What is body recomposition? How long does it take? And what’s the best way to go about changing your physique for the better? Here’s everything you need to know.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:
- What Is Body Recomposition?
- Who Does It Work For?
- Is Body Recomposition Even Possible?
- How Long Does Body Recomposition Take?
- When You’re Better off With a Bulk or Cut
- How to Train and Diet for Body Recomposition
What Is Body Recomposition?
Body recomposition is a term used to describe fat loss and muscle growth that happens simultaneously.
Instead of focusing purely on weight loss, the goal is to change your body composition by losing fat mass, and replacing some of that lost fat with muscle.
In an ideal world, your body weight would stay the same, with every pound of fat lost replaced with a pound of new muscle.
Outside of a small number of scenarios, this is highly likely not going to happen. For most people, fat loss is going to mean weight loss.
How Is Body Recomposition Different From a Cut?
The main difference between the two is the rate at which you lose fat. During a recomp, the size of the calorie deficit will typically be smaller than it is during a regular cut.
This means fat loss will happen more slowly, which should allow for more muscle to be gained compared to a dedicated cutting cycle.
For many lifters, body recomposition is nothing more than a cutting phase done properly. Executed properly, a cut will lead to some degree of body recomposition, in that muscle will be gained while fat is lost.
Who is Body Recomposition For?
In general, people who can gain a substantial amount of muscle while losing fat at the same time tend to be:
- Untrained beginners, especially those with a large amount of fat mass to lose.
- People returning to training after an extended layoff.
- Individuals taking anabolic drugs.
If you’re not in one of those three categories, you can still put on muscle while losing fat, but to a much lesser degree.
That is, you might gain a pound or so of muscle while losing 10 pounds of fat. But you’re not going to drop 10 pounds of fat while simultaneously putting on 10 pounds of muscle.
In other words, 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.
Is Body Recomposition Even Possible?
Some say that it’s impossible to gain muscle in a calorie deficit, mainly on the basis that it’s incompatible with the laws of thermodynamics.
Anabolic processes like muscle hypertrophy require a calorie surplus, while catabolic processes like losing fat require consuming fewer calories than you need to maintain your weight.
In truth, 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.
Even if you’re someone who’s skinny fat, and slightly underweight based on your height, you still have plenty of stored energy that your body can pull from to fuel muscle growth.
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 (around 7 kg) of fat mass.
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, where calorie intake was restricted to less than 1000 calories a day, weight training still led to an increase in muscle size in a group of obese women .
How Long Does Body Recomposition Take?
There’s no fixed length of time that body recomposition will take. Everyone is starting from a different place, and will lose fat and gain muscle at different rates.
As a rule of thumb, recomping is a slow process. Your progress in either direction is going to be slower than it would on a dedicated bulking or cutting cycle.
Here’s what I mean by that.
If you’re trying to put on muscle while in a calorie deficit, that muscle will be gained more slowly compared to being in a calorie surplus.
That’s because one of the things that slows muscle protein synthesis – the key driving force behind muscle growth – is a restriction in the availability of energy.
If you’re less than satisfied with your rate of muscle growth at the moment, be prepared for it to be even slower when you go into a calorie deficit.
You can still build some muscle while you lose fat. Just not as much as you would have done on a muscle-building diet that puts you in a calorie surplus.
The longer you’ve been training, the less likely it is that you’ll gain any muscle at all while losing fat.
If you’ve got more than a few years of proper training under your belt, you’ll know that gaining muscle is a slow process.
Most people are doing well to finish the year with a few extra pounds of muscle than they had at the start. And that’s with a diet providing plenty of energy.
Fat loss is also likely to happen more slowly than it is on a dedicated cutting cycle.
That’s because your calorie deficit will be on the conservative side.
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Large calorie deficits lead to fat being lost more quickly. But they also make it less likely that you’ll be able to gain muscle at the same time.
There are numerous calorie cycling methods that claim to hold the key to overhauling your physique. 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.
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.
Your body becomes less willing to pull energy from fat stores the leaner you get.
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 physique contest.
Why Body Recomposition Is Easier for 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 weight loss. They’ll have a much easier time with body recomposition than someone who’s moved beyond the beginner stages of training.
A good example comes from a study carried in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which tracked changes in body composition in group of 30 men who were new to lifting weights .
The men were assigned to one of three groups:
- Group one spent three days a week doing cardio (running for 25-40 minutes at 65-85% of their age-derived maximum heart rate).
- Group two trained with weights three times a week.
- Group three did both cardio and weights on the same day of the week, always doing the weight training first, followed by cardio.
The resistance-training program, an upper/lower/full-body split involving a combination of free weights and fixed resistance machines, looked like this:
- Monday: Upper Body
- Tuesday: Rest
- Wednesday: Lower Body
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Full Body
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
After 10 weeks of training, here’s what happened:
The runners lost a little over 4 pounds of fat, but they also lost a small amount of muscle.
The men who trained with weights gained around 5 pounds of muscle while losing almost 2 pounds of fat.
The group combining cardio and weights saw the best results, adding 7 pounds of muscle while losing almost 6 pounds of fat.
In other words, their body weight increased, but they actually ended up getting leaner.
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.
RELATED: How Long Does It Take to Build Muscle?
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 (1.4 kg) of fat, while simultaneously gaining 4.4 pounds (2 kg) 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 carbohydrate cycling protocols that involve rotating high, medium and low carb days over the course of the week.
You spend a few days planning what your macros are going to be on your low, medium and high carbohydrate days. You decide in advance exactly what each workout will look like, making sure to match your training precisely with your calorie intake.
Then, after loading up with an expensive array of various supplements, 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 stick to your macros 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 nutrition plan 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 carbohydrate days cancel out the calorie deficit created on your low carbohydrate 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.
When You’re Better off With a Bulk or Cut
More advanced lifters are better off focusing on fat loss or muscle growth, using a traditional bulk or cut approach.
In most cases, the advanced trainee trying to recomp will see slower results than alternating between distinct bulk and cut phases.
On a bulk, the idea is to increase your calorie intake so you’re in a caloric surplus. A caloric surplus means that you’re taking in more calories than you’re burning off. The end result is that weight – usually a mix of fat and muscle – is gained.
During a cut, you put yourself in a calorie deficit. This means that you’re burning off more calories than you’re taking in, which leads to fat being lost.
If you spend 6-8 weeks on a smart bulk, followed by 3-4 weeks on a cut, you’ll have lost fat and gained muscle at the end of the 9-12-week period. But you’ll have done it by alternating periods of bulking and cutting.
Body Recomposition Results That Are Too Good to Be True
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 physique 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).
Even a relatively small amount of injectable testosterone – 3.5 milligrams of testosterone enanthanate per kilogram of bodyweight per week – was sufficient to generate significant gains in muscle strength and power in just six weeks .
On an interesting side note, 4 of the 9 subjects taking testosterone did not test positive by way of the urinary testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio.
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.
How to Recomp
If you have a high body fat, and you’re a novice who’s just starting out lifting weights, returning to training after a layoff, or using anabolic drugs, then you’ll be able to gain some muscle while losing fat.
Your body weight might not change by much, but your body composition will. By that, I mean fat will be lost while muscle is gained.
This doesn’t require any complicated diets, expensive supplements or fancy training programs.
You just have to put yourself in a slight caloric deficit, train with weights 3-5 days a week, apply the principle of progressive overload to your workouts, and eat enough protein.
If you want to lose fat and gain muscle, you’ll need to make sure you’re eating enough protein.
Alongside resistance training (while making sure to apply the principle of progressive overload), ensuring adequate protein intake is right up there in terms of importance when it comes to gaining 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 high-intensity interval training (HIIT), alongside various other forms of intense exercise.
Half the men ate a high-protein diet, which provided roughly one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. Whey protein supplements were used to bump up the protein content of their diet. 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 on the high-protein diet ended up gaining muscle, finishing the study with almost 3 pounds of additional lean body mass (a reasonable proxy for lean muscle mass).
While the low protein diet didn’t lean to any muscle loss, there was no muscle gained either.
Body Recomposition Workout Routine
If you want a simple workout routine you can use to build muscle while you drop fat, this is the type of thing I’d suggest.
It’s an upper/lower split, and involves training the major muscle groups in two different workouts:
- Monday: Workout A
- Tuesday: Workout B
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Workout A
- Friday: Workout B
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
- Barbell Bench Press 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Wide Grip Lat Pulldown 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Curl 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Barbell Squat 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Romanian Deadlift 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Leg Extension 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- Seated Leg Curl 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Standing Calf Raise 4 sets x 5-8 reps
- Weighted Crunch 3 sets x 15-20 reps
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should you lose weight before gaining muscle?
There’s no good reason to lose weight before you start trying to gain muscle. Most people will be able to lose weight at the same time as gaining muscle. Resistance training is one of the best ways to change your body composition, and should be done from day one of a weight loss program.
Which is better, body recomposition or bulk and cutting cycles?
If you’re an overweight beginner, or returning to exercise after a layoff, then body recomposition is a viable goal. More advanced lifters are better off focusing on fat loss or muscle growth, using a bulking or cutting cycle.
Do you lose weight during body recomp?
It’s highly likely that you’ll lose weight during a body recomp. That’s because losing fat tends to happen a lot faster than gaining muscle. You can lose 1 or 2 pounds of fat over the course of a week. But gaining the same amount of muscle can take several months, maybe even longer, depending on how long you’ve been training and what your muscle-building genetics are like.
Do I need to be in a calorie deficit for body recomposition?
You do need to be in a calorie deficit for body recomposition. Remember, losing fat requires being in a calorie deficit, which means consuming fewer calories than you need to maintain your weight. However, while a deficit is needed to lose fat, a surplus isn’t necessary in order to gain muscle. That’s because stored fat is a pool of chemical energy, which can help to fuel muscle hypertrophy.
How much cardio should you do to lose fat?
You don’t need a lot of cardio for body recomposition. Weight training should be the focus while letting your diet do most of the work to get rid of the fat.
Cardio can certainly make a direct contribution to the calorie deficit required to lose fat. But it is optional. You can create a calorie deficit of 250 calories by running on a treadmill, lifting weights, or not eating a Snickers bar.
If you want to do some cardio, 30-90 minutes of cardio per week should be sufficient for most people.
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