growth than going to the gym three times a week.
It was the guys combining strength training and testosterone injections who saw the best results. On average, they gained over a pound of lean tissue each week, ending the study with an additional 13 pounds of muscle mass added to their frame.
In other words, the men who lifted weights and took testosterone gained muscle three times faster than those who lifted weights without any pharmaceutical assistance.
In hormone replacement therapy terms, 600 milligrams of testosterone per week is a lot, around six times higher than the dose usually given to men with low testosterone levels.
But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what some people are using. A study that looked at the doping practices of strength athletes and bodybuilders found that one guy was on a whopping 2000 milligrams of testosterone per week .
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. He was also taking various other compounds, including deca-durabolin (600–800 milligrams per week), dianabol (50 milligrams per day), insulin (12 IU per day) and ephedrine (60 milligrams per day).
I couldn’t care less if you use drugs or not. There are already plenty of hand-wringing do-gooders out there telling you how to live your life, and I have no intention of becoming one of them
But I do think it’s important that you know what goes on “behind the scenes” so you can set goals for yourself that are both realistic and achievable. Otherwise you’re just going to end up feeling frustrated at the large gap between your expectations and your results.
Summary: Can I Gain Muscle and Lose Fat?
To sum up, body recomposition is possible in the sense that you can lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
But unless you’re an overweight beginner, returning to exercise after a layoff, very genetically gifted or using drugs, you’re not going to be able to do both at anything approaching the same rate.
In other words, it’s far more realistic to lose 10 pounds of fat while gaining a pound or two of muscle. Losing 10 pounds of fat at the same time as replacing it with 10 pounds of muscle is not an attainable goal for most people most of the time.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.