A lot of dieters use a weighing scale to measure their progress. If the number on the scale goes down, they think they are making progress. While it’s true that weight loss can be a good indicator of progress, it’s not the only measure you should be tracking. Your body comprises two types of tissue: fat and lean body mass. Some stored fat is necessary for good health, (according to the American Council on Exercise, the minimum for women is 10% – 13% body fat and that for men is 2% – 5% body fat) (10). This is the essential fat your body needs to maintain proper hormone balance, support the reproductive system, and insulate and protect vital organs. Having too much body fat can lead to a host of health problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer (4). On the other hand, a healthy muscle to fat ratio is key to a lean and toned physique. Aesthetics aside, having more muscle and less fat also comes with a host of health benefits such as a stronger immune system, better bone density, and improved mental health. This is where body recomposition comes in.
It refers to the process of achieving a healthy body composition by losing fat while simultaneously building muscle. Body recomposition can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. Here are eight things you should know about body composition:
1. It Doesn’t Go Against The Law Of Thermodynamics
Body recomposition is a controversial topic because it seems to go against the law of thermodynamics.
This law states that:
- To build muscle, you must store energy or increase muscle protein.
- To lose fat, you must burn energy or reduce stored body fat.
Therefore, many people assume that:
- To build muscle, you must be in a calorie surplus.
- To lose fat, you must be in a calorie deficit.
However, this isn’t always the case because our bodies don’t work in a clear-cut, linear fashion. The human body is a complex system with numerous hormones and feedback loops that regulate energy balance.
Obese people, for example, have enough stored fat that they can be in a deficit and still build muscle. Later on in this article, we’ll discuss in detail the other groups of people who can do the same.
Several studies have proven that recomposition is possible. Researchers at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences found that it’s possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time by doing resistance training and eating in a calorie deficit (5).
Another study conducted by Laval University showed that it’s possible to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously in untrained individuals.
2. It Takes Time
The reason fad diets and quick-fix solutions are so popular is that people want results, and they want them fast. But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait.
The process of body recomposition takes time because it involves making gradual changes to your diet and exercise routine. And while you may not see the results immediately, rest assured that they will come if you stick to your plan.
So, exactly how long does it take to recomposition your body? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question as it depends on several factors such as your starting point, genetic potential, and how strictly you adhere to your diet and workout plan.
In general, though, you can expect to see noticeable changes after several months of consistency. Studies on body recomposition have found that it takes anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks to lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
3. Not Everyone Has The Potential To Recomp
Body recomposition is difficult, but not impossible. How easy, or difficult, it is for you to do some recomposition of your body will depend on several factors such as:
Your Training Age
Training age refers to how long you’ve been lifting weights. The longer you’ve been lifting, the harder it will be to do recomposition because your muscles have already adapted to the stimulus of weightlifting.
If you’re a beginner, on the other hand, it will be easier for you to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously because your muscles are still in the initial stages of adaptation.
A beginner is anyone who has been lifting weights for less than a year or two. If you fall into this category, then you have the potential to make some serious gains.
People who have had a long layoff from weightlifting (several years or more) also have the potential to make great strides in their first few months back in the gym.
Your Training Quality
Training quality refers to how efficiently and consistently you’ve been working out. If you’ve been lifting weights for years but have never really pushed yourself or stuck to a routine long enough to achieve results, it means that there is room for improvement. In this case, you have the recomposition potential by making some changes to your workout routine.
On the other hand, if you’ve been consistently lifting heavy weights and following a well-designed training program and are already posting elite-level lifting numbers, it will be harder for you to do recomposition because you’re already doing everything right. Plus, it’s unlikely that you have much fat to lose in the first place.
If you’ve been training properly but your diet was poor, there’s also a good chance you can recomp by fixing your diet and continuing to train hard.
Your Body Fat Percentage
The lower your body fat percentage, the harder it will be because you don’t have much fat to lose. In this case, you may have to accept that you can’t lose fat and build muscle at the same time and focus on one goal at a time. Relying on a typical cut-bulk-cut cycle may be a better option for you.
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4. You Might Not Lose Weight During A Recomp
This might be hard to hear for some, especially those who are used to seeing the scale go down every week when they’re dieting. But the truth is, you might not lose weight. In fact, you might even gain weight.
To understand why, we must visualize the meaning of recomposition. It simply means to change the composition of your body by losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time. Think of it as a balancing act where you’re replacing fat with muscle rather than just losing weight.
This is nothing to be concerned about as long as you’re seeing changes in your body composition. The best way to track your progress is to take weekly progress pictures and measurements of your waist, hips, and thighs. Clothes that fit looser, or better, are also a good indicator that you’re on the right track.
Stash away your weighing scale during your recomp journey as it might actually do more harm than good. Constantly obsessing over the number on the scale will only lead to frustration, discouragement, and ultimately, quitting.
5. You’ll Have To Review The Quantity And Quality Of Your Food
Diet is a huge factor when it comes to recomposition because, as we all know, you can’t out-train a bad diet. In order to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, you’ll have to be in a slight/moderate calorie deficit (7). This means eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight.
Researchers at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences had 24 experienced lifters eat at either a 500-calorie or 800-calorie deficit while training for 4 weeks. At the end of the study, they found that the 500-calorie group lost 0.7% of their body weight per week while the 800-calorie group lost 1% of their body weight per week (9).
At first glance, it seems like the 800-calorie group lost more weight, but when you take a closer look at the results, the 500-calorie group actually made better gains. The participants in the 500-calorie group lost more fat and gained more muscle than those in the 800-calorie group.
- The 500-calorie group decreased their body fat by8% and increased their muscle mass by 2%
- The 800-calorie group reduced their body fat by 4%, and lost muscle mass.
Although these findings can’t be generalized to the entire population, they do suggest that a moderate calorie deficit is better than a large one. This could be because a moderate calorie deficit is more sustainable in the long-term and doesn’t put your body in a severe state of stress.
To find out how many calories you should be eating to lose fat and build muscle:
- Determine your maintenance calories: The number of calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight. You can use an online calculator to find your maintenance calories.
- Create a moderate calorie deficit: Once you know your maintenance calories, reduce that number by 15-20%. This will put you in a moderate calorie deficit and help you lose fat without sacrificing muscle.
- Reassess your calories regularly: As you lose fat and gain muscle, your calorie needs will change. To avoid stalling your progress, recalculate your calories every 4-6 weeks.
Next, you’ll consider macros. These are the nutrients that make up the calories in your food. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
When it comes to recomposition, you’ll want to make sure you’re on a high protein diet. Multiple studies have shown that a high protein diet is more effective for preserving muscle mass when in a calorie deficit (3).
Upping your protein intake to at least 0.64 grams per pound of body weight (or 1.4 grams per kg) will help you keep your hard-earned muscle while you lose fat.The right protein sources are key too.
Opt for quality over quantity by including plenty of lean meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy in your diet. You can also round out your protein intake with plant-based sources like beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh.
While you’re watching your protein intake, you’ll also want to be cutting back on simple carbs like sugary drinks, pastries, and candy. These foods can quickly add up and sabotage your weight loss efforts. Instead, focus on eating complex carbs like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. These foods are packed with fiber and help you feel fuller longer.
Last but not least is fat. Contrary to popular belief, eating fat won’t make you fat. In fact, healthy fats are essential for supporting your body and brain (6). Healthy fats also promote satiety and can help you stick to your diet.
Good sources of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon. You want to avoid trans fats and saturated fats, which are found in processed foods like cookies, crackers, and fried food.
6. You May Need To Use Supplements
A nutrient-rich diet is the foundation of a successful recomposition, but there are some supplements that can give you an extra edge.
The first supplement you might want to consider is creatine. Creatine is a compound that’s found naturally in your body and in some foods. It’s also available in supplement form. Creatine has been shown to increase muscle mass, strength, and power (2).
It can also help you preserve muscle mass when in a calorie deficit. If you decide to take creatine, look for a pure form like creatine monohydrate or micronized creatine.
Another supplement you might want to consider is branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs are a type of amino acid that’s been shown to promote muscle growth and prevent muscle breakdown (1).
They can also help you maintain your strength and power when in a calorie deficit. If you take BCAAs, look for a product that contains all three BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Whey, Casein, Or Soy Protein
If you’re struggling to meet your protein needs with diet alone, you might want to consider supplementing with protein powder. Whey, casein, and soy are all high-quality protein powders that can help you reach your daily protein goals (8). If you have a dairy allergy or intolerance, opt for a soy protein powder.
7. You’ll Need To Find Your Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV)
Needless to say, you can’t build muscle without a strength training program. But figuring out how much volume (sets x reps x weight) you need to stimulate muscle growth can be tricky. If you do too little, you won’t see results. But if you do too much, you risk overtraining. This is where the concept of maximum adaptive volume comes in.
Maximum adaptive volume (MAV) is the amount of volume that allows you to maximally stimulate muscle growth without overtraining.
Remember that you’ll be in a slight deficit, so you may not have as much energy to train as you would if you were in a surplus. If you go too hard, you’ll risk muscle loss or driving cortisol levels up to the point where your gains are not as good.
To find your MAV, you’ll need to experiment with different training volumes and intensities. Start by doing 4-6 sets per muscle group and 8-12 reps per set. Try hitting each muscle group twice a week.
Once you find the volume and intensity that allows you to make gains without overtraining, stick with it.
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8. It’s A Short-Term Goal
Recomposition is best approached as a short-term goal. Once you reach your desired body composition, you’ll need to go into maintenance mode to keep your new physique. This means eating maintenance calories and training for maintenance.
The reason it is best approached as a short-term goal is because it’s not sustainable in the long term. For one, the mental and physical demands of constantly being in a calorie deficit can be tough to handle. Secondly, you’ll eventually reach a point where you can’t lose any more fat without sacrificing muscle mass.
This is a great way to get lean and build muscle at the same time. Just remember that it’s not something you can do for months or even years on end. Once you reach your goals, enjoy your new body for a while before starting another cut or bulk.
The Bottom Line
There you have it, eight things you need to know about body recomposition. If you want to get lean and build muscle at the same time, this is the way to go. Just remember that like most good things in life, recomposition is best approached in moderation and with patience.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? (2017, nih.gov)
- Creatine Supplementation for Muscle Growth: A Scoping Review of Randomized Clinical Trials from 2012 to 2021 (2022, nih.gov)
- Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit (2019, nih.gov)
- Health Risks of Overweight & Obesity (2018, nih.gov)
- Is it possible to lose weight while building muscle? (2020, sciencenorway.no)
- Impact of Dietary Fats on Brain Functions (2018, nih.gov)
- Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss (2017, nih.gov)
- Protein – Which is Best? (2004, nih.gov)
- The Secret to Body Recomposition: Lose Fat & Gain Muscle (n.d., legionathlrtics.com)
- What Is Body Composition? (2021, nih.webmd.com)