A lot of people have dreams of changing the way their body’s look. Some want to get leaner to reveal muscle definition, others just want to build muscle definition period, and others would like to have it both ways. Fortunately this option is available to us through body recomposition.
In basic terms body recomposition is the process of changing the ratio of organic tissue, reducing body fat (and in effect body mass) while in the same breath building lean muscle mass. The reason why many only believe in cutting or bulking is because the idea of recomposition suggest you’re trying to accomplish two opposing goals simultaneously. In order to burn fat, you have to have a caloric deficit, and in order to build muscle you have to have a caloric surplus, or do you?
In the fitness community there are many people who are invested in the concept of bulking for the sake of “gaining more muscle mass”. It’s public consensus that in order to gain more muscle and size, gaining fat is a necessary side effect of bulking. This concept has led many to rule out recomposition as a possibility, arguing it isn’t possible to gain muscle in a negative energy balance, leaving only two options cut or bulk. In a 2013 study evaluating the effect of nutritional guidance in an 8 to 12 week weight-gain period in elite athletes, researchers found that athletes in the the group with the higher energy intake (3585+/-601 vs. 2964+/-884) not only increased bodyweight (3.9+/-0.4% vs. 1.5+/-0.4%) but also fat mass (15+/-4 vs 3+/-3%). The most important point however is that there was no difference in gains of lean muscle mass between the two groups, but three times more fat gained by the group with the higher caloric surplus. This is not to say that bulking doesn’t have its place, but we as a community have to recognize that building muscle is possible without high caloric intake or a surplus altogether.
This then begs the question “how do we gain muscle muscle and reduce fat mass regardless of a coalition deficit or surplus?”
Body Recomp Spectrum
Every person who considers trying body recomposition is going to start from a different place. Some guys are skinny-fat, some are just plain skinny, others are overweight; so how do we approach a training strategy if there is no one place to start for everyone? The key to understanding where to start with body recomp is to understand your training level, where you fall in terms of lean mass and body fat percentage, and deciding which to prioritize overall, burning fat or building muscle.
There are marked advantages enjoyed by certain people going into a body recomp, one of which is the overweight beginner. It’s important to know your training level because those in the beginner stages of fitness have been known to experience the greatest amount of progress in the gym, and in extension the highest potential for recomposition. Overweight beginners in particular seem to have the most profound results; in a 12 week study comparing the changes in body composition in overweight police officers using the 3 separate modalities:
– Group 1 on only a hypocaloric diet (20% caloric deficit)
– Group 2 on a hypocaloric diet, resistance exercise, and high (casein) protein intake (1.5g/kg/day)
– Group 3 on a hypocaloric diet, resistance exercise, and high (whey) protein intake (1.5g/kg/day)
Interestingly, weight loss was about 2.5 kg in all three groups, however between each group:
– Mean body fat percentage of group 1 decreased from a baseline 27 +/-1.8 to 25 +/-1.3%
– Mean body fat percentage of group 2 decreased from a baseline 26 +/-1.7 to 18 +/-1.1%
– Mean body fat percentage of group 3 decreased from a baseline 27 +/-1.6 to 23 +/-1.3%
What’s even more interesting is that lean mass gain didn’t change for diet alone (group 1) but for the other 2:
– Group 2 gained 4 +/-1.4 kg of muscle
– Group 3 gained 2 +/-0.7 kg of muscle
From this study you can see how with some of the elements we’ll discuss later, a beginner to exercise with considerable fat mass has the ability to really alter their fat-to-muscle ratio. In the first months of training the body is the most receptive to adaptation, but as it becomes accustomed to heavy loads and nears its genetic ceiling, adding new muscle mass becomes increasingly difficult. These beginner gains can also apply to those who have been out of the gym for a long time or haven’t been applying themselves while there. Understanding where you fall in gym experience will help give you an idea of the intensity needed in your regimen to activate protein synthesis and as a result new muscle growth.
When people look at body recomposition in only 2 spectrums, cutting or bulking, I find that many people don’t know where to start. Some will send pictures of themselves with considerable body fat and ask if they should bulk, others with very little asking if they should cut. They don’t know where to begin because they don’t know what to prioritize. Your lean mass and body fat percentage is important to understanding where to start with body recomposition. By understanding how high or low your body fat percentage is you’ll know whether you should be on a caloric surplus or deficit, and whether you should prioritize burning fat or building muscle. Now that’s not saying you have to choose one or the other, the point of recomp is doing both, but during this process you’ll likely have to emphasize one over the other.
So you could look at it like this; if your body fat percentage falls somewhere in the average to above average range you should probably prioritize fat burning through your nutrition (deficit) and fitness during the recomp, whereas if you’re in the lean to ideal range you should prioritize muscle building through nutrition (surplus) and fitness (resistance). So here are steps to take BEFORE starting the process:
1) Be aware of your fitness level- recognizing if your body is or is not used to physical fitness will help you to understand what to expect in terms of effort necessary to prompt muscle growth and fat loss
2) Document your weight, current body fat percentage, and what your goal is for both categories. This enables you to make primary and secondary goals (fat loss or gaining muscle) depending on where you fall in the spectrum. It will also help you plan the amount of weight you want to lose or gain on a weekly basis, making your caloric deficit or surplus that much easier to calculate.
Now that we’ve got basics we need prior to the body recomposition, let’s talk about the elements you’ll need in order to make it a reality.
Energy balance will be one of the most pivotal factors to shaping the body of your dreams. Think of it as the fuel that will drive your fitness to the change that you want to see in your body. Energy balance can be described as the relationship between energy in ( calories consumed by food or drink) and energy out (calories being used by the body to fuel everyday tasks). As you can imagine, how the body uses both consumed or stored energy will determine whether the body loses or gains weight every time.
Identify the Right Energy Balance for You
Find which end of the spectrum you’re on (build muscle/ burn fat) and prioritize nutritional intake around your goal. If you’re leaner with lower body fat, use a slight surplus above your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) or maintenance level. If you have more fat mass, use slight deficit below your TDEE.
If your main priority for body recomposition is burning fat, you must understand that being in a caloric deficit is the most important factor in reducing fat mass. Independent of how you try to lose weight, be it diet, exercise or a combination of both, a negative balance is solely responsible for the weight loss(6).
That deficit doesn’t have to be crazy, I would honestly recommend a slight deficit of 500 Kcal/day under your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) which equates to about 1 lb/week. High deficits are both impractical and unsustainable and capable of triggering muscle atrophy, hormonal and physiological imbalances. If you’re a new lifter, negative energy balance alongside exercise could create rapid weight loss, but try taking the slow and steady approach.
If your primary goal is to build muscle, I recommend a slight surplus (around 500Kcal/day) over your TDEE so that while you gain mass, the percentage that is fat will remain relatively low. Regardless of whether you are in a deficit or surplus keep in mind the macronutrients you consume (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) will play a role in how much fat or lean muscle you gain over the recomp, which is why I recommend the next point- take in more protein
Eat Enough Protein to Aid in Protein Synthesis
Protein is one of the hidden keys to body recomposition. So get this: finding that participants from Ernersson et al. gained 58% of their body weight gain as fat mass while eating 2.4 g/kg/d of protein, compared to the participants of Cornford et al. who gained 67% of their body weight gain as fat mass while eating 1.9 g/kg/d of protein, despite both studies overfeeding by 70% of energy requirements. It seems that the greater the amount of protein, the greater ratios of lean muscle mass even even in a caloric surplus.
Building new muscle mass is going to take an abundance of protein in the diet, regardless of whether you prioritize burning fat or building muscle during the recomposition.
High protein intake is not only important for growing new muscle through protein synthesis, but also for protecting existing lean muscle mass. Consuming higher amounts of protein during moderate energy-deficient diets (500-750kcal/d deficit) preserves muscle mass even in catabolic conditions(3). Protein also helps with satiety, reducing feelings of hunger and in effect lowering overall food intake. In a nutshell a high protein diet provides the nutrients the body needs during a deficit to build and maintain muscle while also reducing feelings of hunger to help sustain the deficit. As far as nutrition goes this is the silver bullet we need to make our macronutrients and energy intake we need to make a recomp count.
overfeeding healthy, sedentary adults with a diet moderately high in both carbohydrates and fats (35–50 % energy intake each) and low in protein (11–15 %) primarily results in a gain in fat mass(2).
Use Progressive Training Stimulus During Workouts
I couldn’t overstate how important having solid training protocol is for building muscle. The name of the game is adaptation, and without training variables like intensity, volume, frequency, etc. on your side, you can’t win the grand prize that is muscle. When a lifter’s workout is effectively uses progressive overload, the stress manipulates the endocrine system into activating muscle-building hormones, repairing damaged muscle tissue and creating more to comeback bigger and stronger in preparation for the next bout. The most effective training protocol to date for building just that is resistance training. Research suggests that muscle hypertrophy follows a dose-response relationship, with increasingly greater gains achieved at higher training volumes(4). When compared with single set routines, acute studies indicate performing multiples sets augments certain elements of protein muscle synthesis, suggesting higher training volume is needed for stimulating greater hypertrophy.
As higher frequency= higher volume, it’s also concluded that how often you train a body part through the week (frequency) is more beneficial in the higher range (2-3x) than only once a week. Keep in mind that frequency shouldn’t be an unchangeable factor of your routine considering that long term high frequency training (3-7x per week) can potentially lead to overreaching, injury, or fatigue(5). It might be best if you use moderate frequencies (1-3x) as a foundation and incorporate periods of intense training (3-6x). There are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to choosing a resistance program; the number of sets and reps, rest intervals, specific exercises, etc. All of that stuff aside, what really counts is that you find a resistance training program and stick with it. Burning fat and building muscle will not work without the vehicle of hypertrophy to stimulate muscle growth, and muscle growth won’t happen unless you train consistently.
So the goal is to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously; we looked at how to build muscle with hypertrophy training, but how do we address burning fat in terms of training? Does hypertrophy create enough of a deficit to burn fat?
The answer to the training dilemma is pretty simple.
Aerobic training is consistently touted as the optimal mode of exercise for reducing fat mass and body mass(6) ), and we also know that resistance training is necessary for building lean muscle, so why not combine the two? Both meet the requirements we need for body recomposition and according to a study that combined the two modalities during an exercise regimen, aerobic and resistance training together reduced body and fat mass more than resistance alone while building more lean mass than cardio alone(6). Cardio/ weightlifting seems to be the right balance of what is needed for body recomposition.
Some of you may be thinking: but if we add cardio into the workout, won’t it negate the muscle building process by breaking down muscle for energy due to the caloric deficit?
If that’s on your mind, don’t forget about high protein intake. Remember that high protein intake protects against the breakdown of lean muscle while helping in protein synthesis. High protein intake will serve as a buffer against the catabolic nature of cardio AND serve as energy for muscle growth due to its abundance in the diet. All of this can be achieved while still in a caloric deficit.
By incorporating these elements into your fitness lifestyle, changing your ratio of lean mass and body fat is not only possible, but very achievable.